Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Energy Concentration Revisited

For those watching current affairs with an eye sharpened by history, it’s been quite a week since the last Archdruid Report post came out. For starters, American politicians and pundits have gone in for another round of China-bashing, insisting that China’s manipulation of its currency is unacceptable to us. Since the US is manipulating its own currency at least as shamelessly, the strength of their case is open to question; one gathers that the real grievance is that China’s manipulations have been rather more successful than ours. The tone of this latest flurry of denunciation may be gathered from a recent headline: “China Using Trade Agreements For Its Own Advantage.” Er, did anyone think that the Chinese would use those agreements solely for our advantage?

As it happens, my reading material over the last few days has included historian Donald Kagan’s magisterial On The Origins Of War, which anatomizes what generally happens when a declining empire jealous of its privileges collides with a rising power impatient for its own place in the sun. (The title of Kagan’s book offer a hint, if one is needed, about what the consequences usually are.) The slow approach of conflict between America and China has all the macabre fascination of a train wreck in the making; it’s uncomfortably easy, knowing the historical parallels, to see how a few more missteps that each side seems quite eager to make could back both nations into a position where the least either side can accept is more than the most either side can yield. The flashpoint, when it comes, is likely to lie some distance from either country’s borders; look at the parts of the world where Chinese overseas investment is shouldering aside longstanding American interests, and it’s not hard to imagine how and where the resulting struggle might play out.

Meanwhile the Obama administration has decided to give Congress back to the Republicans in the upcoming elections. I can think of no other way of describing Obama’s fixation on ramming through a health care bill that is not merely deeply unpopular, but one of the most absurd pieces of legislation in recent memory as well. How else to describe an attempt to deal with the fact that half the American people can’t afford health insurance by requiring them, under penalty of law, to pay for it anyway? In the process, this bill promises to take tens of billions of dollars a year out of the pockets of American families – during the worst economic conditions since the 1930s, mind you – to benefit a health insurance industry that already ranks as one of the most greedy and corrupt institutions in American public life. You’d think that a party that has ridden into power twice now on a wave of protest would know better than to adopt the most unpopular policies of the party it ousted, and then fritter away its remaining political capital on a disastrously misconceived notion of health care reform. Yet Clinton did that, and Obama’s repeating his mistake; since he’s doing it in the midst of an economic debacle on the grand scale, he’s unlikely to wriggle out of the consequences as adeptly as his predecessor.

Those of my readers who live in America thus might want to consider pressuring their elected representatives to put a brake on either or both of these disasters in the making. Those of my readers who live elsewhere might want to consider hiding under their beds until the rubble stops bouncing; barring exceptionally good luck, the first blasts are unlikely to be long delayed. Still, these cheerful reflections aren’t the theme of this week’s Archdruid Report. No, the theme of this week’s Archdruid Report delves further into the issue at the center of the last several essays, the vexed relationship between thermodynamics, energy resources, and economics in an age of decline.

I’m quite sure that some of my readers would prefer that I talk about something more immediately topical. Still, fundamental issues of the sort I want to pursue just now have immediate practical consequences. The economic debacle that’s among the major forces pushing America and China toward an armed conflict from which neither will benefit, for example, didn’t just happen by chance; it became inevitable once the political classes of the industrial world embraced certain fashionable but direly flawed ideas about economics, and convinced themselves that money was the source of wealth rather than the mere measure of wealth it actually is. Decades of bad policy that encouraged making money at the expense of the production of real wealth followed from those ideas. The result was the transformation of a vast amount of paper “wealth” – that is, money of one kind of another – into some malign equivalent of the twinkle dust of a children’s fairy tale; and the fallout includes economic stresses of the kind that so often push international conflicts past the point of no return.

In the same way, I’m convinced, certain widespread misunderstandings about how energy interfaces with economics are causing a great deal of alternative energy investment to go into schemes that are going to offer us very little help dealing with the end of the age of cheap fossil fuels, while other options that could help a great deal – and there are quite a few of those – are languishing for want of funds. That was the theme of last week’s post; the response was one of the largest these essays have yet fielded, and it helped me clarify the differences between the ways that certain kinds of energy can be used in practice, and the ways that a great deal of current thought assumes they can be used.

That same lesson could have been drawn from history. Solar energy, the most widely available alternative energy source, is not a new thing. Life on earth has been using it for something like two billion years, since the first single-celled prokaryotes figured out the trick of photosynthesis. Human beings were a little slower off the mark, since we had to evolve first, but passive solar heating was in widespread use in ancient Greece and imperial China; the industrial use of solar power in the West dates back to the late Middle Ages, when enterprising alchemists learned to use dished mirrors to focus heat on glass vessels; the first effective solar heat engine had its initial tryout in 1874. One solar energy proponent who commented on last week’s blog argued that human flight had progressed from Kitty Hawk to breaking the sound barrier in sixty years, and therefore solar power could be expected to make some similar leap; he apparently didn’t know that solar power was a working proposition decades before Kitty Hawk, and the leap never happened.

At least, the leap that my commenter expected never happened. Solar power has in fact been hugely successful in a wide range of practical applications. Solar water heaters, a central theme of an earlier post, were in common use across the American Sun Belt for more than half a century before cheap electrical and gas water heaters drove them out of the market in the 1950s. Passive solar household heating has proven itself in countless applications, and so have many other technologies using solar energy as a source of modest amounts of heat. Given that well over half the energy that Americans use today in their homes takes the end form of modest amounts of heat, this is not a minor point, and it directs attention to a range of solar technologies that could be put to work right now to cushion the impact of peak oil and begin the hard but necessary transition to the deindustrial age.

Yet it’s at least as instructive to pay attention to what hasn’t worked. The approach central to today’s large-scale solar plants – mirrors focusing sunlight onto tubes full of fluid, which boils into vapor and runs an engine, which in turn powers a generator – was among the very first things tried by the 19th century pioneers of solar energy. As discussed in last week’s post, these engines work after a fashion; that is, you can get a very, very modest amount of electricity out of sunlight that way with a great deal of complicated and expensive equipment. That’s why, while solar water heaters spread across rooftops on three continents in the early 20th century, solar heat engines went nowhere; the return on investment – measured in money or energy – simply didn’t justify the expenditure.

Now of course we’ve improved noticeably on the efficiency of some of the processes involved in those early solar engines. Still, a good many of the basic limits the 19th and early 20th century solar pioneers faced are not subject to technological improvement, because they unfold from the difference central to last week’s post – the difference between diffuse and concentrated energy.

This difference or, rather, the language I used to discuss that difference, turned out to be the sticking point for a number of scientifically literate readers last week. Some insisted that “exergy,” the term I used for the capacity of energy to do work in a given system, didn’t mean that – though, oddly enough, others who appeared to have just as solid a background in the sciences insisted that it did indeed mean that. Others insisted that I was overgeneralizing, or using sloppy terminology, or simply wrong.

Now I’m quite cheerfully ready to be told that my use of scientific terminology is incorrect. I’m not a physicist, and I don’t even play one on TV; my background is in history and the humanities, and my knowledge of science, with a few exceptions (mostly in ecology and botany), comes from books written for intelligent laypeople. Still, there’s a difference between a misused term and an inaccurate concept, and two things lead me to think that whether or not the former is involved here, the latter is not. The first is the history of alternative energy technologies, of which the trajectory of solar energy traced above is only one part. The second is that I heard from quite a few people who depend on the diffuse energy available from the Sun in their own homes and lives, and thus have a more direct understanding of the matter, and all of them grasped my point instantly and illustrated it with examples from their own experience.

Several additional examples of the same distinction also turned up as I researched the subject. Back most of thirty years ago, when I was studying appropriate technology in college, one of the standard examples the professors used to explain thermodynamic limits was ordinary geothermal heat. This is the sort of thing you get in a place where there isn’t any underground magma close enough to the surface to set off geysers and make commercial geothermal electric plants an option; it’s the gentle heat that filters up through the Earth’s crust from the mantle many miles below. In terms of sheer quantity of thermal energy, it looks really good, but away from hot spots, it’s very diffuse – and as a result, you can show pretty easily by way of Carnot’s law that the energy you’d get from pumping the heat to the surface and using it to drive a heat engine will be less than the energy you need to run the pumps. On the other hand, if all you want is diffuse heat, you’re looking in the right place – and in fact hooking up a heat pump to a hole in the ground and using it for domestic heating and cooling has proven to be a very efficient technology in recent years.

The same thing is true for OTEC, another of those ideas whose time is always supposedly about to come and never quite arrives. The acronym stands for Oceanic Thermal Energy Conversion, and it does with the thermal difference between deep and surface water what a geothermal power plant does with the thermal difference between hot rocks half a mile down and the cold surface of the planet. You can, in fact, run a heat engine on OTEC power, but it takes about 2/3 of the power you generate to run the pumps. That means you’ve got a net energy of 0.33 or so, even before factoring in the energy cost of the OTEC plant; in economic terms, what it means is that you run on government grants or you go broke. On the other hand, there’s at least one resort in the Pacific that uses OTEC for the far simpler task of air conditioning. Again, if all you need to do is move diffuse heat around, a diffuse energy source is more than adequate; if you need to do something more complex you may well have problems.

Let’s take a closer look at why that happens. The core concept to grasp here is that for reasons hardwired into the laws of thermodynamics, converting energy from one form or another, in most cases, is highly inefficient. That’s what an engine does; it takes in thermal energy – that is, heat – and puts out mechanical energy – in most cases, a shaft spinning around very fast, which you hook up to something else like a drive train, a propeller, or a generator. Of all the energy released by burning gasoline in an average automobile engine, which is one form of heat engine, around 25% goes into turning the crankshaft; the rest is lost as diffuse heat. If you’re smart and careful, you can get a heat engine to reach efficiencies above 50%; a modern combined-cycle power plant working at top efficiency can hit 60%, but that’s about as good as the physics of the process will let you get.

Most other ways of turning one form of energy into another are no more efficient, and many of them are much less efficient than heat engines. (That’s why heat engines are used so extensively in modern technology; inefficient as they are, they’re better than most of the alternatives.) The reason nobody worries much about these efficiencies is that we’re used to fossil fuels, and fossil fuels contain so much potential heat in so concentrated a form that the inefficiencies aren’t a problem. 75% of the potential energy in the gas you pour into your car gets turned into waste heat and dumped via the radiator, but you don’t have to care; there’s still more than enough to keep you zooming down the road.

With alternative energy sources, though, you have to care. That’s why the difference between diffuse and concentrated energies matters so crucially; not only specific technologies, but whole classes of technologies on which the modern industrial world depends, embody such massive inefficiencies that diffuse energy sources won’t do the job. Lose 75% of the energy in a gallon of gasoline to waste heat, and you can shrug and pour another gallon in the tank; lose 75% of the energy coming out of a solar collector, and you may well have passed the point at which the solar collector no longer does enough work to be worth the energy and money cost to build and maintain it. The one kind of energy into which you can transform other kinds of energy at high efficiencies — sometimes approaching 100% – is relatively diffuse heat. This is why using sunlight to heat water, air, food, or what have you to temperatures in the low three digits on the Fahrenheit scale is among the most useful things you can do with it, and why, when you’re starting out with diffuse heat, the most useful thing you can do with it is generally to use the energy in that form.

What this means, ultimately, is that the difference between an industrial civilization and what I’ve called an ecotechnic civilization isn’t simply a matter of plugging some other energy source in place of petroleum or other fossil fuels. It’s not even a matter of downscaling existing technologies to fit within a sparser energy budget. It’s a matter of reconceiving our entire approach to technology, starting with the paired recognitions that the very modest supply of concentrated energy sources we can expect to have after the end of the fossil fuel age will have to be reserved for those tasks that still need to be done and can’t be done any other way, and that anything that can be done with a diffuse energy source needs to be done with a diffuse energy source if it’s going to be done at all.

A society running on diffuse energy resources, in other words, is not going to make use of anything like the same kinds of technology as a society running on concentrated energy resources, and attempts to run most existing technologies off diffuse renewable sources are much more likely to be distractions than useful options. In the transition between today’s technology dominated by concentrated energy and tomorrow’s technology dominated by diffuse heat, in turn, some of the most basic assumptions of contemporary economic thought – and of contemporary life, for that matter – are due to be thrown out the window. We’ll discuss one of those next week.


Bill Pulliam said...

Actually I suspect the form of solar technology that might predominate in the future may be the kind you get by using sunlight to grow crops and then feeding those crops to people and other animals: muscle power and brain power, be they pulling a plow, pushing a pencil, or walking to the market. In rural areas I suspect wood burning might be preferred over direct solar for cooking and household heating, wherever the climate is amenable and the homesteads are far enough apart to provide for the resurrection of the art of coppice forestry so we can "grow our own." I'm already scouting out which of our overgrown pastures and 10-year-past-clearcut hillsides will be the best for this purpose, and will probably be making some trial cuts this year. Wood stores, transports, and is available around the clock, throughout the year.

You can't beat the sun for hot water, though.

Not to get too distracted by your opening acts, but isn't the "health care debate" akin to the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic at this point anyway? The time can't be far off when NONE of the options that have been discussed by anyone, including maintaining the status quo, will remain economically viable; indeed, it's doubtful if any of them are viable even at the present time. And a major swing back to the Republicans in Congress in 2010 was inevitable starting the day after the inauguration when Obama had to reveal himself as a politician, not a Messiah. Unless the swing goes all the way to "veto proof" in both houses (Obama and Pelosi would have to get caught strangling kittens for breakfast under a flaming inverted pentagram for that to happen), it'll just be more of the same gridlock regardless.

Danby said...

One of our neighbors has an interesting problem. Their relatively shallow well (65')(20m for non USians) puts out water at 65F. They went to the expense of installing a water chiller in their kitchen to cool their drinking water. Yet, they use electric heat.

When I pointed out to them that they could quite effectively heat their home in the winter by simply plumbing some copper pipe under the floor and running the well water through it, or even running a heat exchanger into the electric furnace, they demurred. This despite the fact that, while not free, using the geothermal heat would have saved them some $100-$200 each winter month in electricity, depending on how much supplemental heat they needed to supply.

They were afraid it would affect the resale value of their home. I'm afraid that's one of the stupid reasons we don't see more solar heating in residential use.

LS said...

Thank you once again JMG, interesting post.

Your observation about the China/USA conflict potential are the kind of thing that "keeps me awake at night". Not literally, but it is the joker in the pack of the Peak Oil / collapse of Western civilisation story.

As my partner pointed out while we were reading your post: a war with China, that allows the imposition of "austerity measures" to support the war effort may be much more appealing (to people wishing to retain their power and privilege) than austerity measures imposed on a population with nothing to fight for other than their own receding personal standard of living.

War directs the anger of the population outward at a perceived aggressor that everyone can unite against, just imposing austerity measures will direct the anger inward.

Witness Greece. The country's economy is going down the toilet, but the unions will fight to continue the spending programs that are bleeding the country dry. Little wonder then that some Greek politicians will point the finger at Germany and try to rouse historical anger to deflect the attention from themselves.

The shades of 1984 and Big Brother's "war" on the enemy seem far to similar for comfort.

Given that I can't stop all of the above if it comes to pass, I will just finish up some paying work now, then go and make a start on the top coat of render in the cottage. The sooner I can get the benefit from all of that free, low grade heat available, the better.

Thardiust said...

People will more than likely loose their connections to what their TV's tell them is going on in the world while gaining more awareness of the immediate realities facing them as deindustrialization wreaks havoc on most industrialized nations in the near future. Of course, this leads me to believe that, if the U.S. does have some sort of conflict with China, one, or both, of these countries would eventually run out of the resources to keep fighting the other pretty quickly. Of course, if overseas conflicts are a result of deindustrialization, they could go on for quite some time but, if they’re happening simultaneously with deindustrialization, I'd expect more domestic resource conflicts to start popping up in the near future than overseas ones.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, good. I'll be talking about that form of solar energy in the next couple of posts. As for health care, it'll pop like a bubble when crunch time arrives, but in the meantime it's likely to play no small role in further shredding what's left of the social compact in the US.

Danby, no kidding. Once electricity prices start climbing, they may change their minds.

LS, true enough. It will be interesting to see whether the US government will accept austerity measures when they become urgent; the fantasy that games with money are sources of wealth is very deeply rooted these days, and so is the delusion of American invulnerability. We may be in for a very harsh time.

LS said...

JMG, I just happened across this article on The Energy Bulletin:

by Stuart Staniford responding to this series of posts that you have made. I was disappointed though that it didn't offer an option to comment on the article, so I thought that I might post something here instead.

Having read through Staniford's long winded post with its condescending tone, lots of quotes about the laws of thermodynamics, bluster about his physics PHD, and instance that you have it all wrong about sunlight I was left with one (obvious) question:

"Mr Staniford, given everything you have said, how do I replace fossil fuels with sunlight?"

Until Staniford and his ilk can show me how, I will stick with common sense, and The Archdruid Report.

Alfred said...

I've been lurking here for a long time, but never had a Google account, so I've signed up so I can put in my 2 cents.

War with china would be particularly risky, as China could simply dumpy their USD reserves and destroy the US economy over night.

I think the fear of affecting resale value is a big one for many people, pushed to no small part by media saturation with flipping and the like. When we bought our house we had some basic rules:
* as cheap as we can find (because an expensive house is a money pit in general, and we'd rather pay off in 10 years than 30)
* solid hardwood framing and flooring (because these last hundreds of years, unlike the more recently used particle board and osb houses, which are decaying after as little as 5 years in our environment)
* near electric public transport and small scale shops (because that will be working if and when oil 'runs out')
* good soil, solar access and land area

As a result we ended up with a tiny house on fantastic soil next to a main line station, for half the local market prices. But more importantly, we don't care about changing the house for our own needs. And the strange thing is, even though we have bookshelves in the walls, attached greenhouses, a garden best described as an explosion in a farmer's market and numerous little optimizations; people love our house. They make pilgrimages to see it. And we say 'you could do this too', and they say 'oh, but it would affect the resale price'. I've often designed active solar heating systems for people which would, for a few hundred dollars shave thousands off their heating bills, but it's too weird and they run away.

LS: I think you're being unfair to the Greeks, the man on the street did nothing to deserve having multinational banks play 'short the currency' on their economy. When it happens to your currency you'll be protesting too (actually, it probably already is).

JMG: One thing about solar vs fossil fuel is that fossil fuel is energy, solar is power. That is, the difference between being given a million dollars and having an income of 50k. Both are equivalent in the long run, but most people upon winning $1M will spend it. Solar forces you to budget carefully and ensure that you stay in the black, fossil fuels are, as you said, easy to burn and easy to buy. I use 'exergy' to describe exactly the concept you are trying to express too. It is ~= Gibbs free energy and measures the amount of work than can be done. Work (as in force * distance) is the purest form of energy we use (electricity is roughly equivalent given that you can generate an almost arbitrarily high temperature directly from electricity). A diffuse energy source requires a lot of input for the amount of work. I think you should stick with using 'exergy' cos it sounds cool.

We don't need a 'system' to measure the exergy of an energy source, we can consider the maximum flame temperature and work against the cosmic background of 4K to set an upper limit on the possible work that energy source could provide. This is clearly an intrinsic value. For fossil fuels it is the Carnot cycle efficiency of the flame temperature. For sunlight, it is equilibrium temperature of the collector and the portion of the sky the collector can see (so a tightly focused collector might only see a few degrees around the sun and get up to a few thousand K, but any flat plate collector can see half the sky, giving a top of a say 200C, which is what we observe in practice)

Another note: Though the Carnot efficiency is important in setting an upper bound, there is a related concept concerning the maximum practical energy extraction. From memory, it is roughly the square root of the Carnot efficiency, so although burning natural gas in air gives a flame temperature of say 2100K, and hence a theoretical efficiency of 85%, in practice you won't do much better than 62%.

Conchscooter said...

Living as I do in South Florida you'd think solar water heaters would be common as dirt, yet it is not the case. My wife has stalled my efforts to install a water heater on the grounds it is unproven technology (despite the fact she saw solar water heaters all over Turkey on a visit a couple of years ago). On the other hand our consumption of propane to heat water amounts to a few hundred dollars a year versus at least $1500 to install a minimal solar heater. Alternative energy technology needs subsidies and economy of scale to get going, but now there is we are told no more money left. One blunder leads inevitably to the next in a cascade. What a strange predicament we are in.

Cherokee Organics said...

Again an excellent post JMG.

I was thinking about your comments regarding health care in the US. I read somewhere this week that US health care costs around 16% of GDP. Over here in Australia it is around the 9% mark. What's interesting though is that there is quite a bit of debate going on about it at the moment here as well due to escalating costs, although on a rather more finger pointing exercise between the state and federal governments. They simply don't know how we are all going to pay for the ageing population / reduced tax payer ratio?

On an interesting note too I have read quite a few articles mentioning (softening the public so to speak) the unmentionable issue of euthanasia. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. I think economics, resources and nature will decide the issue saving any politician from having to make a decision.

On solar power you are 100% correct. One of my neighbours today was saying that they'd like to also be on an off grid solar. He also mentioned whether it would be possible to run a 3hp wood lathe using it. It all comes back to perceptions versus reality! You can technically have a system which will run a 3hp wood lathe, but how much do you want to spend? It's just so easy to plug into the grid and switch on an appliance that no one thinks about it. Oh well.

Anyone talking up solar hasn't relied on it. It wouldn't be possible to run any heavy industry on it as it doesn't pack enough punch and is too unreliable as you have to monitor the system and understand it's workings on a more or less daily basis.

Good luck. Use sunshine instead to plant some fruit trees and vegies!

Cherokee Organics said...


I noticed that many comments in recent weeks have shown that people seem to have misplaced faith in progress or technical advancements. There is certainly a leaning towards technical solutions and simple solutions such as solar hot water are often derided.

Sitting in the bath just remided me of a personal brush with this problem. On our house we have a 3,000 litre (about 750 gallons) worm farm which processes our waste water, vegie scraps, waste paper (anything organic really) - maybe even annoying uncles/aunts! This system processes all organic materials and returns them to the soil as worm castings or compost tea. As it is gravity fed, it requires no pumps or energy whatsoever. It will never require desludging (which is basically a process where the solids are pumped out and trucked to a waste water processing facility). The flora and fauna does everything in there for free and can apparently process upto 1800 litres a day (I haven't tried this though). It's received EPA approval and has been inspected by the local health officer (I'm begining to sound like an ad). Yet you don't see them around much and most systems around here are quite energy intensive or require nasty chemicals such as chlorine. I can't understand this preference for technical solutions but it's just strange. Maybe people don't want to believe that they're part of the biosphere too?

Good luck!

xhmko said...

Out of interest, what are your predictions as to where a Chinese-Us conflict might physically erupt to violence. Taiwan?
The Chinese authorities are constantly pointing the finger at the US in the local press (live in Hong ) for every strain on their relationships. But then the US is looking for a scapegoat too. China is also growing into the shoes of world police as America loses its pride of place. This to me is a scary concept and I have lately been wondering who I would prefer. Neither sure. But watching Chinese warships patrolling the Somalian coast I fear its only a matter of time.

If in the end it does come to blows, it may be the last world war that we will ever be able to fuel with abundant energy. Einstein's famous quote is looking more and more accurate everyday.

"I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."


For an overwhelming majority, The plain and simple laws of thermodynamics, and Exergy (well... definitely your concept of it) seems horrifying enough to deny without much inspection.
That too when The painful gradualness of this great unfolding of events desperately needs a regular dose of fundamental insights like these.
Oddly though, from where i see it, the corporate-tycoon-jet-setting- rockstar-celebrity self image has just begun kicking into the driving consciousness of a lot of people...

Solutions exist that seek to favor the slow diffusion of energy into everyday life filled with leisure- creativity-awareness-action- and the resulting sustainability in the long term. But Entrepreneurs who start on the path to these solutions are faced by the same cognitive challenge where money becomes the source of wealth rather than the mere flawed measure that it is.
I wonder How much of a window in time do we really have before the current great mass extinction event reflects its weight in global human population statistics...

Thanks for an awesome post.

Don said...

I'm sure you've seen Stuart Staniford's response to your discussion of diffuse and concentrated energy that was posted on the Energy Bulletin Web site yesterday.

I'm also sure that I'm not the only one who is wondering how you will respond. To be honest, I don't understand everything Staniford wrote. But maybe you or someone can explain it in lay terms.


Robert Magill said...

The conflict with China may develop into a "testosterone war" in which case we lose handily. The one child policy over decades has resulted in a super majority of surplus males with no hope of finding mates. Ergo: put them to work around the globe as the US has done. But pay for the mischief out-of-pocket as the US, notoriously, has not done.

John Michael Greer said...

Thardiust, in the years before 1914 it was the conventional wisdom all over the industrial world that war had become impossible, since the combatants would bankrupt themselves promptly. We saw how well that prediction held up! Resources will be pivotal in any war fought in the next century or so, but I doubt that will keep wars from happening.

LS, Stuart wasn't trying to be condescending -- though it's true that he doesn't always come across well in this sort of debate. He thinks that I've misunderstood the core point at issue; I think he's gotten tangled up in terminology and missed the core point at issue; I'm waiting to see if anybody else in the relevant branches of science and engineering can help out.

Alfred, thanks for the technical details! Your house sounds great; we'll know that people have begun to work their way back to sanity when they stop worrying about resale value and start thinking about a house as a place to live.

Conch, one of the reasons for this series of posts is precisely that if the government's going to be throwing money around, and of course it is, I'd like to see more of it going to the upfront costs of solar hot water systems and the like -- that's a fast way to add resilience and energy efficiency, not to mention construction jobs, and yet the money's flowing instead toward grandiose projects with a much lower likelihood of results.

Cherokee, good. If I wanted to power a lathe in a diffuse-energy setting, though, I'd probably go with a treadle-and-flywheel system salvaged from an old sewing machine. There are plenty of ways to do work without concentrated energy sources -- more on this next week.

Xhmko, the most likely flashpoint to my mind is Africa. China and the US are both trying to lock up access to African resources, with oil as the top priority but minerals and farmland also in play. One central question is how many troops China can get on the ground there before a war breaks out, or alternatively if the Chinese can come up with an asymmetric response to US naval power that will neutralize the ability of our fleet to interdict Chinese troop movements to support its future African client states.

Purity, the curve of human population growth is already cresting, and in some regions -- for example, the former Soviet Union -- population figures are already trending decisively down. So your question is already being answered.

Don, Stuart's pointing out that my concept of energy concentration, when applied to sunlight, combines two different variables -- the energy per photon and the number of photons per square foot per second, basically -- that don't behave the same way mathematically. That's quite true, but it doesn't invalidate the broader point I was trying to make.

Robert, bingo. China in many ways is in a much better position to push toward war than we are.

hawlkeye said...

"They were afraid it would affect the resale value of their home."

This insidious doctrine is the tenet of faith held by millions in the hallucinogenic grip of the Religion of Growth. “Property value” absolutely must keep rising in order for our economy/ government/lifestyle to survive; ultimately, the greatest worth your home can give you is when you leave it to cash-in on the sale. So much for community values.

Maintaining or improving the ability to sell your home became the sole criteria for what you chose to do with that property; forget about food gardens, solar water heaters, mini-orchards and all the rest of the sensible “developments”. Don’t do anything that would personalize your home, make it more yours in any way; the goal is always to keep it generically “nice” for some future house-buyer, the person who would boost you into your next level of economic achievement. So we settle for useless shrubs, lawns and gravel, and pay some illegal immigrant to “mow, blow and go” because we won’t be here forever…

Today, a handful of these folks are transitioning from ornamental to edible landscaping (consumers returning to citizens?), but this is largely impossible for renters, who are usually living in some owner’s “investment property” which exists solely to enhance the owner’s portfolio covenant within the Church of Growth.

That’s why sustainable farming can’t get off the ground; because staying home and feeding ourselves as a way of doing business amounts to admitting the complete failure of the above Doctrine, which in its crumbling is creating an accurate Diagram of Doom we would rather Deny. The lovely view from the hill is worthless without a well.

Our Faith in the Church is reflected in our confidence in the Grocery Store to feed us. Local food producers directly challenge the assumptions of permanence we take for granted. There’s a vast “oops” awaiting the realization that our best soils are now buried under condos and worse, but it’s far too soon for me to suggest to the local School Board that they rip up the soccer fields and golf courses to plant orchards (after all, they’re already irrigated!). Of course, when we realize we really need those trees, we’ll wish we had planted them ten years ago.

(However, in fairness, that same School Board voted last week to oust the toxic corporate nugget-pusher from the cafeterias, opening the way for local growers to help the local economy by feeding our children recognizable food. Hua!)

But for local food suppliers to succeed as a business, it requires the failure of perpetual growth skimmers, which is pretty much everyone else in business these days. And this failure, while inevitable, provides the crucible into which producer-entrepreneurs can take root today.

In the fields of opportunity, it’s plowin’ time agin’… -N. Young

Ariel55 said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

Thanks for the post! I love to see you get involved in politics. I saw a poll last week which asked about the greatest fears for the future, "Politics" came out #1, when I would have said "earthquake".I defer to the majority on that. Also, the Census can be added to the irritants of the U.S. populace. Best regards!

xhmko said...

Yeah, Sudan crossed my mind.

I think Richard Heinberg's analysis in Museletter, two issues back I think, was interesting. Basically stating that due to the intrinsically linked economies of China and the US that if one goes, the other will follow. Wil they prop each other up while going to war with each other. I doubt it. But that won't be enough to stop a war. Pride overrides the senses in these circumstances and ain't no one gonna tell China or the US what to do.
Over their dead empires. Well...since you put it that way.

DIYer said...

Thanks for pointing out the EB article. Mr. Staniford has done a much better job of explaining the point I was trying to make in the last post: those solar photons might be diffuse, but there's a lot of spunk in 'em.

What this means is that, given some to-be-determined engineering, that PV panel currently cranking out 200 watts could make almost a kilowatt. This is in contrast to our motor-generator P-M machine or a Maxwell's demon type device that attempts to extract energy from ambient conditions. There is a theoretical basis for discounting those last two strategies outright.

Furthermore, it gives -some- hope that solar power might cushion our descent in other ways than merely heating our homes and growing a garden.

My own hope is tempered, however, as we face a number of other predicaments that may make it difficult to achieve solar efficiency:
1) the population bomb;
2) resource depletion;
3) our trend toward idiocracy;
4) an ongoing financial meltdown;
5) the likelihood of war.

Armando said...

Staniford makes some good points in his articles.
Notably the confusion between the Exergy definition from JMG and what really amount for efficiencies of the system in question.
However there are ways to make the points more clearly and simply for the lay people around. In that regard, Staniford provides a very good table at the bottom of the article. This table shows that it is possible to get more energy from the solar panel than it takes to create the panel and actually energy positive.
Staniford aknowledges that the practically of alternative energy source is questionable.
In the table he provides the amount of energy generated by the systems is dismal!
Let take the best of the best in that table, which is a solar panel in Phoenix AZ that lasts for 25 years.
Over its lifetime that panel will generate 1152 kWh.
Mind you a liter of gasoline hold 8.88kWh of energy; at 35% efficiency from a internal combustion engine you get 8.88x0.35=3.1 kWh of work.
So that PV generate in 25 years the work of 1152/3.1 = 371 Liter of gasoline which comes out to a measly 98 gallons of gas!!!!

The point the Archdruid is trying to make is not that it is impossible to run civilization and even make your ipod work in a no-petrol world; but that the contrains on energy can severely reduce the possibilities for grandiose industrial complexes and systems. Centralized transportation and manufacturing will definitly be some of the early victims were these energy contrains will be felt the most.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- Staniford is completely correct that you have been conflating energy concentration versus energy quality, something that became clear to me only late Tuesday night when I reread your entire series. But he then glosses over the energy concentration issues himself by just pointing out the high net energy of a PV panel, ignoring the need for storage and transport. Most of the people that I know who have lived off of PV electricity have found the costs of storage and conversion to useful form (batteries and inverters) are in the long run bigger bank-breakers than the PV panels themselves.

But back to the energy quality issues. I think you invited trouble by bringing in the term "exergy" here. If all you intended to really focus on was concentrated versus diffuse sources, then exergy was not a relevant term. If you actually intended to focus on the real differences in the utility of a joule of coal versus a joule of sunlight (after you have concentrated the sunlight), then exergy becomes relevant.

Now, I have not yet seen a satisfying quantitative treatment of the entropy of incoming solar radiation, something that I have looked for on and off for many years. The larger scale reason this is relevant is that the difference in entropy between the high-energy photons impinging on the ecosphere and the low-energy photons leaving the ecosphere for space IS the magical engine that allows life to exist here. Staniford uses what seems to be a common approach by saying that since the radiation is that of a black body at 5500K, then it has the same entropy as the ideal "photon gas" inside a blackbody cavity at 5500K. He presents it in a somewhat misleading way to say than this radiation has an "effective temperature" of 5500K therefore it has no trouble doing work in our houses at a temperature of 298K. But this can't be the correct derivation, because if this were true then microwaves (with an effective blackbody temperature of only a few degrees K) could never heat water up to its boiling point of 373K. So there must be more to it than this. I think his derivation comes from this line of thinking:

The net energy of the photon gas in the cavity is zero (H-T*S = 0), hence it has an entropy of H/Ts (H = heat content, Ts = absolute temperature of the surface of the sun). So when we open the box, release the photons, and stream them to earth they arrive with this same entropy. But now they are working at a temperature of Te (temperature of the earth), so their useful energy is H - Te*S, which (do the algebra on your own) comes down to H* (1-Te/Ts) or 94 % of the total heat content.

But the problem here is that when you "open the box" and release the photons their entropy does not remain constant. An expanding ordinary gas increases in entropy; that is why it expands. Doesn't the hypothetical "photon gas" also increase in entropy when it becomes a freely expanding swarm of photons? Isn't a diffuse swarm of photons a more disordered state than an intense flood of them? I have yet to find an actual quantitative analysis of this; however. But it seems to me that the S = H/T value for photon entropy, using as T the temperature of the ideal blackbody source, is just an absolute lower limit for the entropy of those photons, not a good estimate of their real-world entropy as they race willy-nilly through free space.

I think in reality one might find that the energetic cost of concentrating the dilute photons before you can get useful work from them is in fact CAUSED BY this increase in entropy from the ideal "blackbody photon gas" to the real conditions of sunlight. If this were true, it would mean that in fact the issues of concentration and quality are actually linked, not independent.

John said...


You write in the comments regarding Staniford's article: "I think he's gotten tangled up in terminology and missed the core point at issue; I'm waiting to see if anybody else in the relevant branches of science and engineering can help out." I have but a humble engineering degree, but here goes:

Stuart goes into a lengthy dissertation on thermodynamics (unnecessary in my view - five or six cogent paragraphs of prose will do just fine for a lay audience) and finishes with the Carnot cycle. Fine! Using his own example, he comes up with a Carnot efficiency of 73% for a gasoline engine. Let's compare that with a solar hot water heater, the collector of which might reach 200 degrees on a sunny day. The Carnot efficiency of this device is 20%. Both examples are of 'perfect' systems with no friction or unwanted heat losses. Add these in and both systems fare much worse (perhaps 20 and 5%, respectively). This is the basic reason why concentrted heat sources, like petroleum, are so convenient and cheap relative to everything else. You can overcome Carnot limitations, frictional and heat losses and still have enough energy left over to do useful work.

Stuart goes on to say: "This is the fundamental problem with (diffuse energy) - it's temperature is very similar to the environment, so it doesn't have much potential to do work." Well, duh! This is the point you've been making all along.

He then goes on to say: "It is true that sunlight is dilute, but that's a different issue, and a practical engineering and economic one." Unless I'm denser than my wife thinks I am, the 'practical and economic' issues surrounding the transition to other energy sources are precisely what is being discussed here. I could care less what the black body temperature of sunlight is when I'm trying to design a passive solar house that will keep my carcass warm in a New England winter.

It is due to the Carnot limitations, discussed above, that any alternatives to oil will have to be bulkier and more costly to build and maintain than their oil based equivalents.

He finishes by citing studies showing the net energy benefit of solar photovoltaic panels. I hope he's right on this, but if you were to go back and subtract out the 'oil subsidy' that went into making them, the numbers would look worse and might even be negative - another point you've been making for a while now.

Keep writing, JMG. I suspect that eventually Stuart will get it, despite being handicapped with a doctoral degree in physics.

Kieran said...

I've really been enjoying your posts.

I think the jury is still out on China - they're too entangled economically with the US for even vaguely overt conflict to be an option.

Anyway, I was reading the comments in an older post, and saw a type II-diabetic asking about her prospects in a post-oil society.

I gave it a little thought, and I suspect that it would be possible to produce insulin with relatively little energy input, and relatively cheap equipment. Making insulin really just involves growing recombinant bacteria in a vat, although of course purifying it to a medical grade is a little trickier, but I do not think insurmountable. Glassware might become a problem (requires high heat), but things like centrifuges could be driven by bicycle.

It would still require some expertise. I wouldn't see it being a DIY thing, but I could imagine the neighbourhood insulin supplier being a feature of a post-oil society with massive rates of diabetes.

I like to try to imagine ways in which we can retain core technologies in a post-fossil fuel world. Computers would be another one, but I think advances in netbooks (low-power consumption processors) are promising.

Bill Pulliam said...

I might suggest here a different "flame temperature" to put into the equations Staniford used for calculating maximum work. Rather than using the black body temperature of the sun, let's use the equilibrium temperature of a perfectly absorbing black-body surface exposed to ideal terrestrial sunlight in a vacuum. The equation for this is:

T^4 = P/(A*s)

Where T is absolute temperature, P is power of incoming = outgoing radiation, A is the area of the surface, and s is the stefan-boltzman constant. Note that T is to the fourth power, so you need to take a "tesseract root" in this formula to get the final answer. Using 1400 W/m2 as the power of sunlight at the top of the earth's atmosphere, you get a temperature of 397K, which is 124C. This is the temperature that an ideal surface will equilibrate at if it is facing directly at the sun above the atmosphere. Somehow this makes more sense to me as a "flame temperature" for sunlight than the temperature of the surface of the sun. If you want higher temperatures than this, you will need to do work to concentrate the energy.

So using the heat engine formula, this means that at "room temperature" of 298K, your maximum efficiency of conversion of sunlight into work would be (1 - 298/397), or only about 25%. This would also be consistent with the entropy of incoming sunlight being about 14 times larger than the entropy of the ideal "photon gas" at 5500K used in Staniford's calculation. This makes sense to me -- caged versus free-range photons.

So what is it, 5500K or 397K? The 397K number makes more sense to me; systems that create higher temps than this are doing it while ignoring the "externalities" of all the work necessary to concentrate the sunlight to achieve this. As we know, economists and energy boosters LOVE to ignore externalities!

This 25% versus 94% number does not make solar unusable, but it does imply that you can expect it to be 4 times as expensive even when all the inefficiencies are worked out as what boosters are predicting now.

Matt and Jess said...

Sorry to post this here. Is there an e-mail address where I can write to you about my thoughts on your newest book? I just got done reading it, and would like to share my thoughts.

DIYer said...

Oh, and one more item probably worth mentioning -

Every picojoule of "exergy" we expend in heating or cooling our homes is essentially wasted. Virtually everyone agrees on this, from J H Kunstler to Bill Pulliam to Matt Simmons, the Maine windmill guy. It is most unfortunate that, from my Texas mcmansion with its awning-free expanse of south-facing windows to your thinly insulated Cleveland tract house, we have this installed base of millions of homes utterly dependent on ultracheap energy.

As Bill P has said, the only reason we waste so much on this activity is that our wussy little selves want the temperature to always be in a five degree range around 70°F. Not coincidentally, the earth average is close to this in the temperate zone, and the attainment of comfort can be as simple as good insulation.

In the near future, our biggest source of exergy will be conservation. No thermodynamic theory required.

Justin said...

"or alternatively if the Chinese can come up with an asymmetric response to US naval power that will neutralize the ability of our fleet to interdict Chinese troop movements to support its future African client states"

They have one. Quite a few actually. Research "assassin's mace" weapons (shashou jian). This encompasses a wide variety of weapons and tactics designed to neutralize a technologically superior force (i.e. U.S.). Everything from massive cyber-attacks, dumping U.S. dollar reserves, anti-sattelite missiles, electronic countermeasures for anti-SAM missiles, and interdiction of U.S. or western bound oil tankers via submarines. Of course, in specific response to U.S. naval power they have some interesting goodies to which the U.S. has no known countermeasures. Most formidable would be the sunburn supersonic cruise missiles designed by Russia specifically to counter the AEGIS system. They fly at such high speed, at low velocity, in an incredibly erratic pattern that the AEGIS is incapable of tracking. Of course, conventional ballistic missile with multiple, independently targetted warheads would also do the trick, as would extra-large sea-floor mounted, rocket-propelled sea mines (EM52s), and supercavitating rocket torpedoes (SHKVAL or "Squall") launched from their massive armada of Kilo class submarines, built specifically to counter U.S. naval dominance.

Think how much money and difficulty the U.S. has to go through to counter the IEDs and other low tech mischief in the middle east, and then imagine the same doctrine of assymetrical warfare applied by a country with the second largest economy in the world with a standing force of several million. Now imagine that Russia, with its vast energy reserves sides with China, as would Iran most likely. There is a good chance that war wouldn't last too long, but not for lack of resources.

rockpicker said...

I am an infrequent visitor to this site, drawn here when occasion permits, by JMG's leisurely, and usually thorough, examinations of pertinent aspects of contemporary American culture. Most, if not all, who come here, appreciate your having established a sane refuge for thoughtful exchange.

Not being all that familiar with the history of this blog, I hesitate to bring up a subject which seems conspicuous by its absence. But with so many obviously intelligent interests collecting here, and focusing on energy solutions, I have to risk peer derision by asking what discussion, if any, has there been of over-unity electrical production through the direct tapping of radiant energy from the vacuum, as described by Tom Bearden and as demonstrated by John Bedini and, before him, by luminaries such as Tesla and Moray?

Bearden very succinctly states that it is our basic misunderstanding of the nature of electromagnetism, on the quantum level, and the subsequent application of faulty circuits , based on those misunderstandings, that keeps us from tapping into the ocean of electrical potential in which we unwittingly flounder.

He further suggests a starting point to remedy the situation might be to unearth Maxwell's original 20-some equations, which Heaviside, and later Lorentz, condensed to form the basic mathematics of present day electrical engineering. According to Bearden, the physicists and the engineers have not been on the same page since at least the 1930's. Bearden blames those who have constrained our understanding by fitting us with the institutionalized blinders of an incomplete mathematical explanation.

If this topic has already been raised and dismissed in previous posts, I apologize for the re-introduction here. It just seems time to begin thinking outside the box... and maybe time to re-examine the box's construction.

BruceMcF said...

Isn't the focus on concentrated thermal solar power plants over wind turbines tilting the balance of the argument? After all, wind power is also solar power, its just solar power that is extracted at higher net energy return on investment and at lower capital cost per average kW generated than CSP.

Keifus said...

the vexed relationship between thermodynamics, energy resources, and economics in an age of decline....I’m quite sure that some of my readers would prefer that I talk about something more mmediately topical

Not at all. In fact, looking at this relationship just got you at least one new reader.

You do need to use some caution with your technical terms though. I am not sure about energy plants specifically, but for heat engines, the efficiency is usually quoted relative to the maximum possible efficiency. "70%" means it's 70% of what a Carnot heat engine could get you.

Similarly, I don't think energy sources that are diffuse should be called more efficient. (One way to consider the second law of thermodynamics is that it's saying that diffuse thermal energy is harder to convert to work.) You're saying that a thermal water heater works better than a photovoltaic, which is in fact true, but not the same general statement. And in that case, you're still concentrating the energy (over time, not so much over area).

Even without regarding efficiency, to turn heat into work, you're almost always looking at some kind of concentration or storage--if only because you sometimes want the work done to be higher than the solar energy rate. (Even in the most basic case--food--this is true!)

We can and should look at the physical limits of these processes, of course, and I agree that it implies a sparser energy budget than we have been using. My thought is that we shouldn't waste time in learning to optimize and integrate what is there.

Regarding the historicity of this kind of thing. People had experimented with flight for centuries too, or were at least familiar with the phenomenon. Does, say, centuries of training pigeons equate with evaporative cooling in the useful-but-not-breakthrough technology scale? Maybe.

Karim said...

Greetings all

The last few posts of JMG have been so good that I wonder whether I can make any kind of intelligent comments. Nevertheless, there are a few points I feel need to be raised. So here goes.

JMG is right concerning diffuse and concentrated energy, and by the way call it whatever you want, nevertheless this difference between diffuse solar energy and concentrated fossil fuel energy most probably accounts why we have become so dependent on the latter and why it is fairly difficult to rely now on diffuse energy like solar. It is also correct that for many tasks diffuse solar energy is more than enough, such as for water heating, cooking in some cases, passive solar cooling or heating or day lighting of buildings. It is clear that we need to do all of the above NOW in order to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. It is also important to realise that these diffuse solar sources work also best with decentralised, low scale and localised equipments. However, it is important to stress that it is good to have a source of delocalised electricity, especially in a future where continuity of service of centralised fossil fuelled electric power stations may not be assured. This is where energy efficiency and conservation are very important and also where PV systems play a very important role, even though they might still be very expensive. Their energy profit ratio is of the order of 5 to 10, so high enough to be a useful source of electrical power. Given the expense of PV, a question that may have to be answered is can we have small scale cheap solar thermal electric generators that could supply electricity to a house, or a neighbourhood for that matter? It might be very useful to have such contraptions in an energy scare future.
Although I am not one to push for large scale technical solutions as responses to our wasteful way of life, I would NOT necessarily dismiss the contribution of large scale solar thermal electric power stations. Negative outcomes in the past as JMG showed do not necessarily guarantee future failures. In the spirit of dissensus, these options might have still to be explored and exploited where suitable.
We must also not forget that in many places wind energy has a large energy profit ratio and can deliver lots of power. Furthermore wind energy works fairly well at small scale, so in certain places well worth trying. I do not believe that it is naive to think that a combination of energy conservation, solar power (passive and active, PV and thermal) together with wind and biomass may turn out to be more than sufficient to power us to an ecotechnic future, provided we set our aims realistically and forgo notions of perpetual growth that is.

In the last few posts the issue of transportation has not been addressed a lot and it is precisely in transportation that concentrated fossil fuels really surpassed anything before it by orders of magnitude and still do. Given that approx 40% of the energy consumed is for transportation which is totally reliant on oil for which there are few substitutes and given the imminence of peak oil, transportation issues are very important. And it is precisely in this sector where renewable energies are the least useful. This is because the quantities of biofuels are too little to matter and although it is possible to run cars on renewable electricity, is it feasible to run the 800 million vehicles on renewable electricity? Will there be enough capital, energy, resources and above all time to make any meaningful transportation transition? It is very doubtful. So the question arises, what types of transportation may we envisage in an ecotechnic future for short, medium and long range travel? Electric trains and buses for land transport, sails for ships and solar powered airships for air travel?

I like the idea of airships though!!!

Keifus said...

Well, I hope I make through moderation.

I meant to add that the point that our economic codependence with China (we're supporting their export economy) is a considerable buffer to conflict, at least for the time being. The long-term sustainability of that relationship is dubious too, of course, and may well ultimately hinge on resources, but for now we're in the boat together, which helps to take some of the bluster in stride.

Bill Pulliam said...

OK after more thought I am pretty well convinced that the 397K effective temperature and 25% maximum useable energy must be correct for sunlight, otherwise you can make a perpetual motion machine. Here's the thinking:

Suppose you create a heat engine using raw unconcentrated 100% intensity sunlight. Your perfect absorber will operate at 397K; you can use no more than 25% of this heat energy to create useful work without violating the inviable 2nd Law. Now build a system that concentrates this energy to produce a higher temperature on a smaller area, where you might think you are getting more useful work since you have made a bigger temperature difference. However, if the work you put in to concentrating the sunlight were to be less than the additional work you got out of the sunlight, you would STILL be in violation of the 2nd Law. The laws of thermodynamics don't care how your contraption is built; limits are limits and if you THINK you are getting something for nothing you are wrong and have just overlooked another "something" that is actually providing the first "something," which cannot really come from "nothing." So if you focus the sunlight to make it appear that you can extract more than the theoretically maximum possible work from it, you are wrong.

The potential flaw I see in this is that someone might conceive of a way to allow the raw sunlight to heat that absorbing surface up to more than 397K, perhaps by reducing emissivity? But still given the 4th-power law that controls radiative heat loss, I can't imagine you can push this very far. Even if you cut emissivity in half in some way that did not interfere with anything else, you'd only increase your absolute temperature by a bit more than 10%. To double your effective temperature you'd have to decrease the emissivity by a factor of 16 (93%); how you could do this while still getting 100% of your solar radiation into your heat engine I have a hard time picturing.

Brad K. said...


One important strategic difference between pre-WWII and today, is that the US has dismantled much of its industrial infrastructure, and zoning and encroachment issues, and monstrous debt issues, would hinder any mobilization toward building war materials. China, on the other hand, has been rapidly building out industrial capacity - which can easily be turned to producing weapons and sophisticated battlefield electric and electronic systems. In WWII, there was no space presence. Today China is building a space presence, that the US has largely abandoned or dismantled. I don't discount China's unsubtle information attacks against Google and other US and world information targets, almost surely including defense contractors and the notoriously porous government systems. Whether as a means of wholesale sabotage or intelligence gathering, the existence of the capability has enormous strategic value. Such strategic advantages tend to encourage adventures. Remember that China owns a piece of San Diego Harbor, as native sovereign soil. Funny, I don't recall any sovereign US ports in China. Yes, I find war with China to be quite a credible possibility. Especially since so many people could imagine making money off that kind of conflict - the true reason wars are started.

One of the changes that I think must be made in cultural thinking, is that moving regularly is acceptable. Considering resale value of the home - or any consideration of land or building in terms of market value - is an artifact of conspicuous spending, of leveraged credit - of cheap energy. Everyone knows that moving always costs money and energy. Energy to transport possessions and assets, energy to prepare or remodel the destination domicile, energy to explore and connect to the destination community. Companies squander this energy for convenience, when they fire an inconvenient worker, or lay people off because a project ended.

One other use of solar energy is the greenhouse and natural production of insulation (straw bales, goose down), food, and fiber (wool, linen, leather, and cotton to replace all that petroleum based nylon and polyester and plastic).

As for the 3 hp wood lathe - must it be three horsepower? If the gentleman lives near a stream, then water power, a water wheel or some such conversion to rotational energy, might be possible. A wind mill, also, could be a possibility. The thing is, that electricity with all it's transmission losses, or fossil fuel engines, utilize intense concentrations of energy in relatively small mechanisms. Using lower-intensity energy requires larger mechanisms to harness enough energy to do the same job. A flywheel is one way to conserve and distribute energy in time. Another might be moving masses of water, or weights like a grandfather clock escapement.

But then, methane isn't necessarily a fossil fuel. I wonder that "sewer gas" from septic tanks and compost heaps hasn't been dried and utilized as a fuel gas. In the US Midwest, there are apparently systems sold to transform manure from hog confinement operations into compost and methane and heat generated electricity. Since the problem they address with the hog generators is primarily disposal of industrial quantities of droppings, the energy efficiency isn't a real issue. Stories of running a vehicle from methane generated from compost, manure, or sewage pops up in the news every decade or so, so others have looked at this, and no one seems to be making much money from the practice.

Doctor Doomlove said...

I agree with xhmko about a China-US war; it’s difficult for me to imagine this incredibly disruptive industrial age ending without an apocalyptic war, with China and the US the two most likely antagonists. I know the Archdruid dismisses this as the "myth of Apocalypse", but given the incredible speed with which China has industrialized and the US is declining, I don’t see this dynamic resolving itself peacefully -- particularly in a "peak everything" world.

Mr. Greer likes to draw parallels to ancient Rome, but so much about this age is so radically out of balance, extreme, and without precedent (what would Julius Caesar have done with hydrogen bombs?) that we should be careful not to rely too much on such historical examples. Industrial civilization is now global, our technologies are vastly more disruptive, and the entire planet is now at stake. I think Einstein’s observation is correct and World War, followed by a new Dark Age or even Stone Age, is the most likely climax to the insanity of the last few centuries. On the bright side, Druidry and other naturalist belief systems may enjoy quite a renaissance once the skies have cleared over the radioactive ruins of industrial civilization.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I think you are missing one important point in the energy comparison of renewables and fossil fuels. The difference between a quantity of coal and an area of solar irradiance is that the former is a stock and the latter a flow. Stocks and flows aren't directly comparable. You can burn the lump of coal to produce a flow of heat or gather up an area's biomass to produce a stock of charcoal. Like savings and income there is a relationship, but they are not equivalent.

We essentially won the energy lottery when we unlocked fossil fuels. The price of energy has fallen steadily in real terms since the industrial revolution as we used those winnings to build bigger machines to dredge ever more winnings out of the ground. That situation is about to change. The price of energy will rise and humanity will be back on a budget again.

Which brings us to the next conceptual hurdle: working for a living. Food and energy are cheap right now because a small number of people can produce a large surplus for the rest of society. Less than 2% of the US population works in agriculture. Agriculture will require a larger percentage of the workforce once the energy subsidy is lost and the cost goes up. The same thing will happen in the energy sector as we switch from easy hydrocarbon collection to the more labor intensive task of harvesting sunlight.

Staniford is quite right in that there is no theoretical limit that prevents us from generating large amounts of energy from solar sources, but since those sources are diffuse it will require a larger percentage of the workforce to tap them. And that, in turn, means the energy will be more expensive.

Putting all the pieces together, a small percentage of the work force currently produces a cheap supply of food and energy for the rest of the workforce to produce what we think of as the economy. Soon a large percentage of the work force will produce an expensive supply of food and energy for the remaining available workers to use. A huge increase in efficiency and economy will be required in order to avoid a massive drop in the standard of living, and that means bicycles and solar hot water.

John Michael Greer said...

Hawlkeye, bingo. When my wife and I finally had the chance to buy a house last summer -- we timed the housing crash very nicely -- we went into the deal assuming that we'll live here for the rest of our lives. Resale value? My estate can worry about that; I want a house that's comfortable, energy-efficient, and viable through the very challenging years ahead of us.

Ariel, I tend to see politics as the product of deeper causes, and partisan politics as handwaving in the service of greed and ambition; still, it does need to be mentioned now and again!

Xhmko, China's been preparing to do without the US economy for more than a decade. IIRC, we're not even their largest trading partner any more. Also, crucially, this same argument has been made many times in the past, and it doesn't work; countries with very close trade ties can and do go to war.

DIYer, I think you'll find that making PV cells five times more efficient than they are is much more than an engineering problem.

Armando, thank you! One of the things I found most frustrating about the critiques of my recent posts is that they focused on details of terminology, insisting that those disproved my point, and then made my point for me without recognizing that that's what they were doing. That PV panel takes 25 years to produce the same output as 98 gallons of gas. 98 gallons of gas here in Cumberland will set you back a little under $300. Even if you could get that solar panel for $300, which you can't, the gas will provide you all that energy whenever you want it, not trickling in over 25 years!

Bill, would you be willing to write this whole series of comments on the energy available in sunlight up into a single essay? I think you're onto something extremely important here, and I'd like to see it get circulated and discussed.

John, thank you! Yes, the practical and economic dimensions are exactly my point. What I'm suggesting is that it's possible to get work out of diffuse energy, but it's not possible to do so in most cases in an economically viable way without energy subsidies from more concentrated sources. The Carnot cycle was one of the things I had in mind -- and note that while the theoretical Carnot efficiency of a gasoline engine is 73%, the actual efficiency in practice is around 25%. Factor that kind of difference into solar energy and you've passed the point where it makes any sense to do the thing at all.

Kieran, the point that needs to be made in situations like the ones you've mentioned -- and it's one that I've made over and over again -- is that it ultimately doesn't matter if something is possible; the question is whether it can be done in an economically feasible manner in a world of drastic energy shortages, when every resource we've got has a dozen different urgent needs demanding it. In an overpopulated world with crippling food shortages, keeping a minority of sick people alive will not be that high on the list of priorities, and neither will machines that can be replaced by file clerks and secretaries -- of which there will be a large surplus, remember.

Matt and Jess, emails sent to info (at) aoda (dot) org will get forwarded to me promptly.

DIYer, no argument there -- except that some basic knowledge of thermodynamics is very useful in understanding conservation!

John Michael Greer said...

Justin, I've heard those claims, and have no idea whether to take them seriously or file them as propaganda. When it comes to war, we'll see one way or the other.

Rockpicker, "over-unity devices" -- that is, perpetual motion machines -- have been suggested here before, yes. If they work, the entire science of physics would basically have to be wrong; not just a little wrong, but wrong in ways that would show up constantly in every kind of engineering, among other things. It's impossible to prove a negative, of course, but until somebody comes up with a perpetual motion machine that works in conditions that preclude fraud -- and this has never happened -- I think it's probably not a good idea to bet the future on it.

Bruce, I've been concentrating on solar here for a variety of reasons. Wind is another matter; it's a mature, viable technology that produces modest but respectable net energy, and has been proven to work in non-industrial settings. It won't replace fossil fuels -- again, the concentration of energy isn't there -- but it's a crucial piece of the puzzle for any kind of noncatastrophic transition to a deindustrial world.

Keifus, I think you're missing my point. Of course it's harder to convert diffuse heat into work -- unless the work you're doing consists of applying diffuse heat to something, in which case you have far fewer losses than you have when the energy must be converted to some other form (mechanical, electrical, or what have you).

Karim, transportation is of course the elephant in the living room. One thing nobody wants to deal with is that we will not be able to maintain anything like the amount of mobility we now have. One of the points of this discussion, though, is that if we maximize our use of solar energy and other diffuse energy sources for those things they do best -- such as heating homes and bath water! -- what concentrated energy we do have can be put to work maintaining, say, a functioning railroad system.

John Michael Greer said...

Keifus, see my earlier comment to Xhmko about the economic disincentive to war. It didn't stop the First World War, either.

Brad, the points you've made about the relative strengths of the US and China are very much on my mind, yes. As for methane, that's definitely something worth pursuing -- it's arguably a very good source for concentrated energy in modest amounts, of the sort that will be extremely useful in the years to come. And the rest of it -- all good points.

Doctor, one of the things that fascinates me is that nobody seems to be able to imagine a war between major powers these days except as an apocalyptic world war. There are other options. As Clausewitz said, "war is the extension of politics by other means," and nations will go to war -- as they have always gone to war -- in an attempt to uphold their interests when peaceful measures fail.

One of these days I may spend a few weeks here presenting a fictionalized-documentary account of how a large but not apocalyptic war between the US and China could play out. It might be an interesting exercise!

Brad K. said...

@ Kieran,

You said, "I think the jury is still out on China - they're too entangled economically with the US for even vaguely overt conflict to be an option."

I think depending on another nation's self interest for our security is historically a risky way to go. China is Communist - lead by an elite few with economic success a weak priority. Any time the wrong individual or group decides that conflict might be preferable, the balloon goes up. Ideology, theology, and personal hatreds are very powerful motivators, compared to concern about businesses making a profit. In terms of ground conflict, China could raise a powerful army or three, outfitted, in much shorter time than the US. The US, unlike China, would necessarily strip industry and infrastructure of talented and skilled people, to man such an army, and outfitting them would introduce serious delays.

@ Karim,

I will accept your "Given that approx 40% of the energy consumed is for transportation". My thought, though, is - how much of that transportation is necessary?

Today many companies exploit cheap labor in foreign lands, and transport goods and products back home. When transportation - oil - costs rise, that equation will stop working. Current efforts to restore local production of foods and crafts are going to go further in solving the energy squandered by transportation, than debating methane or oil vs. liquefied coal dust for fuel.

John Michael Greer said...

Tim, thank you! That's an extremely good point -- one that I missed, and should have caught. The extrapolation into labor costs is another good point, though I was already thinking in similar terms, as next week's post should show.

John Michael Greer said...

Brad, good. Remember also that a government can easily decide that the economic benefits to be gained by a successful war greatly outweigh the immediate costs. How much would China profit if it, rather than the US, were the world's dominant power, in control of the world's most important currency, and with troops garrisoned and economic interests upheld on three or four continents?

sgage said...

At the risk of further muddying the water, but hoping to clear it up a bit, here's my abridged sunlight rap:

The photons we get from the Sun have energy. We all know that the energy per photon is directly related to its frequency (inversely related to wavelength - same thing when you think it through). A radiating body (e.g., the Sun) puts out a range of wavelengths, with the peak of the distribution curve directly related to its temperature. That's the only thing that temperature has to do with it. Photons do not have temperature. They are electromagnetic energy.

Coming down to Earth, so to speak, we receive a range of wavelengths of photons, those which can pass through our atmosphere. Mostly, this energy is what we call "light", but of course there are some UV photons (sunburn) and IR photons.

Each photon has an energy related to its wavelenth. There is no "effective temperature" to talk about here on Earth with regard to the Sun's energy impinging on us. Photons don't have temperature. A photon is a photon is a photon, its energy determined by its wavelength, no matter where it came from. We get photons from the Sun. We get photons from distant galaxies. A photon of a given wavelength from Sirius is the same as a photon of that wavelength from the Sun.

Given that we deal with the photon flux we're presented with, the issue becomes ALL about photons/area, i.e., concentration.

There have been a lot of strange diversions in this discussion, seeming to make a rather simple thing overcomplicated:

We have light pouring in. It is a mixed bag of frequencies, though mostly all in the narrow range we call "visible light". Due to the inverse-square law, this photon flux is somewhat diffuse. The only practical question is how to effectively gather the photons from a large enough area to do something useful and interesting. How useful and interesting depends on the area you can harvest, and the efficiency of your conversion from EMR to something else (heated fluid, PV, etc.), and the expenditures of energy and resources required to build the apparatus.

We know we can make stuff really, really hot with concentrated sunlight. Hot enough to melt sodium salts as a working fluid. We know how to create devices that can use the photons to ping electrons around to give us electrical current.

I'm really not sure where speculating about emissivity and Boltzman's stuff leads us. The blackbody temperature of the Sun is only relevant in determining the peak of its wavelength distribution.

My interest in light (electromagnetic radiation) comes first from 40 years as an amateur astronomer, and more recently (past 25 years) as a student of photosynthesis. Maybe this seems like two wildly different interests, but... Plants are the mediators between Life on this planet and our Star.

offdalip said...

Bill P wrote:
"The potential flaw I see in this is that someone might conceive of a way to allow the raw sunlight to heat that absorbing surface up to more than 397K, perhaps by reducing emissivity? "

You can easily raise to to 597K if you want to, thus turning a diffusse source to a conc. source.

Just enclose the energy collector (copper tube filled with liquid other than water) with glass tube within a vacuum and focus your solar energy there. Prolly get even higher temps depending on how much heat/time you withdraw.
and yes I have a deg. chem/phys.

Odin's Raven said...

"Pressuring their representatives" - lots of luck with the Democracy in America work-in-progress. We can all remember the outcome of it's last major test; only about a year ago, when hundreds of thousands of voters told their representatives NOT to give vast fortunes to the Wall Street 'banksters', and after only a brief hesitation the politicians went ahead and obeyed their paymasters rather than their voters. The soundness of their political judgment was indicated by the fact that most of those who were up for re-election retained their seats. More of a plutocracy than a democracy it seems.

disillusioned said...



In formal terms what Bearden et al offer is as impossible as an ant swallowing a Dodge whole. There are hosts of experimental and mathematical proofs underscoring this stance. The whole issue being wrapped up in in a bundle labeled "Conservation of Energy"; essentially if you don't put energy in, you can never get energy out.

But I am not so sure, as my own efforts playing with "dark energy" on paper (I explore cosmology) suggest that the Universe at the smallest scale has a considerable :) reservoir of pressure, which drives the observed expansion.

When I say "small scale" I mean way way down past atomic, at the so-called foam scale, the scale which "defines" spacetime - here is set the size of space and what is the passage of time; although Conservation still rules the classic macro-scale processes (e.g. Laws of Thermodynamics) do not. These are statistical truths native to the larger sizes.

// That's how come at a gross-scale we do not see these effects; matter is utterly porous to spacetime so there will never be any observable effects using mundane matter experiments, like heat-engines, chemistry, fossil fuels etc.

To get this stuff to work you need to play with fields - which themselves are distortions in spacetime //

Anyhow. If the Universe is expanding, that means there will be continual reductions in pressure at every point - and the possibility of pressure gradients (I mention this, for as we all know now there has to be some sort of pressure gradient across which to extract useful work aka exergy.)

Long story short; I recon Beardon's on to something. As well as others (Wesley Gary, Johnson and Searl).

So. These guys gonna ride to the rescue??

Not while the growth economy rules.

Such energy sources are not consumed; no-one gets to be rich selling a fuel.

Profits would drop, taxes drop, then GDP and growth drops. It's not gonna happen - yet.

:/ perhaps never.

That's why I'm...

Keifus said...

From the post: "The one kind of energy into which you can transform other kinds of energy at high efficiencies — sometimes approaching 100% – is relatively diffuse heat"

I'm pretty sure that's not a true statement. Emphatically not true if that second form of energy is thermodynamic work.

Sorry to wander in and be such a pedant. I think I'm figuring out what you mean. The overall point you are making is undoubtedly correct: it's stupidly inefficient to turn heat into work, and then back into heat! You'll be more familiar than me with the historical reasons that central power production and highly distributable forms were developed, but it's ridiculously wasteful for many of the jobs we use it for.

Also: generally a Carnot engine is mostly used as a comparison (especially for systems that closely resemble heat engines, like a steam turbine or an air conditioner), and one should be careful about the percents, as they're usually relative to the equivalent Carnot engine. Even that ideal efficiency gets smaller as teh temperature ratio gets smaller, and the absolute efficiency is the further percent of that.

The geothermal is a good thought example for balancing efficiencies, but it requires some precision too. You drill deep because you want a high T difference (and more possible efficiency) but you don't need a heat pump to move heat along the gradient. (I imagine the problem is that the temperature drops as heat finds its way up). There are ways to improve heat transfer, or to bring the hot closer to the cold (I think you mean regular pumping here, not heat pumping), but any such endeavor has got to be really forbidding in that geometry. I can understand holding out hope on the tech though.

And while I'm pontificating, I'm sure it's not lost on any of us how well-subsidized oil and nuclear power both are. Government grants? Why not.

Bill Pulliam said...

Bill, would you be willing to write this whole series of comments on the energy available in sunlight up into a single essay?

I've been thinking I should do that, so I can solicit feedback and find out if I am on track or have made a basic freshman mistake. I'll put something together for my blog, though it won't be all that interesting to my usual woodpecker-obsessed readers!

Thai Up said...

I will admit I do not have the same credentials as Stuart when it comes to physics. I never went to complete my PhD in the subject. However, graduating from Caltech it is impossible not to have a very intuitive understanding of how physics interacts with the world around us in daily life.

To be honest, it is going to be very hard to refute Stuart's analysis because he is essentially correct. Wiggle and squirm all you want, but take a simple look at the solar radiation spectrum on Wikipedia, and notice that almost 50% of the energy in that spectrum even after atmospheric absorption is of high enough frequency to boost that photon out of its orbital into a higher energy potential, and you should know right away that the efficiency here is going to be pretty good.

So, if I admit that Stuart is fundamentally correct, why do I still think that JMG is more correct? Because, and here is where I think Stuart is completely blind, I do not believe for a single instant those papers he points out on the energy return of solar panels. This is the case of the blind leading the blind in science and engineering, and nobody, no matter how many PhD's they have to their name, can possibly comprehend the complexity of the industrial economy.

Of course, Stuart will say "show me something else", and I can't. But I still know those are wrong. If they were correct, I would see trees, animals, and hundreds of other natural structures running around with nanoscale silicon panels covering their bodies. The fact that I don't, even on stationary organisms, means we have missed some critical inputs. There must be at least one evolutionary niche that would have benefited from that high efficiency energy conversion if it was real at the level of an entire system. But yet, the entire ecosystem uses photosynthesis as its base. And the problem sure is not due to a lack of silicon in the Earth's crust. For some inexplicable reason, photosynthesis is better. I can't possibly explain why because it makes no sense to me either. But yet it must be true.

So I don't buy the argument no matter how many papers are done. We've missed something, and it is obvious that something is going to be in the efficiency losses necessary to support the mining, transport and manufacturing sector. Those papers calculate the direct costs, but there must be hidden, indirect costs we don't see. Stuart must be wrong, but I can't give him a quantitative analysis as to why.

So the correct answer is we can expect a few percent efficiency at an entire systems level. Nature says so. We simply need to understand what it is we are overlooking. And by the way, all real physics discoveries are made by looking at the world around us, and trying to understand why observations seem contrary to our beautiful theories. As a scientist, Stuart should know this. He should know intrinsically that he is wrong.

dltrammel said...

May I propose an alternative war scenario, Russia versus China, with the US supporting China.

It's been mentioned that there is a much bigger illegal immigration problem in Siberia with Chinese moving north than with the southern US border.

At some point Russia may move to crack down on this. All it would take would be a few incidents of "supposed" abuses to put Chines troops at the border. And logistically, getting troops there would be easier than dispatching them to Africa.

Russia is already making noises about defending their resource claims in the Arctic. That I will bet will lead to a more confrontational attitude between the US and Russia.

A move into Siberia would give China a seat at the Arctic buffet table too.

I could see a situation where the US provided protection for South American oil tankers sailing across the Pacific, under the guise of being a neutral third party.

Especially as mentioned, our two country's economic ties. Might we not got the British route of the transfer of power, fading somewhat to a junior partner, as opposed to a military war?

Alfred said...

Bill: Your calculations are exactly what I thinking of regarding the equilibrium temperature of the collector: your calculation is that of a half sided collector (insulated on the back). However, even in that form we can do better.
I've measured 145C on the output side of an evacuated tube solar collector. It uses a selective surface (absorbs strongly in visible, weakly in IR) and a vacuum insulation to produce a non mirror based concentrator. A perfect selective surface would be one which absorbs (and hence radiates) all light 'hotter' than the operating temperature and does not emit (or absorb) all light 'colder' than the operating temperature. In this case I believe you can get arbitrarily close to the black body temperature of the sun (or even hotter!). However, this comes with a cost. As you increase the operating temperature you can extract less and less energy, until when the two blackbody temperatures match you can't remove any. Thermodynamics is saved!

I think such a material is beyond us currently, and would consist of something like a nano-structure of tiny resonators at the cutoff frequency. Lots of PV research is essentially trying to mimic this and transform the captured photon energy into the appropriate diode.

John Michael Greer said...

Sgage, I admit that that's what I thought -- that the temperature of the Sun only affects the heat collected by a solar panel because it influences the frequency distribution of the photons in the sunlight -- but as I said, I'm not a physicist.

Offdalip, a more concentrated source, maybe. A concentrated source compared to, say, gasoline? It certainly doesn't seem to work that way.

Raven, every democracy is a plutocracy; an honest legislature is about as common as a virgin harlot or a square circle. We put up with that because a corrupt democracy is usually much less destructive to human liberty than even the most just and upright autocracy. As for pressure, when an issue is being fought out in the legislature between closely matched forces, citizen pressure sometimes can have an effect.

Disillusioned, when somebody can show me something other than neat conceptual models that don't work the way the universe of our experience works, I'll stop rolling my eyes at this stuff.

Keifus, reread the sentence you quoted. I'm talking about converting other forms of energy into diffuse heat. Since energy losses due to most causes take the form of diffuse heat, going all the way and turning the whole shebang into diffuse heat is easy and highly efficient.

Bill, please do! I bet the folks on the Oil Drum would be interested in it as a guest essay, also.

Thai Up, you've run into exactly the same situation I have. The arguments for solar energy sound so plausible -- it's just that in practice, it doesn't work that way. I've tried to account for that by talking about concentration and diffusion, as that seems to work when applied to other diffuse energy sources as well. Still, I'd welcome any help toward a clearer formulation!

Dltrammel, hmm. These days Russia and China are tolerably closely allied, largely because the Dubya administration, in an act of transcendent idiocy, backed both countries into corners in which an alliance was nearly their only option. I'd want to see a great deal more hostility between them first, before predicting a war in the near future.

sgage said...

"Sgage, I admit that that's what I thought -- that the temperature of the Sun only affects the heat collected by a solar panel because it influences the frequency distribution of the photons in the sunlight -- but as I said, I'm not a physicist. "

JMG, that's exactly right. And the temperature achieved by something on Earth receiving incoming solar is the degree to which it doess or does not reflect that energy. What we tend to call its "color".

Color means "what you perceive as my color are those wavelengths I don't absorb". Plants are "green", because their peak absorption is in the red a blue. Their photochemistry is well-tuned.

When I was studying plant cell physiology in grad school, my prof lectured us on pigments, wavelentghs, and biochemistry. Wile designing the optimum pigment for gathering sunlight into a biological system, we more or less came up with chlorophyll (it's all about resonance).

I often ask my students "why are plants green". It usually opens up excellent conversations. "Why" questions always do.

This stuff is actually quite well elucidated and understood.

Kieran said...

Hmm ... the American Diabetes Association says that 7.8% of U.S. has diabetes.

To those people, insulin is almost as important to their survival as food. This makes me think that insulin production would be economically viable even under tight constraints. I completely agree that the full spectrum of modern healthcare will be severely curtailed, but I don't think we will be going back to pre-industrial medicine.

As for computers, I both agree and disagree. I agree that where they are used in modern society to replace jobs easily performed by humans (filing, typing, entertaining, etc), they are likely to be replaced by humans.

But there are plenty of tasks which no number of humans could perform (e.g. statistical data analysis, instantaneous communication). I'm not sure I can see those ceasing to happen.

There are also cellphones - Googling for their energy cost brought up this (Ericsson says annual usage is equivalent to one hour's driving):

That's conceivably powerable by, say, a pedal/treadle generator:

I'd want to know a bit more about the cost to manufacture, but I suspect that could be reduced by de-mechanisation.

Cellphones have been a really successful technology in the developing world, even under severe resource and energy constraints.

John Michael Greer said...

Alfred, doubtless there are any number of ways to improve the ability of a surface to absorb energy from sunlight and keep that energy from reradiating. Still, I think you're letting theoretical abstractions run away with you; in practical terms there are sharp limits to what can be done. For example, I doubt a square foot of your imagined absorption surface could take in enough energy to reach solar temperatures between the time that the sun rises and the time that it sets!

Sgage, that's good to hear. Given that the crucial factor, as you say, is photons/area, how would you express the energy concentration of a square foot of absorbing surface in direct sunlight in terms that would allow it to be compared to the potential chemical energy in, say, a pound of coal?

Kieran, the cell phones used in the Third World today are being manufactured with the immense surplus of cheap abundant energy made possible by fossil fuels. They aren't being made using renewable energy, from raw materials mined and processed by renewable energy, and if that's all we have -- as I suggest will be the case in the not too distant future -- we will have far more urgent needs than cell phones.

More generally, I'd say that -- like most of the people who insist that some favored piece of high technology will survive because it's so useful -- you're missing the scale of the predicament we're in, and the impact the unfolding of that predicament is going to have. I've suggested that what we're facing is the decline and fall of a civilization and the coming of a dark age; when that happens even the most useful technologies get lost if they can't be managed on a very local scale with very small inputs of energy and resources. Check out, for example, the extent to which significant parts of the post-Roman West lost even so basic a skill as the ability to make pottery on a wheel, and had to reimport the technology much later, when the dust had finally settled.

offdalip said...

JMG wrote:
"Offdalip, a more concentrated source, maybe. A concentrated source compared to, say, gasoline? It certainly doesn't seem to work that way. "

Oh, absolutely not!

gas will get you to 1000F but this tech is limited to the boiling point of the liquid. i.e. water propylene glycol would prolly make it to (w/o looking at tables) 300F?

But in your terms, A Much Much Higher Conc, of energy/exergy.
I am not caught up in the terminology, I know exactly what you mean even tho' physicists may
so the language ain't precise.

It ain't that big a deal, what you want to do is divide the heat from the cold , partition it. Use a vacuum. works the other way to if you want to make cold do the work instead, make it colder with the perfect insulation being the vacuum and then you can use the work/energy on demand and it is concentrated.

This is commercialized , these have been out there at least a year or two

offdalip said...

I'm not as good at writing as you are.

But you should be able to understand the concept.
solar vacuum collection
it is a conc. source of energy, but you can still only extract soo much at a time.

other words, it is a RATE LIMITED REACTION in which you can only make a limited amount of high conc. energy PER UNIT TIME.

gasoline is laughable since you make too much energy and the heat is not really time dependent.

lotsa people lose the most important part of the equation. function is a variable of TIME.
in other words the RATE at which you collect energy and the sic. Concentration or Diffuseness of it in your words

LS said...

@Alfred: you said:

"I think you're being unfair to the Greeks, the man on the street did nothing to deserve having multinational banks play 'short the currency' on their economy. When it happens to your currency you'll be protesting too (actually, it probably already is)."

That was really my whole point. Despite Greece's dire economic position, and the clear necessity for changes (including austerity measures), people will fight to keep a hold of what they have (even if fighting is ultimately against their self interest). The Greek citizens didn't ask for the financial trickery, but they did let it happen (as we all have and continue to do) and they benefited from the short term gains.

If the US government has to implement austerity measures, then they are likely to face a public that will be furious with the government (just like in Greece). If however austerity can be implemented as part of a "we all need to pull together to fight this external enemy" war cry, then people are much happier to put up with impositions on their freedom and lifestyle.

Just look at how Westerners have accepted the huge cuts in personal liberty post 9/11.

War footing = government can do practically anything (and people will support it).

As for me, I lost my expectations that the government and industry of Australia will look after me, long ago. I won't be wasting my time protesting, I will be busy stepping into any available gaps in the local food economy.

(Almost) every cloud has a silver lining if your ready for it.

John Michael Greer said...

Offdalip, okay, good. I'm not arguing that there are ways to improve the collection of solar energy -- of course there are; the point I want to make is that those won't make up for the huge difference between today's sunlight and the millions of years of sunlight that's been geologically concentrated into fossil fuels.

LS, war is also a very effective tool for dealing with severe political discords within a nation: get everyone riled up about the enemy, and they forget to hate each other. Since both China and the US have some serious problems along these lines, war becomes appealing to politicians for that reason as well.

LS said...

@JMG: You are too modest by half. Stuart may be technically correct, but (as has been noted in other comments) his article clearly attacks the basic notion that you are trying to get across. That is (as I read it): solar radiation is no substitute for oil when you are trying to power our economy.

What upsets me is that when people like Stuart start nit-picking over minor issues, they blunt the larger message for other people who may be looking for a reason to ignore what you and others like you are saying.

I went through this exact issue with my brother-in-law recently. He (like Stuart) is a physics PHD. He was adamant that fossil fuels were only a transitory energy source for human beings and that we are destined to use other things (of course unspecified).

When challenged as to what those other things would be, who would build them, and how it was all going to happen before our economy collapses from lack of cheap energy, he couldn't say. He was happy (like Stuart appears to be) to dismiss the danger on the strength of some minor point of protocol.

Perhaps Stuart does understand the problem (writing for the Energy bulletin suggests as much), but trying to score points off you seems self serving rather than productive.

Bill Pulliam said...

sgage -- If sunlight has nothing like a temperature (i.e. content of thermal energy) then it cannot run a heat engine at all, but we know perfectly well that it can. I think it does make sense to treat it as though it does have a temperature by seeing what equilibrium temperature it will impart on an object immersed in it, for the purpose of evaluating how much theoretical maximum potential it might have for running a heat engine. It makes much less sense to look at the temperature of the source 93 million miles away, as Staniford did. Why it matters is when you have people claiming that we will eventually be able to build these hugely efficient solar systems that will convert 94% of sunlight in to usable energy, recommending policy and making plans around that. If it turns out to be way off the mark in terms of fundamental physics, you might as well be basing your energy policy on dragons and unicorns. Isn't it important if it turns out that 75% of the energy in sunlight can't be used for work? Isn't that something you need to know if you are contemplating how to build a solar powered future?

offdalip -- you kinda missed the point. The temp of 397 is the temp you get from UNCONCENTRATED sunlight. Any entropy limits that you hit with raw sunlight can't be overcome with concentrated sunlight, if they really are basic Second Law limits. If you think you are getting more energy out it's just because you are putting more energy in.

ThaiUp -- just because every photon CAN bump an electron does not mean it will. As was pointed out before, sunlight is a flow; so is electricity. Many probabilistic things get involved in quantum interactions. The Second Law is the Second Law. On the macro scale (where we live) it cannot be violated. Staniford and I took two somewhat different approaches to calculating what is essentially the unusable part of sunlight based on the Second Law. Someone who knows the physics better than either of us needs to weigh in on the matter; I don't think this person is at present commenting on this blog (or his, either).

Alfred -- I think the increase in black-body losses as the 4th power of temperature will really be a hindrance there. At 5500K you will be losing 37,000 times as much energy this way as at 397K. I also still don't see where the frequency of the photons matters for thermal purposes, just the total energy they have delivered to the absorbing surface. You can heat water to boiling with microwaves that might have a blackbody temperature of 3K, if you have enough of them. Conversely you can trickle x-rays one quantum at a time forever onto a surface that absorbs them and not approach the temperature of the solar core (otherwise controlled nuclear fusion might be a lot easier). For how much it heats something up, all that matters is the total energy content of the light in the frequency ranges that the surface absorbs.

And as this is John Michael's blog, not mine, I'll leave it at this while I finish the post on my OWN blog so anyone interested can take the debate with me over there.

John Michael Greer said...

LS, I don't think Stuart is trying to score points; my guess is that he thinks I'm wrong, and is trying to keep the peak oil community from following my lead into what he thinks is mistaken science. As I mentioned, he doesn't come across well in this sort of debate; similar things used to happen when he was very active on The Oil Drum.

Bill, I think sgage has a potentially useful point. Photons, after all, don't drive heat engines; the heat that results when they impact an absorbent surface is what drives the engine. That makes it all the easier to remember that the temperature of the sun isn't relevant to the present issue; what's relevant is how much heat a given flow of photons can produce in an absorbent object. Other than that, no quibbles -- and please do post a comment when your essay is finished; better still, drop me an email (info at aoda dot org will do if you don't happen to have my current address).

xhmko said...

Dr Doomlove, I wouldn't say that I foresee an apocalyptic war. Just that this would be the last time that the Earth will be able to provide for such decadent weapons systems and the wholesale environmental degradation which accompanies war. I am not even convinced that war will break out between the US and China, though the tension is mounting and if it does I would agree with Justin in these responses that Iran may well take a side and it's not hard to guess whose. There is the possibility of nuclear warfare, despite its devastating potential if only as a payback for the US's use of it previously and their egocentric views on who should possess them.

And JMG, I maybe didn't make myself clear, in fact I'm sure I didn't. In no way do I see the trade relations and economic ties as a hindrance to the outbreak of war. I was pondering the idea of two countries that are have fairly codependent economies propping each other up for their own benefits until the moment they declare war on each other and what effect that would have on their abilities to sustain a war machine. However China is in similar position the US was in prior to WWII. They have a manufacturing base to switch over to military usage, not to mention the state apparatus to do it swiftly. They are a empire that claims not to be an empire and insular as the US was. They are suring themselves up to be the only hyperpower on planet Earth and they have tied their rise and rise into the national psyche in such a way that people will see this as China's God given right. Well, maybe not God but as close to it as a one party atheist state will allow.

Bill Pulliam said...

Post completed; here's the URL:

Comments and critiques are especially desired from full-fledged physicists, especially those who are actively working in thermodynamics and who can spot and correct "freshman mistakes" in the blink of an eye.

Includes a bit more detailed discussion of and rationalle for the notion of "temperature" of sunlight, in the context of the heat engine and for the purpose of evaluating basic thermodynamic limits on extracting work from sunlight.

Bill Pulliam said...

p.s. I might add, gasoline does not drive a heat engine any more than photons do. The flow of energy released by the combustion of gasoline drives the heat engine.

Cherokee Organics said...

One thing I don't understand is that whilst people are arguing the semantics of various technical terms and interpretations of scientific theories they're missing the main point:
How many millions of barrels of non renewable oil (and tonnes of coal) were consumed in the time it takes to have this civilised discussion?
Who is investing in all of these proposed large scale technologies to wean us all off the useage of fossil fuels?
How many individuals out there who champion renewable technologies actually understand intimately how limiting it is to live with them?
We are all really hypocrites as we will hang on as individuals and communities to the status quo until the very end before we actually have to do anything that will impact us on a day to day basis. It may well be too late by then.
Common sense says that if the technologies were both effective and economically viable then they'd be being implemented now. It's not even a question of will or maintenance of vested interests. It is just not happening. Meanwhile oil has risen to $82 a barrel and is predicted to rise. Compare this price to the long term average price, it's scary.
Good luck!

Karim said...

With all due respect I think Armando has used the incorrect table in his interesting example. In the referenced paper, a 22 w PV panel of 40.9 cm2 is being used with a 5% conversion rate. At Phoenix Arizona, with insolation of 2480 Kwh per m2 per year, a 1 sq metre of such a solar panel would yield 0.05 x 2480 = 124 kwh over one year and so 3100 kwh over 25 years. Not an inconsequential amount. Now given that since the paper was written (1997), efficiencies have increased to 10% or even 15%. With such efficiencies I do not think that we can dismiss PV power and limit solar energy to heating purposes only. That would be worse than a mistake, a grave error. Of course PV will not sustain our wasteful civilisation either. But it may certainly help out in the transition. However, given the complexities of manufacturing PV panels, can such manufacturing facilities be retained beyond peak oil? No easy answer to that I am afraid.

I agree with Brad K that we do not need all the transportation that is presently going on in the world. Indeed with the arrival of peak oil, we absolutely must cut down on our transportation needs by relocalising industry closer to home markets and relying more on local foods.

The last posts of JMG have been great but have not really addressed the need to have a fairly reliant source of electricity. After all it is good to have some light at night, some refrigeration and to be able to tune in to some radio station. How is this to be achieved without fossil fuels? Can diffuse energy sources fulfill our needs for modest amounts of electricity? I do not think the answer is no, but neither is it a resounding yes, cost and availability of rare earth metals for batteries and PV panels are powerful barriers for instance. This is why I tend to believe that it will become important to develop/invent renewable sources of electricity such as solar and wind that can be built, maintained and expanded using fairly common materials and skills.

sgage said...


Sunlight is not thermal energy - it's electromagnetic radiation. The heat comes about when an object absorbs that radiation, the energy of which is converted into making the constituent particles of that object move faster. I.e., it gets hot.

The mirrors in a huge thermal solar array don't get hot - it's whatever absorbs the concentrated sunlight at the focal point. How hot it gets depends on the photon flux and the albedo of the object (in the appropriate wavelengths), not the temperature of the ultimate radiation emitter 93 million miles away.

The difference in temperature between our now heated up object and its local environment determines the work that can be done. The temperature of the sun has nothing whatever to do with the potential efficiencies at this point.

Stephen said...

The Chinese have a larger industrial and population base and possibly some weapons that can neutralise's the US navy and other long range power projection of the US military. But one place the USA has a definite advantage is a much larger better tested quicker, more accurate and more powerful nuclear arsenal, which could wipe out almost all of China's industrial, military and populous capabilities within minutes. China has a limited number of solid fueled ICBM's which could provide rapid retaliation, so a pre-emptive strike could wipe out most of China's retaliatory capacity on the ground. Especially if cooperation was obtained with Russia which also faces a growing threat from China which is amplified by there land border. In fact if you ignore humanitarian concerns a pre emptive nuclear strike on China is the most rational course of action for the USA in securing the worlds depleting resources.

RedGreenInBlue said...

JMG, in your reply to Doctor Doomlove, you said:

"One of these days I may spend a few weeks here presenting a fictionalized-documentary account of how a large but not apocalyptic war between the US and China could play out. It might be an interesting exercise!"

My first thought was that I would greatly look forward to this. I have re-read your post-peak winter solstice stories from Nov/Dec 2006 a few times now; they are valuable tools for reflection on our future.

My second thought was: why not encourage us regular readers of The Archdruid Report to create our own accounts. You can post links to (or publish here) stories, and then we can all compare and contrast to our hearts' content, see what lessons we can draw from them.

Just a thought...

Twilight said...

@JMG "the point I want to make is that those won't make up for the huge difference between today's sunlight and the millions of years of sunlight that's been geologically concentrated into fossil fuels."

I think it's important to remember that the original source of the energy in FF is the same as solar energy (although I don't know what percentage might come from the geologic processes themselves). The comments about comparing a flow and a storage, as well as the variable of time are valid. Watts are not a unit of energy, but watt-hrs are.

Part of the problem may lie with the word concentrated - which can mean both gathered over a wider area and gathered over a period of time.

Basically, this disburse vs. concentrated energy angle is another way to approach the concept that we are now proposing to do with the real-time flow of solar energy what we previously did with the solar energy that was stored and concentrated for millennia. Now the energy we have from FF was certainly not all the solar energy that fell over that time - clearly there were major losses, but still it was gathered over a VERY long time.

If we assume we'll need an equivalent amount of watt-hrs, and now we reduce the hrs part by a huge amount, then we'll need a proportional amount more watts to make up the difference.

That's clearly not going to work, so we better get used to living with less energy. Further, which is the point you were making, we need to look for ways to reduce losses when we do use the real-time solar energy flows, and one way to do that is to use the energy in the form we get it (or rather in the form it naturally goes to anyway - heat).

Brad K. said...

Your comment "energy per photon is directly related to its frequency (inversely related to wavelength - same thing when you think it through)" struck a chord with me.

Frequency and wavelength are directly related (inverse proportions). But they aren't the same thing. Each is an aspect of a given transmission. I think the heat of the photon, or its mass, is another related but distinct aspect. Each property has value in various calculations. Expressing values in terms of one property or another can ease calculations, or increase the possibility of insights and discovery.

@ JMG,

So, what about space? Donald Kingbury touched on the microwave satellite beaming diffuse energy to the earth, to be captured and converted by efficient large-field "microtennae" farms. This was in his novel "The Moon Goddess and the Son".

If New York City wanted to keep night life lit up, how about putting a satellite/mylar giant mirror farm into orbit, stationary over the New York, to focus "night light" from space? Other cities could do the same, with minimal damage to the solar system, and zero carbon emissions from energy converted on Earth. Whether there would be effects from direct heating of the affected atmosphere . . . a permanent thermal every night, over a very limited area, might accumulate unsuspected effects. Maybe during the day, the "beam" could be used to diffuse "cold" storm fronts with gentle energy. But then, with a bit more focus I am sure the Department of Defense and the State Department would be interested, too. Forget I mentioned it. Besides, it would disrupt amateur astronomy with fixed, predictable reference points in the sky.

Single-Serving Poster said...

To point out a small, but significant, mistake in ODIN'S RAVEN's post:

Those Congresspeople have not had a chance to be re-elected yet!

While there were some unpoplular "bailout" measures taken before the 2008 elections, I'm assuming you are meaning the TARP "bailout" fiasco?

That wasn't until after the 2008 elections, so this fall will be the first chance we get to vote the wrong-doers out (in the House of course, the Senators won't stand till 2014).

The 111th United States Congress is over at the end of this year. The make up of the entire House and 1/3rd of the Senate in the 112th will be determined this November. That's 468(9?)of 535 seats up for grabs. And that's a chance to completely change the make up of Congress.

Now, as the Archdruid might point out, the trick is always how to get that change to be anything other than a swap between the Snakes in Blue Ties and the Snakes in Red Ties. But would that be a problem, or a predicament?

Here's how "The Greatest Candian" summed up the situation (plus super-cool Keifer Sutherland intro for the kids):

Gregg said...

JMG, you say that " knowledge of science, with a few exceptions comes from books written for intelligent laypeople."

I was wondering if you might have a reading list posted or could possibly do so. I am seeking additional background on these subjects (esp energy and related physics) and am interested in your sources.

Regards, Gregg

Joan said...

Re: China vs. Russia, maybe not in the near future, but as the climate warms up the likelihood is going to rise. Siberia is now very thinly populated, mainly because about half of it is swamp. Large areas of swamp at similar latitudes in Europe have long since been drained and converted to farmland, but most Siberian rivers flow north and are choked with ice for a significant part of the year. Once the ice is gone the pumping can start and that swamp can be converted to bottomland, the farmers' favorite. The disappearance of the ice will make Siberia's oil and natural gas easier to get at, too, and the oil and gas will keep the pumps running relatively cheaply. Given that the Russian population is already shrinking, any crops are going to be grown for export. Meanwhile, China is already a net food importer and its population is still growing. The one-child policy has only worked in the cities; in farm country (where the majority of Chinese still live) couples with five or six kids aren't unusual. There's going to be increasing demand, not just for food, but for land. Thus, China will have a great deal more to gain by war with Russia than by war with us.

Lance Michael Foster said...

On a practical level, for people without much money or resources, you do what you can to cobble stuff together.

For those of us in cold climates, passive solar heat includes shades and curtains, dark-painted walls in south-facing rooms. Maybe some big barrels painted black in a sunny room, to capture the heat. If they can be fitted for it, they can store water you can use to bathe and wash in. Or just fill them with sand and gravel to act as heat stores. Hang inner tube up filled with water for baths or dishwashing.
Baking and cooking warms the house up.

Plant evergreens on the north and windy sides of the house. Shut off rooms for the winter. Bundle up. Get used to cold inside too. Like the Chukchi in Siberia, set up a tent inside your warmest room and blankets or a bag inside that. Layering works for clothes, why not for dwellings? If your tent is big enough, you can even use a candle or little oil lamp. Build up a willow fence-mat a foot or two from the house, and then snowbanks around those during winter. Layer your dwelling. The Plains Indians did this for their tipis in winter.

Get tougher. It's easier to be outside if you keep your house cooler. Most of this Montana winter the apartment thermostat was set at 50 degrees. It's 55 in here right now and I'm just in sweatpants, socks, and an old t-shirt. If you get colder, just wear layers of clothes. When resting, like the old time Indians use blankets too. Eat foods with natural fats in the winter especially. Drink the oil in the sardine and tuna cans.

I have only a trickle of income. I found a little part time job teaching. Not enough to even pay rent this semester. I have kin that are helping me with rent money these next two months, then I need to figure something else out. My wife can't work. I get no food stamps or public assistance. I don't liek the way they make you crawl like a worm. I'm 50. I live in the moment. I know what's coming. I can't do much without money, and I don't have many choices, so I am adapting myself. I sew old worn out clothes into blankets. Duct tape shoe problems and line them with cardboard.

It's getting green outside. Dandelions are the best spring tonic around here. They are getting big enough this week to gather a few.

I'm figuring this stuff out as I go. Solvitur ambulando. Like Coyote, the opportunist. Liek Inyan, Stone, that endures. Singing songs to keep one's spirit up. The Inuit knew being realistic and pragmatic, working with one's actual (not wished for) resources, and a feeling of enduring cheerfulness was the key.

By the way, per the China thing, did you read about the Chinese military man who wrote the book about the coming confrontation with the U.S.?

Bill Pulliam said...

sgage -- not to be too snippy, but you need to read and respond to what I have actually said. I in fact said extremely clearly and loudly that the temperature of the sun is irrelevant. The temperature I am talking about is exactly the temperature that am ideal perfect absorber at equilibrium will be heated to when placed in raw unfiltered sunlight at the distance the earth is from the sun. That is the measure of available thermal energy that can be fed into the heat engine.

Photons are in fact one of the major vectors of thermal energy in the universe. Electromagnetic, thermal, and kinetic energy are freely and instantaneously interconvertible. If an atom is vibrating in place it's thermal, if it is flying in a straight line it's kinetic, if it is a massless photon instead of an atom it is electromagnetic.

As for concentrating light -- if by doing so you have decreased the entropy of the light then you must by definition have done work on it. If you have not decreased the entropy of the light then its capacity to do work will not have increased. I don't know how this will come about, but it's incontrovertable. For all I know strange things happen with interference or other effects that limit the total heat energy that can actually be extracted from it. Whatever, there's no something for nothing. Concentrating sunlight cannot increase its ability to do work (on a per-calorie basis) unless you have to do even more work to achieve the concentration. What you are more likely doing is just making your machine more efficient so that it gets closer to the thermodynamic maximum; but you can't exceed this maximum without putting an even larger amount of energy in to the system in some form.

John Michael Greer said...

Xhmko, thanks for the clarification. So many people insist these days that there can't be a war with China for economic reasons, forgetting that exactly the same argument has been made and disproved repeatedly in the past, that I jumped to a conclusion about your post; my apologies. As for the balance of power between the US and China, granted; they've got the industrial plant for a long war, and we don't; they've also got an army that's used to fighting with a lot less petroleum than ours is, which may be as decisive. On our side, we've got a massive navy and a global network of military bases, which gives us a potent advantage in a short war. It's an interesting strategic problem -- or would be if a lot of young Americans weren't likely to end up dead in the process of solving it.

Bill, excellent! Thank you. When you think it's ready, please consider posting it to Energy Bulletin or one of the other peak oil newsblogs. As for your comment about gasoline, exactly! If we had people insisting that the temperature of the rocks from which petroleum is extracted had something direct to do with how much energy could be extracted from it, I'd be making that point with just as much vigor...

Cherokee, I keep on wondering whether it's time to do a blog post discussing exactly that point. Time and time again, people who insist that (fill in the blank) technology is going to save us aren't actually doing anything to make that technology happen, and neither is anybody else; the reference to the technology is nothing more than a thoughtstopper, a kind of mental tranquilizer that's used to avoid worrying about the ghastly predicament we're in. I do know people who are using solar energy to heat their water, cook their food, and so on, and who are doing other necessary things to lighten their burden on the biosphere and prepare for a future of sharply limited energy access, and in a modest way, I'm one of them -- but these aren't the people who are trolling peak oil blogs insisting that X is going to save us.

I haven't done a post on that yet, because I don't see any likelihood that it'll produce anything but a screeching tantrum-fest. If people are trying everything in their power to avoid looking at the really rather grim future we're making for ourselves, pointing out that this is what they're doing isn't going to make them stop, take a deep breath, and get realistic; it's generally going to provoke an explosion of one sort or another, and I really doubt that's going to be of much use. Still, the idea keeps surfacing.

Karim, if there isn't a reliable source of electricity, the need for one isn't going to make one appear. Now, as it happens, I think that many areas will be able to get modest amounts of electricity over the long term from hydroelectric and wind power, and there may be some other options as well, but the fact that something is useful and desirable does not obligate nature to provide it for us!

Sgage, I'll leave that to you and Bill to discuss.

Stephen, a preemptive nuclear strike on China would convince the rest of the world's nations that the United States was basically a mad dog among nations, and somebody would use similar logic to, let's say, slip weaponized smallpox into the air intakes of the stadium at the next available Super Bowl. The extent to which people in this country have begun to fantasize about mass murder as a solution to our problems is one sign of just how crazy we've gotten.

John Michael Greer said...

RedGreen, if people want to pursue that on their own bat, that's fine, but this blog is basically where I try out my ideas and get feedback on them before weaving them into books and articles; it's not really well suited for a forum-style community -- though there's a scheme afoot to launch a more interactive forum in which such a project might work well. I'll keep everyone posted.

Twilight, good. The energy in fossil fuels comes from sunlight; it's the concentration that is the contribution of geology. The earth's gravity and internal heat are what turns, say, a thousand years of accumulated organic matter in a Paleozoic swamp into a foot-thick layer of coal.

Brad, in the real world, as distinct from L5 Society fantasies, how much energy is needed for the process of building and launching enough spacecraft to get enough cargo into orbit to build and maintain an orbital power satellite system large enough to matter, compared to the energy that would be received in usable form down on Earth? And do we have the fantastic amounts of money, energy, and other resources to spare here and now, free of other pressing needs, for that kind of gargantuan project?

Poster, it's a predicament, but it's one within which a certain amount of wiggle room exists, especially when -- as at present -- the tie-wearing snakes are by no means of one mind about how to proceed.

Gregg, I haven't done a reading list in a long time, and the last one I did was focused pretty tightly on peak oil. I'll consider it.

Joan, not at all. China's long-term relationship with Russia will most likely take the form of America's relationship with Canada: imperial domination politely covered with a fig leaf of supposed independence and mutual friendship. As long as China gets the produce from Siberian farms, mines, and oil wells, why should they worry any more about which flag flies over them than the US worries about whose flag flies over the Alberta tar sands?

With America, it's a different matter. We have the global military presence, the dominance over Middle Eastern oil, and the political clout that they want, and -- as Donald Kagan points out -- national pride is at least as potent a force for war as anything else. China is coming out from under several centuries of humiliation at the hands of the West, and revenge, if you will, is a dish best served with dim sum and a very nicely aged Keemun tea.

John Michael Greer said...

Lance, you're ahead of the curve; good. As for a tent in the bedroom, ever seen a medieval bed? The canopy and curtains keep in body heat and make it quite comfortably warm, even if the rest of the house is below freezing.

Bill, fair enough; that makes sense.

sgage said...

Bill, I'm afraid you're mistaken.

There is no rationale at all for talking about the "temperature" of photons. You are on the wrong track. Temperature means what it means - the average velocity of the particles in a substance. (As opposed to heat, by the way, which is the total kinetic energy of said particles, so that very hot things - things with a very high temperature - can possess very little heat.)

You could have 2 molecules in a box with a temperature of a scrazzillion degrees, but you would not get burned if you stuck your hand in there. Lots of temperature, very little heat.

What drives heat engines is heat differentials. The way that solar energy might drive a heat engine has nothing to do with the black body temperature of the Sun, other than that it determines the blend of wavelengths of photons we get here.

The temperature of the Sun is utterly irrelevant in the efficiency of how we go about converting those photons into heat to drive a heat engine, or indeed harvest them photovoltaically.

I will move over to your blog to discuss further when I can.

Brad K. said...

@ Cherokee Organics,

About "One thing I don't understand . . . they're missing the main point:
How many millions of barrels of non renewable oil (and tonnes of coal) were consumed in the time it takes to have this civilized discussion?".

This is where I think the great changes will be in city planning - zoning - to localize, to reorganize to all stores and amenities within a few blocks of home, will make the real differences in fossil fuel consumption. Homes and apartments must be build with well insulated inner walls to empower zonal heating patterns. Neighborhood stores will recognize the cost of drawing customers from dozens of miles away as wasteful. We need to re-think privacy, with regard to sharing rooms, beds, and public facilities like gardens and baths.

Communities must take a stand. Each adult must be engaged in their community, must make choices that enrich and enhance their community - from their choice of career and mate to how they live and the number of children they raise. Communities must be active in the ethics, morals, crafts, and traditions that are taught to their children. Today communities often leave child rearing to the family or school, and only intervene in cases of social misbehavior - abuse of the child, or unacceptable behavior. Instead, like some religions, the community needs to take control - wresting the culture their children are exposed to from the UN and the state. Too many times national perspectives and biases taught in public schools are influenced by corporate and marketing considerations - to the detriment of student, family, and community. Communities must invest in distributed, stable employers that don't churn through their workforce - and hire people living nearby their work.

Until the last coal and oil fired power plant is retired, scrapped out, and cleared for raising fruit trees and hazelnuts, I consider electricity a fossil fuel. Changing from one source of energy to another, to continue the same profligate lifestyle, is twiddling with semantics. What is needed is a sea change to enable real living, for real people and communities and faiths, without the cheap energy influence.

Changes to housing codes, to zoning requirements, to social program assumptions about "healthy" lifestyles and associations - these will be simple to make - and tough to accomplish. Architects, carpenters, building supply producers and distributors - so many will be impacted, that the time is now, and must be the first changes.

Taking a modern home and making it more "carbon neutral" is a fine thing for a person to do. It will limit the environmental impact into the future, though still relying on the same distribution channels for repair and maintenance. And the scope of effect will be that one residence. That is something for a homeowner to be honored for.

But it begs the question of how much time it takes to educate each homeowner in a community and nation to make better choices, while leaving the rest of the building and cheap energy economy intact but floundering. The nonsense about Cap and Tax is about politics and big money wanting to preserve their precious status quo - often at someone else's expense. Instead, how about a penny tax on employers, applied at one (1) penny per kilometer (better – it is shorter than a mile) each employee lives from work? The point of the tax would be to involve employers in their community and energy profile of what their workforce imposes on that community. Rather than revenue, this tax would accumulate data about employers, employees, and how concentrated work places rely on the assumption of cheap energy. Mass transit is a bandaid, a stopgap. The real answer is distributed work places and distributed shopping and distributed entertainment.

Bill Pulliam said...

sgage you seem to be stuck on some terms and continuing to rebutt things I have actually already said are incorrect. Forget all about the temperature of the sun, it was not me who said that was relevant, it was me who said that was irrelevant.

And forget about the "temperature" of light which seems to have you stuck in a loop, and listen to this:

I am driving a theoretical Carnot cycle engine using a heat source that is a theoretical perfect absorber exposed to 100% sunlight at the distance the earth is from the sun. This absorber DOES have a temperature determined by the rate of influx of solar energy and its own blackbody thermal emissions. Thus driven, the Carnot engine would achieve a maximum possible efficiency of conversion of solar radiation into mechanical work of 25%. From this I am INFERRING a second-law upper limit on the efficiency of conversion of sunlight; I may have overlooked other factors contributing to this efficiency but with all other sources of heat this is the way it is done. To conform to the second law, you cannot get more work from this light (even if you concentrate it) unless you put more work into the system as well. That argument does not invoke either the temperature of the sun or the temperature of the sunlight. The conclusion is the same, and the weak link in the argument that I want better informed people to comment on has nothing to do with temperatures, it has to do with entropy. Feel free to move over to my blog; please read the posting through before rebutting it, however.

Twilight said...

OK, that is a fundamental question - what does the concentration represent? There are two parts:

1. The accumulation of carbon molecules generated by photosynthesis of plants occurring over very long times. The energy is stored in the carbon bonds of the organism's structure.

2. The heat and pressure from geologic forces.

Although these both represent concentration they are not the same function, as only one is due to solar energy accumulated over time. Is there an estimate for what percentage of the energy released when we break those bonds comes from the original solar? If the energy from solar is the significant part, then one could think of the energy in FF in terms of equivalent watt-hrs. That would be

Power X Time X Kf

where Kf is an efficiency factor (probably very low). If you want to do the same thing using solar energy in real time, then the Time variable goes from a very big number to maybe hours or days. How big an increase in input Watts and throughput efficiency can you get to make up for the massive reduction in time?

If the energy in FF comes primarily from geologic forces, then that is a different input source and you cannot equate them in the same way.

BruceMcF said...

LS said... "@JMG: You are too modest by half. Stuart may be technically correct, but (as has been noted in other comments) his article clearly attacks the basic notion that you are trying to get across. That is (as I read it): solar radiation is no substitute for oil when you are trying to power our economy."

OTOH, our economy is unsustainable in multiple dimensions. The fundamental equation of sustainability is ...

sustainable + unsustainable = unsustainable

... so even "fixing" energy sustainability does not get us to sustainable.

On the one hand, our technology has been developed against a background of mining fuel stocks with extremely high NEROI, and so it would be silly to assume that our technology is anything like representative of what industrial technological base would be possible on the basis of the available budgets of modestly high and renewable NEROI energy sources that are available.

On the other hand, when societies have an ecosystem collapse, it is because their institutions drive them to that point, not necessarily because there was no feasible technology that might have allowed the society to avoid the collapse.

BruceMcF said...

@JMG "Bruce, I've been concentrating on solar here for a variety of reasons. Wind is another matter; it's a mature, viable technology that produces modest but respectable net energy, and has been proven to work in non-industrial settings."

An Energy Return on Investment of over 10fold is more than a modest net energy, and the volume of electrical resource from utility grade scale turbines is a sufficient cornerstone for a sustainable, renewable industrial energy portfolio.

After all, it is not as if our current technology is some kind of randomly selected representative sample of the kind of energy requirements for an industrial economy: present technology was developed in the context of consuming exponentially growing amounts of non-renewable fuel stock stockpiles. If current industrial society collapses, it will not be by necessity due to not enough energy available to sustain an industrial economy.

wylde otse said...

Because of the greater volume of comments (hard to believe how many intelligent people have found your blog) I have been quiet for a time.

The solar water/antifreeze collector (70% reduction in home heating - your estimation/figures) has the greatest promise of enery conservation.
The actual electrical energy we need for other applications is relatively minor (other than perhaps electric vehicles).

Your assessment of 'efficiency' regarding 'third-world-like' economies is also well taken in my view. Gandhi was smarter than many people thought. The concerted effort of the writhing multi-national dragons to force Indian farmers from their land will hopefully be repelled.

Taking your advice (now), I am concentrating more on my own preparedness rather than continuing to expend enery and rsources in trying to change the world/system (I hate it when you are far my efforts have resulted in me being abducted by the new Canadian police state - Jan.28.10 - released without charges; money & computer stolen. I am working on a film, "Buffalo Man"...[will be putting first chapter/screen on my blog]...suggesting of a revamping of the Canadian political system. I also am on record saying our prime minister should face charges of war crimes
for knowing complicity in the torture of innocent Afghan detainees.)

Anyway, if I drop out-of-sight, I want to thank you for the gifts. One question we used to ask is who would you want to have coffee with 'on the other side'. (my choices: Voltaire, Howard Fast, Phillip K. Dick.) hey - I've already ' met ' you :o)


Cathy McGuire said...

Since this seems appropriate to the topic - over at Discover Magazine, they have photos of a solar home design contest that was displayed on the DC Mall:

One of the first things I noticed was that none of these houses is very large...okay, it's a temporary "show", but still, it sure looks like they are designed as various commenters here have suggested: small, lots of insulation and using passive solar... but my first thought is: America wouldn't go for those -- too tiny! (They're about the size of my house, BTW). Interesting photos...

Karim said...

Dear JMD,

Please, I do not believe nor implied, nor wrote that if something is useful and desirable, nature will provide. I am not that naive!!!

I only said that to have a source of electricity is nice and good and that it would be better to be able to generate it with locally manufactured equipment. To some extent it can be the case, ingenious people have built from scratch windmills electric generators, even in Mauritius! and it would be good that same can be done via solar thermal. I did not imply that such an endeavour will be successful. It might not. But actually, solar panels together with Sterling engines can generate modest power. Of course the amount of power will not allow us to continue without lifestyles changes, but it might help us have some light at night.

I just wanted to set the record straight and I would like to thank you for the opportunity for doing so!!!

Stephen said...

A pre emptive attack on China out of the blue is unlikely, but if any future lower level conflict does not go Americas way, it will become increasingly tempting. China also presents a growing threat to many over countries besides the USA, if NATO and Russia came to an areement that China needs to be taken out so they can divide up the world between eachover then there would be not problem with becoming a "pariah nation" if the other main nuclear powers had joined together in this action.

xhmko said...

The Chinese have an army that is used to less petroleum, but used to fighting. They are used to being an internal security force and more and more a global security force. But the American military, as reckless as it is, has much more experience. Even when its a majority of youngsters running around with guns, the background of warfare is solid. But that still doesn't amount to much. Because arrogance is a blinker to lateral thinking, and that's one thing in this age of deficits that the Chinese and the US have surplus.

I'm also started to think about which way my own country would go if there were to be a war. Would the Australian government stick with the ANZUS treaty or would they side with the economic powerhouse? I feel like the population would find it difficult to fight against a fellow western nation for racist reasons, but it remains to be seen. Either way, the next twenty years is going to be, well, for want of a better word...interesting.

And just to be finnicky, dim sum is more of a Hong Kong thing but certainly I can see an extraordinary amount of steamed buns, spicy dishes with sichuan pepper and cheap green tea going down in the mess halls of the Chinese camps.

hawlkeye said...

We have neither the time nor resources to change any of the housing codes or zoning requirements, any more than we have the juice to build wild arrays in space for a handy night-light in New York.

All the regulations that determine how we should lawfully live have evolved within the Growth Bubble over the last spike. And as we are beginning to notice, folks are loathe to admit this will pop some day soon, and fewer still recognize it has popped already.

So if you want to catch State water from your roof (yes, my State actually fantasizes it legally owns the rain) or keep some animals in town, or sell extra eggs to your neighbors, or basically live in any shape or fashion the way your ancestors did, there's no way to avoid being a law-breaker. Get used to it!

The fork in the road is this: do we put efforts into re-legitimizing heirloom home economic practices, or do we re-vitalize those practices in the first place, and worry about the illegalities later?

Right now, it's all backwards: the bastions of legitimacy hold the greatest concentrations of crooks, while the common person who seeks to live well outside the suicidal gridlock culture, becomes a criminal by default of doing good works.

It's time for us to discuss with our neighbors all these practical matters; the illegalities and immoralities of modern life, and the dicey distinctions we must make between them, together.

Whether we share a thoughtful brandy or a bubbling bong for that discussion...well hey, that's part of the discussion!

(You science-heads are getting pretty serious; go chop some wood!)

Hairy Tuttle said...


I've been reading all the posts in this blog in chronological order, while also keeping up with the current posts as they arrive. One of the things I've found most valuable about your writing, Mr. Greer, is your conscientious efforts to keep this blog relatively free of arguments which rely on political ideology. You, sir, are a remarkably clear-thinking analyst with a talent for logical reasoning and an uncanny ability to stay focused.

Imagine my surprise when you dropped this criticism of current efforts to reform the health insurance system on the table. I'm not here to debate the issue, but rather to suggest that the issue doesn't belong here. It's too complex to even begin a serious conversation about it without a willingness to at least cover all the major points. For such a discussion to have any real value, it is incumbent on all the participants to back up their claims with relatively objective facts, and to flesh out their opinions with some sort of chain of reasoning.

With all due respect, if you're going to do any of that, you're going to need another blog. As a fan the blog you already have, I'd hate to see you divide your resources that way.

das monde said...

Thermodynamic facts are very clear when we talk about the relation of thermal and mechanical energy. We have then the notion of temperature, Carnot cycles and classical statistical models.

But things are less clear when we have to talk about other kinds of energy. I do not claim that specialists in physics do not really know what they are talking about. But the fact is: there is no good popular explanation of thermodynamics with other kinds of energy. People are just waiving hands with "effective temperature", energy quality, concentration or dissipation.

Somehow thermodynamics is not supposed to be a statistical theory, and involvement of "disorder" is dubious. Schneider-Kay's formulation of the 2nd law is comfortable with evolution of more effective structures to equalize energy gradients. At its core, thermodynamics must explain irreversibility of physical properties.

One interesting quibble in the thermodynamic terminology is definition of exergy as a measure of the maximum capacity of an energy system to perform useful work as it proceeds to equilibrium with its surroundings. What is an objective definition of "useful"?!

Classical thermodynamics recognizes the pull of thermal equilibrium, and describes the extend to which it can be countered (in refrigeration or conversion to mechanical energy). This defines the classical context of "useful work". Heating lies at the bottom of "usefulness" hierarchy, as any kind of energy can by 100% converted to it - or so we are taught.

But Sun radiation is evidently capable of much more - and that's where JMG's conclusion (whatever terminology in between!) that heating is the most efficient application of Sun's energy appears to be wrong. Heating might be "exactly what we need" in many economic activities - but life and economy are characterized by non-heating activities.

The technological problem of "green" energy actually lies here: the technological ways to utilize Suns' energy are too straightforward. We either want to transfer it to heat (and go the old thermodynamic ways), or we have single stage photovoltaic schemes, or we utilize natural consequences of Sun's radiation (like wind or biosphere). One obvious conceptual alternative is to utilize the spectral potential of Sun's photons, like the biosphere does. But this path does not promise straightforward types of proprietary technologies that we are used to. Will there be an ingenious middle path between simple demand-supply solutions and tedious ecology? Or will we have to downgrade our demands for "energy user-end interface" nevertheless?

Apart from spectral consideration, I do not know what other type of quantitative analysis of Sun's energy is possible.

DIYer said...

I'd like to propose an analogy, to perhaps explain this solar energy dynamic of which I (and a couple of others) have spoken. A hydraulic analogy.

In this analogy, we have a reliable reservoir of water at some high elevation. Perhaps from a stream fed by a glacier. But this reservoir is very high above our little village and its flow is very steady. For the time being, we are not going to worry about how the water gets up there, as it has always been so. I am going to consider the water as a source of energy, but for now ignore its other significance to life.

The water flows down to our village through an ancient streambed, carved deeply into the mountain. In fact there is a waterfall which allows it to free fall most of the distance from the reservoir. After it leaves our village, it goes on to the sea below at which point we cease to care about it. The reservoir sits at an altitude of 5500 feet, and sea level is at 4 feet (due to global warming, heh heh). Our village sits at an altitude of 298 feet. Traditionally we have diverted some of the water into a small trough feeding water wheels, which power our village industry from a drop of maybe 50 feet.

Anyway, I would propose that concentrating sunlight with a mirror is analogous to collecting water with a dam. Depending on the height of the dam, we can get water at up to an altitude of 5500 feet, but no higher, since a dam is a passive device. (Since it isn't practical to build such a high dam, we will probably not do so, but in principle we could.) If we use an active device such as a hydraulic ram or a water wheel and pump, we could concievably raise a small amount of water to a higher altitude than 5500 feet, but only by allowing a larger volume of water to flow through the hydraulic ram and out to the sea. But with a dam, we can make use of as much water as we can divert, at the altitude of the dam.

If we collect the 5500-foot water in a lower reservoir at let's say 500 feet, we will have that much less potential energy to utilize. In this analogy, entropy (ΔS) would be the 5000 foot difference in elevation, times the volume (or the weight, really) of water collected at 500 feet (the 5000 feet having been wasted on making running-water noises, eroding the streambed, moving rocks, etc). There's also a lot of entropy in all the water that just splatters off the rocks below the waterfall.

So this is why Carnot efficiency is frequently written as an inequality, where η <= 1 - Tc/Th. You can always let the water fall a little further, and your reservoir can always leak, but you can never get back that which has leaked away.

and stuart.
Go back to your bridge. It doesn't matter if you're right, you are still a troll.

Cathy McGuire said...

Not being a scientist, I was struggling to picture all the stuff you are discussing... but I found this on YouTube:

Solar furnace; the reflected beam can reach temperatures of 3,500 °C (6,330 °F). Shows it melting steel.

Okay - that convinced me!! :-) It helped me to see some of what you're all debating, too -- that's a rather sophisticated set of mirrors!

John Michael Greer said...

Brad, it's very easy to come up with a shopping list of things that "must" be done. The vast majority of them aren't going to be done, though, and at this point I think it's far more useful to concentrate on those things that individuals and families can do themselves.

Bill, I'll let you and sgage hash this one out on your blog.

Twilight, the question is how to work out a way to talk about energy that puts all energy sources on an even footing, so their economics can be discussed in a useful way.

Bruce, my working guess is that it's possible to support a technic society -- that is, a society that gains a significant amount of its energy supply by something other than food calories -- on renewables. An industrial society, though, is one subset of technic societies; the economic and social structures of industrialism depend on "economies of scale" that are only economies because there's a lot of cheap abundant concentrated energy available. So, strictly speaking, I don't think that an industrial society is possible on a renewable basis -- other ways of organizing production of goods and services using scarcer and more diffuse energy flows will need to evolve.

Wylde, I've got a very long list of people I'd want to chat with over a cup of tea; most of them aren't famous, but all are interesting.

Cathy, thanks for the link!

Karim, thanks for the clarification. Of course electricity would be good to have, and I think wind turbines and small scale hydroelectric are good options to pursue for that purpose; radio technology, which is our best bet to maintain some kind of communications capacity over long distance, is one of the things that could be done on fairly modest electrical output.

Stephen, I think you need to ask the waiter for a reality check. Russia these days is China's ally -- they do brigade-level joint military drills -- and I think you'll be in for a bit of a surprise if you think other nations would agree to an unprovoked act of nuclear genocide. Most of them have more to gain if the US implodes than if China does, you know.

Xhmko, exactly. I don't think either side would be a pushover.

Hawlkeye, I'd encourage people to pursue both options; those regulations may turn out to be a good deal more flexible than they look. I'll take the brandy, though; the other stuff never gave me anything but a headache.

Hairy, if you'd actually read your way through my past posts, you'd know perfectly well that I discuss the absurdities of current American political culture quite often. For some reason, during the last couple of months, a flurry of people have come onto this blog's comments page and insisted that I ought to change the way I write the blog to suit their tastes, and my answer to them is always the same: if you don't like the way I write, you know, there are plenty of other blogs you can read instead.

Das Monde, you're playing with multiple definitions of "efficient" when you say I'm wrong to suggest that solar energy can most efficiently be used as heat. Of course other forms of energy would be useful to have; that's not the point. The point is that since you can turn sunlight into heat at close to 100% efficiency, while any other transformation involves very large losses (to heat!), heating is indeed the most efficient use of solar energy.

DIYer, good. The question is whether using mirrors is in fact equivalent to building a dam at a higher elevation, or whether that's a misleading analogy.

hawlkeye said...

"...those regulations may turn out to be a good deal more flexible than they look..."

I wish that were the case, but I remain discouraged to pursue this track. At what level of legislature shall this occur? National and State politics are ruled by status quo and corruption, while local politics, with some bright, minority exceptions, are largely swayed by them as well.

The sheer volume of the statutory body of work is unknowable, except by attorneys (perhaps by design?) with regulations piled upon ordinances until they contradict each other out of common accummulation and anachronism.

The flow of justice is choked like a streambed full of stumps; how long will it take to tweak this massive edifice into something that serves more than enslaves its citizens? Longer than the time we have, imho; the risk of changing a regulation (or regulator) in order to be "legal" is now perhaps greater than the risk of being caught in the first place. I agree with Bill: "'ll just be more of the same gridlock regardless."

Folks are beginning to realize that the power of the laws hinges upon the ability of the PTB's to enforce them. As this ability wanes, in either perception or in fact, so will the need to effect changes within the legal system be dwarfed by the need to heed the digestive system!

The highest court in our land determined a few years ago that life forms can be patented by corporations, who have also now been granted the same rights to "free speech" as other citizens.
This is patently absurd, but now law regardless. When I peer into their faces, I cannot imagine them to be more flexible than they look.

Where then, shall citizens look to remedy the greivous injustices carved into the stone of our non-negotiable lifestyle? To one another, I suspect. To real human beings in our midst, not corporate Beasts or whatever Entity pretends to wear the bio-suit.

I'd prefer not to frame this as an "either/or" situation and figure out a way to find a "both/and". But right now I've got an hour until sunrise; shall I write my congressman or sow some flats of cabbage? Every precious minute's got a choice in front of it.

Ric said...

A couple links that may be useful:

Chinese Academics' Paper on how to create a cascading grid failure in the US:

The student claims it was just an academic exercise to make grids more robust.

Solar power towers are frequently mentioned here. This guy is at least asking the right questions and claims to be very close to parity with the cost of fossil fuel without subsidies:

I have my doubts about long-term operating costs as well as the basic design, but it shouldn't take too long for any flaws to surface.

Edde said...

Good Morning John Michael,

Happy Vernal Equinox.

I understand your posts best when you use plain language, not academic or scientific jargon. I gather from scientists' comments, your points hit more often than miss.

Hawlkeye asked: we put efforts into re-legitimizing heirloom home economic practices, or do we re-vitalize those practices in the first place, and worry about the illegalities later?

My motto: it's better to beg forgiveness than ask for permission. You need to know the rules but a little imagination should help you explain why you did what you did if you get caught. It helps to keep your neighbors on your side, too.

War with China? In '75 after Vietnam forced the US out, it got embroiled in a border war with China. They fought to a stalemate but China did NOT prevail. VN fought on home soil, a powerful motivator, eh.

My guess is that if USA's empire folds from lack of $$$ & popular support, we may avoid direct conflict w/China. "Isolationism" may dominate domestic politics again. Multi-nationals may relocate to Shanghai rather than rely on USA's failed empire - they offshore most everything already.


Daniel A. C. said...

My question is about viable livelihoods for the Long Descent, and not about this particular post, so feel free to answer offlist or not at all, as your time permits.

I am just about finished my apprenticeship in culinary arts, and am realizing that most work in this field amounts to working in the entertainment industry, at least in restaurants, perhaps not in some institutions.

I was wondering if there were any related professions that you think might be more viable? The old nursery rhyme line "the butcher, the baker, and the candle-stick maker" suggests to me maybe food purveyors may have more economic relevance in non-industrial times?

And on that point, while I am writing to someone knowledgable about the Western Mystery Tradition, what do you think about the butcher's trade? I've heard people disagree on this before. I know the Buddha cited it (along with the making of poisons and weapons) as a livelihood to avoid if you are interested in spiritual development. On the other hand, Chuang Tzu describes a master butcher as an exemplar of the Way. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Thanks, and thank you for your writings both on the Long Descent, and on the Western Mysteries, everything that I have read of yours has been a very unique and useful guide to it's respective topic. Cheers.

John Michael Greer said...

Cathy, it can definitely be done; even a good-sized fresnel lens can produce temperatures so high at its focus that if you put your hand there you would draw back a blackened stump. Still, turning that into power that can drive a heat engine economically has proven to be a surprisingly challenging trick.

Hawlkeye, sow the cabbage first, and then sit down to rest and write that letter.

Ric, thanks for the links!

Edde, happy equinox! Of course the US could avoid war by imploding first; the question is which happens soonest. My guess is war.

Daniel, being good with food has generally been a meal ticket in most societies, and there are scores of specific niches in which you might find a good place. As for meat, well, different people have different beliefs. Since I recognize that all living things eat other living things -- even plants send their roots hunting for nutrients from the bodies of dead plants and animals -- I've never seen a point to sentimental vegetarianism, and I'm not one of those people who thrives on an all-vegetable diet. As I see it, I eat cows, pigs, and chickens, among other things, and eventually I will be eaten by worms, bacteria and fungi -- and I hope they enjoy the meal!

tom said...

Hi DIYer, nice work!

And in response to JMG, I'd say that a concentrating mirror *is* like a dam, or at least like a cistern, because the increased temperature increases the efficiency of any heat engine you run off it; though the efficiency remains a small fraction of the efficiency you can achieve by just absorbing the heat to use as heat.

But DIYer, no need for the name-calling; Stuart's not a troll. I've read some interesting articles on his blog; he just likes to take a quantitative approach, which is often a good thing, but sometimes he trips over the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness(tm). The points he raises aren't wrong either, they're just not relevant to this discussion. In this case, I think he mainly missed the point of the recent series of posts.

Danby said...

A good way to assess the viability of a profession in a low-energy economy is to reality-check it against known low-energy economies. Some good ones, classical China, mediaeval Europe, 18th century North America, Pre-British India. If a profession is common in these societies, then it's a good bet it will be needed in a future low-energy world.

A quick survey will reveal that high-quality food will always find a market, whether that is as a private chef to the powerful, innkeeper or restauranteur, or cooking for residents of a dormitory or barracks.

Other good choices would be butcher, baker and alcohol maker, as well as musician, wood worker and artificer.

And good cooks rarely go hungry. I'm not sure how much of your education will apply in a low-energy situation, but a northern winter cooking over a wood stove can make up a lot of ground there.

adkisn said...

JMG and other commentators
I find this discussion on alternative energies to be quite interesting. I have only been reading this site for a few months, but I have been impressed with the quality of the forum discussions. Keep it up. I plan to visit the site more.

I want to dive into this discussion on energy, thermodynamics, etc. I have not thoroughly read all of the comments in this series of posts. But, I find all of them interesting, with some of them spot on, some are quite close and some seem to not necessarily be relevant. I have a lot of technical experience with much of the topics discussed. So, I will try to bring it all together as briefly and as clear to lay reader. I am new to this blog, so I may be weak on the protocol. I hope that I present useful information to most readers. I probably will repeat some quite valid points that have already been made, but I feel I don't have time to check the details of all comments. If I do repeat something, please bear with me. So, here goes!

First, some basic terms: Energy, Work, Power, Force.

Energy and work are interchangeable and both must be included in the laws of Energy Conservation. They are often considered to be the same thing, but I prefer to keep them separate for reasons of semantics. Energy is more related with the starting and ending state conditions of the specific system, while work is more related to the transition between the starting and ending states. Energy differences are sort of the causes and incremental work is sort of the result in this
"cause and effect" system. Energy and work can interchange through many "interconnected systems", but
there must be a starting energy.

Generally speaking, work requires some physical movement to take place. Simply speaking, work is defined as incremental force multiplied by the distance moved.
So, work is mostly associated with mechanical movement, keeping things running at constant speed or changing speed or doing something. But, it takes energy to execute the work and, in turn the energy level also changes.

Force is a high school physics concept. It implies that, if you
apply an adequate Force (related to energy)to a mass,it will move by so much. That is,
Work = Force x Displacement.
But this a very simplistic concept when compared to molecules bouncing around. A potential point of confusion here comes from different forms of this basic work equation. For example, the equation is frequently written as
Work = P x dV
where P is pressure and dV is a difference in volume. Pressure is actually force divided by the cross section area the force is being applied. it

Power (Watts) is actually a measure of the time rate of change of a work or energy system process, how fast or slow energy or work are being converted. So, in a simplistic case, a Power term is multiplied by the Time term to calculate a Work term or an Energy term. Power is often reported as watts or kilowatts or Calories per minute. The energy equivalent is kilowatts times hours or kilowatt-hours (or BTU, calorie or horsepower-hours).

JMG has discussed the quantity and concentration or quality of energy and used 'exergy' in reference to that quality. An interesting debate followed with some folks happy and others unhappy with 'exergy'. The notions of concentrated and diffuse are useful, but I think way to much energy has been used (or should it be expended) debating which words to describe the notions. Concentrated vs diffuse energy are mostly related to two concepts: Power (mainly) and Energy Thresholds. Both high Power and high Energy Thresholds tend to require a more Concentrated energy source.

Oops,I ran over the character limit, so I will post the rest separately.

Tony said...


Somewhat off-topic, and yet on, all at the same time....

I am a planner, by education and profession (also with a degree in physics, so I always enjoy these posts). Because I am a planner, and a member of the American Planning Association (APA), I get Planning magazine monthly. This past issue had an article on "Maryland's Second Generation of Smart Growth" (sic). I am very skeptical of so-called "Smart Growth", as I generally feel it to be an oxymoron. Nevertheless, I try not to be dogmatic about it and concede that particular places can develop, i.e., infill development or improve in some way (say by knocking some buildings down and letting a garden grow!). And the article referenced above is quite glowing on what is presently occurring. It even mentions your adopted home, Cumberland. Since you now live in Maryland, and since I think we can all agree you have a frame of reference quite different from most people, I'd love to have the groundtruth on Maryland's "Second Generation of Smart Growth", from your perspective. Thanks.

das monde said...

JMG, saying that heating is 100% effective transformation of energy is close to saying that shredding is 100% effective handling of a book. You can always get heat, but if you need anything else, you come against the same classical efficiency bounds from there. Can anyone tell here, what are efficiencies of transforming photon spectral energy to something non-thermal?

adkisn said...


What is happening? On my initial effort to send comments on "Energy Concentration Revisited", I was advised that the post exceeded 4096 characters. I used my word processor to cut the original down to two pieces below the 4096 character limit (my word count checker confirmed both pieces were below the limit.) I sent the first piece this AM and recieved a message that it hasd been recieved and would be posted after it was approved.

I also tried to send the second piece, but was advised that it still exceeded the character limit (my word count checker indicated there were 2026 or so charcters).
In any event, I have not seen the first post and your blog seems to keep rejecting the second due to being over the character limit.

I aploogize for sending this note as a posting. But, I seem to be locked out of your blog.

Bill Pulliam said...

adkisn --

There have actually been two separate energy issues discussed, and the difference between them is not just one of terminology. They represent two fundamentally different aspects of an energy source. One can conceivably be overcome by engineering, infrastructure, economics, etc.; the other can't be overcome by anything.

First is concentration/diffuseness. This is the one that can in theory be overcome by just concentrating the sources; in reality it is highly uncertain whether or not this will prove to be practical. The second is energy quality, which is where "exergy" belongs. A portion of any source of energy represents "useless" energy, that part that is tied to entropy. The remaining, usable fraction, is the "exergy" or "free energy." This "useless" fraction of the energy cannot be converted into work or electricity no matter what you do; there is no engineering fix for this. The size of that fraction does depend on the environment in which you attempt to use the energy, so a source that is useless here might be useful on Pluto. But that is not especially helpful. You can use this "useless" energy directly as heat, but you can't use it to do any work. You can have a diffuse, but high quality source, or a concentrated, but low-quality source. The implications of these for the practicalities of using these energy sources are significant. A smart society would use the low-quality ones for heat and the high-quality ones for work; so far we have not proven to be one of these smart societies.

For the utopians -- the reason "zero point" energy can never be used, if it even exists, is that you would need to find someplace colder than absolute zero to drain it away to. Such things may exist on the island in "Lost," but they don't exist in our real world.

adkisn said...

Concentrated energy can create more power more readily than diffuse energy. I can use my 5 HP lawnmower to get me across town eventually, but my supercharged muscle car can get me there much faster. It becomes a question of how fast I get where I am going, and how fast do I convert energy. My lawnmower engine uses the same concentrated fuel energy source, but not as much per minute as my car, so essentially it is more diffuse than the car.

Energy Thresholds play a role in defining the distinction between a concentrated and diffuse energy source. In many energy related circumstances, we find that a minimum energy or power concentration is required to make the whole process work. Below the Energy Threshold, there is not enough driving force to get over an energy hump and activate the system. If the energy source is too diffuse, the system cannot reach that threshold.

What is this fool talking about? It's my lawnmower. I don't really need a concentrated energy source for my lawnmower. But society only offers my car option fuel. So, everything about my lawnmower is structured to conform to the high concentration fuel.

Some examples of other Energy Thresholds are (1) the threshold strike of a match to cause the spark that ignites it, (2) the threshold flame spark to ignite a butane flame (3) the threshold conditions required to make my lawn mower or muscle car fuel ignite and operate my mower properly, (4) the threshold push of my shoulder to move a large boulder, (5) the threshold explosion to activate an atomic bomb.

The technical discussions on solar radiation just seem to be way over the top. I don't think they contribute much to the real issues at hand. I think that discussions about black body radiation and Carnot cycles, etc detract from the heart of the issue. It seems the biggest issue is that the outer boundaries of the Earth are continually bombarded by a relatively constant 1370 watts per square meter of the Earth's cross section area. That's it! NASA measures for the solar power input, the so called solar constant, varies less than 10 percent annually. The radiation is actually a means for energy transfer, not energy per se. The daily dose of solar energy is transmitted by "line of sight" radiation between the radiator and the receiver. Anything that interferes with the line of sight - angles, dust, clouds, absorbing molecules, etc create effective interferences. So, the site location has a major influence on the effective efficiency of a solar or wind generator. Intermittent supply is a big factor.

When we really consider the options, they generally reduce to a solar/lunar (including wind and tide), nuclear, running water or geothermal. Solar/Lunar options tend to be diffuse energies while geothermal and water can trend toward concentrated energies. Nuclear represents very high concentration.

Energy and Matter are the most fundamental concepts of science on this earth. The size and mass of the Earth is fixed. The solar power input is fixed. The hydrocarbon deposits are fixed. The fundamental element and mineral deposits are fixed. But all of these also tend to involve dispersion over areas. The deposits are all over, the clouds are all over - its a crap shoot. But if we put enough resource and energy into it we can convert the dispersed circumstance into a concentrated one. But it requires a lot of energy and power. Where is the break even point?

The bottom line is that this post will not resolve the world energy problems. But I can suggest a possible structure to the resolution. My suggestion is to categorize the various energy consumption regimes based on Power and/or Energy Threshold requirements and develop application strategies that address each category. Allocate diffuse and concentrated energy sources to better meet the various energy needs. I don't necessarily need a concentrated energy for my lawnmower (just a bigger tank), but I need more concentrated energy to supply my blacksmith shop. Don't even ask about my NASCAR entry.

adkisn said...

Wow, there is so much interesting discussions going on. It is great, but so much that I have problems keeping up with all of it.

Bill Pulliam: Your posts are so prolific and interesting. I agree with a lot of your comments and ideas. I hope to read more as time permits.

I read some of your comments about solar radiation, photons and sunlight, and I need to make a few comments. I agree with you that there is not much practical gain talking about the surface of the Sun. Suffice to say the Sun is out there and is radiating energy to our planet, in the form of light or photons. Technically, light is regarded to be electromagnetic energy. But light is actually in that neverland of quantum physics, where light sometimes acts like particles and sometimes acts like energy.

The Sun is where it is, the Earth is where it is and the Sun generates a whole lot of energy which exhibits as the various wavelengths the light exhibits. It may be good that we know these things, but we can't do anything about them.

The energy levels and temperature levels of the Sun determines all of the wavelengths of the emitted light and that electromagnetic (light) energy is beamed as waves in a "line of site" manner based on the concept of black body radiation. Radiation is actually not energy, it is a method of energy transfer. The most important thing about solar radiation is that the Sun continually delivers a relatively constant quantity of energy to the outer atmosphere of Earth. So, I don't think, unless we are Sun researchers,we should worry too much about how the energy gets here, we only need to know that we are receiving about 1400 watts per square meter of cross section area every day. This is 1400 watts of power which measures how fast the energy arrives. Once the solar energy actually arrives, it then becomes a source of energy that can be applied to all sorts of systems. But this energy is only a source, it is not the thermal system or the heat engine. We still have to apply the energy source to our system to get anything out, and this is impacted by how our collectors are designed or arranged.

Strictly speaking, entropy applies to the system in question, not to the energy source. The light does not have any entropy until it is being used in a process system being converted to some other form of energy or work.

I read in several comments about there being no limit to how much energy can be made from sunlight, or some things like that. I think this is dead wrong. There is a very real limit. The limit is 1400 watts per square meter of power every day or about 33600 watt hours per square meter. There are about 127 million square meters of surface, but the solar energy is only available for about one fourth of it, because of rotation. Of course, what can actually be used to collect solar energy depends a lot an latitude and longitude, clouds, rains, dust and heat absorbing gases, etc. So our jobs are cut out for us, but there sure lots of opportunity if we look in the right direction.

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, if you want to equate a mirror with a cistern, I have no trouble with that. The problem with DIYer's dam metaphor is that he had the dam higher than the original water flow; there are entropy issues I'm by no means sure the metaphor reflects.

Danby, good. I tend to use late medieval Europe, colonial America, and Tokugawa-era Japan as test cases, but that's simply because I know a fair amount about them.

Tony, that's a topic for an entire post. Cumberland is also a bit of a special case, because it's an economically depressed town in a historically depressed region -- it's one of the main commercial centers of the central Appalachians -- and there's been no growth of any kind here, smart or stupid, for something like half a century. Still, I want to do a bunch of posts on the prospects of the Rust Belt -- there are some fascinating things happening here these days -- and a discussion of these "smart growth" notions would fit in there.

Adkisn, I screen all posts before putting them through, to keep spam, flamebaiting, and other pathologies of the internet under control. If I'm busy, it may be a bit before your posts go through!

Das Monde, you're doing a fine job of evading the central point of these last few posts, which is that when diffuse energy is most of what we have, it doesn't matter what we want to do with it -- the question is whether what we want to do can be done with enough efficiency to be economically viable. A society running on diffuse energy can want air travel, but it's not going to have air travel; on the other hand, it can have warm houses, hot baths and good brandy. We have to make the transition from thinking we can have whatever we want to recognizing that we may just have to settle for what we can get!

Er, Adkisn, you may want to condense things a little. Those last couple of comments were a bit stream of consciousness.

Ariel55 said...

Dear JMG,
I just loved a quote from "Paths of Wisdom", and I'm all over it:
"Properly used, habit becomes a support for the will, and difficulties which the will alone cannot overcome can quite routinely be passed through by the aid of automatic habit." I wish I had such wisdom!

dltrammel said...

Bill, I wanted to add my compliments for your detailed posts, lol, even if they make my eye's glaze over. I appreciate the effort you put into them.

DIYer said...

You are correct ... one snarky article doesn't make Stuart a troll. His articles over at TOD have always been well thought out.

The problem with DIYer's dam metaphor is that he had the dam higher than the original water flow;

John Michael Greer said...

Ariel, the idea isn't original to me -- actually, very little in that particular book is; it's an attempt to communicate the tradition of thought and practice in which I had nearly all my early training, and I didn't think it was appropriate to put my own ideas into it.

DIYer, that was clumsily put, wasn't it? What I meant to say was that in your metaphor, the village is originally working off the energy of water falling 50 feet, and with the dam, the water is now falling better than 5000 feet. I'm not sure that's at all comparable to what happens when you take sunlight and concentrate it with mirrors -- though, again, I'm not a physicist and would have a hard time quantifying the distinction.

Óskar said...

Another good post by JMG and very interesting discussion. Although the main topic of energy dispersion is interesting to me, I feel more compelled to comment on the side topic of possible war scenarios in the coming years or decades.

It seems to me that while China's enormous US dollar "wealth" can appear to be a reason for them to stay peaceful, it really isn't if you think beyond the fantasy of paper wealth. In raw strategic terms, what matters is access to resources and the ability to convert those resources into goods or weapons through industry.

China currently accesses resources via the US dollar. It trades those dollars for oil and other raw materials, then its industry uses those resources to make consumer goods, which are in turn traded for a greater amount of US dollars, resulting in profit. During the process, some of the surplus of resources gained gets invested into expanding industry and infrastructure in China, among other things of strategic value (e.g. military technology).

In other words, China's industry is busy "making dollars" because dollars are its way to get resources. But what if some other means - war - would offer a greater return of resources per investment? It could turn the factories to making grenades, assault rifles, army uniforms, etc instead of Hello Kitty trinkets and label t-shirts.

This makes me think of the current economic crisis, which is essentially the gradual breakdown of our current system of tracking wealth. China currently accesses its resources by peaceful participation in this system. If it breaks down to the point of not serving China's needs, they'll need to find a new way. Of course that does not automatically mean war, it could mean some new and reformed economic system.

If and when China makes aggressive moves, it would really be setting out to remake the world economic order entirely. Would total war automatically result? I imagine the battleground could just as well be the "resource colonies" in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, with local proxy armies fighting it out on behalf of the superpowers, Cold War style.

Where would the US's Asian allies, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, stand in such a conflict? What might happen in the Middle East, and consequently to Israel?

Pepito said...

thought I'd send you this link. I don't fully understand it, but your knowledge of physics is greater than mine.

The point is that scientists seem to have discovered a point where the laws of physics didn't apply. It is possible that our understanding is not as good as they think it is.

Hope is important to me I guess!

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I have refined my ideas regarding stocks, flows, and cost somewhat.

The confusion around comparing a lump of coal to an area of sunlight comes from the rate at which we harvest them. Sunlight is a flow and coal appears to be a flow because we produce it at a predictable rate. Drawing down a stock and consuming it at a given rate acts like a flow in the same way drawing upon savings or lines of credit acts like income. The two are nor really comparable because stocks are finite and flows are perpetual, but in the short run the semblance fools us.

But, since we are in a short run kind of world at present, a comparison of drawing down a stock at a given rate and a flow is required. For energy, we can do this with ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested)

This is where the diffuse vs concentrated debate enters. The ERoEI of mining fossil fuels begins at an incredible 100:1 which simply cannot be matched by the less concentrated renewable resources. Consequently, renewables are not economically viable. But as the ERoEI of fossil fuel extractions falls renewables become increasingly viable.

After we reach the point where renewables have a better ERoEI than FF then renewables will become economically viable. But since FF started as a better deal then renewables society will require some recalibration to adjust and that is where the problem lies.

From a strictly academic point of view one can do anything with a slightly positive energy source that can be done with a massively positive one, be it hot water on a daily basis or saving up biodiesel for transcontinental flights every other year. But, from a practical perspective, the time cost imposes economic limitations.

Borek said...

BTW, what about the most concentrated form of energy: the matter itself. What would change, if we had some way of harnessing that energy (say, workable thermonuclear fusion or even some more exotic process)?

das monde said...

JMG, it is not me that is on the defensive/evasive end of this discussion. Your judgment is clear, and I don't particularly argue with it. But, with all respect, you make some doubtful thermodynamic reasoning that is bringing you only so far.

Bill Totten said...

John, this is from a member of a list I post to. Any comments?

Date: Wed, 24 Mar 2010 13:07:42 -0400
Subject: Re: Energy Concentration Revisited

...All well and good, i.e. re considerations of diffuse vs concentrated energy sources...However, there is the little matter of new ideas, new technologies and economies of scale. As such, teams of scientists in both Europe and the US have not only worked out viable schemes for generatingvirtually all of the their respective continent's energy needs, but have proposed immediate engineering schedules to implement them.

The following are excerpts from Scientific American, Jan. 2008, "A SolarGrand Plan":

"Solar energy's potential is off the chart. The energy in sunlight striking the earth for 40 minutes is equivalent to global energy consumption for a year. The US is lucky to be endowed with a vast resource; at least 250,000 square miles of land in the Southwest alone are suitable for constructing solar power plants, and that land receives more than 4,500 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) of solar radiation per year. Converting 2.5% of that radiation into electricity would match the nation's total energy consumption for 2006."

"...Solar plants consume little or no fuel, saving billions of dollars year after year. The infrastructure would displace 300 large coal-fired power plants and 300 more large natural gas plants and all the fuels they consume. The plan would effectively eliminate all imported oil, fundamentally cutting the US trade deficit and easing political tension in the Middle East and elsewhere. Because the solar technologies are almost pollution free, the plan wold aslo reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 1.7 billion tons a year, and another 1.9 billion tons from gasoline vehicles would be displaced by plug-in hybrids refueled by the solar power grid. In 2050 US carbon dioxide emissioins would be 62% below 2005 levels putting a major brake on global warming."

"....Studies by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., show that more than enough land in the Southwest is available without requiring use of environmentally sensitive areas, populatioin centers or difficult terrain."

"....Compressed air storage has emerged as a successful alternative. Electricity from photovoltaic plants compresses air and pumps it into vacant underground caverns, aquifers and depleted natural gas wells. The pressurized air is released on demand to turn a turbine that generates electricity, aided by burning small amounts of natural gas....Studies by....indicate that the cost of compressed-air energy storage today is about half of lead-acid batteries...."

"...Another technology that supply perhaps on fifth of the solar energy in our vision is known as concentrated solar power. In this design, long, metallic mirrors focus sunlight onto a pipe filled with fluid, heating the fluid like a huge magnifying glass might...For energy storage, the pipes
(To be continued to next comment)

Bill Totten said...

(Continued from previous post)

run into a large insulated tank filled with molten salt, which retains the heat efficiently. Heat is extracted at night creating steam..."

"....Existing plants prove that concenrated solar power is practical, but costs must decrease. Economies of scale and continued research would help. In 2006 a report by...concluded that concentrated solar power could provide electricity at 10 cents per kWh or less by 2015 if 4 GW plants were constructed. Finding ways to boost the temperature of heat exchanger fluids would raise operating efficiences..."

"....The existing system of alternating current power lines is not robust wnouth to carry power from these centers to consumers everywhere and would lose too much energy over long hauls. A new high-voltage, direct-current (HVDC) power transmission backbone would have to be built......HVDC lines lose far less energy than AC lines do over equivalent spans. The backbone would radiate from the Southwest toward the nation's borders...DC lines are cheaper to build and require less land area than equivalent AC lines."

"...In extending our model to 2050, we have been conservative....In this scenario, by 2050, solar power plants will supply 69% of US electricity needs and 35% of total US energy......Some 3 million new domestic jobs...would be created which is several times the number of jobs that would be lost in the then dwindling fossil-fuel industries."

"...Ironically, the solar grand plan would lower energy consumption....This unusual offset arises because a good deal of energy is consumed to extract and process fossil fuels, and more is wasted in burning them and controlling their emissions."

"...In 2100 this renewable portfolio could generate 100% of all US electricity and more than 90% of total US energy. In the spring and summer, the solar infrastructure would produce enough hydrogen to meet more than 90% of all transportation fuel demand.....Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced 92% below 2005 levels."

"....Perhaps the biggest question is how to pay for the $420 billion overhaul of the nation's energy infrastructure" [Transcriber's note: Hardly. Given the recent bailout of Wall St. and the banks to the tune of trillions within a span of months, the shelling out of a few hundred billion over decades is patently miniscule..not to mention potential diversions of small fractions of the military budget etc.

"....Other countries have reached similar conclusions: Japan is already building a large subsidized infrastructure, and Germany has embarked on a nationwide program. Although the investment is high, it is important to remember that the energy source, sunlight, is free. There are no annual fuel or pollution-control costs like those for coal, oil or nuclear power.."

"...The greatest obstacle to implementing [such a system] is not technology or money, however. It is the lack of public awareness that solar power is a practical alternative - and one that can fuel transportation as well."


Bill Totten said...

John, this also is from a member of a list I post to. Any comments? Bill

Begin forwarded message:

Date: Wed, 24 Mar 2010 13:27:21 -0400
Subject: Re: Energy Concentration Revisited - addendum

..I should have added:

The mix included in the 'renewable portfolio' is as follows:

"....2.9 terawatts (TW) of photovoltaic power going directly to the grid and another 7.5 TW dedicated to compressed-air storage. 2.3 TW of concentrated solar power plants; and 1.3 TW of distributed photovoltaic installations. Supply would be rounded out with 1 TW of wind farms, 0.2 TW of geothermal power plants and 0.25 TW of biomass-based production for fuels. The model includes 0.5 TW of geothermal heat pumps for direct building heating and cooling. The solar systems would require 165,000 sq. miles of land, still less than the suitable available area in the Southwest."

Brad K. said...

What strikes me is that international tensions seem moderately high, and unlikely to diminish soon.

"A new high-voltage, direct-current (HVDC) power transmission backbone would have to be built." Bill's point about building out a new energy infrastructure strikes me as providing crucial strategic choke points, a vulnerability we saw in WWII, where railroad tracks, bridges, and seaports provided opportunities to severely hamper the opponent.

Today we maintain heightened security at generation plants and major facilities, but there is a lot of redundancy (and energy loss) in the "grid" approach, that reduces strategic vulnerability.

I think this point will need to be considered to avoid depredations.