Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Barbarism and Good Brandy

A taste for irony is a useful habit to cultivate if you happen to write about energy issues in the declining years of a civilization defined by its extravagant use of energy, on the one hand, and the dubious logic it uses to justify that extravagance on the other. One of the things you can count on, if that description fits you, is that any time you discuss one of the fallacies that has helped back that civilization into a corner, plenty of readers will respond with comments that demonstrate the fallacy in question more clearly than any of your examples could have done.

Last week’s Archdruid Report post was no exception to that rule. Regular readers will recall that it focused on the difference between the quantity of energy in an energy source and the concentration of energy in that energy source, and pointed out that the latter, not the former, determines the exergy in the source – that is, the amount of work that the energy source is able to perform. True to form, I fielded a flurry of comments that took issue with this, or with the conclusions I drew from it, on the grounds that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the quantity of energy in some favorite energy source.

The example I’d like to highlight here is far from the worst I received. Quite the contrary; it’s precisely because it’s a thoughtful response from an equally thoughtful reader that it makes a good starting point for this week’s discussion. The reader in question pointed out that the photons that reach the Earth from the Sun each contain exactly as much energy as they did when they left the solar atmosphere, and argued on that basis that a point I made about the exergy of solar power was at least open to question.

He’s quite right about the photons, of course. The energy contained in a photon is defined by its frequency, and that remains pretty much the same (barring a bit of gravitational redshifting) from the moment it spins out of the thermonuclear maelstrom of the Sun until the moment eight minutes later when it arrives on earth and gets absorbed by a green leaf, let’s say, or the absorbent surface in a solar water heater. Once again, though, that’s a matter of the quantity of energy, not the concentration. The concentration, in this case, is determined by the rate at which photons impact the leaf or the solar panel; that depends on how widely spread the photons are, and that depends, in turn, on how far the leaf and the panel are from the Sun.

Think of it this way. The individual photons that heat the planet Mercury each contain, on average, the same quantity of energy as the individual photons that heat the planet Neptune. Is Neptune as warm as Mercury? Not hardly, and the reason is that by the time they get out to the orbit of Neptune, the Sun’s rays are spread out over a much vaster area, so each square foot of Neptune gets a lot fewer photons than a corresponding square foot of Mercury. The photons are less concentrated in space, and that, not the quantity of energy they each contain, determines how much of the hard work of heating a planet they are able to do. There are stars in the night sky that produce photons far more energetic, on average, than those released by the Sun, but you’re not going to get a star tan from their light!

This may seem like an obvious point. Still, it deserves restatement, because so many contemporary plans for using solar energy ignore it, fixating on the raw quantity of solar energy that reaches the Earth rather than the very modest concentration of that energy. A habit of comforting abstraction feeds that sort of thinking. It’s easy to insist, for example, that the quantity of solar energy falling annually on some fairly small fraction of the state of Nevada, let’s say, is equal to the quantity of energy that the US uses as electricity each year, and to jump from there to insist that if we just cover a hundred square miles of Nevada with mirrors, so all that sunlight can be used to generate steam, we’ll be fine.

What gets misplaced in appealing fantasies of this sort? Broadly speaking, three things.

The first is that familiar nemesis of renewable energy schemes, the problem of net energy. It would take a pretty substantial amount of highly concentrated energy to build that hundred square mile array of mirrors, counting the energy needed to manufacture the mirrors, the tracking assemblies, the pipes, the steam turbines, and all the other hardware, as well as the energy needed to produce the raw materials that go into them – no small amount, that latter. It would take another very substantial amount of concentrated energy, regularly supplied, to keep it in good working order amid the dust, sandstorms, and extreme temperatures of the Nevada desert; and if the amount of energy produced by the scheme comes anywhere close to what’s theoretically possible, that would probably be the only time in history this has ever occurred with a very new, very large, and very experimental technological project. Subtract the energy cost to build and run the plant from the energy you could reasonably (as opposed to theoretically) expect to get out of it, and the results will inevitably be a good deal less impressive than they look on paper.

The second is another equally common nemesis of renewable energy schemes, the economic dimension. Plenty of renewables advocates say, in effect, that people want electricity, and a hundred square miles of mirrors in Nevada will provide it, so what are we waiting for? This sort of thinking is extremely common, of course; mention that any popular technology you care to name might not be economically viable in a future of energy and resource constraints, and you’re sure to hear plenty of arguments that it has to be economically feasible because, basically, it’s so nifty. There’s a reason for that – it’s the sort of thinking that works in an age of abundance, the kind of age that’s coming to an end around us right now.

The end of that age, though, makes such thinking a hopeless anachronism. In an age of energy and resources constraints, any proposed use of energy and resources must compete against all other existing and potential uses for a supply that isn’t adequate to meet them all. Market forces and political decisions both play a part in the resulting process of triage. If investing billions of dollars (and, more importantly, the equivalent amounts of energy and resources) in mirrors in the Nevada desert doesn’t produce as high an economic return as other uses of the same money, energy, and resources, the mirrors are going to draw the short end of the stick. Political decisions can override that calculus to some extent, but impose an equivalent requirement: if investing that money, energy, and resources in mirrors doesn’t produce as high a political payoff as other uses of the same things, once again, the fact that the mirrors might theoretically allow America’s middle classes to maintain some semblance of their current lifestyle is not going to matter two photons in a Nevada sandstorm.

Still, the problems with net energy and economic triage both ultimately rest on thermodynamic issues, because the exergy available from solar energy simply isn’t that high. It takes a lot of hardware to concentrate the relatively mild heat the Earth gets from the Sun to the point that you can do more than a few things with it, and that hardware entails costs in terms of net energy as well as economics. It’s not often remembered that big solar power schemes, of the sort now being proposed, were repeatedly tried from the late 19th century on, and just as repeatedly turned out to be economic duds.

Consider the solar engine devised and marketed by American engineer Frank Shuman in the first decades of the 20th century. The best solar engine of the time, and still the basis of a good many standard designs, it was an extremely efficient device that focused sunlight via parabolic troughs onto water-filled pipes that drove an innovative low-pressure steam engine. Shuman’s trial project in Meadi, Egypt, used five parabolic troughs 204 feet long and 13 feet wide. The energy produced by this very sizable and expensive array? All of 55 horsepower. Modern technology could do better, doubtless, but not much better, given the law of diminishing returns that affects all movements in the direction of efficiency, and most likely not enough better to matter.

Does this mean that solar energy is useless? Not at all. What it means is that a relatively low-exergy source of energy, such as sunlight, can’t simply be used to replace a relatively high-exergy source such as coal. That’s what Shuman was trying to do; like most of the solar pioneers of his time, he’d done the math, realized that fossil fuels would run out in the not infinitely distant future, and argued that they would have to be replaced by solar energy: “One thing I feel sure of,” he wrote, “and that is that the human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarism.”

He may well have been right, but trying to make lukewarm sunlight do the same things as the blazing heat of burning coal was not the way to solve that problem. The difficulty – another of those awkward implications of the laws of thermodynamics – is that whenever you turn energy from one form into another, you inevitably lose a lot of energy to waste heat in the process, and your energy concentration – and thus the exergy of your source – goes down accordingly. If you have abundant supplies of a high-exergy fuel such as coal or petroleum, that doesn’t matter enough to worry about; you can afford to have a great deal of the energy in a gallon of gasoline converted into waste heat and pumped out into the atmosphere by way of your car’s radiator, for example, because there’s so much exergy to spare in gasoline that you have more than enough left over to send your car zooming down the road. With a low-exergy source such as sunlight, you don’t have that luxury, which is why Shuman’s solar plant, which covered well over 13,000 square feet, produced less power than a very modest diesel engine that cost a small fraction of the price and took up an even smaller fraction of the footprint.

This is also why those solar energy technologies that have proven to be economical and efficient are those that minimize conversion losses by using solar energy in the form of heat. That’s the secret to using low-exergy sources: heat is where exergy goes to die, and so if you let it follow that trend, you can turn a relatively diffuse source to heat at very high efficiencies. The heat you get is fairly mild compared to (say) burning gasoline, but that’s fine for practical purposes. It doesn’t take intense heat to raise a bathtub’s worth water to 120ยบ, warm a chilly room, or cook a meal, and it’s precisely tasks like these that solar energy and other low-exergy sources do reliably and well.

It’s interesting to note that Augustin Mouchot, the great 19th century pioneer of solar energy, kept running up against this issue in his work. Mouchot began working with solar energy out of a concern that France, handicapped by its limited reserves of coal, needed some other energy source to compete in the industrial world of the late 19th century. He built the first successful solar steam engines, but they faced the same problems of concentration that made Shuman’s more sophisticated project an economic flop; a representative Mouchot engine, his 1874 Tours demonstration model, used 56 square feet of conical reflector to focus sunlight on a cylindrical boiler, and generated all of 1/2 horsepower.

Yet some of his other solar projects were quite a bit more successful. For many years, the French Foreign Legion relied on one of his inventions in their North African campaigns: a collapsible solar oven that could be packed into a box 20 inches square. It had the same general design as the engine, a conical reflector focusing sunlight onto a cylinder that pointed toward the sun, but it worked, and worked well; the Mouchot oven could cook a large pot roast from raw to well done in under half an hour. Another project, a solar still, proved equally successful, converting wine into brandy at a rate of five gallons a minute – rather good brandy at that, “bold and agreeable to the taste,” Mouchot wrote proudly, “and with...the savor and bouquet of an aged eau-de-vie.” Again, notice the difference: low-exergy sunlight doesn’t convert well to mechanical motion via a steam engine, due to the inevitable conversion losses, but it’s very efficient as a source of heat.

The implications of this difference circle back to a point made by E.F. Schumacher many years ago, and discussed several times already in these essays: the technology that’s useful and appropriate in a setting of energy and resource constraints – for example, the Third World nations of his time, or the soon-to-be-deindustrializing nations of ours – is not the same as the technology that’s useful and appropriate in a setting of abundance – for example, the industrial nations of the age that is ending around us. Centralized power generation is a good example. If you’ve got ample supplies of highly concentrated energy, it makes all the sense in the world to build big centralized power plants and send the power thus produced across hundreds or thousands of miles to consumers; you’ll lose plenty of energy to waste heat at every point along the way, especially in the conversion of one form of energy to another, but if your sources are concentrated and abundant, that doesn’t matter much.

If concentrated energy sources are scarce and rapidly depleting, on the other hand, this sort of extravagance can no longer be justified, and after a certain point, it can no longer be afforded. Since much of the energy that people actually use in their daily lives takes the form of relatively mild heat – the sort that will heat water, warm a house, cook a meal, and so on – it makes more sense in an energy-poor society for people to gather relatively diffuse energy right where they are, and put that to work instead. The same point can be made with equal force for a great many industrial processes; when what you need is heat – and for plenty of economically important activities, such as distilling brandy, that’s exactly what you need – sunlight, concentrated to a modest degree by way of reflectors or fluid-heating panels, will do the job quite effectively.

This is another reason why Schumacher’s concept of intermediate technology, and a great many of the specific technologies he and his associates and successors created, provide a resource base of no little importance as the world’s industrial societies stumble down the far slopes of Hubbert’s peak. When concentrated energy is scarce, local production of relatively diffuse energy for local use is a far more viable approach for a great many uses. This will allow the highly concentrated energies that are left to be directed to those applications that actually need them, while also shielding local communities from the consequences of the failure or complete collapse of centralized systems. The resulting economy may not have much resembance to today’s fantasies of a high-tech future, but the barbarism Frank Shuman feared is not the only alternative to that future; there’s something to be said for a society, even a relatively impoverished and resource-scarce one, that can still reliably provide its inhabitants with hot baths, warm rooms in winter, and well-done pot roasts – and, of course, good brandy.


Michael Ervin said...

Outstanding post JMG

I am on the last chapter of "Small is Beautiful" and am really enjoying it. It was on my bookshelf for years but until I saw your references to it I had ignored it. My loss.

Gavin said...

Great post as always JMG, and eye-opening to say the least.

A good percentage of homes in Australia have solar hot water systems that work very well without any fossil fuels to assist them. All are localised forms of energy that will still provide hot water long after we slide down the curve of decline. These systems are cheap, reliable, and require little maintenance.

Yes our country does not have any large scale solar thermal plants as you described in Nevada or California, due to lack of investment, and bad government policy, and possibly, the realisation that these systems to not provide enough bang for their buck. I can certainly see your point about getting a lower energy return from these systems than initially designed. Maybe that is why we don't have any yet?

John Michael Greer said...

Michael, at least you're reading it now. Your gain.

Gavin, I suspect it's mostly that such systems don't, and can't, provide enough bang for the buck. Our government will likely pour money into another round of big solar thermal projects, which will end up bankrupt and empty like the recent round of ethanol plants. With any luck, your government will get to see how badly they work, and do something more productive -- for example, provide zero-interest loans for homeowners who don't already have solar hot water systems and wish to install them.

darbikrash said...

A good read, balanced and thoughtful as always. A couple of points:

- As you know, oil is not really used in the generation of electricity, coal is as you note, I just want to make the point that solving the electricity production problems does little to respond to the peak oil issues. Some relief is available in the conversion of vehicles to electrical power, but the “heavy lifting” will likely never be done with anything other than petroleum products- until we run out.

- Regarding the EROI discussion, I found the presentation to be a bit generalized. This subject is one of specifics, it can be calculated the energy required to install, fabricate, and maintain a solar power generating field, and it has a very specific EROI. A successful plant using similar technology (albeit refined to higher efficienties) can and does have a energy payback in the 2-3 year range, with a lifepspan of 30-50 years.

- Parabolic solar troughs are in place and operating now. Solar Millenium has several plants around the world, with a 3000 Megawatt plant in operation in Spain. As you suggest, they are not photovoltaic, rather, they convert focused solar energy to heat water, where the heat can then be stored in molten salt for 24/7 availability, critical for power generation. Ultimately, steam, derived from solar heat, is used to drive the generators. Here is an animation of how the system works:

- Plants are planned for the US, the California desert is being considered, but the high water usage is proving to be an obstacle.

- Overall, the calculus is not at all generalized, the theory is simply to exchange (and collect) a low density energy source with infinite supplies, from a high density energy source with diminishing supplies.

- The issues of centralization is an important point. It is more difficult to centralize a low density/low yield source than a high density source. And the sunlight availability for many regions of the US will thwart a widespread decentralization until such technologies as RF transmission of solar energy can mature and propagate to space based solar arrays (with much higher efficiencies).

- Another issue with decentralization, as a political context, it is not deemed desirable for governments and empire to relinquish the control of the most important of all resources, energy generation, to the community level as might be the case with solar. There is an unwanted transfer, or potential transfer of political power inherent in this scenario.

In light of these remarks, I find it interesting that current governmental discussion seem oriented more towards nuclear power generation, a resource with far worse EROI crossovers, and the same problem with finite availability of raw fissionable materials.

No doubt the obstacles to ubiquitous solar power are complex and manifold, but as it is the one resource that is truly limitless, it strikes me as worth the effort to continue the development, and not just for technical reasons.

Richard Green said...

Simply wonderful stuff. For your readers, if I may, Arthur Silber at astounds me to a similar extent. Thanks JMG. I so enjoy the anticipation of Wednesdays.

Bill Pulliam said...

About ethanol... it and other biofuels are a good example of all your major themes in this post. They show the three-way split between what is "a good idea," what is economically desirable, and what is politically desirable. On the energetic front, they are pretty much ludicrous: You take the sunlight, use a living organism to concentrate a few percent of the calories in biomass, then process the results to get a variable but always relatively small fraction of this fraction in a liquid fuel. THEN you take this liquid fuel and put in in some engine to translate the few remaining joules in to torque. After all these inefficient conversions you deliver a miniscule fraction of a percent of your original solar energy into propulsion or some other useful work. I suspect you'd be better off eating the biomass and walking the distance, or feeding it to your mule. Or sticking a sail up into the wind, and converting another diffuse but near-ubiquitous energy source directly into propulsion without the intervention of a chain of costly transformations. And I'm sure you'd do better throwing that biomass in an efficient furnace to directly cook your food or heat your house!

Fact its, people won't need to understand the thermodynamics involved to sort this out. Over the historical time frame, the thermodynamics will make the decisions for us as people discover what actually does an does not work in the long haul. The laws of thermodynamics are inviable so long as you are bigger than an electron and care about time frames longer than femtoseconds. They will ultimately shape our economies just as they shape everything else on the planet, whether we like it or not.

JMG, you already are a practitioner of Barbarism; at least you were when I met you! I mean this from a perspective of hairstyles, of course.

John Michael Greer said...

Darbikrash, of course there are several solar thermal plants in existence, and more on the drawing boards. I'd be interested to see how many of them make a profit solely because of the fairly substantial government subsidies they receive these days. Still, I agree with you that solar power is one of the best options we've got -- my point is simply that the low-intensity, local uses of it are far and away the most efficient.

Richard, thanks for the link!

Bill, since I speak a non-Greek language, I'm a barbarian in the original sense of the word. Still, barbarian or no, I'm fond of a good brandy -- and of plans for the future that aren't total gibberish when measured against the yardstick of thermodynamics!

Jeffery said...

I generally agree with your position in this post. However, I have growing concerns about the idea that we will be able to make good use of solar heating for our homes whether passive or active. While many of the principles of solar heating have been known and exploited for at least thousands of years, I think it is constructive to consider why historically so little use was made of it. When we look at modern solar heating design we see they really aren't effective without a well sealed building envelope, super-insulation, thermal mass, low-e double pane high precision windows, small but reliable energy inputs for active solar designs and heat exchangers for air quality. My research has turned up only one passive heat exchanger. Most require energy to exchange the inside and outside air. Looking at that, list we see that except for thermal mass all those technologies are very hard to maintain in a low energy society. Even if it would be theoretically possible to produce them in such a society, it could be entirely cost prohibitive. Until the modern era glass has been very expensive so that while it might have been possible to make double pane widows (I have read of someone making them by hand) it wouldn't be economically viable. Many modern insulation require petro-chemicals or high energy to manufacture or make fire retardant. Can you imagine the cost of trying to super insulate a house with something like wool insulation when the era of modern mega-farms has passed? Considering all of that should give us a better appreciation of why our forefathers didn't switch to widespread use of passive solar heating when the investment of time and energy for wood heating were so high.

I guess this is just one example of how I often feel that the proposed "low-tech" responses to the long descent may have no future in the long run. And societies ultimate destination may be much more like the past than people want to admit.

tylerdurden said...

One big question....

Week after week I am impressed reading your you well researched and well thought through meditations on energy/exergy in the times of peak oil.
Week after week I am flabbergasted at the absurdity with which you simply keep on ignoring nuclear energy. Certainly not a single form of energy comes from higher concentrated exergy. Not just that, their is no reason to assume, that not sooner or later a way will be discovered how to harness fusion energy. Running out of oil will be a huge enough incentive to invest the necessary amounts of money.
Politicians will not have the slightest hesitations to build more and more nuclear power plants, no matter what the risks or consequences. And your average citizen will most certainly elect the party that promises to do precisely that. Of course, there will be more and more accidents worldwide, but why would anybody care as long as they do not happen in his neighborhood? No one is interested interested in the rest of the world, and like the 17. Century, we will again have maps and globes that will have white spaces. Spaces which of course unlike then will be well known, but no human habitation will be possible there any longer, because of radioactive pollution after accidents in nuclear power plants.
Of all the things we use oil for nowadays, only one thing we will not be able to power by nuclear produced electric energy, and that is airplanes. The times of cheap flying will be over, unless someone comes up with a solution for this, and right now, nothing is anywhere in sight.
Also, as the military are certainly aware of that dilemma, they will sooner or later start to confiscate all the rest of the available oil for their use only. Aircraft carriers are great for masstransport of soldiers, but the US certainly needs airplanes, because the military is the only thing left that gives that ugly country its present superpower status.
Why are you ignoring the nuclear options? Do you really believe people will hesitate to use it, in spite of its known risks and consequences?
Tyler Durden Volland

sofistek said...

Good post, as usual.

One other point about the grand solar schemes (though it may be redundant after your excellent three points), is that we simply don't know how much sunlight can be safely diverted for our own use. Currently, all of the sunlight falling on this planet, and retained by the planet, is used in its various energy and life systems. It seems to me that the assumption about the extra heat that might ultimately be generated by such diversion, or about the environmental impacts (locally or globally) of diverting that energy, is similar to the one often stated by climate change skeptics: that the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere is so tiny that it couldn't possible have the impact scientists say it has.

The same may be said of all schemes to divert the natural energy flows of the planet to human use. Environmental impact assessments of such schemes are rare and, even when I've seen them, they've been highly focused on only one aspect (like the impact of wind turbines on birds).

Past impact assumptions (usually the complete lack of consideration of them) have led us to where we are. I hope we don't repeat that mistake, though it looks like we will.

Kyle said...

(I thought I posted this on one of your entries a couple of weeks ago, but it didn't show up. I've refined my points a bit more since then.)

I agree that decentralized power generation will be critical in the future. But I'm not sure exactly how that factors into predictions of just how screwed the human race will be in the coming decades. The change from a high-exergy source of energy to a low-exergy one will result in very qualitative differences between the world of now and the world of the future, but exactly what that means quantitatively still depends on how the numbers crunch.

From the best amateur research I can do myself, it seems that due to the best-first principle of extraction, the oil we use today has a much smaller EROEI than the oil of many decades ago, and it is now almost comparable to that of the best renewables. And yet, it's still energetically profitable enough to power the world as we know it today. When you discussed PV in your blog before, I seem to remember that you focused on the ones that required rare-earth metals and claimed they barely break even on energy cost of producing them. But as darbikrash pointed out, the best PVs now have an energy payback time of 2-3 years, comparable to that of a new oil drilling operation. I know I'm talking about energy here and not exergy, but the things I've found so far don't seem to mesh with what you've said just about energy, and it takes an accurate assessment of both those aspects to judge what the limit of industrial activity will be in the long run. Basically, I'm wondering what sort of numbers you've used to figure all this stuff out. You point to links like The Oil Drum, but it's still difficult for me to find a comprehensive look at these factors with reputable citations and assurances that details are accurate, e.g. data for renewables not being skewed by energy subsidies from fossil fuels.

You also mention that since fossil fuels are such a concentrated source of energy they allow more waste in the process of performing their useful work. To me, this only emphasizes there is considerable room for energy savings to be made, and makes me think that when we do transition to less-concentrated energy sources, we will naturally use them more efficiently, and not just out of lessons learned from the wastefulness of the fossil fuel era. When the maximum intensity with which an energy source can be utilized is comparable to the intensity required for a task, every effort must be taken to see as much of that energy as possible being put to use. With a container of gasoline on the other hand, you have the potential to do any number of tasks with monstrous amounts of power, so when it comes to simpler tasks like mowing your lawn, not only is waste of little concern, but it's damn hard to avoid no matter how you engineer your lawnmower.

Additionally, although you cite political and economic factors as reasons that we will not transition to more sustainable energy solutions quickly, I would also go so far as to say that the political and economic climate as it is allows us to be much more energetically wasteful with fossil fuels than we might be otherwise. Political costs can hamper the efficiency of an essential economic activity until it drops below the threshold of being economically feasible. Economic costs can hamper the efficiency of an essential use of energy until it drops below the threshold of being energetically feasible. When the scale of energy production must match the scale of its use without much wiggle room, economic and political concerns will be less effective in discouraging efficiency. This makes me think that the concept of EROEI should be expanded to include the energy-consuming task at hand, and how much of the energy consumed actually goes into performing it. This would be a great way to decide what types of work are best suited for what types of energy sources and energy distribution mechanisms.

xhmko said...

It's all about the middle man. As Bill points out you're better off eating the corn and walking your corn fed mule to wherever it is you have to go to do whatever it is you have to do, then turning vast regions of the overstretched Earth into playthings for biofuel scientologists.
I mentioned David Holmgrem a few posts back and this talk of barbarism and wastefulness reminds me of something he said.
He mentioned how primitive of us it was for us to take glass bottles, smash them into tiny pieces, melt them in furnaces, and pour them into molds as new glass bottles when we could just wash them and save them, thereby reducing the need for new glass bottles. Hang on. Wasn't this the trendy thing to do not twenty years ago. Where did we go wrong? We can cut out so much wastage of energy if we just use it for what it is. I mean if you leave clean water in a ceramic bowl that is black on the inside in the sun for a few hours you get reasonably warm water. If you stored this in a the right sort container then in the evening when you want to wash, hey presto, (not hot) but warm water. It's just that you are required to exert your own precious physical energy a bit more and not rely on an industrial energy process to do it all for you.

Dan Olner said...

Cheers for this post, lots of excellent stuff. I'll get my nitpicks out of the way first, hope that's OK! You talk of the "dubious logic" used to justify our energy extravagance. To illustrate, you pick up on an un-named commenter who you claim said "the photons that reach the Earth from the Sun each contain exactly as much energy as they did when they left the solar atmosphere." I can find no such commenter; I'm thinking either me or Honky, but neither of us said that. Anyone who did the torch experiment in school to help understand the seasons knows the sun is more diffuse the further away the light is, and the larger the angle to the light. Otherwise the whole universe would be infinitely hot and laws of thermodynamics would be broken.

I'm presuming you thought the commenter was (perhaps wilfully) hoping that the sun's energy came to us directly, and so illustrated your point about wishful thinking. If they *had* made that mistake, it wouldn't have illustrated your point - it would have just shown they needed correcting on a basic point of physics. Consequently it comes across as a little straw-persony. Just a small thing, the rest was brilliant - love the C19th solar stuff, didn't know anything about it. Is there something I could read on that?

I want to come back to your use of exergy; it would be great if I could work out where we're disagreeing on it. My comment in the last post picked up on you saying: ""the energy in that sunlight has very modest amounts of exergy by the time it crosses 93 million miles of space to get to us, and it can therefore do only modest amounts of work." You talk in this post of "a relatively low-exergy source of energy, such as sunlight." Again, by my understanding of exergy, that doesn't make sense. The definitions of exergy I know say it's "the maximum work possible in an ideal process" where exergy is not conserved, due to entropy (Smil 2008 p.13) Exergy for sunlight is 'undefined' until it's in a system doing work, and then *we* have to define what 'work' means in that context. This makes physicists uncomfortable; it's not entirely a physical concept (though it can be mapped to physical systems in useful ways.)

Smil talks about calculating the work done moving a car: you can choose to measure that against the metal of the car moving, or the number of people sat in the seats. Depends if ‘word done’ is moving cars or people. Each makes sense depending on your measuring goals. In one of your examples, water is boiled to produce a small amount of horsepower, in another, a similar system cooks a meal. What's the exergy in each? There's no a priori way to decide; we need to consider each system. At any rate, it makes no sense to talk about sunlight as 'low exergy'. As it hits the ground it's still e1 - an average of 250 watts per square metre. That's my understanding.

"The technology that’s useful and appropriate in a setting of energy and resource constraints – for example, the Third World nations of his time, or the soon-to-be-deindustrializing nations of ours – is not the same as the technology that’s useful and appropriate in a setting of abundance"

Agreed - and, of course, a key problem is that little in our society as it currently stands is geared up to develop this sort of idea. I went on an energy summer school last year; they asked us to come up with some new energy system acceptable to both people and governments. Pretty much every group came up with something people-controlled, small scale. This will likely never happen via the government route: energy policy is carved up by a tiny number of large companies, and distributed, people-level energy systems are not in their interests.

LS said...

JMG, another good post re-enforcing last weeks. Very interesting.

I am currently building a very small, highly insulated, solar passive house with solar water heating. We have included heating hose in the slab to allow for running some of the solar hot water through the slab in winter for heating, but the way things are going it looks like it may not even be necessary (the house is so thermally efficient).

This building is an excellent example of the benefits of your points: use the energy as directly as possible, use it where it's most appropriate. The sun is great for heating water and buildings and growing plants, not so great for much else.

It is interesting that wind power seems to be one of the highest EROEI renewable resources of energy. Not surprising though because (like hydro power) wind is a concentration of the energy from sunlight that falls over vast areas of the globe.

LS said...

@darbikrash said:

"Another issue with decentralization, as a political context, it is not deemed desirable for governments and empire to relinquish the control of the most important of all resources, energy generation, to the community level as might be the case with solar. There is an unwanted transfer, or potential transfer of political power inherent in this scenario."

Yet we have the huge irony of relying on oil supplied by other (sometimes hostile) nations. Talk about a transfer of political power!

So personally I don't buy the idea above. I find it far more likely that centralised power generation is just easier to pork barrel, keeps the lobby groups happy, and is great for cutting ribbons and winning votes. What you are suggesting implies a broader view of things than politicians typically show (i.e. they are too busy trying to get re-elected to actually look at the broader issues).

A recent "insider" piece written by a former speech writer for the Australian Federal Government demonstrated quite clearly how our "leaders" jump from one vote winning idea to the next, never bothering to consider broader strategy, or even good government for that matter.

knutty knitter said...

Its a bit like considering the Roman Empire and Samian ware. This type of pottery was ubiquitous, easy to mass produce and cheap....until the system broke down. Then it simply stopped and was replaced by utilitarian local pots.

Moral of the story - learn to make stuff before it becomes impossible to get. Once the empire had gone, the trade routes became much more difficult. Only things with high value and low weight/vulnerability were traded and pottery didn't fit that bill.

I'm of the opinion that a lot of our "stuff" will follow the same path into oblivion including most of what we make using petroleum.

viv in nz

ps. I still love your site :)

anagnosto said...

I think a most interesting use of solar energy will be in the catalytic split of water along this lines:

With research being carried too in several other labs.

that removes the need for using heat on spot and moment.

Cherokee Organics said...


Mmm good brandy - sounds pleasant! We're aiming for cider. Much easier to make. There are 26 diverse heritage apple trees (not to mention all the pears) so far here with more on the way this winter.

On a serious note though, people talk up photovoltaic systems in a similar way to the emails you mentioned. They lack an understanding of the limitations as to what it means to live with such a system.

Here goes: We have a 1.5Kw PV system with 30Kw of battery storage and a 3Kw (RMS) inverter.

In reality you generate about 4-5Kw/Hours a day on average here. As a comparison, the average useage in Victoria, Australia in 2003 was 17.5Kw/Hours a day. I'd be certain that it is higher now. There's a bit of a difference there in useage!

On a off grid PV system you have to be careful with your useage and understand what appliance uses how much electricity before switching it on. Certainly there is nothing on standby here which can still draw quite a lot of current. People connected to the grid do not understand this and don't want to know.

The other limitations with the system is that you can draw down on your batteries as a power source at night or when it's cloudy, but by doing so too much you shorten their useful life. If you want a long life for batteries you only draw down about 10-20% of their capacity before connecting an external power source whether it is PV, wind or generator.

Over sustained cloudy weather you have to use a generator. You guessed it, the power source is oil being burned in a backup generator! It all comes back to oil.

It may also interest the readers to also know that I expect the following product life for the various components:
Batteries - about 15 years if used gently;
Panels - there are estimates out there of about 40-50 years if nothing untoward happens such as a bushfire or hailstorm etc; and
Inverter/Regulator etc - probably about 10 years are they are the hardest working parts of the whole system.

At best such a system can buy you some time to ride through the worst of societal changes, but without a complex manufacturing base, none of it is repairable.

I'm with JMG on this. Stick with simple technology as it is understandable, repairable, replicatable and doesn't require the outputs of a complex manufacturing base. Best of all though is that it should have a much longer life than a PV system.

It wasn't that many years ago that people around here used to distill eucalyptus oil and use it as a fuel source (and cleaner - it's pretty leathal). Takes a lot of firewood though but the leaves have a very high oil content of around 4%.

Good luck!

PS: Just finished "The long Descent" and I agree with your world view.

Cherokee Organics said...

As a response to Darbikrash...

"As you know, oil is not really used in the generation of electricity, coal is as you note, I just want to make the point that solving the electricity production problems does little to respond to the peak oil issues."

I think that you may find that they produce electricity in the Middle East by burning oil. My understanding is that this has a direct impact on peak oil as any importing nation is competing against them for supplies of dwindling production. If the Middle East increases electricity production as they are doing, then supply is restricted. It's also my understanding (and I could be wrong here) that the generators pay next to nothing for the oil that they do burn which leads to increasing demand for electricity.

The other thing to remember with using coal to generate electricity is that the excavators, trucks trains etc are all powered by diesel fuel. Pretty scary!

anagnosto said...

Actually the term I was looking seems to be photocatalysis

and the example at the MIT was not a good one!

J Hill said...

Your recent posts consist of two sections: a longer section in which you scorn your critics and explain in detail why a low-energy future is inevitable, and a shorter one in which you talk briefly and cursorily about constructive suggestions for dealing with the inevitable. Since you're trying to make an important point, please, please, please consider adopting a different structure, in which more of your time goes to talking about planning constructively for the future. Enough of your readers already agree with you that you're basically preaching to the choir. You have thoroughly explained how stupid people are who put their faith in renewable resources, and any further time on that topic is redundant.

Blindweb said...


Excellent post as always.

Never much of a student of physics, I came to the same conclusion about solar panels and ethanol long ago through an understanding of evolution and the way of existence and efficiency. I said to myself;, how exactly is a century or two old human photovoltaic technology going to possible beat out the efficiency of billions of years of plant evolution? How is a human made machine going to beat out the efficiency of an organic machine evolved over millions of years? Better to use the most efficient 'machine' (animals) fueled by the most efficient solar gatherer (plants). Maybe that helps give a different perspective to physics novices.

Any thoughts on the long term viability of bicycles? Long distance bike paths seem to be a big topic in my area. I wonder if it will be a net gain when the bike paths have to be paid for out of the productive value of bicycles, and not fossil fuels?

Armando said...

Another good representation on how disfuse the solar energy is:
The amount of energy received on the roof of a car of about 2 square meters (21.5 ft2) is in Arizona of about 1800W or (1800J/s). Which translates to about 26000 KJ/day or 2500BTU.
A gallon of gasoline is about
Assuming efficiencies of 100% (which we all know we are not even near that and never will be... at best 35-45% efficiency both for the gasoline and solar) it would take a solar panel on the roof of that car 40days of charging the battery to have the equivalent of 1gal of gas in the tank!
Note that this is the best case scenario possible. In any other location without 300+days of pure cristal clear skies the charge would take half of the year.

Don said...

I heard this report on NPR back in December. I wonder how long the payback on this project will be?


Armando said...

^^^ sorry
it is not 40 days. it is 50days!!!

John Michael Greer said...

Jeffery, you're certainly right that the more complex end of solar heating systems won't be viable for most of the deindustrial dark age ahead of us. Mind you, the ancient Greeks made a lot of use of passive solar heating -- there are simpler ways to do the thing, if you don't mind results that aren't up to current expectations -- and that, along with earth-sheltered housing (another ancient practice that works very well), are likely to be going concerns even in the harshest part of the near-to-middle future.

Tyler, good heavens. I don't ignore nuclear power; I've discussed several times the likelihood that it's going to be the next ethanol -- that is, the recipient of a huge amount of government largesse, resulting in an equally huge number of economically nonviable nuclear plants, many of them half-finished, cluttering up the landscape. (I've even put one of those into a recent chapter of my online novel Star's Reach. You're quite right, also, that the future inhabitants of this and several other continents will be dealing with radioactive dead zones. I haven't discussed it in detail because it hasn't been relevant to the themes I'm trying to develop just now, but of course it's an issue.

Sofistek, that's an excellent point. I doubt it will be given the attention it deserves by anybody, but it's still an excellent point.

Kyle, good. As far as I know, there isn't a single good source for data of the sort we're discussing here; like everyone else in the peak oil field, I've assembled the estimates I use bit by bit from a wide variety of sources, many of which are doubtless skewed one way or another, and the weighting I give them is inevitably also skewed by subjective factors. Basically, we're all guessing. Still, I don't know of any PV systems actually in production that have proven, in practice, to have a 2-3 year payback time -- 20-30 years seems to be much closer to the way things work out -- and the energy subsidy issue there is immense.

You're right that there's a lot of room for efficiency, and also for demand destruction that doesn't actually impact critical systems; as I've pointed out more than once, the entire tourist industry could be scrapped, with an immense savings in energy and resources, and the only people who'd be harmed are the ones who lost tourism-dependent jobs (which are going away anyway). This is one of the reasons I argue for a long descent instead of a fast crash; even with relatively rapid rates of oil production decline, there's a lot of waste that can be trimmed to make up for it, at least for a while.

Xhmko, good. The middleman analogy is an excellent one; every transformation of energy is a middleman who takes his cut -- often a sizable one.

Dan, if you glance back over last week's comments you'll see that DIYer made the comment about photons I was referencing. I used it precisely because it demonstrated a very common mistake in thinking about renewables, one I've seen repeated countless times.

Of course I'm simplifying the issue of exergy, but I don't think what I'm doing with it is that unclear. If you'd like to suggest an alternative term for "the amount of useful work that can be done by a given amount of energy in a given concentration, under broadly specified environmental conditions" I'd welcome that.

For the 19th and early 20th century solar energy projects, the book to read is A Golden Thread by Ken Butti and John Perlin. That's my source for the info on Shuman and Mouchot, including the brandy!

LS, excellent. Yes, wind is the one stellar exception to most of the problems with renewables; it has problems of its own, but its net energy is respectable if not stellar, and it's likely to be an important piece of any functional response to our predicament.

Noni Mausa said...

I hope you have an essay coming up about "antifuel" also.

That is, the cheapest way in theory to extend existing supplies is to not use them. This strategy worked for hundreds of thousands of years (insert grin here.)

The growth of western economies (at least North American ones) over the past century has been based largely on frothing things up. Fly, drive, ship stuff, go to work in order to afford to go to work, buy cheap stuff a dozen times rather than good stuff once, yadda yadda yadda.

It may just be the viewpoint of my generation, but it is not my imagination that mom is still using a toaster she bought a half-century ago (and getting better toast than I do.) We should be solidifying the toasters of the world, and frothing the weightless treasures like arts, crafts, performances, services, and social supports.

Two books to mention: a gem of a book called "Engine Summer" by John Crowley, worth a read a year and requiring at least two reads to bring one up to speed, should be on every shelf.

Second, the roomy classic "Islandia" by Austin Tappan Wright, which is slow paced by our standards but full of thought and a strong, alternative view of culture and interpersonal relationships and sane governance. There is an averted invasion, too, but you can skip it and not lose much.

Off to work,


John Michael Greer said...

LS (continued), there's also the issue of the narratives shaping the thinking of contemporary leaders, and indeed of everyone else. Because most people think of energy as something that comes out of huge centralized power plants, huge centralized power plants are the only options that are taken seriously, even when they're not a workable option. When our models of the world get sufficiently far out of step with the world as it is, you get these sorts of weird decisions all the time.

Viv, an excellent example.

Anagnosto, that's a surprisingly old idea -- people were pursuing projects along those lines in the early 20th century. Once again, it's the energy costs of the conversion that make it problematic.

Cherokee, thanks for the feedback from somebody who actually uses the technologies under discussion. I find that most of the people who think PV (or any other renewable sources) is the answer to all our problems haven't actually lived with it, and gotten to know its challenges and limitations.

J Hill, I'm not telling people who put their faith in renewables that they're being stupid; I'm trying to explain some very counterintuitive concepts to an intelligent audience, many of whom have some difficulty grasping those concepts. If that doesn't interest you, understood, but that doesn't make me less interested in pursuing the points I want to make, you know. It's precisely the fixation on finding positive solutions, without taking the time to be sure the problems are well understood, that's played a very large role in landing us in our present predicament.

Blindweb, bicycles are an interesting question, and one I'll have to study before I can discuss in any useful way.

Armando, that's a great example! Many thanks.

Don, I wasn't able to get the link to load, so good question. From your tone, though, I suspect it'll be a long, long time!

John Michael Greer said...

Noni, funny you should ask. Yes, in fact, I'll have quite a bit to say about "antifuel" -- though I'll be using a different term for it -- and also your mom's sturdy toaster, in posts in the near future. Thanks also for the book references -- John Crowley has been a fave of mine for a good many years, and Engine Summer in particular is absolutely brilliant -- one of the best postcollapse novels I've read. I need to get around to reading Islandia, though -- thank you for the reminder!

Don said...

"Don, I wasn't able to get the link to load, so good question. From your tone, though, I suspect it'll be a long, long time!"

Well, the title of the report is, "Company Plans To Pull Solar Energy From Orbit." A company called Solaron believes it can set up solar collectors in space (in a geosynchronous orbit) to "collect and focus sunlight" on photovoltaic panels, converting the sunlight to electricity, and then beaming the power via radio waves down to earth. They plan on having this outer-space solar power plant operating by 2016.

As the article points out, even if they can deliver power, it's "far from uncertain" that they can make a profit.

Bilbo said...

I enjoy reading your columns, but I have to challenge one aspect here. I've done work on ethanol distillation and I find the figure of 5 gallons a minute for a solar still impossible to believe. Are you sure there is not some sort of transcription error? Modern research on solar stills has shown they will not produce high output rates. See the following:

They get a rate of 1.8 liters per hour. They are trying to produce a higher proof level than brandy, but the difference in rates is very large.

The reason I bring this up is there will be people who read this week's column and think solar stills will produce 5 gallons per minute of ethanol and I can tell you for certain that that this will never happen.

Otherwise I agree with everything you have written and I thank you for a wonderful column.

hapibeli said...

Thanks JMG for heading in this energy vs exergy direction. Of your many clear and concise explanations of post-industrial life, these posts will make the tale telling much easier. I've seen how a small home built in 1910, facing east/west on its long sides, used a retrofitted solarium on its short south side, to heat the house during cold, dark and snowy winters in the 80's and early 90's in Mount Vernon, Washington. He used their gas fired furnace an average of two days per winter with a small use of a wood stove on really cold and dark days.
The owner was a bright engineer/builder for the local phone company. He and his wife where well ahead [ or behind? :} :} ], the modern world in their understanding of living more closely with the earth and her rhythms.
I learned much from him as well as from my dad who lived much in the same way. To live in, but not of the world, can be a blessing.
BTW I'm 3/4 through "The Long Descent". Thanks for that and exergy!

hapibeli said...

Observing the building and maintaining of large centralized power systems, it is as much the desire to enrich small groups of corporate and societal elites, as it is providing comfort. The slow rates of small energy systems, whether passive or active, won't leave those same elites with as much personal or pocketbook power as the centrally controlled systems.

Ruben said...

@ Jeff--how about a link to that passive heat exchanger, sounds useful.

@ Kyle--EUOEI, Energy Used Of Energy Invested, that is a good concept. For cars= 1%.

Bill Pulliam said...

All you folks talking about the shortcomings of solar heating systems need a much bigger historical context...

For most of human existence the purpose of a house was to keep the rain, snow, wind, animals, and thieves out, and your stuff in. Before the industrial era no one really expected that the inside of their house *as a whole* would be substantially warmer than the outside world. Hearths created warm spots and places for cooking, no one expected to "heat the house." People wore warm clothes indoors and outdoors in winter, and slept in the cold. This was true for peasants and for royals. It wasn't until well into the 20th Century that the great masses expected not just some warmth in the house but something like "room temperature" year round. This notion that we should be able to insulate ourselves from the world outside is a result of (to be blunt) the spoiled rotten affluence that we have ALL grown up under for several generations. Even if you live in relative poverty and are reading this on a public computer at an underfunded library, the fact that you even have access to it at all means you are living at a standard well above that of a medieval european king.

The party is winding down, the era of central heat will not outlive many who read this. Rather than turn the world upside-down to keep our houses at 68F in winter and 75F in summer, maybe just put on more clothes in winter and go around nekkid (or the nearest approximation your own persuasions allow) in summer when you are around the house?

We live in a farm house built in 1886. It belong to the County Judge, which means it was a rich person's house by relative standards. It had, when it was new, two stone fireplaces, walls consisting of 3/8" beadboard on the inside and 1/2" clapboard on the outside with no sheathing or insulation. The roof was wooden shingles nailed over bare rafters and purlins with no sheathing. In other words, the prominent county judge and his wealth family lived in a house that was barely above freezing inside in winter. And this was perfectly normal, no one expected otherwise!

NOTHING, no pre-industrial or new alternative technology, is going to allow us to continue living indefinitely as though the seasons do not exist and we are entitled to shirt-sleeve comfort in our homes no matter what is happening outside. Start getting used to the idea; you may be living it sooner than you think.

Truly passive solar technology is perfectly capable of keeping portions of your abode warm enough for practical purposes. It won't be within 4 degrees of the same temperature all year however; that is a purely unnecessary luxury, not any kind of basic necessity.

Dan Olner said...

OK. I just still have this niggling thing of wanting you to say "alright, yes, sunlight can't have low exergy." I'm being pedantic I know.

Oo, meant to send you this quote, too, in case you haven't seen it. They're talking about global warming, but it applies equally to much of what you talk about in this entry:

"Imagine a gigantic, colossal banquet. Hundreds of millions of people come to eat. They eat and drink to their hearts' content, eating food that is better and more abundant than at the finest tables in ancient Athens, or Rome or even in the palaces of medieval Europe. Then one day a man arrives wearing a white dinner jacket. [It is the waiter, and he brings a bill.] Not surprisingly the diners are in shock. Some begin to deny that this is their bill. Others deny that there even is a bill. Still others deny that they partook of the meal. One diner suggests the man is not really a waiter, but is only trying to get attention for himself or to raise money for his own projects. Finally the group concludes that if they simply ignore the waiter, he will go away.

"This is where we stand today on the question of global warming. ... No wonder the merchants of doubt have been successful. They've permitted us to think we could ignore the waiter."

- Naomi Oreskes/Erik Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (cut and pasted from

John said...

Thanks for another thought provoking post. Clearly, the folks talking about the vast amount of solar energy impacting the earth have never tried designing a solar collector. I have and its a frustrating experience.

Start with 1000 watts of solar insolation per square meter, derate for less than ideal weather, derate again for less than perfect transmission through the glass, for imperfect absorbers, insulation, pumping losses, etc etc. By the time you finally get to your hot water tank you're down to 200 to 300 watts of usable energy. Working with diffuse energy is like trying to collect water in a sieve.

I was wondering, since you've thought so much about this issue, you must have a fairly precise timeline for the next few years. The short version of mine is as follows: the 85 mbd oil production plateau we're currently on will last for another 4-5 years, followed by a decline of about 3% per year. Prices will rise sharply then. Shortly after that the government will get involved, both by funneling money to unproductive energy projects and by rationing oil by various means so that favored sectors (the military and agriculture) get enough while the rest of us get still less. That takes us out about 10 years.

What do you see for the next ten years?

jagged ben said...

I have to say that, especially with the way it finished, this is one of my favorite essays yet.

I actually think that whether the human species will have much ability and desire to harness solar power directly is THE biggest question-mark hanging over our future. I have almost no idea how that question will play out, except that I think by about 30 years from now we will see which way things are going. It's an important question, mind you, because one alternative to greater utilization of solar power is greater consumption - and therefore destruction - of the biosphere. Defining the difference between options as between barbarism and brandy is not a bad way to get peoples attention.

Also, thanks from me as well for the 19th century solar stuff, I was also not familiar.

John Michael Greer said...

Don, that's a fine example of the cornucopian mindset, focusing entirely on the possible gains and assuming that progress will take care of the costs -- oh, yes, and the dangers. Gah.

Bilbo, I got that figure from the book I referenced above, A Golden Thread by Ken Butti and John Perlin. It does seem high, but I don't have access to Mouchot's book La Chaleur Solaire, so can't check it.

Hapibeli, retrofitting solariums or solar-heated greenhouses onto existing construction is another easy winner -- the cost is generally quite low and the heat gains very considerable. Low-grade heat scores again!

Bill, very true. There's a reason people in Victorian times wore all those layers of wool indoors!

Dan, help me out here. There is a difference, a huge one, in the potential work that can be done between a ray of sunlight falling on a square foot, and the heat from burning coal in a furnace falling on the same square foot. Every effort to make the ray of sunlight fill the same economic functions as the burning coal has foundered on that difference. If the term "exergy" is the wrong one to use for that difference, please give me another term -- because the difference is real, a failure to pay attention to it is causing a huge amount of human energy to go down an assortment of ratholes, and it needs to be discussed in any attempt to make sense of the economics of the deindustrial age. (The quote's great, by the way.)

John, thank you for an excellent example from the real world! (Dan, what John is talking about here is the point I'm trying to make -- again, help me out with the terminology.) As for the next ten years -- that's raw material for at least one post all by itself. Still, the very, very, very short form: assume that politically and economically, it's 1931, and then add in creeping shortfalls in fossil fuels and assorted raw materials. More on this later.

medved said...

Hello JMG and all, I hope the referenced graph will be a good illustration for today's topic.

Smil's Energy in Nature and Society is on my desk for some time now...

A warm greetings from cold climates that did not make it into civilization while we still had only solar power to live with...

Mark said...

What a brilliant article. I appreciate that zest of wit you throw in at the end as well. We also benefit from the fact that plenty of the useful materials that were once buried underground, are now scattered across the earth's surface in forms we can readily use.

I was reading these writings yesterday about a movement in Sri Lanka that serves as a very intriguing example of how decentralized education and community effort can foster the conditions for a prosperous low-carbon life. It's a seven part essay, but ties in very well with the topics you've been covering for the past month. I think you will enjoy the read:

Odin's Raven said...

You seem to endorse the orthodox theory that the sun is a nuclear furnace. Maybe you would also consider the heresy proposed by some dissident scientists that it, and much of the universe, is operated by electricity. See the Electric Universe idea at etc.

As a Druid perhaps you might also like to consider the even more radical ideas of ZS Livingstone at
He claims to be an actual magician, and has some very spectacular ideas about the nature of the universe, including energy transfers from higher spiritual levels, so we may not be running down as rapidly as the orthodox materialists would have us believe.

Bill Pulliam said...


Dredging up my high school and college chemistry from decades ago...

I think we might be dealing with something here akin to Gibbs Free Energy, G. As you (should) recall, G is the amount of work that can be done by the energy. A reaction that shows a negative change in G will happen, a reaction that shows a positive change in G won't happen. G is defined as:

G = H - T*S

where H = enthalpy (heat energy), T = temperature (above absolute zero), and S = entropy (disorder). Basically more disordered systems can do less work.

The carbon atoms in a lump of coal, or the hydrocarbon molecules in petroleum, represent highly ordered states of matter (low S). Conversely, photons represent (I believe) the most disordered form of matter/energy (very high S). So, I believe you will find that with an amount of fossil fuel and an amount of photons that contain the same amount of heat energy (H), the much higher entropy of the photons will mean that they contain much lower Gibbs free energy. In other words, the photons can do much less work than the coal or petroleum for the same amount of basic energy.

Where I'm not sure how to work this with the photons, though, is the concept of "temperature." I suppose it is the temperature of the system they are impinging upon. Any real physicists or chemists out there, please review, critique, correct, or totally trash what I have just laid out here!

Throwing the equations aside, you can go at this just from the Second Law, that entropy must increase over time. This applies globally (universally), so if entropy decreases at one place it must increase by a larger amount somewhere else. Useful work consists of decreasing entropy locally (i.e. moving something uphill, building something more complex than the starting materials, pushing something forward against friction, making heat move backwards from cold to hot, etc.), at the expense of dissipating a lot of increased entropy into the surroundings. Photons are already very high in entropy, hence there is not a lot of wiggle room to extract "disentropy" (work) out of them. Fossil fuels, however, are low in entropy. They were made by biological and geological processes that already dissipated massive amounts of entropy into the cosmos millions of years ago. These little nuggets are chock full of "disentropy" waiting to be used for whatever work we are clever enough to trick them in to doing.

Nathaniel said...

My mother has a 50+ year old toaster too. It was made in Canada in 1953, has seen continuous use through two generations of my family (I’m trying to make that three, but my mother won’t part with it), and hasn’t broken once. I compare that to my own experience of never owning a toaster or toaster oven for more than 2-3 years without it failing (I swear I don’t do anything irresponsible with them).

Speaking of postcollapse fiction, Paolo Bacigalupi has a couple of excellent stories (The Calorie Man, and Yellow Card Man, both of which are available online for free) that are set in a fossil fuel constrained future. Setting aside the genetically modified animals in the first story, I find his visions all too likely.

I’ve been an avid reader of your blog for the last year, delving into previous posts as time permits. I haven’t commented before, because I didn’t feel I had anything original to say, but the antique toaster and the desire to share good fiction references finally swayed me.

Since I’m already writing, I’ll mention that I’m currently a Ph.D. student at a major research university in the US, studying environmental and resource policy. I was motivated to go to grad school five years ago by a growing awareness of both our finite resource base, and the growing complexity of our economy and how that influences the stability of society. After four and a half years of study, I’m working on my dissertation prospectus, and I’ve realized that I don’t really have greater insights into what we should do to “save” our civilization than I did when I started. I’ve ruled some things out (biofuels, carbon capture and storage with coal, etc.) but the “should do” list is much shorter and simpler (efficiency, reduced consumption, etc.), and unlikely to allow business-as-usual so much as soften the crunch.

Another thing I’ve been struck by in my time here is the lack of realism and foresight in academia. I find many people in my program, and in other programs I interact with, have persistently cornucopian views despite readily available and known evidence to the contrary – and not just about fossil fuels. I think part of this is cognitive dissonance, and part of it is that academia selects for people that have inherent faith in solving problems (and/or predicaments?) through research and innovation. I know highly respected people with Ph.D.s in such concretely grounded fields as physics and math, who will tell you about how solar PV will save the day! Moreover, even gentle suggestions to the contrary are greeted with bland putdowns or dismissal. Once, when tangentially addressing the issue of oil depletion, another student said to me, “Well, in my program we don’t believe in Malthusian ideas.” Ha! Boy will she be surprised.

Even though I’ve encountered a much higher degree of intellectual curiosity and a much more inclusive environment in academia than I ever have before, there are still issues to which there are strong visceral responses. I think overcoming this barrier among intellectual leaders will be a major and vital challenge to generating widespread useful activity in response to resource constraints.

Bill Pulliam said...

Sorry to follow up on myself, but another specific example of why a BTU of hydrocarbons and a BTU of sunlight are not interchangeable...

Case A. Hydrocarbon-powered internal combustion engine. For the sake of an example, I'm going to pretend it's powered purely by heptane, C7H16 (imagine the numbers as subscripts). In the combustion cylinder, the fuel and oxygen (from air) are mixed and burned. The basic reaction is:

C7H16 + 11 O2 => 7 CO2 + 8 H2O

Several points about this reaction:

It is spontaneous and self-supporting. You only need to give it a tiny energetic nudge (like a spark) and the reaction proceeds on its own explosively. This reaction is spontaneous because it represents an INCREASE IN ENTROPY.

It releases a whole lot of heat, which causes the gas in the chamber to expand violently and do work on the piston.

Less obvious and less appreciated by most -- you have increased the total number of molecules from the 11 that you start with to the 15 than you end with. Remember the ideal gas law PV=NRT, where N is the number of molecules. Even if you didn't create any heat, by increasing N from 11 to 15 you'd increase the pressure by the same ratio, which gives you force on the piston you can do work with. This effect basically multiplies the force of the combustion by 36% over just the effects of the heat. This is part of the INCREASE IN ENTROPY you get by breaking down larger molecules in to smaller ones, and lets you extract even more work from the system.

Case B. Solar-powered steam engine. Here the reaction is:

H2O(liquid) + hv => H2O(gas)

The "v" in "hv" is the closest approximation I can make here to a lower case nu; this is the standard representation for energy in the form of photons. When you see this you should hear "Aitch Noo" in your head.

This reaction does not release any heat; it consumes it. It does not happen spontaneously until you have absorbed enough hv's to heat the system up to the boiling point. You haven't rearranged any covalent bonds between the atoms so you have not released any energy that way. There's no combustion, no explosion, no change in the number or type of molecules. The phase change from liquid water to gaseous water CONSUMES energy, it does not release it. The only increase in entropy comes from the entropy delivered directly by the photons. There's just not as many positive things going on here thermodynamically, hence there's not as much work you can get out of this reaction, even if the heat involved is the same.

So, a BTU of hydrocarbons can do considerably more work than a BTU of photons, under the conditions we enjoy here at the surface of the earth.

Eric said...

Greetings JMG, recent reader and first time commenter. I'm delighted to have discovered your blog and find myself looking forward to Wednesdays.

The exergy crisis topic has been particularly interesting. In general, I find myself having to agree with much of what you are arguing. The laws of physics must be served after all. Still, as an inveterate believer in human intelligence (until group size gets too big at least) I strain for optimism that we'll be able to think our way out of this box. Can we come up with a high exergy energy source to replace the billions of years of fossilized sunlight we're so dependent on?

Your dialog with tylerduren about nuclear power illustrates some of the complexities around this question. I live in Washington State and we're still paying for the WPPS fiasco of the 1980s. Given that perspective, its hard for me to disagree with your position on the pitfalls of nuclear.

Given all this, I can predict to a certain degree what you might say about one of the more science fictioney solutions to the exergy crisis - nuclear fusion.

Before everyone laughs out loud and reminds me about the "cold fusion" fiasco of the 1990s, consider the following except from a summary article in the latest edition of Science Magazine:

"On pages 1231 and 1228 of this issue, Li et al. ( 1) and Glenzer et al. ( 2) show that the distribution of radiation inside a cavity can be accurately controlled to create a symmetrical implosion, thereby removing major obstacles to the realization of fusion energy in the laboratory. These new insights promise another revolution in physics in the
near future, one that provides access to new states of matter with unprecedented energy densities.... These remarkable observations suggest that the remaining obstacles to fusion energy gain are now surmountable. These results also herald a new era in physics, that of high-energy-density science."

Science Magazine is usually pretty reserved editorially, and this counts as gushing. Maybe, just maybe, we are poised for a significant breakthrough.

There are many challenges and downsides to consider... there are many political and social downsides to centralized power generation, and the subsidies necessary to build and ignite a commercial scale fusion reactor would be huge (just lighting the match would require the majority of instantaneous electrical power we can generate at a given moment). But once a self sustaining reaction has been ignited the power generation potential, for electrical power at least, is theoretically unlimited.


PS - I'm looking forward to Chapter 12 of Star's Reach!

Jeff Vail said...

John Michael,

Thank you for this excellent post! It continues to concern me that our civilization is so structurally biased against solutions that are simple, small, and decentralized. If we continue to look for "solutions" defined as something that will allow us to keep doing what we've been doing (e.g. ever larger, more hierarchical, more centralized, more consumptive), then we'll inevitably fail. However, as you point out, there are many applications where solar energy (and other forms of renewables) show real promise. If we can find a way to redefine "solution" to be something that meets basic human needs such as food, warmth (or cold), water, family, community, spirituality, then I think we'll find ingenious ways to use renewable energy to provide for those needs in a sustainable fashion. In my mind, though, the crux of the problem is that our civilization looks to hierarchical, centralized entities (governments, corporations, even much of academia) to provide these solutions, when the very hierarchical, centralized structure of these entities biases them against looking for the *kind* of "solution" that we require!

I ramble, but thanks again for this thought-provoking post. As usual, you have a way of illustrating the 'devil in the details' with style and clarity.

Midi said...

superb.. no really I mean it.

kabir said...

Great post JMG,
I'd like to think I understand the lessons you outline in thermodynamics as I have a mechanical engineering degree and some experience working on steam cycles. However one thing you consistently remind me of is how culturally imbedded uncommon sense ideas of energy have become they are simply hard to escape, without constent mindfullness of the folly that surrounds us.

You also touched on my favorite subject to think about. Solar steam, I've been thinking on and off about solar steam for a few years. Initially I was attracted to the idea of solar concentrators, but like Shuman I grew skeptical of complexity and costs of these systems, particularly in light of the post industrial future I envision. As of late I am working on a design for a very low energy density steam engine designed out of aluminum that operates on differential pressures around 14psi. The majority (85%) of heat input comes from a low cost simple black passive collector and heat exchanger, the remainder of heat input is high quality heat that can come from a combustible fuel or expensive contrated solar. The passive solar does the majority of the work by vaporizing the working fluid, while the high cost heat takes increases the now vaporized fluid a point where decent efficiencies are realized.

I am pursueing this design because I believe by relying mainly on passively collected solar heat I can bring overall system costs down. The engine will however be very large volumterically for its power output and will have to deviate quite a bit from standard steam engine practices. I mention all of this here because I intend to make the project open source as get further along. So if anyone is interested to critique this idea more thoroughly off list I'd be happy to email details.

John Michael Greer said...

Medved, thanks for the link!

Mark, thanks likewise for your link -- I'll check it out. Good for you, also, for catching the role that salvaged metals will play in the future; you'd be amazed how many people miss that.

Bill, thanks for the reference to Gibbs Free Energy, which I hadn't thought of in too long. You're right, though, that I could just as well express the whole thing in terms of entropy and negentropy, and that might well be the clearest approach.

Raven, well, I've always been a bit of a connoisseur of the more exotic scientific and parascientific theories, but I'd like to see a bit more evidence for the electric universe theory before betting the future on it. As for Livingstone, if he's a magician he's forgetting one of the fundamental postulates of occult philosophy -- that the planes are discrete, not continuous. You can't power a light bulb with "spiritual energy" (which isn't actually energy, of course, in anything but a highly metaphoric sense), just as you can't improve your thinking by hooking up an electrical generator to your brain!

Nathaniel, thanks for the fiction suggestions! I'll check them out. I'm not surprised, I'm sorry to say, to hear about the blind optimism you're encountering in academia; those who don't believe in Malthusian concepts can still end up facing Malthusian destinies.

Bill, thank you! That's very elegant.

Eric, my experience with Science has been that it's far from reserved when it comes to fusion -- I think if you'll look back through past issues, you'll find that the remaining obstacles to fusion have been brushed aside as bagatelles many times before. The proof is in the pudding; as Taliesin said in one of his poems, "I will believe it when it appears."

Jeff, nicely put! That's exactly why individuals, families, and communities need to do these things for themselves, and not wait around for government and business to do it for them -- that'll happen promptly on the twelfth of never. Fortunately a lot of the possibilities can be put to work on a small and local scale.

Midi, thank you.

Kabir, that's an ingenious idea -- low-pressure heat engines do seem to have done better at turning sunlight into mechanical energy than other options. I think there are likely to be some useful applications for that sort of engine, too. Still, I wonder if your two-stage process might also be useful for more direct thermal processes in industry, say -- since the conversion losses are so much less when heat remains heat, rather than being turned into rotary motion, you might find some very economically viable applications. Keep me posted!

craig said...

I like your comment about nuclear being the new ethanol.

Can you comment on the elephant in the room. That being the world's abundant supply of coal. I'm not sure as we go down the backside of Hubbert's curve that coal will be ignored by anyone like USA or China or Canada etc.

This leaves a very dark (literally) picture in my mind of how the future will play out.

LS said...

@Bill Pulliam. You said:

"Before the industrial era no one really expected that the inside of their house *as a whole* would be substantially warmer than the outside world"

Using solar passive design (design in the key word here) it is quite possible to keep an entire house warm in winter and cool in summer.

The problem is that most people build their houses with things like fashion and sheer size in mind, rather than practicality. As mentioned, the house I am building (using strawbales and clay render, about as low tech. as you can get) is shaping up to need zero heating and cooling.

Just because we are heading for an energy poor future, doesn't mean that we have to stop using the knowledge that we have gained.

John Michael Greer said...

Craig, there's a fair amount of evidence -- Richard Heinberg summarizes it well in his book Peak Everything -- that the world doesn't have anything like as much coal as the old cornucopian estimates suggest. Heinberg argues that we'll be at peak coal by 2040, and I think he's right. That's still enough to do some serious climate weirding; watching green intellectuals jump on the nuclear bandwagon, it's pretty clear that when it comes down to a choice between ideals and a modern lifestyle, ideals generally go out the window, so quite a bit of coal is going to be burnt. Still, it's always helpful to remember, as Garrett Hardin pointed out, that the word "limitless" pretty much always means "I refuse to think about it."

LS, in the long run you're probably right -- at least I hope you are. In the short to middle run, most people are going to be stuck in existing housing -- that's one of the consequences of economic disintegration -- and that means a lot of us are going to have to get used to temperature variations indoors; so in that sense, Bill's right. Remember that most people don't have the resources to build a brand new passive solar house!

Apple Jack Creek said...

Hello Archdruid and crew,

We have a system similar to Cherokee Organics and I can confirm his experience of living on solar power: you keep an eye on that battery meter all the time, and decide what to run when based on how sunny it is and what the weather forecast is like. As you said, it is a good way to cushion the change – not a replacement for flipping on grid power without thinking twice.

In the same spirit, I wanted to share a little of my experience of living with passive solar: our house is divided into two very distinct sections, a north section and a southern one. We have very large south facing windows that heat the south wing of our home, and in the deepest cold of winter (this is northern Alberta – that is VERY COLD) that part of the house will warm up 4-6 degrees C on a sunny day (I measured it out of curiosity for a few days). We put bubblewrap on the glass to prevent major heat loss, and close drapes at night (heavy duck cotton drapes of the kind you can find at Ikea or Sears work very well, especially if they go all the way to the floor). When the sun is out, the drapes are open and the room warms up considerably. (The natural gas furnace keeps things from getting too cold at night, and we have one wood stove and plans to add a second.)

In the summer, all that glass is not a feature. Then, we close the drapes, open the windows that are not in direct sunlight and open an upstairs window. This works to promote air flow through the house – heat rises, and so it flows out of the upstairs window and pulls it in through the downstairs ones, giving us air flow and cooling things off. We do have an electric fan we put in the upstairs window in summer, as well, it blows outward, to encourage the same action. We also spend more of our time in the winter in the south wing, which is warmer, and in summer, we hang out in the north wing, in the cooler shaded areas of the house.

Maybe that will give someone else some ideas for working with sunlight. :)

Bill Pulliam said...

On the spiritual "energy" tangent for a moment (complete materialistic atheists may hit "page down" now and save themselves the frustration of reading mumbo jumbo nonsense)...

In my own personal experience and what I understand of the general experience of many others, spiritual "energy" behaves more like *information*, or perhaps even better like *understanding*, than like physical energy. It does not dissipate with time or distance, it certainly is not conserved, and it seems to amplify in very non-thermodynamic ways. Unfortunately, in contemporary jargon the misleading metaphorical label of "energy" for this phenomenon causes people to ascribe features to spiritual processes that are inappropriate extrapolations of the properties of physical energy, AND vice-versa. Such as channeling energy between spiritual planes and using it to light physical light bulbs... these sorts of cross-contaminated ideas don't seem to enhance understanding of spiritual matters, and they do impede understanding of the physical world. Spiritual "energy" neither obeys nor violates the laws of thermodynamics, as it is not physical in nature. Does the word "beauty" obey physical laws? Of course not. But does it exist? Of course it does.

You'll never cook a meal with spiritual energy; it may, however, help you find the means and materials for preparing the meal, and definitely can help make you and your guests enjoy the meal more fully!

Brad K. said...

I wonder, how do you rate the technology approach Leo Frankowski uses in his sf novels starting with "Cross Time Engineer". Particularly the windmill with intermediate energy storage in the form of water tanks and water-driven pistons. The story is set with a modern (Polish) engineer suddenly stranded in 13th century Poland - with a backpack full of modern garden seeds.

Have tide motors, or water wheels in rivers and streams been tried recently? While power limits would be limited, and sometimes vary seasonally, hydro-mechanical and hydro-electrical power has worked in the past.

I had hopes that tide motors and wave motors would prove out, but I haven't heard anything of them in years.

Trimorph said...

While we're on the themes of exergy, irony and post-prandial beverages, I thought readers might be interested in the coffee-powered car developed by the BBC:

I heard on the radio today that it did eventually complete the 210-mile journey from London to Manchester, but only by roasting enough coffee beans to make 11,000 espressos, which I think illustrates your point perfectly.

Ric said...

Link found elsewhere that relates to much of what has been written here:

"We like to believe we live in an era of unprecedented change: technological innovation is proceeding at a rate with no parallel in all of human history. The information revolution and globalization are radically disruptive. Just as Barack Obama would like to be a transformational President, so the rest of us like the idea that we live in a thrilling epoch of transformation. But the truth is that we are living in a period of stagnation....

Technology has been remarkably stagnant in the areas of transportation and energy. As energy expert Vaclav Smil has pointed out, global jet transportation relies on the gas turbine, which was developed in the 1930s, and global shipping uses the diesel engine, invented in the 1890s. The fastest commercial airliners ever to fly reside in museums. The most cost-effective forms of mass transit everywhere, except for a few dense urban areas, are buses and planes."

You can read the whole things here:

DaveMart said...

The article seems to me to be based on a fundamental misconception.
There is no shortage of highly concentrated energy available, nor will there ever be.
Uranium and thorium are ~1 million times as concentrated as fossil fuels as energy sources, and at around $300kg can be taken from seawater, which would increase generating costs somewhat, but since the raw fuel is a tiny fraction of nuclear costs not excessively so.
People may have a shopping list of reasons why they don't like nuclear, but it can certainly provide the energy to mean that there is no prospect at all of the world becoming an energy-poor environment.
The Chinese and Indians will certainly take no notice at all of 'greens' in the West pretending that nuclear does not exist, nor will many in the West as the costs of ignoring this option become clear.

Edde said...

Greetings John Michael,

I see your "followers" list is growing quickly - congrats!

Bill Pulliam has it right - lets reconsider comfort. I live in Florida w/o AC - built the house in '82 w/tall ceilings, 576 Sq Ft, outside shade trees.

Earth bermed and other passive solar design should be available into the future w/natural materials (straw, adobe, rammed earth, etc) plus stuff recycled from McMansions & dead shopping centers. SMALL is definitely beautiful and easier to keep comfortable.

I built another building in the '90s (600 Sq Ft for under $23k)w/2X6 walls/R-22 insulation & R-40 ceiling, that needs only tiny heat inputs and stays cool w/2-75 watt ceiling fans.

I now build transportation bikes, mostly recycling bikes and selling a few manufactured bikes. Bikes are at the pinnacle of energy efficient transpo - they multiply human effort 3 to 6 times. Bike infrastructure will be around long after ICE & electric vehicles are gone (as in Stars Reach).

Anywhere a person can walk a bike can travel and carry heavy loads. Among the world's greatest inventions right next to bug screen - ball & roller bearings.

This is technology that should be maintained into the future.

Invest in gold? Heck NO, invest in seamless cromoly tube & decent bearings;-)


timewalker said...

I don't know much about cars (being a girlie :-) ) but thinking about it logically, electric cars suffer from the same issues, and I can't see why electric cars are proposed as a solution to our future transport problems.

Conventional car:
Energy source (fuel) -> motion (via internal combustion engine) = one conversion of energy from one form to another, with associated energy loss through waste heat.

Electric car:
Energy source -> electricity (via power station) -> battery storage -> motion = three energy conversions, each with it's own associated efficiency loss.

So I guess that makes an electric car roughly three times less efficient than a conventional one? And given that most electricity comes from fossil fuels anyway, if the idea is to alleviate climate change/peak oil/coal/gas issues then it's a bit useless, if not counterproductive.

And even if we could generate enough electricity from renewables such solar power, we'd be better off using that solar energy in the form of eating food and riding a bicycle instead.

David Creelman said...

I'd be interested to hear what you think where highly concentrated energy is essential for a good civilization.

It's clearly needed for airplanes but I think we could do without air travel and the civilization would get along quite well--albeit with some significant adaptations.

We probably do need concentrated energy to make computers--that's something our civilization could not survive without.

Sailing ships worked well enough, so while global supply chains may fail, I don't see replacing diesel ships with sailing ships as necessarily civilization ending.

If we only had a limited amount of high quality energy where should we use it?

Armando said...

@ Bill Pulliam

Point well taken about Photon BTU and CH's BTU. It only reinforces the assumptions made with the Solar-panelled Prius that I put forth. So instead of 50 days of sunlight to equal the exergy in a gallon of Gasoline it would take 60+days.
I like to use the example of that car because it brings it to a scale comprehensible by the common of the mortals.

Bill Pulliam said...

LS wrote:

Using solar passive design (design in the key word here) it is quite possible to keep an entire house warm in winter and cool in summer.

Yes, but why do you NEED this? A house needs warm places, but why is it critically important to heat and cool the entire thing? You dismiss "fashion" in house design, but this desire is just a quest for luxury -- a wasteful extravagance, much like the personal car, that society has structured itself so as to make it in to a necessity. This drive to find alternative ways to keep every room in our houses toasty warm through the dark of winter is parallel to the drive to find alternative fuels to keep our passenger cars running -- i.e. the drive to find ways to preserve the lifestyle.

You might say that doing it the way you propose is not wasteful. But if you make this the primary constraint on the fundamental design of a house, you negate or ignore many of the other functions a house is supposed to serve. And one of these is aesthetics. You might think that this is a luxury too; but it is something that just about every level of every society that has ever existed has valued. Many of our oldest artifacts were created as things of beauty.

mczilla said...

Actually there's a whole lot to be said for a society that can provide hot baths, warm accommodations, and good food. And using our feet again wouldn't be so bad for us, either.

As Schumacher tried to tell us, small and simple can indeed be beautiful. Of course, one item that's really going to have to downsize is the human population itself, and that will probably be a protracted process with some elements as ugly as they are inevitable. And just maybe, once the age of the Kurzweilian Techno-Gizmo has passed, the species can find a better, more organic way to engage with it's own evolution.

John Michael Greer said...

Apple Jack, thanks for the details! This matches the experience of other people I know who live with passive solar.

Bill, human languages -- and English as much or more so than any -- are best suited to talking about the things we experience with our five ordinary senses, and when we talk about any other kind of human experience, we have to use metaphors. Unfortunately people tend to miss that, and treat their metaphors as concrete realities. "Spiritual energy" is one of those metaphors, and as you point out, it's sometimes a very problematic one.

Brad, I haven't read the novels in question, though they sound like a lark. Waterwheels certainly work -- that's about as mature an energy technology as you'll find, and one that yields a very nice return in net energy. Tide and wave energy are another matter; people have been trying to make that work for quite a while, with limited success.

Trimorph, now that's funny.

Ric, excellent! Smil is quite right; it's only because we like to imagine ourselves as cutting-edge, innovative and progressive that nobody notices just how stagnant modern industrial society has become culturally, intellectually, and even technologically. Ringing an endless series of fashion-oriented changes on the same technological principles does not constitute progress, any more than ringing an equally endless series of changes on the same tired ideas constitutes originality.

DaveMart, er, you need to lay off smoking your shorts. There's quite a bit of gold in seawater, too; if it could be extracted at $300 a kilogram, the profits that could be made would be astronomical. That's not happening. Why? Because the actual costs of extracting dissolved metals from seawater are so high that even when gold sells for $1100+ an ounce, it's still not economical.

More generally, of course, uranium and thorium in their natural state aren't a million times as concentrated energy sources as fossil fuels. You're omitting the huge energy costs needed to concentrate and refine them into a form that can be used in fission reactors, not to mention the huge energy costs involved in building and running the reactors, and the rest of it. That's the typical mistake of cornucopian thinking: if you ignore the costs and think only of the benefits, you can make anything look viable.

John Michael Greer said...

Edde, better still, invest in the skills and knowledge base needed to manufacture decent ball bearings out of scrap metal. If you can do that in a deindustrializing society, you'll never want for customers.

Timewalker, "girlie" or not, you just won today's gold star, for thinking logically about thermodynamics -- something plenty of people on the other side of the gender line don't seem to be able to do at all. Of course the details will vary, but as a rule of thumb, counting the number of times that energy has to be converted from one form to another seems like a very useful first-approximation test for the likely efficiency of an energy use.

David, I'd use it for manufacture of critical materials and for certain kinds of transportation. It's a bear to make good steel in any quantity without a lot of concentrated heat, for example, and it's basically impossible to run a railroad without concentrated energy. Those are two obvious examples; there are doubtless others of the same kind.

Armando, true enough. One of the ways I've been able to get people to think about the sheer concentration of energy in a gallon of gasoline is to ask them to think of how much muscular energy it would take them to push their cars down the road for 35 miles!

Bill, it doesn't have to be the primary design constraint -- and if you could have a house that was tolerably comfortable, summer and winter, for around the same cost as an uncomfortable one, why not?

McZilla, if we ever get to the point of being intelligent enough to take an active role in our own evolution, we'll already have evolved a good bit further along than we are now! That's one (though only one) of the things about Kurzweil's techno-delusions that make me shake my head -- the raw arrogance of believing that a species that doesn't yet have the common sense not to dump toxins in its own drinking water is bright enough to decide the direction of its evolutionary future.

Seaweed Shark said...

Intuitively I am inclined to agree that most proposed solutions to the energy problem aren't real solutions because there is *nothing* that can do for us what coal and oil did for the people of the 19th and 20th centuries. If someone were to find something that could do that -- like the VOOM that the little cat kept under his hat in the Dr. Seuss book -- then your case would be lost, but you see no evidence of that happening. I don't either. But I find your expectations about the consequences of this -- the time frame and the degree of chaos involved in the change from one energy regime to another, to be somewhat vague, and dependent upon conclusions derived from the historical study of small and isolated island cultures, not large continental civilizations. In fairness I could predict no better, but it seems you underestimate the tenacity and creativity of the very large number of very smart people who will turn their hand to the range of problems arising from this predicament in the coming years. Not all of them will be trying to stop the hole with tax money, like the financiers of the Ancien Regime.

In any case, you did not mention hydroelectric dams. If I understand your piece about energy and exergy, your argument implies that big hydroelectric dams do not produce net energy, after discounting the large amounts of fossil-fuel energy required to build the dam, to periodically flush silt out of the reservoir (not all reservoirs can be flushed), to maintain the dam (as reinforced concrete is a modern material prone to long-term deterioration, and earth dams need maintenance), to replace cropland or towns destroyed by the reservoir, and so on.

This is the point where I think your line of reasoning encounters the barrier of modern thinking. All those hydro-dam issues that I mentioned above can be assigned energy (i.e. dollar) values. Hence, the question of whether the dam would, or would not, over time produce net energy (let's say a net profit) should -- in theory -- be empirically answerable. But any attempt to do that forces one to adopt the engineering and financial mathematics of modern corporate-commercial civilization, because that is the only numerical language that has legitimacy. And that language is designed to prove the dam profitable, because it was created by the sort of people who build and finance big dams. Some have tried assigning monetary value to such matters as the beauty of a landscape or to the permanence of stone building versus reinforced concrete (you may be aware of Quinlan Terry's attempt to quantify stone buildings as "green" because of their potentially long lifespans) but these are minority views. Our society has no legitimate mathematical language to frame the case you are making.

So I suppose this is where we come back to the foundational assumptions of a civilization, where Spengler and Toynbee come in, as you spoke about at some length before. And in that sense it is significant that Spengler spends so much of his book discussing a civilization's mathematics, as a sign of its foundational principles.

sgage said...

Regarding "sun parlors", passive solar, and such...

In northerly areas, the sun is low in the winter, and comes streaming in the windows. In the summer, the sun is high, and doesn't. It's almost like magic!

Another bonus: Deciduous trees provide shade in summer, but let the sun in during winter!

If you take these factors into consideration when building a sunroom of some sort, it really is self-regulating to an extent.

mageprof said...

David Creelman wrote:

"We probably do need concentrated energy to make computers--that's something our civilization could not survive without."

My wife and I are old enough to remember America without TVs. Phones, in the houses that had them, were party lines; they were used chiefly in emergencies, and the operators would not put calls by children through at all.

Our grandparents, whom we remember well, knew an America without electric lighting in homes and without automobiles.

And yet, what we personally think of as "our civilization" is much the same thing now as it was when we were children, and when our grandparents were children. As far as we're concerned, computers have their uses, but are hardly an essential component of "our civilization." To us they are hardly the most important thing in life.

It would be very uncomfortable, but hardly unthinkable, for my wife and me to live in the world of our grandparents' childhood, with no home electricity at all. For our children and granddaughter, on the other hand, it would be truly unthinkable.

So part of getting ready for the future is to become accustomed to the thought of living in unthinkable ways.

Books can be a means to that end.

One of my favorites is a personal memoir by Bertha Damon, "Grandma Called It Carnal" (1938). As a young girl near the turn of the 20th century, Bertha was sent to live with her very elderly grandma in rural Connecticut. Grandma was a world-class eccentric, a devotee of Emerson and Thoreau, who had never allowed herself to get "softened" by the use of any "modern" conveniences at all, and "modern" here means "since the Civil War." She still lived in the manner of her own grandparents, in a drafty old house heated by one great stone hearth, on which all the meals were cooked by fire, when they were cooked at all. Grandma favored uncooked vegetable food.

Candles were the best light they had, but they were expensive enough to be a luxury item: you sat around the fire, or used rushlights, most of the time. Grandma kept a cow and tended a large garden. To stay warm at night in winter, in your unheated and uninsulated bedroom, you took a tightly-corked large stoneware jug of boiling hot water and put it under the comforter. (Woe to you if the cork popped out while you slept!) And so forth.

Bertha didn't exactly thrive, but she survived and grew very strong and tough, and her account of her girlhood has a lot to offer us all as we contemplate an age of scarcity.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG, re: the house choice: well it would depend on the spiritual energy...

Seriously I've seen straw bale constructions that were wondrous exercises in whimsy and art, as well as being kept toasty warm in deep winter with one small woodstove; and I've seen others that were monstrous dun-colored bunkers that would feel cold and lifeless no matter what the thermometer might say. My argument was about tradeoffs and balancing, and the suggestion that concerns other that the strictly thermodynamic were mere "fashion."

Whatever the future may be, let's try to make sure it isn't ugly.

John Michael Greer said...

Er, Shark, it might be helpful if you responded to what I've actually said instead of putting inaccurate words in my mouth. "Small and isolated island cultures"? You're confusing me with Jared Diamond; for every one reference to, say, Easter Island in these essays, you'll find a dozen to the Roman Empire and other large continental civilizations. As for hydroelectric power, of course it has positive net energy; that's the reason why, unlike nuclear power, it normally produces electricity at competitive prices wherever the local topography permits a dam to be built. If you want to disagree with me, by all means, but please do me the courtesy of disagreeing with my ideas rather than your straw men.

Sgage, all good points.

Mageprof, good. A while back I suggested in one of these posts that the internet would not survive long into the deindustrial age, and the responses included (among other things) a remarkable collection of anguished cries from people who apparently couldn't imagine life without it. I know it will come as a surprise to many of those born after 1980 or so, but we actually got along quite well before the internet, and if it proves to be economically nonviable in a future of energy and resource constraints, we'll get along fine without it then, too. The same is true for the whole range of computer technologies, and a great deal more in the way of modern gimmickry.

DaveMart said...

John, the $300/kg cost I gave for uranium from seawater are taken from here:
Apologies - I not they are referring to pounds, not dollars.
This study is in line with other research which has been done, chiefly by the Japanese. I have no idea on what data you base your very high estimates.
If you don't fancy seawater, uranium can be obtained from coal, as on average that contains uranium with an energy value of around 3 times that of the coal, and thorium with 17 times as much.
Modest advances on current reactors can utilize fuel much more efficiently than we bother doing at the moment with uranium so cheap, with MIT having reached around 17% for pebble bed reactors with around 60% or so on the cards.
Liquid fluoride thorium reactors would use around 15,000 tons of thorium a year to power the world.
As for your notion that huge quantities of materials are needed for nuclear, you must be dead against wind power then, as it uses around 10 times the material per MW of actual generation as nuclear.
Any real examination of the figures shows that the energy return on nuclear even from very low grade ores is just fine, and that the energy consumed in the build out is tiny in comparison to the output.

Cathy McGuire said...

Hi, all -
Great post and comments, as usual. Since this is obviously a crowd full of engineering/science background (which I don't have), can/would anyone comment on this new research into carbon nanotubules? (It's from LiveScience, admittedly not the creme de la science blogs, but the source is MIT, I believe).

"Researchers have found a way to produce large amounts of electricity from tiny cylinders made from carbon atoms.
The achievement could replace decades-old methods of generating electricity, such as combustion engines and turbines, the researchers say.

In the future, coated carbon nanotubes crafted from individual atoms could power everything from cell phones to hybrid-electric vehicles. The team envisions such nanotube-based power being available to consumers in the next five years. [lots more]
(Strano and his colleagues detail their discovery in the March 7 issue of the journal Nature Materials.)"

I have some strong concerns about nano-particles in general (having researched and written a safety article on them for a safety newsletter), but they seem to be implying they have found a source at least as efficient as fossil-based energy... and relatively soon. Of course, one unknown (at least in the article) is how high the energy cost of creating and maintaining those nanotubules... anyone have any pertinent info on this?

Petro said...

Sir, I have only recently been reviewing your excellent writing on this subject, but I've been aware of peak energy issues for awhile now.

I've reviewed the comments on this post, and there is one aspect to the use of solar energy on any significant scale that I haven't seen discussed, so I will ask you here.

This may be a somewhat moot point in these climate-challenged, weather-lurching times, but isn't solar energy already being put to use by the eco- and weather-systems? As in, even if one could come up with an efficient solar-gatherer that distilled a significant (i.e., what we're used to) amount of exergy, wouldn't that divert from Earth's systems, in roughly inversely proportionate ways, with perhaps unintended consequences?

I've characterized this as human-centric hubris over at my place and was accused of being unscientific.

Am I?

Thanks in advance for any input.

Ariel55 said...

Dear John, I also look forward to Wednesdays, and your postings. If we lost the internet, I would miss you...which is why I'm collecting your books, and read them whenever I can. I intend to evolve in a surprising direction from my fellows, and you are helping me do this. I love that 'Circles of Power' book, and extend best regards to wife, Sara, too. Carry on!

Twilight said...

I think your latest series on energy/exergy has been very good. I've read the comments yesterday at TOD and Early Warning, and also here, and I think regardless of if the terminology is exactly precise, the basic concept is sound. You've explained it in a way that is intelligible and useful to those new to such concepts, which far outweighs any of the grousing I read.

Beyond which, it has stimulated some great discussions, and caused me to think more carefully about (and confirmed) some of these ideas concerning renewable energy sources. It's interesting that historically these low concentration sources have been used more in the manner you recommend - locally and in the form they are found (without a conversion to other energy forms and associated losses). Electricity is so very useful, but cannot be had without a conversion and loss. I see why you included it in only very limited applications in Star's Reach.

An issue somewhat related to the low concentration of energy in these sources is the disperse nature of some of the materials needed. I think about all the fuss being made about Iran's nuclear program, and the huge effort needed to gather enough molecules together to create the concentrated fuel source. Also the persistent arguments that there is more than enough of (whatever needed material) in the ocean, etc.

I've got a couple of solar thermal projects I've been trying to get to for several summers now. I'm thinking seriously about them again, and maybe this year I can make some actual progress - so little time, and so many projects. Thanks for the kick-in-the-butt anyway!

Brad K. said...

The mechanisms that let us "get along very well" in the past may no longer be available. Vietnam was decades in the making; would it have happened with the Internet?

Newspapers and snail mail connected Washington, DC with the rest of America. Are these media ready to resume their burdens?

National security has changed. Today we have several constellations of satellites and information channels spanning the globe. I remember when a single "red" telephone connected, via satellite, two world leaders poised to launch missiles of destruction that couldn't be called back.

Google Earth shows me the beauty of the oceans - and the mundane gravel road I am looking for. Anyone recall that finding someone that a) knew where you were asking about and b) could give useful directions - could be difficult to find?

With the Internet we have access to answers and information, the latest reports on climate change deniers and warmers, the latest take on efficiency of creating efficient motors for existing cars vs. mining and building complete new vehicles. Before the computer? You had people halfway through a lifetime's learning, that could answer or provide service on a narrow slice of human understanding.

Losing computers potentially loses infrastructure and substance of today's culture, as old-fashioned mechanisms are discarded.

Just in time manufacturing has extended to the freezer and shelf size in your local grocery store and restaurant. Income taxes are predicated on lots and lots of accountants and tax attorneys - with computers to automate the intricacies.

How long since someone taught high schoolers to use a slide rule?

Or farmers to drive their tractor across the field without a GPS unit to steer precisely aligned rows. My Dad used a trip wire on his planter, to assure even spacing of his corn plants. That meant keeping the wire in place in the bracket - you couldn't swing to the side more than three inches on a half-mile row, or stop and pick it up again. Where are the farmers with the skills to keep and work horses, or small tractor farming?

In the past, railroads provided a way to gather the harvest together, to move bulk goods and people around. They have mostly been retired. Is anyone trying to resurrect that part of the infrastructure? (I like the idea of mule-pulled cars, myself, ala Leo Frankowski.)

Yes, the world existed before computers. But the infrastructures from those times have been dismantled.

Look at the scarcity and price of wood burning cook stoves, and the relatively few homes capable of storing wood for any period. People are gardening more. What about houses without a significant root cellar, or room for a pantry big enough for more than one week's worth of groceries?

What about child safety laws encapsulating conspicuous consumption - such as decreeing more than one child per bedroom is "unsafe." (An incident with a mother injured and father arrested, and three children staying with an uncle, in Oklahoma City, OK, USA.)

LS said...

@JMG: you are right to say that most people are stuck with what they have. I don't envy them. Not at all. I live in a mild climate (it only just gets down to freezing a few nights a year) and the cold has a huge impact on the quality of life if you can't warm up your living space. In more harsh climates people will either have to modify their houses, or change their lifestyles significantly to cope with the cold. I expect that the Japanese technique of the family sitting around a pit containing a little charcoal brassier with a blanket over the top will be popular.

Personally, if I was stuck with an old, cold house I would be looking at ways of improving its performance asap.

@Bill: you said: "Yes, but why do you NEED this?"

When you get right down to it, we don't _need_ more than a sharpened stick or two and some animal skins to survive. But if you choose to build a house, then the sensible thing is to build something that works with it's environment, rather than fights it.

As for aesthetics, (as opposed to fashion), a little bit of thought (design once again) gives you an attractive building that is also functional, at no extra expense. This is what architects are meant to do (some do it very well). I have lost count of the grand "fashionable" houses that I have seen that are frankly butt ugly _and_ depressingly cold, or hot.

"This drive to find alternative ways to keep every room in our houses toasty warm"

There is a built in assumption in what you said Bill: "every room". My house has two rooms. It is a total of 22 square meters. The whole thing is about the size of a large bedroom. That aside, I saw a really attractive large family home some years back, constructed in rammed earth, with solar passive design. The owner had installed a slow combustion heater for the winter, but found that they never needed to use it, as the house was so efficient at moderating it's temperature. Brilliant design and use of materials.

So, this is my point: human beings are very clever. Especially when we have abundant cheap energy to give us time to think. What most of us do is squander the opportunity by building ticky-tacky houses that continue to rely on cheap energy to make them enjoyable places to live.

You are right that you don't need a house to be warm, or cool and that it makes no sense to heat and cool vast McMansions. But personally, if a little bit of extra thought in the design can give me a house that is comfortable all year round with no need for burning fossil fuels, then that's the smart way to go. There are a couple of practical aspects too of course in an energy constrained future:

- A house that needs no heating needs no fuel at all. Billions of people burning even a little bit of charcoal to keep warm each day is a lot of charcoal. So, it's better for the environment

- A warm person needs less calories each day, so they need less food. Once again billions of people eating less food is a lot of food. Also better for the environment.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, I'd like to keep the future from being ugly, but all I can do is try to keep my own work from ending up that way! Still, it's a valid point.

DaveMart, yes, I've seen those figures. If they were correct, people would be extracting gold from seawater and selling it at a 12,900% profit. They aren't -- and that shows pretty conclusively that those numbers are hogwash. More generally, yes, I've seen some very enthusiastic calculations about nuclear power -- but you know, none of them seem to work in the real world. No nation on Earth has yet managed a nuclear power program without immense government subsidies -- larger, in fact, than those given to any other energy source; that fact demonstrates pretty clearly that the claims that nuclear power is cheap and efficient have something very, very wrong with them.

Cathy, I'm curious where they're getting the energy that comes via those nanotubules; the one thing we can be sure of is that energy does not come out of thin air, and it doesn't concentrate itself, either. Still, I'll leave a detailed comment to the engineers here.

Petro, no, you're not. You're being sensible. It's not "scientific" to assume that we can pull as much energy as we want out of a complex homeostatic system and put it to our own purposes without disrupting the system; it's sheer hubris.

Ariel, I'll pass that on.

Twilight, get those projects under way!

Brad, yes, I figured that once I mentioned the end of the internet again, somebody would pop out of the woodwork and insist that we can't possibly do without it. It didn't take all that much time for people to adjust to having the internet, you know; it won't take them any more time to adjust to not having it, either. By the way, I use a slide rule, and it's faster than a pocket calculator for most calculations.

LS, this is why I think retrofitting is the wave of the near-to-middle future. There are some fairly simple ways that a house can be retrofitted to make use of sunlight for space heating, water heating, etc., and there are also quite a few ways to keep a house warmer in winter and cooler in summer via insulation and the like. Many of these can be done cheaply, with semiskilled labor. I'm in the process of doing exactly that to my house; I hope to see a lot more people doing it to theirs.

Draco TB said...

Yes, but why do you NEED this? A house needs warm places, but why is it critically important to heat and cool the entire thing?

Health. Living in cold houses is bad for you and living in warm houses is good for you. It really is that simple.

(as reinforced concrete is a modern material prone to long-term deterioration, and earth dams need maintenance)

Actually, ancient Roman concrete was better than the modern stuff.

@ DaveMart: There's a problem with nuclear, even if it is possible to build a nuclear reactor that returns net energy, and that problem is the same problem that we have with oil - we're running out of the resource. Everything that I've read indicates that if we went nuclear we'd still be down a lot of energy by the end of the century compared to what we have now.

Personally, I don't think a lot of contemporary stuff like computers will be disappearing. They're too useful and actually quite cheap to run and manufacture. Things like cars and aeroplanes will be gone but we'll see the return of the sailing ship. You're holidays won't be in the other half of the world and international trade will
minimise. It's highly unlikely that perishables will be exported as they require too much energy to keep fresh (there's a company in Nelson, NZ, that exports cherries to the US. The cherries are picked, fast cooled, trucked to the airport and then flown to California. I really can't think of a better example of unsustainability and sheer stupidity as that).

There will be islands of high tech that will have high concentrations of electric power from renewable sources (hydro, wind, solar) surrounded by large areas of low tech. Manufacturing of computers etc will be carried out in the high tech areas and the low tech will be farms.

I think the biggest change that is to come will be the decrease in human population as we begin to fit within ecological limits again. Some of this decrease will come from the reducing energy levels of Peak Oil and some will be from changing climate.

bryant said...

"LS, this is why I think retrofitting is the wave of the near-to-middle future."

I agree, the existing housing stock is all we have and making it work well is a worthwhile goal.

You might look at:

Kelly and I taught a Homeowner Environmental Stewardship class in Spokane based on this book and it was very well received.

pentronicus said...

This link leads to an article that appears to describe the nanotechnology mentioned by Cathy McGuire. The technology turns diffuse mechanical waste energies into electrical charges, that in turn are used for the electrolysis of water. Interesting stuff, but I don't think we will power any cars like this. Unless they are nano-cars. ;)

Brad K. said...

I wonder how many assumptions about "modern" life are based on conspicuous consumption - such as single person or single family dwellings (privacy), central heat, separating children into separate rooms instead of sharing body heat together in a bed or shared room, water heaters that keep water hot all the time (as opposed to heating bath water once a week, whether you need it or not), even private showers and baths as opposed to public baths and facilities for occasional use.

It seems the hot water heater and central air (and a/c) are very easily abused energy drains in the home, and along with "privacy" are embedded in "modern" building codes. Surely that part of Transition - building sustainable-concept homes - has to be "permit"ted sooner rather than later, else more homes suited to cheap energy will continue to be built.

hawlkeye said...

Passive solar design is fine for those who can afford to start out from scratch, but retro-fit is the game for most of us who find ourselves parked in the ticky-tacky. And to answer Brad K‘s question about the food production: yes, the horse-drawn skills and technology still exist, though breeds and tools and know-how are all on the precipice of extinction like the rest of us. All the more reason to rescue and re-vitalize such life-savers. Go Amish, young man!
I don’t think anyone has yet pointed out the connection between the space heating and water heating problems within our greater predicament. For most single dwellings north of the frost line, even the spiffiest solar water heater can have its pipes freeze without a bit of warmth within the space that holds it. At best, this is a major hassle; in a big apartment building, it’s a soggy, mucky disaster that only needs to happen once to ruin everyone’s weekend.
Personally, I could handle living in Bill’s chilly house, but I’m going to get really grouchy without a hot shower every few weeks, whether I need one or not. Especially after some seriously wonderful muscle-work building compost or fences or harvesting potatoes; a deep, hot bath may be a radical petroleum luxury, but it sure makes me feel like a decent human being again.
So if we’re going to have to think and live outside our little individual cubicles (cars, offices showers), then I want to re-invent the community bath-house. But only say the word, and our immediate thought is to those naughty types of bath-houses in San Francisco. I’d like to delete that connotation by modeling an upgrade; a safe, warm, wood-stove heated room with solar-heated water routed to smaller side rooms with tubs and showers (all grey-watered out to the salad beds, of course). And while we’re at it, a sauna and sweat lodge on the grounds as well. Specific designs can accommodate a range of privacy expectations, with the common room for socializing before and after.
Since we’re all in hot water together anyway…

DIYer said...

I do not admit to confusion. ... Lack of clarity, perhaps. Posting without thinking, yes.

It was just a sort of epiphany for me, I had never considered that the photons we receive directly reflect the temperature at the surface of the sun. Even if you live in the arctic, give or take a little atmospheric filtering, you are receiving 5000° packets of energy. -Theoretically-, your efficiency of conversion is almost unlimited.

But at 250 watts / m^2, part time, only on clear days, I would never claim you can run a steel mill on it. Like you say, cover 100 square miles of Nevada and build a rechargeable battery the size of the Vehicle Assembly Building on Cape Canaveral. Then your task is to smelt enough metal to replace everything you've used to build this altar to Ozymandias. And I don't doubt that some folks will attempt it, good luck to them. On second thought, bad luck to them; the materials can be put to better use.

Another of my from-the-hip comments over on TOD was about the Pelamis project: I said something like "OK, how many of these Pelamis things does it take to run the steel mill to make more Pelamis things" ... there was no response, although TOD has had some fairly clear analyses of EROEI from time to time. I have a feeling the return on Pelamis (a gadget to capture wave energy) is also less than 1.0.

As for this week's post, thanks for the historical examples. I was going to mention that the 5 gal / minute figure sounds wrong, but I see that someone has already done so. Several decades ago, I worked with a non-solar still that held about 5 gallons of mash -- it took us several hours to get a few quarts of spirit out of it.

Randomthoughts said...

What are your opinions on which technologies are best supported with today's energy supplies? The areas that were serviced by the aqueducts lived better because they were there, even after the ability to build them was lost. The solar panel, once manufactured, is basically a diode and should have an almost indefinite life span. coupled with LED lighting and even primitive batteries, would improve quality of life over the tallow candles that were common many years ago. At this point on the descent, I have been putting my personal capital into a sustainable homestead, while there is still a surplus available. You have mentioned retrofitting/insulating in your posts, what else do you recommend for the average,peak aware person to be doing?

billhicksmostfunny said...

If I am understanding all of this correctly, then all we need to do is alter earth's orbit so it circles the sun at a closer range. Anyone thought of that yet? Any long term consequences be damned. It will undoubtly work and we can then waste energy on a more abundant scale and still live our lavish lifestyles. Just a joke, sorry humor helps me deal with things. {Raises a glass of home made brandy} : To crossing the rubicon, to the new paradigm shift, godspeed, see everyone on the other side, I am so thankful I found this blog...........

DIYer said...

Oh, and I was going to mention one other project in my previous post; one for the bigger-stone-head department.

A certain Mr. Simmons, who has a lot of money to throw at it, is building a windmill off the coast of Maine. It'll be interesting, for those of us who live long enough, to see how that works out. I'm pretty sure the story will be that they had no idea that a freak winter hurricane could damage their propeller, or that no one (except a few apocalyptic fold) could have predicted that the carbon composite maker would go out of business. For want of a nail, and so on.

And pentronicus, I saw that same article in Science Daily. JMG talked a few weeks ago about perpetual motion machines, where you just hook a generator up to your motor. While the SD article doesn't quite fit that category, I'd put it in a nearby one: Maxwell's Daemon.

Some time after you outgrow the motor-generator fallacy you discover that there are diodes: little one-way valves that only allow electricity to pass in one direction. So all you have to do is hook one up to a source of electrical noise (which is everywhere), and you get free power, right? ... The problem is that any real-world diode has just a little bit of 'slop' in its function which is just coincidentally proportional to temperature.

I am quite certain that the nanocrystal-bending engineers will eventually stumble onto the fact that Maxwell's Daemon is also subject to the laws of thermodynamics. said...

Another great article. My comment: there's lots and lots of coal to burn, and we're going to burn a good portion of it. If we do mitigate however with lots of wind and solar, this will merely free up more coal for the 5 billion people in the developing world. So, between here and the recognition phase that solar and wind capture diffuse energy, lots of coal will be extracted. In fact, if the developing world gets poor enough economically, we'll start burning that coal too.

Bill Pulliam said...

Hawlkeye's comment brought this to mind...

Just a few counties from here is Short Mountain Sanctuary, an off-grid community that has been in existence in some for or another for about 40 years. They have a lot of different ways they work out living, housing, heating, and energy, from retrofitting an old log house to newly built construction using a variety of conventional and unconventional techniques. Interestingly, their central purpose is NOT the off-grid greenie life, but the social and spiritual community. The practicalities of alternative living are worked out as needed to support the community. They are not self-contained or self-sufficient by any means, but they are a long-lived example of people figuring out what is important and what works, on the fly, over the decades. Folks there have been living this way right through the bubbles and busts of the 80s, 90s, and 00's.

One of their routines is Sunday bath day. They have a wonderful community bath house with meditation and massage space. Sunday afternoon they fire up the wood-fired water heater (fed by gravity-feed spring water) and folks gather for showers. It is then followed by the weekly community dinner for the residents and extended family (something of an alternative metroplex has grown up in the woods around Short Mountain, in the form of private homesteads and an assortment of communities). In this case, the communal bathing arrangements are easier as the folks in the community are accustomed to casual nudity, but it would not be a big deal to set up curtains and partitions for a community that did not share these customs.

The self-centered nuclear family in the private home with hot water, central heat, and multimedia entertainment on-demand is a product of the affluence of the cheap energy era. It won't survive the end of that era, except for the privileged (and most likely also criminal) few, no matter how hard people fight to preserve it. What form society will take remains to be seen and has been the subject of much discussion here and elsewhere. But it is pretty easy to single out many things it is not likely to contain.

dltrammel said...

Bill Pulliam said:
"We live in a farm house built in 1886. It belong to the County Judge, which means it was a rich person's house by relative standards."

I mentioned this discussion to a friend at dinner tonight. His reply was to point out that many people during that period had summer homes and winter homes.

The summer homes were out in the country and on farmland, and were meant to be lived in during the warmer months. They got out of the city because diseases tended to break out in close spaces like cities when it got warm.

Then in winter people would return to the city, and their small brownstones, which were heated on the city wide steam circuit. We still have remains of that system in downtown.

I can think of other past historic societies where there was a large central communal lodge and out lying individual dwellings. Might we see the return of such living arrangements?

It would be easier to heat on large building with many small rooms (or spaces to sleep) than many separate dwellings.

hawkleyed said:
"So if we’re going to have to think and live outside our little individual cubicles (cars, offices showers), then I want to re-invent the community bath-house."

For some reason, I was thinking the same thing, that communal bath houses might be a money making idea in a de-industrial world.

A south facing building with a very large passive solar collection system set up, perhaps powered by a manual hand or bicycle crank system, set up to recycle the heating liquid (maybe a anti-freeze solution), which would transfer heat to a second system. Like a nuclear reactor does now with a closed loop.

A bath house like the Japanese model, a washing area where you cleaned up and then a large communal soaking pool.

For cowboys off the open range, a good hot bath was right up there with whores and liquor as the first things to get when coming to town.

John Ringo did an interesting sci-fi post industrial series which the first book is "There Will Be Dragons." Its worth the read. There's a good discussion about re-establishing a more primitive society and also how good a hot bath and soak feels after a long day of hard work.

John Michael Greer said...

Draco, computers aren't cheap and easy to manufacture if you take into account the infrastructure needed to produce integrated circuit chips and all the rest of it. Nor is a computer here and a computer there going to make that much difference -- it's because you've got the internet, with its huge server farms, and other forms of networking that make computers really useful. As for the rest, though, good -- sailing ships, small islands of salvaged tech (over which fierce battles will be fought), and the rest of it.

Bryant, good for you! Thanks for the link -- this is useful stuff.

Pentronicus, thank you. Yes, there are lots of gimmicks that allow very small amounts of energy to be produced, usually with the expenditure of much larger amounts of energy, and until people start thinking in thermodynamic terms, they'll keep on chasing those.

Brad, very few homes of any kind are being built just now, which is probably just as well -- I'm hoping that by the time that changes, some of the idiotic habits now enshrined in zoning regulations and building codes have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

Hawlkeye, communal bath houses are a good idea. Still, solar water heaters got past the freezing problem a long time ago. You use a fluid with a low freezing temperature to collect the heat and circulate it to a heat exchanger, and run the water through the heat exchanger. Most systems sold in the northern 2/3rds of the US use that design nowadays.

DIYer, thanks for taking the post in the spirit it was meant! As for the Pelamis, EROEI <1.0 is pretty much my guess also.

Randomthoughts, solar water heating is usually a good investment; an attached solarium or solar greenhouse for passive heat collection, as well as food production, also very often works well. I'll be talking about other technologies and approaches in the weeks to come; for the moment, I'd encourage you to think about local resources and what skills you have, or can pick up, that will allow you to produce something with those that people will be willing to buy or barter for. More on this later.

Bill, that's funny. It's funnier that some people would take you seriously. Enjoy that brandy!

DIYer, the folks who are trying to manufacture Maxwell's Demon need to read Marlowe's "Doctor Faustus" sometime. Like any other demon, Maxwell's seems to promise you the world -- but just try to collect..., the problem there is that increasing amounts of evidence suggest that there's not that much coal to burn. You might want to read Richard Heinberg's book Peak Everything and follow up on his references to our rapidly depleting coal supplies.

Bill, good. It's always useful to keep in mind that a lot of the habits that will be necessary in the future are already being pioneered by small groups and individuals right now.

Dltrammel, I'm definitely with you on the virtues of hot baths. Tolkien's hobbits had a useful song:

"Sing hey for the bath at the end of day
That washes the weary mud away.
A loon is he that will not sing:
O Water Hot is a noble thing!"

Which is one reason why a solar water heating system is high on my current priority list. We're getting the funding in place as I write this.

Glenn said...

Regarding Solar water heaters in northern climates. The "drainback" systems only require clean (preferably, distilled) water to operate. One drawback to systems using anti-freeze is that it degrades due to heat and the decay products become very caustic to the plumbing, switches, etc.
The beauty of the drainback system is that the water is only in it when there is enough sun to warm the collector to above freezing, the circulating pump runs directly off a Photovoltaic panel, the more sun the faster the recirc. and the quicker you get your hot water. At night, or when it's too cloudy, the water drains down into an unpressurized holding tank. A heat exchanger is used to transfer the heat to the pressure side of the system.
I mention all this, because failure to renew ethylene glycol based anti-freeze frequently enough is one of the primary causes of the failures and bad reputation of the older solar hot water systems.


Draco TB said...

computers aren't cheap and easy to manufacture if you take into account the infrastructure needed to produce integrated circuit chips and all the rest of it.

The infrastructure is already there and we're not going to lose it or the knowledge on how to make it. The power to run it is the problem and locations that have a strong, renewable power source will be able to maintain it. NZ gets 2/3rds of it's power from renewables already and only has 4m people. Colorado isn't much different and when the energy crunch does come they'll be cutting the rest of the USA off from their hydros "(over which fierce battles will be fought)".

Nor is a computer here and a computer there going to make that much difference -- it's because you've got the internet, with its huge server farms, and other forms of networking that make computers really useful.
You don't actually need the server farms for the internet to work. They certainly make it more powerful but all you really need is for peoples computers to be able to communicate. You need the infrastructure for that communication but those high tech islands I mentioned should be able to make the fibre optic cabling to maintain that as well. Sure, the cabling will be laid in trenches dug by people swinging shovels rather than by tractor but it can still be done.

Danby said...

@Brad asked:
Or farmers to drive their tractor across the field without a GPS unit to steer precisely aligned rows. My Dad used a trip wire on his planter, to assure even spacing of his corn plants. That meant keeping the wire in place in the bracket - you couldn't swing to the side more than three inches on a half-mile row, or stop and pick it up again. Where are the farmers with the skills to keep and work horses, or small tractor farming?

In the past, railroads provided a way to gather the harvest together, to move bulk goods and people around. They have mostly been retired. Is anyone trying to resurrect that part of the infrastructure?

1st things 1st, railroads are not at all retired. They are quite active and transporting billions of tons of goods around the US every day. Some 100-200 trains go past my house every day. And just about every steam-powered locomotive that was in existence in Europe and North America in 1970 is still around, many of them are still operating. Railroad buffs and tourists provide a steady market for the volunteer organizations that operate short-run sightseeing and dinner trains.

As to "Where are the farmers with the skills to keep and work horses?" Erm, right here. I'm looking forward, like several hundred others, to going to the Small Farmer's Journal auction in Madras Oregon in a few weeks, to pick up a new team work harness and maybe a hay mower. The knowledge and equipment are out here, if you care to look.

And as to not being able to swing more than 3 inches to one side or the other when planting corn, what terrible thing happens if one does swing more than three inches to the side? A slightly lower production. That's all. Plenty of corn was produced in the centuries before such devices.

The real problem is the half-mile row. That sort of scale is not very efficient with horse power. But then, take a look at the destruction that's been wrought in rural America by depopulating the countryside in pursuit of ever-higher profits (and the not unrelated ever lower returns and ever more tenuous financial security among farmers.) But that's a rant for a different day.

Honky said...

John, I tried to post this yesterday, but I seem to have failed to click properly. If it appears twice I apologise.

A link to very efficient (although not very practical) solar cells.

The reason that Pluto is colder than Mercury is of course due to the density of photons, but that is merely an argument based on energy not exergy (more photons, more energy. Although a somewhat pointless definition, the Mercury-Sun system actually has less exergy that the Pluto-Sun system because Mercury is already hotter and as you rightly point out it is the temperature difference that matters).

Unlike the case of heat energy, where it is the energy difference between two bodies that matters for the amount of work that can be done, in photovoltaics it is the total amount of energy (and the photon energy).

To talk about solar energy in exergy terms you would have to consider the Earth-Sun system as a whole where there is no lack of exergy, given that the Sun is very hot. However, in that context the exergy is not a particularly useful approach.

I have to add that sunlight certainly does a lot more than "modest amounts of work" as you suggested in the previous post. It creates all weather including that of your global wierding (we are not actually heating up the planet, just reducing the planets ability to sweat off the energy of the sun), if you tried to do that with fossil fuels you would find that our current consumption thereof is not even worth sneezing at.

Not that I am saying it is easy to harness the suns energy (the Sun/Earth system exergy if you like), but if we had thought about it sooner and combined it with better building practices and living habits, it could actually be a practical solution. Look at termites, they have temperature and humidity regulated homes in some of the harshest enviroments without any power stations at all. Just buildings which harness solar heating and apply thermodynamics to a supreme degree.

Just a little addendum about where I disagree with your definition of exergy (similarly, I believe, to Dan Olner). Exergy has to be defined for the whole system. So coal does not have high exergy, hot coal does. It is the amount of chemical energy released by burning and the thermodynamic characteristics of the furnace that determine the exergy, which then determines the work that can be done by the coal. Coal alone is just cold energy abundant but exergyless coal.

Bill Pulliam said...

dltrammel... I can assure you that in the shadow of the Civil War here in hyper-rural Tennessee on land that has just been cleared of the primeval forest a few years before, not even the wealthiest owned two homes! How on earth is a farm family supposed to just abandon their fields and livestock for months on end, during the harshest time of year?

I'm not advocating for cold houses as a lifestyle choice. What I am trying to remind folks is that in the past, when things were made by hand and "if we ate it we grew it, if we drank it we brewed it," people placed a higher value on other uses for their precious resources, time, and effort. I suspect if you gave a lot of subsistence farmers the choice between a solar still and a solar water heater, they would chose the still!

Andrew said...

A thought provoking piece, elegantly written. There was a passing mention of the diminishing returns on energy efficiency but only on relation to solar.

If this topic hasn't already been covered elsewhere, I'd be interested to know what your thoughts are on energy efficiency. It strikes me that the more efficient consumption of the world's concentrated energy sources (through insulation, smarter grids, lower power electrical goods, fuel sipping cars and trucks etc) offers the best way to delay the worst effects of peak energy.

Where do you see the opportunities lying in the area of energy efficiency?

Bill Pulliam said...

Draco --

My points about prioritities, choices, and allocation of precious resources apply even more strongly to computers and the internet than they do to heating houses. Let me ask you a question: Someone takes away your internet and your grocery store. Which one do you miss more?

Sure people could be laying cables with hand tools and powering a decentralized internet off photovoltaics, but they're not going to. All those potential ditch diggers will be too busy working on water lines, bridges, roads, and cornfields to dedicate time to fiber optic cable. Likewise those PV pannels will more likely be used for radio stations, hospitals, law enforcement, schools and libraries than for in-home household internet access. Besides, as we all learned from "Avenue Q" (as if we didn't know it already), The Internet Is For Porn. Personally I feel there is absolutely nothing wrong with erotica, but that remains a minority opinion in this world and when push comes to shove in a world of life-threateningly scarce resources you can bet someone is going to start shoving really hard with that big sledgehammer.

joanhello said...

It has occurred to me recently that an excellent combination of skills for the future would be mountaineering, boating, working with draft animals and the installation and de-installation of plate glass. At the same time that our ability to make big sheets of glass declines, demand for them will increase greatly, and there will be lots of them in the abandoned and perhaps flooded city centers, free for the taking. You'll just need the skills to get them down from the 34th floor and out to the customers.

Ric said...

Edde said:

I built another building in the '90s (600 Sq Ft for under $23k)

I mentioned in last week's post that my wife and I had attempted to homestead and failed. Our second biggest mistake after poor site selection was building way more house than two people needed. The original 16x28 cabin was sufficient, but I foolishly caved into pressure from family and friends to build my wife a "real" house, and crashed and burned.

From there we tried the "many hands make work light" approach, but unfortunately landed at Arcosanti ( Now we just take advantage of the energy and cost savings of sharing 5 or our six sides with neighbors. Paolo got that part right in any case.

I would like to hear from others what sorts of intentional communities exist that are not quite as dysfunctional as Arco. We are more or less economic refugees in search of some place warm where we can put our jack-of-all-trades skills to use.

Brad K. said...

@ Danby,

"Some 100-200 trains go past my house every day. And just about every steam-powered locomotive that was in existence in Europe and North America in 1970 is still around, many of them are still operating."

I believe you meant 100-200 railroad cars go by each day. 100 trains would be an average of 1 train each 864 seconds - 14 4/10 minutes. The coal trains through my town, Ponca City, OK, USA, average maybe three to 12 minutes to pass. That would put your 100 trains on a horribly close schedule.

I know that for years, when the diesel locomotives began running in America, it was great stunt for a state fair or other large fair to lay out some temporary rails - and run two steam locomotives together, head on, in front of the bleachers. It was quite popular, and accounts for a number of former steam locomotives.

I have followed the stories of restoring some of the older locomotives, including the one from the Petticoat Junction TV show from the 1960's. Lots of time, parts, and expense are involved, with each restoration. Some were not meant to run on "standard" gauge, and few had the horsepower to haul anything like today's heavy road engines. Some were, but there were relatively fewer of them, and they were a bit less resilient, without constant care, than the earlier, smaller locomotives.

But more importantly than the locomotives, I think, are how few depots still exist, and how many communities have torn out and zoned out older rail lines. Trains in America just don't go where they used to.

It is the zoning, the land use issues, that I think are the single greatest barrier to returning to rail service for intermediate transport needs (further than walking distance). Next, of course, is freeing up money for rails, for service facilities including wood or coal, water to replenish steam generation, sand for traction on grades, and maintenance to the locomotive and other rolling stock. That would entail a lot of change in land use. Possible, but not something I see happening until someone sees a chance to make a lot of money, or a lot of people get very desperate.

Sharon Astyk has been using the terms formal economy, to mean the GNP and cash based markets and values, and the informal economy which serves people but doesn't accumulate cash - housewife, helpful neighbor, your children's chores, trading music lessons or clothes mending for eggs or garden produce. I find the distinctions to be amazingly useful.

"But then, take a look at the destruction that's been wrought in rural America by depopulating the countryside in pursuit of ever-higher profits (and the not unrelated ever lower returns and ever more tenuous financial security among farmers.)"

In terms I learned from Sharon, I would describe what happened not as depopulating the countryside, but moving the ground and operations fully into the formal economy. I think the farmers from before that economic subversion as being only partly in the formal economy. Food raised and consumed, or bartered for goods and services, were a significant investment in the informal economy. It is that investment you find around Lynn Miller's Small Farmers Journal (I visited Lynn some years ago). Also the Rural Heritage readers, and many others reinvesting where the return isn't measured in cash flow.

Frankly, I see a lot of opportunity in the future of the informal economy - to the chagrin of the tax collector and the venture capitalist. At least, I can hope, can't I?

Danby said...

I live about 100 meters off of the main West Coast N-S line of the BNSF. Granted 200 trains is an exaggeration, but during the fall, we have literally seen more than 100 trains in a day. Many of the grain trains from Montana and Eastern Washington are 200 cars by themselves, and they go past at well above the legal limit of 65 MPH.

When the trains stop, as during our all-too frequent 100- and 500-year floods, food starts running short in Seattle after about a week.

At 400 or so ton/miles per gallon of diesel, and the ability, here in the hydro powered NW, to relatively easily electrify the routes, trains are far from obsolete. What is obsolete is the suburban sprawl enabled by cheap diesel.

Any communities that have torn up the rails, and you are correct that many have done so, have put themselves at a distinct disadvantage in a future of wildly volatile and constantly ratcheting fuel prices. So sad for them. Their future is either expensive investment in replacing the track, or decay and depopulation.

As far as the land use issues go, though, don't forget that as the highways become less and less used, they become more and more available for other uses, including railroads. Most cities have literally thousands of acres of land, hundreds of high-quality concrete bridges, and hundreds of miles of interconnecting routes dedicated to truck traffic that will not be able to profitably use them in the long-term future. Add an overhead powerline and a soft-tired trolley becomes an instant winner. Invest a little more in hard rails, and freight traffic can be handled as well.

The settling of the Midwest, the Homestead Acts were all about commercial farming, not about scratching out an existence with a big garden and a cow, but raising wheat, beef, pork, corn, potatoes, sugar beets, barley and beans to feed rapidly growing cities. Granted, most farmers did have a big garden and a cow, but so did my grandfather, and he was a judge and lived in town.

I wouldn't say the point was to depopulate the countryside, although the motto of the dept of agriculture for 50 years was "get big or get out", I don't think anyone correlated that to the destruction of rural towns. I guess they thought that somehow the money to support rural businesses would just sort of show up, somehow. Either that or it was considered the inevitable price of progress, too bad.

I think the purpose was to improve efficiency in a mechanistic 19th century way, and mostly to keep farmers hooked up to the chemical, equipment, banking and finance industries, where they could be easily controlled and all the available money extracted while keeping food costs down. It certainly has worked out that way.

We can both hope, but I'm pretty much a cynic on these things. I think a crash is far more likely.

Bill Pulliam said...

Stand next to one of the major transcontinental rail corridors, such as in downtown Laramie, and 100 trains a day will not seem unreasonable at all. You can tell when you have found the corridor because there are no at-grade rail crossings (the crossing gates would almost always be down) and the trains roll on by at full speed. It's quite an experience to stand on the pedestrian overpass in Laramie and experience the freight blasting past at 60+ m.p.h. just a few yards below your feet!

As far as electrifying the rails, they are by far our most efficient use of fossil fuels for land transportation and I would think they deserve to be the ones who get first claim on these fuels as the supplies dwindle (don't bother fantasizing that we're going to stop burning them one minute before economic realities make it impractical). By the way, the greenie-despised big trucks are not that bad either, so long as they are run fully loaded not in the bizarre just-in-time fleet of mostly empty trucks we operate now. In the modern economy of long-distance transportation, most of the fuel consumed in the process of getting a consumer good from the factory to the end user is still burnt in the private vehicle that makes the trip from the house to the store and back (no economies of scale). So you actually take a bigger chunk out of the energy cost of freight transport by improving passenger transportation within cities than by attacking the long-range transport system OR by moving the manufacturing centers closer to the end users. Remember that -- if you have to drive farther to get stuff that is grown or made "locally" you've actually INCREASED the ultimate fossil-fuel cost of that item over the conventional version, not decreased it. So if you want to electrify something or increase its efficiency, your prime target should be the passenger car fleet, not the long-haul transportation network.

Remember, as empires decline, they tend to lose attributes on a "last-in, first-out" basis. In our case, for transportation, that'll be (in order) mass commercial air travel, the single-passenger private car, the diesel truck, and finally, the railroads. Might oughta note on the side that using this rule of thumb the first things to go in communications will be the cell phone and the internet...

Tony said...

Apologies if someone's already made this point, but 103 comments is a lot to go through... Richard Heinberg, in Searching for a Miracle, gives a fair analysis (for laypeople) of 18 different energy sources, with an emphasis on EROEI (Energy-Return-On-Energy-Invested), aka "Net Energy." He points out that no single nor combination of energy sources (including all the favorite "alternatives", from solar to wind to nuclear) could possibly replace what oil, coal, and natural gas currently do for us.

das monde said...

I support Honky that the difference in the temperature of Mercury vs Neptune (or Pluto) boils down to the net energy quantity they receive. As Neptunus is some 75-80 times further away from the sun, it receives some 6000 times more energy to heat up the same area of surface (and even less per mass volume of larger Neptune). That is also JMG’s ratio of energy concentration - but this straightforward type of energy concentration is not proportional to thermodynamic exergy. If it were, parabolic mirrors would have solved the global problems by now.

The photon energy is much more relevant to exergy than JMG says. Like I mentioned last week, the biosphere returns radiation of much lower energy spectrum, that has much less potential to alter chemical bonds.

Corpus Callosum said...

DIYer said: I do not admit to confusion. ... Lack of clarity, perhaps. Posting without thinking, yes.
It was just a sort of epiphany for me, I had never considered that the photons we receive directly reflect the temperature at the surface of the sun.

I hope you’ll pardon my bluntness, DIYer, but you ARE confused, which is to say, wrong on this matter of photon “temperature”. Heat, of which Temperature is, of course, the measure, is a property of Matter. The Wave Particle Duality aside, photons are not Matter, they are Energy, and the calculation of a photon’s Energy has nothing to do with Heat (or Temperature) at all, but strictly with the Wavelength (or Frequency) of the photon. The following link provides a handy-dandy calculator along with a brief explanation of this phenomenon:

A photon is characterised by either a wavelength, denoted by lambda or equivalently an energy, denoted by E. There is an inverse relationship between the energy of a photon (E) and the wavelength of the light (lambda)

E = hc / lambda

E = Energy of the photon in electron Volts (eV)
h = Planck’s Constant = 6.626 × 10-34 joule·s
lambda = Wavelength :UNQUOTE

You are certainly not the first person to make this mistake (ahem*, myself included), but it stems from a fundamental misconception about what HEAT actually is. The mistake usually occurs at the point in one’s education in Physics where the student encounters Black Body Radiation, and the observation that all matter above Absolute Zero radiates energy in the form of photons. At that point, it’s easy to lose sight of just exactly what Heat IS. It is the purely mechanical energy of moving atoms and molecules, and Temperature is a measure of the net Kinetic Energy of a sample of atoms or molecules, that is Matter, physical STUFF, not photons.

We must recall, before we got so clever with all this Radiation and Thermodynamics and such, what we learned back in High School: there are three ways in which heat can be transferred: Conduction, Convection and Radiation. Radiation (i.e. Photons) is not Heat itself, just as Conduction and Convection are not Heat itself.

There is no measurement you could possibly make which could distinguish between two photons of a given wavelength one of which came from the sun, and the other from the flame of a candle.

To anticipate your probable rebuttal (why do I feel certain there’ll be one?), Spectroscopy can be used to measure the Temperature of a distant body, so how can that be determined if photons have no temperature? Well, as the name suggests, spectroscopy determines the entire emission spectrum of the body and the relative intensity of the radiation across that spectrum to produce a characteristic emission Bell Curve for that body. The wavelength at which the peak of the curve occurs depends on the temperature of the body. As the temperature increases, photons of greater energy (higher frequency, shorter wavelength) will be produced in greater numbers, and those of lower energy in lesser numbers, thus the peak of the curve will shift to the left.

Most of the implications of Thermodynamics can be readily understood (qualitatively, at least) if one simply keeps a firm grasp on the venerable Kinetic Molecular Theory (KMT).

Unfortunately, how a volcanically active planet, (complete with atmosphere) absorbs energy from its sun and emits energy back into space is a case of a complexity that befuddles most, and eludes complete understanding by even the most gifted scientific minds. But if we can’t get the fundamentals right, we don’t stand a chance.

Corpus Callosum said...

"...thus the peak of the curve will shift to the left."

Ooops, that should be "to the right", of course.

Pardon my dyslexia.

Don said...

Bill Pulliam wrote:
"Might oughta note on the side that using this rule of thumb the first things to go in communications will be the cell phone and the internet..."

I suppose that means we need to be brushing up on our Morse code!


Draco TB said...

My points about prioritities, choices, and allocation of precious resources apply even more strongly to computers and the internet than they do to heating houses.

Yes, that doesn't mean that you can't have them though and I'm sure that you'll find that we can have them. You won't be updating them every year but we will have them.

In the modern economy of long-distance transportation, most of the fuel consumed in the process of getting a consumer good from the factory to the end user is still burnt in the private vehicle that makes the trip from the house to the store and back (no economies of scale).

Might oughta note on the side that using this rule of thumb the first things to go in communications will be the cell phone and the internet...


Economies of scale tend to be improved with better communication.

Brian said...

The issue regarding the cost/maintenance of said solar array: this argument might have some merit only if one assumes the cost/maintenance of mining/shipping coal, and constructing power plants is somehow non-existent.

Fortunately, the beauty of solar is that it decentralizes the "grid." The infrastructure is already there to mount individual systems directly on every home/business. Also, no/less energy loss via transmission. No/less maintenance on grid. Great for national security. Cleaner - after production - thus reducing health related costs versus coal/oil.

And contemplating the viability of solar at this juncture would be like dissing the potential of computers if we were still dicking around with double-flop PS/2 computers! It only took a short time to go from Kitty Hawk to breaking the sound barrier. There is too much financial incentive and momentum this time.

Absolutely, the future must entail great down-scaling; but to suggest that solar cannot eventually become a primary power source is... well, flat-earth.

spottedwolf said...

Amen to all that. Speed is the name of the industrial game....provided by cheap abundant diminishing.

It could be loosely compared to the buffalo culture which lasted all of a hundred and fifty years before it was exhausted. The buffalo represent the cheap available abundant energy source which fueled their mobile culture to greater prominence.

The natives had no viable alternative energy source which could produce such abundant exergy for the energy expended and when the herds were gone the culture vanished.

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, drainback systems are great in areas that only have brief periods of freezing temperatures each year. When you've got three or four months with regular freezes, as I understand it, it often makes more sense to use a nonfreezing liquid. Both technologies have their place.

Draco, it will be done only if the resources to do so aren't needed for other purposes, and only so far as there aren't more economical ways of doing the same things in a resource-constrained world. My money is on the slide rule.

Danby, no kidding. We're on a major rail line here in Cumberland, and there are always trains rolling through -- and five miles north of us, right across the Pennsylvania border, you're on the edge of Amish country, where plenty of people know how to use horses for farming. None of those are lost arts.

Honky, I've had several other people quibble with my use of terms from physics, and I'm quite willing to use different terms; I'm not a physicist, I don't even play one on TV. Still, help me out here -- what's a better way in physics jargon to talk about what, in layman's terms, is the difference between "diffuse" and "concentrated" energy?

Bill, my hope is to help see to it that subsistence farmers can choose to have both.

Andrew, there's a great deal to be gained by efficiency measures, but efforts in that direction need to start out with the cheap and simple things that can pay for themselves fairly quickly. There's a lot of "boutique conservation" out there -- people spending a lot of money on "energy-efficient" status symbols.

Joan, excellent. Plate glass can actually be made with 18th-century technology, but you're right that there's a huge amount of salvage, and the skyscrapers of today will be the resource base of tomorrow.

Ric, I'm not a major supporter of intentional communities, largely because so many of them turn out so dysfunctional -- it's the usual problem with trying to manufacture a natural system! You might see if there's a small city or thriving rural town where your skills can get you jobs.

Brad, you can certainly hope, and indeed the informal economy will be increasingly important in the decade ahead of us.

John Michael Greer said...

Danby, my guess is that in most cases it's going to be decay and depopulation, since the capital (of all kinds) to rebuild rail systems will be hard to come by. But we'll see.

Bill, "last in first out" makes a great deal of sense when you factor in that "last in" is also usually "most energy-intensive."

Tony, thanks for the link! That's certainly the conclusion I come up with, for whatever that's worth.

Das Monde, I've already addressed quibbles over terminology in this context.

Callosum, thank you. Using the terms you're using, how would you describe the difference between the sort of diffuse energy that can be gotten from sunlight and the concentrated energy that can be gotten fron, say, burning coal?

Don, it's still one of the most efficient communications modes on the air: fast, precise, easy to learn, and you can do it with absurdly simple hardware.

Draco, "improved communication" is an abstraction. You don't actually improve communication by switching, say, from land lines to cell phones, or from phone calls to emails; it's purely a matter of cultural fashions and the cult of convenience. In the same way, if it costs less to hire secretaries and accountants than to maintain the very demanding infrastructure that's needed to build and maintain computers -- and in the future ahead of us, this will almost certainly be the case -- then the secretaries and accountants will get hired and the computers will not get built.

Brian, I've repeatedly discussed the reasons why solar isn't a functional replacement for fossil fuels. It's not simply a matter of downscaling; an entire way of using and thinking about energy, which was viable in the age of cheap abundant fossil fuels, is going into history's compost heap. Insisting that because we got from Kitty Hawk to the sound barrier fairly quickly, we can solve any other problem just as fast, is frankly fatuous -- how many decades now have we heard that fusion power was just twenty years in the future?

There's another minor problem with your metaphor. Engineers were working on solar power well before Kitty Hawk -- the first functional solar engine was built in the 1870s -- and the entire project ran repeatedly into the same hard limits that are making current ventures in that direction so problematic in net energy and economic terms. Handwaving about the inevitability of progress doesn't erase those limits.

Wolf, the buffalo culture would have lasted a lot longer without the mass slaughter of the herds by white hunters. Still, point taken.

Bill Pulliam said...

Draco -- Economies and civilizations run on energy. They always have. They do not run on information (or money for that matter). I'm not sure what your string of question marks and your non-sequitur about improved communication have to do with the statement of mine that you boldfaced. If improved communication makes economies run better, then why has the US economy been in recession almost non-stop for the last 10-15 years (using the metrics as they were conceived pre-Clinton, before they were redefined to hide the inconvenient truths of the global economy) when "communication" has been exploding to levels previously unknown?

But, as I have found many times, a technophile will never be convinced that the digital world is little more than passing fancy that in the long run will hardly leave a trace in the fossil record (a thin plastic-and-silicon trace...)

Brad K. said...


Rapid progress of solar power is possible, but not very likely today. Look how long ago science (alchemy) "proved" by the science of the day that lead could be turned into gold, as soon as the (fill in the blank) process was discovered.

When you look at the rapid advances in aviation, in getting electronics from academic models to computers and cell phones - recall the incubator for those technologies. War. Transistors and integrated circuits were needed for space borne and intercontinental weapons development. The first computers? Computing ballistics for the Navy, and Army artillery. It was WWI that brought in a generation of pilots and respect for those engines and wood frames - and aerial assault weapons and observation techniques - that advanced aircraft so fast.

Will solar be crucial to the next serious armed aggression? Dunno.

What I am sure of, is that the only time concentrated effort gets applied is when new technology affects the battle field. Otherwise resources get diffused by conflicting goals and self-interest.

Should we concentrate on solar to stretch existing fossil fuels? To empower the existing single-family-dwelling, conspicuous display of wealth model? To replace fossil fuel power plants to enable everything to continue as it is today? Or should we diversify our efforts, focus on marketing the patent for some nifty type of circuit, or glass coating technique that we just bought? All related problems might get solved, eventually, or abandoned, eventually, as interests wanders from one aspect to another. In the absence of an armed aggressor.

Danby said...

Kitty Hawk to breaking the sound barrier only took 60 years. Oh, and the use of literally millions of barrels of oil.

Draco, it's the huge amount of money needed to maintain a chip fab, the insane amount of energy needed to produce 99.9999% pure silicon crystals 10 centimeters in diameter and half a meter long, in other words the industrial infrastructure that makes computers possible that will become increasingly difficult and finally impossible to maintain. To argue that computers are very useful and therefore they will be available indefinitely is plugging one's ears and shouting "LA LA LA LA, I CAN'T HEAR YOU!", not addressing the argument.

In the same way, the billions of dollars and millions of gallons of diesel spent each year on cell site and network maintenance by the carriers cannot be waved away with a dismissive nod. In a world of increasingly scarce resources, such things must be allocated. Which means that at some point rural areas will start losing their cell phone service. Sometime later, many suburban and even some urban areas will. It is possible that at some point there will no longer be anybody in business that can still produce handsets. Eventually the whole thing becomes just too expensive to maintain any longer. Whether that point is 50 years away or 150 is an open question, but it will come.

Corpus Callosum said...

JMG queried: Callosum, thank you. Using the terms you're using, how would you describe the difference between the sort of diffuse energy that can be gotten from sunlight and the concentrated energy that can be gotten from, say, burning coal?

Hmmmm... that sounds suspiciously like an exam question. Oh dear! Have I gotten off on the wrong foot? That would be so like me, nasty little pedant that I am (Notice I even corrected the extremely rare JMG typo on the final “from” in the above quote? - I just can’t help myself!). Perhaps I should have mentioned the high regard I have for the quality and the demeanor of the blog in general and for the incisive contributions of DIYer in particular before banging on about some abstruse fundamental matter with such excessive rhetorical energy.

Since I last studied Physics and Chemistry back in the mid-70s – when all of this was coming to light, so to speak – my science is pretty rusty by now and perhaps not up to the task of providing a complete answer to your rather daunting question, but, what the heck, I’ll give it a bash, to wit, (and at extreme risk of over-simplification):

Wiki states the average energy content of coal at 24 Mjoules/kg, while the average power density of sunlight is only about 1.4 kwatts/sq. m. If a watt is equal to a joule/sec, I ask myself, how much coal would I have to burn in 1 second to equal the power output of a 1 sq. meter solar panel (neglecting – for the moment – the respective efficiencies of both processes)?

Cancelling the ones (1 second, and 1 sq. meter) we’re left with only two terms, and obviously, the answer is going to be a very tiny number, so there’s no need to burden anyone with a lot of fancy algebra. Simply divide the smaller quantity by the larger:

Coal/Solar equivalent: 1.4k / 24 Meg = 1.4 / 24,000 = 58.3 mg/sec !

For liquid fuels using liters instead of kilograms:
(Diesel fuel is 38.6 Mjoule/liter: 1.4k / 38.6 Meg = .00362 ml/sec - less than a drop!)
(Gasoline is 34 Mjoule/liter: 1.4k / 34 Meg = .00411 ml/sec)

That rather puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? (assuming my math is right - let me know if I’ve erred - but it does look right if you think about it) But before you even get to that sad fact that coal is so darn dirty, consider that the coal has to be extracted and physically moved to the plant at great expense in time and energy, while with sunlight, the “shipping” is instantaneous and free.

DIYer said...

Nice chalkboard work. Since I was watching -through- the virtual chalkboard, your blackbody graph looked OK to me ;-)

And a couple more corrections, if I may: 1) A daemon is a unix process that runs without a user interface - I don't normally go around writing "aluminium" and other such archaic spellings; 2) I said "unlimited" efficiency and meant to say ninetyish percent - nothing is 100% efficient.

Maxwell's demon -
is a thought experiment to demonstrate the relationship between temperature and statistics. Maxwell never attempted to build one, as he knew it to be impossible.

But no, my epiphany was simply this: color temperature is more than just a measure used by photographers to make pretty pictures. Given a large enough magnifying glass of sufficient clarity, and focusing tightly enough on a sufficiently black surface, you could almost duplicate a tiny patch of the sun, simply from the distribution of color in the light. Just try to extract some useful work from a blackbody source peaking at a wavelength of 8-10 microns (without a heat sink at a much longer wavelength).

And thanks to Wikipedia and JMG, I have looked up pages on both Exergy and Gibbs free energy. I can see that the concepts are similar, but Gibbs' formulation is aimed more at physical chemistry. It gives hints as to how to make a reversible reaction run in a particular direction, for example.

I've never taken a science course in which they taught Exergy, though it's a valid word to use for "energy we can use to do work we would like done".

Honky said...

You could simply say "energy density", although this term is also commonly used for the amount of energy in a given mass of fuel.

Solar cells are a genuinely viable source of energy in the right environment. However, like many renewable energy sources, are dependent on weather and they also only produce electricity during the day. This means that you need energy storing devices (which also take a lot of energy and other resources to produce), and for much of the population of the world long distances for transport of electricity, which is also inefficient.

This link shows an interesting one semi-quantitative analysis of renewable energy sources.
It is a fairly back of napkin type analysis, and as such makes a number of questionable assumptions, but it contains many interesting realities which people often overlook in that field of work.

All that said, I still agree with almost all of your conclusions, although perhaps not the science/terminology.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, excellent. Looking over the history of communications technology, in fact, there's no correlation between improvements in communication and economic improvement.

Brad, the thought of a war fought with solar energy is intriguing from a science fiction standpoint, but I have a hard time mapping it onto the real world!

Danby, the "LA LA LA" argument comes up repeatedly every single time I suggest that in a future of energy and resource constraints, advanced technologies are likely to sunset out because they're less economical to build and maintain than simpler technologies that can get the same job done. It's fascinating. I wish I knew of a high-profile example, because then it could be named "So-and-so's Fallacy."

Corpus, nah, you're fine. I'm just feeling a certain degree of frustration because the specific concept I'm trying to discuss here -- which commenters who've used solar energy get instantly -- seems to zoom over the heads of the scientifically literate people I'd hoped would help me out with the formulation of the concept. Your quantifications are great, but that's not exactly what I was hoping to get. I'll give it another shot in tomorrow's post.

DIYer, there are very useful things that can be done with a big magnifying glass (a fresnel lens works well here), or a parabolic mirror, focusing on the nearest available approximation to a black body. The technique has been used since the Renaissance -- in fact, the old alchemists made use of it for their processes, and discussed it in some of their books. It's when you try to scale that up into an equivalent of coal that the problems creep in.

Honky, I'd considered energy density, but of course the issue is precisely how to compare the available energy in a flammable fuel with the available energy in a square foot of sunlight. I'm finding this fascinating -- there seems to be no straightforward way to talk in general terms about the difference between diffuse and concentrated energy sources; or if there is one, the scientifically literate readers who've commented on this and the last few posts have failed to mention it.

As for solar cells, er, factor in the energy cost of the fabrication plant, the refining processes that give you ultrapure silicon, and everything else that has to go into making them. While we've got lots of concentrated energy, they're a good option; when that goes away, I suspect, so will they.

Kevin said...

A little off-topic for the week, but it may amuse you to know that a couple of days ago while in Berkeley I spotted the following bumper sticker on a big SUV: "I'm already against the next war." Some people just don't get it, and Berkeley is a prime spot for conspicuous examples of "green" hypocrisy.

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: Terminology...

I am guessing that you are using this forum in part as a sounding board for your writing as you develop your theses and presentations for a wider audience, yes? Your wider audience would be interested in but not necessarily well-versed in scientific matters, I'd guess? Some approaches I might suggest:

Diffuse versus concentrated energy is easy to understand. The notion that it takes a lot of work to gather the diffuse energy together, accumulate it over time or from big areas, all of which takes work, leaving you less useful work that can be gotten out of what energy remains.

An idea of energy quality, which you might need to explain with some introduction of the idea of entropy. What we want energy to do for us is to make things more ordered, like the examples I ran through quickly in an earlier post -- making hot things hotter and cold things colder, lifting things, moving things against friction and inertia, all go against the natural tendency so you need energy to do this. Then add the basic principle that forms of energy that are already more orderly can do more work than disorderly energy. Sunlight is very disorderly, fossil fuels are very orderly, it's not just plug-and-play. Sunlight is a lower quality energy, plus a double whammy of it also being much less concentrated.

If you want to come at it from the direction of gradients in energy concentration, maybe use examples of mountain streams versus flatland streams, even though it is the same amount of water, eventually falling the same distance, you can get a whole lot more work out of the mountain stream because the energy gradients are so much steeper.

Just some rambling thoughts...

DIYer said...

Regarding your question ... no, I don't see a way to compare diffuse and concentrated energy sources either.

We have a number of proposed energy sources to consider - windmills, PV solar, concentrated solar, methane hydrates, perhaps wave- or tide-energy collectors. The common factor in the diffuse sources is a lack of portability.

As for thermodynamic efficiency, it probably doesn't matter so long as there's a bit of exergy once the inputs are totaled up.

The other big question I have is "What is the timeline for solid state electronics?". The reason I mention this is that advanced electronics are in almost every modern energy converting device. If we reach the point where we can no longer refine silicon, we will also lose the ability to make so much as a transistor.

On the other hand, if we can make simple transistors and solar arrays, it isn't too much of a stretch to make op amps and microprocessors. So it would seem that the entire silicon industry goes or stays at once - either we can refine silicon or we can't. And I can understand the possibility, even the likelihood, of that happening but I wonder when? When does the last semiconductor plant go out of business?

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, that's a great addition to the Clueless SUV Bumper Sticker Hall of Fame!

Bill, exactly -- this is where I test my ideas, and more importantly, the ways I try to communicate them. I've noticed that people without a science background have zero problem grasping the difference between diffuse and concentrated energy, but there's been a whole string of scientifically literate people who have either gotten hung up on terminology or have missed the point I was trying to make. I'd like to find a way to include them in the conversation.

DIYer, what causes the lack of portability is a problem with excessive losses when you try to convert them into anything but low-grade heat. This is fascinating -- the implications of diffuse vs. concentrated energy seem very simple and intuitive to me, and apparently make just as much sense to people who've worked extensively with diffuse energy sources, but nobody seems to know of a straightforward way to talk about it in physics!

As for silicon chips, it's not an all-or-nothing thing. Again, economic factors take precedence; as energy becomes a major limiting factor, and fab plants, machinery, etc., finish their useful lives and have to be replaced, costs will rise steadily, making a great many applications less affordable and a great many alternatives more attractive. That produces a feedback loop as economies of scale go away, and sooner or later we get a breakpoint at which it no longer makes any economic sense to maintain fab plants at all. There may be some silicon chips made after that, but they'll be expensive products made in small batches for essential needs.

Bill Pulliam said...

Where do you find the sticking point to be? If it's the belief that "a joule is a joule is a joule, no matter where it comes from," the reasons this is false are a matter of a) entropy and b) the nature of "the environment" that the energy source is dispersing in to. If a scientifically literate person does not grasp the entropy difference between sunlight and fossil fuels, and does not grasp that they are being asked to do work in an environment already fairly rich in negative entropy compared to, say, the vacuum of space, and does not see how this means that a joule of sunlight contains less useful energy than a joule of fossil fuels, the problem is NOT the clarity of your presentation. The problem is preexisting, non-rational biases that the listener has, drawn from the cultural narratives you have been studying over all these years, that make them not want to agree with your argument no matter how it is formulated. Those really are the fundamental scientific issues involved; all this stuff about EROIs and transformation efficiencies and accumulation and storage infrastructure just follow naturally and inevitably from the differences in both energy concentration and quality between the sources.

The scientifically literate are not actually any more inclined to have a large-scale, long-term, integrated view of a situation than anyone else. We just use bigger words when we argue irrationally about the things we don't personally want to accept.

Kevin said...

About the distinction between energy sources: might not one way to put it be to point out that powerfully concentrated liquid fuels are not subject to the inverse square law, as sunlight is? I know of no way to obviate the difficulty except to move closer to the sun, and on Venus or Mercury our bills for air conditioning might outweigh the benefits.

Brad K. said...


There have been transistors made with germanium, not just silicon.

I imagine the original transistor and IC techniques may still be sustainable. If we retain fiberglass techniques, printed circuit boards using photo-etch techniques will likely be available, too.

I suspect that certain segments of the IC industry will see a demand and show a lot of resilience. Hopefully the lessons in how to contaminate ground water, poison workers, and abuse other resources will prove resilient as well.

On the other hand, if we lose electronics and mass media - does that mean lawyers would lose access to digital law libraries, and all those patents submitted electronically will become unavailable, hence worthless? And just think if the tax man and FBI lost access to all their electronic records. No more "No Fly List", etc. Brave new world, indeed! Nah. Somehow the flash drives and government computers will survive, I imagine.

Bill Pulliam said...

I realize you are probably in the thick of finishing this week's post, but I wanted to expound a bit more on the issue of the thermodynamic environment in which we are trying to get the energy to do work, as this is critical to the concept of exergy or useable energy.

In the case of solar power, the biggest problem with "the environment" is clouds. Clouds, however, are not just an arbitrary unfortunate inconvenience. They are a fundamental aspect of the whole "maximum useful work that can be done in a given environment" thing. The ecosphere is far from thermodynamic equilibrium; if it were not it would be dead. This means it is a relatively low entropy environment for an energy source to work in, making high-entropy energy sources less able to do useful work in it. One of the major manifestations of this low-entropy/highly-ordered/non-equilibrium state is WEATHER. Weather makes the clouds. Clouds make the high-entropy solar energy that impinge on the surface of the earth less able to do work. It's not just random, it's how these principles manifest.

So, you just put your solar arrays in Nevada, right? Well, not coincidentally, the environment with no clouds is also an environment where it is not easy for people to live. So the resulting power needs to be transported long-distance. Which means doing more work and using up more negative entropy in the form of creating and maintaining infrastructure. Electric grid infrastructure has an enormous amount of already-used exergy (embodied energy) locked up within it, traced all the way back to the mineral ores that were mined to make the wire and towers. It requires constant additional inputs to keep it running. By the magic of thermodynamics, I suspect you'll find that the total energy used to get those solar joules from Nevada to Boston is just as big a drain as the clouds in Boston if you tried to generate the power on-site. It's just like why you can't use the generator and motor to run each other, or use the electricity from the hydro plant to pump the water back up into the reservoir and keep the turbines running forever in a drought.

Every one of these inconvenient issues that takes a bite out of your solar calories before you are finally able to use them to run a computer or a car or a toaster oven is a factor of the high-entropy low-exergy nature of sunlight in the environment it encounters on the surface of the earth. The clouds, the storage issues, the transport issues, each of these is caused by the need to get rid of more of this entropy to get to the nut of useful energy (exergy). This is why everyone has the experience you describe of their KW/square foot draining away watt by watt until there's only a small fraction of it left when it comes time to turn the switch on. Solar energy is not entirely useless at the surface of the earth; but a substantial fraction of it is, in a strict, inevitable, unavoidable thermodynamic sense.

This is the language of science. If a scientifically literate reader rejects it, it is because they don't want to believe what you are saying, not because there's a problem with the science in it.

Ric said...

Quick note on computers and chip fab: recall that early computers did not use IC's, but discrete componants; relatively low-tech compared to modern IC manufacture. The end of mass-produced IC's wouldn't necessarily mean the end of computers, but it certainly would mean the end of small, cheap computers. It would also mean an enormous increase in the amount of power needed to perform any given operation, which sort of brings everything full circle.

tom said...

Hopefully that horse isn't dead just yet...

I hadn't heard of exergy before, but the discussion in the comments here convinced me that there is some lack in the current vocabulary, so I thought I'd better look into it.

First of all, it doesn't seem like a physicist's term at all to me, it seems more like a pragmatic reification of one aspect of a process - the kind of thing engineers do so that they can make tables of standard values instead of having to calculate particular solutions. I think a physicist would use a concept like 'available energy', or possibly 'relative entropy'. Chemists, as has been mentioned, use Gibbs Free Energy or Helmholtz Free Energy.

To make the issues addressed by considering exergy more intelligible to people who, as has been noted, often don't have first hand experience to draw on, it may be useful to draw on the origins of thermodynamics as a hydraulic analogy in which energy 'flows' down entropy gradients. I think Bill gave a good example.

The power output you can get from a water turbine depends on the flow rate and the 'head' - the height of the water column driving the turbine. It seems like what we're calling exergy is a lot like the 'head', or local entropy gradient, for an energy flow.

In this analogy, fossil fuels are like a mountain lake that can be used to produce a lot of power lower down the slope, until it's drained. Solar power is like a river at sea level (or if you want to say the temperature of space is sea level, then ambient temperature on earth is a plateau or something); whatever the flow rate, the head isn't there, and trying to increase the power output by pumping water up to a reservoir isn't strictly impossible, it's just a gross waste of energy.

It's been pointed out that the solar flux at most places on earth's surface is by no means insignificant, and that's true; it is after all the driver of ocean currents, hurricanes, and life itself; but some uses of solar power are better than others. I'd say the contender for optimal use of solar energy would be one that Dan posted a link to some time ago: terraced rice culture. As the sun heats the (low albedo) ocean, water is evaporated, and carried by solar powered air currents until it gets concentrated at the top of a mountain, creating the conditions for a high exergy food production system on the way down again.

But a solar still isn't a bad idea either 8o)

DIYer said...

Ric and Brad K,
I am certain of one thing, and that is that when (if?) we lose the ability to craft complex circuits from silicon, we will not be making them from borazon or water ice or gallium arsenide etc. and we will not be computing with vacuum tubes.

Although transistors have been made from such exotic materials, and although computation has been done with tubes, those technologies are only possible when there are huge surpluses of energy and materials.

I'm quite sure that collapse will not merely be a film run in reverse, where we uninvent the iPod one day, and then switch our cellphones from UMTS back to FM radio the next.

Stephen said...

Bill your house was also influenced by the fashions of the day and an attempt to be modern and as someone else noted it may not of been intended for winter use. Your house was built in a time when the well to do tried to imitate the multi room house of the aristocracy with lots of fireplaces fed by cheap coal.

Although the Victorians who built your house were disgusted by them perhaps some lessons can be learned from the medieval home. A single room with a single fire that does double duty for both heating and cooking. Thick rammed earth walls and a thick thatched roof provide plenty of insulation. A single door faces the sunrise with no other openings for heat to escape from. Although as there is plenty of glass available today I'm sure you could ad some double or triple glazed windows. For extra warmth you can follow the example of the viking age and keep the livestock at the other end of the building, or underneath the floorboards on the ground floor. Other dark age homes had straw packed underneath the floorboards for insulation. A warm home allows to relax and sleep much better preserving your health and precious calories.

Brad K. said...


Is it possible that energy/exergy fits a mathematical relationship, similar to position/speed/acceleration?

That is, you have a mote of energy, whether coal or photons or whatever. The first derivative might be heat or kinetic energy, the second derivative exergy?

I doubt the calculus would be that simple, but is this the kind of relationship you are looking to express?

BruceMcF said...

"As far as electrifying the rails, they are by far our most efficient use of fossil fuels for land transportation and I would think they deserve to be the ones who get first claim on these fuels as the supplies dwindle (don't bother fantasizing that we're going to stop burning them one minute before economic realities make it impractical). By the way, the greenie-despised big trucks are not that bad either, so long as they are run fully loaded not in the bizarre just-in-time fleet of mostly empty trucks we operate now."

The diesel freight shifted to electric freight will save half or more of its energy per ton-mile, but running truckload freight on rapid electric rail, and that saves over 90% of the energy required per ton-mile.

So the electrification of freight is a response to the massive energy waste of long-haul truck freight ... its focusing the investment where it can do the most good for some of the most profligate consumers of energy in freight transport.

Gary said...

Following on from Ric's comment, I've been around computers long enough to remember the hand-made memory cards, made from tiny ferrite cores and barely visible wires... and programs I wrote were hand-woven, with many coloured wires, onto exchangeable plugboards by amazingly patient women. Don't forget Babbage, who almost made a computer of brass gears and cams and springs and other mechanical parts...

So as Ric says, computers may still be around, but they won't be anything like the marvels we enjoy (and alternately suffer) today. As in so many things, the past is the guide to the future.

Apologies to the moderator for previously posting this in the wrong topic!

David said...

Your points on solar energy are well taken, the diffuse nature of the source and net energy available are crucial attributes. The cost effectiveness of solar heat for domestic hot water and other modest processes is correct.

However I think you are overlooking the potential of the photovoltaic conversion of sunlight. The ability to turn a relatively weak and diffuse form of energy into one of the most concentrated, useful forms is revolutionary - it is a technology that can shift us from consuming stored fossil fuel to operating on a realtime daily energy budget and that is huge.

I would argue that this technology has now been essentially perfected - the lifetime cost of solar electricity is now equal to or less than present day retail rates. The energy used to manufacture these panels is paid back in less than 3 years. The fact that a 100 mile square in the Southwest could generate all the electricity used in the US is not just rhetoric - it demonstrates that large scale conversion is possible. While it will be more practical to distribute this generation across the country (on existing residential and commercial roofs), why would we build any other form of new generation?

When the fuel is free the 15% conversion efficiency is quite acceptable, particularly considering the CO2, pollution and noise not being produced. There is no need for mirrors, trackers or any moving parts - just a low cost flat plate collector that can even serve as the roofing material in new construction. So my entire roof area must be utilized to produce enough power for all the electrial loads inside - so what? The array has paid back its energy production cost in 3-4 years and its capital cost in 10-12 years, now its ready to generate a surplus for the next 30-40 years. And we can do this TODAY!

Danby said...

If we can do this TODAY!!! Why is nobody doing this TODAY!!! without government subsidies?

Lots of people claim lots of things about technologies they hope to make themselves extremely rich off of. (c.f. Al Gore) That doesn't make their claims true, their calculations accurate, or their boosterism useful.

Show me an on-grid photovoltaic installation that makes sense without subsidies in the form of zero-interest loans, tax credits or (here in the US) the power utility being forced to pay retail prices for the generated power. Until you can do that, all the unsubstantiated claims about any power source remain unsubstantiated claims, whether they are thorium reactors, nuclear fuel from seawater, zero-point energy, cold or hot fusion, or flux capacitors.

I'm old enough to remember claims that solar reflector farms, nuclear power plants, geothermal energy and captured tidal and wave energy were all "free". At one level, they all are, as the free and loving gift of our creator. At the practical level though, aside from monstrously expensive demonstration projects, all of them but nuclear plants have proven impractical, and nuclear power is the opposite end of the spectrum from free, unless you externalize the cost of waste disposal.

Erik said...


Do you know where one could find more information about the Mouchot oven and still? I guess I'm interested in seeing plans, or even working models.

-- Erik

P.S. Congratulations on having such a wildly successful blog!