Electricity won’t save us from our oil problems

Almost everyone seems to believe that our energy problems are primarily oil-related. Electricity will save us.

I recently gave a talk to a group of IEEE electricity researchers (primarily engineers) about the current energy situation and how welcoming it is for new technologies. Needless to say, this group did not come with the standard mindset. They wanted to understand what the electricity situation really is. They are very aware that intermittent renewables, including wind and solar, present many challenges. They didn’t come with the preconceived notion that oil is the problem and electricity will save us.

It wasn’t until I sat down and looked at the electricity situation that I realized how worrying it really is. Intermittent wind and solar cannot stand on their own. They also cannot scale up to the necessary level in the required time period. Instead, the way they are added to the grid artificially depresses wholesale electricity prices, driving other forms of generation out of business. While intermittent wind and solar may sound sustainable, the way that they are added to the electric grid tends to push the overall electrical system toward collapse. They act like parasites on the system.

We end up with an electricity situation parallel to the chronic low-price problem we have for oil. Prices for producers, all along the electricity supply chain, fall too low. Of course, consumers don’t complain about this problem. The electricity system also becomes more fragile, as we depend to an ever greater extent on electricity supplies that may or may not be available at a reasonable price at a given point in time. The full extent of the problem doesn’t become apparent immediately, either. We end up with both the electrical and oil systems speeding in the direction of collapse, while most observers are saying, “But prices aren’t high. How can there possibly be a problem?”

Simply removing the subsidies that come from Production Tax Credits doesn’t fix the situation either. In one sense, the problem reflects a combination of many types of direct and indirect subsidies, including state mandates and the requirement that intermittent renewables be allowed to go first. In another sense, the problem is that, in a self-organizing economy, energy prices (including electricity prices) can only rise temporarily. The increase in energy prices is made possible by a growing debt bubble. At some point, this debt bubble collapses. Raising interest rates, as the US is doing now, is a good way of collapsing the debt bubble.

Furthermore, the subsidies for intermittent wind and solar discourage other innovation because they lead to terribly low wholesale prices for innovators to compete against, particularly in areas where hour by hour competitive rating is done. The ultimate problem is that if one type of electricity production is subsidized (even if in subtle ways), all electricity producers must be subsidized. Governments cannot possibly afford such widespread subsidies.

A PDF of my presentation can be found at this link: An Electricity Perspective on the Fragile State of the Economy. In this article, I offer some comments on these slides.

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Why Globalization Reaches Limits

We have been living in a world of rapid globalization, but this is not a condition that we can expect to continue indefinitely.

Figure 1. Ratio of Imported Goods and Services to GDP. Based in FRED data for IMPGS.

Figure 1. Ratio of Imported Goods and Services to GDP. Based in FRED data for IMPGS.

Each time imported goods and services start to surge as a percentage of GDP, these imports seem to be cut back, generally in a recession. The rising cost of the imports seems to have an adverse impact on the economy. (The imports I am showing are gross imports, rather than imports net of exports. I am using gross imports, because US exports tend to be of a different nature than US imports. US imports include many labor-intensive products, while exports tend to be goods such as agricultural goods and movie films that do not require much US labor.)

Recently, US imports seem to be down. Part of this reflects the impact of surging US oil production, and because of this, a declining need for oil imports. Figure 2 shows the impact of removing oil imports from the amounts shown on Figure 1.

Figure 2. Total US Imports of Goods and Services, and this total excluding crude oil imports, both as a ratio to GDP. Crude oil imports from https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/historical/petr.pdf

Figure 2. Total US Imports of Goods and Services, and this total excluding crude oil imports, both as a ratio to GDP. Crude oil imports from https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/statistics/historical/petr.pdf

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BP Data Suggests We Are Reaching Peak Energy Demand

Some people talk about peak energy (or oil) supply. They expect high prices and more demand than supply. Other people talk about energy demand hitting a peak many years from now, perhaps when most of us have electric cars.

Neither of these views is correct. The real situation is that we right now seem to be reaching peak energy demand through low commodity prices. I see evidence of this in the historical energy data recently updated by BP (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015).

Growth in world energy consumption is clearly slowing. In fact, growth in energy consumption was only 0.9% in 2014. This is far below the 2.3% growth we would expect, based on recent past patterns. In fact, energy consumption in 2012 and 2013 also grew at lower than the expected 2.3% growth rate (2012 – 1.4%; 2013 – 1.8%).

Figure 1- Resource consumption by part of the world. Canada etc. grouping also includes Norway, Australia, and South Africa. Based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 data.

Figure 1- Resource consumption by part of the world. Canada etc. grouping also includes Norway, Australia, and South Africa. F Soviet Union means Former Soviet Union. Middle East excludes Israel. Based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 data.

Recently, I wrote that economic growth eventually runs into limits. The symptoms we should expect are similar to the patterns we have been seeing recently (Why We Have an Oversupply of Almost Everything (Oil, labor, capital, etc.)). It seems to me that the patterns in BP’s new data are also of the kind that we would expect to be seeing, if we are hitting limits that are causing low commodity prices.

One of our underlying problems is that energy costs have risen faster than most workers’ wages since 2000. Another underlying problem has to do with globalization. Globalization provides a temporary benefit. In the last 20 years, we greatly ramped up globalization, but we are now losing the temporary benefit globalization brings. We find we again need to deal with the limits of a finite world and the constraints such a world places on growth.

Energy Consumption is Slowing in Many Parts of the World 

Many parts of the world are seeing slowing growth in energy consumption. One major example is China.

Figure 2. China's energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Figure 2. China’s energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Based on recent patterns in China, we would expect fuel consumption to be increasing by about 7.5% per year. Instead, energy consumption has slowed, with growth amounting to 4.3% in 2012; 3.7% in 2013; and 2.6% in 2014. If China was recently the growth engine of the world, it is now sputtering.

Part of China’s problem is that some of the would-be buyers of its products are not growing. Europe is a well-known example of an area with economic problems. Its consumption of energy products has been slumping since 2006. Continue reading

Sustainability: How Humans’ Economy Differs from Natures’

A few years ago, I had an ah-ha moment when it comes to what we as humans would need to do to live in a sustainable manner. It is very easy. All we have to do is leave our homes, take off all of our clothes, and learn to live on the raw food we are able to gather with our own hands. We have a built-in transportation system, so that is not a problem.

Some animals are eusocial, that is, organized in away that allows for cooperative brood care and other joint tasks. If we follow that approach, we would get our extended families to join us living in nature, au naturel. We could then co-operate on tasks such as child rearing and gathering food.

Nature’s Provision for Order

Nature is organized in a number of ways that make certain that there will be modest change over time to adapt to new conditions, but that no one species will dominate. These are a few of the basic parts of the system: Continue reading