Created Tuesday 27 March 2018
False Solution # 1: Half the Oil is still Left
FALSE BELIEF: We have lots of time.
The first of the False Solutions is the most natural for people to assume. They wonder why anyone should worry when we have reached ONLY the halfway point of oil reserves. After all no one worries when their petrol tank is half empty. Surely we have a lot of time through the second half of oil reserves to take suitable steps and get out of this mess.
Let us examine an example presented by A. A. Bartlett, Prof. Emeritus of Physics, Univ. of Colorado, Boulder, USA. He illustrates what exactly happens when anything is half-gone in an exponential scenario.
Imagine a glass that is empty at 11 pm at night.
We put one bacteria in it at 11 pm.
The bacteria has the property to double every minute.
It is 60 minutes before midnight.
At 11:01 pm there are 2 bacteria.
At 11:02 pm there are 4 bacteria.
At 11:03 pm there are 8 bacteria. And so on…
At midnight the glass is full of bacteria.
QUESTION:When was the glass half full?
Think for a while and only when you are ready follow the arrows to the answer below.
Just 1 minute before midnight!
Because the bacteria doubled every minute, half a glass of bacteria became a full glass in just one minute. 1 minute is therefore the doubling time.
So it took 59 minutes for the glass to become half full. Then, it took just 1 minute for the second half to fill up. THAT is the power of exponential growth.
The formula for calculating the doubling time in a compounding growth case is well known to money managers. It is simplified as:
Doubling time = 70/Rate of Growth
In our economic paradigm of Exponential Growth, if we are experiencing 5% compound growth annually, the doubling time is 70/5, which is just 14 years.
So if you have consumed half the oil on the planet and insist on 5% annual growth, you have only 1 doubling time, and that is 14 years, to finish the remaining oil!
Taking this example a little further, we realize that just 3 minutes before midnight, i.e. just 3 doubling times earlier, the glass was only 12.5% full. Would anyone at this point flag a danger signal? Certainly not! But that again is the danger of an exponential growth paradigm.
How much Oil is Used in each Doubling Time?
One shocking reality of the doubling paradigm is that in each doubling you use the sum of all the previous doubling times!
Look at the diagram on the left. Start from the smallest rectangle at the top left corner. It represents all the oil produced before 1960.
At 7% growth you double that rectangle for each decade of oil consumption as labelled.
Here you can see how in each doubling time you are using the sum of all the oil upto that date. The bottom rectangle CEFD represents the total oil needed to be discovered between 2010-2020. This is clearly equal to the area of all the preceding rectangles marked as ACDB, which means all the oil used since the discovery of oil upto 2010.
This is another way to illustrate the danger of an exponential growth paradigm.
Of course, if the annual growth rate was less, the doubling time would be longer, but not much longer as we can see from the chart below. In India and China, which is a third of the consumer population, we are insisting on achieving growth rates above 7 to 8 percent.
In this chart above we have Growth Rate vs. Doubling Time. And you can see it does not make much difference. It is all within a life span.
False Solution # 2: Find more Oil
FALSE BELIEF: We can, as we have done it in the past.
Discovery vs. Production
Ok, so let us for a moment forget all this doubling stuff. That is just mathematics, you might say. We humans constructed mathematics, so surely we can beat it. Let us see if that is possible.
So instead of worrying about reaching the peak, we will simply go and look for more oil. After all, we have done that in the past. So why not now?
The slight hitch is that you have to first discover oil before you can extract and produce it.
So there is obviously some lag time between discovery and production. Hubbert had discovered back then that this lag time was 40 years. Today that gap is shorter because of improved technology but nevertheless there is a gap between discovery and production.
So the blue curve of oil discovery is followed by the green curve of oil production after a gap of 40 years.We are today at the top of the green curve, remember, that is the peak of oil production.
So how much oil are we discovering today? Just draw a line down from the top of the green production curve to where it meets the blue discovery curve. That figure is what we are discovering today. And guess what? We are discovering less than 25% of what we are producing and using today. In other words, we are finding only one barrel for every 4 barrels we are using. Hardly a recipe for sustainability.
Besides that, it is now widely acknowledged by the world’s leading petroleum geologists that more than 95 percent of all recoverable oil has already been found. So, there is not much hope of suddenly finding a huge amount of oil. The days of discovering giant oil fields are gone.
Therefore, when we say glibly that we will discover more oil, it sounds a bit fanciful. It would take one giant miracle to suddenly discover enough oil to even equal the level of the production curve. And we would have to do this consistently every year for it to be meaningful.
Oil prices have tripled since 2003. The market logic tells us that if we need to increase our oil output all we need to do is allocate huge amounts of money and capital in oil exploration and the Earth will still pour out bountiful cheap oil like in the golden years. This in fact is the pitch of self-serving companies and misinformed politicians. They need to accept the limits of the Hubberts curve.
Add to this the fact that the exponential use of oil still hangs like a specter over our plans of Perpetual Exponential Growth.
But say you are not convinced that we have looked hard enough for new oil or that new technologies will help us find oil in yet unreachable places.
Let us go back to our bacteria in a glass example.
Say that 1 minute before midnight the bacteria miraculously find 3 more empty glasses.
This is equivalent to us finding 6 TRILLION barrels of oil today, when we feel we have reached Peak Oil.
This is 6 times the total amount of oil that the world has already consumed since oil was discovered.
Which of course is 6 times the total amount of remaining known oil reserves.
This is a total and complete fantasy but we will consider it anyway to illustrate the hazards of exponential growth.
So here are the 3 new empty glasses. And the first is half-gone at 1 minute before midnight.
How long do we have before all the glasses are full of bacteria, meaning that all the oil is depleted?
Once again I will give you some time to come up with your answer. When ready follow the arrows down.
Just 3 minutes, which means 3 doubling times, is all it needs to finish the absolutely unbelievable and preposterous quantity of 7 trillion barrels of oil!
Of those, 1 trillion are real, as we know they exist and 6 trillion are completely imaginary which, incidentally, nobody in any sphere of the oil industry or any geological circle believes we can find or exists.
In our real world context of exponential growth at the rate of 5%, it means that in 42 years the absolutely fantastic find of 7 trillion barrels of oil will be gone! Finding oil in arithmetic quantities does not help when we are consuming it exponentially.
These illustrations reveal the dangerous nature of exponential growth! And exponential growth is exactly what we have built into our very concept of economics.
Remember, money must grow by P% every year.
This growth must compound forever!
Sounds great when it is money coming in. But horrifying when it is resources or oil going out.
It is clearly impossible to keep pace with anything that grows exponentially.
Now this should make your ponder the next time someone confidently reassures you that “we can always find more oil”.
“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”.
- A. Bartlett - Prof. Emeritus of Physics, University of Colorado, Boulder, U.S.A.
False Solution # 3: Energy Efficiency
FALSE BELIEF: Saving energy will save us.
The next most obvious solution that comes to mind in dealing with the energy crisis is the aspect of Energy Efficiency. Even well informed people are quick to jump to this option without considering the entire scenario of our industrial world. Let us start with a statement of fact and a simple question.
FACT: It is true that every gadget, device, machine or process in the last 150 years of the industrial age has been more energy efficient than its predecessor.
QUESTION: Then how come the world’s Gross Energy Consumption is always increasing as per the graph below?
Obviously, efficiency has hardly helped over the last 150 years. In fact the trend is merrily going along the lines of exponential growth as if nothing had been done.
Then why do we cite efficiency as the way to get out of the energy crisis?
Maybe we need to take a much closer look at what this means. It is not so obvious on the face of it.
In 1865, the English economist William Stanley Jevons, observed that technological improvements that increased the efficiency of coal use led to the increased consumption of coal in a wide range of industries. He argued that, contrary to common intuition, technological improvements in fact resulted in an increase in fuel consumption.
This observation was first stated as a paradox. But I will explain why it is not really a paradox but something to be expected in the way we have chosen to run our modern industrial world.
One way to understand this is that greater efficiency in the use of a resource has historically resulted in a lower price per unit for the purchaser. If the cost is lower, the product becomes more affordable to more purchasers, and use tends to increase, not decrease. This, I call the “proliferation effect”.
Another way of explaining this apparent paradox is that all industries who manufacture or use energy-saving devices or services are eventually part of an Exponential Economic Growth paradigm. So they will try to grow no matter what. If any industry invents an energy-saving device it merely uses that advantage to produce more goods to generate more profits, and that negates any saving of gross energy consumed.
The economic world that we live in is similar to a huge expanding box. What we do inside the box makes really no difference because eventually the rules are that the box has to expand – money has to grow with time. That is the governing rule of Perpetual Exponential Economic Growth.
So you see, it is not really a paradox at all, as Mr. Jevon called it, but something to be expected. There is no escape in a perpetual growth syndrome.
Many people who are attempting to save energy or use energy-efficient devices may get upset with this line of thinking . They may feel that this line of reasoning is discouraging to anyone attempting to save energy.
That is not the case I am making. I am simply saying that we first have to change the rules and stop the “box” from growing exponentially. One must first examine the Concept of Exponential Growth that governs all economics, industry and resource and energy usage. That is what finally defines gross energy used (as per the graph shown above). And therefore gross energy used cannot be offset by individual energy saving devices or processes because they are eventually used to propagate growth.
You first have to address the PEQG paradigm and say goodbye to the concept of perpetual growth and only then will your efforts of using energy-saving devices and energy-saving habits show effect.
Change your Lens
I will now illustrate the energy saving illusion with a specific example of an energy-saving device. I will show that the illusion is due to our wrong perspective. Are we using a close-up lens or a wide-angle lens to evaluate energy usage? Let me illustrate.
For example, when electronics first came about, there were these huge, bulky, glowing devices called valves that were used in making radios, amplifiers, transmitters and all kinds of electronics.
They were in fact, like an incandescent bulb that heated a filament and a lot of energy was wasted in the form of heat.
They were also very bulky and clearly required a fair bit of glass and metal to manufacture.
Then around the early ‘50s came an earth-shaking new electronic device based on a completely different technology called semiconductors. It was called a transistor and it used a millionth of the power compared to a vacuum tube.
It was also much smaller and cheaper per piece. Now here comes the lens of our perspective.
If you look through a close-up lens at ONLY one transistor, then it uses a millionth of the energy of a vacuum tube. It appears as if energy is saved by a factor of millions.
BUT if you were to use a wider lens and examine how the total electronic industry exploded due to the invention of the transistor, then the answer is dramatically different. While the world had earlier manufactured vacuum tubes in millions, we now produced transistors in hundreds of billions!
Now if you added up all the energy that was being used to manufacture transistors and add to it all the energy used by them, you would realize that their invention resulted in the world using a lot more energy.
Time to learn an energy principle: Besides that simple escalation of numbers, there is another hidden aspect to energy used in high-tech devices called Embedded Energy.
A lot more energy goes into manufacturing transistors, as they require a lot more precise engineering, purification of materials, precise machines to assemble, dust-controlled atmosphere, sophisticated factories, highly trained staff, etc. If you examine the complete infrastructure that manufactures all these transistors, do a summation of the energy that is put in and then divide it by the number of transistors being manufactured, you will realize that each transistor carries a great amount of embedded energy, and that too offsets the energy that the transistor actually saves.
Conclusion: Energy efficiency can never help save energy in a growth and high-tech paradigm. Yes, in the next section (False solution #4) on Technology we will see how immensely energy-dependent technology really is.
The Boat with an Exponential Hole
Probably the simplest real life analogy to illustrate the futility of energy-efficiency in a Growth Paradigm is through a situation I call the “Boat with the Exponential Hole”.
Imagine that you are on a boat and it springs a very small hole below the waterline and water starts gushing in.
As parts around the hole are steadily giving way, the hole gets larger, so a few of the passengers rush around finding whatever they can to empty the water manually.
For a while it seems to work, but soon it becomes clear that in fact the hole is doubling at regular intervals. The passengers are doing whatever they can to keep pace.
The passengers manage to overcome several doublings of the hole till they reach their maximum speed of bailing. It is evident now that they are doomed once the next doubling of the hole happens.
Did you notice that while everything was being done to bail the water out, nothing was being done to plug or repair the hole – to stop it from doubling? If the folk on the boat would have turned their attention to fixing the hole, it would stop growing exponentially. Then with more work done on it, the hole would also stop growing and become of a fixed size. That itself would make the bailing exercise viable.
So if you eventually want to stop bailing you have to plug the hole. Simple!
In our industrial world, the expanding hole represents the concept of exponential growth and the bailing out of water represents our measures of energy efficiency and energy saving. One is exponential and the other is arithmetic. The remedial measures cannot rise exponentially but the economic market/energy consumption is growing exponentially. So the two scales just do not compare.
So when will we stop seeking escape in the illusion that “Energy Efficiency and Energy Saving will save us”?
Let us get real in understanding and addressing the root cause of our predicament: our economic paradigm of Exponential Growth.
False Solution # 4: Technology
FALSE BELIEF: High-tech can achieve anything.
Technology is revered as a kind of supernatural force. There seems to be an almost blind faith in what it can achieve. And so in the closing rounds of any discussion on energy depletion, we hear calls to this faith with the hypnotic mantra “Technology will find a way”.
Undoubtedly, there is a reason for this belief. Because in the past it appeared as if technology did indeed find us a way to achieve so many mind-blowing things to our advantage. But that is when we had plenty of energy and we will soon see that technology is governed by the basic laws of physics and thermodynamics. Much of our existing technology simply won’t work without an abundant underlying fossil fuel base.
There are 2 ways in which people are expecting technology to help us in the oil depletion scenario.
- By improved methods of extracting oil, coal, natural gas and other conventional energy resources.
- By discovering a completely new kind of energy source.
Regarding the first point, it is important to understand that improved technology can at best work to postpone the arrival of Peak Oil or peak of any resource. It cannot however make the peak go away.
As for the second point of finding new technologies, so far that has proved to be a mirage. All our current ideas of technology energy fixes consist of shuffling energy from one form to another with the downside of energy loss in each conversion.
There is nothing on the horizon that is even remotely promising to generate surplus, clean energy without oil dependency. We go in great detail on this in the next section on Alternative Energies.
But for our better understanding, let us first unravel what exactly is technology.
What is Technology?
Technology is usually confused with a tool. Most often, we interchange the word “technology” and “tool” in our mind without realizing it. We imagine that just as we buy a tool and it is then there for us to use at any time, so is it with technology. That once we have come up with a particular kind of technology, it is there to stay with us forever.
This is completely untrue as they are two completely different entities. Let us go through the steps – by starting with tools and ending with technology.
All living creatures manipulate their environment to suit their purpose. A bird will build a nest with its beak. A beaver will use its teeth to chew branches and then place them to build a dam, etc. Humans too manipulate their environment to suit their purpose.
The simplest way for us humans to manipulate our environment is with a tool.
The first human tools really are our hands. That is how we physically manipulate our environment to suit our purpose.
But the beauty of our hands is that they are always there at our service and they require very little energy and resources apart from our normal diet to operate and maintain.
A step up is a manual tool like a hammer, screw-driver, saw, garden hoe, pitch-fork, etc.
They increase the ability of humans to manipulate our environment.
But it takes a certain amount of resources and energy to make these manual tools. However once manufactured, they do not need further energy or resources to maintain or run them.
Next step up is an automated tool like an electric drill, lathe, electric saw, etc.
They allow an even greater manipulation of our environment but are more vulnerable to needs of energy, resources, special fuels to build and maintain them and to ensure that they operate smoothly.
They also require more knowledge and training to operate and maintain. Above all, they require a source of energy to run them.
Going up the ladder, we come to the machine.
This is a complex collection of parts that requires significantly more energy to design, build, maintain and operate.
It also requires specialized knowledge to design, build, maintain and operate. And machines need a lot more energy for their maintenance and in order to run properly.
So a machine is even more vulnerable, as many more specific things are needed to make machines possible. The complexity is increasing and complexity always comes at an energy cost.
And finally we step up to something called a technology.
A technology is a “coming together” of all of the above and a lot more that makes that particular kind of technology possible and affordable at that point of time.
A technology is a wide-spread and complex network of innumerable factors working together. Intangible really and hard to completely get your mind around. Here is why.
Technology is a coming together of:
and many more…
All these inputs are interlinked in complex ways often difficult to trace and very often depend on other technologies which are themselves dependent on other technologies. And this mind-boggling interconnected web of dependency is obviously held together with a whole lot of cheap energy and resources.
So for a start, any crisis in energy is sure to hit technology hard.
So you see that any technology is immensely vulnerable to the slightest change in any of the many inputs. You remove one of them and that technology can fail instantly unless you quickly find a replacement and that too at the right cost etc. The more complex the technology is, the more vulnerable and exposed it is to external factors beyond anyone’s control.
Keep that in mind the next time you hear the mantras “Technology will find a Solution” or “High-tech will save the day”. What technology worshippers fail to recognize, is that technology, especially high-tech by its very nature, is so dependent on energy (apart from thousands of other inputs that also require energy) that it will be the first thing to collapse in an energy depleting world.
Sad bottom line:
- Technology does not create energy.
- In fact, cheap energy makes technology possible.
- The more energy available – the more high-tech becomes possible.
- Remove that level of availability of energy and resources and “BOOM”, that technology is unviable and ceases to exist.
So it is hardly likely that technology will save us!
False Solution # 5: Alternative Energies
FALSE BELIEF: Other forms of energy can replace oil.
“Contrary to public perception, renewable energy is not the silver bullet that will solve all our problems”.
The word “alternative” says it all. It seems to hold a magic promise. It intrinsically reassures us that the energy is somewhere out there to replace oil and we simply have to get it.
Likewise, don’t you wish there were “alternative” jobs for all those who have been laid-off recently around the world?
Then why are they still laid-off? You may say the laid-off folk are simply not trying hard enough to find those “alternative” jobs. Or maybe the truth is closer to the fact that “alternative” jobs are not paying at the same scale.
What if the new job offered a salary of Rs 60,000 instead of Rs 100,000 and it involves working all night in a seedy part of town with no air-conditioning and fewer holidays… and no free coffee? So the job-hunter decides to say “no thanks” to that job and just keeps looking.
That is the same story with oil and alternative energies.
Of course there are alternative energies. But how much do they pay-off compared to oil? And what are the other downsides of producing them?
Maybe a hint lies in the fact that we have been talking alternatives for over 4 decades now. Yet alternative energies account for only about 13% of world energy usage, despite generous subsidies by governments all over.
Or maybe the truth is that most alternatives are all like the low paying jobs. They all offer less and therefore will not run our high energy dependent modern world or business as usual. The net energy they provide is either less or marginal compared to the energy you put in (mostly oil energy). That is like taking up a new 60k job but still needing the old 100k job to keep your life on an even keel. I don’t think that your ex-boss had that in mind when he gave you the slip.
So while we can hold on to oil for a bit longer to run our “alternative” plans, we have to be careful because we must not squander the remaining valuable oil on our experiments with alternatives. At some point, the alternatives should better be able to stand on their own without the help of too much oil. Preferably none.
And more importantly, the alternative energy “solutions” had better return us more energy than we are putting in to make and maintain them. Or there is no point investing in them. Right?
This is a fundamental energy principle and it is called Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) or Net Energy. It is kind of how your business-sale price has to be greater than cost price to have a net positive profit.
So that brings us to ENERGY RULE #1 - NET ENERGY (EROEI): The Net Energy gained has to be suitably high for an alternative to be viable.
Some alternatives like solar and wind energy can have a reasonably high Net Energy return. But then the next factor is cost.
In present times, it has become evident that none of the alternatives can compete with oil on cost.
So alternative energy experts advise us to wait for oil prices to go up for the good old market wisdom to apply. Namely that when the price of oil gets high enough, the alternatives will become worth it and the market will find a way to replace oil.
But I thought the markets were down exactly for the reason that oil prices were too high. And they are not showing signs of going anywhere near the old levels. Remember? Oil is on the downslope of old Hubbert’s curve. Which means it will only get more expensive.
Wait a minute! I feel like I am watching my dog chasing its tail.
- Alternatives are expensive in relation to oil.
- Just wait for oil to go up, then alternatives will be worth it.
- Oil goes up and alternatives get more expensive.
- Just wait a little longer for oil to go up again.
- Oil goes up… alternatives get more expensive.
Round and round and round we go.
My head is spinning. Please stop.
What am I missing?
Well for a start that the tail is attached to the end of the same dog that is turning.
Energy Alternatives are the tail. They are ALL made with oil energy and byproducts. And anyone who does not tell you that, is covering a big fat lie. No matter how fancy their alternative energy “solution” is.
Solar, Wind, Hydro, Nuclear, Bio-fuels, Tar sands, Oil shale, Hydrogen, Fuel cells – you name it and they are ALL built, run, maintained and then replaced on an oil based infrastructure. They all take a lot of energy to construct and require a petroleum platform to work off. They are not in that sense an alternative at all!
I would call them energy converters. Put in oil energy to make solar panels, windmills, nuclear plants and out comes electrical energy at great cost.
They are all like your 60k job that needs your 100k job to maintain your lifestyle.
And that is where we are stuck.
This brings us ENERGY RULE #2 - OIL DEPENDENCY: the alternative must not be too dependant on oil and its price.
Well apart from Net Energy and Oil Dependency, alternatives fail at another fundamental level. Most of them are dilute energies. This is because they extract energy as it arrives in real time. Solar, wind, bio-fuels, biomass, wave, tidal, geothermal, etc. involve collecting or extracting energy as it arrives from sunlight, wind, plant growth or heat from the Earth.
Because this is in real time, it is dilute energy compared to fossil fuels – especially oil.
In contrast, fossil fuels allow us to tap the energy of millions of years of stored sunlight at once. Therefore, fossil fuels are an immensely dense form of energy.
To illustrate this point, let us compare the flow of water from rain as opposed to from a reservoir.
Alternative Energies are like the rain.
It is water falling in real time.
The flow is dilute – distributed over a large area and time.
It needs to be collected to be useful.
Fossil fuels are like the overflow of a dam.
It is water/sunlight stored over a large area and a long period of time.
The flow is concentrated and dense.
So what the concentrated overflow of a dam allows you to do, rainfall cannot match by far.
Oil is like a dam that holds 150 million years of sunlight ready to burn at a go.
Just one day’s worth of burning oil is equivalent to using 7 years worth of the total solar energy that reaches the Earth. That amounts to approximately 2500 times the rate at which it is reaching us. This point itself, if acknowledged, settles the issue of how little alternatives can do.
But for now, let us just register that this introduces us to another quality that different kinds of energies may have. They can be dilute or dense. This is called Energy Density.
That brings us to ENERGY RULE #3 - ENERGY DENSITY: The Energy Density of the alternative must compare with the Energy Density of oil.
Some people argue around this energy density problem as such: if these alternatives are collecting dilute energy, then we can make up by having more of them. Like more solar panels and more windmills. This is called “scaling up”. According to these people, this should solve the problem.
Well, that is exactly what the governments and the alternative energy advocates and the energy venture capitalists have been trying so hard to do for the last 2 decades. Every effort has been made, including steep and generous government subsidies and tax breaks, to encourage the growth or “scaling up” of alternative energies. Yet this is how far we have reached in 2011.
A mere total of 13% is renewable energy and the balance 87 % is still fossil fuels (coal, gas & petroleum). Nuclear and Hydro together stand at 11.3%. And worse, the biggest hopes of solar and wind and other renewables add up to merely 1.6% of global energy production. There obviously seems to be some aspect of reality that is not allowing the use of alternative energies to go up. This limiting factor is measured as Scalability.
Scalability limits are different for each kind of alternative. But they are definitely there. For instance, solar panels need ground area, reliable sunlight, availability of silicon, etc. Windmills need suitable locations with winds above a critical minimum speed for a sufficient number of days. Many of the other touted options such as algae diesel have been tested for 50 years in labs, but the problem still remains of making it on a large scale to be viable and contributing.
So we arrive at ENERGY RULE #4 - SCALABILITY: The alternative has to be scalable.
Moving on, we find that there is an even larger issue that all alternatives lack. And this one nails them all decisively.
NONE of the alternatives give any of the byproducts that oil gives us such as bitumen, plastics, fertilizers, lubricants or pharmaceuticals on which the complete fabric of our Modern Industrial World is designed and built.
This huge implication is often slighted but is of astounding importance. It is equivalent to finding another alternative to water to run our human body which constitutes about 60% water. And if you cannot find water then it would require nothing less than a redesign and rebuilding of our body around a new liquid. This is clearly a difficult task. The same applies to the Modern Industrial World. We would have to do nothing less than redesign and rebuild it around the new alternatives. And where is the energy to achieve that going to come from?
So that needs to be embodied as another rule.
ENERGY RULE #5 - OIL BYPRODUCTS: The alternative energy option must give us the byproducts of oil crucial to building, running and maintaining our Modern Industrial World. Just in case you missed it in the earlier chapter here is a short list of the 6000 byproducts that only oil gives us.
Let us put all the rules together so we get our minds around it.
ENERGY RULE #1 - NET ENERGY (EROEI): The Net Energy gained has to be suitably high for an alternative to be viable.
ENERGY RULE #2 - OIL DEPENDENCY: The alternative must not be dependent on oil and its price.
ENERGY RULE #3 - ENERGY DENSITY: The energy density of the alternative must compare with the Energy Density of oil.
ENERGY RULE #4 - SCALABILITY: The alternative has to be scalable.
ENERGY RULE #5 - OIL BYPRODUCTS: Must give byproducts of oil crucial to building, running & maintaining our Modern Industrial World.
Sadly we may see that all alternatives fail most of the rules above and that is what is curbing their wider usage. That is why I call alternative energies False Solutions.
But maybe they fail because of how we framed the Problem. Namely, we asked, “how can we run our current Modern Industrial World on alternatives exactly as it runs right now on oil?”
So naturally, we expect the Solution to be that alternatives, by part or complete replacement, will be able to run our world in the present manner of exponential growth post peak oil. This means that we expect to run our businesses, factories, industries, transportation, homes, agriculture, etc. pretty much along past exponential trends, even as oil production declines.
Above all, we expect that our economies and markets will continue growing, that we will get return on investment year after year and that the conventional laws of economic growth will be maintained.
We expect all this to happen with the ONLY exception that we will be powering our world by alternatives instead of oil. To expect Alternative Energies to do this is impossible! And they end up being False Solutions. So you pose the problem wrongly and you get False Solutions. By this I don’t mean that there is no place for alternative energies in our future world. What I mean is that Alternative Energies have upper limits imposed by thermodynamic laws, cost, scale and applications. That is why they end up giving much less than the oil that went in to make them. So they fail most of the Energy Rules mentioned.
Pretty much like the new, lower salary job.
So what should you do when you simply have to go for a low salary job and there is no chance of ever getting back to a higher salary job?
You have to adjust your lifestyle. Scale down! This conclusion for alternative energies can be summed up as:
- Alternative Energies cannot run the Modern Industrial World in the manner, cost and scale that we have designed and become used to.
- Sensibly used alternatives can fill important niches but it intrinsically requires scaling down our gross energy usage.
- This means Economic Shrinkage cannot be averted. Only managed in a non-disastrous way. Yes, growth died with the advent of Peak Oil and no combination of alternative energies can save that.
What a pessimistic outlook, one might feel, but it is interesting to examine this a bit closer. Optimistic and Pessimistic were the only 2 viewpoints that our world recognized when we had plenty of oil and resources to fulfill our wildest concepts and dreams. Then we could make-do with only two outlooks. Either you were an optimist or if you said something that optimists did not like or did not agree with, then you were a pessimist.
There was no slot called a Realist.
Why not? Because we had nothing to do with reality. Because we were concept-based, remember? We just assumed that we needed to “conceive” and it would all be there. The Earth was obliged to surrender to our “human ingenuity” requirements. It was all about the Mind… and the Body had to comply. So today we are pretty much trying to do the same with our approach to alternative energies. Just conceive an alternative energy solution and the laws of thermodynamics (physical reality) are obliged to comply.
Peak Oil and the subsequent energy decline have changed all this and suddenly there is a new respectability in being a realist. A realist is not a pessimist. He just has far more respect for reality and is willing to change his concepts and lifestyles to be in tune with it.
False Solution # 6: Human Ingenuity.
FALSE BELIEF: Human Intelligence is boundless.
When all of the above fail to I find people resorting to the last bastion of hope and belief - the infiniteness and infallibility of Human Ingenuity. Our cultural conditioning of open-ended optimism fails to admit that it was the same kind of human ingenuity that caused this mess. Our kind of human ingenuity and approach is quantity based and has clearly failed. We now need to redefine human ingenuity that goes beyond mere quantity and recognises and respects limits that this book has been underlining from the start.
So it is not about simply finding some ingenious means to run the same paradigm of limitless Perpetual Exponential Quantitative Growth but about accepting the eternal virtue of finiteness and interconnectedness that ecology, communities and living systems operate within.
So human ingenuity is a factor to consider but it takes a particular kind of human ingenuity to recognize this. And that kind of human ingenuity comes up with a different approach altogether.
This approach to human ingenuity is what this book advocates and we explore in a bit of detail in 6. Transition.
CONCLUSION: Human ingenuity is a cofactor and not the cause of exponential growth and are modern industrial world. It was the supply of cheap energy and its byproducts that allowed human ingenuity to build and maintain the modern industrial world. It's like if I ask you to make an omelette but I do not give you an egg, you could be Einstein yet you would not be able to make it.
As Ayn Rand said, “We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality”.
Now that we are armed with an understanding of Energetics and Energy Principles, let us move to the next section called Evaluating Alternative Enerygy Types. Time to test whether they are trully an 'alternative' or are evading reality.