The Long-Term Tie Between Energy Supply, Population, and the Economy

The tie between energy supply, population, and the economy goes back to the hunter-gatherer period. Hunter-gatherers managed to multiply their population at least 4-fold, and perhaps by as much as 25-fold, by using energy techniques which allowed them to expand their territory from central Africa to virtually the whole world, including the Americas and Australia.

The agricultural revolution starting about 7,000 or 8,000 BCE was next big change, multiplying population more than 50-fold. The big breakthrough here was the domestication of grains, which allowed food to be stored for winter, and transported more easily.

The next major breakthrough was the industrial revolution using coal. Even before this, there were major energy advances, particularly using peat in Netherlands and early use of coal in England. These advances allowed the world’s population to grow more than four-fold between the year 1 CE and 1820 CE. Between 1820 and the present, population has grown approximately seven-fold.

Table 1. Population growth rate prior to the year 1 C. E. based on McEvedy & Jones, “Atlas of World Population History”, 1978; later population as well as GDP based on Angus Madison estimates; energy growth estimates are based on estimates by Vaclav Smil in Energy Transitions: HIstory Requirements, and Prospects, adjusted by recent information from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

When we look at the situation on a year-by-year basis (Table 1), we see that on a yearly average basis, growth has been by far the greatest since 1820, which is the time since the widespread use of fossil fuels. We also see that economic growth seems to proceed only slightly faster than population growth up until 1820. After 1820, there is a much wider “gap” between energy growth and GDP growth, suggesting that the widespread use of fossil fuels has allowed a rising standard of living.

The rise in population growth and GDP growth is significantly higher in the period since World War II than it was in the period prior to that time. This is the period during which growth in which oil consumption had a significant impact on the economy. Oil greatly improved transportation and also enabled much greater agricultural output. An indirect result was more world trade, which enabled production of goods needing inputs around the world, such as computers.

When a person looks back over history, the impression one gets is that the economy is a system that transforms resources, especially energy, into food and other goods that people need. As these goods become available, population grows. The more energy is consumed, the more the economy grows, and the faster world population grows. When little energy is added, economic growth proceeds slowly, and population growth is low.

Economists seem to be of the view that GDP growth gives rise to growth in energy products, and not the other way around. This is a rather strange view, in light of the long tie between energy and the economy, and in light of the apparent causal relationship. With a sufficiently narrow, short-term view, perhaps the view of economists can be supported, but over the longer run it is hard to see how this view can be maintained.

Energy and the Hunter-Gatherer Period

Humans, (or more accurately, predecessor species to humans), first arose in central Africa, a place where energy from the sun is greatest, water is abundant, and biological diversity is among the greatest. This setting allowed predecessor species a wide range of food supplies, easy access to water, and little worry about being cold. Originally, predecessor species most likely had fur, lived in trees, and ate a primarily vegetarian diet, like most primates today. The total population varied, but with the limited area in which pre-humans lived, probably did not exceed 1,000,000, and may have been as little as 70,000 (McEvedy).

Man’s main source of energy is of course food. In order to expand man’s range, it was necessary to find ways to obtain adequate food supply in less hospitable environments. These same techniques would also be helpful in countering changing climate and in mitigating deficiencies of man’s evolution, such as lack of hair to keep warm, limited transportation possibilities, and poor ability to attack large predators. The way man seems to have tackled all of these other issues is by figuring out ways to harness outside energy for his own use. See also my previous post, Humans Seem to Need External Energy.

The earliest breakthrough seems to be the development of man’s ability to control fire, at least 1 million years ago (Berna). The ability to cook food came a very long time ago as well, although the exact date remains uncertain. A diet that includes cook food has a number of advantages: it reduces chewing time from roughly half of daily activities to as  little as 5% of daily activities, freeing up time for other activities (Organ); it allows a wider range of foods, since some foods must be cooked; it allows better absorption of nutrients of food that is eaten; it allows smaller tooth and gut sizes, freeing up energy that could be used for brain development (Wrangham).

There were other advantages of fire besides the ability to cook: it also allowed early humans to keep warm, expanding their range in that way; it gave them an advantage in warding off predators, since humans could hurl fiery logs at them; and it extended day into night, since fire brought with it light. The wood or leaves with which early man made fire could be considered man’s first external source of energy.

As man began to have additional time available that was not devoted to gathering food and eating, he could put more of his own energy into other projects, such as hunting animals for food, making more advanced tools, and creating clothing. We talk about objects such as tools and clothing that are created using energy (any type of energy, from humans or from fuel), as having embedded energy in them, since the energy used to make them has long-term benefit. One surprising early use of embedded energy appears to have been making seaworthy boats that allowed humans to populate Australia over 40,000 years ago (Diamond).

The use of dogs for hunting in Europe at least 32,000 years ago was another way early humans were able to extend their range (Shipman). Neanderthal populations, living in the same area in close to the same time-period did not use dogs, and died out.

With the expanded territory, the number of humans increased to 4 million (McEvedy) by the beginning of agriculture (about 7,000 or 8,000 BCE). If population reached 4 million, this would represent roughly a 25-fold increase, assuming a base population of 150,000. Such an increase might be expected simply based on the expanded habitat of humans. This growth likely took place over more than 500,000 years, so was less than 0.01% per year.

Beginning of Agriculture – 7,000 BCE to 1 CE

Relative to the slow growth in the hunter-gatherer period, populations grew much more quickly (0.06% per year according to Table 1) during the Beginning of Agriculture.

One key problem that was solved with the beginning of the agricultural was, How can you store food until you need it? This was partly solved by the domestication of grains, which stored very well, and was “energy dense” so it could be transported well. If food were limited to green produce, like cabbage and spinach, it would not keep well, and a huge volume would be required if it were to be transported.

The domestication of animals was another way that food could be stored until it was needed, this time “on the hoof”. With the storage issue solved, it was possible to live in settled communities, rather than needing to keep moving to locations where food happened to be available, season by season. The domestication of animals had other benefits, including being able to use animals to transport goods, and being able to use them to plow fields.

The ability to grow animals and crops of one’s own choosing permitted a vast increase the amount of food (and thus energy for people) that would grow on a given plot of land.   According to David Montgomery in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization, the amount of land needed to feed one person was

  • Hunting and gathering: 20 to 100 hectares (50 to 250 acres) per person
  • Slash and burn agriculture: 2 to 10 hectares (5 to 25 acres) per person
  • Mesopotamian floodplain farming: 0.5 to 1.5 hectares (1.2 to 3.7 acres) per person

Thus, a shift to agriculture would seem to allow a something like a 50-fold increase in population, and would pretty much explain the 56-fold increase that took place between from 4 million in 7,000 BCE, to 226 million at 1 CE.

Other energy advances during this period included the use of irrigation, wind-powered ships, metal coins, and the early use of iron of tools (Diamond) (Ponting). With these advances, trade was possible, and this trade enabled the creation of goods that could not be made without trade. For example, copper and tin are not generally mined in the same location, but with the use of trade, they could be combined to form bronze.

In spite of these advances, the standard of living declined when man moved to agriculture. Hunter-gatherers were already running into limits because they had killed off some of the game species (McGlone) (Diamond). While agriculture allowed a larger population, the health of individual members was much worse. The average height of men dropped by 6.2 inches, and the median life span of men dropped from 35.4 years to 33.1 years, according to Spencer Wells in Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization.

Deforestation rapidly became a common occurrence, as population expanded. Chew lists 40 areas around the world showing deforestation before the year 1, many as early as 4000 BCE. Montgomery notes that when the Israelites reached the promised land, the better cropland in the valleys was already occupied. In Joshua 17:14-18, Joshua instructs descendants of Joseph to clear as much of the forested land in the hill country as they wish, so they will have a place for their families to live.

Energy, Population, and GDP: Year 1 to 1820

Table 1 shows that during the period 1 to 1000, both population and economic output were very low (population, 0.02% per year; GDP, 0.01% per year). During this period, and as well as in the early agricultural period (between 7,000 BCE and 1 CE), there was a tendency of civilizations that had been expanding to collapse, holding the world’s overall population growth level down. There were several reasons for collapses of well-established societies, including (1) soil erosion and other loss of soil fertility, as people cut down trees for agriculture and for use in metal-making, tilled soil, and used irrigation (Montgomery) (Chew), (2) increasingly complex societies needed increasing energy to support themselves, but such energy tended not to be available (Tainter), (3) contagious diseases, often caught from farm animals, passed from person to person because to population density (Diamond), and (4) there were repeated instances of climate change and natural disturbances, such as volcanoes (Chew).

Even after 1000 CE, growth was limited, due to continued influence of the above types of factors. In most countries, the vast majority of the population continued to live on the edge of starvation up until the last two centuries (Ponting). Most growth came from expanded acreage for farming.

There were exceptions, however, and these were where growth of population and GDP was greatest.

Netherlands. Kris De Decker writes about the growing use of peat for energy in Netherlands starting in the 1100s and continuing until 1700. Peat is partially carbonized plant material that forms in bogs over hundreds of years. It can be mined and burned for processes that require heat energy, such as making glass or ceramics and for baking bread. Because it takes hundreds of years to be formed, mining exhausts it. Mining also causes ecological damage. The availability of peat for fuel was important, however, because there was a serious shortage of wood at that time, because of deforestation due to the pressures of agriculture and the making of metals.

Wind was also important in Holland during the same period. It produced primarily a different kind of energy than peat; it produced kinetic (or mechanical) energy. This energy was used for a variety of processes, including polishing glass, sawing wood, and paper production (De Decker).  Measured as heat energy (which is the way energy comparisons are usually made), wind output would have been considerably less than the heat energy from peat during this time period.

Maddison shows population in Netherlands growing from 300,000 in the year 1000 to 950,000 in 1500; 1,500,000 in 1600 and 1,900,000 in 1700, implying average annual population growth rates of 0.23%, 0.46%, and 0.24% during the three periods, compared to world average annual increases of 0.10%, 0.24%, and 0.08% during the same three periods. Netherlands’ GDP increased at more than double the world rates during these three periods (Netherlands: 0.35%, 1.06%, and 0.67%; world: 0.14%, 0.29%, and 0.11%.)

England. We also have information on early fuel use in England (Wigley).

Figure 1. Annual energy consumption per head (megajoules) in England and Wales 1561-70 to 1850-9 and in Italy 1861-70. Figure by Wrigley.

Here, we see that coal use began as early as 1561.  To a significant extent coal replaced fire wood, since wood was in short supply due to deforestation. Coal was used to provide heat energy, until after the invention of the first commercially successful steam engine in 1712 (Wikipedia), after which it could provide either heat or mechanical energy.  Wind and water were also used to provide mechanical energy, but their quantities remain very small compared to coal energy, draft animal energy, and even energy consumed in the form of food by humans.

Maddison shows population and GDP statistics for the United Kingdom (not England by itself). Again, we see a pattern similar to Netherlands, with UK population and GDP growth surpassing world population and GDP growth, since it was a world leader in adopting coal technology. (For the three periods 1500-1600, 1600-1700, and 1700-1820, the corresponding numbers are Population UK: 0.45%, 0.33%, 0.76%; Population World: 0.24%, 0.08%, 0.46%; GDP UK: 0.76%, 0.58%, 1.02%; GDP World: 0.29%, 0.11%, 0.52%.)

Growth “Lull” during 1600s. Table 1 shows that both population growth and GDP growth were lower during the 1600s. This period matches up with some views of when the Little Ice Age (a period with colder weather) had the greatest impact.

Figure 2. Winter Severity in Europe, 1000 to 1900. Note period of cold weather in 1600s. Figure from Environmental History Resources. Figure based on Lamb 1969 / Schneider and Mass 1975.

If the weather was colder, crops would likely not have grown as well. More wood would be needed for fuel, leaving less for other purposes, such as making metals. Countries might even been more vulnerable to outside invaders, if they were poorer and could not properly pay and feed a large army.

Coal Age for the World – 1820 to 1920 (and continuing)

When the age of coal arrived, the world had two major needs:

  1. A heat-producing fuel, so that there would not be such a problem with deforestation, if people wanted to keep warm, create metal products,  and make other products that required heat, such as glass.
  2. As a transportation fuel, so that walking, using horses, and boats would not be the major choices. This severely limited trade.

When coal arrived, it was rapidly accepted, because it helped greatly with the first of these–the need for a heat-producing fuel. People were willing to put up with the fact that it was polluting, especially in the highly populated parts of the world where wood shortages were a problem. With the availability of coal, it became possible to greatly increase the amount of metal produced, making possible the production of consumer goods of many kinds.

Figure 3. World Energy Consumption by Source, based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 01965 and subsequent

Between 1820 and 1920, which is the period when coal came into widespread use, the world’s use of energy approximately tripled (Figure 3). The large increases in other fuels later dwarf this increase, but the use of coal was very significant for the economy. Table 1 at the top of this post shows a fairly consistent rise in GDP growth as coal was added to the energy mix in the 1820 to 1920 period.

With the invention of first commercially successful steam engine in 1712 (Wikipedia), coal could also be used for processes that required mechanical energy, such as milling grain, running a cotton gin, or weaving cloth. It also helped as a transportation fuel, in that it could power a railroad train or steam boat. Thus, it did help with the second major energy need noted above. It was not very suitable for airplanes or for private passenger cars, though.

One invention that was made possible by the availability of coal was the widespread use of electricity. Without coal (or oil), it would never have been possible to make all of the transmission lines. Hydroelectric power of the type we use today was also made possible by the availability of coal, since it was possible to create and transport the metal parts needed. It was also possible to heat limestone to make Portland cement in large quantity. The first meaningful amounts of hydroelectric power appeared between 1870 and 1880, according to the data used in Figure 3.

Agriculture was helped by the availability of coal, mostly through the indirect impacts of more/better metal being available, more ease in working with metals, improved transportation, and later, the availability of electricity. According to a document of the US Department of Census,  changes were made which allowed more work to be done by horses instead of humans. New devices such as steel plows and reapers and hay rakes were manufactured, which could be pulled by horses. Later, many devices run by electricity were added, such as milking machines. Barbed-wire fence allowed the West to become cropland, instead one large unfenced range.

Between 1850 and 1930, the percentage of workers in agriculture in the US dropped from about 65% of the workforce to about 22%. With such a large drop in agricultural workers, rising employment in other parts of the economy became possible, assuming there were enough jobs available. If not, it is easy to see how the Depression might have originated.

If we look at the coal data included in Figure 3 by itself, we see that the use of coal use has never stopped growing. In fact, its use has been growing more rapidly in recent years:

Figure 4. World annual coal consumption, based on same data used in Figure 3. (Vaclav Smil /BP Statistical Review of World Energy)

The big reason for the growth is coal consumption is that it is cheap, especially compared to oil and in most countries, natural gas. China and other developing countries have been using coal for electricity production, to smelt iron, and to make fertilizer and other chemicals. Coal is very polluting, both from a carbon dioxide perspective, and from the point of view of pollutants mixed with the coal. For many buyers, however, “cheap” trumps “good for the environment”.

A look at detail underlying China’s coal consumption makes it look as though the recent big increase in coal consumption began immediately after China was admitted to the World Trade Organization, in December 2001. With more trade with the rest of the world, China had more need for coal to manufacture goods for export, and to build up its own internal infrastructure. The ultimate consumers, in the US and Europe, didn’t realize that it was their demand for cheap products from abroad that was fueling the rise in world coal consumption.

Addition of Oil to World Energy Mix 

Oil was added to the energy mix in very small amounts, starting in the 1860s and 1870s. The amount added gradually increased though the years, with the really big increases coming after World War II. Oil filled several niches:

  1. It was the first really good transportation fuel. It could be poured, so it was easy to put into a gas tank. It enabled door-to-door transportation, with automobiles, trucks, tractors for the farm, aircraft, and much construction equipment.
  2. It (and the natural gas often associated with it) provided chemical fertilizer which could be used to cover up the huge soil deficiencies that had developed over the years. Hydrocarbons from oil also provide herbicides and insecticides.  Oil also enabled the door-to-door transport of mineral additions to the soil mix, enhancing fertility.
  3. Oil is very easy to transport in a can or truck, so it works well with devices like portable electric generators and irrigation pumps. It can be used where other fuels are hard to transport, such as small islands, with minimal equipment to make it usable.
  4. With the huge change in transport enabled by oil, much greater international trade became possible. It became possible to regularly make complex goods, such as computers, with imports from many nations. It also became possible to import necessities, rather than using trade primarily for a few high-value goods.
  5. Hydrocarbons could be made into medicines, enabling defeat of many of the germs that had in the past caused epidemics.
  6. Hydrocarbons could be used to make plastics and fabrics, so that wood and crops grown to make fabrics (such as cotton and flax) would not be in such huge demand, allowing land to be used for other purposes.
  7. Hydrocarbons could provide asphalt for roads, lubrication for machines, and many other hard-to-replace specialty products.
  8. The labor-saving nature of machines powered by oil freed up time for workers to work elsewhere (or viewed less positively, sometimes left them unemployed).
  9. The fact that tractors and other farm equipment took over the role of horses and mules after 1920 meant that more land was available for human food, since feed no longer needed to be grown for horses.

If we look at oil by itself (Figure 5, below), we see much more of a curved figure than for coal (Figure 4, above).

Figure 5. World annual oil consumption, based on the same data as in Figure 3 above. (Vaclav Smil /BP Statistical Review of World Energy)

My interpretation of this is that oil supply is more constrained than coal supply. Coal is cheap, and demand keeps growing. Oil has been rising in price in recent years, and the higher prices mean that consumers cut back on their purchases, to keep their budgets close to balanced. They can’t afford as many vacations and can’t afford to pave as many roads with asphalt. Oil is still the largest source of energy in the world, but coal is working on surpassing it. In a year or two, coal will likely be the world’s largest source of energy. Together, they comprise about 60 percent of today’s energy use.

If we look at per capita fuel consumption based on the same data as in Figure 3, this is what we see:

Figure 6. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption (based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent) by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

Figure 6 indicates that there was a real increase in total per capita energy consumption after World War II, about the time that oil consumption was being added in significant quantity. What happened was that coal consumption did not decrease (except to some extent on a per capita basis); oil was added on top of it.

If we look at world population growth for the same time period, we see a very distinct bend in the line immediately after World War II, as population rose as the same time as oil consumption.

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

Clearly, the arrival of oil had a huge impact on agriculture. Unfortunately, the chemical fix for our long-standing soil problems is not a permanent ones. Soils need to be viewed as part of an ecological system, with biological organisms aiding in fertility. Soils also need an adequate amount of humus, if they are to hold water well in droughts. There are natural things that can be done to maintain soil fertility (add manure, terrace land, use perennial crops rather than annual crops, don’t till the land). Unfortunately, using big machines dependent on oil, plus lots of chemical sprays, tends to operate in the opposite direction of building up the natural soil systems.

Our Energy Niche Problem

There are other fuels as well, including nuclear, wind energy, solar PV, solar thermal, biofuels, and natural gas. The production of all of these are enabled by the production of oil and coal, because of the large amount of metals involved in their production, and because of the need transport the new devices to a final location.

All of these other fuels tend have their own niches; it is hard for them to fill the big coal-oil niche on the current landscape. Solar thermal and natural gas are both directly heat-producing, and play a role that way. But it is hard to see how adequate metals production would continue with these fuels alone. Of course, with enough electricity, we could create the heat needed for metal production. The catch would be creating enough electricity.

“Cheap” is a very important characteristic of fuels to buyers. Coal is clearly beating out oil now in the area of “cheap”. Natural gas is the only one of the other energy sources that is close to cheap, at least in the United States. The catch with US natural gas is that producers can’t really produce it cheaply, so its long-run prospects as a cheap fuel aren’t good. Perhaps if the pricing issues can be worked out, US natural gas production can increase somewhat, but it is not likely to be the cheapest fuel.

One of the issues related to finding a replacement for oil and coal is that we already have a great deal of equipment (cars, trains, airplanes, farm equipment, construction equipment) that use oil, and we have many chemical processes that use oil or coal as an input.  It would be very costly to make a change to another fuel, before the end of the normal lives of the equipment.

Wrapping Up

Over the long haul, energy sources have played a very large and varied role in the economy. In general, increases in the energy supply seem to correspond to increases in GDP and population.  Necessary characteristics of energy supply are not always obvious. We don’t think of low-cost as an important characteristic of energy products, but in the real world, this becomes an important issue.

As we move forward, we face challenges of many types. The world’s population is still growing, and needs to be housed, clothed, and fed.  None of the energy sources that is available is perfect. Our long history of using the land to produce annual crops has left the world with much degraded soil. The way forward is not entirely clear.

I will look at some related issues in upcoming posts.

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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158 Responses to The Long-Term Tie Between Energy Supply, Population, and the Economy

  1. Leo Smith says:

    Gail: A view on investment into large capital projects. (nesting is going too deep so a new post I hope)

    You point of view seems to be that this can only come from governments, who are essentially bust.

    But the reality is that with interest rates chasing zero, and until and unless a government confiscates the private money that exists in pension funds and so on the world is actually awash with cash looking for the best return. Its juts that the markets don’t trust governments to pay a decent return or to actually pay it back at all, in some cases.

    This has led to a new way of financing large capital projects Instead of direct government investment we see everywhere an overt unblushing award of monopolies to business sectors, and with guaranteed income streams. And my favourite whipping boy, renewable energy, is the prime example.

    By guaranteeing an income – its not the same mechanism as the USA though which seems to use tax rebates – and guaranteeing a market (the power companies are legally required to take all the renewable electricity that is generated, and at a very high premium) – the private sector is attracted into a sector whose risk is removed by diktat and whose income is more or less guaranteed.

    The history of Royal and legal monopolies and cartels and of guild protected industries are very long.

    You may take whatever view on these that you prefer, but the fact the remains that such systems exist, and may be used by cash strapped administrations to essentially underwrite investments at no cost to themselves.

    The risk resides not then in the marketplace itself- the companies have a legal ‘right to gouge’ – but in the vagaries of political fashion. Legally constituted governments have the right and have used the power to both nationalize assets with little or no compensation (Iran and IIRC Venezuela both have nationalised foreign owned oil assets) or tax them into relative decline (Tobacco industry) or in other cases simply declare that they are no longer tolerable politically (nuclear power in Germany)

    I don’t wish to explore this further beyond to make the point that investment in major infrastructure projects is not actually a problem in practice. Its the principle – essentially legalised rent seeking – that is at issue.

    • I see this scheme as not working for very long. At some point, the system goes bust. The guarantee needs to go away. Even if they have decided to gouge the purchasers, after a certain point, the business purchasers leave the country for elsewhere (or go bankrupt) and the individuals are laid off from work so can’t pay for electricity.

      I agree, it sort of works for a while.

  2. Björn Larsson says:

    Cosmologists have convincingly concluded that space is flat and infinite, and that materia is most likely homogeneously distributed in it all, on large scales. So the name of the blog is a bit funny!

    Furthermore, oxygen and carbon are the third and fourth most common elements in the universe, and suitable for combustion. Locally, we have about 800 000 000 000 tons of materia per human being under our own feet. But cheaper than to dig much deeper, might be to extract resources from the thousands of large asteroids around us, each one of which contains more metals than humanity has ever extracted so far. The Earth’s surface is poor in valuable metals because they’ve sunk to the planets core, those that occur, have come from collisions with asteroids.

    There’s no finity, but there are scarcities, an economic term. We produce and use more fossil fuels because their value is higher than their costs. And it is notable how those who talk about “finite resources” never talks about values, but only about quantities. That excludes an economic analysis of the subject.

    Since every litre oil extracted and used produces more and more value every year, even a falling supply of oil would contribute to increasing wealth. But oil production and known oil resources are greater now than ever, so, well, the “problem” is imaginary in several different ways at the same time. So don’t worry!

    • The world needs the real oil in order to transport goods and services and to be used in other processes. Higher prices will admittedly help the sellers, but they hurt the buyers. The buyers are getting less value.

      Reserve amounts have very little to do with what can be produced in a year. Rising reserves don’t mean that more oil can be produced!

  3. Roger Button says:

    It has been fascinating following this debate! I agree with most contributors, but disagree with some over the timescales involved. I would like to add a couple of points.
    1) Everyone up ’til now seems to be assuming that even with a radically different future energy scenario, energy has to be available 24/7 – i.e. the biggest argument against most renewables is that they aren’t available 24/7. I diasgree. With current technology it is feasible to adapt many domestic activities, heating, refrigerated storage, clothes washing etc. to intermittent use when cheap energy is available. Many industrial uses can also adapt to intermittent electricity supply, where this generates cost savings. Many large users already have a ‘maximum demand’ tariff so that they reduce consumption when overall grid demand is high. Historically we were content to mill corn when the wind blew or the rivers flowed.
    2) Leo Smith seems confident that there is essentially unlimited uranium available for future nuclear generation. I know the data is very hard to come by but I thought the consensus was that it was in about the same situation as coal – i.e. peak production within a few decades?

    • Leo Smith says:

      1/. If it were simple and easy to store energy so that availability did not dominate usage we would already have done so: the variability between off-peak and on-peak prices is enough to drive the development of this as it is. That it has not done so makes me sceptical that it could be done. High capital cost equipment has to be kept working, or its ‘capacity factor’ declines with overall cost increases. The facts on et ground suggest that variable output to conform with grid capacity is not as economic as paying a high price for peak power. In fact I read ionly yesterday that a considerable opportunity exists to improve output of a small UK hydroelectric scheme, because it was built to provide constant steady power at a lower level than in a good rain year it might, in order to provide reliable 24×7 power to an aluminium smelter.

      2/. The availability of massive amounts of fissile, fissionable or potentially fissile material is not inconsistent with a peak in uranium production. There are two reason for this

      – Firstly in the West, there is extreme pressure against nuclear power. Legislation ensures it is expensive, and public opinion is carefully nurtured to regard it as expensive, dangerous and unnecessary. So it is being strangled out of existence. In the USA where frackable gas in large quantities, as well as coal , exists there is no pressing economic need for it either. Yet.

      – Fuel reprocessing and the political issues of waste storage are tending towards the reuse of existing fuel. Very little of the U235 in a fuel rod is actually used – it gets poisoned by its own waste products. Removing these and the plutonium waste results in reusable material and indeed more fissile material in the shape of plutonium. That was originally used to build nuclear weapons, but we seem to have enough of those. Britain is sitting on 10 years of plutonium nuclear fuel, or some dangerous and nasty long-lived nuclear waste, depending on which attitude you choose to take. I am not aware of the US situation in any depth, but I assume it is similar.

      3/. The availability of several thousand years worth of fissile materials is based on an understanding of the uranium and or thorium cycles. The energy in U235 fission is massive. Thousands or millions of times greater per unit mass (depending whether you talk about U235 or the usual U235/238 power grade mixture) than any fossil fuel. In short the EROI is so high that despite the issues with refining, the actual energy cost of extracting uranium, could rise a hundredfold without it actually unduly affecting the cost of nuclear power. Likewise breeder reactors which create more fissile material than they consume, are perfectly feasible and have been built. They again failed commercially because the cost was not competitive with the extremely low price of raw mined uranium. The situation is similar to the use of deep water drilling and fracking which has increased oil reserves that are viable as long as the market price of the product is high enough.

      What this means is a picture of a ‘technology in reserve’ that is neither currently politically fashionable nor viable in competition with cheap coal and gas. That it is the best and cheapest choice for people who are concerned about carbon emissions and yet is most reviled by those that espouse that cause , is a curious and interesting fact. I note that ‘green’ pressure has been successfully diverted from solutions that compete with fossil fuels to those that mandate its continued use as a co-operating technology.

      The problem of course is that so much money is at stake that there is not one area of energy or power production that is not subject to marketing spin, political lobbying and the blatant use of outright propaganda. In short whatever you have been told about any aspect of energy and power, has almost certainly been told to you by someone carrying a fat chequebook and hiring whatever experts he wants to promote whatever message he wants and funding whatever ‘independent institutions;’ are needful to get the perception he wants, to spin across to a technically unsophisticated audience.

      Except me of course. No one is paying me anything at all. 😦

      Finally Gail makes a more relevant point, in that e.g. nuclear powered cars are simply a nono. They will never happen. For road transport liquid hydrocarbon fuel is the appropriate storage medium. The current second best – lithium based batteries – have a theoretical limit of about twice the energy density that current technology has. There is not much room for improvement. Neither is there enough lithium in the world to replace all the working cars that exist. That means that what is happening in electricity supply technology – especially in a USA with good coal and gas – is not going to be the area where fuel price/shortage impacts first. That will happen in terms of road and air transport.

      In short the salient points are:

      – Nuclear and renewables cannot easily replace gasoline and kerosene in transport.
      – Renewables of the intermittent sort do not replace fossil energy in electrical generation at all.
      – Intermittent availability of energy is more expensive to deal with by the end user than it is to deal with by use of dispatchable stored energy power stations.

      And, finally what this means, is that we are facing at some level a re-structuring of society. The fear that I suspect Gail and I share is that that restructuring will inevitably involve massive drops in population levels, or standards of living, or both. All the proposed ‘solutions’ involve some drop in productivity. Some far more than others. In the end it is not a question of what we could do, but how well we could do it. I look ceaselessly for a scenario that involves the least possible change to the way things are done now, because that is likely to be a close to optimal strategy for the world’s populations, if not for the world’s power companies.

      Sadly that means goodbye to cheap personal transport and to cheap air transport. Two things I love..

      • Roger Button says:

        In reply to Gail,
        1) yes that is a big question. However, the equipment required, a smartphone and a relay, consume negligible real resources.
        2) again yes, but we haven’t really tried, at least not in the UK. If you want a cheap night rate they charge you so much more for the day rate that it is not economic to use the night rate for clothes washing etc.
        Yes, there is scope to convert existing hydo schemes to peak-lop rather than provide base load, but again not yet tried in the UK.
        I await with interest to see what happens to the price of nuclear fuel. Leo says that the price could rise x100 without causing problems. That may be so, but oil has risen x10 in a decade, so there is no reason why nuclear fuel could not rise by x100 in 20 years, and then start to become unaffordable. As oil has shown us, when scarcity looms, price is not governed by the cost of production, but what the marginal consumer will pay.

        • David F Collins says:

          Mr Button:

          You have several times touched the idea that energy can be useful and valuable even when it is not power-on-demand (as it «at the flick of a switch»). Earlier, I tried to make the point, in a more general sense. We would say, “I want what I want when I want it.” Reality often intrudes: “You will get what you get when you get it.”

          I learned photography with a totally manual camera and was fortunate enough to have a good light meter. I learned that when a clear sky clouded over, I needed three more stops or so (≈10×) to have enough light for an equivalent exposure. Far less solar energy, but often enough sufficient. And I never shook my fist in rage at being unable to photograph a landscape in the dark of night. Kinda like not giving up on gardening because, living in Michigan at that time, I couldn’t grow beets in January.

          Come to think of it, we make massive use of incoming solar energy all year long. My home, for instance, is largely heated by solar energy. Were it not for the sun, the furnace would have to raise our indoor temperature all the way from -455°F. Even though the effective background temperature fluctuates a bit, the solar assist is much appreciated.

          «Civilization» must trim its sails to the winds that blow. Not to the winds as we wish they were.

        • THe issue isn’t the negligible real resources; it is the ability to keep the international trade in place to support the import of those real resources. It is also the ability to keep governments from collapsing.

          As I point out in the new post I have up today, governments depend on energy to support their needs. The type of government which uses the least energy dependence is a king or local dictator. As governments collapse back from large mega-states to smaller pieces, each with their dictator or war lord in charge, the world is likely to face many local currencies. Whether or not trade can continue in such a context is not clear.

          Electric transmission lines are likely to be affected by such a change as well. For a while they may operate fine, but after a while, they will need repairs, either from after a storm, or when old transformers and other parts wear out. The question is whether these repairs will actually be made.

          • Leo Smith says:

            I’d merely comment on the validity of the idea that nations can’t function without complex centralised governments

            Of course that is what complex centralised governments keep telling us…

            The Tainter thesis is is that of course they can, albeit in a different way.

            Trading ships – armed or otherwise- were quite able to directly barter trade goods without any notion of money or international finance or government guarantees for many years. Likewise road networks spanning fiefdoms also existed. Because it was in the interest of those fiefdoms to maintain them, and trade was a mutually beneficial thing.

            I think that, analysing what I find at odds with your thesis Gail, is that it seems to regard international governance and finance as de rigeur for civilisation: And the fact that both are busted flushes means it all over.

            I cant accept that. There is trust and credit available, and cooperation between individuals, small fiefdoms, and principalities. is always possible. Just because the existing institutions have lost all credibility doesn’t mean the principle of trust will pass with it.

            That may be a truth we need to rediscover. Business ethics are needful for efficient commerce. IF institutions betray that trust, and banks and governments have, then that’s a good sign not to get rid of all institutions, merely the ones that have patently failed.

            I as an individual can put my money in a company which issues me with a share. IF it has a good idea, that share will be worth more money. I might put not my paper money, but my time or my house or a share of my produce. That’s voluntary capitalism. Governments and monopolistic systems like international finance are involuntary capitalism: taxation is involuntary capitalism. Having to use a system of banks that gouges my gains for individual advantage is involuntary capitalism. Buying shares in an engineering company or a farm is voluntary capitalism.

            If that company takes my money and steals it, then it is a lesson that it will not easily get any more money from me or anyone else, again.

            Governance originally existed to safeguard voluntary capitalism: The rights of property and so on. Somehow that became in time the right to gouge taxes into involuntary capitalism where the state commanded and controlled all capital. This I feel is a mistake. Now the state is bust.

            In short the world is awash with the strangled quacks of the past gasp of many golden geese. But not all of them.

            It is just not clear which ones are worth feeding, yet. Or who is competent to be their custodians.


            • I didn’t intend to take conclusions that far. If governments collapse back to smaller locally ruled states, there is a question of whether trade would be greatly restricted. I expect some trade would continue. The question is how much.

              I clearly need to write a post on ways we could move toward less complexity.

            • Leo Smith says:

              I look forward to it.

    • I think that there are a couple of issues:

      (1) Can we really maintain the complexity to do all of this? (High tech import capability and such)

      (2) Wind, Solar, and water are variable over such long time frames (far longer than 24 hours) that it badly tests the limits of such systems.

      Hydroelectric peaks in the spring, and may not even be available at certain times of the year. Year to year weather fluctuations make a big difference as well, in many years. Less developed countries tend to use a lot of hydropower in their mix, if it is available, but this can be a problem. You may have read about Venezuela’s drought problems a few years ago.

      Wind is variable all year, and over long periods. Solar PV is much better in the summer than in the winter.

      WHile we can and do do a lot of adjustment right now to when appliances, hot water heaters, and factories operate, doing much more requires that there be systems that “turn off” homeowners electricity use when there isn’t enough. Ideally, this would be individual appliances, but my guess is that it would have to be rolling blackouts. Cost estimates for wiring homes to hook up individual appliances for switching off have been high, and homeowners have been less than happy about the idea of agreeing to such an arrangement, in certain versions of “smart meters” that would do this.

      It works OK now for factories to have interruptible power, and to lose their power for a few partial days a year. But if workers have to go to work, and as often as not, discover the factory is out of service because of no electricity, this will be harder to handle. Wages will need to be much lower, for one thing.

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  5. Roger Button says:

    Dear Gail,
    re your last paragraph, one thing we can be sure of is that, in the future, the value of labour will be a lot lower relative to the value of raw materials, as it was in the past.

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  7. Ikonoclast says:

    Can solar power power the world? Actually, this is the wrong question.Solar power already powers the world. Look at the facts.

    1. Maintenance of ambient temperature on earth is almost solely due to incoming solar radiation. (Heat from the centre of the earth plays a small role,)
    2. Peat and coal are formed from plant matter and these plants grew via solar radiation. Peat and coal represent embedded solar power.
    3. Oil is formed from marine organism detrititus. The food chain for these organisms commenced with algae and other organism using sunlight. Oil represents embedded solar energy.
    4. All the food we eat is essentially created by photosynthesis of plants or by animals which eat plants. All our food represents emebedded solar energy.

    The proper question is this. Can solar power the world directly while leaving oil, coal, gas and fissile elements in the earth? The answer is yes.

    “The total solar energy absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land masses is approximately 3,850,000 exajoules (EJ) per year.[7] In 2002, this was more energy in one hour than the world (economy) used in one year.[12][13] – Wikipedia.

    Estimates of feasible infrastructure indicate the following potential for renewable energy. It is about 5 or 6 times greater than current total energy use.

    “In 2008, total worldwide energy consumption was 474 exajoules (474×1018 J=132,000 TWh). This is equivalent to an average energy consumption rate of 15 terawatts (1.504×1013 W).[1] The potential for renewable energy is: solar energy 1600 EJ (444,000 TWh), wind power 600 EJ (167,000 TWh), geothermal energy 500 EJ (139,000 TWh), biomass 250 EJ (70,000 TWh), hydropower 50 EJ (14,000 TWh) and ocean energy 1 EJ (280 TWh).[4]” – Wikipedia.

    There are limits to growth but the energy limits are not near if we fully utilise renewables.

    I’ve yet to see anyone provide figures on this blog or elsewhere to prove that renewables are not viable.

    • Tony Weddle says:

      I’ve read innumerable articles that show renewables are not viable to power our consumer industrial growth oriented civilisation. Most renewables are diffuse energy sources that require enormous resources to harness but only in a form that is suitable for a subset of the use fossil fuels is put to. The need for infrastructure and resources, including some very limited resources, will ensure renewables cannot power our world, even if the investment capital is there (which is doubtful). In addition, unintended ecological impacts mitigate against renewables ever gaining the kind of level needed. Some recent research indicates wind energy is limited by ecological impacts and I suspect solar is, also, unless distributed very widely (rather than in massive local/regional farms). We definitely need more research into the impacts of renewables at all levels and of all kinds. Assuming there are no impacts (even for small diversions of natural energy flows) is not wise.

      I’m sure everything will be tried to keep an unsustainable civilisation going a bit longer but even if our only problem is energy (which it isn’t) I doubt renewables can take up the slack from dwindling supplies of fossil fuels.

      • Ikonoclast says:

        Professor Charles Hall et. al. disagree.

        “We find in solar (industrial) energy a very large potential but a rather small application (so far). The greatest use (of renewables currently) is traditional biomass (perhaps about 5 percent in the US) and hydropower. In general high EROI sites in the United States were developed by the middle of the last century and a further expansion is probably limited by environmental considerations. (Globally the potential is much more). In the United States existing wind power seems to have a rather good EROI (18:1) although that is likely to be decreased substantially if issues related to storage are factored in. Present generation photovoltaics have a moderate EROI (around 8:1 but with great variability and uncertainty). Both wind and photovoltaic systems appear to have a large potential for improving their EROI. The greatest potential, however, is for passive solar, although this issue seems not to have been analyzed very often using EROI explicitly. There are many reasons to favor a solar future and it is probably quite possible to get there, but we need a much more comprehensive analysis of the issues of availability and storage if applied on a very large scale.”

        • Tony Weddle says:

          Oh, I’m quite sure that the numbers show that solar power could power our world several times over. Others (such as Heinberg and Greer) have looked at other aspects and I’ve yet to see a full environmental impact assessment for the grand schemes that are paraded for continuing our industrial technological civilisation on solar. In my view, not only won’t it be done, it can’t be done. Of course, you’re free to believe what you wish. Maybe my view is coloured by the knowledge that continuing our industrial technological civilisation, by whatever means, is unsustainable, not least because it will continue to degrade our only known habitat (as well as the habitat of the other species we rely on in so many ways for survival). I find the counter arguments quite strong; you may not.

        • Mel Tisdale says:

          No matter how many learned professors you call on for support, the simple fact remains that without some means of storing the energy they produce that is cheap, practical and indeed even possible, renewables, as a solution to our energy supply needs, will remain in the airy fairy Green camp, championed by people who are very far from the mainstream and want us all to join them in their cloud cuckoo land yurts.

          No thanks. One has only to look outside on a dull winter’s day, when the sun is well out of sight and there is hardly a breeze to rustle any remaining leaves, to understand why renewable are just a diversion. Of course, there are other forms of renewable energy supply, but they all seem to suffer to some extent from an inability to keep the lights on due to their intermittency.

          While you are obviously (very obviously, some might say) wedded to renewables, there are a large number who are not, such as myself. Personally, I just don’t like the idea of having the countryside peppered with wind turbines, which, incidentally, are getting larger and more intrusive with every day that passes.

          Obviously, I would support the use of renewables if they were all that we had as an option. But they are far from that status. We have nuclear energy. If we could only get the Green brigade to just stop a moment and think sensibly about the situation that we are in, they will see that nuclear is really about the only option that we have as a species. What is really needed is for the various nuclear options to be properly considered. By that I mean considered fairly. While we have a lot of expertise embedded in the current technology, there are other technologies that seem to offer far safer solutions and which also have far less radioactive waste to dispose of, not to mention a whole raft of other advantages, such as a plentiful supply of fuel that is currently regarded as an undesirable by-product of other mining operations. If we had stuck to steam engines because of the degree of expertise that existed, where would we be today? (And they were lovely, too, unlike a wind turbine!)

          The Greens have a lot to answer for. It is very largely due to their hysterical opposition to all things nuclear that we have an uphill struggle ahead of us in getting nuclear energy accepted by the public. So it is up to the Greens to make amends and join in the nuclear energy debate and let the public see that their movement can actually take a responsible position. If Professor Lovelock can change his position, then surely the rank and file can.

          As oil slowly sinks, having passed its zenith, we need to urgently decide just what we are going to do about keeping the lights on and the food shelves full. There are many vested interests, which we need to beware of. While this site does an excellent job of raising the issues, I am not sure that it is sufficiently mainstream yet to provide a forum for all. Something needs to happen to drag the population away from the froth of life, such as reality TV, and make it consider its options. I do not know what that something is, or indeed who will apply it. All I do know is that all the time and money spent erecting yet another eyesore of a wind turbine is time and money that could have been better spent.

          • Tony Weddle says:

            Nuclear is a terrible choice. It uses a non-renewable resource, it produces nuclear waste (for which only Norway has a long term storage solution – that will take decades to complete) and its safe operation requires not only a stable biosphere but stable societies – for centuries. I wish we could stop thinking that an unsustainable way of life can magically be made sustainable. The only sensible response to our predicament, it seems to me, is to utterly change our living arrangements and behaviours.

            • Leo Smith says:

              So, please tell, me where the sun gets its energy from, how renewable it is and what it does with the nuclear waste? And also how we have survived as long as we have with all that nuclear stuff in the ground which actually does get into all the water – because the sea is full of radioactive uranium. In fact it probably helped life get going?

              I agree the *idea* of nuclear power is terrible. That the thing about ideas, They are easy to make scary.

              Also the thing about ideas. You can have really impossible ones too, like you can imagine pink elephants or green pixies. You an even imagine something called ‘renewable energy’. Or ‘sustainable growth’. Neither exist in the real world. In the end we all die and so will the earth, and if we are still on it, that’s curtains for the human race.

              The problem with the youth of today, is that they have lived in a bubble of media information so long, that they actually seem to think it is the real world. Korzybski said it, and it bears repeating..

              The map, is not the territory.

              Magical incantation of ‘renewable energy’ and ‘sustainable growth’ does not sadly – as far as we can tell – bring these entities into existence in any place beyond the marketing man’s pen and the minds of the gullible.

              If you are concerned that all the fissionable material will run out in the next 3000 years, well fair enough. But I would point out to you that we have barely been using iron that long.

              Of course in the limit things that pollute the planet and are around a long time are ideologically to be disdained. I’d suggest that the biggest offender here is human beings, irrespective of what source powers their I-Bling. and indeed we find that in the typical green mind, the logic of sustainability and ‘care of the planet’ is already extrapolating to the conclusions that mass suicide is probably the best way to save the planet for unborn generations – that now will never BE born.

              Or possibly war. Drop nuclear bombs on people who would use nuclear power and pollute the planet, and breed themselves into a danger to unborn generations.

              With immediate conversion to celibacy or homosexuality as definite second choices. Its green to be gay. Or its gay to be green? These will shortly be made compulsory, I hear.

              An interesting philosophical and logical conundrum. The best way to save the planet for unborn generations is for there to be no unborn generations. Ho hum.

              But then doublethink* has become a real thing, insofar as anything in people’s minds can be said to be real…

              *George Orwell, 1984

              “To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth”

            • Tony Weddle says:

              Leo, I’m not sure what solar nuclear fusion has to do with nuclear fission here on earth. You are mistaken about the sea being full of radioactive uranium. If that were true, there would be no water on this planet. Uranium is at a very low dilution in the sea – extremely low.

              It was once believed that oil and other fossil fuels were virtually unlimited. Look where that got us. Believing in thousands of years’ growing supply of uranium (or other fissionable materiable) is just repeating the same mistake again. However, it is the probable lack of stable societies for centuries that worries me most about nuclear (though that might be because I live in New Zealand and don’t have to worry as much about the other negatives).

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              “The only sensible response to our predicament, it seems to me, is to utterly change our living arrangements and behaviours.”

              O.K., that’s the funnies out of the way, now can we please get down to discussing options that the public stand a chance of accepting in the timescale at our disposal?

            • Tony Weddle says:

              What the public will accept is largely irrelevant, unless they will accept something that actually makes a difference and moves us towards sustainability. I don’t think it’s funny, at all, to suggest that a total rethink of the way we live is needed. I do think it will not happen, however, so we will all have to live with the consequences of not doing so.

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              I am sure that when you say “a complete rethink on the way we live is needed” will not happen, you are correct. I find it funny to suggest something that you have no confidence in, you obviously don’t. Perhaps it’s the engineer in me coming out, but there again, engineers can end up on a manslaughter charge (or its equivalent) if they get things wrong, so we take great care not to start off on the wrong foot. In short, I guess we come at it from different angles.

              You may be right when you say that society needs to hit the reset button, but that implies enormous change in short order. Time has told me that when you put a human being into a state of change, it goes into a state of shock. The size of the shock is directly related to the size of the change experienced. So what you want to do is give everyone a severe shock. That, I am afraid, is one of those ideas that only looks good until you examine it in detail.

              You cannot get to where you want society to be directly from where society is today. The reason being that the public just will not support it. They are used to a life of cheap energy and a plentiful supply of commodities. While it is true that a new way of living is being thrust upon us, all the politicians are putting forward policies that are specifically designed to bring back the good times. Their very jobs rely on the public supporting their point of view, so you can see the size of the problem. If we want the public to accept something, then it has got to be seen as the best way to return society to the conditions that existed prior to 2008. If good cause can be shown, then failure will be more readily accepted. As things stand, renewables do not, nor cannot, even come close to achieving that goal because they are intermittent in supply. That they are ugly in their own right and need equally ugly power grids that despoil the countryside are just additional reasons to consign them to the scrap heap of good intentions.

              While you might think that geology of today has not advanced much beyond the days of thinking that fossil fuels permeated the whole of the earth’s crust, I think you will find that if a modern geologist says that such and such an element exists in plentiful amounts, then plentiful amounts of that mineral exist. So, if we were to go the LFTR route, supplies of thorium would not be a problem. Add to that all the other benefits of that technology, not least of which is its inherent safety, and any idea of lavishing money on renewables is just plain wasteful. Give the public small, modular LFTR power plants serving local communities and you begin to have the ‘think local’ notion in the public’s mindset. Build on that with local supplies to local shops, none of which are to be found in identical shape, size and decor in other towns and you begin to get to a Green society without all the ‘extreme’ cycling and other intense stuff that they rave about and want to inflict upon us all.

              But none of that is achievable without first and foremost keeping the public on side. And you don’t even come close to achieving that if your opening gambit is something that even you don’t believe will be acceptable.

            • Tony Weddle says:

              You could well be right, Mel. However, that slow process will take decades, at best. Meanwhile, the situation gets worse. What will a worse situation do to societies? I think we need faster responses but, you’re right, I have no expectation that we’ll get them. My only hope is that our predicament gets bad enough to prompt real change but not so bad that suffering becomes the norm or that change will have little impact. I’m not hopeful and I don’t find that funny at all, oddly enough.

            • Leo Smith says:

              Tony: Yep. You are approaching a key area here. And that’s the nature of the human animal. And of the social and political systems he uses.

              To my mind – and there’s room to argue the point – most people are successful because they are smart but not TOO smart, and a bit daring in their youth, but tend to revert back to ‘what their parents did’ when under stress. This innate inertia and conservatism works because it means that changes happen slowly and not too many people are taking risks at any one time – risks that mostly show the rest of us what NOT to do.

              Systems tend to be organised as loose associations of hierarchies with the interfaces decided on an opportunistic and ad hoc basis. This means that any area where resources or things of value to the society exist, gets exploited rapidly by those nearby, and the benefits filter outwards through the rest of global society. The benefits of this loose system that is not designed by anyone, is that it is fairly fast to respond and adapt, and yet the innate conservatism of people means it doesn’t waste effort exploiting dead ends. Today we have a word for this system, and its called ‘the market’.

              And ever since we realised how its worked people have been claiming that if it was properly designed, it would work better. And that imposing central state controls on everything and setting out to build custom designed societies would enable the whole process of governance to yield a faster response and greater wealth and less wastage.

              And yet all such attempts, seem to lead to the reverse. Communist society was hidebound, rigid, and slow to respond, and less wealthy than free market societies.

              I have pondered this, and come up with an explanation that is based on engineering thinking: There are two reasons why this state centric civilisation is not very good, and one of them is deeply dangerous, too.

              The first reason is that the ‘command and control’ lines are too long. System engineering can be modelled to show that if every decision has to be centrally debated with huge time delays, and that no local decision making (which is feedback in system terms) is allowed, the system will be unstable if over-controlled, or terribly slow to respond if its stable. If a tree falls across the road outside your house, and you have a chain saw and your government lets you use it, that tree is gone in an hour. If you have to wait for the ministries of parks, roads, and gardens all to confer to decide whose responsibility it is, and dispatch a team who have had the appropriate safety training, after signing a requisition in triplicate, it takes DAYS.

              The second reason is more subtle. When you DESIGN a system, be it a machine or a society, you need to specify what the design is to achieve and in what environment it will operate. And you need to be right about both. Or it will be a cock-up at best and an utter disaster at worst

              That means you need to second guess both what human nature will be wanting and what the actual real environment will be YEARS ahead of the time in which the design is done. It’s all very well wishing we had a society that had a command and control structure ideally suited to dealing with the tapering off of fossil energy supplies. But the fact is that twenty years ago when such institutions might have been put in place or basic research done, those were not the issues of the day and there was no political will to implement them and they were, if not wholly unforeseen, of indefinite magnitude and timing.

              In short, you can’t make definite plans for indefinite problems and expect to be right.

              My conclusions are in the end that whilst designed top down controlled societies may be reasonable efficient in static societies – they will tend to have the effect of creating them- they are useless at responding rapidly to external changes . In fact they tend to break instead.. Market oriented systems are less fair, and more volatile (and stressful or exciting depending what you make of them) but are massively faster to respond to local situations and develop optimal strategies on an ad hoc basis that can then filter through the system as ”things that worked for Joe, so let’s try them here”. Market systems resemble organisms – huge devolution of power and control to local quasi-autnomous systems, with the top level being concerned solely with the strategic direction. Centrist Big State system actually resemble machines. Rigid formal paths of communication and rigid adherence to limits and tolerances .

              My point being that the tradeoff is a certain efficiency in the machine-like solution for a massive drop in overall flexibility and resilience. When things are stable, big machine-like corporations and governments can be designed to extract the last ounce out of a predictable situation. When the situation changes those companies and governments will collapse.

              Which is why I think that right now what is seen as a ‘lurch to the Right’ in terms of the state getting out of running things and letting nature take its course is optimal. Many would disagree.

              But if you don’t, you will see why I am so cynical of any governments at all being able to ‘solve the crisis’ : Better to educate the populace and smaller institutions to seek their own salvation and do what governments do best – set as light a touch as is necessary on the tiller of the state to point it towards at least a place where its pile up on the iceberg is not totally inevitable.

              In short don’t vote for more control and more state in the expectation this will lead to the right thing being done quicker. It wont. Best is to do whatever you yourself can at whatever level you are operating, to move in whatever direction you see fit. If it works, others will copy. If it doesn’t, you have lost little beyond your pride.

              I present that as a point of view that some may find valuable. Few would disagree with the general socialist principle that what we want to achieve is the best possible world for the greatest number of people. Where the argument rages is exactly how this is to be done, and my observation is that trying to take political and social ideology and design a society based on these principles will at best create a rigid hidebound society utterly resistant to change, and at worst result in a structure that is incapable of meeting challenges and changing. And is terribly prone to cat-belling* pseudo-solutions. Of which renewable energy is the classic example 🙂

            • One of the things I find interesting is that as badly as the communist approach worked, once it broke down, it has taken a huge amount of time to be replaced. In fact, there are still a lot of things that are done as they were in the past. For example, I understand that there is not normally private ownership of agricultural land in Russia. The Metro system in Moscow is still amazing. There are no houses in Moscow, only apartment buildings.

              When a person looks at a list of countries in the world with declining population now, most of the list is countries that were former members of the Soviet Union, or were influenced by the Soviet Union. It is hard to tell how much of this is low birth rate/ high death rate and how much is emigration, but the effect is the same.

              When I visited Russia in June, one of our tour guides said that he felt a long term feeling of “depression”. I think that related to the ideals of Communism not working, but it also may have related to the wrenching feeling of believing one thing, then moving to another, and then trying to move to another. It is very hard to rebuild a working economy with a new set of parameters. Foreign investment has been important, but Russia does not have an approach that “gets things done”, on time, and within budget.

            • Leo Smith says:

              Absolutely Mel. BUT the public at larger – and politicians – even if they begin to grasp the basics of physics, have almost zero understanding of engineering.

              There are many things that can work theoretically that are simply unattainable with real world materials and so on. If Leonardo da Vinci had the petrol engine, there is no reason why eventually he could not have built an aircraft.

              We know fusion reactors are theoretically possible, but the engineering problems have meant that after 50 years we are only a few steps closer to one.

              Aircraft the size of a city block are theoretically possible, but no material strong enough and light enough exists. Howard Hughes ‘spruce goose’ remains a testament to one man who tried, and he only flew it once.

              For similar reasons airships are not effective flying machines in terms of an adequate strength:payload ratio.

              Nor can wooden ships be made as big as steel ones. For the same fundamental reason.

              Frank Whittles gas turbine jet engine was theoretically possible and described in patents in the 1920’s. Making one was a huge challenge in finding materials that didn’t burn up. IRRC it took twenty years to make it work.

              Likewise the public does not understand that because a solar panel and a lithium battery can make an effective power source for a laptop, does not make it suitable to be scaled up to run a nation.

              This makes it very simple for academics within a single narrow area of expertise to produce reams of perfectly correct calculations that in the end have no value whatsoever. Because the solutions described either cannot be built at all, or cannot be built without astronomical cost implications, or have so many adverse effects that the technology is doomed before anyone builds it. Or SHOULD be,. Instead the technology is used to go rent seeking for subsidies.

              The ONLY group of people who have expertise in materials, physics and cost accounting and are absolutely involved in the overall impact of technology on the environment are in fact engineers.

              And is amongst engineers that the greatest derisions of ‘renewable energy’ and the greatest support for nuclear power exists. Not that that changes anything politically.

              Once you have built what hydro you can, and done the calculations of the impact (cost and environmental) that biofuels would have if widely deployed, there is only one viable zero carbon energy technology left. Engineers who have done the calculations know what it is but the rest of the world is wasting billions on not listening to them.

              Ultimately what that means is that we who have not a sufficient ratio of hydro power to population, are constrained to three broad paths in terms of what happens to industrial society.
              – It collapses
              – It continues to produce big volumes of CO2.
              – It transitions to nuclear power. (And even that is not issue free)

              Since none of the above appeal to the emotional narratives of the electorate, the deep motive to pretend that its going somewhere else, exists at the political level. This however, is a matter of faith, not of engineering. No political so called leader has had the courage to stand up and say that in fact, we will not return to normal growth, the recession is likely to be several decades long and its not inconceivable that it could last a millennium, renewable energy is an expensive way of achieving nothing of any real value, that standards of living and populations will at best remain static and really need to fall, and that parts of the civilisation we already have are simply too expensive and deliver too little benefit to remain in existence. And that their ability to change any of this is essentially zero.

              In short the necessary paradigm change that has to happen in public consciousness is to realise that its not a question of plugging the leak in your cabin window and continuing the voyage on the Luxurious Titanic, its a question of grabbing little more than the clothes that you stand up in and running like hell to the boat deck, and getting in and working like you have never worked before to row to shore, because no one else is coming to help.

              Not the electoral ticket that is likely to win in a democratic society is it?

              So events will run their natural course. China and India will burn coal build cars and soak up the worlds oil output. Japan will sink into deeper stagnation. Europe will disintegrate politically and abandon renewable energy simply because it can’t afford it and it didn’t actually work. And the rest of the world will take note. Then it will sink back to a Victorian level of poverty run by small fiefdoms.

              the USA will probably go into isolationist mode, and finally construct a society that is more or less self sufficient in co operation with Canada.

            • Roger Button says:

              Good summary Leo, speaking as a fellow engineer.
              I did write to Mervyn King (contemporary of mine at university) along these lines when everything started going belly-up in 2008. I think he sort of agreed, but then still had faith that if commodity prices rose enough the commodities would somehow miraculously apear before western capitalism collapsed. Not sure where he stands now but he did have the decency to put engineers on the £50 note acknowledging our importance for ‘economic growth’!
              However, I’m not sure if Europe will ‘abandon renewable energy’. I think most of what we have built will last long enough to be of great value when the price of fossil fuels has doubled, and then doubled again.

            • Leo Smith says:

              Roger: I refute that last point quite simply
              You say:

              “However, I’m not sure if Europe will ‘abandon renewable energy’. I think most of what we have built will last long enough to be of great value when the price of fossil fuels has doubled, and then doubled again.”

              I say that with MTBFs* measured in weeks, and absolute lifetimes less than two decades, most renewable energy projects will be ruins long before energy prices quadruple. And the public’s patience with them some time before that.

              In case you haven’t seen it, this is an interesting report.


              *mean time between failure. Wind turbine failure rates are appalling,. especially in marine environments. Less than two months for some failure or other to become apparent once past the ‘warranty period’ . Which accounts for part of the even poorer-than-predicted capacity factors (the other part is too close spacing on limited land or sea areas).
              Making this better is driving up the cost and complexity. Wind is getting more expensive capital wise as a result. Solar too is exposed to remarkably hostile conditions.
              By contrast the trend is to extend nuclear and coal power plant life as far as is economically realistic. 60 years. A working power plant generates revenue: a power plant that must be decommissioned represents a liability.

            • Roger Button says:

              Interesting comments Leo. From information published on the Web I get the impression that in the UK load factors are >22%, this including maintenance down time etc. This may be lower than some claim, but still looks useful.
              We’ll have to see if you’re right about the life expectancy. To support the longer timescale I could point to the National Grid and Supergrid, still going strong after many decades, and the about-to-be-retired ‘A stock’ on the Metropolitan Line that has been rattling along pretty gruelling tracks for 40 years. At sea, HMS Belfast remaind in service for 30 years.

            • Leo Smith says:

              22% overall is about right. Lower onshore and higher far. I am dubious about long term offshore reliability tho. Most installations are new….

              BUT with onshore costing £1bn per GW and 22% capacity factor, and HUGE environmental costs and kick on costs in terms of gas backup, extended grids, maintenance and a relatively short service life of 15-25 years, with nuclear only costing £3bn a GW with a reliable 70-90% capacity factor (and plant can be taken down for refuelling and maintenance in summer when peak capacity is not needed) and almost no REAL environmental costs if a sane approach is taken to used fuel recycling and disposal, its hard to see that onshore wind can compete on level terms. Offshore wind is three times more expensive than onshore with only a marginal increase in capacity factor. Solar 5-10 times more expensive with a really bad capacity factor – 10% or less.

              The numbers simply don’t stack up. And in reality, intermittent energy is simply less valuable as a commodity. If you got paid a randomly variable salary on the basis that you had to spend it as soon as you got paid, and couldn’t put the money in a bank, and neither did you have a deep freeze capable or storing food in for weeks, you would end up with a pretty dysfunctional lifestyle. With a large part of your expense devoted to managing the knock on effects of extremely lumpy cash flows. And might decide that a lower paid job with regular income and access to banks was a better solution. Conventional power is willing, Renewable energy is wilful. Use it or lose it.

              For sure it makes sense to run what renewables we have as long as we have gas to back them up with.

              But it doesn’t make sense to build any more, ever. Sadly sense is not a quality that seems to be in abundant supply anymore.

            • Roger Button says:

              Dear Leo, I must say I thought that a dysfunctional lifestyle, by comparison with today, was a sine qua non of the future we were talking about. So all we need is a guaranteed supply of uranium – invasion of Kazakhstan anyone? and it would help if we could agree on where to put the waste.
              I hear the Chinese are interested in building us a new Hinckley Point.

            • Actuaries aren’t engineers, but we work in the real world, and have an understanding of what is practical and what is not. I think that is part of what sets us apart from economists. (Most of us weren’t steeped in economic theory either, even though we work in the financial world.)

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