Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Innovation Fallacy

The core concept that has to be grasped to make sense of the future looming up before us, it seems to me, is the concept of limits. Central to ecology, and indeed all the sciences, this concept has failed so far to find any wider place in the mindscape of industrial society. The recent real estate bubble is simply another example of our culture’s cult of limitlessness at work, as real estate investors insisted that housing prices were destined to keep on rising forever. Of course those claims proved to be dead wrong, as they always are, but the fact that they keep on being made – it’s been only a few years, after all, since the same rhetoric was disproven just as dramatically in the tech stock bubble of the late 1990s – shows just how allergic most modern people are to the idea that there’s an upper limit to anything.

It’s this same sort of thinking that drives the common belief that limits on industrial society’s access to energy can be overcome by technological innovations. This claim looks plausible at first glance, since the soaring curve of energy use that defines recent human history can be credited to technological innovations that allowed human societies to get at the huge reserves of fossil fuels stored inside the planet. The seemingly logical corollary is that we can just repeat the process, coming up with innovations that will give us ever increasing supplies of energy forever.

Most current notions about the future are based on some version of this belief. The problem, and it’s not a small one, is that the belief itself is based on a logical fallacy.

One way to see how this works – or, more precisely, doesn’t work – is to trace the same process in a setting less loaded with emotions and mythic narratives than the future of industrial society. Imagine for a moment, then, that we’re discussing an experiment involving microbes in a petri dish. The culture medium in the dish contains 5% of a simple sugar that the microbes can eat, and 95% of a more complex sugar they don’t have the right enzymes to metabolize. We put a drop of fluid containing microbes into the dish, close the lid, and watch. Over the next few days, a colony of microbes spreads through the culture medium, feeding on the simple sugar.

Then a mutation happens, and one microbe starts producing an enzyme that lets it feed on the more abundant complex sugar. Drawing on this new food supply, the mutant microbe and its progeny spread rapidly, outcompeting the original strain, until finally the culture medium is full of mutant microbes. At this point, though, the growth of the microbes is within hailing distance of the limits of the supply of complex sugar. As we watch the microbes through our microscopes, we might begin to wonder whether they can produce a second mutation that will let them continue to thrive. Yet this obvious question misleads, because there is no third sugar in the culture medium for another mutation to exploit.

The point that has to be grasped here is as crucial as it is easy to miss. The mutation gave the microbes access to an existing supply of highly concentrated food; it didn’t create the food out of thin air. If the complex sugar hadn’t existed, the mutation would have yielded no benefit at all. As the complex sugar runs out, further mutations are possible – some microbes might end up living on microbial waste products; others might kill and eat other microbes; still others might develop some form of photosynthesis and start creating sugars from sunlight – but all these possibilities draw on resources much less concentrated and abundant than the complex sugar that made the first mutation succeed so spectacularly. Nothing available to the microbes will allow them to continue to flourish as they did in the heyday of the first mutation.

Does this same logic apply to human beings? A cogent example from 20th century history argues that it does. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Germany arguably had the most innovative technology on the planet. All through the war, German technology stayed far ahead of the opposition, fielding jet aircraft, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, guided bombs, and many other advances years before anybody else. Their great vulnerability was a severe shortage of petroleum reserves, and even this area saw dramatic technological advances: Germany developed effective methods of CTL (coal to liquids) fuel production, and put them to work as soon as it became clear that the oil fields of southern Russia were permanently out of reach.

The results are instructive. Despite every effort to replace petroleum with CTL and other energy resources, the German war machine ran out of gas. By 1944 the Wehrmacht was struggling to find fuel even for essential operations. The outcome of the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-5 is credited by many military historians to the raw fact that the German forces didn’t have enough fuel to follow up the initial success of their Ardennes offensive. The most innovative technology on the planet, backed up with substantial coal reserves and an almost limitless supply of slave labor, proved unable to find a replacement for cheap abundant petroleum.

It’s worthwhile to note that more than sixty years later, no one has done any better. Compare the current situation with the last two energetic transitions – the transition from wind and water power to coal in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the transition from coal to petroleum at the beginning of the 20th – and a key distinction emerges. In both the earlier cases, the new energy resource took a dominant place in the industrial world’s economies while the older ones were still very much in use. The world wasn’t in any great danger of running out of wind and water in 1750, when coal became the mainspring of the industrial revolution, and peak coal was still far in the future in 1900 when oil seized King Coal’s throne.

The new fuels took over because they were more concentrated and abundant than the competition, and those factors made them more economical than older resources. In both cases a tide of technological advance followed the expansion of energy resources, and was arguably an effect of that expansion rather than its cause. In the 1950s and 1960s many people expected nuclear power to repeat the process – those of my readers who were around then will recall the glowing images of atomic-powered cities in the future that filled the popular media in those days. Nothing of the kind happened, because nuclear power proved to be much less economical than fossil fuels. Only massive government subsidies, alongside the hidden “energy subsidy” it received from an economy powered by cheap fossil fuels, made nuclear power look viable at all.

Mind you, uranium contains a very high concentration of energy, though the complex systems needed to mine, process, use, and clean up after it probably use more energy than the uranium itself contains. Most other resources touted as solutions to peak oil either contain much lower concentrations of energy per unit than petroleum, or occur in much lower abundance. This isn’t accidental; the laws of thermodynamics mandate that on average, the more concentrated an energy source is, the less abundant it will be, and vice versa. They also mandate that all energy transfers move from higher to lower concentrations, and this means that you can’t concentrate energy without using energy to do it. Really large amounts of concentrated energy occur on earth only as side effects of energy cycles in the biosphere that unfold over geological time – that’s where coal, oil, and natural gas come from – and then only in specific forms and locations. It took 500 million years to create our planet’s stockpile of fossil fuels. Once they’re gone, what’s left is mostly diffuse sources such as sunlight and wind, and trying to concentrate these so they can power industrial society is like trying to make a river flow uphill.

Thus the role of technological innovation in the rise of industrial economies is both smaller and more nuanced than it’s often claimed to be. Certain gateway technologies serve the same function as the mutations in the biological model used earlier in this post; they make it possible to draw on already existing resources that weren’t accessible to other technological suites. At the same time, it’s the concentration and abundance of the resource in question that determines how much a society will be able to accomplish with it. Improvements to the gateway technology can affect this to a limited extent, but such improvements suffer from a law of diminishing returns backed up, again, by the laws of thermodynamics.

Innovation is a necessary condition for the growth and survival of industrial society, in other words, but not a sufficient condition. If energy resources aren’t available in sufficient quality and quantity, innovation can make a successful society but it won’t make or maintain an industrial one. It’s worth suggesting that the maximum possible level of economic development in a society is defined by the abundance and concentration of energy resources available to that society. It’s equally possible, though this is rather more speculative, that the maximum possible technological level of an intelligent species anywhere in the universe is defined by the abundance and concentration of energy resources on the planet where that species evolves. (We’ll be talking more about this in next week’s post.)

What we’re discussing here is an application of one of the central principles of ecology. Liebig’s law – named after the 19th century German agronomist Justus von Liebig, who first proposed it – holds that the maximum growth of a community of organisms is limited by whatever necessary factor in the environment is in shortest supply. A simpler way of stating this law is that necessary resources aren’t interchangeable. If your garden bed needs phosphorus, adding nitrogen to it won’t help, and if it’s not getting enough sunlight, all the fertilizer in the world won’t boost growth beyond a certain point.

For most of human history, the resource that has been in shortest supply has arguably been energy. For the last three hundred years, and especially for the last three-fourths of a century, that’s been less true than ever before. Today, however, the highly concentrated and abundant energy resources stockpiled by the biosphere over the last half billion years or so are running low, and there are no other resources on or around Earth at the same level of concentration and abundance. Innovation is vital if we’re to deal with the consequences of that reality, but it can’t make the laws of thermodynamics run backwards and give us an endless supply of concentrated energy just because we happen to want one.


hulot said...

"It’s worth suggesting that the maximum possible level of economic development in a society is defined by the abundance and concentration of energy resources available to that society."

How about restating this as the "maximum possible level of industrial development...," We will need conceptual innovations more than tecnological ones to enable us to survive. With the disindustrial tsunami about to come our way, "economic development" may be an idea whose time has passed. Life, if we are able to continue it, will again revolve around growing and maintaining food instead of credit, travel and trinkets. We need to think in different categories, categories new to us perhaps, but possibly very ancient. Our critical food supply future (to say nothing of the monumental inconveniences to come), however, is not nearly our most dire need. It is our oldest need: the mental one; the need to find some way to make sense of a new way of life, to describe and define the creeds and codes of the villagers we are about to become.
And this is exactly why I look forward to seeing your thoughts every midweek. Your essays are a welcome and thoughtful resource.

John O'Brien

yooper said...

Excellent article John! Thank you, for changing my mind. For 30 years, I've been looking for someone to further my education along these lines. I've found that someone, in you, again, Thank You.

Thanks, yooper

mpg4 said...


I recall reading (but sadly don't recall where) that the English considered coal to be inferior to wood as an energy source, until wood became scarce. It was only after the switch was forced by wood shortages that coal came into popular use.

I mention this in relation to nuclear power. I'm nuclear-agnostic, but I don't recall ever seeing anything showing nuclear power to be more expensive than FF power. Limited fuels supplies, waste issues, and popular outcry seemed to be more of a limitation than cost. Do you have a link or reference to a study you could post?

I suspect -- cost issues or not (look at ethanol) -- my wood/coal example may play out with nuclear, too. That is, there may be social psychological reasons for setting nuclear power aside right now, and we may (miraculously) change our minds about it when we run out of other choices.


Weaseldog said...

Good treatise on this argument.

I like the petri dish analogy. but then I like biology.

I don't know if most people would understand why it is relevant. When I've made similar arguments in the past, I'm told, "People are not bacteria. People can innovate and create new technologies!." And around and around we go.

David Spangler said...

John, this is excellent...and very useful. When I discuss peak oil, the most common comment I get back is "Oh, well, new technologies will take care of the problem." I try to explain why this isn't so, but your article this week sums it all up very nicely and succinctly. Thanks.

susanw said...


Thank you for your blog. I've been enjoying it very much. I'm doing what I can to simplify, reduce and be thoughtful of my impact and have been for several years now because it feels right and messages like yours make sense to me.

I've also been hearing various pronouncements about the future since the 60's and have grown wary of predictions and beliefs based on the wishful thinking of myself and others. So, to play devil's advocate for a moment: doesn't Einstein's equation e=mc2 mean that there is abundant energy in everything if only we could unlock it? I'm pretty ignorant here and there's probably something I'm missing but I'm interested in your response to this.

Thank you, Susan in Colorado

Rohit said...

Aren't you implicitly assuming that the current rate of energy extraction from the "concentrated" fossil fuels would always be greater than the possible future rate of extraction from the clearly abundant reserves held in say sunlight or other forms of energy? If tech progresses to a point where harnessing these become possible and economically viable, then why should fossil fuels act as a necessary stop?
Using your microbe example, if the microbes were aware of the possibility of the complex sugar running out, and were capable of improving their biological form to take advantage of other forms available as food, would the analogy still hold?

John Michael Greer said...

Hulot, my guess is that the same rule affects nonindustrial economies, thus my choice of words. Still, the economic dimension is only one part of life, and it's only in modern times that it's usurped so much else. One of the upsides to the unraveling of the industrial age is the end of economics as the measure of all things.

Yooper, you're welcome.

Mike, it's been a while since I've reviewed the literature, but at that time, if you included construction and disposal costs, nuclear power cost more per kilowatt than anything else. I'll try to find time to dig up the figures sometime soon.

Weaseldog and David, exactly -- I've had the same argument, with the same inconclusive results. This is one of the reasons I've come to see belief in progress as a modern religion; trying to suggest to one of its votaries that technological innovation can't violate the laws of thermodynamics is a bit like trying to get a Christian fundamentalist to notice that the Bible contains contradictions.

adrian said...

An argument made by others, but nowhere stated so clearly and succinctly. The confusion about technology versus energy and people's tendency conflate them obscurs one of the greater conundrums of our times.

Joel said...

Isn't France using nuclear power in an economical way? I've heard them held up as an example of practical nuclear power many, many times by my nuclear engineer friends.

Morninghawk Apollo said...

It is difficult to find well-reasoned discussions and articles about the coming post-industrial society. Thanks for providing such a valuable resource.

I found it interesting how you describe previous energy transitions as being caused by the new energy being an improvement from the old, instead of being caused by depletion of the old.

Now we will learn about what it's like to being forced to change, rather than choosing to change out of a profit motive.

Weaseldog said...

Economics includes trade, and energy devoted to finance. That energy being the energy cost of constructing computers, building networks, powering the computers, paper costs, buildings, travel expenses, etc...

Currently, economics is a good tent to put this concept into.

It is the misuse of economics and assumptions made that ignore the physical world that get in the way of making sense of it.

And finally it is at least a concept that most people know a little about.

We might talk about energy webs or cycles, but then these models quickly become difficult to understand if a person isn't willing to devote some energy in learning about it. The same concepts that describe energy and resource flows in ecosystems appear to be valid for civilizations. However, most people know little about this.

Then again it may not matter. An economist may find it easier to accept Hulot's idea, but then still be under the misapprehension that money and applied technology can still break the laws of the universe.

I agree Hulot, that we need to change our mental model. History shows us though, that we only do so as a society, when we have no choice. And history is replete with examples where a generation or two had to die away before the change came about.

Paul Cox said...

Commented on my blog at

FARfetched said...

Whoops, did you really mean to say, "glowing images of atomic-powered cities in the future"?

It's not like people haven't seen or heard of The Limits to Growth, or the Club of Rome simulations — they've been around since the 70s — they don't want to hear it. Something that, for some reason, has always stuck in my mind: when I was in college (Michigan Tech), the library had a display of some of Douglass Houghton's surveys and explorations. In one area, he had written, "in this area is an inexhaustible deposit of Specular Iron." Upper Michigan was once a big mining region, but somehow they've managed to exhaust that inexhaustible supply.

Jon said...

We live in a world where black is white, right is wrong, and common sense has no value.

People still drive autos and use steel in construction, don't they? But their manufacture is not America-centric anymore. Why? Take a tour of Detroit, MI or Youngstown, OH; they're shells of their former shelves. Now chemicals are still being produced in the same quantities today as in 1960's. It may be because chemical plants and oil refineries have a much longer life span than auto or steel plants, but if that's true what does that tell you about the value our leaders place upon human capital in this country?

So what does this have to do with JMG's latest entry? Explaining America's pissing away its post WW2 advantage over the rest of the world in 60 short years because of Peak Oil using an ecological model of how organisms overpopulate in the face of favorable conditions until they exhaust said condition and collapse doesn't work for me. We're sentient beings for Christ's sake, not bacteria!

I'll argue that if the political and economic leaders of this country wished this nation to remain strong, it would have simple to sell that meme to the us. How difficult is conservation after all? Couple that with technological advancement, we could have rendered Peak Oil moot. But pushing for the average citizen to do everything in a profligate way, well, we see where that leads to. Ruin.

thequickbrownfox said...

To mpg4:

The author was not referring to the financial cost of nuclear power but the energy cost. He implied that you may have to put more energy into nuclear power than what you get out when you account for all of the energy intensive processes required to make it possible. If this were true and the only energy source was nuclear then there would be no net energy gain and the process would not be able to continue. Currently, since fossil fuel energy is used in the necessary processes they subsidise the energy cost and hide the inefficiencies.

I am not sure if nuclear actually has a negative energy return but I plan to look into it. It certainly does appear to be much less productive than its technologically optimistic proponents suggest (or assume).

Stephen Heyer said...

Nice article John. Trouble is, I reckon you’re preaching to the converted.

Like Duig, one of the things Jared Diamond put into words for me in Collapse “is the tremendous power of denial and rigid thinking, even in the face of unfolding crises”. Actually, especially in the face of unfolding crises.

I’d been observing it on all scales all my life and was already aware of it, but “Collapse” really wrapped it up for me. In short, no matter how good your explanation of limits, people really don’t want to know, so you’ll just be shut out as yet another greenie crank.

By the way, I’ll give you that Jared Diamond’s Collapse “has some problems (mostly via overgeneralizing from a handful of ecologically marginal societies) but it makes some valid points, especially about the need to take the stability of the ecosystem into account in economic and social questions.” Trouble is, I think that with a few fortunate exceptions, most societies are much more marginal than we like to think.

The crucial limit may not be land or water, it may even be some social resource, but time and time again societies have shown that they can fall remarkably quickly.

By the way, I live in Australia, the driest inhabited continent on earth with the thinnest, least fertile soils. There are really only a few thin strips were people can reasonably live, even short term.

With careful, loving management, it would probably give a good life to about 3 million people indefinitely, as experts suggested in the late nineteenth century. Instead the boosters and developers packed over 20 million in, all parasitizing limited, failing farmland and a few good mines.

Guess what, suddenly, we’re running into the wall. Suddenly there isn’t enough water even in good years to come close to running our cities and our trade deficit is enormous, despite us being in the middle of the biggest mining boom ever (thank God for China). What happens next time mining has a few off years is anyone’s guess.

So you see, I’m sort of hyper-aware of all this limits stuff.

Anyway, after all that rambling, on to the main point: I suspect that unless some miracle, science fiction power source like harnessing dark energy or permanent magnet over unity motors rescues us, future generations will regard as with cold loathing as the generations that squandered the resources that could have taken us to the stars, made mankind immortal and set up the earth for permanent, comfortable habitation on McMansions and SUVs (the Olduvai Theory).

I guess this is what history feels like, what the Germans felt like when they realized they were losing the war and sooner of later would have to answer some rather difficult questions about just what did happen to that nice Jewish family who used to live next door, worse yet, answer them to their own children and grandchildren.

John Michael Greer said...

Susan, in an abstract sense there's infinite energy in the cosmos. So? Unless it's accessible to us in a concentrated and abundant form, it won't power an industrial society. The energy bound up in matter by nuclear forces can't be extracted without using even more energy than you'd get out of it, except in the very small handful of elements that are unstable enough to be fissionable. That means trying to power a society off it is like trying to support yourself by paying $2 for $1 bills.

Rohit, you've missed the point of the post. Sunlight may be abundant but it's very diffuse. (If you had one hand in sunlight and the other hand in burning gasoline, you'd notice the difference; that's the difference between diffuse and concentrated energy.) To concentrate diffuse energy into usable intensities, you have to invest a lot of additional energy; if you have to power that process from the diffuse energy source, most of the energy will be used up in the process and your net energy is going to be very small.

Adrian, many thanks!

Joel, what your nuclear engineer friends don't talk about is that the French nuclear industry gets huge subsidies from the French government; it also benefits, like every other "alternative" energy resource just now, from the fact that most of the energy needed to establish and run the nuclear industry comes from fossil fuels.

Farfetched, yes, I have a regrettable sense of humor. I also remember the words "limitless" and "resource" being used in the same sentence -- almost always a recipe for nonsense.

Jon, when Carter tried to sell the meme of conservation to the US public he was crucified for his pains. The best way to end a political career in America is to tell consumers they can't have something that they want. This doesn't show a level of thinking much above the bacterial.

Quick Brown Fox, you're right that nuclear power has very low, and possibly negative, net energy. It's also uneconomical in a financial sense, though. Am I the only person left these days who remembers the WPPSS bankruptcy of the early 1980s? The sheer cost of trying to build a half dozen big nuclear plants, even when electricity rates were tolerably high, caused the largest municipal bond default in American history.

Bill Pulliam said...

One difference between uranium and carbon as "fossil" fuels -- carbon was built into high-energy molecules and concentrated in large masses by biology; uranium has only had astrophysics and geology creating and concentrating it, which leaves it far rarer and less ready to use.

"If you had one hand in sunlight and the other hand in burning gasoline, you'd notice the difference," I love that explanation! Of course someone will counter that if you had your hand at the focus of a solar collector the experience would be rather different; but of course that requires having metal, glass, etc. all these other energy-intensive manufactured materials to create. I could ignite the gasoline by literally banging two rocks together.

This leads to one of the most critical points in all this, which you stated (in reference to nuclear power) as: "it also benefits, like every other 'alternative' energy resource just now, from the fact that most of the energy needed to establish and run the nuclear industry comes from fossil fuels." I have rarely gotten anywhere trying to point this out to solar/geothermal/wind/etc. afficionados. They rightly point out that all those components COULD be manufactured by using alternative energy sources, too; but I just have this strong suspicion that when you start having to use solar to power the mining equipment and smelt the ore to make the metals to make the solar collectors, etc., the cost effectiveness goes rapidly out the window in an escalating feedback loop.

Agriculture is a case where civilization was fundamentally transformed (actually, brought into existence) by innovations in technology that allowed the concentration of formerly dispersed resources (i.e. food). So it has happened before; but that was a looooong time ago so there's not a lot of encouragement to think there's another rabbit to pull out of that hat.

There is the one big biofuel that has powered most of human society since the dawn of our species (whenever that was): human labor, often in the form of slavery. Unfortunately, with the decline of fossil fuels, we will probably see the exploitation of this energy resource in a resurgence of various kinds of old-fashioned slavery.

Jon said...

Carter may have remembered his "rebel" past after he became president, with deleterious effect, but I'll bet my last dollar he was no more a rebel than any other CFR-member potentiate sucking up to TPTB to gain the Democratic nomination, much like Clinton.

You say our leadership is bacterial in nature, I say it's planned. I believe the end result desired is more akin to "Brave New World" and "Childhood's End" with our malevolent leadership managing human society to their ends, not the republican. laissez-faire ideals of the our founding fathers.

I'd rather see a whiskey and gunpowder society than one stripped of free will. Must have watched too much "Star Trek" in my childhood ;-/.

PS: I started reading "The Great Crash," but when Galbraith mentioned the usual Central banker suspects I moved to "Only Yesterday" to get a better handle on the the Florida real estate boom of the 20's.

yooper said...

I can only see where innovation has only exasperated the mess we have gotten ourselves into. With alot of good intention, innovation seemed like a good idea, at the time. An example might be, the green revolution, that would feed the starving of the world. All this did was to create the population explosion the world has experienced roughly the last 30 years.

John, another analogy, you might have used is the biofuel promise.. Your example of the petri dish, was superb. Much better this time around. I fear, like weasel dog, people might not see the connection.

This is the problem, how do we communicate this message, so people can understand it? John, could this message just be so infallible, that some just simply cannot accept it? Remeber the good Dr. Jane? Readers, this woman was a former instructor of science at Oxford University! Again John, how plausible can it be for people, when in effect, you're telling them, they're likely to die, prematurely? Some are never going to get past that fact..........

John, very bold to talk about mutations! I want readers to know, that as a kid, looking for bottles, going through the old family dumps around the property, that my great grandfather wore a shoe, half the size mine, was half the weight, and not nearly as tall. At the old family cementary,"the baby cementary", as called by many, well...this is what readers can expect again, rest assured. Surely we can expect innovations that brought people into this world and to keep them in it, to decline......

Thanks, yooper.

Jim said...

I've really enjoyed your postings, both here and on the Oil Drum. But you stopped me short on today's essay. I couldn't even finish it when I got the comments about nuclear power and the laws of thermodynamics. I'm very anti-nuke and an engineer. I think there is pretty good proof that uranium contains waaay more energy than it will take to use it and there is absolutely nothing in the laws of thermodynamics to support your contention that energy density and abundance are related. You have a lot of good points to make. Please don't dilute them with poorly researched technical comments.

Chris Dudley said...

I like your analogy up to a point. It demonstrates the limits of growth in a situation where the boundy value (the amount of medium) becomes limiting. For depletable resources this is an OK approach. But, energywise, Earth is much much much more an open system than a closed system. Our rate of use of fossil fuels is much much much less that the rate at which new energy enters (and leaves) the system.

You seem to be saying that somehow fossil fuels are especially concentrated and that this makes then special. But, if you consider the electric energy per pound produced by a solar panel compared to that produced by coal, it is 200 time greater. Fossil fuels, for most of us, are concentrated in somebody else's petri dish and we've had to build a huge parasitic infrastructure to bring them to us. By contrast, solar power requires a one car train instead of a full coal train, a schooner instead of an oil tanker and a coast guard instead of a navy.

You mention thermodynamics, but thermodynamics goes against fossil fuels unless all you want is heat. Photons ariving from the sun have incredibly low entropy and solar panels convert this to low entropy electricity via quantum conversion, providing much better effciency than plants to produce mere BTUs.

You express a correct worry about what the net energy of nuclear power is. In France, it takes the output of three reactors to enrich the fuel used in the 59 that they have. Recalling that energy production from nuclear power is subject to thermodynamics, that gives an energy return on energy invested of about 7 considering the enrichment cost alone while other energy costs bring this lower. But for a solar panel, the energy that goes into making it is payed back in about 2 years of mid-latitude use so that just under warrantee it has an energy return on energy invested of 12.5. Accounting for degradation and extending use out to a centrury, the value goes up to 33. With recycling it approches 100.

Innovation looks a little bit like your mutation analogy, there are many thing that are tried but only one or two efforts pay off, but it is also different because it is purposeful. Understanding that quantum conversion is not subject to the problems of heat engines drives the research in solar photovoltaics and the payoff in terms of reduced costs for energy are about become manifest.

Solar power may make rivers flow up hill, but only to save a bit of power for some late night activities. That is not such an unreasonable thing to do.

Bill said...

John - A very well reasoned post and on a very important subject. I realized long ago that technology did not lead us to industry. In fact, highly concentrated and relatively easy to extract, hydrocarbon energy in the hands of clever humans gave us industrial society, which in turn encouraged technolgy and innovation. What I like to tell people, on the rare occasion that I can get anyone to talk about the post oil future, is that when we start to move down the slippery slope of diminishing hydrocarbon resources we will also start to abandon our technological innovation because the energy will be too valuable to waste it on activity with an uncertain payoff. Risk has a very different connotation when you are dealing with a valuable (scarce) resource. As we move away from technical innovation towards a more pragmatic store of useful knowledge there will be no going back. There will never be another industrial age. The remaining resources are too depleted and too diffuse to be economically viable in a low-tech future. We are living in a unique and passing phase of human existence. A couple of hundred years from now no one will even remember what the industrial age was and it won't matter because it will have no relevance to that time anyway. Forget the science fiction vision of traveling to the stars. In the future, if there are any of us left, we will again be living under the stars.

Stephen Heyer said...

“It’s equally possible, though this is rather more speculative, that the maximum possible technological level of an intelligent species anywhere in the universe is defined by the abundance and concentration of energy resources on the planet where that species evolves. (We’ll be talking more about this in next week’s post.)”

Hi John. I suspect you may be confusing technological LEVEL and technological INTENSITY.

Vast civilizations such as our present one with 6 billion plus members need huge, abundant and concentrated power sources just to stay functioning. However, I can easily imagine a civilization that has limited itself to, say, 250 million, educated, equal citizens carefully spaced out over a planet such as Earth. Such a culture could fairly easilylive within their planet’s permanently available resources AND develop high technology, even star-faring technology.

Until they could tap dark energy or something, their planet-side technology would not be very INTENSE, but a comfortable 1950s, middle class, Western lifestyle should be readily available to all their citizens, essentially forever.

No, no V8 cars, just little electric runabouts that were passed down to the next generation. Suburbs would still be possible though, linked to “down town” by extensive light rail networks.

Maintaining that lifestyle would of course be made a lot easier by a stable population that meant that things (homes, schools, bridges, solar power grids, railways) would only have to be built (well) once, then renewed (recycled) every thousand years or so.

Of course, that degree of dedication and community spirit would require a system that prevented the accumulation of too much wealth by any individual or group. There is some good research indicating that the wealthy as a class have less commitment to community or environment, being able to “move on” as they can.

bunnygirl said...

I don't think the problem is so much that technology can't save us, as that we are looking at the problem and its possible solutions in the wrong way.

I have no idea what the "right" way is, although I have some ideas. What I feel fairly certain of, though, is that wherever we're going in the next hundred years, it's not someplace most of us can easily imagine.

We're stuck in linear thinking and we persist in believing that "technology" means computers and gadgets.

I believe there is a solution or combination of solution to our present problems, but whether or not we are capable of seeing it is another matter entirely. This is the part that worries me.

If we can imagine only linear progress in the same direction we're going now, or reverse linear progress back down the road we came up on, we're in big trouble.

Weaseldog said...

"So, to play devil's advocate for a moment: doesn't Einstein's equation e=mc2 mean that there is abundant energy in everything if only we could unlock it?"

Yes. This is what nuclear power is about. When a heavy atom is split, the lighter atoms and particles that are left, have less mass than the original atom. The missing mass becomes energy. The reverse happens when light atoms are combined in fusion reactions. When two are combined, the resulting atom has less mass than the original atoms combined. Lead is the most stable element in the periodic table. Lighter elements can be fused and heavier ones can be split. The elements in lead's neighborhood, have little potential energy at all.

Beyond that we have Star Trek Technology with antimatter reactions. Antimatter is matter with an opposite charge. For instance, an electron has a negative charge and it's antimatter equivalent is a positron, with a positive charge. If the two are combined, then their masses are converted to pure energy.

The problem is that we don't have a source of antimatter. We can make it in super-colliders, but in doing so, we have to burn more energy than the final reaction returns.

If we knew how to convert any matter into pure energy, as if we were throwing a switch, we could probably make a weapon that would shatter the earth, and turn it into a debris cloud, circling the sun.

Weaseldog said...

"Using your microbe example, if the microbes were aware of the possibility of the complex sugar running out, and were capable of improving their biological form to take advantage of other forms available as food, would the analogy still hold?"

You mean by escaping the petri dish? Colonizing other petri dishes?

Weaseldog said...

I've often heard that the potential energy available in Uranium far exceeds the energy needed to mine, and refine it. And that because of this, it has a high Energy Return on Energy Invested.

And this argument proves that nuclear power is almost too cheap to meter.

Yet it isn't. When they built Comanche Peak here in Texas, it ended up costing ten times what they estimated it would cost. Then the electricity rates more than doubled for Tarrant County. The US Government ended up giving the utility company hundreds of millions of dollars to cover the extra costs and keep electrical rates down.

The paper reported that the extra $540 million dollars was needed because they had to a hire a couple of extra security guards to watch the protesters.

No nuke plant has lived up to the expectation of providing energy at the efficiencies advertised. They don't even come close.

Somewhere between theory and practicality, there is an unexplained disconnect. As accurate information about the costs of fuel and other expenses is safeguarded for national security reasons, we're left with only tidbits of information to work with.

There are a couple of nuclear physicists on the Yahoo Group, 'Energy Resources' that argue that if the US military didn't subsidize our commercial programs by refining uranium and plutonium for weapons, the the uranium for commercial reactors would be too expensive to use. We wouldn't have civilian nuclear reactors at all, if we weren't building nuclear weapons. I can't prove this assertion one way or another.

But still, if nuclear energy is living up to theory, why does it cost so much more than less efficient oil?

Now I have one serious problem with nuclear power after all of this. It seems that decommissioning a plant is still a matter of theory. Estimated costs are so high, that plants are refurbished to keep them running, rather than decommission them when their time is due. I can accept arguments for this case. It seems reasonable.

But Peak Oil throws a monkey wrench into the equation. If we can't afford to decommission plants now, then there is no reason to think that as we go through the downturn, that we'll ever be able to decommission them.

I've asked several nuclear engineers what would happen if our nukes were never decommissioned and allowed to decay and fall apart. They all told me the same thing.

All of the nuclear power plants will melt down and explode if they are not decommissioned or kept in service. They will all turn into fiery nuclear geysers.

Even if they are decommissioned, they require ten thousands years of maintenance. If you don't keep the grounds clean, and the reactor in repair, then radioactive materials will leak into the soil and water table. You can't let nature reclaim the land. You can't allow the facility to become flooded or for wildlife to start living on the grounds.

The first war that occurs in a nation with a number of nuclear power plants, could give us a preview as to what to expect.

This is one thing that i wonder about when I see movies in which a plague has wiped out 90% of the population. Who's minding the nuclear power plants?

BoysMom said...

There is a book, Change or Die, by Alan Deutschman, which goes through the evidence that 9 of 10 people who are told that they must change their lifestyle in order to stay alive do not. That's the first section, the rest of the book goes into how the 1/10 who do change do so successfully.
That's what we're fighting against: If people don't change their behavior over medicly life-threatening acts, why would they change over something as perceptually remote as peak oil?

Loveandlight said...

The premise of this article is fundamentally sound, but there is one point I would like to make about our victory in WWII. Besides our substantial petroleum reserves, another advantage we had over the Axis powers was that we were the only country in the world at that time using the super-efficient assembly-line method of manufacturing. With this method, we could make more stuff in a shorter period of time. Of course, Jevon's Paradox, which teaches us that increases in efficiency tend to lead to more and not less prodigious consumption of energy, certainly asserted itself in the post-WWII years and ensured that our efficiency meant our domestic petroleum extraction would peak in 1970. I think I recall reading somewhere that during the decade of the 60's, we extracted about as much or more of our domestic petroleum as we had in the century preceding 1960. And the Baby Boomers here will certainly remember how infamous the 50's and the 60's were for profligate energy consumption in this country.

John Michael Greer said...

Stephen, the amount of disagreement the last two posts have roused has reassured me that I'm by no means preaching to the converted! I don't dismiss Diamond entirely, and Australia may well be the Easter Island of the deindustrial age; combine the current droughtward trend, the exhaustion of chemical agriculture, and the likelihood of mass migration from Indonesia once the fuel to power a high-tech military isn't there any more, and the picture is not pretty.

Bill, you're onto the most systematically neglected point in the entire energy debate. If you're going to replace fossil fuels, you have to replace them throughout the economy, and that means the price of everything currently made with them -- including alternative energy tech -- has to rise to account for the additional energy cost.

Jon, if you're going to insist on painting Snidely Whiplash mustaches on those who happen to have more wealth and influence than you do, go right ahead. I'm curious, though -- in what way does this help you develop a useful response to the crisis of industrial society?

Yooper, you can't give a message to somebody who's decided in advance not to hear it. My more modest goal is to help those people who are open to the message think their way through some of the comfortable but misleading mythologies our culture has built up around the future.

Jim, the fact that you disagree with my arguments doesn't make them poorly researched. Look into the energy cost of nuclear power as a whole system -- digging up the ore, refining it, processing it, shipping it, building a nuclear power plant, maintaining it, dealing with the nuclear waste, and decommissioning the plant -- and you've got something very close to the amount of energy the plant will produce in its working life. As for the relationship between energy concentration and abundance, well, in a universe where energy inevitably moves from higher to lower concentrations, an inverse correlation between concentration and abundance is statistically inevitable. We'll be talking about that more next week.

Chris, the problem with your solar power analogy is again that a single solar panel is only a small part of a very complex system. Add up the total energy cost of the system -- mining the rare minerals needed for solar cells, building the machinery to make them, making the solvents and other supplies, keeping the clean rooms going, and everything else -- and coal is much more economical: that's why coal is in widespread use right now, while solar energy only fills niche markets. Since most of the energy that goes into making and distributing solar cells comes from fossil fuels, furthermore, PV looks more economical than it is -- if you had to power the entire manufacturing process (including raw material extraction) for solar cells, using only electricity from solar cells, your costs skyrocket. (This is what's coming to be called the Law of Receding Horizons, and will be getting a post here in the not too distant future.)

Bill, excellent! I do think that people hundreds and even thousands of years from now will remember the industrial age, if only because some of its aspects make great fodder for bards and traveling storytellers, but your point about the twilight of innovation is a good one. My guess is that there's still plenty of room for innovation, but it'll be focused on increasing the efficiency of existing techniques.

Stephen, I suppose a society of the sort you've proposed is theoretically possible, but like most Utopias it requires human beings (or other sentient creatures) to ignore the potent biological drives that put us at the top of the planetary food chain in the first place.

Bunnygirl, I don't think there's a solution to our present problems, if by that you mean a way of avoiding the end of the industrial age and a long decline in population, energy use, and economic output. But you're quite right that alternative thinking can make it much easier for us to deal with the predicament of industrial society than just blundering ahead or trying to go back to some allegedly better society of the past.

Weaseldog, the long-term fate of today's nuclear reactors has been very much on my mind as well.

Boysmom, thanks for the reference! This is exactly the issue. I suspect a fair number of the people in the studies who refused to change, and died, used some variant of the arguments we've seen here -- some doctor will come up with something that will save me, or it's all somebody else's fault, or what have you.

Loveandlight, the Germans learned mass production long before the war and used it to turn out aircraft and other military gear in vast amounts. The big concentration camps all had in-camp factories where prisoners worked at assembly lines producing munitions. They didn't run out of planes, tanks, or bullets -- they ran out of fuel and, toward the end, cannon fodder.

FARfetched said...

JMG: The argument about a handful of sunlight vs. a handful of burning gasoline can, in practical terms, be turned around. A solar furnace (concentrator) can be built from scrap materials — strip cars for sheet metal & glass, for example — so you don't have the bootstrap problem (the materials have already been mined & refined).

What works in favor of fossil fuels is their reliability. It's raining here at FAR Manor this afternoon; gasoline still burns but a solar furnace won't function at anywhere near its maximum output. But still, in a post-industrial society, "we" will do new things with the leavings of the old industrial civilization.

Joel said...

"I could ignite the gasoline by literally banging two rocks together."

Yes, but you'd have to be very choosy when searching for appropriate rocks. You'd be exploiting the stored biochemical energy of iron pyrite.

Contrawise, solar reflectors can be made using modest quantities of precious metals, which have very low embodied energies. Mexican silver, plated onto a glazed ceramic surface, would have a very good EROEI here in California. Silver, and likely many other metals with low oxidation enthalpies (copper, nickel, mercury) could be smelted in a solar thermal furnace, without using any chemical energy. The silver in question is a byproduct of electrochemical copper purification, which, IMHO, will have a place in our economy for as long as copper is mined and electricity is used.

Panidaho said...

No nuke plant has lived up to the expectation of providing energy at the efficiencies advertised. They don't even come close.

I can second this from firsthand experience. I lived in the Sacramento area in the early 80s. During the time I lived there, Rancho Seco nuclear power plant was "down" more than it was "up." The entry for that particular reactor in Wikipedia captures the history pretty well when it states "The plant operated from April 1975 to June 1989 but had a lifetime capacity average of only 39%; it was closed by public vote on 6 June 1989 (despite the fact that its operating license expiry was not until 11 October 2008.)"

I'd love to know how much per kilowatt the power from that plant cost. I'll bet it's several times the going rate for any other source of energy. And, although it's been decommissioned, Rancho Seco still has ongoing maintenance costs. I think at least some of the ongoing costs are being covered by turning it into a "park" and charging fees, but I wonder how long will it need to be maintained? Will park fees reliably cover a lifetime of maintenance costs?

Loveandlight said...

Loveandlight, the Germans learned mass production long before the war and used it to turn out aircraft and other military gear in vast amounts. The big concentration camps all had in-camp factories where prisoners worked at assembly lines producing munitions.

I suppose that's what I get for getting my information from one of those shallow mainstream news magazines. :-\

Ares Olympus said...

As usual, a thoughtful analogy, always fun to be God and know the future, if only Humans KNEW there were no new tricks within our grasp, perhaps we could change directions, but where's there's hope there's fools working hard to find the next summit to climb.

Mostly I've been obsessing about debt lately, on my own success to pay down my mortgage, along with the subprime mortgage corruptions, selling the American Dream too cheaply.

I just wonder what the world could look like if enough people stopped reaching for power and affluence and settled for a slower life.

What would America look like if we didn't JUST strive for universal home ownership BUT debt-free home ownership? What if we demands homes that we could buy without needing 30 year mortgages?

What if we refused to go into debt for our education? Would this new "fredom" bring innovation?

I've been reading again Daniel Quinn's "Beyond Civilization", trying to imagine what the heck he's talking about. Young people abandoning the failed dreams of their parents and joining the circus to entertain the masses, or roving gypsies that trade hard work for a living community.

I can think as well of Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, wanting to escape a tribe of garbage scavengers for a higher plane of consciousness. A tribe can live comfortable on the waste of its neighbors, until the neighbors go broke...

Overall Quinn's tribes look like small niche self-owned companies which can keep recreating themselves as circumstances change.

But it all almost seems a waste, if success is dependent upon a "circle of life" that starts from the exploitation of depleting fossil fuels.

I see there must be a "middle way", one that minimizes profits that can be fed back into a dying economy. Well, a simple example, my paying down my mortgage is in part "killing" the cycle of debt that drives the economy. Well, so is my little veggie garden, even if I'm yet too lazy to do more than freeze my surplus.

Perhaps once my morgage is paid off I'll start a "Savings and Loan" club whose membership pays dues in proportion to desired level of consumption, say if you own a car, you pay an extra $1000 in dues (of $500 if you share a car), etc. Then we'll invest in shared housing options to keep member expenses at a minimum. We'll create "indicators" like total community debt, and total community energy consumption, etc, and see what controls we can have over them.

Well, easier to imagine than to try to live in a community that knows and cares how big my vanities and vices are (Or be in a position of judgement over another!)

A part of me has sympathy for the communist's dream - give everyone sufficient housing and food, and give them productive work, and a few hours for family and friends and contentment is promised for all.

No, nothing so easy, but really it hurts to believe my life rests on the suffering of others, even if they signed their own names to the contract that brings their misery. This guilt drives any reserve and occasional success I have for saying no to excess.

Chris Dudley said...

I think you are confusing four different solar photovoltaic technologies. These are standard silicon, thin film silicon, multi-junction silicon and thin film non-silcon. I should have been more clear that I was discussing standard silicon when talking about the energy payback time. Standard silicon does not involve rare resources, and the energy inputs are well understood, so the payback time is a solid number. What may have changed since the last time you looked at this is increased scale of production and improved methods of fabrication. Most large producers are trying to match what Evergreen Solar is achieving in energy savings through reduced loss of refined silicon during fabrication. The energy cost of recycling panels fabricated in this way has also been studied and it is about one third the original energy input. This is why the EROEI can asymtopically approach 100, but over centruries of use. These numbers are all solid. The main thing driving price for standard silicon is the transition between using scrap from integrated circuit manufacture as a raw material to dominating the use of purified silicon. Fabrication costs for an integrated purification and manufacture come to about $1.50/Watt for a 500 MW/year operation. Retail is a little below $5/Watt.

Thin film silicon, say amorphous silicon, also does not rely exotic materials and while less efficient in energy collection it may be more durable than standard silicon since amorphous material may be less prone to cosmic ray induces performance degradation. It is less well studied but likely has a higher EROEI because much less refined silicon is used in its manufacture. It is less well suited to residential rooftop use because it is hard to cover energy use at its efficiency. These retail for $3/Watt.

Multi-junction silicon does use exotic material but also often uses concentrators so that the amount of materials used is not so large. Because of the use of concentrators, the EROEI can be fairly high since there is also less purified silicon used and the efficiency of conversion is high. Prices for these are especially high because they cater to small markets such as space applications.

Thin film non-silicon panels use rare earths where they are in production and their EROEI is not well understood partly because they have not yet forces a supply sqeeze for their raw materials which are often co-produced in unrealted mining operations and partly because their durability is still not estabilished. First Solar is working closely with NREL to get this later issue figured out. Their recycling characteristics are not well studied either. These panels, like thin film silicon, have a lower efficeincy than standard silicon but they are coming to dominate the commercial market because the commercial market is satisfied with
10 year power purchase agreements and the wholesale prices for these panels are the lowest, going down to $1/Watt for Nanosolar. Under conditions where their raw materials are produced no matter what, their EROEI is likely quite high because there is little material involved in either the substrate or the PV film. The concern you raise applies chiefly to these if their raw materials become scarce. I know of no study though that shows that powering the world energy use with this technology sufficiently strains available reserves so as to make it unfeasable. Because recycling of these panels is not at all well understood, the effects on dilution of rare elements or EROEI are unknown. Non-silicon thin film may end up being a market blip since the cost for standard silicon is expected to continue to fall and its advantages in known durability and higher efficeincy may bring it back into favor in the commercial market once it is done getting its toes wet and is ready to take a full plung.

At this point, solar competes with gas rather than coal and as such it is much more economical. With higher market penetration it will need to dip a little lower in price to compete with coal, but not by much. To compete with night time coal, storage will be needed, but the cost of coal is also rising owing to substiution of lower grades, so the cost of storage need only fall to a few cents per kWh to make penny per kWh solar more attractive than night time coal. It is worth remembering that the cost of solar is all up front while the cost of coal includes an ongoing fuel input. This gives coal some financing advantages, but when you notice that the cost of gas is even more weighted to fuel cost, and that solar is growing very rapidly because it is cheaper than gas, it seems as though this stumbling block is starting to be surmounted.

Danby said...

The reason the Germans lost WWII is that they lost 4 ARMIES (850,000 men) at Stalingrad. Failing to take and hold Stalingrad meant that they were unable to take and hold the oil fields in Azerbaijan and the Caucasus, or open a route to mid-east oilfields. Two of the three German fronts in WWII were attempts to secure a supply of oil.

German combat in WWII was heavily dependent on aircraft and tanks. German technology in both these areas far exceeded anything the Allies could develop, and most of the innovation on the Allied side was based on copying German gear encountered in the field. Germany was easily 3-4 years ahead of the US in combat technology and could easily have won the war had they had 1)a non-crazy person as Commander In Chief, and 2) a reliable fuel supply.

Weasledog, thanks to the WPPSS debacle John mentioned earlier, we have quite a lot of experience in this part of the country with decommissioned nuke plants. So far we have two favorite techniques: 1) sell the reactor to China (no, I'm not kidding) or 2) remove all the removable nuclear material and pour concrete into the reactor vessel. This last works quite well. At least as long as everyone knows you ever ever cut one open.

bunnygirl said...

John, I didn't mean to imply there's an option that will allow us to keep our Hummers and iPods and finance the whole works by selling each other haircuts and hedge funds. As you correctly inferred, I simply think there's another (perhaps several other) ways out than collapse and regression.

Sadly, I don't have confidence that we who were brought up in this society have the right kind of insight to see the alternatives. It will take someone from outside our culture and perhaps even outside our time to say, "Well if they'd only have done this..."

The very things we need to learn and take for granted in order to survive in our society are the things keeping us from seeing what other choices we might have that could save us from a lot of unpleasantness. I don't say this as an in indictment of our culture, only as a recognition that I'm as blind as any of us, which saddens me.

RAS said...

JMG, Energy Bulletin posted a study a while back that showed in detail that nuclear power produced more CO2 per watt than any other source, when everything was tallied. However, I couldn't find the citation using this wicked slow dial-up connection.

Hmm, Germany lost WW2 because they couldn't secure the oil fields of Russia or the ME and thus the fuel. I wonder if history might show that America lost the War on Terror and subsequently its empire because it couldn't secure the last of the ME oil fields (read: Iraq)?

yooper said...

Hello bunnygirl!

Perhaps it's not about linear or cyclic time...More like "chaotic" time. I'm not going to push John into addressing this period, until he's ready and willing,(as much as I'd like too, ha!).

As far as you're wondering who can "see" in the future..You're on the right site, to my knowledge, nobody can do it better than John Michael Greer!

You, stay tuned, eh?

Thanks, yooper

yooper said...

I view the history of human population in the simplest terms, as linear. That is, follow any graph depicting this, and you'll find a line with steady growth, that is until the industrial age arrived, then and only then, it exploded. Even, the Black Death of Europe which took perhaps one third of the population, is'nt depicted.

Sure, upon a closer inspection, this line may have some peaks and vallies. However, looking at the grand scheme over millions of years, this 200 or even 300 year period, can only be described as a,"blink of an eye".

FARfetched said...

Chris D, thanks for the technical info about different PV technologies. You wouldn't happen to have MTBF figures for each of them as well, would you?

On a related note, I wonder if anyone has compared costs & EROEI for direct-PV vs. a solar concentrator driving a steam turbine. Then again, given that wind turbines are the darlings of centralized power generation advocates, perhaps the comparo has been done & it wasn't good.

awlknottedup said...

Yes, I do remember WPPSS fiasco. That is an example of poor planning as a result of pressure form an all powerful industry and seeing patterns where none exist. The area had abundant hydro power, rivers waiting to be choked to provide power. Cheap electricity turned Bauxite to the aluminum that allowed Seattle to become the home city of Boeing. Cheap electricity powered trains over the mountains. Who cared if baseboard heaters were under windows, just crank up the thermostat.

Life was easy for planners. Look at capacity and usage some years ago, look at it today, draw a straight line, build another dam to bring capacity to the line and usage will follow. It worked for almost 40 years but something happened on the way to Nirvana. People started asking things like "Should we dam Hells Canyon?" So they substituted Nuclear power to make the production come up to what they thought would be consumption.

They started one plant at Hanford. Then drew the lines again and decided that they needed another. What could be cheaper than just taking already approved plans and duplicating them again? Then western Washington wanted some of that construction money. No worry. draw that line again and turn on the duplication machine. Well if western Washington got one then Hanford should get another, Drawing lines and running duplicating machines is easy. Western Washington saw three reactors worth of construction money so wanted another to balance things a little.

By now with some companies doing work that resulted in the project schedule slipping two months for every month worked and the bond market taking on the debt like it was free money, things got interesting. But someone in the bond market saw that with $24B spent and all they had to show for it was three concrete holes in the ground, one less than half finished, and another 3/4 finished they pulled the plug by refusing to lend any more money.

I know this is off topic but you reminded me of the whole mess. I lived in Spokane at the time and had a huge file on it.

John Michael Greer said...

Farfetched, I've been arguing all along that salvage and renewables will provide us with all the power we'll have once the age of cheap abundant energy sunsets out for good. Salvage is the mostly unrecognized cushion that may just help us to a soft landing -- more on this in the months to come, as I plan on discussing a range of technologies well suited to a deindustrializing world.

Joel, solar reflectors are an entirely different cat from PV cells -- I've commented here more than once that the French used to have solar steam engines in their North African colonies before cheap diesel priced them out of the market. Butti and Perlin's book "A Golden Thread" has the details. The efficiencies aren't that high but the initial energy investment is very modest and I'd be amazed if the net energy wasn't well up in single digits, if not low double.

Panidaho, that corresponds to everything I've read about nuclear -- the actual output is a fraction of the theoretical, and even the theoretical isn't that good in net energy terms.

Ares, all good points.

Chris, PV promoters have been saying all these things for the last 30 years, and yet the market doesn't bear them out. If solar was as economical as you suggest, utilities and municipalities would have been piling into them like gangbusters since the California brownouts a few years back as an investment -- and they aren't.

The small city where I live, for example, has been buying PV arrays for public buildings for some time now. Nobody here pretends that they're an investment, or that they'll pay for themselves; they're seen as a sort of charitable contribution to the environment, as well as an emergency backup for times when the power grid here in southern Oregon gets wonky. In other words, solar is still a boutique product with a narrow niche market. If it were competitive with fossil fuels, given its other advantages, that wouldn't be the case.

Dan, bingo -- the whole catastrophic Russian campaign was in large part an attempt to get enough oil to keep the Wehrmacht running.

Bunnygirl, thanks for the clarification. As for the alternatives, I hope to talk about some of them shortly.

Yooper, one of the problems is that we actually don't have very good figures for human population until quite recently -- I note, for example, the recent discovery of a whole landscape of previously unsuspected cities in the fourth millennium BCE, bridging the space between Sumer and northwestern India. But your broader point stands -- the last three hundred years worth of reckless consumption of fossil fuels has pushed human population figures right off the charts. That will unwind as the age of fossil fuels ends.

awlknottedup said...

I have tried to find the figures (isn't that the usual excuse?) but one thing to remember about many of the existing Nuclear power plants is that they were built with cheaper oil. It takes massive amounts of earth moving for the typical plant and that all requires Diesel fuel.

Another point is that Nuclear power plants are far from carbon neutral. They may be while in operation but lets not forget all the fuel burned in construction. But that is not the major source of CO2, the manufacture of the cement needed for all those thousands of yards of concrete needed to make the containment building. Fuel is used to drive the CO2 off the limestone creating heavy emissions of CO2.

yooper said...

Hello John! Perhaps, a more personal note here... You want to go deep, eh? You're right on spot about figures of past human populations only being discovered recently through innovation.

I've just read about oil,(former sunlight), being discovered 9,000 meters or 30,000ft. from the water surface of the Gulf of Mexico.

Ok, if this is so, that oil is indeed former sunlight, how did it get below at such a depth? Naturally, the earth has grown in diameter, and transformed over the thousands of millennium, agree?

Just suppose, that the earth is at another turning point and might now be adjusting itself on it's axis in relation to the sun...Suppose this has happened before in the past? Suppose, That through innovation it's suggesting that we have and the fallacy of it all, is that we must endure it?

Thanks, yooper

The Naked Mechanic said...

This was just posted on Global Public Media

New Queensland (Australia) Sustainability Minister on the future with less oil.

"There's no question whatsoever that community driven local solutions will be essential. That's where government will certainly have a role to play in assisting and encouraging local networks, who can assist with local supplies of food and fuel and water and jobs and the things we need from shops. It was one of my contentions in the first speech I made on this issue in February of 2005... that we will see a relocalisation of the way in which we live that will remind us of not last century, but the one before that. And that's not a bad thing.
Undoubtedly one of the cheaper responses that will be very effective is promoting local consumption, local production, local distribution. And there are positive spinoffs to that in terms of getting to know our communities better. There are human and community benefits from local networks that I look forward to seeing grow."
The Honourable Andrew McNamara, Queensland Minister for Sustainability, Climate Change and Innovation

Lance Michael Foster said...

Exactly, JMG! The western attachment and idealization of "progress" is part of our society's most cherished ideals. However, I have always believed that "progress" is not an improvement, but a reaction to failure. Agriculture was a reaction to insufficient hunting and gathering resources. In North America, we see this in the Archaic shift to heavier reliance on small game and vegetal resources once the megafauna were gone from the PaleoIndian period. And when population growth hit a crisis in the Midwest, the growth reliance on corn was a reaction to insufficient game and wild plant resources (although the nutrients in corn were much less than wild foods). Progress is essentially then, a reaction to entropy, and the ecological laws you have discussed here.

Thus, the quest for meaning can be combined with our growing understanding of science (ecology, physics, etc.) in understanding that entropy is what we all struggle against, individually against disease, aging, death, and collectively in ecological collapse, epidemics and war. Our oldest myths can help in this, as the lessons of ecological and social collapse are inherent in them, such as Ragnarok and the cannibalism myths of society turned upside down in the Americas.

Great blog, JMG!!