Rethinking Renewable Mandates

Powering the world’s economy with wind, water and solar, and perhaps a little wood sounds like a good idea until a person looks at the details. The economy can use small amounts of wind, water and solar, but adding these types of energy in large quantities is not necessarily beneficial to the system.

While a change to renewables may, in theory, help save world ecosystems, it will also tend to make the electric grid increasingly unstable. To prevent grid failure, electrical systems will need to pay substantial subsidies to fossil fuel and nuclear electricity providers that can offer backup generation when intermittent generation is not available. Modelers have tended to overlook these difficulties. As a result, the models they provide offer an unrealistically favorable view of the benefit (energy payback) of wind and solar.

If the approach of mandating wind, water, and solar were carried far enough, it might have the unfortunate effect of saving the world’s ecosystem by wiping out most of the people living within the ecosystem. It is almost certain that this was not the intended impact when legislators initially passed the mandates.

[1] History suggests that in the past, wind and water never provided a very large percentage of total energy supply.

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

Figure 1 shows that before and during the Industrial Revolution, wind and water energy provided 1% to 3% of total energy consumption.

For an energy source to work well, it needs to be able to produce an adequate “return” for the effort that is put into gathering it and putting it to use. Wind and water seemed to produce an adequate return for a few specialized tasks that could be done intermittently and that didn’t require heat energy.

When I visited Holland a few years ago, I saw windmills from the 17th and 18th centuries. These windmills pumped water out of low areas in Holland, when needed. A family would live inside each windmill. The family would regulate the level of pumping desired by adding or removing cloths over the blades of the windmill. To earn much of their income, they would also till a nearby plot of land.

This overall arrangement seems to have provided adequate income for the family. We might conclude, from the inability of wind and water energy to spread farther than 1% -3% of total energy consumption, that the energy return from the windmills was not very high. It was adequate for the arrangement I described, but it didn’t provide enough extra energy to encourage greatly expanded use of the devices.

[2] At the time of the Industrial Revolution, coal worked vastly better for most tasks of the economy than did wind or water.

Economic historian Tony Wrigley, in his book Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, discusses the differences between an organic economy (one whose energy sources are human labor, energy from draft animals such as oxen and horses, and wind and water energy) and an energy-rich economy (one that also has the benefit of coal and perhaps other energy sources). Wrigley notes the following benefits of a coal-based energy-rich economy during the period shown in Figure 1:

  • Deforestation could be reduced. Before coal was added, there was huge demand for wood for heating homes and businesses, cooking food, and for making charcoal, with which metals could be smelted. When coal became available, it was inexpensive enough that it reduced the use of wood, benefiting the environment.
  • The quantity of metals and tools was greatly increased using coal. As long as the source of heat for making metals was charcoal from trees, the total quantity of metals that could be produced was capped at a very low level.
  • Roads to mines were greatly improved, to accommodate coal movement. These better roads benefitted the rest of the economy as well.
  • Farming became a much more productive endeavor. The crop yield from cereal crops, net of the amount fed to draft animals, nearly tripled between 1600 and 1800.
  • The Malthusian limit on population could be avoided. England’s population grew from 4.2 million to 16.7 million between 1600 and 1850. Without the addition of coal to make the economy energy-rich, the population would have been capped by the low food output from the organic economy.

[3] Today’s wind, water, and solar are not part of what Wrigley called the organic economy. Instead, they are utterly dependent on the fossil fuel system.

The name renewables reflects the fact that wind turbines, solar panels, and hydroelectric dams do not burn fossil fuels in their capture of energy from the environment.

Modern hydroelectric dams are constructed with concrete and steel. They are built and repaired using fossil fuels. Wind turbines and solar panels use somewhat different materials, but these too are available only thanks to the use of fossil fuels. If we have difficulty with the fossil fuel system, we will not be able to maintain and repair any of these devices or the electricity transmission system used for distributing the energy that they capture.

[4] With the 7.7 billion people in the world today, adequate energy supplies are an absolute requirement if we do not want population to fall to a very low level. 

There is a myth that the world can get along without fossil fuels. Wrigley writes that in a purely organic economy, the vast majority of roads were deeply rutted dirt roads that could not be traversed by wheeled vehicles. This made overland transport very difficult. Canals were used to provide water transport at that time, but we have virtually no canals available today that would serve the same purpose.

It is true that buildings for homes and businesses can be built with wood, but such buildings tend to burn down frequently. Buildings of stone or brick can also be used. But with only the use of human and animal labor, and having few roads that would accommodate wheeled carts, brick or stone homes tend to be very labor-intensive. So, except for the very wealthy, most homes will be made of wood or of other locally available materials such as sod.

Wrigley’s analysis shows that before coal was added to the economy, human labor productivity was very low. If, today, we were to try to operate the world economy using only human labor, draft animals, and wind and water energy, we likely could not grow food for very many people. World population in 1650 was only about 550 million, or about 7% of today’s population. It would not be possible to provide for the basic needs of today’s population with an organic economy as described by Wrigley.

(Note that organic here has a different meaning than in “organic agriculture.” Today’s organic agriculture is also powered by fossil fuel energy. Organic agriculture brings soil amendments by truck, irrigates land and makes “organic sprays” for fruit, all using fossil fuels.)

[5] Wind, water and solar only provided about 11% of the world’s total energy consumption for the year 2018. Trying to ramp up the 11% production to come anywhere close to 100% of total energy consumption seems like an impossible task.

Figure 2. World Energy Consumption by Fuel, based on data of 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Let’s look at what it would take to ramp up the current renewables percentage from 11% to 100%. The average growth rate over the past five years of the combined group that might be considered renewable (Hydro + Biomass etc + Wind&Solar) has been 5.8%. Maintaining such a high growth rate in the future is likely to be difficult because new locations for hydroelectric dams are hard to find and because biomass supply is limited. Let’s suppose that despite these difficulties, this 5.8% growth rate can be maintained going forward.

To increase the quantity from 2018’s low level of renewable supply to the 2018 total energy supply at a 5.8% growth rate would take 39 years. If population grows between 2018 and 2057, even more energy supply would likely be required. Based on this analysis, increasing the use of renewables from a 11% base to close to a 100% level does not look like an approach that has any reasonable chance of fixing our energy problems in a timeframe shorter than “generations.”

The situation is not quite as bad if we look at the task of producing an amount of electricity equal to the world’s current total electricity generation with renewables (Hydro + Biomass etc + Wind&Solar); renewables in this case provided 26% of the world’s electricity supply in 2018.

Figure 3. World electricity production by type, based on data from 2019 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

The catch with replacing electricity (Figure 3) but not energy supplies is the fact that electricity is only a portion of the world’s energy supply. Different calculations give different percentages, with electricity varying between 19% and 43% of total energy consumption.1 Either way, substituting wind, water and solar in electricity production alone does not seem to be sufficient to make the desired reduction in carbon emissions.

[6] A major drawback of wind and solar energy is its variability from hour-to-hour, day-to-day, and season-to-season. Water energy has season-to-season variability as well, with spring or wet seasons providing the most electricity.

Back when modelers first looked at the variability of electricity produced by wind, solar and water, they hoped that as an increasing quantity of these electricity sources were added, the variability would tend to offset. This happens a little, but not nearly as much as one would like. Instead, the variability becomes an increasing problem as more is added to the electric grid.

When an area first adds a small percentage of wind and/or solar electricity to the electric grid (perhaps 10%), the electrical system’s usual operating reserves are able to handle the variability. These were put in place to handle small fluctuations in supply or demand, such as a major coal plant needing to be taken off line for repairs, or a major industrial client reducing its demand.

But once the quantity of wind and/or solar increases materially, different strategies are needed. At times, production of wind and/or solar may need to be curtailed, to prevent overburdening the electric grid. Batteries are likely to be needed to help ease the abrupt transition that occurs when the sun goes down at the end of the day while electricity demand is still high. These same batteries can also help ease abrupt transitions in wind supply during wind storms.

Apart from brief intermittencies, there is an even more serious problem with seasonal fluctuations in supply that do not match up with seasonal fluctuations in demand. For example, in winter, electricity from solar panels is likely to be low. This may not be a problem in a warm country, but if a country is cold and using electricity for heat, it could be a major issue.

The only real way of handling seasonal intermittencies is by having fossil fuel or nuclear plants available for backup. (Battery backup does not seem to be feasible for such huge quantities for such long periods.) These back-up plants cannot sit idle all year to provide these services. They need trained staff who are willing and able to work all year. Unfortunately, the pricing system does not provide enough funds to adequately compensate these backup systems for those times when their services are not specifically required by the grid. Somehow, they need to be paid for the service of standing by, to offset the inevitable seasonal variability of wind, solar and water.

[7] The pricing system for electricity tends to produce rates that are too low for those electricity providers offering backup services to the electric grid.

As a little background, the economy is a self-organizing system that operates through the laws of physics. Under normal conditions (without mandates or subsidies) it sends signals through prices and profitability regarding which types of energy supply will “work” in the economy and which kinds will simply produce too much distortion or create problems for the system.

If legislators mandate that intermittent wind and solar will be allowed to “go first,” this mandate is by itself a substantial subsidy. Allowing wind and solar to go first tends to send prices too low for other producers because it tends to reduce prices below what those producers with high fixed costs require.2

If energy officials decide to add wind and solar to the electric grid when the grid does not really need these supplies, this action will also tend to push other suppliers off the grid through low rates. Nuclear power plants, which have already been built and are adding zero CO2 to the atmosphere, are particularly at risk because of the low rates. The Ohio legislature recently passed a $1.1 billion bailout for two nuclear power plants because of this issue.

If a mandate produces a market distortion, it is quite possible (in fact, likely) that the distortion will get worse and worse, as more wind and solar is added to the grid. With more mandated (inefficient) electricity, customers will find themselves needing to subsidize essentially all electricity providers if they want to continue to have electricity.

The physics-based economic system without mandates and subsidies provides incentives to efficient electricity providers and disincentives to inefficient electricity suppliers. But once legislators start tinkering with the system, they are likely to find a system dominated by very inefficient production. As the costs of handling intermittency explode and the pricing system gets increasingly distorted, customers are likely to become more and more unhappy.

[8] Modelers of how the system might work did not understand how a system with significant wind and solar would work. Instead, they modeled the most benign initial situation, in which the operating reserves would handle variability, and curtailment of supply would not be an issue. 

Various modelers attempted to figure out whether the return from wind and solar would be adequate, to justify all of the costs of supporting it. Their models were very simple: Energy Out compared to Energy In, over the lifetime of a device. Or, they would calculate Energy Payback Periods. But the situation they modeled did not correspond well to the real world. They tended to model a situation that was close to the best possible situation, one in which variability, batteries and backup electricity providers were not considerations. Thus, these models tended to give a far too optimistic estimates of the expected benefit of intermittent wind and solar devices.

Furthermore, another type of model, the Levelized Cost of Electricity model, also provides distorted results because it does not consider the subsidies needed for backup providers if the system is to work. The modelers likely also leave out the need for backup batteries.

In the engineering world, I am told that computer models of expected costs and income are not considered to be nearly enough. Real-world tests of proposed new designs are first tested on a small scale and then at progressively larger scales, to see whether they will work in practice. The idea of pushing “renewables” sounded so good that no one thought about the idea of testing the plan before it was put into practice.

Unfortunately, the real-world tests that Germany and other countries have tried have shown that intermittent renewables are a very expensive way to produce electricity when all costs are considered. Neighboring countries become unhappy when excess electricity is simply dumped on the grid. Total CO2 emissions don’t necessarily go down either.

[9] Long distance transmission lines are part of the problem, not part of the solution. 

Early models suggested that long-distance transmission lines might be used to smooth out variability, but this has not worked well in practice. This happens partly because wind conditions tend to be similar over wide areas, and partly because a broad East-West mixture is needed to even-out the rapid ramp-down problem in the evening, when families are still cooking dinner and the sun goes down.

Also, long distance transmission lines tend to take many years to permit and install, partly because many landowners do not want them crossing their property. In some cases, the lines need to be buried underground. Reports indicate that an underground 230 kV line costs 10 to 15 times what a comparable overhead line costs. The life expectancy of underground cables seems to be shorter, as well.

Once long-distance transmission lines are in place, maintenance is very fossil fuel dependent. If storms are in the area, repairs are often needed. If roads are not available in the area, helicopters may need to be used to help make the repairs.

An issue that most people are not aware of is the fact that above ground long-distance transmission lines often cause fires, especially when they pass through hot, dry areas. The Northern California utility PG&E filed for bankruptcy because of fires caused by its transmission lines. Furthermore, at least one of Venezuela’s major outages seems to have been related to sparks from transmission lines from its largest hydroelectric plant causing fires. These fire costs should also be part of any analysis of whether a transition to renewables makes sense, in terms of either cost or energy returns.

[10] If wind turbines and solar panels are truly providing a major net benefit to the economy, they should not need subsidies, even the subsidy of going first.

To make wind and solar electricity producers able to compete with other electricity providers without the subsidy of going first, these providers need a substantial amount of battery backup. For example, wind turbines and solar panels might be required to provide enough backup batteries (perhaps 8 to 12 hours’ worth) so that they can compete with other grid members, without the subsidy of going first. If it really makes sense to use such intermittent energy, these providers should be able to still make a profit even with battery usage. They should also be able to pay taxes on the income they receive, to pay for the government services that they are receiving and hopefully pay some extra taxes to help out the rest of the system.

In Item [2] above, I mentioned that when coal mines were added in England, roads to the mines were substantially improved, befitting the economy as a whole. A true source of energy (one whose investment cost is not too high relative to its output) is supposed to be generating “surplus energy” that assists the economy as a whole. We can observe an impact of this type in the improved roads that benefited England’s economy as a whole. Any so-called energy provider that cannot even pay its own fair share of taxes acts more like a leech, sucking energy and resources from others, than a provider of surplus energy to the rest of the economy.


In my opinion, it is time to eliminate renewable energy mandates. There will be some instances where renewable energy will make sense, but this will be obvious to everyone involved. For example, an island with its electricity generation from oil may want to use some wind or solar generation to try to reduce its total costs. This cost saving occurs because of the high price of oil as fuel to make electricity.

Regulators, in locations where substantial wind and/or solar has already been installed, need to be aware of the likely need to provide subsidies to backup providers, in order to keep the electrical system operating. Otherwise, the grid will likely fail from lack of adequate backup electricity supply.

Intermittent electricity, because of its tendency to drive other providers to bankruptcy, will tend to make the grid fail more quickly than it would otherwise. The big danger ahead seems to be bankruptcy of electricity providers and of fossil fuel producers, rather than running out of a fuel such as oil or natural gas. For this reason, I see little reason for the belief by many that electricity will “last longer” than oil. It is a question of which group is most affected by bankruptcies first.

I do not see any real reason to use subsidies to encourage the use of electric cars. The problem we have today with oil prices is that they are too low for oil producers. If we want to keep oil production from collapsing, we need to keep oil demand up. We do this by encouraging the production of cars that are as inexpensive as possible. Generally, this will mean producing cars that operate using petroleum products.

(I recognize that my view is the opposite one from what many Peak Oilers have. But I see the limit ahead as being one of too low prices for producers, rather than too high prices for consumers. The CO2 issue tends to disappear as parts of the system collapse.)


[1] BP bases its count on the equivalent fossil fuel energy needed to create the electricity; IEA counts the heat energy of the resulting electrical output. Using BP’s way of counting electricity, electricity worldwide amounts to 43% of total energy consumption. Using the International Energy Agency’s approach to counting electricity, electricity worldwide amounts to only about 19% of world energy consumption.

[2] In some locations, “utility pricing” is used. In these cases, pricing is set in a way needed to provide a fair return to all providers. With utility pricing, intermittent renewables would not be expected to cause low prices for backup producers.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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1,461 Responses to Rethinking Renewable Mandates

  1. william dunn says:

    Now all we need to do is to get the Greta Thunbergs and AOCs of the world to understand this (will never happen!). They have big megaphones in contrast to their smaller -and closed – minds, unfortunately.

    • Tim Groves says:

      Greta is very young. She’ll learn in time.

      But if she ever goes off message, the Green Blob will attack her with their usual scorn.

  2. “If we want to keep oil production from collapsing, we need to keep oil demand up. We do this by encouraging the production of cars that are as inexpensive as possible.”

    This is a good example of “jumping the shark”.

    But it is consistent with our decision to use more debt to solve the 2008 crisis that was caused by too much debt.

    Both “solutions” delay but make much worse the inevitable outcome. Rapid population reduction, on the other hand, would improve the outcome.

    • What does “make much worse” the inevitable outcome mean?

      If it turns out to not be survivable, then 100% = 100%, either way. Even if it turns out to be 95% at two different dates, it doesn’t really make a whole lot to difference, in my opinion.

      I have increasingly become a believer in “predestination.” The forces of physics set in motion things that those of us mortal souls cannot really change, even if we would like to think we could. For example, the probability that the Greta Thunbergs and the AOC will read this post and change their minds is virtually zero.

      We have convinced ourselves that we have more control over the situation than we really do. There now seems to be an almost religious belief, “If we would just act right, and also elect the right leaders, we could fix the situation. It is our fault that things turned out this way. It is our responsibility to fix them.”

      I don’t think that we (or our elected leaders) could have done anything to change the situation. We are simply dealing wi with the laws of physics. This is the way a dissipative structure works. Anywhere else in the universe where there happens to be a supply of fossil fuels that can be dissipated, the result can be expected to be exactly the same.

      We don’t have the ability to change the climate, whether we would like to think we do or not. We can implore people to use less fossil fuels, but they cannot really stop themselves from using fossil fuels. They cannot say to their legislatures, “We would like rutted dirt roads, instead of the asphalt roads we have today. Please stop maintaining our roads.” Certainly this would be helpful, but would others agree to go along with the decision? Or they cannot say to their local governments, “Don’t worry about fixing the water and sewer pipes in our county. It takes too much fossil fuel energy. We have chosen to go without, and think everyone else should, too.” We could hand out leaflets to our neighbors telling about the decision as well. But they would likely send us to the funny farm, rather than listen to us.

      Most energy use is embedded in things we never think about. We can’t really change our use of all of this embedded energy. Any time we cut back our own use of energy, it leaves us with more money in our pockets. We spend the money on something else, and we are likely back at the same energy consumption we would have been otherwise.

      Another idea is to voluntarily become homeless, and encourage others to do the same. I don’t expect that will catch on well either.

      • Artleads says:

        BRING BACK THE OLD CLUNKER GAS GUZZLERS. Push back against the anti oil mania. But do all this with far more style and thought than how things are currently done.

      • beidawei says:

        We may not be able to change the world, but we can change ourselves, so that when adversity comes, we can be the ones to eat our neighbors, rather than let our neighbors eat us.

        • my neighbour died last month

          reduced my survival factor

        • MG says:

          The problem is not about too many people. The problem is an insufficiency that grows without being percieved. E.g. we eat food, but this food is not the same food as it was 30 years ago. We live in a more and more depleted world which creates the human populations with various illnesses, deteriorating health.

          The problem is not about not enough food. It is a much worse problem: it is about a poor food. I. e. your neighbor has got a poor health and he is too weak to eat you. Basically, he needs your help. His problem is a lack of external energy for surviving alone.

      • GBV says:

        If it turns out to not be survivable, then 100% = 100%, either way.

        There’s an old saying my drunkard university pal used to mutter Gail… were ifs and buts candy and nuts, I’d have a lot of candy and nuts!.

        I think the point I’m trying to make in referencing my idiot-friend’s musings is that you really don’t know the survival-percentage of allowing the financial system to collapse in 2008-2009, nor do you know how much that chance of survival declines with every passing moment that we prop up the system with unrepayable debts and (arguably) misplaced consumption/demand. You may have your beliefs, but believing and knowing are two very different things!

        But to argue that we should push something unpleasant off into the future because we don’t know if doing it now will make a difference strikes me as a cop out… just another excuse not to make a hard choice people would otherwise like to avoid (until they have no choice).

        It’s like someone who keeps smoking and says they’ll quit next week (after multiple bouts of cancer that have gone into remission); or a 400lb. person who keeps pushing off diet and exercise until tomorrow (all the while eating themselves to death); or someone who keeps committing a serious crime / giving into something addictive and breaks down crying to God saying “just let me get away with it one more time and I PROMISE I’ll change!” (yet never does).

        If I were a younger man (under 30), I’d have even greater contempt for older people who espouse this view: “let’s keep the party rolling, because I won’t be around to have to clean up the mess anyway!”. Perhaps a more just/moral solution would be to recognize that the people who spent the most time contributing to (and received the greatest benefit from creating) the mess we face today should be the ones who bear the most responsibility (i.e. suffering) in bringing said mess to the best resolution possible.

        *Cue all the comments from angry Boomer+ folks who feel offended that someone could suggest they created the problem, benefitted from and/or ignored the problem for 50+ years, or challenges their belief they are good parents/grandparents/etc. for leaving a world on the brink of implosion for their children/grandchildren/etc.

        How dare he!?!*

        Nobody here is truly suggesting anything we can do will “fix” the problem, Gail. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make positive changes in our lives that help others – particularly those that have done so little to contribute to the problem – to endure or avoid some of the suffering that is to come. Not to do so seems grossly immortal to me, anyway…


        • I am afraid I don’t know what you are talking about:

          “But that doesn’t mean we can’t make positive changes in our lives that help others – particularly those that have done so little to contribute to the problem – to endure or avoid some of the suffering that is to come.”

          We are not going to be able to keep the fossil fuels flowing. We are not going to “leave some in the ground” so others can use them. Without the current complex system we have now, whatever fossil fuels we leave in the ground are likely gone forever. Our descendants will need to start over without fossil fuels.

          Whatever debt we supposedly leave is never going to be repaid. It will just disappear. We don’t need to worry about someone having to repay the debts Trump is running up, for example.

          I suppose in theory we can leave houses, but they degrade pretty quickly as well. We need annual termite treatments where I live, for example. And any house from wood can burn down.

          What positive change in your life are you thinking about? Quitting your job? If so, you personally would not be using as much fossil fuels, but your replacement would have a chance to use his new wages to buy goods made with fossil fuels.

          • Rodster says:

            I think what GBV is trying to say is that for the longest time the Doomer crowd has been saying this or that would happen by now but here we are and the system is still running and functioning. We have been told how Japan should have imploded by now and here we are 30 yrs later they are still a functioning economy.

            GBV also appears to be saying, if we thought the system should have failed by now, maybe just maybe we got it mostly wrong and if we did maybe we should at least try and fix some of the things wrong with the system just in case 100-200 yrs from now the Doomer crowd is still talking about how the end is still nigh.

            Or In other words as the saying goes: “the journey of a 1,000 miles starts with one step”.

            • This is a fair point Rodster, but consider the “vast timelines” first.

              The preponderance of the evidence is there to claim the private CB cartel of global aspirations operates at least since late 17th century, we assign it a role at least of agent – accelerator of change. Also, this article graphs the known story of fossil fuels expansion since (mid) 18th century. Now we know there were adjustments and likely preemption on some level in geopolitics in reaction to the OFW-depletion story since the early 1970s (peak of the easy stuff), e.g. the following credit-debt expansion, foreign and domestic spectacular show-off activities to control energy transport routes, placate masses in the 1990-2000s etc.

              If you plot all these macro developments we happen to be gliding-sliding now on somewhat tail-end of the grand story, so in a way what are these past ~40-50yrs among friends? Peanuts in the overall story, mere section of the graph..

          • Chrome Mags says:

            “We are not going to be able to keep the fossil fuels flowing. We are not going to “leave some in the ground” so others can use them. Without the current complex system we have now, whatever fossil fuels we leave in the ground are likely gone forever. Our descendants will need to start over without fossil fuels.”


          • GBV says:

            We are not going to be able to keep the fossil fuels flowing.

            I can’t really say much other than I find it somewhat disturbing to know you equate my idea of changing one’s life in a positive manner or helping another human being avoid suffering as leaving some fossil fuels sloshing around so they can have a taste of the absurd, over-consumptive world we live in today. No offense Gail, but perhaps that is the shortcoming of OFW… it’s sometimes myopically focused on charts, numbers and data relating to the “master resource” while lacking some seriously big pieces of the puzzle (e.g. social psychology? Humanitarianism? Philosophy on what actually makes life worth living? At least Faith gets touched on here, for better or worse, from time to time).

            I’m talking about sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice. About choosing the hard path now even though you could continue on the easy one (regardless as to whether or not the person coming after you chooses the easy path and takes whatever spoils you left behind). About realizing that our recognition of future predicaments comes with the responsibility of doing what we can for future (unborn?) generations who don’t have the luxury of foresight and choice that we do.

            Rodster sums up my comments well, for the most part, in his post below. I would only change the part where he mentions we should at least try to fix the system; the system is broken and is likely unfixable no matter what we do. But that doesn’t absolve us from doing what we can to set something aside or build something for those who will come after us so that they may have a fraction of the freedoms we’ve experienced, and so that they may build their own future without the burden of our past weighing them down.

            In other words, we should be worried about the debts Trump runs up now if those debts result in confiscation of property / debtors prison / forced military service / public bailouts / etc. for those poor souls in the future that will have to deal with the consequences of those outcomes… just as we should worry about every piece of spent uranium we toss into a cavern somewhere for some future schmuck to deal with over its 30,000+ year half-life. I can’t believe I have to state this here,
            but perhaps it is necessary: no action is without consequence.


            • The reason I talked about the “leave it in the ground for future generations” stuff is because I have frequently run across this kind of thinking with Peak Oil groups. They tend to see holding back on current consumption as a way of saving some for our children. This is the kind of sacrifice that they see is possible that might help future generations. Some think that this is a worthwhile goal.

              Regarding the debt defaults, and the adverse consequences of the debt defaults, I don’t see the adverse consequences as being all that bad. People are now being sold homes and cars that they can’t really afford. They have the benefit of those high-priced objects for quite a while, before they default. Factory owners are able to build factories and hire workers, thanks to debt that they under normal circumstances couldn’t afford. These workers have jobs that they wouldn’t have. In fact, the cars and homes that people buy, but they can’t really afford indirectly act to give more workers jobs as well.

              If the system falls apart, it falls apart. There will be no one to throw people out of their homes, because everyone will be in the same boat. It won’t make sense to evict some and not others. What would all the people on the street do? In fact, even renters might be in reasonable shape, for a little while.

              Of course, there will be no jobs either, and that will be a big problem. There quickly will be no potable water to drink, and stores will be closed. We will all be in the same boat, whatever that boat is.

              The big debts by governments will all be defaulted on. These big government debts are mostly used to give people jobs, who otherwise wouldn’t have jobs. Some of these people are government workers; some are contractors. Indirectly, the debt also helps to keep the Social Security and Medicare systems going (also comparable programs in other countries). They are pretty much pay as you go systems, but they depend on young people having jobs to pay for the current old folks, and the debt helps make jobs, as much as anything.

              I don’t think there are any cutbacks that we can do that will do anything more than (1) throw people out of their jobs, and (2) prevent the government from making payments that people depend upon. Medicare is funded with current tax revenue and more debt, for example.

              The thing to remember is that all the promises we make are just promises. We live on real stuff, like food, water, and clothing. Once it becomes impossible to pay all of the promises/debt everyone will be in the same boat. The financial system will collapse. The value of stock will be $0. Bonds will default. The value of derivatives will be $0. The value of todays $30 million homes will be zero. There will be nothing to trade these things for, unless you find someone to barter with.

            • Artleads says:

              The point I see is not to let it get that far. You couldn’t have that scenario and still have computers to run hospitals, and you wouldn’t have antibiotics. Infectious diseases would rage. There would be no police and no order; just strongman rule, as long as that could be maintained. It’s pointless to even think about. We might as well commit suicide now. It’s about time to evolve. Creatures evolve or die. As an octogenarian, it hardly matters to me one way or another. The system needs to be informed of the situation, as no agency can do better than OFW. Then let the self organizing system do or die with that information.

      • “Make much worse” means increase the total amount of suffering that will be experienced.

        Our population and standard of living must decrease as fossil energy depletes. This can occur voluntarily with less suffering, or involuntarily with more suffering.

        I agree we have little control over the situation. We like to think we have free will but in reality our genes and the laws of thermodynamics control the shots. Our genes don’t want to adopt rapid population reduction policies, nor to shrink their lifestyles.

        We have a surplus of prominent people that do not understand what’s going on and that recommend actions that cannot work because they violate the laws of physics.

        There are very few people like yourself that understand what is going on. I think you have a responsibility to recommend actions that would reduce total suffering, even if there is little chance of them being implemented. We need more people speaking wise truth.

        It is irresponsible to recommend that we build and consume more cars to increase demand for oil. If you really believe that we must increase consumption of oil, then that oil should be consumed by building something of lasting value that will improve the quality of life at our oil-less destination.

        • Tim Groves says:

          Rob, at the world level, it’s all futile, as you would appreciate if you’d ever visited the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

          As for reducing total suffering, that is a noble but totally unrealistic goal. And I say this as someone who is just oozing with compassion. We can’t even calculate or measure suffering well enough to estimate what “total suffering” might be. We would just invent a concept without any intrinsic reality.

          To live is to suffer. To live longer is to suffer more. And to be sensitive is to suffer most of all. Suffering is something that animals are designed for—it’s part of their survival toolkit—and that humans, with their overactive imaginations and finely tuned nervous systems, are adept at creating for themselves and others.

          I humbly submit that the best that can be done to reduce human suffering is to teach people to surrender to it, live in peace with it, and bear it with dignity.

          “Laughing always comes to crying,” my grandmother used to say.

          • That’s a bunch of psychobabble. I’m an engineer. Let’s be clear and specific.

            Our population is going to decline from 8 billion to somewhat less than 1 billion over the next 20-30 years as oil depletes and climate change reduces crop yields. Every person not born going forward will reduce total suffering.

            • hkeithhenson says:

              “to somewhat less than 1 billion over the next 20-30 years”

              I happen to also be an engineer, but not an oracle. You may be right, but there are millions of people working on the problems, and known solutions. Power satellites are my favorite (even if they don’t get people into space). There are also StratoSolar and various fission proposals.

          • GBV says:



            If to live is to suffer, then to end people’s lives is to end their suffering?

            I wonder if Mao and/or Stalin stumbled across that little tidbit of philosophical thinking?

            Not even the weekend yet and you’re advocating mass murder, Tim… tsk tsk 🙂


        • Robert Firth says:

          “Our population and standard of living must decrease as fossil energy depletes. This can occur voluntarily with less suffering, or involuntarily with more suffering.”

          I vote for more suffering. If our population decreases voluntarily, who will be in the lead? The intelligent, thoughtful, farsighted, responsible, earth loving, … And who will
          contract out? The stupid, thoughtless, profligate, selfish, … And what will that do to the overall quality of our species?

          I do not trust the mass of humanity, a position in which history supports me. I trust only the Four Horsemen.

      • Bob Lapsley says:

        As you say:
        “This is the way a dissipative structure works”
        I have long felt similarly. Entropy is my darling.
        At every scale with every potential.
        It would appear we are unwitting pawns; pressed full tilt bozo out of control with little, or no idea where we are headed

        • There is clearly some force that is providing the energy flows that allows all the growth that has been possible. Some have called this energy source a “god” or multiple “gods.” Sun gods have been particularly popular, because it is very evident that the sun is providing the energy that helps plants grow. Animals, in turn, eat plants and/or other animals. Without the sun, there could be (virtually) no plant of animal live. Humans first learned to augment energy from the sun with burned biomass over one million years ago. We now have other energy types as well. These supplemental forms of energy have allowed human population to explode.

          The answer to where we are headed that people/religions around the world have come up over the ages is that there must be some kind of afterlife. Perhaps the force behind all of these energy flows has some later plans for us. We don’t really know whether this is true, but we know that the self-organizing system acts we are enmeshed in acts in very strange ways. Things do seem to work together in unexpected ways. I personally view the possibility of hell as virtually zero. This was simply a story concocted to try to get people to behave the way leaders wanted them to behave.

          Whether there is possibly some more neutral or beneficial outcome we really don’t know. I see no harm in believing this view. There seem to be a lot of near-death experiences, for example, that seem to corroborate this view. People need to have a view that there is a possibility of things being better in the future. If leaders on earth cannot give this view, perhaps some religious leaders can.

          This approach seems to at least be better than making our new religion that of believing that life on earth, as we know it now, will be always available, if we simply will vote in leaders who will make the right choices. In this fictional story, “Renewables will save us,” if we ramp them up enough.

          • GBV says:

            People need to have a view that there is a possibility of things being better in the future.

            Easy. Just tell ’em limits to growth don’t exist! 🙂

            Whether I believe in heaven, a cornucopian Star Trek future, a forever-climbing stock market, etc., it all comes down to what you said Gail – selling the idea of a future that is growing in a linear fashion… to infinity and beyond!


            Interestingly, this way of thinking can be flipped on its head – everyone will die, we’ll all go to hell, the future is dystopic no matter what we do, fossil fuels are biotic and couldn’t possibly be created by anything other than dead dinosaurs so it’s going to run out, etc. Lot of that around here these days! 🙂

            There is, of course, another way of thinking – instead of seeing everything as linear, consider the patterns / cycles we see every day that lend themselves to cyclical thinking. The sun rises, but then sets… only to do so again tomorrow. Fossil fuels are created, but then depleted… only to replenish themselves once more. I am born, I grow old,
            I die… only for my descendants to do the same thing as I have once I am gone. Human society flourishes, reaches its apex,
            only to die off… and repopulate itself again one day.

            “Dissapative structures”, as a term, gets thrown around here a lot… I think it lends itself perfectly to cyclical thinking. But it’s interesting to see that people here tend to view many different things in both a linear and cyclical fashion… Wonder if some things can be both linear and cyclical at the same time?


          • Robert Firth says:

            Congratulations, Gail, you are almost a Pantheist. And here is small piece of Pantheist philosophy, courtesy of Coventry Patmore (1823 to 1896):

            Here, in this little Bay,
            Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
            Where, twice a day,
            The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
            Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
            I sit me down.

            For want of me the world’s course will not fail:
            When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
            The truth is great, and shall prevail,
            When none cares whether it prevail or not.

      • Landbeyond says:

        Leaving predestination aside for the sake of argument, isn’t it more likely that the likes of AOC – not dumb, vicious and possibly insane – will, if exposed to the relevant information, be more amenable to taking advice from those who understand the physics of the situation, and pursuing policies that might result in whatever amelioration is still possible?

        • The big question is, “What amelioration is still possible?”

          I expect that if there is any amelioration, it comes in the way of changing diets (eating less meat), pushing the countries that have excessively high birth rates to lower their birth rates (typically Moslem populations or in Sub-Saharan Africa), and maybe some geo-engineering with respect to reducing climate change gasses. A person could argue that keeping people from migrating from low energy countries to high energy countries would also be part of the solution. None of these would be very salable as solutions, however.

          It is not clear that the climate change effect of natural gas is much better than coal, especially if it is shipped long distance as LNG and methane enters the atmosphere.

          Perhaps cleaning up methane emissions would be one way to start addressing our climate problems.

  3. the point I make to the ‘renewables” aficionados:

    look around you

    mentally remove anything and everything that has within it a constituent of oil or coal or gas.

    You are now sitting naked on bare earth, starving to death.

    Then replace all that you have taken away with anything that can be manufactured exclusively from the output of a solar/windfarm or nuclear power station

    You are still sitting naked on bare earth, starving to death.

    (never fails to annoy people)

    • Artleads says:


    • hkeithhenson says:

      Norman, that’s nonsense. Energy is energy, and it does not matter one bit if the steel plant is run on coal, falling water, natural gas, wind or solar. Cutting coal out of the mix and oil out of transportation would require adjustment, but it certainly could be done over time.

      • if i go away and bury my head in the sand close enough to where you’ve buried your head

        we can continue this conversation there

        even though what we’ve left sticking up in the air might be a justifiable temptation to passing strangers

        (I heard there’s a vacancy on The Don’s energy advisory committee)

      • Right. But the intermittent wind and solar that we get from the system here needs a whole lot of upgrades to be used by the industrial system. That is another issue that I didn’t mention here. The inverters coming out of home systems don’t do enough.

        A lot of steel is made through a two step process: Pig iron is made with coal and iron ore, and then the pig iron is made into steel in a steel plant. The steel plant often runs using electricity, but the first step is less likely to run off only electricity.

        One thing I discovered as I was doing this is how much coal is used in combined heat and power right now. I know that approach is very common in China and in Sweden. Paul-Frederik Bach from Sweden says that subsidized intermittent electricity tends to push the combined heat and power off the grid. This is not a good way to help the efficiency of the system.

        By the way, this is a chart of world coal usage that I put together using an exhibit of IEA. The chart really represents the first stop of the coal, whether it is an electric power plant, or combined heat and power, or it goes to some form of industry.

        • i was thinking of the chair you sit on, the food in the fridge, the infinite complexity behind your computer screen, the bricks that hold your house up, the roof that keeps the rain out, the pipes that remove your wastes, the glass in your windows, the clothes on your back

          steel plants are just a part of that

          • hkeithhenson says:

            There is not a single thing you mention that can’t be accomplished by another energy source.

            BTW, any reasonable renewable energy proposal includes a provision to make liquid transport fuels. Take a look at the StratoSolar web site for example.

            • I will bear it in mind

              Unless I lose my mind banging my head on this keyboard

            • Tim Groves says:

              Keith and Norman,

              I think you are both right.

              In order for us to accomplish all these things using another energy source, we need to build a secure ladder to get us up to the technological level that would allow these things to be done.

              In the past, we successfully built a ladder up from burning recently formed biomass at the earth’s surface such as wood and straw, to burning more ancient biomass (and possibly non biomass) from beneath the surface, and now we are half-heartedly about building a ladder up to another level, such as nuclear or sun and wind generated electricity, that we are not sure will be worth climbing. Some of us would like to keep building and climbing. Others think that’s a fool’s errand and would prefer to climb down.

              We probably faced a similar problem when some of us wanted to climb down from the trees to forage while others preferred to wait for the next crop of tree nuts to mature.

        • hkeithhenson says:

          “The inverters coming out of home systems don’t do enough.”

          I am curious why you think they don’t do enough.

          “A lot of steel is made through a two-step process:”

          That’s true, but making pig iron in a blast furnace is a dying process. At least half is made in electric arc furnaces. And while most of them use scrap, a substantial number are using direct reduced sponge iron. Today they use natural gas to reduce the iron, but hydrogen from electricity would work as well or even better.

          Given time (which we might or might not have) engineers can rework industrial processes. They have to stay inside what physics and chemistry permits, but that’s a fair amount of leeway.

          I was thinking about a steel mill I visited last year. They fire up the electric furnace and leave it going for weeks, drawing about 50 MW. Could it be run on intermittent power? Say solar 6 hours a day or wind that quits from time to time. Probably, though it would take considerable rework to deal with the heat cycling damage to the refractory. The plant would also have to be increased in size by 4-6 times for the same yearly output and the steel would cost more.

          That alone would not affect the standard of living very much because steel is a relatively small factor in industrial output.

      • Sheila chambers says:

        There is energy & then their is ENERGY!
        Our muscle, wind, water, wood & animal muscle is little energy, oil,coal & natural gas is ENERGY writ LARGE! It’s not all the same. It takes far more time & effort to make ONE ax of iron using just wood & muscle than it takes a modern steel mill to make thousands of STEEL axes, THAT’S the difference.
        Sure with enough time & effort, you can do much of the same work with muscle, wood, water & wind as with oil but you will be long DEAD before the job is finished!
        We will have neither the TIME or RESOURCES to keep BAU going without OIL, COAL OR NATURAL GAS.
        “Renewables” are fine for watches, small radio’s & LED lanterns as long as the OIL age lasts to manufacture them, but “renewables” are worthless for manufacturing, transportation or food growing.
        The end of the fossil RESOURCE age means the end for most of us & this civilization.

        • Hooray

          You are hereby presented with a gold clock


          “Sheila Chambers gets it”

          I happen to possess a hand forged axe, rescued from a junkstore years ago. I treasure it because the hammer marks of the man who made it are on it, I feel privileged to have it until it goes to someone else, who might just see what I see.
          I’d dearly love to know how old it is, and how long it took to make it.

          • Sheila chambers says:

            I hope that “gold watch” is a WIND UP WATCH!
            As for the AX, lucky you & I expect you can find how much work & time it took to produce it by finding an experienced black smith or perhaps a museum that has old hand forged tools or a good library could give you that info or now while it’s still up, the all mighty INTERNET would have the answer.
            Youtube is also a great resource for such info, just ask in the “search” window. I bet you can find some blacksmith showing us how an metal ax was made before the fossil resource age.

      • Robert Firth says:

        Thank you, Keith. It is hard to argue with a tautology such as “energy is energy”, but I’ll try.

        The issue is not just energy, but energy flux density. Our industrial society is built around the assumption that we can concentrate energy as much as is necessary to get the job done. Coal can run steam engines; kerosene enabled heavier than air flight, and electricity enabled us to smelt aluminium, which before 1856 was the most expensive metal you could buy.

        It seems clear to me that this cannot be done effectively with renewables. If so, we must restructure all our modern processes around a much lower energy flux density. For example, the Airbus 380 needs 250,000 HP from four engines. The Hindenburg had over ten times the space, and needed only 3400 HP. In fact, with fully efficient thin film solar, the Hindenburg could have been run using only the sunlight falling on its envelope.

        (Approx 250m long x 40m diameter, area subtended about 8000 m2 , insolation 250 watt/m2 gives power of 2000 kw; in fact the maximum power of the real engines was about 2500 kw.)

        It would be a gentler world, and in my view a better one.

        • I needed to look up “energy flux density.”

          This is one short description I found:

          Energy flux density can be defined as the rate of energy transferred per unit surface area.

          It has several significances

          1.used to calculate power of a particular system

          2.used to find an area of surface

        • hkeithhenson says:

          “The issue is not just energy, but energy flux density. ”

          That’s true. But consider an electric steel furnace. The 50 MWs a typical one uses can come from any source of electric power including intermittent wind or solar. Of course as “quality” of energy goes, you can’t beat electricity.

          “The Hindenburg had over ten times the space, and needed only 3400 HP. In fact, with fully efficient thin-film solar, the Hindenburg could have been run using only the sunlight falling on its envelope.” During the day, yes. But given all that hydrogen, you could run the engines on fuel cells during the night and replace it with electrolysis during the day

          I think you should normalize by the number of passengers. Also, I don’t think the average power used by an A380 is anything close to takeoff peak.

          Still, I must say that if you are not in a hurry, cruse ship mode, such a ship would be amusing, possibly even profitable.

    • Sheila chambers says:

      I too get very annoyed at those “renewable” believers who forget that electricity is just a fraction of the energy we use & “renewables” produce NONE of the essential RAW MATERIALS we now get from fossil RESOURCES.
      They also overlook that most of our FOOD, FIBER & FOOD OILS would not exist without fossil resources, “renewables” produce NONE of that either.
      I keep telling them, sure you might still have the lights on thanks to your solar panels & the EMPTY fridge is still humming but YOU will be STARVING!

      • Robert Firth says:

        Um … maybe the history I learned was wrong, but it seems to me we had abundant quantities of “food, fibre and food oils” well before we discovered fossil fuel.

        The Roman Empire imported food from Egypt and North Africa. Fibre was native, except for silk, which they imported from China by way of the longest trade route in the world. And as for food oils, I refer you to the story of olive oil, which I still import from local farmers in my immediate neighbourhood.

        Indeed, about 80% of the food I eat is grown locally, which is to say, on 67 km2 of a Mediterranean island. Which, as you might have suspected, is one of the reasons I chose this as my retirement home.

        • hkeithhenson says:

          “Um … maybe the history I learned was wrong, but it seems to me we had abundant quantities of “food, fibre and food oils” well before we discovered fossil fuel.”

          The effect of abundant food prior to the industrial revolution was that the population grew to where the food was no longer abundant. Then famine, war and/or disease knocked the population back.

          From Clark’s Genetically Capitalist?:

          The basic outline of world economic history is surprisingly
          simple. Indeed it can be summarized in one diagram: figure 1.
          Before 1800 income per capita varied across societies and epochs,
          but there was no upward trend. A simple but powerful mechanism,
          the Malthusian Trap, kept incomes within a range narrow by
          modern standards. The average person in 1800 was no better off
          in material terms than the average person of 10,000 or 100,000
          . . .

          It is common to assume that the huge changes in the technology
          available to people, and in the organizational complexity of
          societies, between our ancestors of the savannah and Industrial
          Revolution England, must have improved material life even
          before modern economic growth began. But the logic of the
          natural economy implies that the material living standards of the
          average person in the agrarian economies of 1800 was, if anything,
          worse than for our remote ancestors.

          I find Clark’s work to be fundamental to understanding what is going on ane what is likely to happen.

        • Sheila chambers says:

          Your right of course but you left out one little detail, the entire world population at that time was only a few hundred million far from today’s 7.7 BILLION & still GROWING!
          Another little detail is I suspect, your locally grown food uses large amounts of fossil resources as fuel, fertilizer & in processing. I bet their not using a ox to plow heir fields or haul their crops to market are they.

          Resources & productive land is LIMITED & thanks to OIL, we have gone far far FAR beyond our natural limits which was less than 2 billion humans.
          Today, much good, rich, productive land has been built over, paved over or is so degraded/contaminated that it will be a very long time before it can be productive again.
          We can’t just go back to the ways we lived before oil, billions of us will have to “go away” first.

          • Robert Firth says:

            Good points, Sheila, so let me provide a little more detail. My balcony looks out over the local farmland, so I get to see a lot.

            The soil is not ploughed at all: it is harrowed, which is a far more sustainable approach. And the fertiliser is animal manure: the farmer next door keeps bullocks, and sells their output. And we don’t have a farmers’ market: the farmers drive small trucks, piled high with produce, and visit every street in the village in turn. Yes, it needs fossil fuel, but far, far less than would be used if everybody drove to a central farmers’ market. And, at a pinch, a couple of those bullocks could do the same job, at about the same speed.

            My major non local consumption is wine, which is imported (by sea) from Southern Italy in cardboard boxes. And the wine I drink is made by communes using traditional agriculture.
            But a confession: I buy Latvian vodka, which is the furthest import. The brand name, by the way, is Laika, after a certain dog you may remember.

            • Sheila chambers says:

              Laika, I remember her, first living thing to orbit earth, what a horrible way that poor little dog died, terrified, hot & suffocating!
              Rather sounds like our future doesn’t it.
              You seem to have chosen your homestead well, close to good farmland & real farmers & everyone needs some luxuries, even your vodka could come by ox cart.
              Here where I live, we have farmland but the soil is very poor, too much rain & it’s cool & damp, many of our food crops don’t like that either but potatoes won’t mind & I expect cabbages, carrots & other root crops could do well as will cattle & sheep but not goats or horses. Our rivers still have a good salmon runs but with climate disruption, how much longer?
              It seems too many people just can’t appreciate what an amazing world we live on.

              Our “educational” system has failed us in so many ways, SCIENCE isn’t getting the prominence it deserves, that’s why so many of us are still back in the 8th century BCE & still believe in things we now KNOW aren’t true!
              Now we face so many dangers coming from so many directions, how do you “prep” for that?

  4. hkeithhenson says:

    Of course, there are proposed renewable energy sources that avoid all the problems with intermittency. The problem for power satellite (as an example) is cost. But when the cost to orbit gets to $100/kg, power satellites look like the least expensive way to get energy. Overbuild them by 3 or 4 times the electrical demand and the excess can be used to make synthetic fuel.

    Such a project would require rational analysis. The alternative of a population crash may be more likely.

    • Dennis L. says:

      Ah, I assume the idea is to collect energy that might otherwise bypass the earth and thus be concentrated into electricity. Does the term global warming apply here? The calculation has been done, growth results in a surface temperature in excess of two hundred degrees F or something like that. Nope, growth is geometric, it won’t work even if it could be made to work. If we were to place sufficient ground solar collectors those are black, more absorption of solar energy, more global warming, with requirement of more air conditioning with the requirement of more solar, I think you get the idea.
      Seems the limits to growth are at hand, bummer.

      Dennis L.

      • Tim Groves says:

        Theoretically, if economic growth continued so enough extra sunlight was harnessed and beamed down, it would eventually warm the earth’s surface appreciably. However, as part of a Georgia Guidestones guided neofuedalist society with severe limits on anything growing beyond pre-defined limits, a few dozen space based plants could be just what we need.

        The earth has a pretty good passive method of maintaining its goldilocks temperature. The hotter it gets, the faster heat is radiated into the vast energy sink of space. A moderate amount of spaced based solar power wouldn’t change that to a noticeable extent. The idea of collecting sunlight in space rather than down here at the surface is that it would be a much more efficient way of harnessing the energy.

        • hkeithhenson says:

          It takes about 3000 5 GW power satellites to replace the 15,000 GW humans currently use.

          Otherwise, you got it correct.

        • doomphd says:

          you’re missing the important point that beaming down space solar energy as microwave will be used to generate power plus heat. we don’t need moron heat trapped on the surface, which will contribute the global warming. continuing BAU growth will extinct us; stopping or even scaling back BAU growth will extinct us. it’s a predicament. there are no solutions that we would collectively find palatable.

          • doomphd says:

            correction: if the space power is replacing FF, then that is OK from a planetary warming viewpoint. the culprit is CO2 stored in the atmosphere and ocean reservoirs from past FF use. no way to easily reduce this amount, even if all of the present FF use was displaced by space solar and/or fusion energy, or drastically reduced by societal collapse.

      • Robert Firth says:

        Yes, Dennis, with power satellites we could fry the Earth. Which of course was one of the objectives of the original, military, space race.

        But there is an excellent source of global warming much closer to hand: nuclear power. About 65% of the energy a power plant creates is lost as waste heat at the generation site; the transformers and the grid lose another 15%. So with nuclear energy we would employ 20% of the output to run civilisation, and 80% to fry the planet. By contract, hydro power is about 80% efficient, and old fashioned windmills 90%. Not to mention that both capture energy that already exists, and would otherwise heat rivers or shake trees.

        • I have heard the story you are telling many times, but I have come to the conclusion that it is distorted. The energy that humans generally consume in their economy is heat energy. It is only as we add more complexity that we are able to include electrical energy. Electrical energy is type that is most difficult for an economy go get started and will be most difficult to keep going for the long term. Even wind storms disturb electricity distribution! Oil and coal are much more flexible and have a better chance of lasting, at least for a while.

          I think of electricity from coal and natural gas as being to some sense, “predissipated.” Much of the heat energy has been lost. Using this predissipated energy to cook food is not efficient.

          If you look at the data, there is a significant share of “combined heat and power,” especially in China and places that are not dedicated to making certain that each person has their heating just as they would prefer it. This is the world breakdown of coal consumption (by first user), based on IEA data. Electric power plants are the first user of 46% of world coal consumption; combined heat and power plants use 17% of world coal consumption. These combined heat and power plants make use of the heat energy that would otherwise be lost.

          If we wanted to cut our energy consumption, we (in theory) could do as other countries do and operate combined heat and power plants, to use some of the “wasted” energy. Unfortunately, doing this would require moving the generation sites closer to users, or moving users closer to generation sites. Also, from a pollution point of view, this approach causes problems. I saw many coal-fired power plants in the middle of cities in China, when I visited there.

          The intermittent electricity from wind, solar, and water is not in place or the timeframe where it is needed. It also needs to be in some sense changed to match the needs of the electric grid. There is a substantial loss in trying to fix electricity from wind and solar to grid standards. One issue is lack of the proper inertia from these devices. Another issue relates to voltage regulation and “reserves of reactive power.” When all of the needs to “fix” the wind and solar electricity to what the grid really needs, there is a significant reduction between the “gross energy output” and the true net contribution of these devices to the grid. Batteries are one way of fixing the timing issue, at least for the short term, but there are other issues as well.

          The losses from the intermittent electricity are just as real as the frequently measured heat losses when fossil fuels are burned to create electricity. We just can’t count the energy cost of all of the adjustments needed very well. Furthermore, when what we really want is heat energy, most of the time, electricity is not the most efficient way of solving our problems.

          We really need a way without too much complexity, so that a higher share of the cost goes back to the workers who involved in the process. Picking up branches or dung, and burning it is the ultimate in low cost, low complexity generation. Unfortunately, in some sense, this is what the economy operates best on. Hunter-gatherers used this approach for a long time.

        • hkeithhenson says:

          ” with power satellites we could fry the Earth.”

          I don’t think that is the case. There is room in GEO for something like 12,000 5 GW power satellites. 3000 of them will replace all the current human energy use. They are rather efficient, around 85% at converting microwaves to electrical power. As you point out, it’s a lot more efficient than nuclear power. Of course, all that power eventually degrades to heat, but 60 TW over the whole earth is not a really large amount.

          Growing beyond about 4 times the current energy use will require moving much of the population into space habitats off-planet.

    • Sheila chambers says:

      HOW do you get the space generated electricity down to where we can use it? It may be cloudless in space but the earth has many clouds to reflect that energy right back out into space again.
      Cables are out, too heavy, they would break just from their weight & that weight would also drag the satellite out of orbit, transmit it back to earth, through those clouds? How much would be lost to ABSORBTION or REFLECTION by clouds & atmosphere?
      What would happen if something living or a aircraft intercepted the energy beam, crispy critter?
      I still think we are due for COLLAPSE of the excessive population down to about 500 million to one billion max.

      • easy

        Musk rents space on his space ships to take batteries into orbit

        they are charged up and brought back to earth for general use—a sort of vertical conveyor belt

        • Sheila chambers says:

          Oh my, & HOW MUCH WILL THAT COST? Batteries are a LOW DENSITY storage device & VERY HEAVY, I bet far more energy will have been expended just getting it into orbit than they can bring back to earth.
          Next –

        • Sheila chambers says:

          Very amusing! We both know that batteries are a low density & very HEAVY storage device so I think it would take more energy to get them into orbit for charging than what they can drop back to earth.
          Next –

          • you can always trust a woman to spot the faults in a man’s genius

            You wouldn’t believe the number of billion dollar wheezes I’ve lost out on because of that

            • Sheila chambers says:

              So sorry about that mate, but you should have launched those batteries with a helium balloon attached to reduce it’s weight & a parashoot to ease it down gently.
              You know, if you can get enough politicians to cooperate, they could spew enough hot air to get that battery into orbit, free!
              Too bad their hot air isn’t hotter or it could run a turbine or two & we could finally get some useful WORK from those lying laggards!

      • Yorchichan says:

        Energy is transmitted to the earth as microwaves. I assume the amount of energy absorbed by clouds or atmosphere is negligible.

        (Keith can probably provide much better links.)

        • Sheila chambers says:

          NEVER ASSUME!
          That was the first thing I was told when I started to work for a large military contractor, was NEVER ASSUME- KNOW!

          • Tim Groves says:

            That’s good advice.

            We wouldn’t want to turn the earth into a huge microwave oven, would we?

            However, I am going to ASSUME that the engineers involved KNOW about this one.

          • Yorchichan says:

            The assumption that advocates of space based solar had not considered how the energy would be transferred to the surface of the earth was rather more silly than my assumption.

            • I explained all that but Ms Chambers punctured my balloon

            • Sheila chambers says:

              There is a helium shortage, your balloon was sinking any way.
              Have they worked out the # of solar panel satelite/transmitters they would need, what it would cost to get them into orbit, how many receivers & storage systems they would need & where will they get the $$$ for such a large project?
              But still how are they actually planning to transmit the electricity back to earth? What if something gets in the way of that beam?
              What if some curious little boy puts his telescope mirror in the beam & it goes back to the source? So many “what if’s”.
              Anyhow, when you dig into the details, it looks less & less doable.
              You’ll have better luck getting a helium balloon into orbit.

      • Robert Firth says:

        “I still think we are due for COLLAPSE of the excessive population down to about 500 million to one billion max.”

        Sheila, heartfelt thanks. I was a little unkind to a previous post of yours, so let me here agree with you almost to the letter. i did the calculation myself, some years ago. What is the maximum sustainable population of the Earth, absent fossil fuel?

        I took two societies that were sustainable: Mediaeval Europe and Edo Japan, and scaled them up. The result: the maximum was about 1.2 billion, at subsistence level. Assume also some kind of civilisation, and we have 500 to 600 million.

        Fifteen years later, I stand by those numbers. In my opinion, you are right,

        • hkeithhenson says:

          ” What is the maximum sustainable population of the Earth, absent fossil fuel?”

          I think you should add “or something equivalent.” Nuclear would do it, power satellites would, possibly StratoSolar. It is even possible–given enough development–that solar/wind and batteries might be enough.

          There is still a limit of course. Where that is, I don’t know.

    • DJ says:

      What does it cost to get to orbit today?
      What will drive down the price?
      How much energy does it minimum take to get a kg to orbit?

      • DJ says:

        Google: $2500/kg

        • hkeithhenson says:

          “Google: $2500/kg”

          Close enough. The projected costs for reusable rockets are $10 million for 100 tons.

          That’s $100/kg and right on target for power from space that undercuts all fossil fuel power.

          Energy to reach GEO is 14.75 kWh/kg. But that assumes something like a space elevator.

  5. Richard Ha says:

    We are lucky in Hawaii. We have geothermal. The earth is the battery

    • Right. The intermittency is the real killer. And your demand is constant all year, unlike a lot of places.

    • doomphd says:

      40 MW geothermal power on Hawaii island does not make a big dent into 2.5 GW usage on Oahu island. most of the 2.5 GW is from burning imported bunker oil, coal and waste-to-energy plants. solar PV and wind provide “boutique” energy and useful PR.

  6. Pingback: Rethinking Renewable Mandates | Damn the Matrix

  7. Shane says:

    Reading your invaluable work has convinced me of the same idea. The momentum in this enormous system we created over generations is too great to change in any meaningful way in our own lifetimes. The system has a life of its own and an inescapable fate on the horizon. Civilisations are super organisms with their own birth, growth and death. What interests me more now is what self contained subsystems could spin off our current civilisation with the potential to endure through a dark age of sorts and grow into a new civilisation when conditions are ripe in the distant future. My guess is that the knowledge gained through study of biology and genetics can decouple from its industrial base. A dozen simple tricks to allow microbiology, mutation, changes in ploidy, interspecies hybridisation to develop novel species, domestication of wild species and better insights into selective breeding could produce an entirely different society, as unimaginable to us today as the great cities of Babylon and Egypt would have been to a Palaeolithic band of hunter-gatherers. All of these tools were used by lucky accident to create the foundation for those great cities and returning to them with deeper understandings could lead to interesting places.

    • GBV says:

      The momentum in this enormous system we created over generations is too great to change in any meaningful way in our own lifetimes. The system has a life of its own and an inescapable fate on the horizon.

      Just a suggestion, but perhaps people should try focusing less on the destination and more on the journey?

      You’re right, of course, to suggest we can’t change the system in any meaningful way independently. But that doesn’t mean a person can’t change their own life – consume less, become more self-sufficient, develop a greater understanding and appreciation for the natural world – and by doing so, thus change the lens with which they see the world and its future.

      Perhaps doing so would allow them to focus more on themselves and their existence in the world around them, possibly providing a greater sense of peace and/or belonging than any theoretical future dreamscape could offer?

      Just a thought anyway!


    • It is hard to figure out anything that can decouple and live in a world with not much more than a lot of deeply rutted dirt roads that cannot be used by wheeled carts.

      The easiest ones to think of making it through are those near the bottom now. These would be those who are currently hunter gathers, and perhaps a few people living using subsistence agriculture in warm climates.

      I can’t believe that the Internet or the cloud will last for long. Even paper books have limited lifetimes. If we are going to pass on specialized knowledge, after today’s books are gone, we have to pass on the knowledge by people memorizing the parts they consider important. This is what people did a few thousand years ago.

      • Tim Groves says:

        So over the long term, you don’t think we should be worrying unduly about all our “data” being forever floating in the Cloud where it can be read by all sorts of grubby and nefarious individuals?

        • Xabier says:

          The Techno-Chumps will one realise just how appropriate naming it ‘The Cloud’ was: vast towering pillars one minute, and the next minute……. gone!

          They are highly amusing in their vanity and fantasies.

          ‘We are such stuff’, etc. Prospero breaks his staff, puts aside his books, and leaves the magical island which he held under his spell……

        • This data in the cloud isn’t any more permanent than everything else in our system.

          Printed out photos at least are a bit more permanent than those in the cloud.

    • It has been already done.
      It’s referred to in various terms be it permaculture, rejuvenation-reconstruction agri etc. Surely, in practical implementation it differs slightly from on particular biome and climate zone to another, but in the pursuit of overall goal to gain small surplus (civilization) from the environment and biosphere is possible. So, if we strip down the industries, current techno cities layers etc. it would likely top at the level of village monastery complexities of the past, which is good enough to preserve some core knowledge and have ~99% settled folk in the countryside, stone paved roads for some short arteries and market places. Good enough..

      • Xabier says:

        Yes, quite good enough for a fully human life in every respect. Even the religion, which man truly needs. To my delight, I have a few Cistercian abbots in my family tree – lovely Romanesque monasteries in the Pyrenees: a dream!

        But back to reality.

        The challenge, practically, would be to get from A (the techno-industrial globalised screw-up) to B (regional, localised, low-surplus civilisation) .

        The original monastic foundations arose from a solid agricultural base and network of villages which was in fact largely untouched, although modified, by the rise and fall of empires, except in those areas suffering fatal and irreversible soil erosion, and salt-poisoning through irrigation.

        They soon got the barbarian kings and queens to give them land, money and serfs, and even join the crew (this village was owned by an Abbess from the Dark Ages until the Reformation, and the first one was a princess ). Note: inequality and private land rights -secular or divine -were essential to establishing the monastic farming system. Also, kings who were damn good at cutting off heads when needed, and who felt the need to hedge bets against divine punishment for their inevitable sins. Democrats need not apply.

        Our problem is that we have destroyed that rural peasant base, living seasonally, nearly everywhere: it is part of the logic of Industrialism and urbanisation.

        And where it survives, in part, new, rather pernicious, weather patterns might well do them in, farming as they do soils over-burdened by too many people courtesy of the WHO, synthetic fertilisers and antibiotics. And all that deforestation.

        There are no sturdy peasants, no enduring rural structures, left on which to build it, in most regions.

        When Rome fell in the West, the conditions for recovery of a kind, and on a new pattern, were actually pretty good: soils and forests that recovered as the population dropped and the cities disappeared; highly skilled, mentally and physically tough rural workers, livestock suited to their climate zone – not so for us, I’m afraid. We’ve even buggered the animals up, making them unable to survive outside, on mountains and moors…..

        What the blogger ‘James’ calls the ‘Megacancer’, industrial civilisation, has been far too successful.

        • Great summary post, thanks!
          Yes, I’m aware of the poor chances of “running the clock backwards” on such described long drawn oneway historical processes, but my gut feeling is that it will be at least attempted somewhere.

          Nevertheless, I’m hinting on more of a desperate rehash out of necessity of sorts rather than complete replay-reanimation of these past structures. For one thing as you rightly mentioned, the tapestry of rural life and economy has been completely changed by the fossil fuel surplus of past decades (century+). But what I referred to is the existing nucleus of perma/bio intensive farm establishments, yes their numbers is minuscule, yes they are presently soaked in various offsite inputs be it fuels to machinery parts etc., however and importantly the methodology of working the land is sound, albeit with potential with reaching very small surplus in comparison with present time. We can see them as “islands of deviation”, nucleus of the future of some probability.

        • Robert Firth says:

          Xabier: no contest, no comment: you are right. Thank you, and Blessed Be.

        • hkeithhenson says:

          “I have a few Cistercian abbots in my family tree”

          Wow. Given the lifestyle of these monks, how did you manage to get them in your tree?,

  8. david higham says:

    Re. the dependence on fossil fuels to feed the current ‘Bubble’ population:
    David Pimental’s analysis in ‘Food,Energy and Society’ shows that when the energy requirements
    of food production,processing and transportation are included,industrial agriculture uses about ten calories of fossil fuel energy for each calorie of food energy obtained. Albert Bartlett correctly
    described industrial agriculture as a system for using land to convert oil into food.
    The much-touted ‘efficiency’ of industrial agriculture is in terms of man-hours labour per quantum
    of food produced. Energy efficiency is a different matter. As a comparison, a New Guinea
    highlander growing sweet potatoes (no fossil fuel energy input) obtains about twelve calories of food energy for each calorie of energy expended (human muscle energy ), or about 120
    times more energy-efficient than the industrial average.
    Another facet of the dependence of industrial agriculture on fossil fuel is the Haber-Bosch process,which supplies the ‘fixed’nitrogen required for the growth of plants,and ultimately the
    protein in your body. Vaclav Smil in his book on the Haber-Bosch process,’Enriching the Earth’,
    estimates that without the additional nitrogen supplied by it,the maximum human population that
    could be supported on the land area now used for food production is around three billion.
    Smil is a techno-optimist,and when the negative effects of the Haber-Bosch process are considered,it would have been more accurate to title his book ‘Devastating the Earth’. Those negative effects of adding huge quantities of ‘fixed’nitrogen to the natural nitrogen cycle include
    the eutrophication of rivers,vast ocean dead zones (in combination with phosphorous run-off),
    nitrate pollution of aquifers,and nitrous oxide increasing the severity of the greenhouse effect.

    • At this point, we are degrading the quality of the soil and interfering with natural cycles. I am not sure how much can be done about it, however. We don’t have a good way of fixing the system that I can see.

      • david higham says:

        There isn’t. The optimists (Ugo Bardi for example ) who think that if we can operate the Haber-Bosch process on ‘renewable’ energy,we have solved the problem are deluding themselves. Even if that is possible,the negative effects that I have mentioned remain.
        The largest negative effect of the Haber-Bosch process,of course,is that it has enabled
        a much larger human population than could otherwise exist. The other demands on the
        ecosystem as a result of that population then increase as well.

  9. charmianl says:

    The one major “source” not considered here appears to be reducing demand for energy. Changing transport to public transport – buses, trains, etc saves significant energy as does insulating buildings and driving efficiency in industry. Many studies show that we can cut our energy demand by half and still have a good standard of living. Maybe not as wasteful as in the USA..
    Another key way to cut energy demand is to change to electric vehicles – taking only one third of the energy of similar fossil fuel combustion vehicles and also by changing heating systems to heat pumps. These also use only one third of the commercial energy to do the same task – the rest coming from air, water or the ground, assuming an average COP of 3.
    The result of doing this for areas I have studied indicate that total energy demand can be reduced by nearly a half, the residual demand can then be met from renewables in conjunction with storage. Storage technology is dramatically advancing and now includes viable pumped storage, 600 degC gravel storage to generate electricity when needed as well as batteries. Some options do not use scarce resources, so will be more achievable over time.
    Also not understood here is the fact that many renewable energy manufacturers are now moving to use renewables in their factories and assembly locations. Steel making is also aiming to move this way ( see the aims of Tata Steel in S Wales to use a proposed tidal barrage for its electricity supply), and mines in South America also use PV and wind along with underground electric vehicles to both reduce energy needs and be more sustainable ( well less unsustainable in the case of a mine).
    It is important when considering our energy future to also look at how we can and must reduce demand and how that can be done with suitable technology, energy efficiency regulations and behaviour change.

    • have you considered the amount of fossil fuel energy needed to create the severn tidal barrage

      plus all the ancilliary stuff?

      • Tim Groves says:

        Norman, you’re thinking too small!

        The Pharaohs managed to solve problems on this scale to create incredible humongous pyramids without burning a single fossil. If Boris can emulate the Pharaohs, we can solve our national energy, unemployment and health problems at a single stroke.

        This is Egypt land, Egypt land
        We’re all living in Egypt land…

        • I assume you jest

          but in case you’re not, the Egyptian’s life business was to invest in death

          we save for a pension and add to it for our working lives. they saved for a tomb. There were professional tomb builders, who built for your eventual death–your afterlife was your retirement

          the more money you had—the bigger tomb you could build. Just like your modern pension.

          So the pharoahs got the biggest and best because they had the most energy available to pay for it—hence the pyramids

          They could do that because Egypt delivered all the food they needed without too much effort–they used food as money. You paid the tomb builders with your excess food.

          Which is the same as we do now–you invest in your retirement using the excess from your wages

          nothing changes.

          • The size and furnishings of your tomb gives your family status. It gives verification to how much of the energy resources your family group could personally hoard. Clearly, Egypt had a lot of surplus energy that it could use however they chose. Today, we use our surplus energy to do life extending surgery on pet animals, for example. Sizes (or at least prices) of individual homes in the US have gotten more and more absurd. How many square feet and computer controlled appliances do people really need?

            I saw an article today saying that new, expensive baby diapers are out that will report on the quality/amount of the baby’s sleep. I suppose this will become the new status symbol for new mothers.

    • You and I use demand to mean two different things. Demand, in my vocabulary, is “what people can afford.” It is easy to cut demand by raising interest rates, so that people can’t afford homes or vehicles. Raising taxes has a similar impact. Sending jobs to India or China are other ways to reduce demand.

      Cutting demand tends to lower oil, coal and gas production. Members of OPEC and others cut back production, because they cannot afford to operate their economies with such low prices. I think that this is likely the way the economy eventually collapses.

      One of the big things that goes away without fossil fuels (or very much fewer fossil fuels) is jobs, other than very low -level agricultural jobs. Without jobs, there is no need for busses, because people have no jobs to go to. We also will be unable to pave roads, so that makes buses less of an option.

      For any energy option to work, it really needs to be a cheaper alternative to what we have now. It also cannot require too much of a person’s time. For example, sitting on a bus three hours in the morning and afternoon is not really an option for most people.

    • Sheila chambers says:

      So you can save 1/2 our current energy use, then in 30 years or less, the population might have doubled, then what?
      You can never outrun the baby making machine, we have to stop it & reverse it nothing less will do. Just working to FEED MORE GROWTH is self defeating, we have done that for generations & look at the unsustainable mess we are now in.
      Growth must END, growth WILL END one way or another & we have “chosen” to collapse.

      • Wolfbay says:

        The baby making machine has been reversed for educated people, environmentalists, and feminists. The baby making machine is going strong among religious fundamentalists and uneducated women. Their offspring will tend to not be environmentalists or feminists.

    • That’s all jolly good, but even with stellar execution of ~50% energy savings programme, depletion of legacy energy supporting structure [needed] for such system, i.e. ongoing depletion of fossil fuels, will eventually catch you mid run and bite you in the neck, say mere 2-3x decades after you start seriously with such mitigation scheme or likely even way earlier as it ruptures first some “unforeseen” part of the complex system.

    • DJ says:

      Money = energy.

      EV (currently) costs more energy per km.

      • Yes, because they can’t be mass produced for practical purposes (hw speeds crash proof) at certain size/weight/large pack for range, hence elevated price (even entry level starting at EUR25k), because these EVs !also! most importantly include part of the usually off-car (systemic) infrastructure by the way of large on board battery pack, which could be fueled-charged up by many means. In comparison highish octane gasoline is almost impossible to homebrew, and contemporary ultra modern diesel engines on the other hand lost the diy fuel option of older generation (say engines upto early 1990s) anyway.

  10. GBV says:

    The only real way of handling seasonal intermittencies is by having fossil fuel or nuclear plants available for backup. (Battery backup does not seem to be feasible for such huge quantities for such long periods.) These back-up plants cannot sit idle all year to provide these services. They need trained staff who are willing and able to work all year. Unfortunately, the pricing system does not provide enough funds to adequately compensate these backup systems for those times when their services are not specifically required by the grid.

    I think you already stumbled onto the solution to this problem earlier in your article Gail – just move those windmill families into the nuclear power plants and let them run the place… 🙂


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