Why Standard Economic Models Don’t Work–Our Economy is a Network

The story of energy and the economy seems to be an obvious common sense one: some sources of energy are becoming scarce or overly polluting, so we need to develop new ones. The new ones may be more expensive, but the world will adapt. Prices will rise and people will learn to do more with less. Everything will work out in the end. It is only a matter of time and a little faith. In fact, the Financial Times published an article recently called “Looking Past the Death of Peak Oil” that pretty much followed this line of reasoning.

Energy Common Sense Doesn’t Work Because the World is Finite 

The main reason such common sense doesn’t work is because in a finite world, every action we take has many direct and indirect effects. This chain of effects produces connectedness that makes the economy operate as a network. This network behaves differently than most of us would expect. This networked behavior is not reflected in current economic models.

Most people believe that the amount of oil in the ground is the limiting factor for oil extraction. In a finite world, this isn’t true. In a finite world, the limiting factor is feedback loops that lead to inadequate wages, inadequate debt growth, inadequate tax revenue, and ultimately inadequate funds for investment in oil extraction. The behavior of networks may lead to economic collapses of oil exporters, and even to a collapse of the overall economic system.

An issue that is often overlooked in the standard view of oil limits is diminishing returns. With diminishing returns, the cost of extraction eventually rises because the easy-to-obtain resources are extracted first. For a time, the rising cost of extraction can be hidden by advances in technology and increased mechanization, but at some point, the inflation-adjusted cost of oil production starts to rise.

With diminishing returns, the economy is, in effect, becoming less and less efficient, instead of becoming more and more efficient. As this effect feeds through the system, wages tend to fall and the economy tends to shrink rather than grow. Because of the way a networked system “works,” this shrinkage tends to collapse the economy. The usage of  energy products of all kinds is likely to fall, more or less simultaneously.

In some ways current, economic models are the equivalent of flat maps, when we live in a spherical world. These models work pretty well for a while, but eventually, their predictions deviate further and further from reality. The reason our models of the future are wrong is because we are not imagining the system correctly. Continue reading

IEA Investment Report – What is Right; What is Wrong

Recently, the IEA published  a “Special Report” called World Energy Investment Outlook. Lets’s start with things I agree with:

1. World needs $48 trillion in investment to meet its energy needs to 2035. This is certainly true, if we assume, as the IEA assumes, that world economic growth will actually improve a bit, from 3.3% per year in the 1990 to 2011 period to 3.6% per year in the 2011 to 2035 period. It is likely that the growth in investment needs will be even higher than the IEA indicates.

In my view, this is a CYA report. The IEA sees trouble ahead. There is no way that investment of the needed amount (which is likely far more than $48 trillion) can be met. With the publication of this report, the IEA can say, “We told you so. You didn’t invest enough. That is why energy supply ran into huge problems.”

2. Without reform to power markets, the reliability of Europe’s electricity supply is under threat. The current pricing model, in which wind and solar PV get feed in tariffs and electricity prices for other fuels is set using merit order pricing, produces huge market distortions.

In my view, the problem is even worse than the writers of the report understand. The value of wind and solar PV are inherently difficult to determine, because they produce intermittent supply, and this is not comparable to other types of electricity. Furthermore, a big chunk of costs relate to transmission and distribution–42% of electricity investment costs in the New Policies Scenario. Many well-meaning researchers looked at wind and solar PV and thought they were a solution, but they tended to look at the situation too narrowly.

To look at the situation properly, one really needs to look at the total system cost of generating electricity with intermittent renewables (of a given amount) compared to the total system cost of generating electricity without intermittent renewables. Proper pricing needs to include all of the additional costs involved, including the additional cost for storage, the additional cost for long distance transmission, and the additional costs encountered by fossil fuel providers in ramping up and down their generation to match changing output from intermittent renewables.

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