Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Trouble With Vaporware

Observers of the mechanics of decline and fall found plenty to keep them occupied over the last week. As I write these words, bombs are falling in Libya as the Western powers hurriedly resort to military force; Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi’s moves toward selling his oil and natural gas to China and India rather than the European nations that have received most of it to date probably explains this abrupt and almost panicked change in tactics.

Meanwhile, the immediate human impact of Japan’s devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami seems to be ebbing. The Japanese military and rescue teams from a hundred other countries have succeeded in bulldozing open transport routes into the stricken Tohoku region, and food and emergency supplies are beginning to reach the survivors. Still, at least two other dimensions of the crisis are still ongoing, and show every sign of getting worse before they get better.

The first of these is the economic impact of a disaster that leveled one of Japan’s major industrial regions. In a global economy geared to extreme specialization and just-in-time delivery, the sudden destruction of scores of factories, chemical plants, warehouses, and shipping facilities is a body blow with potentially wide-ranging effects. One GM plant in the United States has already been forced to shut down because a Japanese factory that was once a crucial part of its supply chain suddenly turned into a heap of salt-stained debris. Over the months ahead, as products already shipped reach their destinations and the details of the disaster become clearer, we will get to see just how thoroughly the proponents of global economic integration got their wish. The possibility that more factories shut down, more jobs are lost, and some consumer goods are in very short supply for months thereafter can’t be dismissed out of hand.

The second ongoing aspect of the crisis, of course, is the Fukushima nuclear disaster. More than a week on, the situation at the crippled plant remains dangerously unstable. Emergency crews on the scene are putting their lives on the line to keep three partially melted reactor cores and two critically damaged fuel rod storage tanks from overheating; so far, they’ve succeeded well enough that leaks of radiation and high-level nuclear waste have been sporadic, but the struggle’s not over yet. Even in the best case scenario, the utility that owns the plant has just had a very expensive and profitable facility turn into a heap of smoldering radioactive junk, and the ensuing financial meltdown may do as much damage to the nuclear power industry as an actual core meltdown at the plant.

Last week’s post here commented on the ways that proponents of nuclear power have tried to put their spin onto a situation that seems to be taking a perverse pleasure in frustrating them. One of their tactics seems to have shifted into overdrive over the last week: the insistence that even though all past and nuclear technologies have turned out to be far less safe and spectacularly more expensive than their promoters claimed at the time, future nuclear technologies not yet off the drawing boards will surely be safe, clean, cheap, and reliable sources of energy. Those of my readers who know their way around the software industry have heard this kind of song and dance before, often enough so that there’s a useful term for it among computer geeks: vaporware.

The mass production of vaporware in the energy field is hardly limited to the nuclear industry’s shills and unpaid fans, to be sure. Connoisseurs of the absurd will remember the flurry of optimistic claims about algal biodiesel released a couple of years ago by GreenTech, which got plenty of money from venture capitalists until an outside analysis showed that their process wouldn’t make a profit until the price of diesel fuel broke $800 a barrel. Still, for some reason nuclear power seems to attract an uncommon number of vaporware schemes. Whether it’s liquid sodium or lead-bismuth reactors, fourth generation this or modular that – and let’s not forget the fusion advocates, still chasing a phantom that has hovered twenty years in the future since before I was born – bring up energy issues online and you’re sure to get somebody making grand claims about some kind of nuclear vaporware.

There are at least three good reasons to ignore them. The first is that every generation of nuclear technology has been sold with exactly the same sales pitch – those of my readers who recall the Eisenhower administration will remember how, back then, publicists for the industry insisted that clean, safe nuclear power would soon make electricity too cheap to meter – and it’s turned out to be wrong every single time. There’s no reason whatsoever to think that the current crop of publicity releases will be any more accurate. It’s easy to make a technology look good if it doesn’t exist yet, and the inevitable technical problems have not been faced, but after this many rounds of grand and unfulfilled promises, it’s arguably time to roll our eyes and walk away.

The second is that building more nuclear power plants, of any kind, is far from the most cost-effective way to deal with shortfalls in energy here in the United States. Nuclear advocates have made much of claims that the only alternative to more nukes is burning coal, but there’s a much simpler, saner, and cheaper alternative: conservation. The sort of cheap and simple conservation retrofits we’ve been discussing in this blog for the last few months can cut home energy consumption by 20% or more. Such measures were at the heart of the industrial world’s successful response to the energy crisis of the 1970s, and the fact that they’re ignored by all nearly all sides in today’s energy debates – including too many supposed environmentalists – does not speak highly of the collective intelligence of our time.

It’s worth noting, for example, that for the amount of money it would take to replace the 23 US nuclear reactors that have the same flawed design as the ones at the Fukushima Daiichi plant – $276 billion, at an estimated average total cost of $12 billion per reactor – we could give every one of the 130 million homes, apartments, and condominiums in the United States a $2000 conservation retrofit, including caulking, weatherstripping, insulation, and the like, with room in the budget to spare. That would save more power than those nukes would generate, and do it with no fuel costs, no security threats, no radioactive waste, no risk of catastrophic meltdowns, and an annual maintenance budget per home equal to a couple of takeout pizzas.

A comparable option, a little more costly per housing unit but with similar paybacks, would involve getting solar water heaters on the roofs of America’s houses, apartments and condominiums, and commercial and industrial facilities. I’ve discussed solar water heating in these essays several times already. It’s arguably the most thoroughly developed renewable technology we’ve got; a century ago, solar water heaters were standard in American housing across the Sun Belt, and only the brief heyday of cheap fossil fuel energy squeezed them out of the market. It’s high time we put them back to work.

There are three basic types of solar water heater: batch, passive thermosiphon, and closed-loop active. Batch heaters are the simplest and most robust of all; they can be made and installed by an ordinarily competent handyperson for less than $1000 a piece. They consist of a tank, painted black, in a box with glass walls facing the sun and insulation everywhere else. The simple version is operated by hand: in the morning, as long as the weather is above freezing, you fill the tank by turning a tap; later in the day – the interval varies depending on location, size of tank, and intensity of sunlight – you have a tank of hot water that you can use in all the usual ways.

You can also feed a batch heater into your regular hot water system, but there are more effective ways to use solar energy if this is your plan. The reason I mention batch heaters here at all is that, as the simplest and cheapest solar water heating system, they’re probably the one that will be standard a century or two from now, when the end of the age of fossil fuels has broken our descendants of the bad habit of thinking that they have a right to expect energy when, where, and how they want it. Afternoon laundry and evening baths may well be standard in that age, though it’s by no means impossible that they’ll also pick up the trick of running water through pipes in the back of a woodstove when it’s fired up, and use the two systems jointly to keep hot water ready on tap. (We’ll be discussing that, and the possibilities and problems with wood stoves, in a later post.)

Still, for the time being, those of my readers who like hot water throughout the day have other options. If you live in a part of the world that doesn’t get freezing temperatures in the winter, a passive thermosiphoning system is usually your best bet. This has a set of panels through which water flows, and a well-insulated tank located above the panels, so that hot water rises from the panels into the tank, and cooling water cycles from the tank back down to the panels. The tank connects to your regular water heater, which thus has a lot less heating to do – when the sun is out, in a well-designed system, none at all.

In areas that freeze in the winter, the standard approach is an closed loop active system that uses something other than plain water to take heat from the panels and circulate it into the tank. Various antifreeze solutions are standard; they go from the panel to a heat exchanger in a well-insulated tank, and a small electric pump (which can be powered by a photovoltaic panel) keeps the fluid moving. Once again, heat goes from the panels to the insulated tank, hot water from the insulated tank goes into the regular water heater, and keeps it from having to work hard or, under good conditions, at all.

On average, a thermosiphon or closed loop system will provide you with 70% of your hot water free of charge, though that figure varies significantly by location; in Sun Belt locations with plenty of clear skies, it tends close to 100%. Since water heating accounts for around 15% of the average household energy bill, a solar water heater in an average location will account for around 10% of your home energy. The cost for systems of this kind varies widely depending on the details of the system, the orientation of your house toward the sun, and the ease with which pipes can get from the solar system to your ordinary hot water system, but $4000 is a good ballpark for a passive thermosiphon system and $8000 for a closed loop active system. It’s a noticeable upfront cost, to be sure, but here again it’s worth remembering that there are no additional fuel costs for as long as the sun is well stocked with hydrogen.

There are probably other ways to heat water using the sun that haven’t been invented yet, but the three I’ve just mentioned have a major advantage: they represent mature technologies, with strengths and drawbacks that have been tested thoroughly in practice. To put it another way, they’re the opposite of vaporware; when you install a solar water heating system, you know exactly what you’re getting into, and though it can sometimes be necessary to correct for the pitches of overenthusiastic salespeople, most of the firms that install solar hot water systems these days have been around for decades and have learned, as most small businesses learn, that satisfied customers are the advertising that matters. You can also look up the performance of the available models in a variety of independent sources, go fishing for complaints on the internet, and do everything else you would normally do when assessing a piece of technology for your home.

You can’t do that with vaporware. If someone came knocking on your door and offered you a chance to buy an exciting new water heater using advanced technology, you’d probably want to know how well it worked in practice, and if the salesman wanted a dizzyingly high price up front for a heater that had never been built or tested, was ultimately nothing more than an appealing concept, and wouldn’t be ready for decades, I doubt, dear reader, that you’d go running for your checkbook. This is what the proponents of untested new nuclear technologies are doing, and once again, it’s worth recalling that the sales pitches they’re repeating right now are the same ones that were used to justify building the reactors at Fukushima.

That points up the third and, to my mind, conclusive reason to ignore the promoters of nuclear vaporware: we don’t have the time to spare. Peak oil is already here, peak coal and natural gas are a good deal closer than the cornucopian assumptions of previous decades liked to admit, and peak fissionable uranium – the fuel for our existing reactors – is not far off either. We can’t afford to take the risks involved in pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into untried nuclear concepts that may prove to be as unworkable as fusion or as fatally flawed as the Fukushima reactors, and in the very best case won’t produce a watt of power for decades to come. A realistic approach to the looming energy crisis of our time, rather, will have to depend on existing technology, and especially on mature and thoroughly tested technologies that have proven themselves to be safe, effective, compatible with existing systems, and capable of meeting genuine human needs. Those technologies exist; they won’t enable us to continue to waste energy with the unthinking carelessness that most Americans have somehow come to think of as one of their inalienable rights; but they do offer a realistic way of providing a viable, comfortable, and humane existence as we extract ourselves from the tight corner into which the vaporware salesmen of the past have wedged us.


Once again, the starting point for green wizards interested in solar water heating is the Master Conserver papers available online at the Cultural Conservers Foundation website; the papers you want are those on passive solar water heating and active solar water heating. There have been some useful improvements introduced since these were published, but they still provide an excellent introduction to the basics of the technology.

Readers interested in building batch systems should find a copy of Daniel K. Reif’s classic Passive Solar Water Heaters; which provides plenty of information and detailed plans for two systems. David A. Bainbridge’s The Integral Passive Solar Water Heater Book is a good sourcebook for the range of batch designs in use or under development in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Passive thermosiphon and closed loop active systems are beyond the reach of all but a very few home workshops; if you want to go this route and have the funds, your best bet is to talk to a professional. There are solar energy companies in every region of the United States and a good many countries abroad that can set you up with a system suited to your location.


risa said...

We have a batch heater. We put a pallet on the south side of the well house, rolled a scrap hot water heater onto it, peeled off half the outer jacket, painted the exposed half of the tank black, built a frame around it, packed insulation around it, connected a washing-machine hose to wellhead pipes and the inlet pipe and added a spigot to the outlet pipe, cracked the bleed valve, filled the tank, set a window on the frame, facing the sun, and connected the spigot to the household hot water heater's inlet pipe via a heat-resistant contractor's hose (after MELTING a garden hose). It makes a decent pre-heater and all we paid for was the hose and spigot. This year we will add a brass Y adapter and build an outdoor shower -- away from the well.

Richard S said...

I can vouch for the passive thermosiphon type water heaters. I live at about the 1300 foot elevation on Hawaii Island and the house I live has one. Typically at this elevation, I have about 4 or 5 hours of sunlight per day hitting the panels (cloudy otherwise), and in the past year I have not had to use the inline instant water heater at all. I've just left it turned off, and have never had a shortage of hot water. If I get a day or two without it clouding up, the water can reach 155 degrees at the tap in the kitchen.

Jason Heppenstall said...

I've gotta say, I always look forward to waking up on Thursday morning and reading your latest post - a rare blast of sanity. Thanks!

I was correspondingly unsettled the other day reading the latest from George Monbiot - a British environmentalist who I have, until now, admired greatly. With his latest post 'How the Fukushima disaster taught me to stop worrying and embrace nuclear power' I had to conclude that he has lost his marbles. His argument seems to be the old binary one of 'if we can't have coal we must have nuclear' with the added threat that without either widespread famine and environmental destruction will ensue.

I'm increasingly beginning to think that we humans, taken as a whole, are simply unable to grasp anything more concept than a binary either/or situation. Any attempt at explaining something with even the slightest degree of complexity will be met with blank looks by a majority - the concept of peak oil being a good example.

People can relate to running out of something (in this case oil) but introduce another degree of complexity e.g. the grade of the oil or the idea that there will be a gradual run-down with rising prices, and people simply don't want to hear it.

Hence we blunder from one crisis to the next while the gauge on our collective fuel tank creeps closer to the red area. Which is precisely why I'm taking me and my family off to live in the countryside and raise chickens!

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Why, here's some vaporware I was reading about from Ambrose only this week:

"Safe nuclear does exist, and China is leading the way with thorium."

Dan Olner said...

"Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi’s moves toward selling his oil and natural gas to China and India rather than the European nations that have received most of it to date probably explains this abrupt and almost panicked change in tactics."

If western powers wanted to stabilise oil production they should have let Gaddafi massacre his people. His government had already assured their Western investors their contracts were all good, and the main effect of the attack is to worry the markets about what's going to happen to the rest of the region. See e.g. this.

Paul said...

The plant is Fukushima, John, not 'Fukuyama', as you state in your first reference to it. Though as Freudian slips go it's probably quite an appropriate one ;-)

tom rainboro said...

Is it unusual to have boilers on the back of solid fuel stoves in the U.S.?

Jason said...

I know you're not a fan of Francis Fukuyama, JMG, but renaming the Fukushima plant in his honour may be going too far!

sofistek said...

For the most part, an excellent post, as usual, and highly relevant to some on-line discussions I've been having.

However, there is a slight tang of mixed messages here, simply because of one line. You mentioned about solar box heaters probably being a standard in a century or two, after the age of fossil fuels. Did you mean that the next couple of centuries might still be regarded as part of that age, even though we will probably reach peak production of most fossil fuels within a few decades, or that it will simply take that long for those who survive to figure out that these low tech solutions are very valuable?

trippticket said...

How very un-American, this behavioral innovation you promote! I love it. Another great piece, sir. I've heard it said that Americans could cut 80% of the their energy use without any major lifestyle hit. No nukes necessary. Keep selling it!

DIYer said...

Ahh, but we've come so far since the alchemist looking for an immutable solid to make a container for his universal solvent.

We now have nuclear reactors producing neutron fluxes, which can transmute every element except ... nevermind.

Robert Magill said...

My own doomster sentiments echo those of Jim Kunstler, Mike Ruppert, JMG and others. I have written extensively about the fix we are in: started and reluctantly abandoned a Post Carbon Community in British Columbia; a typical doomer's endless drill.
Never, until just recently, have I read or heard anyone who knows full well what is happening and who is not the least bit pollyanna-ish, offer a realistic dollop of hope.
I urge everyone to check out this article by Johann Hari (writes for The Independent, Huff Po, NYT etc.) at . The URL tells the lede. Inspiring!

DaShui said...

I used to go out and stay in the Gobi with some Uighur Turks. They had a system of ducts that transfered the heat from cooking to a small raised wooden platform that everybody slept on. I noticed old houses in Korea have the same thing. However you have to be careful not to catch the house on fire.
On an unrelated note,but I think you like this sort of thing, next to my house there is a small Vietnamese Buddhist temple. I go over and train with the abbot, he told me that Buddhist prophesy predicts that around 100 years from now life will be much more nasty, brutal and short than today.

kreamer said...

When you say "Fukuyama" I presume you mean Fukushima?

Glenn said...

I know it's a subset under active loop systems, but drainback systems deserve a mention. They're usefull in a climate that freezes occaisionally, but not heavily, and the working fluid, water, is non-toxic and readily available. They're ideal for most of the West Coast from Northern California to Maritime Alaska; though less so in the Northern Ranges as direct sunlight VS diffused through overcast makes a _huge_ difference. We burn wood in the winter at any rate...

Marrowstone Island

James m Dakin said...

Please note that peak coal has already passed ( 1999 ). If you go by energy return, or Peak BTU Coal. We have plenty left, but mostly low energy.

David Cognito said...

Good analysis. The nuke industry has always been a smokescreen of vaporware to hide the unreliable, expensive, potentially catastrophic machines that they produce.

It's amazing how many techno-fantasists are fooled by it.

We don't need nukes. We have all the clean, safe renewable energy technology that we need right now. It just needs deploying. Let's get on with it while we still have fossil reserves to do it and a liveable climate to go with it.

GHung said...

Thanks, JMG, you're getting into the heart of things we've been doing for some time at our place. A testament to our success is our late winter (non-solar)external energy input requirements: zero, except for a bit of propane for cooking. We haven't fired the woodstove since late Febuary; great insulation, thermal mass and passive solar have kept our home comfortable despite lows in the thirties F and several nights well below freezing. PV and active solar water heating have done well this spring.

Our solar water heating system is a variant of the closed-loop active system mentioned in this post: active open-loop system known as a "drainback" system, suitable for more moderate climates. The heart of the system is a 450 gallon plastic tank, well insulated, which stores heat produced by solar and the woodstove. Water is pumped directly from the tank to the solar water heaters and flows back to the tank. When the system is off, the water flows backwards through the pump back to the tank, fully draining the outside part of the system. This is the simplest active (pump-driven) system. The same water in the tank is used by our radiant floor system. Copper tubing coils (heat exchangers) in the tank provide DHW. I'll wait for next week's post to discuss the woodstove input which heats the water in the tank directly as well.

While 'active' systems require small pumps and electricity, we've found this settup to be a good balance between the efficiency of more complex closed-loop systems and fully passive systems. We use no antifreeze in the system and all pumps are solar driven. We keep a couple of spare pumps and control components on hand JIC, though we haven't needed to replace these components in ~10 years of operation. Note: All of our pumps and controls are AC, powered from our main PV system; goes to access, cost and standardization (we use the same model of pump to do all of these chores, same sensors and controllers). Note 2: The wood heated system is designed to thermosyphon in case of power loss or component breakdown.

A good article on drainback hot water systems here:

Richard Larson said...

I have been a fence sitter in regards to nuclear energy. The promise of cheap electricity with minimal environmental cost is appealing, sucking in the marketing the waste can be properly handled.

Well, the event in Japan has prompted more study and now I have changed my mind.

Good information on the solar water heating message. Here in the north, the closed loop/heat exchanger is necessary for a full time year round system. I have to add, those pressurized solar loop systems must be designed to heat less than a 100 percent on the hottest sunniest days lest the system overheats. Now, overheating by itself is not a danger, but repeated events will lead to failure. Just so you know, design the system for the hottest month of the year and accept there will be lower production during the cloudy cold months.

One design that can overcome this is termed a drainback system. A differential controller measures the temperature of the water in the storage tank and the temp at the collectors. When the temperature difference is , say 15 degrees hotter at the collectors, the pump is activated circulating the propylene glycol solution transferring heat from the collectors to the water storage tank through the heat exchanger.

Now, this system can be designed to produce much more heat than the pressurized system because once the water in the storage tank reaches 160 degrees, the pump is deactivated, and the fluid is allowed to drain out of the collectors and into a small tank, in the solar loop, located just above the pump, safely indoors, shutting off the heat transfer.

If one has the money, this system can be designed to heat the whole house, and with the proper storage mechanism, transfer enough summer heat to a well insulated properly sealed house through the winter.

Oh, and 8 thousand is light. I would add on 25 to 33 percent to that. Add more for a drainback. Retrofitting requires more up front designing and the resulting higher labor costs taking into account the twists and turns needed to negotiate what is already in place. Maybe 8 grand installing before the sheet rock goes on a new house.

Oh, the rule of thumb for a pressurized is one square foot of collector to one gallon of water storage. The average American uses 20 gallons per day. A druid may use less. said...

When I was still working as a paramedic, I transported a contractor who specialized in green building. He told me his hot water system was a large amount of copper tubing coiled on the roof of his house; the hot water heater was merely a holding tank for the hot water. He said that often in the summer the water would need to be circulated into the hot water tank to cool down because it was boiling. I have seriously considered hiring an out of work plumber to do something like that here at our homestead.

douglas.harvey said...

The trouble with pejoratives is that they can blind one to alternative paradigms.

You won't even have to buy the book as I have. Just read a summary here or download the pdf.

Ian said...

@DaShui there are grat designs online of the traditional Korean system. Also the Roman hypocaust system is essentially the same. It's not that ancient societies were smarter than we are, but the motivation of expensive resources is a marvelous thing. I can't wait to see what innovations we come up with when we have reason too. I'd like to think we'd start now out of ethics and self-preservation, but I don't know any society that's been much better than they had to be, unfortunately.

brad clements said...

Here's a site with plans to build your own solar water heaters as low as $1K

sofistek said...

Robert Magill,

I'm not sure that stories of camaraderie after natural or human driven disasters apply to a long drawn out disaster, a Long Decline. When the devastation is immediate and everyone is put in the same boat together, that seems to be a different situation than a slowly eroding society where an increasing number of people are put on the scrapheap and an increasing number of taken for granted activities are just not possible.

If the collapse happens overnight or over a few weeks, then you might have a point. When it happens over years, decades and, even, centuries, that is an entirely different matter, in my opinion.

bjchip said...

The replacement of nuclear plants in the US through conservation measures is not a solution to the real problem.

The REAL problem is replacing fossil fueled thermal with ANYTHING else.

This is made worse by the vastly more effective "fracking" techniques being deployed against US Shale Oil reserves and the plummeting price of natural gas.

The Global Warming problem dwarfs all nuclear waste and safety issues, and there STILL isn't a price signal attached to the changes to the atmosphere burning fossil fuels.

I have a two sentence summation of the nuclear power issue.

Nuclear Power can be done safely or it can be done for profit.

There is no "and" in the preceding sentence.

The problem for our species is too large to be solved by any one strategy.

Conservation and cutting back is VERY important. However, we need to pursue all our options if we intend to preserve some form of civilization and the knowledge that we have gained in these "rich" years.


GHung said...

Responding to douglas.harvey:

I'm a former US Navy nuclear trained engineer who slept within 40 feet of a reactor core for several years. I've chosen a different, more benign path that includes lowering my expectations of technology and leaving a more liveable world for those who may come. Our home (excepting some unavoidable embodied materials, a bit of propane and fuel for chainsaws, tiller, etc.) uses no electricity derived from nuclear, coal, or other fossil fuels. We live well, are far from wealthy, and have no ambitions that would involve depriving future generations (human and GLCs) of a fair shot at their evolutionary role. Our current society makes it tough.

On nuclear power, Stoneleigh, on the 13th said it very well:

"In my view, nuclear power represents an unjustified faith in the power of human societies to control extremely complex technologies over the very long term. Any activity requiring a great deal of complex and cooperative control will do badly in difficult economic times.

Also, no human society has ever lasted for as long as nuclear waste must be looked after. It needs to be held in pools on site for perhaps a hundred years in order to cool down enough for permanent disposal, assuming a form of permanent disposal could be conceived of, approved and developed. During this period, the knowledge as to how this must be done will need to be maintained, and this may be more difficult than is currently supposed."

I highly recommend the article for those who haven't read it.

The nuclear waste problem is not being dealt with; Obama's 2011 budget totally eliminates funding for the Civilian Nuclear Waste program. Zilch! Yucca Mountain is now a museum with guided tours (not that it was a good idea). This is a death legacy that will last for millenia. Expecting that humans will be stewards of this mess for thousands of years, passing along this monument to our selfish consumption, is an ongoing crime against life and I will never be a willing participant. None of the technucopian 'pejoratives' against my position have convinced me otherwise. My distrust of my own species is that complete, and well supported.

Some think that increased adoption of nuclear power will reduce our use of carbon producing energy sources. Bunk. I agree with Jevons; humans will burn anything and everything they can to improve their lot, support their greed and increase their population ... until they can't. I have no misplaced faith that the majority of our species will do otherwise. The long decline is underway and I reject any suggestion that it can be stopped. One can only hope that there will be something left for those that come out on the other side. That's why I frequent this blog; there are appropriate technologies that must be passed along to those willing to learn.

[gets off stump, goes for a beer]

Don Plummer said...

We all know that the reason the billions won't be diverted from nuclear development into such simple solutions as caulk, weatherstripping, and insulation is that there's no profit in it for the people who stand to benefit from nuclear and/or unproven alternative energy development will keep the politicians they control with campaign money from even considering it. It's the same reason we're still building highways instead of investing in restoring passenger rail and public transit.

Conservation simply has no political traction, especially--and ironically--among those politicians who call themselves 'conservatives.'

Jeff Z said...

I was surprised to find that in Nepal, solar heat is the standard method of water heating, at least in Kathmandu. When I seemed overly interested in how my brother-in-law heated the water for their house, he seemed puzzed as to why I would be interested in such a thing.

It was an open-loop system, which involved pumping water from a cistern which was under the house, to a tank on the roof, then I believe the water was passively circulated through the panels, essentially a coil of hose inside of a plexi-faced box, then stored in an insulated tank. Even if I showered before sunrise, after a cold night, the water was hot.

Their family is well-off by Nepali standards, but I doubt they spent even close to $8000US on this system. My guess is that it was a fraction of that. I will post pictures soon on my blog:

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Ghung,

Are you a doppleganger or something? You've described the technology in my own place (albeit a 400 litre - 100 gallon tank) + PV exactly. It's set up for exactly the same reasons.

I also endorse your opinions expressed in the two entries. Seems common sense to me and also the most probable outcome.

Just be there to prop up the neighbours so that a community eventually emerges.

Much respect.


Cherokee Organics said...


Top post again!

Seems to me that people won't change unless a crisis of reality forces their hand.

What do you do when you see a train wreck coming and people seem oblivious?

I don't think the money is there for a large nuclear construction program (excluding China which actually has the funds). On the other side of the coin, neither is the money there for decomissioning or waste disposal either. We lack the proper infrastructure to commit to nuclear technology.



John Michael Greer said...

Greetings all,

I'm currently at a speaking gig in Minneapolis with very limited internet access, so won't be able to respond to everyone. A couple of comments, though:

Jason, plenty of human beings can think beyond binaries. It's simply that Western industrial society is abnormally stupid in that particular way. I really do need to post a discussion of ternary logic here one of these days.

Paul et. al., you're quite correct, of course -- that's the downside of hammering out a post in a hurry in order to catch a train!

Sofistek, the age of fossil fuels isn't over yet. While it's in its diminuendo phase, it may still be a good deal for people who want solar hot water to invest in the somewhat more complex thermosiphon or closed loop systems.

Douglas, the problem with new paradigms is that most of the time, what gets billed as a "new paradigm" is simply an attempt to force an old paradigm -- in this case, the insistence that the universe is obligated to provide us with an endlessly increasing supply of cheap energy -- further than it will go.

BJ, nuclear power isn't viable in the absence of cheap abundant fossil fuels. That's true of almost all the supposed alternatives to fossil fuels. That being the case, learning to live with much less energy is the only option we've got. Of course it requires people to change their own lives and not simply cheerlead for somebody else to do something, which I suspect is why so many people's "climate change activism" consists of loudly praising vaporware on the internet.

Don, of course the billions won't be diverted. That's why I'm talking about the things that individuals can do themselves to become part of the solution, and save a truckload of money in the process.


I was shocked when a visiting friend,I live in the UK,who had been living in Albuquerque told me that there only poor people had washing lines every one else used electric dryers.That is total madness

Bill Pulliam said...

The real paradigm that needs shifting here is the idea that peak oil is a "problem" to be "solved." Peak oil is no more a problem in search of a solution than is the autumnal equinox. The equinox happens no matter what you do, and winter is coming no matter what you do. This is just a phenomenon, a circumstance, an inevitability. It's not a challenge with an answer that will eliminate it.

Energy conservation is not a choice. In the fairly near future, it won't be a matter of choosing to use less energy; there just will be less energy whatever your "choices" might be. You WILL live with less energy (unless you die first), that is just a fact, same as the fact that you WILL live with shorter and colder days in the winter. But, of course, this will be a permanent winter, so you WILL figure out how to live with that forever. There is no choice here, there is no solution. There is adaptation, accommodation, that's it.

Those who actually have been taking in JMG's recent writings and their intention should have noticed this. He is not talking about solving peak oil or making optional lifestyle choices. He is presenting methods to adjust to and deal with the inevitable pressures that are impinging on all of us no matter what our choices might be.

GHung said...

Spring equinox came this week; I'm not sure I heard it mentioned anywhere. As usual, I went through the ritual of reorienting the PV panels, a small celebration of longer days than nights. I also spread a tiny bit of my Mother's ashes in the garden, a much more appropriate spot than the stuffy burial ground where her headstone lies, next to her husband and parents. She showed me how to get on my hands and knees, to become one with the earth. I still consider this the first commandment of gardening; come back dirty! This is why I don't wear gloves. It doesn't feel right.

Happy Spring, y'all!

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Bill,

Spot on.

The thing I don't understand is, how can peoples frame of reference be so wrong on this issue? Incantations are a strong manipulative tool, but how is it that the population at large can be so delusional about an issue as central to their well being as peak oil? I am unable to raise this issue with anyone that I know because of the responses of those people. It's really aggressive.

Oh well, I just plugging away on my own turf...



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi all,

I'll throw a challenge out there to the commenters and readers of this blog.

A simple, but loaded question never seems to be addressed in all the debates that I have seen.

If energy and material limits are imposed how much is enough?

The reason I ask this question is because the current mode of thinking is that energy supplies will continue to increase despite finite limits. I read George Monbiots conditional support for nuclear energy and he failed to address this issue at all. Should supply be restricted as it inevitably will anyway?

Do people actually understand their actual needs? I'm unsure.



Jeff Z said...

I apologize to anyone who looked at my blog for photos of solar water heating in Nepal. I just posted some last night, although the photos of the solar heater itself were somewhat elusive. I did manage to find some good pictures of the pumping/filtration system and the rooftop tanks which are everywhere on the skyline of Kathmandu.

That, along with some discussion on other forms of urban sustainable living (and not) in Kathmandu

Lidia17 said...

Cherokee Organics, I know what you are saying… Knowing that before I will die (statistically speaking) I will downsize, and wanting to plan my next move, I find myself asking what I need:

I start out with planning how I am going to secure hot running water. Do I need hot running water? Can't I make do with boiling water and putting it in a tub or basin? Then we get to: can't I just use room temperature or even cold water?

Should I plan on consuming ANY gas or electricity? How much, and why?

Do I need to be near a hospital? Why? What will they do to/for me, and at what cost?

I know some are embarking on a different conceptual trajectory, imagining that some modern technologies will be viable for some time, and that we will see some evolution thereof, I have just begun-incompletely- to start thinking backwards, slowly, step-by-step, in the following fashion: to substitute a car, I could use a horse! How much does a horse need to eat? Horses were once only for the rich: I will need to walk… refrigerators are luxuries; how was food preserved before they were invented (and so forth).

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

"$10 a gallon" is a favorite incantation. It relieves an otherwise obsessive focus on the incessant anxious rushing of FUVs on the nearby residential byway; and now come the equinox, the desperate panicked whine of open-throttled crotch-rockets. Only slowly has a realization dawned: the faster the burn rate, the sooner rationing. The day is coming when the autos on that street will be few and small and slow, when motorbikes will mostly be tools for transport not just the adrenaline junkie's fix, and when whole hours will pass on a sunny summer afternoon unsullied by the roar of infernal combustion power equipment employed in competitive yard maintenance testosterone display. "$10 a gallon". It makes music of the cacophony.

On another note, with respect to the technological discontinuity being suffered on the Pacific's western shore, it has been remarked here and elsewhere with some incredulity that there appears to be greater interest in the events and conceits of popular culture than in the unfolding catastrophe. This might also be symptomatic of collapse. Unparalleled disasters seem to be occurring with some frequency. They are perhaps no longer unusual, but overlap and intersect, becoming strangely normal. We have become a world in constant crisis, literally without most even realizing it. Interesting times.

sofistek said...


How much is enough? Well, to answer that simply, but vaguely, I'd say enough is what the environment can stand us drawing down or diverting, without the carrying capacity reducing.

A good objective, I think, is to live sustainably. That means not consuming resources beyond their renewal rates and not degrading our habitat. What that translates to, in terms of actual numbers, I've no idea and I think it may only be determined in hindsight through trial and error. Other species "determine" those limits through boom and bust cycles, settling down to a steady state, until something punctures the equilibrium. Can humans be smarter than that? Maybe, but I'm not convinced.

As a start, I think we need to just keep reducing energy use (and energy use is a kind of proxy for resource use) until we can't think of anything more we can do. If that's not enough, we'll have to let nature take its course, I guess.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Lidia17,

You're spot on, as the question is an absolute maze. I reckon you're on the money when you speak about walking and preserving. So much of this used to happen right up until very recent times. Sometimes technology and energy are a crutch and we are capable of far more than we think. But if the easier option is there we take it. It's human nature.

I don't know the answer to this either which is why I'm asking the question. Your point about thinking backwards seems like a good approach though.

Hey sofistek,

Carrying capacity is a bit of a no no topic. You don't see it discussed much anywhere. But you're probably right about resources limiting populations as it's what happens in nature after all. I wonder whether this is why JMG asked us to read Basic Ecology text books? A bit of shock treatment perhaps?

Hi all,

I've set up this question on the Green Wizard forum because it seems kind of important and worthy of discussion. Aaaahhh! another website to look at....



Edde said...

Greetings John Michael and all,

Beautiful Spring - looks like we're going to get some needed rain down here in NoFla.

Chris asks, "...what is enough?"

We might start with using our fair share of energy and resources. In USA, 4% of world population, we use 25% - 35% of world's resources & energy.

Our "fair share" is about 80% less than current average usage. Or less.

This doesn't take into consideration stopping extensive environmental damage caused by resource extraction, which will require additional reduction.

It's a good start, however.

Best regards,

hawlkeye said...

“How on earth did anybody ever do (fill-in-blank) without (however-it’s-done-now)?” This surely must be the green wizards’ continual questioning loop running endlessly in the background of our daily transitional programs. We can do it differently or not at all, but we can’t keep doing how it’s being done. Industrial entitlement is a shallow imperative.

Lydia, I like your thought process, but one of your conclusions is chilling ;)…I could start to make a list of useless luxuries I won’t miss, because I don’t miss them now; cable television, remote garage door openers, microwave ovens, that Tweeter thingy… but there’s something that will never appear on that list, something that restores my sense of decency and makes me feel human again, and that’s my strict hygienic regimen: a weekly bath.

I don’t consider hot water a luxury; it is an absolute essential. After doing the type of work that must be done to feed oneself and one’s neighbors (like using less energy, sharing’s not an option) soaking the body bones in a tub of hot water with certain herbs and flowers, is not a hedonistic, indulgent escape from reality, but a required tonic and muscle-stress reducer for retaining any ongoing enthusiasm necessary for the life thus exalted.

High on the list of priorities, up there with possessing seeds and hand tools and a methane digester, is figuring out a way to have consistent hot water from either sun or woodstove or both. The sweat lodge may have to suffice for a while, but settling for a life without heat and steam, no thank you. Plenty of other things can go by the wayside first…

Don Plummer said...

Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert cartoons, understands vaporware:

Lidia17 said...

Yes, Chris… when did it happen that population discussions became some kind of Third Rail?? Back in the 1970s, Zero Population Growth movement was a popular meme which hoped to keep the human population at 3 billion or so, and we're over twice that now. It's very clear in my mind from when I was a teenager, yet now it seems like it is in bad taste or something: unGodly as far as the right is concerned and too politically incorrect as far as the left is concerned?

A global (voluntary!) one-child policy with plenty of support for education and plenty of birth-control assistance could painlessly halve the population again within a couple of generations, and within a couple more could bring it back within shouting distance of a billion people. Instead, the US seems hell-bent on going in the opposite direction, with vigorous attacks on Planned Parenthood and adolescent sex ed.!!!

In the face of such sheer idiocy and pig-headedness, it is hard to hold out hope.

Bill Pulliam said...

Lloyd -- I was thinking about your $10/gal incantation today... I'm not sure I really see something like that happening, on a sustained level, anytime soon. At that kind of fuel price, too many central parts of the industrial-financial economy grind to a halt. So, before the prices got that high, the economies would slow down, and the demand would drop. Without demand pressure, the price stops rising. The global economy can slowly run down without steadily rising fuel prices, especially since the credit bubbles that made everyone feel like they had money to burn (literally) continue to pop. Fuel prices where they are now are already plenty high enough to drag the industrial economy down as more people are forced to realize how much poorer they really are than they were pretending to be. Jobs aren't likely coming back, and as folks adjust to being back to the one-income household (as likely to be Mom as the breadwinner this time as Dad) then a whole bunch of economic "fundamentals" look a lot different and $4/gal gasoline looks pretty expensive. Especially if Mom is still commuting 30 or 40 or 50 miles one-way to her job.

Lidia17 said...

Hawlkeye, that's interesting about bathing. I can see it either way. My husband suffers greatly without his daily bidet (hates toilet paper). I recently read about a lady who has not washed her hair in 11 years, and she looks pretty normal.

What one could do in deconstructing our bathing habits, though, is to question whether—if one bathes once a week, as I do—we need one or more bathrooms in each private home. Currently, the trend is to have at least as many bathrooms as bedrooms, but historically public baths have been the rule. One could make a similar case for washing machines: why does everyone need their own machine, when they are in use for just a few hours a week? Isn't a public laundry or service more efficient? There also used to be public ovens, and even public frozen food lockers right here in the US.

Now, if you live a mile from town, maybe having your own bathtub makes sense, but in a city? I'm thinking back to all the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels wherein it was perfectly normal for members of middle and even upper classes to live in "rooms" with no kitchen or bath. Food was obtained from some local inn/tavern/restaurant, and laundry sent out.

What's really fascinating about the development of "middle-class" America is the extent to which it has embraced the maintenance of an upper-class Victorian lifestyle (think parlors, menu-planning, table linens and good china) while being conned into personally assuming all of the menial tasks associated therewith. Rather than paying servants, though, we pay for "electrodomestics" and do it ourselves. We desperately need to continue to question what "it" is, and those are social questions as much as they are energy questions.

Here in Europe, I find that it's perfectly acceptable for people to wear the same clothes several days in a row, or one or two sweaters for the entire season, whereas in the US I feel the social need to appear in a different outfit each day.

Bill Pulliam, gasoline costs $8.25/gallon in Italy and life putters on, but then consumption here has never been at US levels.

On a slightly related note, I found that Mother Earth News has podcasts, so I downloaded some. I know they have bills to pay, but they had an HVAC guy on touting a furnace that would give you "hospital-quality air filtration". WTF?? I think many people, even if they mean well, have just lost all perspective.

tom rainboro said...

"Zero Population Growth" - As a student I was a member of a ZPG group in 1975 but it became very unfashionable for educated white males to have opinions about human fertility.
"Ten dollars a gallon" - we are paying 1.40 GBP per litre here in England. I'm not sure what a U.S. gallon is (since in most recipes you measure everything in 'cups'?) but if it equals a U.K. gallon then I make that nearly 9.6 USD.

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

Bill, I take your point that an effective tripling of the price North Americans currently pay for auto fuel isn't necessarily a corollary of global economic dissolution. And as you noted, the impact of such an increase would be socially regressive, suffered disproportionately by those who for lack of capital means are least able to effect a mitigating strategy.

Nevertheless, most of the rest of the world's refined petrol consumers pay substantially more, on the order of two to three times more per measure, than we fortunate few percent. Granted, the difference is nearly all tax. But I think the financing for state managed petrol dependent infrastructure will likely become more directly reliant on that source, rather than voter-approved bond issues for instance. Also, precisely because it is such a pervasive component of the economy, I expect it will be very difficult for beholden yet potentially insolvent states to ignore as a source of revenue. Then there is the case to be made for using price pressure to support policy goals, such as reducing petroleum dependence or carbon emissions. Imposition of additional tax on portable liquid fuels in an economy totally dependent on them is essentially economic cannibalism, a behavior consistent with a society in overshoot attempting to stave off descent. Europe has been at this game for at least a couple of decades. When North America gets on the bandwagon, the pace of global unraveling will probably accelerate. And when China does...

Certainly a slow and manageable slide from the excesses of fossil fuel over-consumption is to be preferred. I hope you are correct, and that there will be gradual adjustments which will at least slow widening disparities. But there is no guarantee for that scenario; and it does not seem to me that the excess will even be tempered until many more have realized their poverty. When they do it will matter little if the gas they can't afford to waste is $4/gal or $10. Still, the incantation is no wish for ill. Rather it is simply an acknowledgment of the tenuousness of the otherwise seemingly implacable and vexing, a calming reminder that the circumstances which have allowed the current order of things are changing. Adapt we must, and will.

Ruben said...


A US gallon is not the same, so your gas price only works out to US$8.53 per US Gallon. Only.

Bill Pulliam said...

Lidia and Lloyd -- I was of course talking about circumstances in the U.S. In places where vehicle fuel already is in the ballpark of the equivalent of $10/gal, life works differently than it does here. Services are closer at hand, public transportation is readily available, even away from urban centers. Middle class suburban life in the U.S. is simply not viable without access to affordable gasoline. You can't even get to food without it, much less jobs. The people in these areas carry a lot of political clout -- they generally determine which way our pendulum swings in each national election.

hawlkeye said...

Lidia, let us repair to the bath-house, with all other reasonable people. Forcing the smallest room in a dwelling to contain both functions of elimination and rejuvenation simultaneously is as insane and repulsive as defecating into drinkable water in the first place. And yet this madness is institutionalized into both our plumbing and hygienic social codes.

If I pull out all my hair, then I'll never need shampoo ever again!