An Energy/GDP Forecast to 2050

We talk about the possibility of reducing fossil fuel use by 80% by 2050 and ramping up renewables at the same time, to help prevent climate change. If we did this, what would such a change mean for GDP, based on historical Energy and GDP relationships back to 1820?

Back in March, I showed you this graph in my post, World Energy Consumption since 1820 in Charts.

Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent. The biofuel category also includes wind, solar, and other new renewables.

Graphically, what an 80% reduction in fossil fuels would mean is shown in Figure 2, below. I have also assumed that  non-fossil fuels (some combination of wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels, nuclear, and hydro) could be ramped up by 72%, so that total energy consumption “only” decreases by 50%.

Figure 2. Forecast of world energy consumption, assuming fossil fuel consumption decreases by 80% by 2050, and non fossil fuels increase so that total fuel consumption decreases by “only” 50%. Amounts before black line are actual; amounts after black lines are forecast in this scenario.

We can use actual historical population amounts plus the UN’s forecast of population growth to 2050 to convert these amounts to per capita energy equivalents, shown in Figure 3, below.

Figure 3. Forecast of per capita energy consumption, using the energy estimates in Figure 2 divided by world population estimates by the UN. Amounts before the black line are actual; after the black line are estimates.

In Figure 3, we see that per capita energy use has historically risen, or at least not declined. You may have heard about recent declines in energy consumption in Europe and the US, but these declines have been more than offset by increases in energy consumption in China, India, and the rest of the “developing” world.

With the assumptions chosen, the world per capita energy consumption in 2050 is about equal to the world per capita energy consumption in 1905.

I applied regression analysis to create what I would consider a best-case estimate of future GDP if a decrease in energy supply of the magnitude shown were to take place. The reason I consider it a best-case scenario is because it assumes that the patterns we saw on the up-slope will continue on the down-slope. For example, it assumes that financial systems will continue to operate as today, international trade will continue as in the past, and that there will not be major problems with overthrown governments or interruptions to electrical power. It also assumes that we will continue to transition to a service economy, and that there will be continued growth in energy efficiency.

Based on the regression analysis:

  • World economic growth would average a negative 0.59% per year between now and 2050, meaning that the world would be more or less in perpetual recession between now and 2050. Given past relationships, this would be especially the case for Europe and the United States.
  • Per capita GDP would drop by 42% for the world between 2010 and 2050, on average. The decrease would likely be greater in higher income countries, such as the United States and Europe, because a more equitable sharing of resources between rich and poor nations would be needed, if the poor nations are to have enough of the basics.

I personally think a voluntary worldwide reduction in fossil fuels is very unlikely, partly because voluntary changes of this sort are virtually impossible to achieve, and partly because I think we are headed toward a near-term financial crash, which is largely the result of high oil prices causing recession in oil importers (like the PIIGS).

The reason I am looking at this scenario is two-fold:

(1) Many people are talking about voluntary reduction of fossil fuels and ramping up renewables, so looking at a best case scenario (that is, major systems hold together and energy efficiency growth continues) for this plan is useful, and

(2) If  we encounter a financial crash in the near term, I expect that one result will be at least a 50% reduction in energy consumption by 2050 because of financial and trade difficulties, so this scenario in some ways gives an “upper bound” regarding the outcome of such a financial crash.

Close Connection Between Energy Growth, Population Growth, and Economic Growth

Historical estimates of energy consumption, population, and GDP are available for many years.  These estimates are not available for every year, but we have estimates for them for several dates going back through history. Here, I am relying primarily on population and GDP estimates of Angus Maddison, and energy estimates of Vaclav Smil, supplemented by more recent data (mostly for 2008 to 2010) by BP, the EIA, and USDA Economic Research Service.

If we compute average annual growth rates for various historical periods, we get the following indications:

Figure 4. Average annual growth rates during selected periods, selected based on data availability, for population growth, energy growth, and real GDP growth.

We can see from Figure 4 that energy growth and GDP growth seem to move in the same direction at the same time. Regression analysis (Figure 5, below) shows that they are highly correlated, with an r squared of 0.74.

Figure 5. Regression analysis of average annual percent change in world energy vs world GDP, with world energy percent change the independent variable.

Energy in some form is needed if movement is to take place, or if substances are to be heated. Since actions of these types are prerequisites for the kinds of activities that give rise to economic growth, it would seem as though the direction of causation would primarily be:

Energy growth gives rise to economic growth.

Rather than the reverse.

I used the regression equation in Figure 5 to compute how much yearly economic growth can be expected between 2010 and 2050, if energy consumption drops by 50%. (Calculation: On average, the decline is expected to be (50% ^(1/40)-1) = -1.72%. Plugging this value into the regression formula shown gives -0.59% per year, which is in the range of recession.) In the period 1820 to 2010, there has never been a data point this low, so it is not clear whether the regression line really makes sense applied to decreases in this manner.

In some sense, the difference between -1.72% and -0.59% per year (equal to 1.13%)  is the amount of gain in GDP that can be expected from increased energy efficiency and a continued switch to a service economy. While arguments can be made that we will redouble our efforts toward greater efficiency if we have less fuel, any transition to more fuel-efficient vehicles, or more efficient electricity generation, has a cost involved, and uses fuel, so may be less common, rather than more common in the future.

The issue of whether we can really continue transitioning to a service economy when much less fuel in total is available is also debatable. If people are poorer, they will cut back on discretionary items. Many goods are necessities: food, clothing, basic transportation. Services tend to be more optional–getting one’s hair cut more frequently, attending additional years at a university, or sending grandma to an Assisted Living Center. So the direction for the future may be toward a mix that includes fewer, rather than more, services, so will be more energy intensive. Thus, the 1.13% “gain” in GDP due to greater efficiency and greater use of “services” rather than “goods” may shrink or disappear altogether.

The time periods in the Figure 5 regression analysis are of different lengths, with the early periods much longer than the later ones. The effect of this is to give much greater weight to recent periods than to older periods. Also, the big savings in energy change relative to GDP change seems to come in the 1980 to 1990 and 1990 to 2000 periods, when we were aggressively moving into a service economy and were working hard to reduce oil consumption. If we exclude those time periods (Figure 6, below), the regression analysis shows a better fit (r squared = .82).

Figure 6. Regression analysis of average annual percent change in world energy vs world GDP excluding the periods 1980 to 1990 and 1990 to 2000, with world energy percent change the independent variable.

If we use the regression line in Figure 6 to estimate what the average annual growth rate would be with energy consumption contracting by -1.72% per year (on average) between 2010 and 2050, the corresponding average GDP change (on an inflation adjusted basis) would be contraction of -1.07% per year, rather than contraction of -0.59% per year, figured based on the regression analysis shown in Figure 5. Thus, the world economy would even to a greater extent be in “recession territory” between now and 2050.

Population Growth Estimates

In my calculation in the introduction, I used the UN’s projection of population of 9.3 billion people by 2050 worldwide, or an increase of 36.2% between 2010 and 2050, in reaching the estimated 42% decline in world per capita GDP by 2050. (Calculation: Forty years of GDP “growth” averaging minus 0.59% per year would produce total world GDP in 2050 of 79.0% of that in 2010. Per capita GDP is then (.790/ 1.362=.580) times 2010’s per capita income. I described this above as a 42% decline in per capita GDP, since (.580 – 1.000 = 42%).)

Population growth doesn’t look to be very great in Figure 4, since it shows annual averages, but we can see from Figure 7 (below) what a huge difference it really makes. Population now is almost seven times as large as in 1820.

Figure 7. World Population, based on Angus Maddison estimates, interpolated where necessary.

Since we have historical data, it is possible to calculate an estimate based on regression analysis of the expected population change between 2010 and 2050. If we look at population increases compared to energy growth by period (Figure 8), population growth is moderately correlated with energy growth, with an r squared of 0.55.

Figure 8. Regression analysis of population growth compared to energy growth, based on annual averages, with energy growth the independent variable.

One of the issues in forecasting population using regression analysis is that in the period since 1820, we don’t have any examples of negative energy growth for long enough periods that they actually appear in the averages used in this analysis. Even if this model fit very well (which it doesn’t), it still wouldn’t necessarily be predictive during periods of energy contraction. Using the regression equation shown in Figure 8, population growth would still be positive with an annual contraction of energy of 1.72% per year, but just barely. The indicated population growth rate would slow to 0.09% per year, or total growth of 3.8% over the 40 year period, bringing world population to 7.1 billion in 2050.

Energy per Capita

While I did not use Energy per Capita in this forecast, we can look at historical growth rates in Energy per Capita, compared to growth rates in total energy consumed by society. Here, we get a surprisingly stable relationship:

Figure 9. Comparison of average growth in total world energy consumed with the average amount consumed per person, for periods since 1820.

Figure 10 shows the corresponding regression analysis, with the highest correlation we have seen, an r squared equal to .87.

Figure 10. Regression analysis comparing total average increase in world energy with average increase in energy per capita, with average increase in world energy the independent variable.

It is interesting to note that this regression line seems to indicate that with flat (0.0% growth) in total energy, energy per capita would decrease by -0.59% per year. This seems to occur because population growth more than offsets efficiency growth, as women continue to give birth to more babies than required to survive to adulthood.

Can We Really Hold On to the Industrial Age, with Virtually No Fossil Fuel Use?

This is one of the big questions. “Renewable energy” was given the name it was, partly as a marketing tool. Nearly all of it is very dependent on the fossil fuel system. For example, wind turbines and solar PV panels require fossil fuels for their manufacture, transport, and maintenance. Even nuclear energy requires fossil fuels for its maintenance, and for decommissioning old power plants, as well as for mining, transporting, and processing uranium. Electric cars require fossil fuel inputs as well.

The renewable energy that is not fossil fuel dependent (mostly wood and other biomass that can be burned), is in danger of being used at faster than a sustainable rate, if fossil fuels are not available. There are few energy possibilities that are less fossil fuel dependent, such as solar thermal (hot water bottles left in the sun to warm) and biofuels made in small quantities for local use.  Better insulation is also a possibility. But it is doubtful these solutions can make up for the huge loss of fossil fuels.

We can talk about rationing fuel, but in practice, rationing is extremely difficult, once the amount of fuel becomes very low. How does one ration lubricating oil? Inputs for making medicines? To keep business processes working together, each part of every supply chain must have the fuel it needs. Even repairmen must have the fuel needed to get to work, for example. Trying to set up a rationing system that handles all of these issues would be nearly impossible.

GDP and Population History Back to 1 AD

Angus Maddison, in the same data set that I used back to 1820, also gives an estimate of population and GDP back to 1 AD. If we look at a history of average annual growth rates in world GDP (inflation adjusted) and in population growth, this is the pattern we see:

Figure 11. Average annual growth in GDP in energy and in population, for selected periods back to the year 1 AD.

Figure 11 shows that the use of fossil fuels since 1820 has allowed GDP to rise faster than population, for pretty much the first time. Prior to 1820, the vast majority of world GDP growth was absorbed by population growth.

If we compare the later time periods to the earlier ones, Figure 11 shows a pattern of increasing growth rates for both population and GDP.  We know that in the 1000 to 1500 and 1500 to 1820 time periods, early energy sources (peat moss, water power, wind power, animal labor) became more widespread. These changes no doubt contributed to the rising growth rates. The biggest change, however, came with the addition of fossil fuels, in the period after 1820.

Looking back, the question seems to become: How many people can the world support, at what standard of living, with a given quantity of fuel? If our per capita energy consumption drops to the level it was in 1905, can we realistically expect to have robust international trade, and will other systems hold together? While it is easy to make estimates that make the transition sound easy, when  a person looks at the historical data, making the transition to using less fuel looks quite difficult, even in a best-case scenario. One thing is clear: It is very difficult to keep up with rising world population.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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111 Responses to An Energy/GDP Forecast to 2050

  1. reverseengineerre says:

    “I have also assumed that non-fossil fuels (some combination of wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels, nuclear, and hydro) could be ramped up by 72%, so that total energy consumption “only” decreases by 50%”.-Gail

    That is a WHOPPER of an assumption Gail.

    First off, even if you could ramp up the energy production, with the exception of Biofuels none of these function in the Transportation/Industrial Farming/Mining areas where you don’t just need Energy, you need portable energy that runs Internal Combustion Engines.

    A more realistic assumption to me would be MAYBE 30-40% of the loss could be picked up by alternative energy sources. What sort of effect would that generate in your regression analysis?


    • I agree that is a whopper of an assumption. I thought about pointing out the countries that are closing down their nuclear plants, and the fact that in a lot of countries, the hydroelectric sources are mostly taken.

      Actually, though, the number I put in for non-fossil fuels isn’t so huge, compared to the fossil fuels. It only amounts to 22% of the fossil fuel decline. It is because the “base” of the non-fossil fuels is so low, that such a big increase is needed.

    • reverseengineerre says:

      Making assumptions about what Might Be is always pretty dicey. My preference is to look back at what WAS, and how that is playing out in real time. You might try this analysis to see how it sits with the optimistic look at GDP/Energy relationships. Look at it from an Anthropoligical perspective rather than an Actuarial one.


      • Leo Smith says:

        Id rather stay with ‘what realistically could be’ than the ‘mights’ or ‘wazzes’…;-)

      • Thanks! I have written about quite a few of those topics. It seems to me that humans are “k-selected” species. Our natural tendency is to stake out a territory, and defend it. Doing this tends to keep population down. All of the trade and religious teachings have greatly reduced the territoriality, and allowed human population to grow vastly higher than it otherwise would be, out of proportion to other species. (Agriculture helped as well.) See my post Human population overshoot-What went wrong?

        • Gail, I SAW that post, and in fact if you go back through the Commentariat of it we went Mano-a-Mano there before we got the Diner up and running.

          I don;t think Trade and Religion have reduced Territoriality one IOTA here, in fact both circumscribe Territoriality.Trade even moreso than Religion, since control of the monetary system allowed one group of people to monopolize the entire world through the Ownership Paradigm. Religion at least left us with 3 or 4 Majors still battling it out for Hegemony here.

          The exponential Growth of Homo Sapiens is the result of becoming wildly successful as the Top of the Food Chain predator in the ecosystem. End result of that is we Predate on each other now, at least until the Beasts of the Earth,aka Pestilence and Disease come in to do the job that no multicellular organism can do at the moment, which is Knock Down the population.

          The primary question here is not about GDP OR Energy OR Climate change at all really,it is about whether Homo Sapiens can CONTRACT enough in overall biomass to come back into balance with the rest of the ecosphere. The rest is just tangential and a temporal problem here which will be resolved as always, by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Famine, Pestilence, War and DEATH. No stopping that from coming down the pipe now.


          • You are right that being top of the food chain predator has helped up. The population of top of the food chain predators is supposed to be very small, I understand, or they risk wiping out the resources upon which they depend. (Sounds somewhat like our problem now, doesn’t it?)

            I was trying to point out that natural population controls that work for animals haven’t worked for us. Part of this is trade. When we trade with others, they are no longer our enemies, so fewer wars, and more people.

            Religion can go both ways. “Love your neighbor as yourself” tends to send population up. Starting a war with the next religion over can reduce population. If natural population controls were in effect, (unfortunately) the result would be more wars with neighbors, bringing population down.

  2. davekimble2 says:

    I don’t think your Figure 2 takes into account the amount of energy needed to make the renewable infrastructure (for example to build a solar panel factory, including all the machinery, and to collect 30 annual batches of raw materials, and to make 30 annual batches of panels, and then decommission the factory).

    This EI needs to be laid out over time in a spreadsheet, and the ER of the 30 annual batches of panels can then be laid out over the panels’ lifetime. Assuming a panel lifetime of say 30 years, this means a total time frame of about 61 years. Then totaling the net energy (ER – EI) for each year would show that the energy budget for the factory as a whole spends a lot of time at the beginning in the red. This represents energy that must be supplied from fossil fuels to get the system up and running.

    The problem gets worse if the number of factories increases at a growing rate. It would eventually pay off energy-wise, but it has a high “energy barrier” at the beginning. This barrier is gets bigger as the ERoEI of the technology chosen gets smaller. Ethanol is the worst technology in this respect, but PV is still very bad. Nuclear is bad, wind is better and hydro (in good locations) is best, but they all have big energy barriers.

    Since we won’t make a serious start on renewables until fossil fuels are in desperately short supply, there will not be enough spare fossil energy to complete the transition.

    On another point, you say an r-squared of 0.74 is a high correlation. It isn’t. If you make predictions based on something with a correlation of 0.74, you should also calculate the confidence limits of your prediction. They will very quickly shows that the confidence limits are very wide indeed, in fact, unusable.

    • As I said, this is an optimistic forecast. Solar PV and wind make up only a very small portion of non-fossil fuels, but you are right, solar PV and wind are probably close to the only two that can expand very much. There would be a huge up front investment, with a slow payback. If the systems they are in are not properly maintained (likely because of lack of fossil fuel), the payback may never occur. I believe this is a likely scenario, because, for example, we won’t be able to keep the electric system operating.

      I take a first cut at looking at this data, because no one else seems to consider looking at what seems to be obvious. I’ll leave it to others to “pretty things up”, and fix the details that need to fixed.

      • robertheinlein says:

        Don’t assume that we won’t have solar technology that is far superior to solar PV. PV is going to be obsoleted before long with a technology very few understand, but which has been around for 200 years—thermoelectricity. Currently, it’s only about 5% efficient, which makes it pretty insignificant. However, an increase of efficiency to 90% or higher is in the works, being slowed by active opposition from the fossil fuel industry. The oil companies own the Dept of Energy and have been blocking development funds, so that slows everything down. But, this development will remove energy as the stumbling block over the next 5-10 years even if the DOE continues to fight against it. Unfortunately, there are stumbling blocks even larger than energy ahead.

        It seems that the big problem is population and food resources, not energy (assuming I’m right about solar PV being obsoleted by efficient TE). Water isn’t a problem if the energy fix is possible because desalination is then made very cheap and practical for turning saline water into drinking water. But, food production is a much more difficult problem because of the finite amount of arable land and the continuing challenge of desertification due to climate change. If we do have a food resource crunch of the magnitude I think is coming (we’re getting a preview now), we are going to have mass starvation to face. When people are faced with starvation, how do they respond? They blame their neighbors and start wars with them (just look at history). Wars may be the practical solution to the population problem. In other words, the most likely path forward appears to be sudden reductions in population due to war. History tells us this is likely solution to the problems we face.

        • I am afraid you are right about wars being the way population is brought down. You may have read my post Human Population Overshoot-What Went Wrong?

          Do you have any references with respect to the improved solar technology? Are there any Lieblig Law of the Minimum issues with it?

        • Leo Smith says:

          You can safely assume that a technology ‘far superior to solar PV’ still won’t generate more electricity than is falling on the earth as sunlight, nor will it store it magically. No will it allow that sunlight to grow plants and food and do the climate thing. Nor will it generate power at night.
          The problem is not with the technology,. its with the sunlight. There isn’t enough of it in one place, and unless you want top orbit a solar generator in low sun orbit and send the electricity back by some sort of star trek beam there’s no way round that.

          As a rough guide using te UK, the average isolation is 150W/sq meter. Solar panles right now can pull almost 25% or more of that. Say 37.5W per square m,eter.

          That’s better than growing crops for biofuel (0.1W/sq meter) or wind farms (2W/sq meter) but is not like a 2 billion watt nuclear power station on a square kilometer of land – 2000W/sq meter or more. And we don’t have ANY storage technology to solve the intermittency problem.

          And the cost of in cash and materials of state sized installations- yes, that’s what you are looking at, solar farms the size of entire STATES – is well..I think I’ll leave it there.

          It only takes a bit more population increase for human energy needs – even not at USA levels of affluence – to exceed THE ENTIRE ENERGY CONTENT OF THE SUNLIGHT FALLING ON THE EARTH. And since that’s where renewable energy comes from, one way or another, that’s it. Finished. End to growth.

    • I agree with Dave on this, but when debating these more complex sums in public to the average person it can look like one is opposing renewable energy outright, on the grounds that it is a net energy loser in the long run. And if renewables are a non-goer than nothing is a goer.

      I think the context therefore needs to be always kept up front. Renewables can’t deliver society as we know it. Small scale renewables will certainly have to be a feature of human society in the future unless we go back to being hunter gatherers, in which case there are too many of us to even do that.

  3. Pingback: An Optimistic Energy/GDP Forecast to 2050, Based on Data since 1820 | Sustain Our Earth |

  4. Ted Howard says: you said in the title, “Optimistic”….

    I’d prefer to match the energy forecast from 1820 to the ecological forecast from 1847. That’s when the US reached Peak Soil, and it’s been down hill ever since, but propped up by such things as ‘the green revolution’. the ramp out over the cliff with this will be startling to witness as the collapse rips apart that ramp and leaves the vast majority out there doing a Wylie Coyote running in mid air:
    1. topsoil in the main US agricultural belt is down form feet to 8-10 inches. At 6 inches pack up and go home ’cause it’s not enough for root structures in the plants we’ve come to depend on.
    2. the great Ogalala aquifer under 174,000 square miles of that agricultural land, is almost done too…

    We’re now into The 6th Mass Extinction at a rate never seen before in the geological records, and much less people are aware of this than peak oil….best go read “Overshoot” by William Catton, or at least the definitions page at

    “exciting times” huh?

    • I am afraid we live in way too exciting times.

      I read David Montgomery’s book “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations” not too long ago. I’d highly recommend the book. He argues that neither tilling the soil nor irrigation is sustainable (with the exception of river spill over irrigation, as with the Nile before it was dammed). My guess is that peak dirt in the US came not too long after the Mayflower landed in 1620.

      I expect peak dirt is an issue with respect to people being able to feed themselves locally. It is possible to add topsoil by doing one’s own composting in raised beds, but I am not sure that the approach is really scalable to the extent needed. And usually the soil still isn’t very deep, so it dries out quickly.

      Do you have a reference with respect to the ecological forecast from 1847?

  5. Leo Smith says:

    “Can We Really Hold On to the Industrial Age, with Virtually No Fossil Fuel Use?”
    Not the one we have now, no, but we can certainly build a slightly different one.
    I will make the points for brevity as bald assertions with no supporting rationale.

    1/. Since INTERMITTENT renewable energy REQUIRES both massive installations and co-operation with a stored fuel source for reliable dispatchable delivery, renewable energy of the intermittent sort is a total blind alley and will never produce more than a (small) fraction of current needs. In short, it’s a bolt on fuel-saver for fossils. Not an energy source that can operate in its own right.

    2/. For all applications where hydrocarbons are the materials of choice they can be synthesised. So provided there is access to relatively cheap energy, other uses of hydrocarbons beyond energy production can be covered by synthetic plastics and oils etc. I don’t have US figures but in the UK less than 1% of the oil ends up as chemical feedstock. Its all being burnt for energy.

    3/. Therefore most of what we need to do can be done if we can find a stable source of relatively cheap energy that relies on releasing stored energy (like fossil fuel) , rather than capturing transient energy, on a ‘use it or lose it’, basis (like most renewable energy).

    4/. The scale and efficiency of bio-fuels as well as the competition with food production more or less rules them out as well.

    5/. That leaves a massive shortfall that can only be covered by one technology that we actually have in production, which is nuclear fission. Not what anyone wants, but what everyone (once they have analysed the real issues) will need…

    6/. Since saving uranium is not really an issue, and nuclear power is not suitable for fast dispatch, and is always cheaper than ‘renewables’ there is no point on co-operating ‘renewables’ with nuclear.

    7/. Therefore we will see over the next 50 years (or others will) either complete collapse and depopulation of post industrial societies, or a shift towards nuclear energy for primary energy production as fossil fuel becomes too valuable to burn, and more expensive than nuclear power. Those things that can be adapted to use electrical power (railways, ships) will see a resurgence: Those that essentially cannot (long range cars,trucks, aircraft) will suffer a near terminal decline.

    8/. This will put a lot of pressure on primary resource production – mining, forestry, agriculture, as much of this relies on fossil powered ‘portable power’.

    9/. The conclusion is that new ways of doing things will emerge. The important thing right now is to do the necessary calculations that confirm that renewable energy, no matter how emotionally attractive, is not a realistic solution, and avoid wasting time money and energy on it. As David Mackay says “I love the idea of renewable energy, but I love mathematics as well”. To which one could also add ‘We don’t love the idea of nuclear power, but we don’t love the idea of no power at all, even more”. In this context I would estimate the USA to be 3-6 years behind the curve – Europe is already being forced to abandon renewable energy on cost and popularity grounds. Whilst the USA has more fossil resource, and more nuclear and hydroelectric power, so has not actually had to face up to the reality of actually building a ‘renewable’ grid that works at sane cost.

    • If we could find a safer way to do nuclear–say with thorium instead of uranium–I would be all for it. I agree, it is hard to look at the numbers for renewable energy and be very enthusiastic about it.

      The problem we have now is that we have a large number of old nuclear power plants. I am not sure that we have the funds to decommission the ones we have, or a way to store the spent fuel. Depending on electricity to power cooling pools for years seems iffy as well, after the experience in Japan.

      With all of the problems with the aging old nuclear power plants, it is not clear where we will find the funds to build a number of new nuclear power plants. Most of the inputs for building new nuclear power plants are fossil fuel based as well. With governments getting poorer and poorer, I don’t know who is going to backstop the costs involved.

      • Leo Smith says:

        Really the numbers are not an issue if you take a sane approach. Of course the vieww promulgated by those who stand to lose the most from a nuclear renaissance are not sane. Or not honest. Whatever.

        Frankly you could just take an old cold war ‘plutonium boiler’, fill it with concrete and heap 50ft of soil on it and leave it a few thousand years for people to wonder about what the ‘nuclear age barrows’ were, whether they were monuments of some kind of religion.. 😉

        As far as spent fuel goes Gail, if the pond is big enough its doesn’t need to be pumped. TEPCO have been roundly criticised – and rightly so – for overfilling the used fuel pools so that they did require pumping. The decay heat is essentially gone after about 2-5 years anyway. Its not really that long. After that is simply a matter of shielding

        BUT they did that because of the intense political opposition to fuel recycling and reprocessing – because what comes out the end is weapons grade plutonium as well as new fuel. Its expensive to do it – its cheaper to use new uranium – and the reactors to burn plutonium need to be specially adapted.

        In some ways that was a problem of politics. The political opposition to nuclear power and et social need FOR it combined to produce a result that benefited no one.

        If you take a step back from the emotional narratives, you come to the final conclusions that

        – there is no real alternative to nuclear power and
        – done properly it is cheaper than the other non fossil alternatives, and safer.
        – you don’t store used fuel: You reprocess it into new fuels. (Using a ‘uranium tax’ to fund it.

        Nuclear power is cheaper than renewable plant. The general figure is something like $5bn per installed GWe including decommissioning. Over a 40-60 years lifespan that leads to – with reasonable ROI – per unit electricity costs not much greater than coal or gas and considerably less than renewables plus gas backup.

        In the case of the UK the £60bn of taxpayer money that went directly to prop up failed banks could have taken us to the sort of 80% nuclear electric generation that exists in France. £10bn has been spent on wind so far for an average 3% grid contribution.

        To create an all nuclear grid would take around £150bn. The governments proposals for CfD forward selling of fossil free electricity provide a stable environment in which prices and profits are constrained within limits just high enough to encourage private investment. A 40 year bond paying 7.5% or so to fund nuclear power with a triple A rating is the sort of deal its hard to find these days.

        The problem is not finding the government money – because these are funded privately. The problem is creating the regulatory and political environment in which the risk of e.g.a Merkel simply pulling the rug from and entire industry with no compensation, is eliminated.

        All these issues are soluble. Renewable issues are simply not soluble. Not on et scale needed.

        And the greatest resurgence in nuclear is coming from those places that know it, the oil states that are running out of oil, and the emerging nations that don’t have any.

        • In the US, companies wanting loans for Nuclear Power plants need government backing for the loans. Too many problems with cost overruns and nuclear power plants never being completed, I think.

          • Leo Smith says:

            well that is sortable by better contracts:-)

            The UK is pioneering a ‘financial instrument instead of direct subsidy’ which means that the consumer rather than the taxpayer underwrites the project, but they are a counterparty as well, so they get any upside of the risk.

            If you like the government arranges to arbitrate a contract between the consumer and the power generators to buy zero carbon electricity on a forward contract at a fixed price.

            If the market price of electricity is below that (strike price) , the consumer loses out. If its above, they get the electricity cheaper than market price.

            Then its up to the commercial entities building the stations to asses their own risk.

            The idea is to raise the strike price until the plant gets built 🙂

            The money doesn’t go on the government books so it technically isn’t a subsidy.

    • robertheinlein says:

      The intermittency problem with solar and wind is being addressed by providing large banks of capacitors to store energy, which is released as needed on demand. Ultra capacitors which can store and release energy even at extreme temperatures are in the works as I write (batteries have severe problems when temperatures are extreme, but ultra capacitors do not).

      • Leo Smith says:

        I see you are not an engineer, or a mathematician 🙂
        I hope you are also not an investor.

        • Joe Clarkson says:

          High temperature solar thermal can easily and cheaply avoid the problem of intermittent production with sensible heat storage. The larger the storage system, the more efficient it becomes (due to scaling advantages of the ratio between surface area and volume), so it is possible to construct multi-week storage systems out of giant insulated piles of crushed rock, using air as the primary heat transfer fluid. The current trend toward molten salt storage allows multi-hour storage, but will never be cheap enough for solar thermal to achieve base-load reliability.

          Unfortunately, even though solar thermal is technically feasible as the world’s primary energy supply (as is nuclear), it is too late to make the huge investments required for either solar or nuclear to substitute for fossil fuels. Even the gradual continuous economic recession outlined by Gail, much less economic collapse, will prevent these investments from being made.

          • davekimble2 says:

            It’s worth pointing out that a larger heat storage capacity implies a lower real-time electrical output, as more heat has to be diverted to storage, the pay-off being the ability to withstand longer periods of unhelpful weather.

            The much-touted Gemasolar plant at Seville, Spain, that produced electricity for 24 hours on July 4th last year, had been storing heat in excellent conditions in summer for 5 days previously. It proved the point that 24-hour operation is possible, but it also underlined the point that it couldn’t do it every day in summer, and not at all in winter, when the insolation only have been about half as much, and less if it was cloudy for a week.

            For a plant to be able to produce a reliable 90% of capacity 24 hours a day all year round, its heat storage would have to be gigantic and its rated electrical capacity quite modest. It would then seem to be very expensive per MW.hour .

            It is also worth noting that Gemasolar has only 20 MW capacity, which is only a pin-prick, and that it is Spain, where lavish government support was available, but probably is no longer.

            • Leo Smith says:

              I see you still have no idea of the actual constraints on storing energy in a heat bank, the scale. the efficiency, or the cost.

      • There is a cost involved in all of this that people did not build into their feasibility estimates.

        • Leo Smith says:

          Like the cost of developing science fiction products in a world governed as far as we know by inflexible laws of nature?

          Not to mention the sheer insanity of storing massive amounts of energy in a capacitor
          And hoping that one day it wont develop a fault that results in a medium sized atomic-level explosion.

  6. John in Va Beach says:

    Gail: Is a state of “permanent recession” even possible? Or must the feedbacks from that demand destruction result in a catastrophic collapse, and in short order?


    • Leo Smith says:

      well all is POSSIBLE but I have to say that my personal feeling is that a flat GDP as we transfer to a ‘new’ economy is a very fragile tightrope to walk.

      But with care a relatively stagnant outlook might be possible. It has historical precedent.

      • robertheinlein says:

        The basic assumption behind a purely capitalist system is exponential growth. 0% just isn’t compatible with capitalism.

        • Leo Smith says:

          I think that is nonsense actually.

          Capital is always required to replace ageing infrastructure, even in a more or less stic economy.

          Perhaps you mean debt financing by fractional banking rather than capitalism…that is definitely highly indadvisable in a zero growth economy..

    • I am afraid that a permanent recession is not really possible, because of the tie-ins with the financial system. The problem we have is that the huge system of businesses and governments worldwide that we have built up depends on the financial system as we know it, and it depends on having fairly cheap energy.

      The issue I see is that we always build up from what is in place today. For example, if there are two drugstores nearby, and you are looking to place another drugstore, you will probably place it elsewhere. There are millions of little decisions of this sort made when adding new businesses, and when old businesses are removed.

      I am afraid that a collapse of the financial system will make a lot of businesses not viable–especially if it turns out that they have no way to pay their employees. Hopefully it wouldn’t be that bad, but if the electricity in a city goes out for good, it seems like the banks in town would have a hard time accessing records.

      Years ago, many businesses were run without electricity, without cars, and without many things we consider necessities today. There were manufacturers to support them–including buggy whip manufacturers. But at this point, it would be very difficult to “go back” because it would be hard to build up the proper network of businesses plus many other things that supported it–education, cultural practices, buildings with windows that open, etc.

      • Leo Smith says:

        Its rather worse than that Gail. We could not support the existing population densities without the energy. Losing customer records in banks is not a big deal. Losing the food and water and the sewage pumps is a far more dangerous scenario: the accepted time to live of a city without these things is about 6-8 weeks before a majority of the population are dead. Not unable to access their ATMs. Dead.

        Pre industrialisation the average UK distance to a market town was about 5 miles. Any more than that and the food would be spoilt before it got there, and the horse would have eaten most of it to get there. Livestock could be driven – you had the cowboy drive, we had geese..Norfolk geese were WALKED to London..

        But the UK population was a tenth of what it is today..

        And that is essentially where those that fail to bother to do the sums on energy are wittingly or unwittingly taking us. Towards 90% or more population collapse and the end of cities as we know them.

        How’s Detroit these days?

        • I agree that we could not support existing population densities without energy. Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel talks about cities having to keep importing new members (I forget in which century–not terribly long ago), because of the problem with infectious disease.

          Unless we have water and sewer systems working, we would have a hard time living in cities. The reason I mentioned electricity is because it seems to be tied in to all of these systems.

        • davekimble2 says:

          You are right about food and water and sewerage, but money is vital too, since it is built into the way we do things.

          I live at Mission Beach in tropical north Australia, and we have been hit by two Category 5 cyclones in the last six years. Since the power was off, the banks couldn’t open and ATMs and EFTPOS didn’t work. Despite the stories of the community “pulling together”, it was not like that amongst the business people. No one was extending credit to locals, so if you didn’t have cash, they refused to serve you. Very quickly all the cash was gone and the shops had to close because they had no paying customers.

          We recovered only with the assistance of “the outside world”. Now imagine if the whole region was without power – a deadly embrace of problems. Even if you could contact a supplier for that vital part (a petrol generator’s capacitor in my case), you couldn’t pay for it, and you couldn’t buy petrol to go and collect yourself.

  7. I think the essential thing we have to hope for is that most of the developing world can develop their economy and grow with renewable energy sources as main input. If they could mostly skip our stage of total dependence on fossil fuels. This would already work for a big part for electricity supply. Transport is still a major problem when it comes to that. Although maybe local transport in cities could be electrified more easily, especially if people don’t feel they need to drive at high speed.

    • I am afraid I am not very convinced that renewable energy will get us very far. Maybe some hydroelectric, but that isn’t enough to spread among all of the people today. So-called renewable energy is so fossil fuel dependent, that it gets very discouraging looking at it.

      • Minimum, I think renewable energy could give individuals transportation as good as a horse with out the mess in the street. World War I was fought with horses.

        So does that fall under the definition of economic collapse?

        • I don’t think I understand what you are saying. Renewable energy doesn’t give trains or trolley cars. Fossil fuels do. Renewable energy gives us intermittent electricity, and it gives us biofuels as it uses up pour soils.

          Horses at least are renewable, even though they create messes.

          • Well don’t feel bad, I don’t understand what I write half the time either.
            My point of the comment was at minimum with today’s technology we could supply our transportation needs without financial or economic collapse. Yes, we would have to change our expectations and how we manage our resources, but it doesn’t have to mean the end of the world or kaos.
            A small electric bike using a KWH per day could match the primary individual transportation vehicle (the horse) of 100 years ago.
            Now living in Atlanta without AC. That’s going to mean some kind of collapse.

            • Leo Smith says:

              I think that what Gail is saying is that stuff is already collapsing, not because we have run out of oil, but because we have run out of cheap oil.

              Collapse is a relative term anyway.

              What I suppose we are most concerned with is a positive feedback loop that some collapse causes more collapse and so on. That for example, a week without food causes riots, wholesale destruction of property, stores close and people who can move out…and you end up with a lot of people essentially dying in some enclave.

              “UN food drop into Detroit refugee camp” headlines..

          • Hi Leo,

            “Collapse is a relative term anyway”. Exactly, something we can agree on. I would like to add to that, “Nothing lasts forever”.

            At this time in the world, I don’t see stuff already collapsing. It was a Friday night in June of 1974. Fresh out of high school and we hadn’t seen lines at the gas station for months. The price of gas had almost doubled from 33 to 60 cents, lots of people where selling their big cars for small ones. I said to my best friend, let’s go do something. He replied “Let’s go drive around, because petty soon we may not be able to do that anymore”. For whatever reason, I remember that comment as if it happened yesterday. Well, 38 years later things haven’t changed that much and I’m still driving around.

            I would like to add one other thought of the day. Those insurance actuaries only give me a 10 to 15 percent chances to make it to 2050 and it’s a nice summer day here. I’m going to drive (actually ride my bike) to the beach.

            Change can be good thing

            • I think there is a relative kind of collapse taking place. Kids out of college are having a much harder time getting “good” jobs. Instead of working on building new highways or new railroads or new electric lines, we are having a hard time keeping up what we have. Real wages aren’t rising by much. Airplanes aren’t any faster than they were years ago (or cars or boats). Quite a bit of our innovation is focused on using less oil/ energy.

            • davekimble2 says:

              David Korowicz has written a very good article on systemic collapse, “Trade Off: Financial system supply-chain cross contagion – a study in global systemic collapse ” with a lot of system dynamics jargon in it, which bears careful reading.

     [1 MB]
              page 38
              … collapse happens when a system crosses a tipping point and is driven by negative feedbacks into a new and structurally and qualitatively different state, one with a different arrangement between parts and a fall in complexity. The operational fabric could cease to operate and the systems that are adaptive to maintaining our welfare could cease or be severely degraded. As a society, we would have to do other things in other ways to establish our welfare. Functions and specialities, a diversity of goods and services, and complex interdependencies would be lost.

              The speed of collapse would be set by the speed of the fastest and most responsive systems
              coming out of their equilibrium, causing cascading failure across other systems. In
              particular we will consider that the monetary and financial keystone hub would spread
              contagion to the keystone hub of production flows, which would feed back into the
              financial and monetary system and other keystone hubs. The speed of contagion would be
              set by the operational speeds of these hubs. As the operational speeds have increased along
              with the growth of the globalised economy, and the functioning of more complex societies
              have become evermore dependent upon their moment-by-moment, day-by-day operation,
              the potential speed of collapse has risen.

              We are not in ” a new and structurally and qualitatively different state” yet, so the usual rules are still holding, but we can sense the tipping point is near.

            • Thanks! That is a very good quote.

    • acomfort says:

      I think these words fit here:
      “You really need a cheap oil economy to support an expensive oil economy. Without that underlying cheap oil economy, we’re probably not going to get much of that expensive oil that’s in difficult to get places, or that requires some extreme and complex production method for getting it out of the ground.”
      James Howard Kunstler

      “Unconventional fossil fuels are caught in a paradox – that their EROEI is too low for them to sustain a society complex enough to produced them.”
      Nicole Foss

      – Acomfort

      • Those are good ways of putting the problem. We have reached the edge in this regard. What we get is likely to be a steep drop, not a nice downslope as in the Hubbert Curve.

  8. doomphd says:

    All nuclear power is also very fossil fuel dependent, and complex. I doubt that nuclear power will survive the end of cheap fossil fuels. If we de-complexify our societies, either by choice or not, nuclear power will not only cease to be a power source, it will be a liability to those living around them, including all those farming what’s left of that thinning topsoil that rests upon the vanishing Ogallala Aquifer. Not a pretty picture for the future.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Nuclear power in the final analysis does not require fossil fuel. As I pointed out given enough NUCLEAR power you can synthesise any hydrocarbons you need.

      Nuclear power hardly adds to the background radiation of the world overall by more than a fraction of a percent or so. And really the unpleasant stuff can be stabilised and buried deep, or ‘burnt’ in other power stations.

      All the ‘problems’ of nuclear power are soluble at far less expense than ‘renewable’ energy whose fundamental problems are completely INsoluble, because they are not problems with the technology, but with the power source itself.

    • I am afraid you are correct.

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