Energy limits: Is there anything we can do?

The energy limit we are running into is a cost limit. I would argue that neither the Republican or Democrat approach to solving the problem will really work.

The Republicans favor “Drill Baby Drill”. If the issue is that the price of oil extraction is too high, additional drilling doesn’t really fix the problem. At best, it gives us a little more expensive oil to add to the world’s supply. The Wall Street research firm Sanford Bernstein recently estimated that the non-Opec marginal cost of production rose to $104.50 a barrel in 2012, up more than 13 per cent from $92.30 a barrel in 2011.

US consumers still cannot afford to buy high-priced oil, even if we extract the oil ourselves. The countries that see rising oil consumption tend to be ones that can leverage its use better with cheaper fuels, particularly coal (Figure 1). See Why coal consumption keeps rising; what economists missed. The recent reduction in US oil usage is more related to young people not being able to afford to drive than it is to improved automobile efficiency. See my post, Why is gasoline mileage lower? Better gasoline mileage?

Figure 1. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on EIA data. 2012 world consumption data estimated based on world "all liquids" production amounts.

Figure 1. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on EIA data. 2012 world consumption data estimated based on world “all liquids” production amounts.

The Democrats favor subsidizing high-priced energy approaches that wouldn’t be competitive without such subsidies. Government debt is at 103% of GDP. It is hard to see that the government can afford such subsidies. Also, it is doubtful that the supposed carbon-saving benefit is really there, when all of the follow-on effects are included. Buying wind turbine parts, solar panels, and goods that use rare earth minerals (used in many high-tech goods, including electric cars and  wind turbines) helps to stimulate the Chinese economy, adding to their coal use. Furthermore, the higher taxes needed to pay for these subsidies reduces the spendable income of the common worker, pushing the country in the direction of recession.

So what do we do as an alternative, if neither the Republican or Democrat approach works? I would argue that we are dealing with a situation that is essentially unfixable. It can be expected to morph into a financial crash, for reasons I explained in How Resource Limits Lead to Financial Collapse. Thus, the issue we will need to mitigate will be debt defaults, loss of jobs, and possibly major changes to governments. If we are dealing with a financial crash, oil prices may in fact be lower, but people will still be unable to afford the oil because of other issues, such as lack of jobs or lack of access to money in their bank accounts.

Because neither political party can fix our problem, I expect that most of our responses will necessarily be individual, personal responses. These are a few ideas:

1. Get out of debt situations, if it is easy to do. There are a lot of people who own stocks on margin, or who own an expensive house with a big mortgage on it. Now, with prices of stocks and homes both higher, would be a good time to get out of both types of debt. Sell the stock or buy a less expensive house, without the mortgage.

Equities and home prices both seem to be inflated now, indirectly because of Quantitative Easing. Some recent analysis suggests that real (that is, inflation adjusted) interest rates are rising partly because inflation is falling.  The reason that inflation is falling is because oil prices are lower (Figure 2). Comparing the first four months of 2013 with the first four months of 2012, oil prices are about $9 per barrel lower. Oil prices are lower because of reduced demand due to economic contraction, especially in Europe.

Figure 2. Spot oil prices and actual refiners acquisition costs, based on EIA data.

Figure 2. Spot oil prices and actual refiners acquisition costs, based on EIA data. Refiners acquisition costs are what refiners actually pay for oil.

In the past month, there has also been an uptick in interest rates (even apart from the declining inflation component). According to the Wall Street Journal, “Yields on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note now stand above 2.1%—still low by historic standards, but nearly half a percentage point higher than at the start of May.” Mortgage rates are also reported to be half a percentage point higher than they were six months ago.

There are a number of risks with rising real interest rates and falling inflation. One is that the higher interest rates will trigger lower stock prices and lower house prices. Another is that deflation will continue, making debt payback more difficult. If this happens, it is something that the Fed can’t handle with its monetary easing policy. Interest rates can go to zero, but not below. A third issue, especially if interest rates rise further, is the adverse impact on the US government financial situation.

2. Reduce your expectations about what investments can do for you. Dmitry Orlov, who has had experience with the collapse of the Former Soviet Union, made the remark, “There are two kinds of investments: those that lose all their value at once, and those that lose value slowly.” Paper investments are a particular problem, because they can decline in value very quickly if conditions change. Even real estate can be a problem, though, because governments can take away what you thought you owned, or raise taxes to a level that you cannot afford. If you buy something and have to move, but cannot take the object with you, you will likely lose the value you invested. The only things that are really yours to keep (at least until your declining years) are skills that you learn.

3. Take up a hobby that will provide food for your family (planting a few fruit or nut trees, adding a garden, raising a few chickens, or learning to hunt/fish). Taking up hobbies such as these provide several functions: They provide a diversion away from the problems of the day, and let you feel like you are doing something helpful. They may actually provide a cushioning effect, if there is a sharp downturn. Taking up such hobbies can provide a useful skill for the future. In some cases, it may make sense to purchase land for purposes such as these. If considering doing this, a person should take note of items (1) and (2) above. It takes quite a long time to get started, and you can’t take the improved land with you, if you have to leave.

4. Learn to appreciate nature, family, and simple joys that can’t easily be taken away. It is possible to be happy, regardless of circumstances. We can find many good things in every day. Obsessing over the future is not really helpful. Don’t tie your happiness to having more “stuff”; you are likely to be disappointed. Learn to sing happy songs, or how to play a musical instrument. Or memorize uplifting poetry or religious writings.

5. Build a network of friends. If things go downhill, we can’t expect to use a gun to ward off intruders, night and day. If nothing else, we will run out of ammunition. Over the long term, the approach that is likely to be successful is working together with other community members toward a common goal.

6. Learn new skills, if you are concerned about job loss. Try to think of what will be needed in a lower-energy world. People will always need dentists and midwives, regardless of how poor they are. Buggy whip manufacturers went out of business long ago. Maybe we will need them back!

7. If you want to develop larger-scale plans (such as for cities or regions), keep them cheap and easy to implement. Governments are already running short of funds to implement plans. Look for approaches that are inexpensive to put in place, such as car-sharing plans. Alternatives that worked years ago, such as boats and canals, might be considered as well.

8. Aim for a flexible approach to problems. We don’t know things will turn out. Water may be in very short supply in one part of the country. Or job opportunities may open up in a place far from home. Even more than in the past, we are likely to need to be able to change our plans on short notice.

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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.

444 thoughts on “Energy limits: Is there anything we can do?

  1. Off the keyboard of RE
    Published on the Doomstead Diner on June 1, 2013

    Discuss this article at the Podcast Table inside the Diner
    The Diner is happy to announce we are adding regular Podcasts for Diners on the go to listen to if you can’t sit at the Laptop for hours on end reading.

    We are beginning with recordings of lectures made at the Age of Limits 2013 Conference, and currently have up lectures from Albert Bates and Orren Whiddon.

    Beginning next week we will have our own Monsta Doom show, hosted by Monsta666 based in the U.K and one of the Diner Mods. First couple of Podcasts will feature Interviews with Yours Truly and with Surly, Admin of our Facepalm Page and one of the Founding Diners who came from the Reverse Engineering Yahoo Group. Further Podcasts are planned with William Hunter Duncan of Off the Grid in Minneapolis, another Diner Admin, and Lucid Dreams of Epiphany Now, one of the Diner Mods.

    In addition to chatting with each other, we are hoping to schedule up Interviews with some of our Cross Posting Bloggers like Gail Tverberg of Our Finite World and Steve Ludlum of Economic Undertow. Look for Announcements inside the Diner of Upcoming Podcasts.

    Some of the Podcasts will be available to Guests, some will require Registration on the Diner to listen to.


  2. Dear Gail and Others

    I just finished listening to the talk by Albert Bates at Four Quarters as presented by the Doomstead Diner. A few thoughts.

    Albert says that the future one is trying to prepare for needs some definition if one’s preparations are going to pay dividends. Are we going back to the 18th Century, or back to Hunting and Gathering, or maybe just back to the Depression? I have said the same thing on many occasions. But I have been thinking some more about the question, and will share a few thoughts with you.

    What counts in life is relationships. What is the relationship between a Park Avenue Billionaire and the doorman? How is that relationship mediated? Will the mediating mechanism survive collapse (however we define it)? What is the relationship between an Industrial Farmer and his land? How is that relationship mediated? Will the mediating mechanisms survive collapse (however we define it)? What is the relationship between a Small Farmer and a part time employee who works the farm? How is that relationship mediated? Will the mediating mechanisms survive collapse?

    Another scenario. Assume two neighbors. Neighbor One has a fine example of suburban grass, with the ornamentals in the lawn having been chosen for their ‘low maintenance’. Neighbor One couldn’t grow dandelions if he worked hard at it. Neighbor Two has turned his yard into a productive garden that Geoff Lawton would be proud to visit. He saves seeds and has the hand tools he needs to do his work, with a finely developed irrigation system using all the water which falls on or runs onto his property. There is no real relationship between the two neighbors. They nod politely, but neither picks up the others’ paper in the front yard and tosses it on the porch. Then the collapse (however defined) happens. What is the emerging relationship between Neighbor One and Neighbor Two (excluding things like thuggery)? What will mediate that relationship?

    On Park Avenue it is all about money. If the money dies, so will the relationship. No one will do the Billionaire’s bidding and he will have to provide entirely for himself. On an Industrial Farm, it is all about being a cog in a Very Big Machine. The Farmer may be thought of as a Capital Manager as much as a Grower of Food. The Farmer, in fact, may have a very tenuous grasp of how Nature works to produce food. Plowing, fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides are applied on a schedule suggested by the vendors. Harvesting happens when sampling says it is time to do it and doesn’t involve much in the way of manual skill since heavy machinery is used. The Industrial Farmer has no personal use for his crops, instead relying on the money he gets from The System for selling them. If collapse entails the falling apart of the Very Big Machine, then the Industrial Farmer will be only marginally better off than the Park Avenue Billionaire.

    What about the Small Farmer? The Small Farmer will typically do things like save seeds and will have hand implements to manage the soil and food plants and the weeds. The Small Farmer may have animals worked in as part of the production equation. The small farmer knows how to manage animal breeding and harvesting to achieve a steady state population of animals. A Small Farmer, to be successful in 2013, needs to buy certain inputs rather than do everything for himself, but he probably CAN do everything for himself. But the Small Farmer is currently dependent on at least semi-skilled labor…he can direct the employee to weed a crop and confidently expect the weeding to be done competently. He will need at least all the help he uses now after the collapse. Collapse has a considerably smaller impact on the Small Farmer than it does on the Billionaire or on the Industrial Farmer, and probably modestly enhances the status of the hired worker (maybe he/she can get dates now in the crossroads bar).

    What about the two neighbors? Neighbor One may very suddenly find himself begging for help from Neighbor Two. Neighbor Two has the knowledge and the tools to do something very valuable: to grow food and irrigate it efficiently. Neighbor Two may suddenly become the Alpha Male in the neighborhood, rather than the guy down the block with the biggest SUV and the biggest debts due to his fabulous beach house.

    One could play out other scenarios involving craftspeople. For example, a cabinetmaker who can make and repair things with hand tools already in his possession is likely to prosper whereas the guys who are totally dependent on power tools will fade. Anyone with a good operating still may become an Alpha Male. Women who have mastered the art of solar cooking may become honorary Alpha Males. (Just irony. No disrespect intended.) I was watching a Harold Lloyd movie from 1919. He is sitting in his little room sewing rips in his clothing with needle and thread. Having some needles and having some thread and knowing how to mend may be a valuable skill for both men and women.

    What about all the way back to Hunting and Gathering? I think we should consider all those ‘primitive skills’ workshops which are cropping up and think seriously about mastering some portion of them–as insurance if nothing else. Very few people may make it through the Bottleneck and, if you do, you want to be able to make your living from what is there.

    What about the Thuggery that I excluded? If your neighbor shoots you first to get your food, and then starves to death himself two weeks later because he ate it all, then there is nothing I can suggest. The best we can hope to do is align ourselves so that neighbors behaving rationally will find it worthwhile to treat us with respect.

    Don Stewart

    • it’s easy to forget that society at any level is ultimately dependent on the excess energy production of that society.
      Thus aboriginal people don’t produce any ‘stuff’ other than that necessary for immediate survival, (and which is easily portable) because they only have muscle power available. On the other hand we ‘civilised’ tribes produce masses of ‘stuff’ to keep ourselves safe warm and well fed, by using energy sources other than muscle power, but we are still bound by the same law: we can only exist by the production of excess energy by someone else, no matter how far back down the production line that is. In the ultimate sense, the aboriginal tribesman has to literally ‘work’ to stay alive, we in our modern context, do not. Hydrocarbons do that for us.
      the ultimate conclusion then must be that as our access to that energy goes into depletion, then so will the excess of it. As the excess available to us falls away, humanity will have to resort to muscle power alone, (just like aboriginal tribes) to stay alive. Those of us who sit around waiting for food to be delivered are going to starve to death, while those able to go and get hold of it, will thrive. That brings us to the point of the ‘alpha’ male. We may not like the idea very much, but a woman will always breed with the male she thinks is likely to be able to support her offspring. A few centuries of relative prosperity may have clouded that fact, but it is nevertheless accurate

      • Dear End of More
        If you are arguing that humans must, of necessity, revert to a very primitive existence, then I think you are wrong. We MAY so utterly destoy the world that we will be lucky to exist at all, but we have actually made a lot of progress in terms of understanding design and how that can facilitate human flourishing.

        I have covered the Permaculture approach to design many times, and I won’t repeat all that. Humans exist in communities, and I am not sure whether we have, on balance, learned very much about communities. I would defer to Albert Bates as way more knowledgable than I am on that subject.

        So let’s take the book Design In Nature by Adrian Bejan, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke. Bejan made his name by figuring out ways to let microprocessors dump excess heat. In other words, facilitating the flow of excess heat to the sink of the environment. What else needs to disperse heat? Snowflakes. On page 10: ‘Consider the snowflake. The prevailing view in science is that the intricate crystals formed by the snowflake have no function. That is wrong. In fact, the snowflake is a flow design for dispersing the heat–called the latent heat of solidification–generated on its surface during freezing.’ So…snowflakes and modern microprocessors have design elements in common. But the microprocessor of today is not like the microprocessor of 50 years ago. It is vastly better at dispersing the heat. Bejan played a large role in that evolution.

        Here is his formulation of the Constructal Law: ‘For a finite-size flow system to persist in time (to live), its configuration must evolve in such a way that provides easier access to the currents that flow through it’. And, Bejan argues, that is a Law of Physics, and thus also of all other sciences.

        Bejan’s description of the evolution of logs floating down rivers and tree root systems and mud puddles drying out show the breadth of the idea in the Natural World. And there are abundant examples of the Law at work in the man-made world. In fact, using fossil fuels, we have made it work so well that we now endanger ourselves. But…let’s suppose the fossil fuels go away. Does the Law vanish with them? No. Trees will still branch and logs will still float down rivers and mud puddles will still dry and humans will still seek to gain ‘easier access to the currents’. ‘Easier access to currents’ is a pretty good definition of Permaculture.

        Those who can, will.
        Those who give up without trying will die.
        Many will try and fail.

        Don Stewart

        • it’s a head hurting subject Don, and I can see your point, but ultimately we are trying to maintain an environment that we built with cheap energy. It is now too big and complex for the (expensive) remaining energy available.
          It seems to follow then that complexity of our society must of necessity simplify itself. The only unknown factor (the head hurty bit) is by how much and how soon and how violently.
          The explosions across the middle east right now would seem to give us a clue. The EU and the USA might see their situation differently, but so far not many people there are actually starving or in a majority of unemployed. when they are, i can guarantee the same degree of violence.
          Our genes will see to it that we will strive to survive, I’ve had my allotted span so in my case that’s probably not very much and it’s not very important. My grandkids are another matter of course, they will strive far more. Just how good they are at that will determine their future… but they think I’m nuts anyway.

          • Dear End of More
            Just by happenstance, I have been sitting drinking a cup of tea and reading some more in Surfaces and Essences by Hofstadter and Sander. On page 111 they begin a discussion of fables, with Aesop’s 2600 year old fable of the Fox and the Grapes being the centerpiece. You will remember that a hungry fox tries to get some grapes which are high up on a trellis, but can’t jump that high, so concludes that ‘they are still too green anyway’. The fable has been continuously recycled since Aesop’s original telling (and may predate him).

            On page 115 they begin discussing How to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance in a Fox, building on the modern psychological research of Leon Festinger and others. ‘presence of conflicting cognitive states in an individual results in a state of inner tension that the individual tries to reduce by modifying one or another of their conflicting internal states’. The Fox, of course, resorts to the suppression of his desire to eat the grapes. But only after he has exhausted himself by jumping until he is exhausted.

            We might describe the Cognitive Dissonance in the Industrial World as a conflict between our desire for ever greater material wealth and the fact that we can’t reach those grapes. The Peak Oilers and Gail and the Climate Change People are patiently trying to explain to the Fox that it is a waste of time and, in fact, damaging to continue to try to change the physical facts. Most of the Foxes are ignoring the advice and continuing to jump.

            What will happen when people are exhausted by jumping? James Howard Kunstler suspects that Japan is headed back to Edo (see his post this morning). Give up on the Industrial dream and invent some explanation about how it was all better in Edo anyway.

            What Adrian Bejan and the Permaculture movement bring to the story is the fact that, over time, systems evolves to more efficiently capture and use for work the flows in Nature. Bejan’s work in microelectronics uses materials and design as opposed to refrigeration, for example, to disperse the dangerous heat. Permaculture uses water management in ways Mother Nature never thought of. In Albert Bates’ talk at Four Quarters, you will hear him show a slide of some agricultural efforts back in the early 1970s and then he explains that they discovered Permaculture and don’t farm that way any more. In fact, Albert now teaches Permaculture. The point is that there is no necessity to do things the same way hunter-gatherers did it.

            We will lose a lot when we lose the Industrial Economy. But survival depends on our ability to calmly look at the facts and make a good selection of a strategy and then go out and actually execute that strategy (plus some good luck). So we need some combination of psychological insight into both our own minds but also the mind of society at large, and a clear assessment of the technologies we can reasonably use to capture Mother Nature’s flows to do useful work.

            There is a sub-set of people (call them doomers) who would have been described by Aesop as ‘Foxes who chose to lay down and die’. This isn’t to deny that something like Climate Change may already have doomed the human race or that global nuclear war could break out and kill all of us or that our neighbor who can’t deal with the Cognitive Dissonance tries to solve his problem by shooting us.

            I just don’t choose to ‘lay down and die’….Don Stewart

            • I fully agree with you here Don. As a species we have a bigger understanding of the physical world now and can use its “natural powers” way better than our predecessors even without computers around (sad for me since I work within the computing field and have always enjoyed that). I am fairly confident that even after a serious collapse and even a famine that kills off half of the planets population or more, we will still have enough knowledge to master some form of technology to assist us in anything we do. The temptation to use some kind of energy by burning it will still be around though as humans are lazy and really want something for nothing if they can (for example the stock market).

              So things like permaculture and better use of water downflow and wind will always be around. I have no doubt that we will still be making a lot of purer metals and even plastics in the future too even without an abundance of fossil fuels around.

              The question remains though, what state the planet will be in when we transition into this new world. If we get burst output of methane from the Arctic area I am not sure at all what kind of future awaits us…

        • Don

          Man is infinitely resourceful: the problem is our governments – I often think of them these days as ‘frozen stupidity.’

          It’s not surprising: just look at how politicians and bureaucrats are actually selected: it’s a system designed for inflexibility and to frustrate the able and far-sighted.

          • Dear Don

            Leonardo da Vince had the technology (albeit in a rudimentary form) what his ‘technology’ lacked was motive power.
            You can’t run an airline if all the passengers have to pedal like mad to stay airborne. or an aircraft carrier if most of the crew have to row.
            energy allows science and technology to flourish, that doesn’t happen in reverse

            • Dear End of More

              I can’t discuss this intelligently with you unless you are willing to read the first few pages of Design in Nature and also take a look at things like Emilia Hazelip’s methods of growing food. There are plenty of example of Science enabling processes to work more efficiently and effectively while decreasing the amount of external energy used.

              While you are at it, read Teaming With Microbes…letting the microbes do the work.

              These are science at a very high level. How things work. Where to intervene to get the most return.

              Not just pouring on the gasoline to overpower everything….Don Stewart

            • Nevertheless, I was impressed with the agricultural technology of the Amish in Northern New York State. The Amish farmer I visited did not tap any reservoirs of energy that had been stored for much more than a year, that is, water power, wind, but not fossil fuels; but, he must have had a reasonably complete notion of Newtonian physics judging by the clever devices he employed to increase his productivity.

            • Dear Thomas
              Can science allow energy to flourish? (I guess that is the reverse of the ‘energy allows science to flourish’ statement.)

              And the answer is clearly ‘Yes’. Things like levers are quite useful when one is doing physical work…and our understanding of them is a result of science (maybe small science rather than Big Science). The Amish farmer you visited has a very good understanding of Newtonian science, and it allows him to operate a farm with a current energy budget.

              When it rains, the clouds deposit water at high elevations. Gravity gives that water potential energy. Smart people know how to use that potential energy to do work. Science helps.

              Microbes get their energy from carbon in the soil, and smart gardeners know how to use the microbes to grow more food. We are only beginning to understand the role of microbes in the soil in the last 20 years.

              Science doesn’t create energy…but it sure can help humans help energy flourish.

              Don Stewart

            • I agree that science can liberate energy although not the torrential flows liberated by setting the world on fire that were wasted almost to the extent that energy is wasted in a fire storm.

          • Dear Don
            the constructal flow principle is a logical and obvious form and force of nature.
            That much I accept
            The problem we have with humankind vs Nature is that we learned the unfortunate trick of setting fire to it. No other animal living within nature’s flow can do that. That was the single step that began our million year evolution to our current delusion of ourselves as homo sapiens.
            Fire enabled us to kill off everything that we saw as impeding our ‘progress’, (including each other) we interfered with the constructal flow
            it gave us time to think, and develop sophisticated speech. cooking food decreased our jaw size and increased our brain size, and allowed extended periods of child rearing. we found we could grow corn and enclose animals and forge weapons.
            we invented ‘property’ and in so doing invented greed.
            Fire also exploded our population.
            It doesn’t matter what ‘models of nature’ or methods of growing food are exemplified, human beings will not alter a million years of evolutionary greed in order to ‘save’ people they have no connection with. Diverting corn into biofuel and
            Africa used to be pretty much a self supporting continent, the exponential growth of humanity turned vast swathes of it to desert. Unless they are supplied with food, millions are going to starve to death there. There isn’t enough water to grow the food they need, and as energy depletes, there won’t be the means to ship much to them. Already, tens of thousands live in camps where the only water is trucked in. That will eventually cease.
            Saudi Arabia can only buy its food in exchange for oil. 30 million live in a desert that used to support 1 million. When oilflow stops, their population is going to crash.
            Which is exactly in line with Gail’s projection, on the world scale
            I would prefer to be wrong, I don’t think I am though.

        • Don. I wouldn’t choose to lay down and die either, but ultimately we are forced by our genes to eat and procreate our species. We have no choice but to seek out energy sources that will allows us to do just that.
          Everything else seems to be mere window dressing—but maybe I strip things too much to their barest of essentials?
          We build houses, elect governments, fight wars and so on, purely to safeguard our personal environment. We use that environment to rear offspring safely and successfully…and that’s it. My offspring have flown the nest, therefore I am theoretically surplus to requirements. (no applause please–save it for my wake!!)
          As to sustaining that environment long term there seems to be a broad agreement that 7 billion people cannot exist in an environment with the resources to carry 1 or 2 billion at most. if we accept that, then it would seem that at least 5 billion are going to lose out somewhere, whether they ‘choose’ to lay down and die or not. And of course that doesn’t take into account the 2 billion more due to arrive by 2050.
          this isn’t something subject to government edict, or wishful thinking, or ‘we must do this’ or ‘they must do that’, it seems to be horrifyingly obvious. Or I may be missing something here?
          If we can’t produce enough food, and deliver it to those in need of it (fuel shortages) then starvation follows

          • Dear End of More
            In my response to someone else (I still can’t effectively search this blog), I suggested mentally dividing the people you meet between Bourbon Red turkeys and the completely inept Cornish Cross chickens that are served at McDonalds. If 1 percent of the people you meet resemble Bourbon Reds, then 1 percent of the people are likely to make it through the Bottleneck. You can do the math. Probably not a bad first approximation.

            To me, the fate of the Cornish Crosses of the world isn’t something I can do anything about. I just don’t want to end up on the truck taking them to McDonalds. And I will try to join a band of Bourbon Reds. And the Bourbon Reds will likely be interested in using technology to live as well as they can. The people in Edo lived pretty good lives. We have better science now. That’s cause for optimism.

            Don Stewart

          • Dear End of More

            Regarding population. Consider Gail’s recent chart:

            As a reminder, Gail is the ‘collapse’ line. Now consider all of her charts showing a correlation between population and energy.

            Gail is a very delicate person, who would never hint to the fly that the fly swatter she is holding is anything other than an amusing toy. But if she had to do so, what do you think she might project as world population as the world goes down the energy collapse curve?

            If the energy collapse curve does in fact materialize, what do you think will happen to population?

            Don Stewart

    • Over the life of the earth, hunter-gathering has been the predominant approach humans have used to support themselves. It also requires the least structure, but it does require huge knowledge–exactly what crops grow where and when they are in season; how to capture insects and animals of various sorts for food; which plants/animals are poisonous. It would not shock me if ultimately, we fall back to hunter-gathering. I don’t know what will happen on the way down; how it will work out. We don’t have the support structures built for any intermediate layer, which is why it is difficult to imagine getting to an intermediate level, and staying there. Also, we know we have had a problem with rising population forever, and this tends to wipe out our ability to maintain any level–we need a higher level to take care of our rising population. So it would seem like we would keep falling back to lower levels, if population rises.

  3. Pingback: Energy Risk and Limits: What Can We Do? price of oil extraction is too high, | Renewables Energy

    • Yes, the Arctic ice will be gone in the summertime within the next 5 years definitely. IPCC’s last assessment talks about 2085 – which is where the majority of climate panels discussions are today. The reality of the rate of change just haven’t seeped in yet among a lot of people.

      Whats uncertain though is at what rate we will see methane releases from the area. It can be anything from trickle to catastrophic. No doubt, any rise in methane (and CO2) is still bad as it is – so its really odd that we are still willy-nillying about action to limit this. No doubt the Koch funded anti-science campaigns has “paid off” for them at the expense of humanity.

      • In the two videos Wasdell also explains the addtional speed-up effects that the parishing arcic summer ice will have on greenland, ice-mass, sea-levels, tundra methane, jet-stream and weather patterns in the northern and global hemi- and biosphere.

        The 2085 time-frame you mention from the IPCC is a linear one – Wasdell also talks about that, and that this is long past, because even the measured data are already diverting from that scenario in an exponential one.

        Wasdell conclusion is put in good words – but is not cheerful. He reached me much better than all others, which tell their conclusion and some facts. Wasdell tells facts and his conclusion is only repeating whats already on my mind – have to remember that even more when I talk with people.

        • Yes I have seen those videos, they explain it rather plainly that the planet is shifting to a new state triggered by our CO2 emissions. Once those serious feedbacks kick in it is really out of our hands. This is why there is growing concern and growth in the NTE-camp fronted by people like Guy McPherson. Perhaps there will be so massive methane emissions that rather dramatic collapses in ecosystems happen due to severe warming of the planet. There seems to be very few scientists airing this kind of angle though, understandably as its already hard enough get people to understand our current impact on the planet. Although if you look into the geological record and the work within paleoclimatology the rates of change earth is enduring now is often in the magnitude of 10 to 100 times that of past extinction events. So clearly we are crossing into dangerous terrain, and for what we know Guy McPherson might be right in his predictions if we dont act on this information now.

          • As I understand Guy McPershon – its already to late, even If we would put a full stop to the whole global industrial world:

            Ask what it would change If we reduce now – and hard – he answered: If may help some species not to become extinct. But the whole climate machine is already underway and the lasting effects of the pollution until now are enough to kick the machine further (summary in my own words…).

            Its really absurd, that the whole system seemingly puts more energy into disinformation and producing obstacles in contrast to solutions – that at least aim to lessen the burden of the times to come. But of course: There is no real return of investment NOW or in the next quarter or in the next election period.

            Basically no one I know in my peer group of family and friends like to discuss or go down those topics, not even the evidently pure cheap-peak-oil or the economy. The outlook Guy McPershon gives is basically not discussable. Lots of my peer groups has kids now and have recently build their house – are are big in debt now. Thinking those thoughts that are thought here would nag, nag and nag on them – one had to change everything and most important: oneself.

            Even I have hard times with that – and I are no debt slave – but do currently so no real way out, except to plant fruit trees, get know-how regarding food and basic preservation, improve some things energy wise, etc. But I’m clear: When the shit hits the fan: My preparations are only as good as those that my neighbours and their neighbours and their ….. have done. And even I have to look for where the money comes from until we are at the point where everything degrades or brakes.

            • The only significant thing McPherson didn’t say was, “How long can you tread water?” But he didn’t need to because he knows the answers: a) not long enough, and b) it’s not the water that’ll kill us, but maybe the lack of it.

          • Guy’s contention is that there is absolutely nothing we can do. It is already too late. I would agree, if he is right about the situation.

            I think we are kidding ourselves if the think we can “act on this information now” and produce any different outcome. The world will recover. It is made to be very resilient, and to produce a new equilibrium. Humanity may not be part of the new equilibrium–but that was true, with or without climate change.

    • Indeed things are changing. Is there anything we can do–I would say no. It is too late, if our activity is affecting the arctic. The upcoming collapse will do as much as we can possibly do to fix the situation.

      • Hello Gail,

        How much “good” time do you think we still have in central Europe / USA? So with a half-working economy, reasonable food supply and the possibility for land-based holidays if one is debt free now and has some savings?

        If I take what David Wasdell, Guy McPershon and Heinberg say… I assume mostly to the end of this decade. After that things will deteriorate fast.. China wont/cant double again, Energy-Cost problems will get bigger, Climate Change may then already disturb harvest across the globe…, some may already fight to survive or get the Rest (with reference to M. T. Clare – Ressource Wars) to many possible bad things then that can cause chain or ripple effects…..

        I would be very interested what you see time-scale-wise.

        • I think we have some time, perhaps a generation or so but something could happen to shake things up fast but if it stays quiet like right now we go on this way farther that one thinks. This is a slow collapse- well that is, unless something happens to speed things up.

          • Scott

            With energy and determination , a crumbling economic/political system can be kept going for far longer than our imaginations might lead us to think. And individually we can prepare for the likely economic shocks which are not hard to imagine, but which can arise very suddenly, as in 2007. I envisage a long bumpy ride down, rather than a sudden drop down a lift-shaft, but may well be very wrong indeed…..

        • I think that there will be steps down, and the size of the steps will vary in different parts of the globe. My guess is that we will start seeing some steps down in the next few months or year, perhaps because of rising interest rates or because of countries dropping out of the Eurozone or because of a failure of Japanese finances. The 2007-2009 recession was probably the start of the worldwide trend toward collapse. In the past, collapses seemed to take 20 to 50 years.

          I think we have to take things as they come. We really don’t know how things will work out. Even if we lose the ability to buy new things, there will still be quite a lot of “stuff” we can continue to use until it falls apart. Worrying won’t really help the situation. Climate in particular is something we can’t do much about. We know that in the past, humans lived through a lot of climate change by moving to parts of the world that were more hospitable. I expect that that will happen again, if climate does change.

  4. Dear Gail and Others

    Here are a few thoughts triggered by some reactions I have heard to the various speakers at Four Quarters.

    First, a local film reviewer characterized the Baby Boom generation as dominated by the feeling that self-expression is the supreme value. He contrasted that with older generations who put the ability to actually accomplish something as the supreme value. That distinction comes through loud and clear in the reactions…and not necessarily split by generation. A majority of people say ‘If the speaker isn’t describing the future I want in order to further my own self-expression, then I will simply reject it’. This reminds me of Bush the Senior’s comment that ‘the American Way of Life is not up for negotiation’ and the retort ‘George, whatever gave you the idea that Nature wanted to Negotiate with you?’.

    Second, someone made the comment that the villages that Albert Bates described are worthless examples because they are still based on fossil fuels. I’ll give a little bit more elaborate response to this point.

    Axiom: There are an infinite number of possible futures in which your plans for that future would turn out to be unworkable.

    Anyone can take cheap shots at any survival plan by conjuring up one of the infinite number of possibilities which aren’t adequately addressed by the speaker’s or the village’s or the family’s plan. I submit that the real judgment should take place in your own brain and emotional system:
    Based on what you know and can reasonably project about the future,
    Is your present course of action both sustainable in the current environment and also increasing your assets (physical, skill sets, social) that will increase your room for maneuver when the future actually comes to pass?
    Has the speaker or the village you are studying or the family you have met suggesting any changes which deserve more thought and, perhaps, experimentation?

    It is quite obvious that no group of people (unless they start from a position of financial wealth) can survive in the current environment without using fossil fuels. If those who are competing with you have 100 energy slaves, you will be ground to competitive dust unless you also use at least some energy slaves. But some people ARE diverting some of their energy slaves to building resilience for the future.

    Since the future is inherently unknowable in detail, and since every single one of us begins from a different starting point, and since we all have unique emotional maps, everyone’s plans for the future and current actions which are both based in reality and reasonable projections and also realistic emotional shaping, deserves respect.

    During a tour of his facility in Tennessee, Albert Bates remarked that 35 years ago he thought that Industrial Civilization was about the collapse. And so he set off on the course he has lived. But, he admitted, Industrial Civilization turned out to be far more resilient that he thought it was. Does he regret his choices? I don’t think so. Albert has a lot of room for maneuver.

    Don Stewart

  5. T’would be a good study for someone capable of analyzing Japan’s economic history in terms of energy input – product output. Like Western Europe, Japan does not produce petroleum or much coal, but imports all it uses. Their development model emphasized economic efficiency; Peter Drucker is still revered, and Japanese companies and society were regarded very highly worldwide, from the early sixties to the turn of the century. In the 90’s Japan’s economic model had been shaken by many events, including the loss of oil from Iran and Iraq and some serious bubbles. But it’s not clear how the Japanese stagnation is related to energy prices.
    Japan recently mined (experimentally) some frozen methane from 20,000 ft depths, from a site within a few hundred km away. Exploitation might be difficult, but they sure want/need all the energy sources they can find, and the cheaper the better.

    • Kunstlers post this week
      is an excellent piece on Japan and its likelihood of going medeival, I am inclined to agree with him, but as he points out, they have a population problem, and in that they mirror the rest of the world. Downsizing to 16th C peasantry simply will not support a 21st century population. No matter how you cut it, that is the problem you run into.
      yet it is certain that as we run out of raw materials, our economy will inevitably power down.
      Japan faces another problem too, it has a large powerful hungry neighbour, who it pissed off 80 years ago. Memories are long and bitter there, and as Japan weakens, China will assert its regional dominance. (that’s happening right now) Japan will attempt to retain its delusion of past military strength but without the resources to do so. In terms of Pearl Harbour, that will mean honourable suicide. They will not voluntarily revert to medievalism any more than we will in the west

      • Gracias, End of More. Kunstler’s analysis is delightful, and even posits some hope that Japan may actually be able to ‘lead the way.’ That might well be, as the fabric of Japanese society is probably more capable than most of meeting the upcoming challenges.

      • Thanks! I heard Kunstler give a talk in which he mentioned the possibility of Japan being the first country to leave the current industrial society not long after the Fukushima earthquake in 2011. He may be right that they will be the first country to have serious problems–but we have quite a few countries in a contest as to which one is first.

  6. Dear Gail and Others
    If there is anything that a single human, a family, an extended family, a village, a nation, or humanity can do about The Limits to Growth, it will require thinking analogically.

    I have been reading Surfaces and Essences, by Hofstadter and Sander. I won’t have completed my first pass through the book until perhaps July. And it will take a very long time for me to perceive that I have ‘finished’ the book. But the more I read in it, the more relevance I see to our current predicament.

    The authors put many building blocks in place to support their assertion that all thinking is analogical. We call up a memory and relate the memory to what is happening to us right now. The memory is encoded ‘not by rote, but by distillation’. And the distillation is very frequently characterized by emotion. In other words, what makes two events similar is the emotional response–not the physical particulars. The authors offer abundant evidence in support of that thesis. On page 157, they state that ‘the comparison…is helping you figure out how you feel about a situation you’ve just encountered’.

    On page 162, they consider the category ‘A Trivial Side Show that is More Fascinating than the Main Event’. This exploration springs from having taken a 1 year old to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and discovering that the boy was very interested in the ants and leaves in the sand but not at all interested in ‘the Grand Canyon’. They extend the exploration by considering two authors (themselves) in Paris working on a book together. In one scenario the authors totally waste their time in magical Paris by closeting themselves in a room and slaving away on their book. In another scenario two authors, who are supposed to be serious scholars, fritter away their time in Paris munching on patisseries. And then they throw in this gem:

    ‘A mosquito hovering about Albert Einstein’s body sees it as nothing more than a warm object filled with liquid sustenance.’

    My earliest years were spent in a world which had very little access to fossil fuels by today’s standards. Walking was our standard way of getting about, for example. So many of my earliest memories are of things like building treehouses out of scrap and digging clay out of ditches and making stuff with it and similar homely amusements. We did have a radio, which mostly had factual advertisements from local businesses. So I have a pretty rich vein of analogies which don’t involve the Post-WWII world. Which probably makes it hard for me to communicate with most Baby Boomers who grew up in a world of abundant fossil fuels and television advertisements depicting dream sequences built around the theme of ‘expressing yourself’. Today I work with people in their early 20s who are living in a world quite unlike that of the Baby Boomers. So, again, I can make a lot of analogies that most people in the Social Security age bracket can’t, or won’t, make.

    The authors discuss on page 157 the scenario where a traveler arrives at a busy airport in an exotic location and is trying to get through customs at 4am and things are going wrong and lines are long. The locals arriving on the plane seem to know what to do (they have been here before), but the traveler hasn’t got a clue. ‘no helpful haven of a memory would spring to mind’. If we think about the experiences that the Baby Boom generation can call on to generate analogies for coping with our current predicament, they are likely to strike you as pretty unhelpful.

    I have found that people do adjust to reality. Even religions change–without ever admitting it. Part of the problem today is that the politicians and the corporations are determined that people will not be required to confront reality. Consequently, people are not allowed to develop helpful analogies.

    For example, let’s go back to the child at the Grand Canyon. I see this played out twice a week in the summer at my food co-op. The co-op sponsors concerts on the lawn (which is actually wood chips). Parents bring their children who have a glorious time running and jumping and dancing and the toddlers are discovering the magic of wood chips and friendly dogs. This is about as far as you can get from the vision of happiness put out by the government and the corporations. One can certainly see some snakes in this wood-pile, as even toddlers come dressed in costumes (fancy shoes, etc.) But ‘serious adults’ have learned that simply running around for the sheer joy of running is not something one should do. It is OK to run on a treadmill at an expensive gym, but playing on a lawn is an affront to the Ayn Rand crowd. It has to be about money.

    If we apply the thinking of children, but with adult intelligence, we end up with something like The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. Endless entertainment within a short bike ride of one’s home. No pressing need for the Grand Canyon. Thoreau ‘traveling widely in Concord’.

    But the current media soaked environment narrowly channels ‘experiences’ toward the virtual and the commercially driven. Amusements which were popular 40 years ago have dwindled (picking apples and floating down rivers in canoes). When I try to talk to my children about what fun we had, they shrug their shoulders and turn their own children over to much shallower experiences.

    I will draw six summary conclusions:
    1. We are each entirely dependent on the analogies we can make. We can only make analogies in response to real or virtual experiences which had some emotional content.
    2. Most people today (in the rich countries) cannot effectively make emotionally rewarding analogies which involve a world where fossil fuels are not abundant and reality has hard limits.
    3. Ancient peoples (like myself) and young people confronting a hard economy are able to make more helpful analogies than typical Baby Boomers.
    4. Governments prevent adaptation when they suppress unpleasant consequences.
    5. I think it likely that the majority of people will continue to act like a mosquito in the vicinity of Einstein.
    6. Small groups may be able to isolate themselves and survive.

    Don Stewart

    • One more thing. We had little in the way of fossil fuels and practically nothing in the way of debt. Since Gail’s concern is a debt crisis, this is perhaps very relevant. I never had any family experience with debt until I was 17 years old and my parents took on a 5 thousand dollar mortgage. My wife and I took on a 25 thousand dollar mortgage when I was 25. We never bought a car with debt. While I had a credit card from the time I was 22, I never ran a balance on it. My wife and I were out of the mortgage by our late 40s.

      So one huge difference in my experience and the experience of most of the young people I work with is their student loan debt. I paid for college as I went–which was very hard. But I graduated with money in the bank. The young people have a huge student loan to pay off, and, having no real paying job, have no access to the credit market. Yet the things they need to buy are bid up in price by older people who do have access to the credit market. If houses and cars and farmland had to be paid for in cash, they would be a great deal cheaper than they are. In a profound sense, Ben Bernanke is doing a great deal of damage to the younger generation trying to protect the wealthiest people who own the assets.

      I was having a conversation with a young person last week. What should they be doing with their life? I find it hard to bring up analogies from the time when I was 25 because everything is so different. My advice would be ‘find some impossibly cute little chick from Jersey City and marry her and have three children (bang, bang, bang) and deal with 2 am feedings and colicky babies and cloth diapers and playing in the park with your children.’ That advice would be about as relevant to them as something from a Martian.

      Don Stewart

      • Don

        Debt is the Devil. Look at whom it makes rich……..

        When the financial crisis first blew up 5 years ago, a financier I know got very agitated (he’d lost about 10 million and it destroyed his hedge fund, so it’s understandable I suppose) and said:’ This is what happens when you let poor people think they can buy things!’

        He hit the nail on the head: your generation spent money you’d earned, or undertook a mortgage very cautiously, but over the last two decades it’s all been about extending credit, creating the debt bomb. Governments are still trying to reinflate that bubble, because the consequences of unwinding are horrendous.

        It’s enriched a very few, like my friend, but enslaved the rest and distorted their views: just try to tell a 20 yr-old that the can only get about henceforth on foot or by bicycle……and that they’ll have to pay cash for the latter: End of the World!

    • Don,
      The story about the child visiting the Grand Canyon reminded me of an experience I had visiting Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border. I had been traveling alone for several days from Phoenix, AZ heading across country for Wyoming. I can still remember what it felt like as I drove down into Monument Valley from the high plateau on the Arizona side of the valley. I can distinctly remember the awe and amazement I felt looking across the valley, seeing towers hundreds of feet tall and reflecting on the volume and force of water it required to form the valley.

      I traveled many miles across that valley before I came to the official “Monument Valley” look out point that attracts the tourists. Once at the look out I could see that yes, they had located it at a very nice position from which to view several towers, but that one spot didn’t add anything significant to my overall impression already formed. It was not more impressive to me than the whole experience of coming to the edge of the plateau and dropping down into this amazing geological feature
      As I stood drinking in the view and savoring the whole afternoon’s experience a van carrying a family of tourists arrived. They pulled up and out jumped excited adults with cameras clicking. The adults rushed to the railing yelling for their children to “come and see”. The teenage children removing head phones, looked bored asking “What are we supposed to see?”. After five or ten minutes of this the adults shifted their attention from their cameras to their maps, plotting out the route to the next site they would travel off to see. And then almost as fast as they arrived they piled back into their van and drove off, apparently satisfied with their “Monument Valley” visit.

      I couldn’t help but compare my experience of Monument Valley with what theirs appeared to be. I had been struck with awe from the moment I drove down into the valley, and the awe just keep on resonating within me as I tried to take it all in. And years later I can still find that feeling imprinted within my memories. The tourists were only fixed on seeing what they thought they were supposed to see according to the tourist map. They probably have some nice pictures to show for their effort, but I imagine few lasting memories.

      I’m not sure what this experience means but I have never forgotten it. It stands out in my mind as a moment when I realized that we all experience life differently, even when we are living in it at the same time. I expect that the future will look different to everyone and for much of same reasons. I am happy to say that I’m learning to love the slow life; the garden after it’s been freshly weeded, the bird song, the smell of good soil, the feel of shade on a sunny day, and a cool breeze drying the work sweat off my skin. There is little in life that can make me feel more content.

      • Jody

        All to true, such a good description: same planet, very different experiences, and very divergent capacities for experience.

        Someone will be happy and sane in their garden, deriving infinite solace and interest from it, and others will pity and patronize them for leading an ‘unambitious life’ and having to get their hands dirty…..more fools they!

        In Florence once, surrounded by magnificent buildings and art, I was with a group of supposedly educated people who could only plan as to which luxury brands shops to visit next, (which they could have found in any major city) and their view of the world centred around ‘the best’ luxury (ie ultra expensive) hotels in the cities they knew or had heard about. We might as well have come from -and been on – different planets.

        I was also amused that they walked around shopping in the afternoon heat of August, but went to bed at 9, thus missing the lovely Tuscan nights. They literally had no real perception of place…… But they thought they were educated, sophisticated citizens of the world.

        • Xabier,

          I know exactly the type of people you are talking about. They spend a lot of time and money trying to convince themselves they have found the important things in life, until their neighbor gets something new
          The Buddhists call it mindfulness, being present and aware in each moment. Where ever we travel, or sit, being fully present in the moment brings so much richness and texture to life. It’s something money can’t buy.

          The weather this spring has been particularly kind to the fruiting trees and plants in my garden. Or perhaps it was the bad production last year due to summer in March and exceptional drought the rest of the summer. It seems that fruiting plants produce extra the year after a bad year, as if to make up for the shortfall.

          So far, I’ve harvested over 50 lbs of strawberries from a 12 x 20 plot and the plants are still a week or so from being done. We are almost tired of fresh strawberries, although the homemade strawberry ice cream is always a favorite. I’ve made 30 pints of various strawberry jams. Yum! Home bread toasted with jam makes winter breakfast a pleasure! My grape vines are loaded with fruit as well the peaches, pears, and apple trees. Raspberries too soon to tell. If Michigan has a bumper crop fruit prices will be really low this summer. Cherries are coming to the midwest from California but cost $4 a pound. I’m waiting for the Michigan cherries, their price will be much better. This is a good year to put up some fruit preserves.

    • THanks for your thoughts. It is unfortunate that we are running head on into a situation that most people are not adapted for. I am sure this will be a big problem.

      I hope of us have been thinking about the situation enough that these issues will not be as much of a shock as you suggest. It probably helps to know first-hand how things were done in the past, but those of us who are younger remember big changes that have taken place as well. We also have learned from our parents and grandparents about how things use to be. Some people (I am afraid not me) even read historical novels, talking about distant lands.

      • I would suggest people read these old books about the old days to help them re learn some things lost. I have been reading Louis Lamour and the books of Zane Gray, great writings.

      • Gail
        Perhaps one more example may elucidate the thoughts that the ‘thinking with analogies’ book is prompting in me.

        When I was about 6 I built a treehouse. Scrap lumber was plentiful everywhere. But nails were a treasure. So I went around looking at old boards searching for nails which were salvageable. I got pretty good at straightening nails. My father had a hand drill and one could find odd bits of scrap dowel in the refuse from cabinet shops. So I learned how to make joints with wooden pegs, also. I would never claim to be skilled at cabinetry, but I could build a treehouse.

        If we see the next couple of hundred years as being substantially about a ‘salvage economy’, then I have childhood memories which may serve me pretty well. I will also have the emotional intelligence to see a salvageable nail or a well stocked screw jar as a positive experience–not as an affront to my dignity.

        My experience with joints may also serve me well. Good cabinet makers are quite skillful with joints and don’t use a lot of screws and nails. But less skilled people do use screws and nails a lot. If one has had experience scavenging screws and nails, then one begins to make distinctions:

        ***Joinery hardware is very valuable. A lot of the other stuff sold in hardware stores is not nearly so valuable***.

        So the issue isn’t so much about the survival of hardware store chains–it’s about the continued availability of joinery equipment. This sort of thinking leads to a more nuanced view of collapse, I think.

        Orion Magazine had an article about ‘professions for a downsized future’ and one of them was ‘crosscut saw sharpener’. They opined that the US stopped making good crosscut saws 100 years ago…but I think that some very good crosscut saws are available now at about 10 times the cost of a cheap one. My father had a good crosscut saw which was old before WWII–I think he got it from his father. We took the saw to a neighborhood man who sharpened saws in his barn.

        So it isn’t the survival of the Skil Saw that is important, it is the acquisition of a really good crosscut saw and either the mastery of saw sharpening oneself or else having a neighbor who can do it. Having a little oil to put on your saw so it doesn’t rust may come to be seen as more valuable than having a tank full of gasoline. So, again, a more nuanced view of ‘the end of oil’ comes into focus.

        Don Stewart

        • Thanks! I think that a lot of people have lost sight of the fact that abundant cheap metals is something the fossil fuel age has given us. Abundant cheap glass as well. So it is not just plastics and synthetics that we tend to lose, if fossil fuels are a problem, it is metal and glass as well. This is the reason for log cabins and other types of buildings that avoided nail use.

        • Hello Don and others; I remember when I was in HIgh School in the 1970’s in Santa Cruz, CA and a wise teacher told the class that someday we may be mining our waste dumps and landfills. We have thrown so much valuable metals and things away I have no doubt it is true.

  7. To understand the policies that need be changed within the USA, for the nation to convert from fossil fuels to Renewables, it is first necessary to confront it’s myths, as follows:
    a. The natural resource base is, for all practical purposes infinite
    b. The US Federal Government is revenue constrained, and running out of money
    c. The EROEI of renewables is much lower than alternatives.
    d. Renewables are intermittent and unreliable, and there is no way to obviate this
    e. Renewables cost more than fossil fuels

    Myth “a” is a direct consequence of the “release effect” described in “The Eternal Frontier” by Flannery, and came into existence because, to the original few thousand European settlers, the resource base of North America was enormous. Like the Folsom people who decimated the mega-fauna they found within 300 years, the European settlers churned through the resource base of North America, in a similar time frame. Just 80 years ago, US petroleum resources flowed copiously from vertical wells drilled only a few hundred meters deep, at an EROEI of > 100, while today it is necessary to drill thousands of meters down, then to make subsequent multiple horizontal branches additional thousands of meters long, then to fracture the surrounding rock to produce a hundredth as much per well per day as previously at an EROEI of ~2.
    Myth “b” is a hold over from the past, when the US Dollar was backed by Gold/Silver. Nixon ended that in 69, about the time US petroleum production peaked, and the US Dollar represents a claim on the “Full Faith And Credit” of the US. The advent of electronic currency means that it is not even necessary to mint coins or print banknotes, because a few keystrokes at the right computer at the Federal Reserve, will create trillions, from nothing.
    Myth “c” is the direct consequence of comparing apples to oranges. Fossil fuels and the energy conversion systems they drive, are burdened only with the cost of getting petroleum to the surface, while the famous Spanish study, burdened PV with the inputs necessary to construct panels, plus the grid, plus the regulatory burden, not to mention the kitchen sink. The Energy Returned by a PV panel as compared to the energy required to manufacture that panel, is ~55:1, today.
    Myth “d” focuses on conditions in one location, without storage. Given storage, and a network encompassing the entire nation, Renewables provide lower cost power, available on demand.
    Myth “e” came about because as recent as 2 years ago, PV panels cost $3/watt in the US, and $2/watt in China. Today Sun Electronics of Miami sells PV at $0.38 / watt FOB Miami, and PV manufacturers in China sell 20% efficient PV for $0.25/watt by the 40 ft container load.
    In it’s regulatory filing for acquisition of a 50 Mwe solar power plant in New Mexico from Element Power, First Solar revealed that it’s customer, El Paso Electric is paying $0.579/kWh). Which is almost a third of the price that thin-film solar PV project power typically costs, $0.163 / kWh,, and less than half the $0.128 / kWh average price for new coal plants, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

    The exceptional nature of renewable energy

    If solar power prices are now at these levels, why are governments across Europe and in the US apparently thwarting the growth of PV connected to the grid? The answer goes back to the deregulation and privatization strategies taken about a decade ago. At the same time governments were setting up feed-in tariffs and subsidies to renewable energies in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they were also implementing a new electricity market paradigm, dismantling the monopolistic state owned companies, un-bundling energy production from grid management and generally privatizing the sector. This created a new market where multiple companies trade electricity in the short (spot market) and long term (futures market), supposedly all in the best interest of consumers, until ENRON participated. Things went well at first, up to the point renewables reached a critical size and simply killed this venerated electricity market. To understand why this happened, one must comprehend the essential concepts of economics regarding renewable energy.
    In recent years the solar market has undergone a transformation imposed by what is usually termed economies of scale. From small factories in Europe and the US, the production of solar PV cells migrated to huge factories in Asia. And with this transformation came the usual cycles in large markets where product differentiation isn’t obvious. By the midst of 2012 some Asian producers were reportedly selling cells about $0.25 /Wp below cost, in a clear supply destruction cycle. This has created a row in The US & Europe, with local producers calling for taxes on Asian products and investors claiming that this is the way for affordable electricity. Even if this supply destruction cycle is indeed the driver of recent price drops, a return to prices of two, or even one year ago, is not to be expected, because the solar market is showing clear similarities with the computer hardware market, with similar breathtaking price declines. In both cases the final product is pure technology, which can only improve with time, like the number of transistors per unit of area. The efficiency of PV technology keeps increasing, and improvements like proton-induced exfoliation and auto-cooling have yet to reach the market. Production is not going back to either the US or Europe, either. If it’s not economical to produce a smartphone or a laptop in either, it will be much less so with a simpler technology like a solar cell. The catalyst for the abrupt collapse of the past several years is termination of subsidies in the US and the EU, with Solyndra as poster child, in a glorious $250 million bankruptcy, but the nature of the business meant consolidation was inevitable.
    Renewable electricity producing technologies like wind, solar, tidal or geothermal dispense with any sort of fuel to produce electricity. A gas or diesel fired power plant has a cost every time it produces power, so the operator is permanently on the market for fuel, managing prices that can be rather volatile. Additionally, there are other costs associated with operation and maintenance of the plant. In contrast, a solar panel, or a windmill just sits there. They too have maintenance costs, but these are much smaller and can be predicted fairly accurately at project start. The result is that generating an extra kWh of electricity from an operating solar panel or wind turbine costs close to zero $0.00 / kWh. This is what in economics is termed the marginal cost (in this case for electricity generation).
    The second important aspect of renewable technologies is that they generate electricity, and once it is injected into the grid that electron is equal to any other. Moreover, if I have a PV system on my roof and the sun is shining, I can be sure that any other neighbor, or any other investor in the region with a PV system will also be generating electricity. In economics, a market where supply agents are unable to differentiate their products from one another are called Perfect Concurrency Markets; cereals agriculture is the classical class room example. This sort of market has a very important characteristic: long term the price matches marginal costs and supply agents struggle to make a profit (this is one of the reasons why there are subsidies to agriculture).
    A perfect concurrency market with a marginal cost of zero is something totally outside standard study and practice in economics. It is the reason why spot electricity prices collapse during sunny summer days or why during autumn storms there can even be negative prices. These are all symptoms of a market whose price will get closer and closer to zero the larger the number of renewable energy systems connected.
    This trend is inevitable in the US where sufficient roof space exists to host 1Twe of PV as shown in the USDOE study by Denholm & Margolis, equally divided between commercial and residential buildings. Total project cost is $835 bilion or $835/kwe producing power with an LEC of $0.033/kwh, with no subsidies whatever(no storage). Adding 24 hours storage raises project cost to $2 trillion or $2346 / kwe, producing power at an LEC of $0.08 / kwh. Costs of emplacing these systems are so low, that their construction is inevitable. Their nature lends itself to consumption of production on-site, unaffected by grid regulations, or pricing. Fully implemented, rooftop PV would provide 40% of current electricity demand, in and of itself, or 1,640 Twh / yr. This is the elephant beneath the carpet.
    The cost of energy is prompting conversion of the US housing stock to PassivHaus standard, thereby reducing household consumption of power by 80%. This is the cape buffalo beneath the carpet.
    Were refrigerators/airconditioners were built with SawaFuji Free-Piston Compressors, double the existing insulation, and with hold over plates so they run during the day, when the sun is shining, much of the need for storage would disappear and consequent demand would be halved. This is the lion beneath the carpet.
    Conversion of all lighting to LED eliminates 80% of power demand for lighting. This is the cheetah beneath the carpet.
    And these paradigms are killing the traditional electricity suppliers with business models dependent upon fossil fuel energies. They simply cannot make it in such a market, that on reflection seems clearly ill conceived. Governments have nothing innate against renewable energies, they are simply trying to protect these important companies, and also the philosophical reverence for the market.
    Particularly in Germany, far from the sunniest or windiest place in Europe, the mismatch between a fully liberalised market and renewable energy growth is creating all sorts of problems. Grid managers are unable or unwilling to upgrade the grid, voltage goes up during sunny days threatening to bring the grid down and even maintenance is an issue. In some lands it is getting so serious that the government, whether Conservative or Liberal, is contemplating the outright nationalisation of the grid.

    Feed-in Tariffs
    Governments should be working towards the complete integration of renewable systems into the grid, not to their exclusion. In the first place they must reckon that only by using schemes like feed-in tariffs can they guarantee the long term permanence of renewable power producers in the grid. With marginal generation costs close to 0 $ / kWh, these systems will never be able to yield proper cash flows in the liberalised electricity market. If the investment in grid connected renewable power technologies is to continue to come from private investors, stable revenues must be guaranteed in the long term. Looking at laws in states like Luxembourg some advantageous changes become obvious: first of all extend the feed-in tariff to the whole lifetime of the technology and then lower their values. Using the example in Spain, with an expected cost of 0.06 €/kWp for industrial systems, the state can set a 0.10 €/kWp tariff for the first ten years and 0.04 €/kWp for the last decade of production, thus also preserving the important role of break-even anticipation that feed-in tariffs perform.
    With proper feed-in tariffs in place governments can then focus on the monolithic base load electricity suppliers; they won’t disappear, but their role will fundamentally change. They must shift their focus from production to storage and load-balancing. Governments can perhaps aid with subsidies on the set up of large and small scale storage infrastructure and most importantly, steer towards the most effective technologies, avoiding pipe dreams like hydrogen.

    • Dr. Oprisko, I, too, am a holder of an earned PhD. Mine is in chemical engineering; so, I am rather well acquainted with energy balances. In addition, I have given some thought to the notion of ERoEI. If you have the time, you might take a quick look at . Now, whereas you have claimed that the ERoEI of renewables is as good as or better than the ERoEI for petroleum, I am not at all convinced that it is even as great as 1.0. I would be delighted if it were, except, to be sustainable, it would have to be computed as I suggested in . I wonder if you would share your own computation of ERoEI for some renewable energy technology – photo-voltaic solar, for example.

      • Hello Thomas, you know looking at the group of people we have posting comments on this site it is clear we have some of the best minds in the world here as those of us are awake to these issues. I guess the problem is getting our message out to the rest of the world as more people believe in ghosts than peak oil. (although I am deeply believer in ghost too). I have had some experiences in that area too. But today more believe in ghost than peak oil.

        Call me a weirdo if you like, But I have posted my story about a UFO I saw when I was 16 years old and I am now in my early 50’s and my message has been one of hope as I saw new power source propel this craft many hundreds of miles in the frame of a second or two and I believe that there are forces (beings) amongst us that have knowledge that are not being shared with us not just yet and this knowledge could be used right now, perhaps they are planning to share it soon.

        I think most of us agree our government has become very secretive these days, area 51 etc. I still will argue that there is hope and something out there will some reveal itself. The next few years should be very interesting indeed.

      • See my second post:
        In my analysis I do not burden PV with the Grid, I do not burden it with Inverters, I do not burden it with mountings, wiring, switchgear.

        In the analysis of the EROEI of petroleum, it is not burdened with the grid, powerconversion systems, conversion losses, wiring, switchgear, etc:

        From: An Empirical Perspective on the Energy Payback Time for Photovoltaic Mocules by Karl E. Knapp and Theresa L. Jester, Solar 2000, Madison, June 2000, updated to reflect proton-induced exfoilation, inprovements in efficiency, but not including gains from replacing glass with film:
        2000 2013
        Kwh of inputs / Kwe of Pv 5,713 (200micron) 2,917 (20micron)
        Kwh produced -30 yr life 0.5%/yr degradation – White Co, IN 43,453 kwh
        EROEI 7.6 15

        From Drill Baby Drill:
        The net energy (or EROEI) of natural gas has been calculated by Skone et al. at 7.6:l. 118 This includes the energy inputs for drilling, extraction, and transport for all domestic gas production compared to the energy delivered. Shale gas is more energy intensive than conventional gas due to the nature of the hydraulic-fracturing process, which involves handling and disposing of millions of gallons of water, several hundred heavy truck trips per well, very high pressures for fluid injection, and so forth. Thus the EROEI for shale gas will be substantially lower than 7.6:1, perhaps 5:1 or less on average, although there have been no definitive studies. Furthermore, the EROEI of shale gas can be expected to decline over time as evidenced by the EIA estimates of the number of wells required to extract it discussed above.

        Gagnon et al. estimated the EROEI of global oil and gas production at the wellhead at 18:1, (although they did not separate oil from gas)

        There have been no definitive studies on the net energy (EROEI) of tight oil and it is certain to be highly variable depending on the productivity of the play. However it is likely to be lower on average than for conventional oil given the nature of the hydraulic-fracturing process, which involves handling and disposing of millions of gallons of water, several hundred heavy truck trips per well, very high pressures for fluid injection, and so forth.

        Although the mean EROEI of mined bitumen is relatively high at 12.4:1, the bitumen needs to be upgraded somewhere before it can be used, and therefore 5.0:1 is the appropriate metric for the end product. In situ recoverable bitumen, which comprises 80 percent of the resource, starts at a mean EROEI of 5.0:1 and is much lower at 2.9:1 when upgraded.

        Now, if tarsands are economic with an EROEI of 3 at the mine mouth, not including conversion efficiencies of 40% to make electricity, and the energy cost of the central power station, HV Xmission, distribution, line losses, how can anyone question today’s PV returning 15:1 with no transmission losses, conversion losses <5%, even less if 40 VDC is used in the residence, thus no inverter?


        • I just finished your two long posts and I am very impressed; so, I can’t complain about you not reading wherein I explain what I mean by sustainable and what I consider essential components of the ERoEI computation if it is to determine sustainability or even if it is to determine if the technology is a net provider of energy or not. If for each kilowatt-hour delivered to the consumer, the purveyors and others who earn part of their living providing services to the purveyors such as their doctors and lawyers spend only 0.3 kilowatt-hours producing the 1.0 kilowatt-hour but require more than 0.7 kilowatt-hours to support all or the appropriate pro-rata share of their living standards, then that energy technology is a net consumer of energy in that economy. In the case of natural gas for which you computed an ERoEI of 1.18 without considering the lives of the participants and the costs of commerce, I would guess that natural gas is a net consumer. One would like to think that not every energy technology can have an ERoEI* < 1.0 unless the civilization of which it is part has commenced to die off. But, for all we know, that is exactly what is happening. You can imagine my disappointment that ERoEI is NEVER computed according to my suggestions.

          By the way, the 1.25 TWe is a very generous estimate of our solar capacity; but, it is not nearly enough to replace our entire energy budget, which would have to get much larger to support the anticipated waves of new immigrants. Moreover, this is local capacity, which suffers from Myth D, the lack of on-demand availability. Somehow one needs to consider the costs of storage and distribution. Decent battery technology is probably 20 years away – and, as the joke goes about nuclear fusion – always will be. In the case of distribution, even granting a super-conductive grid, the problems are immense. Nevertheless, I am with you. Let's begin to tackle it. If the central government expects to avoid disintegration, it better assign top priority to installing renewable energy technology with as much dedication as it applied to defeating the axis powers during WWII. I mean total commitment with rationing, wage and price controls, etc.

          • It misconstrues my message to imply I believe business as usual (BAU) can
            continue, or should continue. I don’t.
            I know first hand, that domestic power consumption can be cut 80% while still
            providing the services desired.
            I specifically mentioned conversion of the housing stock to PassivHaus standard, and conversion of all lighting to LEDs, and conversion of refrigeration/aircon to holdover plate systems.
            Additionally, all houses should have solar hot water heaters. Germany has developed quite efficient ones suitable for CONUS, and we should adopt them.
            Additionally, all houses should convert to composting toilets, which will unburden waste treatment plants.
            I specifically recommend sizing domestic PV systems at 6Kwe to provide sufficient power for cooking, as well as lighting, refrigeration/aircon, etc.
            I specifically recommend replacing computers with energy efficient ones, my Mini-Itx system for example has 1000 X the power of a DEC-VAX-11-780, fits easily into a ladies shoe box, and uses 80 watts.
            I specifically recommend NaS batteries because the materials are readily avaiable, they are reasonably efficient, and compact. Now that NGK has solved the fire problem, mass production can commence.
            I specifically recommend distributed PV power generation to eliminate distribution losses, and recommend conversion of dwellings to 40 VDC operation to eliminate inverters and their associated costs. For the record, my computer runs on 12 VDC, my lighting ditto, my freezer ditto. I and most boaters have already converted, so now it’s time for housing.
            WRT your comments regarding Lawyers, and accountants as part of the energy mix, It would seem to me that burdening an energy source with those services, is similar to burdening a horse with all the hay he will need for the winter, mounted on his back, while trying to get him to pull a plow in spring.
            It seems to me that it is sufficient to calculate the net energy delivered to the end user, when determining EROEI, and my analysis, which builds upon respected analysis does exactly that.
            What should be disconcerting, is that the net delivered EROEI for Nat Gas is ~1 currently, and the net delivered EROEI for oil is ~2 currently.
            It is this reality which need be brought to the attention of decisionmakers, provided one can get them to think of things other than creating chaos in the oil producing regions of the planet, for short term profit.
            It is this reality which should be driving trade relations between the OECD and the PRC, for the purpose of engaging the latter in the mass production of low cost, efficient PV for mass emplacement, to effect the conversion of US electric power from central hydrocarbon fired generation, to distributed renewable generation.
            BTW the USDOE paper found sufficient space at 20% efficiency for 1.1Twe.
            Their numbers don’t include covering parking lots.


            • Hello Dr. Oprisko,

              You seem to be doing your part to reduce energy consumption per capita, which I agree is necessary if energy is to be harvested in real time or almost real time. I wish to pay particular attention to the following remarks which begin near the end of your reply: My responses are in square brackets.

              GWO: WRT your comments regarding lawyers, and accountants as part of the energy mix, It would seem to me that burdening an energy source with those services, is similar to burdening a horse with all the hay he will need for the winter, mounted on his back, while trying to get him to pull a plow in spring.

              [TLW: Bravo.]

              GWO: It seems to me that it is sufficient to calculate the net energy delivered to the end user, when determining EROEI, and my analysis, which builds upon respected analysis does exactly that. What should be disconcerting, is that the net delivered EROEI for Nat Gas is ~1 currently, and the net delivered EROEI for oil is ~2 currently. It is this reality which need be brought to the attention of decision makers, provided one can get them to think of things other than creating chaos in the oil producing regions of the planet, for short term profit. It is this reality which should be driving trade relations between the OECD and the PRC, for the purpose of engaging the latter in the mass production of low cost, efficient PV for mass emplacement, to effect the conversion of US electric power from central hydrocarbon fired generation, to distributed renewable generation.

              [TLW: I must now invest a little time to try to convince you that it is NOT sufficient to do as “respected” analysts have been doing in the peer-reviewed literature, which, by the way, seems to have gone over to the “dark side” (corporate side). The principal reason not to reject the methodology implicit in my thought experiment regarding the autonomous alternative energy district is apparent in the otherwise laudable article in which ERoEI comes to Forbes on June 5th. We read, “SUNY professor (Charles) Hall estimates that for an industrial society to function and grow [italics mine], EROI should measure at least five to nine”. Now, it is no mean task to estimate an EROI (ERoEI) that does not determine feasibility (sustainability) for ERoEI > 1.0. Why should all that work be wasted with at best a rough guess at how great ERoEI must be to avoid economic shrinkage, which, if you favor shrinkage in over-developed countries, you might refer to as “degrowth”. Undoubtedly, to rescue the initial effort will entail considerable additional effort; but, unless that effort is forthcoming, we will never know if the ERoEI of photovoltaic solar energy technology is enough to support a stable population. (Clearly, NOTHING can support perpetual exponential growth.) Once again, the URL is and the blog begun at the Association for the Study of Peak Oil conference last December in Austin, Texas, where I spent rather a lot of time with Charles trying to get him to see the light is at . I think the problem is that a better methodology permits finer distinctions one of which is likely to reveal the essential unsuitability of market economies, which, after all, the powers-that-be cannot tolerate. By the way, they (the-powers) must be extremely gratified that almost nobody looks at my blog – not even the NSA. 

              GWO: BTW the USDOE paper found sufficient space at 20% efficiency for 1.1 Twe. Their numbers don’t include covering parking lots.

              [TLW: If we have many more covered parking lots, we shall fill them with many more cars. It will take a great deal higher efficiency than 20% to return the energy the car (or cars) under the roof consume. But, I have no doubt that the irony of this is not lost on you. But, you say, we do what we can do. Remember, I am your ally and friend if you wish to replace fossil fuel with heavily front-loaded PV solar, my favorite alternative energy technology. (Where were you when I was debating Dave Kimble as described in “Photovoltaic for Australia:” at ?)

              Finally, I notice that Public Research Institute has performed a number of services for corporate clients. How do you continue to be a non-profit corporation? Why didn’t you tell us that your interest in PV is more than academic? Quite frankly, you have me worried.

            • You need to remember that all of this conversion takes energy and money.

              And it is my understanding that to continue, these systems require our current systems to continue. For example, Passive Hauses don’t work as well, if a window or two breaks, and it is not possible to replace them.

              Roads need to continue to be maintained under any system that continues. And manufacturing capability needs to maintained. These uses of energy do not shrink nearly as much as the systems you mention.

            • We are at a watershed. We can turn round and go back with our tail between our legs to the primitive conditions that Don would appear to prefer – as per his link – or we can bite the bullet and go on to a future that employs the technological and scientific knowledge that we have thus far amassed to get us over this watershed and take us onwards and upwards. No guesses as to which I prefer. To consider the alternative as a first choice is an admission of defeat before we have even started. By all means plan for the worst case, but only as a fall-back position, and if we do go down the Don Stewart route, then we must provide better protection for our current state of knowledge than that that was afforded the contents of the Great Library at Alexandria so that that body of knowledge is available for a time when our species is brave enough to make full use of it.

              Perhaps we should let climate change be the vehicle for providing impetus to our scientific future. We as a species have been aware of the danger of excess CO2 in the atmosphere since the mid 1800s. Yet even today, over a century and half later, when we have clear evidence of the planet actually warming and oceans are acidifying while they rise, we have scientists and columnists clearly manipulating the data to show it is a hoax (no coincidence that many of them rely on the fossil fuel industry for funding in one way or another). On top of that we have that clown Monckton doing his one man vaudeville act in the form of a supposedly serious talk on climate change while waving a big white flag when challenged, only to come back spouting the same old same old when he thinks the bogeyman has gone away. It is a mystery to me how it is possible for someone to remain a peer while doing their best to thwart efforts to curb climate change and thus harm their country (Monckton is not the only peer who I would like to see ‘reduced to the ranks’. It is no wonder that the public are confused, especially in America where one of the two main political parties has climate change denial as a rite of passage – amazing.

              If Gail is correct and BAU is not possible, then the danger from climate change recedes, but does not disappear. If we are to take advantage of our scientific abilities, in any field not just atmospheric sciences, then we must not let those who have done so much to influence public opinion, and the resulting political opinion, get away with their actions. All it will take is a major breakthrough in energy storage and the push will be on for more electricity production. If we fail to keep climate change at the front of our thinking that push will likely include a massive increase in coal fired power stations along with a ‘frack baby frack’ philosophy. If that happens, then heaven help us and our children.

              I don’t think scientists and technologists have a choice in this matter. We have to foster respect for the advances we have made. What an abject failure we will be as a species if we just throw it all away and live in the sort of conditions that Don would prefer us to. If we can show that people who have abused their positions to endanger our species should face sanction, preferably involving the loss of freedom, then that should get the public on the side of science and opposed to the miscreants and those behind them. First, is the need to get people aware of the dangers to our current energy supply and the need to act. Gail is doing her best, but is it enough and if not, what more can we do? Ideas, anyone?

            • Mel
              My points about the Maori are two:
              1. Aim for protection from the elements rather than micro-control of the environment in a building.
              2. The extended family replaces the welfare state.

              I submit that if humanity in the OECD countries made these two changes, we would solve a lot of problems. Not all of the problems, but a lot of them. Both points are illustrated by the photograph.

              Perhaps a modern analog to the Maori shack is the Roma, or young people building Tiny Houses, or the Cob structures at Albert Bates place. They have the advantage of not requiring mortgages. A Passiv Haus is generally conceded to be more expensive than a conventional house. The cost is driven by the desire for micro-control of the environment.

              Don Stewart

            • Don, as I stated, I was going by the photo you linked to. I think we can do better for our children and grandchildren and said as much.

              I also took the opportunity to try and get some action against all those ‘nice’ people who, either by design or simply out of ignorance have managed to abuse their position in order to hinder action to curtail climate change. That hindrance has endangered the security and well-being of my son and any children he has already sired (he has been a bit of a lad, which might be heriditary) or children he might sire if he ever settles down, of course.

            • Mel
              Hofstadter and Sander say (page 256) that ‘it would seem that the flexibility of our category systems is the key which distinguishes Homo sapiens sapiens from a Yorkshire terrier’ and on page 253) ‘the proliferation of levels of abstraction grants us the freedom to shift viewpoint whenever one of the categories that we are currently focusing on seems to be leading us into a box canyon’.

              I submit that the society at large, and many of the comments on this blog, are focused on abstractions which have led us into a box canyon. Gail admirably shows us the dimensions of the canyon. As she herself says, she is less certain how we back this mule up and get out of the box canyon.

              I pointed out that rather than see Passiv Hous and Obamacare as solutions to our problems, they may well just get us further into the box canyon. Passiv Haus requires us to continue to maintain a global industrial system, and Obamacare requires us to devote a fifth of our GDP to mostly useless medical interventions and the maintenance of an enormous global sickcare system. So…let’s fall back 10 yards and rethink the categories. If we adopt simple shelters (and I gave examples from current practice on the fringes of society) and extended families with a pro-health agenda exemplified by this article today:
              then we have radically changed the nature of the discussion. Gone are the financialization of the economy with ever growing levels of debt and gone is the welfare state with high tax rates and government corruption (as exemplified by the spying scandal and the Executive claiming the privilege of killing people at will).

              One has to make some choices in life and they have consequences. You (I think) vote for using some modified version of the Global Industrial System plus Welfare State to try to finely control the comfort level in houses and insuring expensive medical treatment for people who are sick because they have bad habits. I vote for very simple solutions which eliminate a great deal of the baggage that you would erect trying to achieve your goals.

              There aren’t any guarantees. You might be right. What my experience tells me is that we are in a box canyon and we need, urgently, to get out of it.

              Don Stewart

            • Nice posting, Don!

              There seem to be a lot of TINA (There Is No Alternative) people who think that if we just change some policies here, add some new technology there, and spread out the wealth everywhere, Everything Will Be Alright(TM).

              Somehow, I doubt that any of the TINA people have ever grown much — if any — of their own food. I doubt they’ve directly taken a life for their own sustenance. I doubt they’ve ever set a broken bone, or aided in childbirth.

              I submit that in the future, the “survivors” will mostly be people with such skills.

              I’d like to write more, but I have a doe ready for birth that I have to check in on every hour and plants in the greenhouse that are going to bolt if I don’t get them in the ground soon, my fertigation system filter is clogged and needs cleaning, and a bad batch of biodiesel has our market vehicle down — glycerine in the fuel filter. The good news is, no bones to set today… so far… 🙂

              There goes half my daily Internet budget that I put myself on — with few exceptions, if you’re spending more than an hour or two a day on the Internet, you may be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

              It’s been said the human brain is shrinking, probably due to excessive specialization and prevalence of extrinsic knowledge. Specialist species tend to not survive extinction events. So go learn something new that will help your survival today — and I don’t mean a new fact within your existing specialty — jump into something you know nothing about! You’re never too old to add neural connections.

            • Don, I am a mechanical engineer and as such I obviously have scientific leanings – but would never claim to be a scientist. I am not American and am not affected by such issues as Obamacare. In fact, I really don’t care one way or the other about it, sorry. What exercises my little grey cells is how daft the human species is and how easily manipulated it is by those in power. By ‘in power’ I am almost certainly talking about those shadowy people in the background pulling the strings of those who think that they are in power. When I said that we were at a watershed, I meant it. We really need to take stock of just how badly we have managed our society and learn some vital lessons before we carry on the way we are. I think on that we will be in agreement.

              An example of how the public has been manipultated: 3000 people were murdered on 9/11 and any half-decent investigation shows that four fundamental laws of physics have to be flawed for the official explanation to be valid. Two thousand, or thereabouts, architects (including members and fellows of the American Institute of Architects) and engineers (including civil, electrical and explosives experts) have signed a petition calling for a re-investigation of the WTC attack. A group of pilots, some with airtime on the aircraft involved on that day are also calling for a re-investigation of the events of that day because they, like the architects and engineers just don’t believe the official story. Among their evidence is the fact that either the NTSB have made a mistake in their analysis of the FDR from American 77 and 14 eye-witnesses (including two Pentagon police sergeants and a Pentagon heli-pad employee) are mistaken in what they saw, or two aircraft have to have been involved in the Pentagon attack, one of them probably a cruise missile. Add to that the presence of nano-thermite (a military grade explosive/incendiary material whose patent application lists building demolition where the noise of explosions is to be kept to a minimum as a major application) permeating the dust of the WTC site and one has the closest thing to a cast-iron case that I can think of. Yet, raise the matter and one is automatically dismissed as a tinfoil hat wearing ‘truther’ who should be dismissed as a crank. (I am not going to get into a slanging match over this as I have promised not to. All I would ask is that anyone who feels strongly enough to reply on this point should explain the free-fall acceleration of WTC7 as part of their reply. The video ‘Explosive Evidence – Experts Speak Out’ should help in that regard, if only to see the quality of those with whom they will be in disagreement.)

              Climate change provides another example of public manipulation. We have pundits claiming it is all a hoax while 97% of the world’s top climate scientists are in agreement that the planet is not only warming, it is warming at an alarming rate and unless we cease BAU and move to a much lower level of production of CO2, our children and grandchildren will suffer terribly. If it were only happening on some island somewhere, I am sure that anyone with a double digit IQ would be aghast at the failure of the islanders to act and be forced to conclude that they are pretty nasty people who obviously don’t care about future generation. But it isn’t limited to some far-flung island, it affects the whole planet and we have known of the danger for over a century and a half. One would expect that in a sane world, the people would be demanding that the matter be solved by now. Instead we have done precious little and are now reaping the whirlwind. And it is going to get a lot worse if we don’t do something. While Gail may well be correct in that BAU is not going to be possible, that will only postpone matters or could even make it worse if we turn to coal to make up the shortfall in energy supply. It is not as though we haven’t been here before. Look at the way public opinion was slanted away from reducing cigarette smoking. How many people had to die before the harm it was doing became common knowledge? (And how much profit did the tobacco industry make in the meantime?) And now the same advertising agencies are running the fossil fuel industry’s campaign to curtail any action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Talk about ‘blatant’!

              Don, you can go on about box canyons, whatever they are, and mules etc, but I will go where my life experience has taken me thus far. I am sure that if we had Manhattan type projects to restructure our energy provision more towards nuclear, preferably LFTR designs (preferably small modular ones), and towards solving our energy storage problem so that transportation could be predominantly electric powered, then this entire nightmare that we currently face would soon be just a bad dream. It is sad that the major hurdle to such a solution is that public opinion (again) has been swayed – by the Greens this time – to see all things nuclear as evil. The only evil nuclear items are the latest nuclear weapons. Trident C4 and earlier actually kept the peace and if the Greens had bothered to explore them in depth so that they could take an informed position on them then those weapons might just be still around to work their magic. As it is, well that’s another couple of pages and its late …

              Just one closing comment. The thing that amazes me about the U.S.A. is that it is so backward for an advanced nation. Its people still seem to believe in the American dream without realising that it has gone to the rich and they are going to keep it unless it is wrested from them. The people still go to the polls, but why is a mystery to me. All the major issues are sorted out by lobbyists and those in the revolving door between the legislature and industry.For example: a Monsanto genetically modified crop seed can blow onto a neighbouring farmer’s land and the poor bloke gets sued by Monsanto for having his farm in the wrong place. Unless we become aware of the injustice of the modern world, and do something about it, any move to a simpler lifestyle, redolent of a bygone age, as seems to be your preferred solution, will simply postpone the nightmare. I say let’s tackle it head on. And that difference Don is, I suspect, fairly irreconcilable.

            • Yes Mel I am bewildered at how easily my fellow Americans have been fooled by all the hype, and also the way they eat are being fed by these fast food joints that are sickening people. When I go shopping there are far too many sick people riding around in carts that and too sick to push a shopping cart. But there is a group of us that are waking up to it and taking measures into our own hands but looks like too little too late as we are the minority in this thing. If you did a poll on Thorium to the Americans or maybe even the Europeans would they know what it is?

              There are many things we should be doing but they are not getting done due to the propaganda that out there. World Trade Center is just a good example and the 911 attacks were likely sadly put on by our own governments and corporate interests that really control our government. Sadly we can see what happened after that with the expansion of war in the middle east and quest for power over oil rich nations. Charges were likely planted in the twin towers. When I saw that event did not even wake up our country to being mislead by greed and corporate and special interest groups and such powers, I knew we were in trouble…

              You know Mel, it has gotten even worse since then, not subject perhaps for this blog but I will put it out there anyway as I am a rebel… we now have Geo engineering underway and Chemtrails being sprayed upon the citizens here without our votes or permission.

            • Mel
              I know (slightly) an official in the US Green Party. I think they would be quite amused at your assumption that they can sway public opinion on any topic whatsoever.

              As to your not caring about Obamacare. We spend somewhere around 6 percent of our GDP on energy and 20 percent on sickcare and the sickcare cartel controls our government. And, next year, the Federal Surveillance Machine will ferret out those people who are not paying for the mandatory insurance. In effect, Obamacare puts a fixed cost of 20 percent of our GDP on the economy. Even if energy went up to 10 percent, it would still be only half the effect of a dysfunctional healtcare system. Such are the effects of government sponsored cartelization.

              So what can the ordinary citizen do about it? I modestly suggest looking at the Maori photograph and then looking seriously at those people on the fringes who are making modern adaptations. I know some of them…and they are a pretty happy lot. If you can make infinite energy happen and can solve all the other problems, then my suggestion is moot.

              Don Stewart

            • Don,

              I like that photo. That type of building is substantially more sustainable than a Passiv Haus. If termites come and eat it, it will be easy to make a new one.

            • That was a good picture, at least they had pristine hunting grounds (then) which would have given them the upper hand on us right away.

  8. A recurring theme in nature and technology is that creation of a waste product tends to create a niche for something which uses that product. For the past century, millions of tons of a particular waste product have been accumulating. It contains no useful energy or rare elements, yet it might become something far more important to the future of man; a cheap and abundant energy-resource.
    A consistent element of technological advancement is the gap between discovery and commercialization. The first oil well in the USA was Drake’s, in 1859, for the purpose of providing kerosene as a substitute for whale oil as an illuminant. Naptha (gasoline) was originally an almost unmarketable byproduct that was used as a cleaning fluid and paint thinner, but no application could use all that was being produced until the carburetor for the internal combustion engine was invented. Today, demand for gasoline is a major driver for oil production.
    Given the delay between invention and widespread commercialization, productive responses to peak oil will come from inventions and resources already known but not yet widely used. Photovoltaics are a case in point.
    Four types of photovoltaic cell are marketed today:
    1. Single-crystal silicon.
    2. Polycrystalline silicon.
    3. Amorphous silicon.
    4. Thin film (silicon, CdTe, and CIGS are most widely used).
    Because silicon is the 2nd most abundant element in Earth’s crust (27.7% by weight). we should be able to make as many silicon PV cells as we choose. Silicon PV production began with circular wafers sawn from single crystals drawn incrementally from a molten bath of silicon. Single crystals create the most efficient cells, but this is a slow and expensive process. Polycrystalline and amorphous silicon films are much cheaper than large single crystals, in both money and energy. Until recently the PV industry was too small to be worth its own supply of silicon, so it utilized surplus from the semiconductor industry. This surplus had a way of disappearing when electronics were hot, squeezing out the PV industry. But this is changing in a very big way, and the consequences have revolutionized the industry.
    This revolution has its origin in mines producing phosphate rock. Phosphates have long been in high demand as fertilizer (phosphorus is an essential element of life) and phosphate rock (fluoroapatite, Ca3(PO4)3CaF2) is today’s major mineral source of phosphorus. Fluoroapatite is dissolved in sulfuric acid (H2SO4) to release phosphoric acid, with gypsum (CaSO4) and hydrogen fluoride (HF) as byproducts. Gypsum is used to make gypsum board, commonly known as “drywall”, leaving the Hydrogen fluoride as a disposal problem. Today, it is combined with silicon dioxide (quartz sand) to make fluorosilicic acid, and then neutralized with sodium hydroxide (lye) to make sodium fluorosilicate, Na2SiF6. This has some minor uses as a source of fluoride for drinking water, but far more is produced than can be used. It’s been piling up for a long time, and a million tons of this stuff (containing about 147,000 tons of silicon) is added to the pile every year.
    During the alt-energy boom which followed the 1970’s US peak in oil production, SRI International created a process in which sodium fluorosilicate is reacted with metallic sodium (Na), producing elemental silicon at < $15/kg in volume),which is easily scaled up to 1000 tons/year. The Sodium Fluoride byproduct, can be used in drinking water fluoridation, as a wood preservative, and in steelmaking. Recent high petrofuel prices have sparked renewed interest in this process. The silicon can be cast directly into round crystals or ribbons. Evergreen Solar's "string ribbon" process produces 100-micron (0.1 mm) thick polycrystalline silicon ribbons directly from a molten silicon bath. Twin Creek's proton splitting process produces 20-micron (0.02)mm thick monocrystalline silicon wafers from round crystals. The new source of PV silicon; semi-toxic fertilizer waste and metallic sodium in, production-ready silicon wafers out.
    Making silicon is one thing. Making enough cheap enough to seriously change our energy situation is another thing entirely. So the important questions are,
    1. How much silicon is really available,
    2. How much (area) of wafers can it make,
    3. How much power (peak) could they produce, and
    4. How much will it all cost?
    How much silicon: The million tons may not all be available. Some of it may be contaminated, or unsuitable for whatever reason. Since SRI claims to have tested this process, let's assume 25% waste giving production of 112,000 metric tons of silicon per year, from current phosphorus production.. The specific gravity of silicon is about 2.8, so this is about 40,000 cubic meters of solid elemental silicon.
    How much area can it make: proton split into wafers 20 𝛍m (10-6 meters) thick, it would make a staggering 5 million acres of wafers. This is enough to cover a square ~90 miles on a side.
    How much peak power could they produce: Current monocrystalline cells are about 21% efficient. At the standard 1000 W/m² irradiance, the 20 billion square meters of panels would support 1.25 Twe of capacity, and would produce ~2,100 Twh /yr, at $0.054/kwh, saving 900 Billion mt of CO2 emissions / yr, if located in Indiana. That's ~88% of US average electric consumption. We could probably add that much power every year, just from the waste produced in Florida from current mining. There are other phosphate mines, and probably a lot of raw material piled up over the years.
    How much will it all cost: SRI claims a cost (after sale of byproducts) of $14-something per kilogram of raw silicon. Let's round up to $15/kg and then multiply by ten to account for the cost of casting into ingots, proton splitting, doping, printing electrodes, laminating onto film and attaching connections (production of 2 million hectares per year will have some serious automation applied to it, so it shouldn't be all that expensive). A square meter of 20-micron cells has only two hundredths (0.02) of a liter of silicon, or 56 grams. Multiply by $150/kg and we get a price of $8.40/m² or about 4 cents per peak watt. The annual cost for all of this (112 million kg/year at $150/kg) would be just $16.8 billion. That's downright cheap; at less than $0.80 per square foot, it would be highly competitive with conventional roofing. The cost of everything else, mounting,wiring, inverters, switchgear will be far greater than the PV itself, or about $1/watt, and the entire 1.25 Twe project will cost $1.3 Trillion, or about the cost of the GWOT since 2001. We might see a situation where non-PV surfaces become the exception. For the rough price of 3 years of the war in Afghanistan $ 1,300 billion, we could generate sufficient power to equal current US consumption.
    Where would we put the panels? USDOE in a recent study estimated sufficient suitable roof space for 900 Gwe of solar panels. If we covered parking lots, we'd likely have enough space for the entire 1.25 Twe.
    Would we be able to absorb that much solar power? Most certainly, and two developments would make it almost trivial: holdover plate refrigeration/air conditioning and a nationwide electrified rail system fed by electric vehicles. Holdover plate refrigeration has been in use in the marine industry for more than 30 years, and is now entering the mainstream, driven by the difference between peak and overnight electric rates. The nationwide electrified, double tracked rail system fed by electric vehicles and bicycles is the current state of the art in France. These developments are a grid manager's wet dream, allowing generation to be averaged over hours instead of seconds. Wind, most prevalent at night, complements daytime PV power, to power both of these trends.
    Twin Creeks Technologies of San Jose next generation PV panel consisting of a 20 micron layer of silicon bonded to a plastic film.. When fabricated at 20 microns, the silicon can bend without cracking, and its characteristics are appropriate for bonding to a flexible plastic film, giving the results shown below:

    Last year the Department of Energy backed a Boston-area company that found a way to cast the wafers at 200 microns.
    Twin Creeks process involves shooting protons, which are essentially hydrogen atoms, into a block of silicon, embedding them to the precise depth desired and then heating the protons so they take up more space, cracking off a layer in a process called “proton-induced exfoliation.”
    Manufacturing a standard cell today requires 6.5 grams of silicon per watt of capacity, worth about 20 cents; the new system will use just 600 milligrams and the silicon will cost ~2 cents per cell. The finished product can be wrapped in plastic instead of being covered with a special grade of low-iron glass on a hard backing further reducing costs.
    The elimination of sawing kerf loss combined with its ability to make thinner wafers of high quality make the above implant-cleave wafering approach technically and economically attractive. For example, while it typically takes 6g of silicon to make 1 watt of solar wafer, including kerf loss, the new implant-cleave process consumes merely 0.3g/W at 20µm. Using $15/kg for the price of silicon, this corresponds to a 95% cost savings in silicon material. The new wafering method reduces the variation in wafer thickness and roughness during the manufacturing process. Not only are the variations much smaller than wafers that have been wire sawed, the implant and cleave physics cause a linear coupling between these variations and the wafer thickness. For example, a 150µm PolyMax as-cleaved wafer will typically have a variation of +/- 2µm and RMS roughness of 0.4µm, but a 20µm PolyMax wafer will show thickness variation of less than +/- 0.2µm and RMS roughness of 0.06µm. This thickness-variation interdependence enables the method to make ultra-thin wafers.
    Implant-cleaved wafers have consistently shown to be of equal or greater mechanical strength than conventionally sawn wafers, even after the saw-mark damage surface removal etch.  Even at lower thicknesses where wire sawn wafers are unavailable for comparison, the ultra-thin wafers exhibit impressive mechanical qualities. In the case of the ultra-thin 20µm thick wafers (called a silicon "foil" due to its high flexibility), the high strength of the wafers can be demonstrated in a custom-designed, two-point bend test where a full wafer is shown to be capable of bending with a radius of curvature as small as 5mm, even before any surface treatment has been added. Building-integrated PV (BIPV) and other applications requiring flexible absorbers can now be of high conversion efficiency.
    In Conclusion:
    The economics and material properties of implant-cleaved wafers are superior to traditional wire-sawn wafers. The cleaved wafers exhibited superior mechanical properties, while using 5% of the material currently required. The implant cleave method, enabling manufacture of 20µm to 150µm thickness wafers, without kerf loss, is a low cost high quality wafering approach with scale-up potential.

    • I specifically brought the above discussion to this forum to bring it to the attention of non-scientists and non-engineers. Both scientists and engineers have been discussing these topics for decades. However, economists and liberally trained professionals, are oblivious to this. The follow on comments, totally ignoring my message, are a case in point.
      The EROEI of various traditional energy sources vs renewables is key to sound decision making, but most seem intent on ignoring this.

      What are you going to do when London, NYC, Baltimore, Kiel, Miami, Jacksonville, Boston, Shanghai, Shenzhen, St. Petersburg, Tokyo, Sydney, Melbourne, Auckland, Cartagena, Rio, and Buenos Aires are flooded within the next several decades? Don’t think so? Consider that Sandy flooded the bottom 3 floors of the Manhattan VA medical center, and today’s high tide was only 2 meters less than Sandy’s storm surge.


      • In my above analysis of the EROEI of PV, I neglected to account for the efficiency gains made since the quoted study was completed in 2000. At the time of the study, mono-crystalline PV efficiencies were ~13%. When I purchased my PV array in 2009, the mfr delivered 15.5% efficient panels. Today mono-crystalline PV panels of 21% are being delivered. In 2000 PV power density was 130 watts / sq meter. Today PV power density is 210 watts/ sq meter. Today’s panel is 60% of the area of one manufactured in 2000, for the same power. Were production carried out similarly, costs would have dropped by 40% for that reason alone. However, as I mentioned, PV shares many similarities with solid state electronics, and major gains in processing efficiencies and process improvements have been made which reduced the processing costs, and materials inputs, of which silicon was the largest single item.
        WRT housing, I recommend that one and all visit the sites covering energy
        positive homes and PassivHaus. Here in NYC we have apt buildings which
        meet PassivHaus standard, and they look like ordinary apt buildings!


  9. Interesting comment from the British ‘Guardian’ newspaper on the impending crisis/collapse of Egypt: it states that the real problem is not so much lack of food (although production has been falling) but the enormous population growth and the inability of people to pay for the food that is available. Most of the population depend on government subsidies for all or part of their nutrition, and many of the young are severely malnourished. Illustrates very well many of Gail’s points re. oil and other forms of energy.

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