Raising Interest Rates Can’t End Well!

The Federal Reserve would like to raise target interest rates because of inflation concerns and concern that asset bubbles are forming. Part of their concern seems to arise indirectly from the rise in oil prices, relative to their low level in early 2016.

Figure 1. WSJ figure indicating likely reasons for rate hike.

A finite world does not behave the way most modelers expect. Interest rates that worked perfectly well in the past don’t necessarily work well now. Oil prices that worked perfectly well in the past don’t necessarily work well now. It seems to me that raising interest rates at this time is very ill advised. These are a few of the issues I see:

[1] The economy is now incredibly dependent upon rising debt to prop up its spending. The pattern of total debt to GDP for the United States is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. United States’ debt to GDP ratios based on Federal Reserve Z1 data and BEA GDP data. The red line represents the increase over the latest three years.

There was a huge increase in debt in the period leading up to the 2008 crash. Every year between 2001 and 2008, the increase in debt was greater than four times the increase in GDP. In fact, for some years in that period, more than $8 of debt were added for every dollar of GDP added.

We now seem to be starting a new run up in debt. In 2015, the amount of debt added was $2.5 trillion ($66.1 trillion minus $63.6 trillion), while the amount of GDP added was only $529 million. This indicates a ratio of over 4.7 for the single year of 2016. (Figure 2 shows only three-year averages, because of the volatility of amounts.) Continue reading

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Oops! The economy is like a self-driving car

Back in 1776, Adam Smith talked about the “invisible hand” of the economy. Investopedia explains how the invisible hand works as, “In a free market economy, self-interested individuals operate through a system of mutual interdependence to promote the general benefit of society at large.”

We talk and act today as if governments and economic policy are what make the economy behave as it does. Unfortunately, Adam Smith was right; there is an invisible hand guiding the economy. Today we know that there is a physics reason for why the economy acts as it does: the economy is a dissipative structure–something we will talk more about later.  First, let’s talk about how the economy really operates.

Our Economy Is Like a Self-Driving Car: Wages of Non-Elite Workers Are the Engine

Workers make goods and provide services. Non-elite workers–that is, workers without advanced education or supervisory responsibilities–play a special role, because there are so many of them. The economy can grow (just like a self-driving car can move forward) (1) if workers can make an increasing quantity of goods and services each year, and (2) if non-elite workers can afford to buy the goods that are being produced. If these workers find fewer jobs available, or if they don’t pay sufficiently well, it is as if the engine of the self-driving car is no longer working. The car could just as well fall apart into 1,000 pieces in the driveway.

If the wages of non-elite workers are too low, they cannot afford to pay very much in taxes, so governments are adversely affected. They also cannot afford to buy capital goods such as vehicles and homes. Thus, depressed wages of non-elite workers adversely affect both businesses and governments. If these non-elite workers are getting paid well, the “make/buy loop” is closed: the people whose labor creates fairly ordinary goods and services can also afford to buy those goods and services.

Recurring Needs of Car/Economy

The economy, like a car, has recurring needs, analogous to monthly lease payments, insurance payments, and maintenance costs. These would include payments for a variety of support services, including the following:

  • Government programs, including payments to the elderly and unemployed
  • Higher education programs
  • Healthcare

Needless to say, the above services tend to keep rising in cost, whether or not the wages of non-elite workers keep rising to keep up with these costs. Continue reading

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The “Wind and Solar Will Save Us” Delusion

The “Wind and Solar Will Save Us” story is based on a long list of misunderstandings and apples to oranges comparisons. Somehow, people seem to believe that our economy of 7.5 billion people can get along with a very short list of energy supplies. This short list will not include fossil fuels. Some would exclude nuclear, as well. Without these energy types, we find ourselves with a short list of types of energy — what BP calls Hydroelectric, Geobiomass (geothermal, wood, wood waste, and other miscellaneous types; also liquid fuels from plants), Wind, and Solar.

Unfortunately, a transition to such a short list of fuels can’t really work. These are a few of the problems we encounter:

[1] Wind and solar are making extremely slow progress in helping the world move away from fossil fuel dependence.

In 2015, fossil fuels accounted for 86% of the world’s energy consumption, and nuclear added another 4%, based on data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy. Thus, the world’s “preferred fuels” made up only 10% of the total. Wind and solar together accounted for a little less than 2% of world energy consumption.

Figure 1. World energy consumption based on data from BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 1. World energy consumption based on data from BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Our progress in getting away from fossil fuels has not been very fast, either. Going back to 1985, fossil fuels made up 89% of the total, and wind and solar were both insignificant. As indicated above, fossil fuels today comprise 86% of total energy consumption. Thus, in 30 years, we have managed to reduce fossil fuel consumption by 3% (=89% – 86%). Growth in wind and solar contributed 2% of this 3% reduction. At the rate of a 3% reduction every 30 years (or 1% reduction every ten years), it will take 860 years, or until the year 2877 to completely eliminate the use of fossil fuels. And the “improvement” made to date was made with huge subsidies for wind and solar.

Figure 2. World electricity generation by source, based on BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 2. World electricity generation by source based on BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The situation is a little less bad when looking at the electricity portion alone (Figure 2). In this case, wind amounts to 3.5% of electricity generated in 2015, and solar amounts to 1.1%, making a total of 4.6%. Fossil fuels account for “only” 66% of the total, so this portion seems to be the place where changes can be made. But replacing all fossil fuels, or all fossil fuels plus nuclear, with preferred fuels seems impossible.

[2] Grid electricity is probably the least sustainable form of energy we have.

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2017: The Year When the World Economy Starts Coming Apart

Some people would argue that 2016 was the year that the world economy started to come apart, with the passage of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Whether or not the “coming apart” process started in 2016, in my opinion we are going to see many more steps in this direction in 2017. Let me explain a few of the things I see.

[1] Many economies have collapsed in the past. The world economy is very close to the turning point where collapse starts in earnest.  

Figure 1

Figure 1

The history of previous civilizations rising and eventually collapsing is well documented.(See, for example, Secular Cycles.)

To start a new cycle, a group of people would find a new way of doing things that allowed more food and energy production (for instance, they might add irrigation, or cut down trees for more land for agriculture). For a while, the economy would expand, but eventually a mismatch would arise between resources and population. Either resources would fall too low (perhaps because of erosion or salt deposits in the soil), or population would rise too high relative to resources, or both.

Even as resources per capita began falling, economies would continue to have overhead expenses, such as the need to pay high-level officials and to fund armies. These overhead costs could not easily be reduced, and might, in fact, grow as the government attempted to work around problems. Collapse occurred because, as resources per capita fell (for example, farms shrank in size), the earnings of workers tended to fall. At the same time, the need for taxes to cover what I am calling overhead expenses tended to grow. Tax rates became too high for workers to earn an adequate living, net of taxes. In some cases, workers succumbed to epidemics because of poor diets. Or governments would collapse, from lack of adequate tax revenue to support them.

Our current economy seems to be following a similar pattern. We first used fossil fuels to allow the population to expand, starting about 1800. Things went fairly well until the 1970s, when oil prices started to spike. Several workarounds (globalization, lower interest rates, and more use of debt) allowed the economy to continue to grow. The period since 1970 might be considered a period of “stagflation.” Now the world economy is growing especially slowly. At the same time, we find ourselves with “overhead” that continues to grow (for example, payments to retirees, and repayment of debt with interest). The pattern of past civilizations suggests that our civilization could also collapse.

Historically, economies have taken many years to collapse; I show a range of 20 to 50 years in Figure 1. We really don’t know if collapse would take that long now. Today, we are dependent on an international financial system, an international trade system, electricity, and the availability of oil to make our vehicles operate. It would seem as if this time collapse could come much more quickly.

With the world economy this close to collapse, some individual countries are even closer to collapse. This is why we can expect to see sharp downturns in the fortunes of some countries. If contagion is not too much of a problem, other countries may continue to do fairly well, even as individual small countries fail.

[2] Figures to be released in 2017 and future years are likely to show that the peak in world coal consumption occurred in 2014. This is important, because it means that countries that depend heavily on coal, such as China and India, can expect to see much slower economic growth, and more financial difficulties. Continue reading

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EROEI Calculations for Solar PV Are Misleading

The Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) concept is very frequently used in energy studies. In fact, many readers seem to think, “Of course, EROEI is what we should be looking at when comparing different types of energy. What else is important?” Unfortunately, the closer to the discussions of researchers a person gets, the more problems a person discovers. People who work with EROEI regularly say, “EROEI is a tool, but it is a blunt tool. An EROEI of 100 is good compared to an EROEI of 10. For small differences, it is not so clear.”

Because of the idiosyncrasies of how EROEI works, different researchers using EROEI analyses come to very different conclusions. This issue has recently come up in two different solar PV analyses. One author used EROEI analysis to justify scaling up of solar PV. Another author published an article in Nature Communications that claims, “A break-even between the cumulative disadvantages and benefits of photovoltaics, for both energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, occurs between 1997 and 2018, depending on photovoltaic performance and model uncertainties.”

Other EROEI researchers with whom I correspond don’t agree with these conclusions. They recognize that in complex situations, EROEI analyses cannot cover everything. Somehow, the user needs to be informed enough to realize that these omissions result in biases. Researchers need to work around these biases when coming to conclusions. They themselves do it (or try to); why can’t everyone else?

The underlying problem with EROEI calculations is that EROEI is based on a very simple model. The model works passably well in simple situations, but it was not designed to handle the complexities of intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar PV. Indirect costs, and costs that are hard to measure, tend to get left out. The result is a serious bias that tends to make the EROEIs of solar PV (as well as other intermittent energy sources, such as wind) appear far more favorable than they would be, if a level playing field were used. In fact, published EROEIs for solar PV (and wind) might be called misleading. This issue also exists for other similar calculations, such as Life Cycle Analyses and Energy Payback Periods.

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