Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Renewables: The Next Fracking?

I'd meant this week’s Archdruid Report post to return to Retrotopia, my quirky narrative exploration of ways in which going backward might actually be a step forward, and next week’s post to turn a critical eye on a common but dysfunctional habit of thinking that explains an astonishing number of the avoidable disasters of contemporary life, from anthropogenic climate change all the way to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Still, those entertaining topics will have to wait, because something else requires a bit of immediate attention. In my new year’s predictions a little over a month ago, as my regular readers will recall, I suggested that photovoltaic solar energy would be the focus of the next big energy bubble. The first signs of that process have now begun to surface in a big way, and the sign I have in mind—the same marker that provided the first warning of previous energy bubbles—is a shift in the rhetoric surrounding renewable energy sources.

Broadly speaking, there are two groups of people who talk about renewable energy these days. The first group consists of those people who believe that of course sun and wind can replace fossil fuels and enable modern industrial society to keep on going into the far future. The second group consists of people who actually live with renewable energy on a daily basis. It’s been my repeated experience for years now that people belong to one of these groups or the other, but not to both.

As a general rule, in fact, the less direct experience a given person has living with solar and wind power, the more likely that person is to buy into the sort of green cornucopianism that insists that sun, wind, and other renewable resources can provide everyone on the planet with a middle class American lifestyle. Conversely, those people who have the most direct knowledge of the strengths and limitations of renewable energy—those, for example, who live in homes powered by sunlight and wind, without a fossil fuel-powered grid to cover up the intermittency problems—generally have no time for the claims of green cornucopianism, and are the first to point out that relying on renewable energy means giving up a great many extravagant habits that most people in today’s industrial societies consider normal.

Debates between members of these two groups have enlivened quite a few comment pages here on The Archdruid Report. Of late, though—more specifically, since the COP-21 summit last December came out with yet another round of toothless posturing masquerading as a climate agreement—the language used by the first of the two groups has taken on a new and unsettling tone.

Climate activist Naomi Oreskes helped launch that new tone with a diatribe in the mass media insisting that questioning whether renewable energy sources can power industrial society amounts to “a new form of climate denialism.” The same sort of rhetoric has begun to percolate all through the greenward end of things: an increasingly angry insistence that renewable energy sources are by definition the planet’s only hope, that of course the necessary buildout can be accomplished fast enough and on a large enough scale to matter, and that no one ought to be allowed to question these articles of faith.

There are plenty of points worth making about what this sort of rhetoric implies about the current state of the green movement, and I’ll get to some of those  shortly, but the issue that comes first to mind—typically enough for this blog—is a historical one: we’ve been here before.

When this blog first got going, back in 2006, the energy resource that was sure to save industrial civilization from the consequences of its own bad decisions was biofuels. Those of my readers who were paying attention to the peak oil scene in those days will remember the grandiose and constantly reiterated pronouncements about the oceans of ethanol from American corn and the torrents of biodiesel from algae that were going to sweep away the petroleum age and replace fossil fuels with all the cheap, abundant, carbon-neutral liquid fuel anyone could want. Those who raised annoying questions—and yes, I was one of them—got reactions that swung across a narrow spectrum from patronizing putdowns to furious denunciation.

As it turned out, of course, the critics were right and the people who insisted that biofuels were going to replace petroleum and other fossil fuels were dead wrong. There were at least two problems, and both of them could have been identified—and in fact were identified—well in advance, by that minority who were willing to take a close look at the underlying data.

The first problem was that the numbers simply didn’t work out. It so happens, for example, that if you grow corn using standard American agricultural methods, and convert that corn into ethanol using state of the art industrial fermenters and the like, the amount of energy you have to put into that whole process is more than you get by burning the resulting ethanol. Equally, it so happens that if you were to put every square inch of arable farmland in the world into biofuel crops, leaving none for such trivial uses as feeding the seven billion human beings on this planet, you still wouldn’t get enough biofuel to replace the world’s annual consumption of transportation fuels. Neither of these points were hard to figure out, and the second one was well known in the appropriate tech scene of the 1970s—you’ll find it, for example, in the pages of William Catton’s must-read book Overshoot—but somehow the proponents of ethanol and biodiesel missed it.

The second problem was a little more complex, but not enough so to make it impossible to figure out in advance. This was that the process of biofuel production and consumption had impacts of its own. Divert a significant fraction of the world’s food supply into the fuel tanks of people in a handful of rich countries—and of course this is what all that rhetoric about fueling the world amounted to in practice—and the resulting spikes in food prices had disastrous impacts across the Third World, triggering riots and quite a number of countries and outright revolutions in more than one.

Meanwhile rain forests in southeast Asia got clearcut so that palm oil plantations could supply the upper middle classes of Europe and America with supposedly sustainable biodiesel. It could have gotten much worse, except that the underlying economics were so bad that not that many years into the biofuels boom, companies started going broke at such a rate that banks stopped lending money for biofuel projects; some of the most highly ballyhooed algal biodiesel projects turned out to be, in effect, pond scum ponzi schemes; and except for those enterprises that managed to get themselves a cozy spot as taxpayer-supported subsidy dumpsters, the biofuel boom went away.

It was promptly replaced by another energy resource that was sure to save industrial civilization. Yes, that would be hydrofracturing of oil- and gas-bearing shales, or to give it its popular moniker, fracking. For quite a while there, you couldn’t click through to an energy-related website without being assailed with any number of grandiose diatribes glorifying fracking as a revolutionary new technology that, once it was applied to vast, newly discovered shale fields all over North America, was going to usher in a new era of US energy independence. Remember the phrase “Saudi America”? I certainly do.

Here again, there were two little problems with these claims, and the first was that once again the numbers didn’t work out. Fracking wasn’t a new technological breakthrough—it’s been used on oil fields since the 1940s—and the “newly discovered” oil fields in North Dakota and elsewhere were nothing of the kind; they were found decades ago and the amount of oil in them, which was well known to petroleum geologists, did not justify the wildly overinflated claims made for them. There were plenty of other difficulties with the so-called “fracking revolution,” including the same net energy issue that ultimately doomed the “biodiesel revolution,” but we can leave those for now, and go on to the second little problem with fracking. 

This was the awkward fact that the fracking industry, like the biodiesel industry, had impacts of its own that weren’t limited to the torrents of new energy it was supposed to provide. All across the more heavily fracked parts of the United States, homeowners discovered that their tap water was so full of methane that they could ignite it with a match, while some had to deal with the rather more troubling consequences of earthquake swarms and miles-long trains of fracked fuels rolling across America’s poorly maintained railroad network. Then there was the methane leakage into the atmosphere—I don’t know that anybody’s been able to quantify that, but I suspect it’s had more than a little to do with the abrupt spike in global temperatures and extreme weather events over the last decade.

Things might have gotten much worse, except here again the underlying economics of fracking were so bad that not that many years into the fracking boom, companies have started going broke at such a rate that banks are cutting back sharply on lending for fracking projects. As I write this, rumors are flying in the petroleum industry that Chesapeake Petroleum, the biggest of the early players in the US fracking scene, is on the brink of declaring bankruptcy, and quite a few very large banks that lent recklessly to prop up the fracking boom are loudly proclaiming that everything is just fine while their stock values plunge in panic selling and the rates other banks charge them for overnight loans spike upwards.

Unless some enterprising fracking promoter figures out how to elbow his way to the government feed trough, it’s pretty much a given that fracking will shortly turn back into what it was before the current boom: one of several humdrum technologies used to scrape a little extra oil out from mostly depleted oil fields. That, in turn, leaves the field clear for the next overblown “energy revolution” to be rolled out—and my working ghess is that the focus of this upcoming round of energy hype will be renewable energy resources: specifically, attempts to power the electrical grid with sun and wind. 

In a way, that’s convenient, because we don’t have to wonder whether the two little problems with biofuels and fracking also apply to this application of solar and wind power. That’s already been settled; the research was done quite a while ago, and the answer is yes.

To begin with, the numbers are just as problematic for solar and wind power as they were for biofuels and fracking. Examples abound: real world experience with large-scale solar electrical generation systems, for example, show dismal net energy returns; the calculations of how much energy can be extracted from wind that have been used to prop up windpower are up to two orders of magnitude too high; more generally, those researchers who have taken the time to crunch the numbers—I’m thinking here especially, though not only, of Tom Murphy’s excellent site Do The Math—have shown over and over again that for reasons rooted in the hardest of hard physics, renewable energy as a source of grid power can’t live up to the sweeping promises made on its behalf.

Equally, renewables are by no means as environmentally benign as their more enthusiastic promoters claim. It’s true that they don’t dump as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as burning fossil fuels do—and my more perceptive readers may already have noted, by the way, the extent to which talk about the very broad range of environmental blowbacks from modern industrial technologies has been supplanted by a much narrower focus on greenhouse gas-induced anthropogenic global warming, as though this is the only issue that matters—but the technologies needed to turn sun and wind into grid electricity involve very large volumes of rare metals, solvents, plastics, and other industrial products that have substantial carbon footprints of their own.

And of course there are other problems of the same kind, some of which are already painfully clear. A number of those rare metals are sourced from open-pit mines in the Third World worked by slave labor; the manufacture of most solvents and plastics involves the generation of a great deal of toxic waste, most of which inevitably finds its way into the biosphere; wind turbines are already racking up an impressive death toll among birds and bats—well, I could go on. Nearly all of modern industrial society’s complex technologies are ecocidal to one fairly significant degree or another, and the fact that a few of them extract energy from sunlight or wind doesn’t keep them from having a galaxy of nasty indirect environmental costs.

Thus the approaching boom in renewable energy will inevitably bring with it a rising tide of ghastly news stories, as corners get cut and protections overwhelmed by whatever degree of massive buildout gets funded before the dismal economics of renewable energy finally take their inevitable toll. To judge by what’s happened in the past, I expect to see plenty of people who claim to be concerned about the environment angrily dismissing any suggestion that the renewable energy industry has anything to do with, say, soaring cancer rates around solar panel manufacturing plants, or whatever other form the inevitable ecological blowback takes. The all-or-nothing logic of George Orwell’s invented language Newspeak is astonishingly common these days: that which is good (because it doesn’t burn fossil fuels) can’t possibly be ungood (because it isn’t economically viable and also has environmental problems of its own), and to doubt the universal goodness of what’s doubleplusgood—why, that’s thoughtcrime...

Things might get very ugly indeed, all things considered, except that the underlying economics of renewable energy as a source of grid electricity aren’t noticeably better than those of fracking or corn ethanol. Six to ten years down the road, as a result, the bankruptcies and defaults will begin, banks will start backing away from the formerly booming renewables industry, and the whole thing will come crashing down, the way ethanol did and fracking is doing right now. That will clear the way, in turn, for whatever the next energy boom will be—my guess is that it’ll be nuclear power, though that’s such a spectacular money-loser that any future attempt to slap shock paddles on the comatose body of the nuclear power industry may not get far.

It probably needs to be said at this point that one blog post by an archdruid isn’t going to do anything to derail the trajectory just sketched out. Ten thousand blog posts by Gaia herself, cosigned by the Pope, the Dalai Lama, and Captain Planet and the Planeteers probably wouldn’t do the trick either. I confidently expect this post to be denounced furiously straight across the green blogosphere over the next couple of weeks, and at intervals thereafter; a few years from now, when dozens of hot new renewable-energy startups are sucking up million-dollar investments from venture capitalists and planning their initial IPOs, such few references as this and similar posts field will be dripping with patronizing contempt; then, when reality sets in, the defaults begin and the banks start backing away, nobody will want to talk about this essay at all.

It probably also needs to be pointed out that I’m actually very much in favor of renewable energy technologies, and have discussed their importance repeatedly on this blog. The question I’ve been trying to raise, here and elsewhere, isn’t whether or not sun and wind are useful power sources; the question is whether it’s possible to power industrial civilization with them, and the answer is no.

That doesn’t mean, in turn, that we’ll just keep powering industrial civilization with fossil fuels, or nuclear power, or what have you. Fossil fuels are running short—as oilmen like to say, depletion never sleeps—and nuclear power is a hopelessly uneconomical white-elephant technology that has never been viable anywhere in the world without massive ongoing government subsidies. Other options? They’ve all been tried, and they don’t work either.

The point that nearly everyone in the debate is trying to evade is that the collection of extravagant energy-wasting habits that pass for a normal middle class lifestyle these days is, in James Howard Kunstler’s useful phrase, an arrangement without a future. Those habits only became possible in the first place because our species broke into the planet’s supply of stored carbon and burnt through half a billion years of fossil sunlight in a wild three-century-long joyride. Now the needle on the gas gauge is moving inexorably toward that threatening letter E, and the joyride is over. It really is as simple as that.

Thus the conversation that needs to happen now isn’t about how to keep power flowing to the grid; it’s about how to reduce our energy consumption so that we can get by without grid power, using local microgrids and home-generated power to meet sharply reduced needs.We don’t need more energy; we need much, much less, and that implies in turn that we—meaning here especially the five per cent of our species who live within the borders of the United States, who use so disproportionately large a fraction of the planet’s energy and resources, and who produce a comparably huge fraction of the carbon dioxide that’s driving global warming—need to retool our lives and our lifestyles to get by with the sort of energy consumption that most other human beings consider normal.

Unfortunately that’s not a conversation that most people in America are willing to have these days. The point that’s being ignored here, though, is that if something’s unsustainable, sooner or later it will not be sustained. We can—each of us, individually—let go of the absurd extravagances of the industrial age deliberately, while there’s still time to do it with some measure of grace, or we can wait until they’re pried from our cold and stiffening fingers, but one way or another, we’re going to let go of them. The question is simply how many excuses for delay will be trotted out, and how many of the remaining opportunities for constructive change will go whistling down the wind, before that happens.


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John Michael Greer said...

By the way, I'm aware that this post touches on themes that tend to generate a great deal more heat than light in the blogosphere these days. I'm going to ask everyone who comments to pay close attention to the text above the comments box, and more generally to keep it calm and polite. Thank you!

dfr2010 said...

"the sort of green cornucopianism that insists that sun, wind, and other renewable resources can provide everyone on the planet with a middle class American lifestyle"

Am I the only one who immediately thinks, "Petroleum hasn't even done that after over a century!"

alex carter said...

Artificial lighting is pretty nice, but it's not needed to the extent we use it now. Tall ceilings, transoms, planting trees that will shelter your house from the strongest sun, there are all kinds of really low-energy ways to make a huge difference. The average american house is a huge energy waster. I grew up in Hawaii where A/C was still pretty exotic when I was a kid. Locals' houses, elementary schools, etc all used passive methods of keeping cool. I remember the power going out (it did a lot in 68-69) and we kids didn't notice; we were outside playing or weeding the yard or something. Walking to the library was a good time, and we used to go play on the elementary school grounds in the summer because hey, it was school but we'd ride our bikes down the main walkway and stuff. (Main walkway was outside, whole school was as open-air as possible).

We were highly entertained by hiking or going to the beach and poking around. Radio's a good technology because you can entertain, educate, inspire, without using a lot of energy. Big screen TV's, not so much.

Whittling. A pocket knife was the ultimate toy because it was a meta-toy, that could be used to make other toys. Those were my favorite toys. There are so many things that are fun as hell, that I guess kids don't know much about now?

sgage said...

Excellent presentation of the issues involved with 'renewable' 'sustainable' what-have-you. Otherwise intelligent people seem to be suddenly innumerate when you try to point out what the reality is - I deal with this all the time, my family being full of otherwise intelligent techno-cornucopians. They fix you with their best Martin Shkreli smirk and ask 'oh yeah? Then what's your solution?'. I reply, 'you're confusing me with someone who thinks there is a solution.

James M. Jensen II said...

I remember being annoyed at a friend who brought up the math of ethanol back around 2006-ish. Fortunately I can discount that one as a sin of my youth.

Photovoltaic cells strike me as having this amazing ability to crawl up into our collective brains and shut off the imaginative part for a bit. Funny story: I once raised the idea of a solar water heater with my mother. She was insisting that it would cost too much to be worth it... a little bit into the conversation I realized this was because she was imagining an electric heater running on a PV cell.

William Conklin said...

Excellent article as usual. Do you think there is any possibility of technology figuring out a way to get hydrogen out of water with a reasonable energy cost? Of course that could save us if it is possible. There is plenty of water and the waste produce would be oxygen to get rid of the carbon. Probably just a dream,

Justin said...

Er, no disagreement about any of the core points in your post, but a question/observation:

Right now, many people in North America (including me) live in a local optima of moderate (by NA standards) but too high, energy consumption, and a job that pays well, but limited opportunities to for example, start a compost pile or grow some veggies. The 'alternative' is to go to a rural area where one might be able to afford a place that allows the opportunities for various futuristic activities like keeping chickens and growing squash, but where there is no obvious way to make any money at all - no way to buy a few staples and pay the modest property taxes. It's a serious quandry, and I think it affects more than a few people. Do you see a real way out of this pickle, aside from staying ready to change and picking up a few useful skills?

Justin said...

And now, a less serious question: In your book Twilight's Last Gleaming, a certain government institution is re-purposed into a tourist attraction that sells sandwiches named after past Presidents. What's in a Trump Sandwich?

Paul Kinsky said...

Do you believe that there's some level of improvement to battery and/or solar technology that would make running industrial civilization on solar energy feasible? Reading this post, it seems that you believe that, even if techno-jesus were to descend from the sky tomorrow with the secret to 100% efficient solar panels carved into stone tablets, solar would still be unable to sustain industrial civilization. (I chose an incredibly unlikely example on purpose to try to illustrate the difference between incredibly unlikely and impossible)

John Weber said...

Solar and wind energy collecting devices have an industrial history. It is important to understand the industrial infrastructure underwritten by fossil fuels and the environmental results for the components of the solar energy collecting devices so we don’t designate them with false labels such as green, renewable or sustainable.
This is an essay challenging ‘business as usual’. If we teach people that these solar devices are the future of energy without teaching the whole system, we mislead, misinform and create false hopes and beliefs.
I have provided both charts and videos from the industries themselves for the solar cells, modules, aluminum from ore, aluminum from recycling, aluminum extrusion, inverters, batteries and copper.
Please note each piece of machinery you see in each of the videos has its own industrial interconnection and history.

JimK said...

What's on my mind a lot these days is how our society is structured to make it very difficult to live on a small budget, in energetic or economic terms. No doubt, this varies a lot from location to location. Riding a bike instead of driving a car can be very challenging, for example. I live just about three miles from a grocery store, so it ought to be a pleasant bike ride and a moderate bit of walking. Except there are several brutal high speed intersections between point A and point B. With a river and an interstate highway to cross, route alternatives are practically non-existent.

I am not a big fan of proposals like raising the minimum wage. I would much rather see proposals that, first, make it very difficult for the power elite to further trap the poor into struggling to earn money to pay for things that really wouldn't be necessary if it weren't for the clever entrapment. Second, I would like to see infrastructure efforts focused on what people of the most limited means really need. I would like to see a new interstate walkway system, with water sources every five miles and food sources and campgrounds every fifteen miles.

Living well on a low budget is partly a matter of choice but also, in significant degree, a matter of public support.

John Michael Greer said...

Dfr2010, thank you. That earns you tonight's gold star for sheer unflappable common sense.

Alex, exactly. Exactly! Most current American energy use goes to things that can be readily done without, and in a good many cases the result of doing without is a measurable improvement in quality of life -- but try telling that to people whose single deepest fear is that someone will think they're poorer than they are.

Sgage, good. I really wonder where the smirk comes from -- I've seen it, of course. It reminds me of nothing so much as the expression on the face of Charles Wallace in Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time when IT has control of his brain.

James, no argument there. It's like the people who want to run a blender off a stationary bicycle by using the pedals to power a generator and the generator to run the blender -- as though it wasn't vastly more efficient simply to hook up the blender to gears driven by the pedals...

William, nope. The laws of thermodynamics say that you have to put slightly more energy into extracting hydrogen from water than you get back by burning the hydrogen, so it's precisely the equivalent of buying dollar bills for $1.05 each and expecting to make a profit.

Justin, the whole notion of running off to rural property is a mirage. My entire strategy, as sketched out in my book Green Wizardry and elsewhere, focuses on adapting in place -- and that starts by cutting your own expenditures to the bone so you can look at finding a place in town where a backyard composter is an option. As for a Trump sandwich, good question -- though I know it would have plenty of American cheese on it!

Paul, no, because the laws of thermodynamics impose hard upper limits on the efficiency of solar energy conversion and storage. The diffuse heat we get from the sun can't be made to equal the extremely concentrated heat we get from fossil fuels, no matter how you spin it.

Bluebird said...

Well said. We chose solar and geothermal to power our home in southern Pennsylvania, and a plug-in electric vehicle. The costs were high, even with subsidies. We are close to net zero, but still on the grid. In the interim, I've learned a lot. If I had to do it over now, I'd prefer a 600 square foot off grid passive solar cabin and a bike. Moral of the story: shrink the lifestyle first!

Repent said...

We're almost at financial collapse part II. If money becomes worthless, will there be another leg of sustainable energy boom? Hard to see that happening. Most working class families are tapped out and expensive rooftop solar panels will clearly be out of the financial range of most people.

In addition, the existing power grid utilities have a vested interest in preserving the status quo, and they will fight tooth and nail to prevent a distributed electricity grid from becoming a reality.

Even large mega-corporations are having difficulty getting funding right now, and governments are by and large functionally broke; where would the money come from?

James M. Jensen II said...


If I made the Trump Sandwich, it'd probably be made of balogna and canned cheese, just because that's too funny not to be a thing.

I'm still hoping on them serving up the Sanders Sandwich, however. I'm thinking an open-faced Reuben on marble rye, if that's not too stereotypical. (Mind you, I really, really like open-faced Reubens on marble rye.)

MoonRaven said...

No argument from me. There is no way anything can power the American lifestyle indefinitely. Renewables are important and it's even more important to change our lifestyle to live simpler and in line with what's sustainable.

And, of course, that's going to upset a lot of people who want to keep the lifestyle that they have.

Justin said...

JMG, well, assuming my cash savings and my income (which I think is more robust than average, although I don't work in a critical industry) stays intact through a large downward revaluation of real estate, I could very well buy a place with a back yard. What is infuriating is waiting for the economy to fall apart enough that I can buy a place instead of renting and hoping that my money is worth anything afterwards. In contrast, I could buy a place (with a modest mortgage) in a rural area (meaning near the center of a town of 10-40,000), but so far, my efforts to find a good job in such a place have been fairly futile.

Maybe Next Year said...

As always an excellent article.

Mr. Greer, I have a quick question for you and my apologies in advance if you have covered this topic before, but what are your thoughts on these driver-less, automated cars being road tested by Google?


MindfulEcologist said...

Not even if the Planeteers get in the act? Oh, come on!
Wet computer screen, again. Must not reach for the water bottle while reading JMG...

Retooling lifestyles is of course what the new consumer of the Regan era was all about. Hitched to the star of "self-expression" the updated "values and lifestyles" marketing segmentation techniques blindsided the nation. Now when you and others with an eco-conscience teach a lifestyle change is needed but that it involves LESS a typical reaction, at least from my experience, is that at first it is heard as a suggestion to by hand-pumps instead of microwaves. Which it is, but it is so much more. Stepping out of the narratives that make our eco-insanity look inevitable, if not reasonable, is really hard.

A freedom from conditioning is needed if we are to get anywhere through the thicket of thought stoppers that passes for an intelligent conversation these days. So we find our societies bouncing back and forth at the whim of these pied-pipers. We are sure there must be, to use another useful phrase from Kunstler, a way to keep shopping at Wallmart forever.

Thanks for hosting this little corner of sanity.

For those interested in the issues raised in last week's comments about the Century of the Self might find my post this week of interest, Education vs. Manipulation. John, it starts with one of my favorite quotes from Schopenhauer.

Robert Tweedy said...

Have you heard of Gail Tverberg, who has a website called Our Finite World? She shares much the same outlook as you, but from an economics perspective. In your 20 seconds of spare time each day, she might be worth a read.

Don Stewart said...

Dear JMG
I have one suggestion and one wish.

The suggestion is that people who want to do composting in an urban space check out:
You can build one of these gardens, fill the bottom with compostable material you scavenge in town, add 4 inches of topsoil on top, and grow a crop while the compost cooks. Remove the compost to use elsewhere and repeat.

The wish is that solar PV work well enough to power a DC rice cooker with a timer on it. DC rice cookers are already sold by Asian companies....they will work off your car battery or boat battery. DC avoids the need for an inverter. The timer means that you can set it, and leave it to do other world without tending it.

Why a rice cooker? After a collapse, dry grains are likely to be the main calorie source for urban people. Brown Rice is the most common grain that people cook as a whole grain, but you can also cook other whole grains. Best to soak them a couple of days, but you get into a routine with Mason jars. Avoids the need for grinding. If you have a battery, you can wake up with the grain cooked for breakfast. Or cook once a day, while the sun is shining. Cooked grain should last 24 hours without refrigeration.

Don Stewart

Aubrey Romero said...

Mr.Greer, I rarely comment,but always read. I just wanted to say thank you for your continued efforts. Your talent and knowledge will continue to make a difference. My family and I are not as far along as we would like, but without a clear direction we would not be nearly as far along the learning curve as we are. Again, thank you.

Varun Bhaskar said...

Archdruid and Sgage,

The devils smirk?! You guys have seen the devils smirk?! I see that all the time out here just before someone says something condescending. I do it myself from time to time, though I'm trying to break the habit.

Unknown said...

Michael Shores

I am a member of the small choir you preach to. I've been watching the decline of industrial civilization for 40 years, even before it globalized. I once dreamed of living off the grid and lived on a piece of land where it would have probably worked if it was practical. But I looked at the investment and the likely maintenance required a few times and never came up with a number that made sense. If I could have made a difference all by myself I would have probably made the sacrifice. But why should I when it wouldn't have made an erg's worth of difference.

Human nature, especially our cognitive glitches prevent large numbers of people from recognizing the challenges that face us. Only when the system meets a shock it cannot absorb and begins to collapse in a way that can no longer be denied will enough people be willing to change so that a real difference MIGHT be made. The sooner it comes the better because the hole won't be as deep.

But the dreadful reality is that such times have more often resulted in malnutrition, violence and disease.

Of course, the one power source that conventional wisdom does not want to consider is muscle power. That is the world of Kuntsler's world made by hand series and a reasonably likely future.

Andy Brown said...

A real tell-tale for me has always been discussions about the matter of intermittency -- the idea that we don't get power when the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow. Without exception it is always raised either as a swipe at why renewables are impractical or it is raised as a reason for having something like nuclear or natural gas. What I've never, ever heard put forth is any notion that maybe the factory just doesn't work when the wind's not blowing. Like, OK everyone, time to catch up on the paperwork.

I'm not even saying that such adaptiveness would solve the problem, but adjusting our way of working or living even slightly to intermittency is just completely beyond imagining apparently. And that's how I can tell that nothing about the conversation is serious and that heads are firmly buried in the sand. It confirms my impression that the math doesn't add up and it's not meant to add up. To imagine - much less admit - the necessity for even the slightest tweak to our ways of doing things is an extremely powerful taboo.

Ahavah said...

If you're in the greater KY area, and you want to "collapse now & avoid the rush", please join us! The next meeting of the Green Wizards Benevolent & Protective Assn., Tower 859, and Ruinmen's Guild, Local 859 of the Bluegrass, Lexington, KY, will be @ Common Grounds coffeehouse (back room if possible) on High Street, 7:00pm, on Thursday, February 11th. in servitio libertas! All are welcome.

John Michael Greer said...

John, thank you for the link! Of course that's a crucial part of the equation -- just as the internet consists of more than your computer screen, a solar power system consists of much more than the PV cells and the inverter, and in both cases it's the stuff you don't see that accounts for most of the environmental damage.

JimK, no doubt, but someone has to take the first step.

Bluebird, true enough. Back in the day, we said, "weatherize before you solarize" -- that same rule can be extended much further.

Repent, sure, but you'll notice that money didn't become worthless in 2008-9, or for that matter in 1929-32. It won't become worthless this time, either. A currency or two might have to be replaced, as the pre-hyperinflation Deutschemark was, but that's an ordinary event in economic history. Money is just a system of tokens, after all, and it can be replaced with another set of tokens readily enough.

Moonraven, exactly. It's the desperate attempt to sustain the unsustainable that's driving a lot of the evasions of reality that permeate the green scene these days.

Justin, how about trying to find a not so good job in a not so small town, but one that's smaller and has more prospects for backyard gardening than the place you live now? It's not an all-or-nothing thing, you know.

Maybe, it's another toy for the privileged and another way to eliminate jobs at a time when permanent joblessness is one of the country's major social crises. Other than that, an irrelevancy.

Ecologist, all it requires is self-knowledge and reflection -- and I suspect that the reason so many people spend so much time staring at little glass screens is that this makes it easier to avoid those things.

Robert, why, yes -- Gail and I have had long conversations at peak oil events, for example. I disagree with some of her arguments, and I'm sure she disagrees with some of mine as well.

Don, try a fireless cooker for rice. It works really well, and all you need is enough heat to get the rice and water to a boil. As usual, conservation is the best first step!

Aubrey, you're welcome and thank you!

Varun, no, I think it's a little different from the ordinary condescending smirk. I may just have to do a post about it one of these days.

John Michael Greer said...

Andy, excellent. And of course that's one of the things that came in with fossil fuels -- this idea that energy ought to be instantly available whenever we happen to want it. Proverbs such as "make hay while the sun shines" point up how the other approach used to be standard -- and it's that other approach, among other things, that makes renewable resources a viable option.

Angus Wallace said...

Hi John Michael,

Great post.

I imagine you will agree, but think it's worth clarifying that an industrial civilisation doesn't _need_ our current energy inputs -- it _could_ be run on 1/100th current energy consumption (as in Retrotopia) which could probably be provided by renewables. Private energy use might need to decrease more than 99% to achieve this.

I've written a new blog post about status and consumerism, which ties into this quite nicely. I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts.

Cheers, Angus

Chris Balow said...


I wonder what role you believe the stability of the American political order has to play in all of this. You mentioned that, maybe 6-10 years down the road, the investment dollars could start flowing into nuclear after the taps get shut-off for wind and solar. However, in 6-10 years, might the political and economic conditions in the U.S. become too unstable and volatile to allow for another renewable energy bubble to form? Maybe, at that point, Wall Street wouldn't have the clout to begin the cycle anew?

Bike Trog said...

The Trump Lump is a baloney sandwich. The Bernie Bowl is a bowl of potato soup. The Chillary could be a bacon sandwich, since that is usually on lunch menus.

Dearcan said...

Please join us this Saturday morning in the Jamaica Plain neighbourhood of Boston for an ADR/Green Wizard meet-up. Senior Room, Curtis Hall at 9:30AM. Further details on the GW website.

Unknown said...

Sorry for the wandering comment, just a couple of things on my mind:
- First, minor spelling error in your post, you say "ghess" instead of guess.
- About solar energy being diluted. I read Tom Murphy's posts but I disagree. Solar energy is equivalent to a 6000K heat source. That means the maximum theoretical efficiency is around 95%. That does not mean we can use it to power industrial civilization! As always the technological and economic limitations are much stricter. But in the right environment, with the right tools it can be incredibly useful (e.g. smeltering metals).
- Finally one comment related to a previous post about climate change. Nowadays I am almost completely convinced by your catabolic collapse theory, except for the possible impact of sudden climate shifts. I am not talking about near term human extinction, just major enough changes to, for example, make money in large parts of the world worthless (to build on another commenter's thought).

Bruce E said...

Well, obviously Koomey's Law will keep creating ever-more-profitable Bitcoin mining machines until at least 2048, at which point you will be able to keep your portable computers (each now more powerful than all of 2016's computers combined) powered by farting on them.

Did anyone remember to plant, water, harvest, and refry the beans?

That all aside, the energy consumption peak seems to be in our rearview mirror already, and I don't think all of the reduction in consumption is driven solely by economics. I think there is also quite a bit of solid engineering innovation going on when it comes to consumption efficiency. It's most dramatic in computer equipment, but there is still a lot of low-hanging fruit in the typical middle-class American wasteful lifestyle that can be realized without a significant hit to quality of life.

What we need to reimagine is the notion of ever-positive exponential GDP growth, population growth, and GDP per capita growth -- unless we can find a way to perpetuate the myth that currency = income = capital, and the power of that myth serves us as long as our computers can churn out Bitcoins and simultaneously keep track of the $5 billion per second minimum wage transactions to the nearest penny, and this myth somehow continues to motivate us to do things like cook the beans so that the personal farter we hired to keep our electronics powered up doesn't run out of gas...

siliconguy said...

Good timing on this article. REC Silicon just shut down their Moses Lake WA polysilicon plant due to low demand. The silicon they make is intended for the solar market. A little trade war with China shut off 80% of the market unless you can absorb a 57% tariff into your costs. They can't.

diablomoreno46361 said...

thanks for this and all the past decade.
As one of the converted I have made shift to learn and simplify, planning for the demise of all I grew up with without the prepper overkill. But if we accept as a given many of the issues raised here and elsewhere ...where do we go next? ...Green wiz is fine and vital but commonsense really.
A relatively unexplored topic is how will our current, and probably future more fascist governments and elites organize their not inconsiderable media,legal and coercive powers to affect our preparations,contrasting and subversive lifestyle [sic]? Here in Oz we have emergency legislation on the books but never enacted and certainly not in common knowledge.My familiarity only comes about due to my involvement as an emergency services worker. The internal and external proletariat I understand but not the concrete forms conflicts might take. A post on this or even a new chapter in your ongoing saga might be useful for those planning to ride the waves of these 'interesting times'.

Pinku-Sensei said...

Gong Xi Fa Cai/Kung Hei Fat Choi to you and your readers, as it is now the Year of the Fire Monkey! I looked at the list of links in your entry to see if you included the examples of Paul Krugman's renewables boosterism I shared last week. I didn't see them, but no matter, as last Thursday, Krugman posted again about a renewables revolution, this time boosting the signal for a Bloomberg article on the subject. Add that to your list of evidence in favor of your prediction about "the next big thing" coming true.

As for peak oil, it's still difficult to talk about it and be taken seriously when $1 gas is possible in the Midwest. We all know that it happened, but current conditions allow people like Fabius Maximus to dismiss the whole idea along with its proponents.

Pinku-Sensei said...

@Justin "What's in a Trump Sandwich?" I have no idea, but I can tell you six different recipes for Trump cocktails.

thenoteswhichdonotfit said...

I knew someone back in 2013 who worked for a company which makes micro-inverters (a technology which improves the efficiency of Solar PV systems) who eventually lost her job because, to make a long story short, the company was not profitable. And even before I knew her, I was aware of some of the problems with excessive use of solar PV.

Not relevant to this post, but if you have not found it already, I think you may find this article about people who are collapsing their lifestyles interesting, even though I would not consider some of the people profiled to be truly 'off the grid':

Mark Luterra said...

One possibly important difference between solar/wind and the previous bubbles of biofuels and fracking is that, for renewables, the energy investment is mostly upfront. That means that even if a great deal of money is lost and a great deal of environmental damage is incurred before the bubble pops, having a few more gigawatts of solar and wind energy flowing into the grid for the next 40 years (using an oft-cited lifespan) will have some cushioning effect on our near-term energy decline.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the big dams which could never be built today (too much money, too many environmental impacts) will continue to churn out gigawatts at very high net energy until they need to be replaced - perhaps another century or more.

I guess my point is that while it would be much better to focus on using less than throwing money into low-net-energy speculative bubbles, a bubble that leaves a legacy of continuing energy production has to be a little better than a bubble that dies as soon as the money dries up.

SamuraiArtGuy said...

Despite your anticipation of torches and brimstone, I see an overall tone of agreement with this post. I have no issue with a single word in it. After reviewing the results of the NH Primary last night, it would seem this is indeed the last fling of the experiment of representative Democracy. The establishment, represented by Clinton & Bush, is in a full meltdown panic trying to find a way to entrench the status quo, in full opposition to the will of the people who, represented by the support for Trump and Sanders, clearly see it broken and want something different.

In the meantime, whenever the topic of renewables comes up, aside from the sobering numbers of the energy and industrial processes required to deploy those technologies, I always was left with a question. – "How the BLIP do you turn wind or solar generated electricity into plastics, lubricants, fertilizers, and the 1001 other petroleum-based products other than fuels.

I have heard the argument, that the more we supplant fossil fuels with renewables, the more we can sequester precious pretroleum for non-fuel usage. But that's a game with a decidedly limited lifespan. But we can play it a hell of a lot longer if, as a species, we learn to get buy with a LOT less... well, everything. Other sets of sobering numbers concerning overshoot and sustainability reveal we're already using WAY more than the Earth can rightly provide.

No, the Middle Class American Industrial lifestyle is as endangered as Bluefin Tuna and the sooner put out of it's misery, probably better. Having recently abandoned the urban sprawl of NYC and it's suburbs for the semi-rural Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, we're consciously down-scaling, and are reasonably content to do so. Most of what comprises the Middle Class American Dream is empty trophies and material accumulation for no particular purpose beyond "keeping score." But what will bring on considerable unrest and misery will be the utter resistance of the affluent and the wealthy to consider giving up a single bit of thier extravagant lifestyles for the common good.

As George Carlin once famously said, "They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying. Lobbying-- to get what they want. Well, we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else. But I'll tell you what they don't want.

"They don't want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don't want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They're not interested in that. That doesn't help them. That's against their interests."

It's not going to be a boring century. Those of us paying attention will be doing what we can to try and decline gracefully, and land on our feet and not our faces.

thenoteswhichdonotfit said...

I also, until recently, worked for an energy utility which claimed to be '100% renewable electricity' (by which they meant 'we only generate renewable electricity, and buy electricity from other sources when our own generation cannot meet our customers' needs'). Even a quick look at the numbers reveals that, for all that the PR materials go gaga over all of the solar PV systems being built out, the electricity coming from solar is a trickle compared to hydroelectricity, and that hydro is the utility's only serious source of electricity generation.

I also WWOOFed on an off-the-grid farm where the owner was building a dam on the creek flowing through the property because he was not satisfied with what he could get from solar energy alone (and he got solar from both PV and coppicing-to-firewood).

backyardfeast said...

Oh, JMG, it makes me so happy to read this post. Just this afternoon, I was listening to a local call in show about our provincial speech from the throne, which focused on our government's continuing ridiculous hopes of creating a new booming economy from liquified natural gas plants, as yet still un-built, not economically viable, and being actively protested.

To field questions from callers, the show had brought in an energy economist from Ontario as a pundit. Many callers expressed the belief (quite common here) that this LNG scheme was a fool's errand (for a host of valid reasons) and that instead these investments should be made into renewable energy. Quite so. Finally, a little exasperated, the pundit said, "you know, here in Ontario, we HAVE made those investments in renewable energy, and is hasn't really worked out. They require enormous subsidies, don't work as well as projected, and don't produce the jobs in the volume promised. We just don't get the economic benefits from renewables that you do from fossil fuels."

Aha! I wanted to shout. Exactly! So the missing point, which I will be shouting from the rooftops as often as I get the opportunity, is that both of these points of view are correct. We DO need to move away from fossil fuels quickly and dramatically. AND we won't end up with as productive an economy as we now have. Yep. So...the real problem we need to concentrate on, is how to move forward from that reality. This, as you keep telling us, is the task for all of us now in our own communities.

Clay Dennis said...

JMG, As you have said before our last real chance we had to retool our society for a realistic energy budget was in the 1970's and then with the election of Reagan that chance went out the window. This and the current election season made me think of a formative event in my life with regards to that lost window of time. I was a college sophomore when Carter was defeated. The night before Reagans inaguration I attended a concert by the late great singer/songwriter and social justice activist Harry Chapin. Part way in to his set Harry put down his guitar, and sat down on the edge of the stage. I don't remember his exact words, but he told us, how with the election, we were entering a dark time, and if we couldn't reverse the era of greed, meaness, and disregard for cooperation and the common good we were headed for difficult times indeed. I was young and didn't fully understand what he was saying that night but he looks to have been quite a prophet. A few months later Harry died in an accident on the Long Island Expressway. Some reports were that he had a heart attack before the wreck, but now I think he died of a broken heart.

pygmycory said...

I've seen more than the usual in the way of articles touting solar/wind as the wave of the future in the past month or two, so you may be right in a bubble taking off in that area once the worst of this downturn's rubble stops bouncing.

And yes, we can't run North American society as it is currently organized on renewable energy alone. No argument. I wonder about what society will look like in five years, much less twenty.

Kyoto Motors said...

Here in Quebec we dream of powering all our cars with the mighty Hydro Quebec electric grid! At least it's a popular thought among the eco-hipsters. Most people just want cheaper gas, and that's as far as they go with their thoughts on the matter.
Well earned gold star! Nice way to start things off. I often wonder what might have happened if petroleum had been doled out internationally as the ur-resource that it is, by a United Nations body of some sort. But then of course that would have required an enormously different history than the one we got... industrial capitalism being wholly intertwined with the development and leveraging of fossil-fuels.
I wonder, JMG, if you think Richard Heinberg's Oil Depletion Protocol and ASPO still have a chance of influencing national policy? It seems the opportunity is hanging in the air - but maybe that's just me...

Patricia Mathews said...

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What's more, no dryer sheets or scents are needed. A sweet, natural scent of Nature's Sunshine is included with the Accelerated Drying Option at No! Extra! Cost! No additional purchases necessary!

Granny Weatherwax says "I've been using the R.A.C.K. and the solar clothes dryer for the past 90 years, and have been quite satisfied. You can, too."

shastatodd said...

thanks for this fine essay mr greer! i just retired (in disgust) from a 30+ year career designing, installing and maintaining solar electric systems in our local, mount shasta area.

i say "disgust" because of what has happened to the solar electric industry. in "the old days", we (mostly hippies) wisely insisted on "energy audits" to reduce waste before any consideration for solar. we also had serious conversations with our customers about changing behavior to reduce consumption. typical systems were in the .5 to ~1 kW range, providing around 2 to 5 kWh/day at our latitude. this was plenty of a power for my off grid customers.

in the past ~5 years the charlatan$ have moved in. these are basically unethical solar prostitutes, who make more money, selling larger systems. since their motivation is purely about economics, they actually have an incentive to encourage waste and mindless consumption.

so now we have poor EROEI solar (founded on an unsustainable, fossil fuel powered industrial infrastructure), powering waste and mindless consumption. this makes "bad", "worse". 15 to 20 kW systems are common these days... providing 75 to 100 kWh/day. this means solar is now about greenwashing unconscious consumption and enabling non-negotiable lifestyles.

and don't forget while solar modules may last 20 to 30 years, the typical lifespan of an inverter is only ~6 to 8 years... so for sure, anyway you look at this, it is clearly not a "free lunch".

but in a world where people eschew reality and cling to any hopeful mitigation to the laws of thermodynamics... bullshit sells. i fully expect solar to be the new techno-cornucopianism pipedream.

Eric Teegarden said...

I have been active as an engineer and solar consultant (and twice a candidate for Snohomish PUD Commissioner) for nearly a decade and in that time the number of solar PV installations has grown from 30,000 to over a million in the USA and the price has dropped from $9/Watt to between $3 and $4/Watt depending on size and complexity. I have had a 3.8 kW grid-tied system that covers 100% of my electricity annually for my family of four living in a 1,700 SF house west of the Cascades. My PV system that cost $25,000 installed in 2009 could now be installed for under $15,000 which is reasonable if you are building or renovating a $150,000+ home. Imagine if tens of millions of PV systems were installed. Would the grid become more resilient and would the cost continue to go down with economies of scale or would demand exceed supply? I don't know. But I do know that it can work at the microgrid level and can even work if the grid goes down in cities through use of Outback-style inverters that piggyback onto standard string inverters.

Sojan Shieldbearer said...

Great article from, making many of the same points you do in this article. It even has a good example of a renewable energy shill in the comments section...

pygmycory said...

On the subject of living with much, much less, Victoria's got a giant homeless encampment/tent city that has been going on since about June/July. About 40+ tents, with the size fluctuating. It's been driving the city nuts because since it is on provincial land the city can't legally force the people to move, but it is right in front of the law courts in the middle of the city. They've gotten about 40 people into a temporary shelter, but the others are refusing to move and more keep coming to Victoria so it doesn't end up getting any smaller. Not the sort of thing Canada likes to show to the world, especially in a tourist town like Victoria!

I visited yesterday, brought food, hung out at the firepit for an hour or so, asked how things were going, why they were there, and what they were hoping to achieve. I was struck by a few things: the number of tents, the multiple tarps over and under everything in an attempt to keep things dry, the number of pet dogs and the cat on leash,the structures built out of pallets and other discarded objects, and the strong sense of community and how welcoming people were.

According to 'Grandmother', who the others at the firepit seemed to hold in respect, what they want is a permanent solution and not to be split up. It sounded almost as if they'd happily build their own makeshifts if they were given a bit of land on which to do so, rather than being temporarily warehoused and shifted from place to place with their belongings outside getting stolen, or out on the streets depending on political whim that month.

Another interesting thing with regard to native spirituality you mentioned a couple of weeks back: the firepit was the 'sacred fire' and Grandmother was First Nations. A disproportionate number of homeless people in Canada are First Nations, so that's not entirely surprising.

I suspect we have more of this type of thing in our near future.

Jen said...

Justin, as someone who makes a living on a working ranch in rural Texas, please hear my advice: if you do decide to go rural, don't do it until you can buy the land outright. You can piece together enough odd jobs and sales to pay your taxes and live, especially if you mostly do for yourself in terms of food and are conservative about energy, but I have seen even modest mortgages murder people fairly routinely out here. Unless you have family land or can buy in cash, it is probably a losing proposition, and it will take at least a few years to build out enough infrastructure to become even remotely self sufficient, plus you will likely end up needing at least some expensive repairs or equipment. No mortgage and at least some cash reserves going in is my strong recommendation.

Bryan L. Allen said...

Our household is by default a "Set the thermostat to the middle position" (off) household. My wife and I bicycle quite a lot, for commuting and for pleasure (gotta justify the 12 bikes somehow) and find that if the house is cold in the wintertime and kinda warm in the summertime that it keeps our conditioning in tune with the environment we ride in and makes things much more pleasant. And fun!

Because of that behavior, our electricity bill is lower in the summertime here in sunny Palmdale than it is in the wintertime, and it's still pretty low in the wintertime. As a result, I now have an often-used discourse I give to the door-to-door folks who stop by every month or two trying to sell rooftop solar (leases mostly now) and the look on their faces when I tell them what our electrical bills are ($ and KWH) is uniformly one of shocked surprise. Their offered monthly lease prices are three or four times our average monthly bill!

The recent thing that convinced me we're in the final desperate phase before such pathetic solar tomfoolery goes belly-up was a large billboard I saw that had the classic graphic of Uncle Sam scowlingly finger-pointing and admonishing everyone to Go Solar! Should have taken a picture but it appears others already have; Googling American Solar Uncle Sam without quotes and selecting Images will give you a glimpse of the foolishness. Bah.

Always a pleasure reading your words. Cheers!

Dennis Mitchell said...

I have been wondering why I have a refrigerator plugged in when it is freezing outside.

Michael Byron said...

Have not commented since about 2008 when we wrote semi-dueling Fermi Paradox columns. I’m commenting now as this March 12th I will celebrate four years physically disconnected from the grid. Our three bedroom suburban home in Oceanside California has been powered throughout this period solely by 6.25 watts of solar panels supplemented by a one kilowatt (maximum output at 26 mph) aluminum windmill seated atop a 35 foot post. On the topic of life off grid, I reckon that makes me very qualified to speak authoritatively. Our deep cycle battery backup consists of, effectively, 15 kilowatts. Batteries are recyclable lead acid types (Trojan 105’s to be exact).
Firstly, life off grid is VERY different from life on grid. Simply put, you MUST “trim your sails to the sun (and wind). High energy activities such, say, running the clothes washer, are for sunny days after the house battery bank has recharged. As for drying, well, that is solar too: a clothesline! If necessary, located inside. It is necessary to develop the habit of always minimizing power use at non-prime time hours.
Running the central heating in winter at night or in cloudy weather is impossible. This is because the forced air blower is a massive current suck which drains the batteries nonlinearly. Deep cycle batteries are not optimal for delivering high amounts of current for a sustained time period. So, winter mornings getting up for work below dawn it can be high 40’s F. Try stepping out of the shower into THAT folks!
Some winter days my wife and I have to declare to be “minimum energy days.” We actually love these because we spend more time together, play board games, and…well use your imagination. Our life inside is DIRECTLY connected to varying amounts of sun and wind OUTSIDE. Our home exists within nature, not isolated from it. We have always had power through these past four years by living like this.
Our energy system itself represents a departure from standard “McSolar” installations. Aside from being non-grid tie, with deep cycle batteries instead of the grid, the basic design is very different. Standard solar installation practice is to place all panels facing as nearly due south as possible. We have four separate arrays which, essentially “follow” the sun from dawn to sunset. We are not a grid tied net metering system. We must maximize our total daily intake of power throughout the entire day. On winter days with no sun this produces the most power for our battery bank.
The windmill produces about 2 kilowatts per day, averaged throughout the entire year. This is not much, but, in winter, it can be an energy lifesaver. We purchased it with the rebates from our solar system. If you can do this, it is useful for off grid systems. The windmill blades are aluminum. For whatever reason, birds see and avoid it. This is not true of blades made of composite materials, though, I confess, I do not know WHY.
We have come to accept our off grid life as “normal” over the years. However, it is indeed, very different from the on grid lifestyle of our neighbors.

Michael Byron, Oceanside, CA

Agent Provocateur said...


Renewable energy sources may well be the next bubble. I'm not certain that's a bad thing though if you consider some of the likely alternatives.

Some governments have gone big on renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power for governments owned electrical power companies. I don't think these governments really think renewable power is the answer in and of itself due to the high costs (relative to oil), intermittency, and low power production per unit. These governments are the actual users and so, as you indicted, they ought to know.

The hope is that these energy sources are less environmentally destructive than say just building a new oil fired power plant for roughly the same power output. My guess is that, all things considered, this is probably true.

I take it as a given that such renewable sources are more expensive than oil fired power plants for the same power output. Were this not so, most governments would have gone renewable long ago. In the case of economic hydro and geothermal power, this is in fact so.

Running costs on renewables are presumably lower than oil powered plants. The main running expense is maintenance, the energy source itself is free.

Thus the capital costs for renewables must be much higher than oil power plants for the overall costs for renewables to be higher per Kwhr.

Electrical power projects capital costs are typically paid for by public debt. To my knowledge, governments never really pay off their debts. They just roll it over. Destruction of the governments or sovereign default are the ways government debt is reduced or eliminated. Governments do not actually paying down on the "principle" of their debt.

So renewables are not economically viable compared to oil fired power plants ... if the government doesn't default. But lets face it, all governments will default (effectively if not in fact) as the global economic crisis continues. Its just a matter of how soon and in what order governments default. The trick is to be one of the last in the next wave of sovereign defaults.

My point here is: Yes there will be a boom and bust, but since we are talking about relatively cleaner energy that (probably) keeps producing after the bust (at least until the running costs cannot be covered); the situation is not nearly as bad as losing that (centralized) oil fire plant that is shut down because one can't afford the fuel oil. Further, renewable energy is generally delocalized to begin with (thus its higher capital cost). As things become more local, the potential exists or it to be broken up for local grids i.e. it can be scaled down in a way a large central oil plant cannot. To be honest though, I expect most of those huge windmills to stop forever once a bearing goes.

Still, I'm not seeing the downside to large scale government funded renewable electrical power generation. No its not the answer to keep the system going indefinitely, nothing is. It may; however, be a partial answer to graceful (versus catastrophic) degradation of the industrial way of life.

Might not this be a reasonable post peak (i.e. now!)strategy to keep the game going a bit longer? When a government defaults, it no long pays the debt service on the capital costs. At that point the lower running costs will appear as an advantage compared to oil fired plants.

RPC said...

Well, we did get the "oceans of ethanol from American corn" - there's been so much of the stuff distilled in the U.S. that blenders bumped up against the 10% limit in gasoline. Of course it's made from feed corn, because we know how to grow feed corn. Making it from plants high in sugar would NOT let us keep this society running, but it might produce a noticeable amount of fuel at a decent energy return.

Mark Rice said...

The end game of the fracking bubble is being reported in the New York Times.

econojames said...

JMG, another fine post. The solar bubble was up and running as of your New Year's post, at least here in Iowa. I had just the week before run into a former neighbor who had transitioned from growing vegetables on a market farm to installing solar systems on local farms. I had been unaware of it, but there are government subsidies available for farmers to install solar systems on their "unused" land. It seems to me that VEGETABLES are the "renewables" that we should be investing in...

Mark Hines said...

John, excellent post as usual. Right now I am finding it very difficult to talk to people about oil depletion when the world supply of crude is overflowing the storage facilities. I know it is only temporary but explaining that to someone who believes in progress is tough. I was thinking about this idea of sustainability and how it is used. Tesla motors boasts that it has a manufacturing plant that is run solely by electricity from solar and wind. However, when people talk this way I tell them that if they can show me a trail from the mining, transportation, to smelting and fabrication of the building and equipment, without fossil fueled equipment, then maybe I can concede their point. I think what people are referring to as sustainability is after everything is installed and up and running. Even then, without continued fossil fuel input, it is dicey.
Keep up the good work.

John Michael Greer said...

Angus, you know, that's an interesting point. I don't happen to know offhand how the energy per capita of, say, Victorian England compares to our current figure; I'll have to chase that down, compare other historical examples, and see if it's possible to identify a threshold below which no kind of industrial society can function.

Chris, it's entirely possible that the US will be on its way to failed-state status by the time the next bubble happens; in that case, it'll be the other industrial countries that take the lead in chasing that will o'-the-wisp.

Trog, you know, I think it's time to launch a new contest for presidential candidate sandwiches. To my mind, the Donald Trump is bologna and American cheese on white bread; I shudder to think of what the Hillary Clinton would be!

Unknown, solar energy is equivalent to a 6000K heat source 93 million miles away, plus atmospheric filtering -- and basic thermodynamics says that matters. That is to say, Murphy's a physics professor and knows his stuff.

Bruce, funny. Bean jokes were all the rage in the 1970s energy crisis, too.

Siliconguy, no doubt that'll be brushed aside once the hype really shifts into gear.

Diablo, it's all very well to say "where do we go next?" -- but have you actually gone down the green wizard path as far as you can? I haven't met many people anywhere who can say that. As for the politicians, as we move deeper into the next depression, I suspect you'll find that they have other things to worry about besides a quiet movement of people calmly detaching themselves from dependence on a collapsing global economy.

Pinku-sensei, and "Gong hay fat choy" (as I was taught to say it) to you and yours! Krugman -- gah. I don't read him unless I have to; it's rather too reminiscent of eating cold Spam on Wonder bread.

Notes, I've heard many similar stories. Thanks for the link -- no, I hadn't seen that!

Mark, granted -- though the maintenance problems with wind and solar are a lot more extreme than those for hydro. My guess is that the solar boom will result in a lot of very cheap PV cells available for salvage, though, which will be some help to those interested in 12v DC home systems.

Samurai, well, we'll see. Far milder comments by me have fielded screaming diatribes in the past.

Notes, and that's simple physics: moving water exerts vastly more force than moving air. Now if only that sort of straightforward reasoning would catch on in the green scene!

jbucks said...

Thanks a lot for the essay! One of your readers linked to Do The Math last week, which will now go on to my list of sites to read regularly. The post about the Energy Trap is worth reading in the context of your current article.

I'm especially glad to see the decline of fracking, but a question: is fracking in trouble because it isn't efficient, or is it because of the oversupply in conventional oil? Or both?

Donald Hargraves said...

I remember watching T Boone Pickins talking about building a band of wind turbines across the upper plains; the idea being that all the wind blowing there could energize a large portion of the United States. Fracking and the inability to produce enough transmission wires for the energy shot down his plan, but I can see it being revived soon enough, if you're right.

jbucks said...

Also, I discussed these sorts of issues not long ago with a friend, who replied 'why are you so pessimistic? People will think of something!' It was eerie hearing that phrase 'they will think of something' coming someone I know after reading here about that phrase being used as a sort of mantra to avoid doing anything at all.

It's almost like people who are steadily losing money deciding to increase their investment in lottery tickets. I don't know if the analogy totally fits yet, but I'll work on having something like it ready for the next time I hear that phrase.

jbucks said...

Hm, a bit embarrassing - I just did a google search for that lottery ticket analogy, and it turns you used it already. I guess your essays are starting to really sink in...

John Michael Greer said...

Backyardfeast, ahem. Thank. You. For. Getting. It. Now is there any way we can fix that insight on the business end of a branding iron and start applying it to some tender backsides?

Clay, I remember Chapin well, though I never got to attend a live concert of his. I wonder how many other people who were there admit to remembering those words.

Pygmycory, good. That's the question that needs to be asked, of course.

Kyoto, not a chance. ASPO is flat on its back and gasping -- do you recall how long it's been since they've even been able to host a conference? -- and the Depletion Protocol, like so many other good ideas, was dead on publication and as far as I know has never been seriously considered by anyone capable of acting on it. Nor are there more than a very few of us, out here in the archdruid-haunted wilderness, who are ready and willing to cut back on our energy usage right now in order to provide our descendants with a livable world.

Patricia, Granny Weatherwax's recommendation is good enough for me!

Shastatodd, I made an exception to my usual rule about profanity because I appreciate hearing from someone who's actually been out there in the trenches. Many thanks for the report from the field! I used to live in Ashland OR, a few hours north of you, and got to see the same thing a little earlier; my favorite example was the expensive house with a full set of PV panels on the side of the roof facing north, away from the sun, because that faced the street and allowed the homeowner to parade his ecological virtue to the passersby.

Eric, yes, and that kind of case-study rhetoric -- which pays no attention to the issues involved in large-scale PV usage -- is among the things that will be used to fuel the sales pitches for the allegedly renewable future.

Sojan, it is indeed -- the author, Andrew Nikiforuk, is among the best commentators on energy and peak oil news out there, and very much worth following.

Pygmycory, I'm glad to hear that 40 tents counts as a giant homeless encampment in Canada. Seattle, based on what I've been told by friends there, has half a dozen such encampments with populations ranging up into three digits. You're quite right that there'll be more of this to come -- as the industrial economy unravels, this is the new reality.

Bryan, excellent! To my mind, that kind of systematic conservation means quite a bit more than any shiny technological gimmick.

Dennis, good. Have you considered acting on that recognition?

Michael, welcome back! It's exactly the testimony of people who are actually living off the grid that, to my mind, is the best source of guidance for what works and what doesn't, so thank you.

Agent, the devil as usual is in the details. Right now, with the price of fossil fuels as low as it currently is, the operating costs for a PV system of comparable wattage to a natural gas power plant may actually be higher -- the lack of fuel costs are offset by much higher maintenance costs, since the PV cells have to be cleaned regularly or they lose efficiency, the devices that pivot them toward the sun take constant repair, etc., etc. In some situations PV plants might be useful; in others, they're subsidy dumpsters -- and while governments can come up with the money by the simple expedient of borrowing it out of thin air, the energy, resources, labor, and other real costs involved are not so readily manifested.

RPC, vast government subsidies for the corn and ethanol industries were needed to make that happen. Of course ethanol could be used, on a modest scale, as a fuel source; cornstalks make a viable feedstock, for example, if you're willing to use relatively inexpensive fermentation methods. But you can't power an industrial civilization that way.

John Michael Greer said...

Mark R., yep. Like Paul Simon, I can read the writing on the wall.

Econojames, no argument there!

Mark H., oh, granted. The awkward detail that all that oil is filling up the tanks because the global economy is skidding into a depression, and nobody can afford to use oil at previous rates, misses a lot of people just now.

Jbucks, all of the above, and then some. It's also in trouble because it was basically a Ponzi scheme from day one: fracking produces a very nice initial rush of crude, followed by nightmarishly fast depletion, and frackers used that initial rush and a lot of very dubious claims about how long it could continue to lure in investment money from the clueless, who have now been left holding the bag.

Donald, sure, and some of it may actually get built until the dismal economic reality sinks in.

Jbucks, I think of the phrase "they'll think of something" as the sound made by a brain turning off. Yes, I used the lottery ticket metaphor, but it's a good one, so by all means run with it!

Brian said...

Good article. It's delusional to think that building out renewables will allow us to continue with business as usual, but if we think of them as part of a complete retooling of how we live, we might get somewhere.

A couple of things worth considering when thinking of renewables. Wind and solar PV work a lot better when combined with existing hydropower, a means of generating power that can be quickly turned on and off as required - when the wind blows and the sun shines, you keep the water behind the dam like money in the bank.

Another is the amount of land required for PV generating - this might be useful for those considering community solar co-ops:

Finally, I would like to second Jen's advice regarding mortgages to those contemplating a move to the country: you can scratch by growing some of your own food and working part-time jobs doing this and that if you're not paying a mortgage, but I've seen too many dreams end up in broken marriages and other sorrows from people trying to do it all while paying a mortgage.

Anthony Romano said...

Individually I think the scariest thing about all this is that while peak oil may be here, peak landlord is still a long way off.

I think most people could, if forced to, adapt to a lower energy lifestyle. However, it will probably be a century or longer before landlords start accepting labor, or homespun goods, in lieu of rent checks. I can learn all the skills I want, but that doesn't mean my landlord will accept a basket of eggs, or a pair of handsewn leather boots.

As I see it, living through the crash is going to be a lot harder than living after the crash. It is a bit ironic, that those living hard homesteading lives right now will likely be living what is considered a life of luxury several decades from now simply virtue of their owning title to land.

Since homesteading is out of the question for me (I don't have the capital to make it happen before thing really go pear-shaped), I reckon the best skill anyone can have is an adaptable mindset. One that is willing to roll with changing circumstances and, when the wind shifts, not getting hung up chasing dreams that only make sense in the prior conditions.

Jason Renneberg said...

I used to work at a public pool that had some deal with the power company where they stopped heating the pool when power was in high demand (not sure if they called or just flipped a switch at the power company) for which they got a discount on power. The pool held a lot of heat and took a day or too to cool noticably, once in the 5 or so years I worked there it went on a few days and cooled enough to get complaints.

William Hays said...

JMG, thank you for clarifying the severe difficulties with renewable energy. I come from a Tennessee tobacco farm and recognize what has happened to agriculture in the lifespan of my late father (born 1902) and myself (born 1951). As a retired civil engineer I want to believe we can build the infrastructure (especially rail) that can get local food to metropolitan areas, but I also acknowledge the challenge of providing net energy from any source, renewable or otherwise.

Engineers are supposed to solve problems; my frustration lies in convincing anyone a problem exists! We have the creativity to bring new solutions and a better life for all living things on this planet if we can just recognize the true circumstances in which we find ourselves and pull our hand out of the trap. Again, thank you for your excellent columns each week.

backyardfeast said...

@JMG: No, thank *you* (I can't help it; I'm Canadian ;) ). Seriously, though, reading your work these many years has helped me through the natural binary thinking that plagues so many of us. I still have to work hard at keeping my focus on the real work ahead, and not on my own doom fantasy that allows me to stay passive. Your weekly reminders make a big difference to staying on track constructively.

@Justin: I think many feel your dilemma. But if you are in a job that's got a reasonably viable short-to-medium term future, a walkable/bikeable urban environment,a reasonable cost of living, and a strong community network, etc in your current life, then you have a lot going for you. If what you don't have is land to grow food, why not try and address just that? There are many ways to access land to grow food that don't involve you buying it yourself. Some folks are "farming" other people's unused yards in exchange for a cut of the produce. Others lease land just outside of town; others grow on vacant lots or community gardens, or start growing on vacant land until it becomes a community garden. Others still do "guerrilla gardening"--planting food in unobtrusive places around the city in secret or semi-secret. Be creative! You won't be alone in your position in your city--find others who will help you create a solution and your whole community will be more resilient and better connected. It's so easy to fall into the mind trap of "if I need it I must own it myself!" But that's a very recent, and very north american way of thinking, and it's not the past nor likely to be the future.

aiastelamonides said...


It's good to see Prof. Murphy linked here. Do The Math is an extremely valuable and delightfully written resource. To see someone go through the costs in systematic detail is a huge relief, and a model to aspire to. An island of rigorous, researched systems thinking in the shallow, stormy sea of extrapolation that is the public conversation about the future! The other day I was discussing population growth with someone and had to point out that global population is, in fact, tied to global food supply, and that the latter cannot be increased indefinitely. Oy vey!

Calling a claim without anything resembling the term "climate" in its subject or predicate "a new form of climate denialism" is so transparently Orwellian and manipulative that it's actually rather charming (I'll leave the article's main argument untouched, lest it collapse into a cloud of poisonous dust). I'm imagining a future where the word "denial" is generally accompanied by "climate" (like "time immemorial" or "everyday life/experience"), as in "Simultaneous affirmation and climate denial is contrary to human reason" or "Climate denial is followed by anger, and then bargaining."

Jason Heppenstall said...

Yes, it's everywhere isn't it? Just yesterday a friend posted something on social media about a motorbike in Brazil that is 'fuelled by water'. I pointed out to him that it didn't run on water, it ran on hydrogen extracted from water using grid electricity generated by burning coal. He was good-humoured enough to accept this fact but he still kept repeating "Yes, but the only pollution it causes is water vapour and at least it isn't using fossil fuels." This kind of inability to think puzzles me deeply - it's something I'll probably never understand.

I bought some solar panels from eBay a few weeks back. They came direct from the factory in China and arrived in England within four days - so I'm assuming they flew them over (no horse can run that fast). The reason I bought them - along with a modest charge controller - was so that I would have a power backup at the caravan in my woodland. I already have a small inverter to convert 12v to something my laptop, some lights and a music system can use. Anyway, this setup was about 20% of the cost of the last setup I purchased, back in 2004.

People like to claim that this price drop is due to increased efficiencies etc, but I think it may have more to do with overcapacity in China and a hugely subsidised industry that is struggling to get rid of its products. I don't have any illusions about what renewables are capable of (having lived with them in the past) but I certainly appreciate their usefulness in the short to medium term while everyone else works through their delusions and arrives at the same inescapable conclusion.

bowsprite said...

Thank you Mr. Greer!

May I use your line, " hydrofracturing of oil- and gas-bearing shales"? I have linked it to you.

I am a reader currently living in Switzerland. A friend who is an environmental lawyer here spearheads a fight on which the people will be voting for very soon; hardly no Swiss voter wants this second tunnel through the mountains, but it seems like it will be built, and the people do not understand how a few, monied 'yes' can over overrule a majority 'no'.
Nevertheless, my friends print this out and it is one of the things they hand out at rallies:


The image of the globe and needle on E, I first saw in the 1970's. It was a hot day, my father's license ended in an odd number, so we were allowed to get fuel. We waited interminably on line at that gas station in Queens in the heat. A huge billboard with this image rose above us: black background, globe, needle on "E", over the Grand Central Parkway, with simple white lettering underneath, reading: "What then?"

I have searched in vain for images of that billboard, or the sponsor of the ad. Would you or your readers know more about it?
Images have powerful effects on the young! I have never forgotten it--I was 7 years old then.

John Michael Greer said...

Brian, sure, and if we still had the decades of time and the ample remaining resources we had in the Seventies, retooling our entire way of life in time to stave off massive crisis might still be an option. As Robert Hirsch et al. pointed out in 2005, though, that had to get under way twenty years before the peak of worldwide conventional petroleum production -- which, as it happens, was in 2005. So at this point you're talking about closing the barn door when the horse has not only left but sent back a forwarding address from another state.

Anthony, my working guess is that within a couple of decades, most Americans will be squatters, not renters, living the way homeless people do today -- but with a much larger stock of abandoned housing to choose from. As rents continue mindlessly upward in a contracting economy, it's not too hard to see the shape of the future.

Jason, that's a good example of the way that intermittent power can be used. Unfortunately there are not many other examples that don't involve significant changes to modern American lifestyles.

William and Backyardfeast, you're welcome and thank you.

Aias, that Oreskes piece is quite a piece of work, isn't it? It's a fine if meretricious sales pitch for the solar and wind industries, to be sure.

Jason, gah. Yes, I field arguments like that all the time -- "X runs on electricity, therefore it doesn't pollute" is among the most common. Sure, so long as you don't think about what generates the electricity. I suppose it makes sense if your only concern is whether you, personally, are producing pollution, and you think you've got an indulgence from the Pope absolving you from any pollution someone else produces on your behalf...

Bowsprite, you certainly may -- but I didn't invent it; it's the technically correct description of what "fracking" actually is. As for the billboard -- yes, I remember it too. Here's TV spot with the same image at the end.

Antonio García-Olivares said...

A peer-reviewed article that concludes the opposite of this post can be found in the following link:

ed boyle said...

I have a solar water heater which saves us on costs on sunny days, otherwise nat gas.

It's all just whistling past the graveyard. If europe gets to 50% electricity replacement with cables balncing out northern wind with southern sun, and then french nukes acting as base load as coal is phased out I wonder if all transport will go to electric rail, trams, etc. Something will break and growth will be zero as we restrict ourselves to basics and fan't replace the monster turbines as fossil fuels really do deplete as the solar and wind need replacement in 20 years. Then we will have an easter island situation.

cristina said...

I think something like 80% of Icelands energy needs are covered by some form of renewables or other. They are sold as having no impact on nature whatsoever ...the usual blah when it comes to renewables. But still, I'm happy enough to see the vapours of Deilartunguhver rising from the kitchen window and have our house heated with water coming directly from there.

But (and here the Dollar signs start spinning in some people's eyes) there is still so much hydro power untapped! Harness the highlands! Build another dam or five! Aluminium smelter, anyone? Or maybe we could have some sort of underwater cable from England and just plug them in. England? Hell, let's plug the world in!

Megalomania being not unknown in these parts, all this could happen. And instead of being content with Guðmundur bóndi heating his greenhouse and his farm with hot water from the sping down the road, I guess we'll end with plenty of half-finished dam projects, infrastructure leading to nowhere, destroyed land and broken places when all those gradiose plans run out of money or it turns out that somebody didn't do the math properly.

That's going to happen in a lot of places where renewables are touted as THE Thing that's going to save our lifestyle. Foolery and madness.

Mark Mikituk said...

"It probably also needs to be pointed out that I’m actually very much in favor of renewable energy technologies, and have discussed their importance repeatedly on this blog. The question I’ve been trying to raise, here and elsewhere, isn’t whether or not sun and wind are useful power sources; the question is whether it’s possible to power industrial civilization with them, and the answer is no."

This is what got me, John; a perfect one paragraph summary of your argument which is pretty indisputable, and needs to be chewed on.

Chloe said...

Oh, brilliant, this again? (Them, not you.)

I remember when the biofuels debate kicked off, actually - it became one of our classroom topics for a week or so, at the age of about thirteen, and the funny thing is we all spotted those little problems regarding the fact that it would be impossible to scale up in any meaningful way without, oh, starving out most of the planet almost immediately. I remember being quite dismissive and then surprised later when all the local buses announced they were running on 10% biofuels (or whatever it was). Being so young, we hadn't fully absorbed the assumptions or the desperation of the cornucopian renewables crowd, and young people are far less invested in their beliefs than older ones in any case. Unfortunately - there's a lot more to be said about this, but it's kind of off-topic and would max out the character count for three or four comments - suffice to say that since 99% of young people, like 99% of everybody, have barely an inkling of the wider issues involved, that doesn't necessarily help. (Though the people who came of age post-2008, and even more so those who come of age post-the next big crisis, and more so continuing, will be progressively less convinced by the paradigm of progress, even if they can't/don't articulate it.)

I recently read the Bromeliad trilogy, by Terry Pratchett. There's a nice metaphor in it about tree frogs who live in flowers and don't realise there's anything outside the flower. That's us, with history rather than space, and far less excuse: even people who are old enough to remember within their own lifetimes when things were different seem to forget. And you've reminded me - I must re-read 1984...

I'm just going to hope the fracking "boom" goes properly bust before it can cause too much damage over here in the UK. I'm not even sure renewables done carelessly even get a gold star for being "less malign" and they'll probably start digging up the (carbon sink) peat bogs again, but most things are better than methane coming out the taps.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

Dear J.M.G., I got two things here from the combination of your post and Michael's comments. A, your central point that renewables are not enough to power industrial civilization as we know it. B, renewables can power a household but living off grid requires a different way of living. It requires scaling down expectations, constant awareness and adaptation. Got that, and would welcome the challenge. Now. I still wonder about the feasability of a society run on a more decentralized network of small scale power generation, with communities deciding how much is enough...Oh wait. That is Retrotopia. I would welcome that society, but fear we will see a return to slavery instead. Meanwhile I have come up with an addendum to the old Serenity prayer: Grant me the wisdom to know the difference between change I can make on my own, and change that demands I organize together with others. Waving fondly from the rural acreage to which I fled in the seventies.

MigrantWorker said...

Good morning mr Greer,

May I suggest another potential future energy bubble - this one centered on forests. Specifically, coniferous forests.

For many centuries, coniferous trees were tapped for their resin. All of them produce it as defense against wounds, pest infestations etc., with various species of pine producing the greatest amount. This resin can then be distilled to extract turpentine - which in turn has chemical properties very similar to those of diesel fuel. It can be used as an additive, replacing up to 30% of oil-derived fuel - or indeed as a fuel in its own right: the first Honda motorcycle, built right after the 2nd World War when petrol was in very short supply in Japan, did run on pure turpentine. A pine tree can be tapped over a long period of time - 20 years or more if a suitable technique is used - and while a single tree yields only up to 2 litres of turpentine per year, there is of course a lot of trees.

It would also be a relatively easy sell to the public. Not only does it use a sustainable resource, but also tree tapping is by necessity local thus creating jobs in the rural areas! And not just in parts of the country blessed with geological history conducive to the formation of oil deposits, but potentially anywhere with a climate suitable for tree growth. And tree tapping cannot be easily automated, so the jobs would be there to stay.

...of course a question of energy return on energy invested still remains. As for profitability, well - at current low oil prices it's a non-starter. It may become competitive when at the pump diesel prices reach 6 dollars per gallon; I am not sure what oil price would that imply. This does not count the cost of building all the infrastructure necessary to convert resin into marketable fuel, which may be considerable.

The wider implications of mass-scale adaptation of resin extraction may include: destruction of broadleaf forests, to make way for pine plantations; destruction of the existing coniferous forests through overexploitation, improper tapping techniques etc.; destruction of forest fauna by pesticides; and all the corresponding secondary effects of the above.

But hey, by a back of the envelope calculation the US could extract a million barrels of turpentine a day from its forests (under a number of optimistic assumptions). This is a significant amount whichever way you look at it; I can see it becoming a serious proposal in the future.


Cherokee Organics said...


Thank you for writing this! ;-)!. Seriously well done.

Renewable energy systems are great, but they are uneconomic and will not deliver the sort of energy that people currently expect from the mains electricity grid. The sheer wastage in that mains grid system is immense and frightening.

I was in the big smoke working today and got back home quite late - 11pm, so I will pen a longer reply tomorrow, but I just wanted to again say thank you.

Oh, yeah, before I forget, I had this weird insight that people understand energy in terms of monetary units and not in the terms that I have to understand it here which are energy units (i.e. Watts and Kilo Watts). I think that misunderstanding breeds a lot of confusion on the subject and especially as the monetary units can be gamed. Nature can't be gamed and Watts and Kilo Watts are part of nature.

Anyway, bed is calling. Top work!



deedl said...

When looking at the production curves of wind and solar here in Germany as well as on the energy consumption my assessment of the future energy production and consumption patterns are as following:

Electricity: While solar production is much lower in winter, wind production is much higher in winter, so there are no seasonal shortcomings to expect. Except for some events in autumn, weather conditions that are both cloudy and low in wind speeds are rare. Water power provides some (low level) baseload and biomass is a subsidy sink and will not play any significant role. Electricity is 1/3 of total energy consumption. Of this electricity, 70% is used by industry and 30% by households. Industry has to align ist electricty use with the weather to cope with intermittency, which will greatly impact the rhythms of industrial workers life. But total post fossil impact here is low, since electricity already is at 35% renewables.

Heating: Heating Buildings makes up roughly another 1/3 of energy consumption and is mainly done by burning fossil fuels. Superinsulated buidlings and heat pumps can warm buildings using quite small amounts of electricity, but badly done insulations are at the moment a subsidy dumpster because many buildings start rotting beneath the insulation. However, because of the thermal mass of buildings, (renewable) electricity based heating can be used to flatten the intermittency of electricity production. But if and how the amounted of heated space that is available now for everybody can be ensured in future is questionable. The post fossil impact here is medium.

Transportation: This is the remaining 1/3 of energy use. Although electrical cars will replace ice-cars in the years to come, I am sure that large parts of the middle class will not be able to afford an individual car one generation into the future. The trend for growing bike use is already here and the public transportation system of electrically driven trains and trams is dense and convenient. Replacing ice-buses by electrical ones does need much fewer resources than replacing all the individual cars. I also think that plane rides and subtropical fruits will be out of reach for most middle class people. On the transportation sector post fossil impact is high.

Alltogether life will change significantly for most people, that are now used to having a car, flying on vacation to Spain and eating mediterrane vegetables in winter. However the settlement structure is still in large parts the same as before the times of mass car use, so chances are that basic transportation needs can be met in the time to come. The high population density means that per head costs of grid are lower than in other countries, so public transportation and electricity networks have better chances to survive than in other parts of the world. Chances are good for common people to have access to electricity and public transport, there is no shortage of rain and water for agriculture and sanitary use, but many people probably have to wear warmer clothing at home during winter time. I also see a dramatic decrease in meat consumption, but basic food needs can be covered using (labour intensive) ways of local production (as two world wars have shown). The conversion of office jobs to agricultural jobs will not go without complains.
So the future here in Germany will be neither a renewable business as usual nor a revert to preindustrial times. I think in terms of energy use it will be a sort of lower level industrial society with many of todays convenience being unaffordable for the majority of people.

Pavel said...

JMG, while I generally agree with your position, I think that you are overstating some problems.

1. Bird-killing wind power stations: is it current situation? Because I was looking at the problem a few years ago, and at the time it seemed, that most of the killing was done by old, small and fast turning turbines. Typical current turbine is 150 m or even 200 m high, which may be too high for at least some of birds, and its angular velocity is slow, which should make it avoidable.

2. Photovoltaics in Spain: the problem IMHO is, that the study includes too many things on input side. For example, factoring in expenses for police protection (because maintaining order is necessary for running the station) is IMHO too much. May be, if we include so much of common expenses of society among inputs, then EROEI of 1.6:1 is not that bad...

3. Low net energy of wind: EROEI of wind is usually given as 15 - 25, which is not a miracle, but still more then the value of 10, allegedly necessary for running a civilisation of our type. Of course, that is without counting loses in storage and grid.

4. And as a reaction to one of your comments: AFAIK green movement is aware of better performance of water turbines. The problem is, that hydro power is now more or less on its potential - the best places are already used. And, as anything else, even hydro power has its externalities.

Ondra said...

Dear JMG,

this article shows nicely the fantasies about renewables. It is really fine coincidence that it appeared just today.


Sherril Bowman said...

The Shkreli Smirk...
I'd be smirking too (maybe not quite so publicly) if i was in a position to showcase what Big Pharma has been doing for years. Maybe he's like a smart-aleck Edward Snowden.

John & Louise said...


Your writing is a joy to read.

Thank you.

Kyle Schuant said...

A couple of thoughts. The first is that not enough is said in the Western world about energy conservation. The average Australian household uses 14kWh/day - and that's with gas water heating and cooking, the electric ones use more. One electricity retailer website looked at the payback period of the Tesla Powerwall battery and had a case study of a real home using 35kWh/day! And the case study did not mention replacing the battery at some point, apparently it has not occurred to people yet.

So average 14kWh, and case study 35... meanwhile in our home we use 6kWh/day on average, and we are not making extraordinary efforts, we do use aircon when needed (35+C days) and so on. If everyone did similarly, domestic electricity consumption would halve. In terms of climate change and fossil fuel depletion, a 50% reduction of consumption is the same as being 50% renewable, even in the magical world where renewables have zero fossil fuel consumption or carbon emissions. And rather than a cost, we save money.

The second thought is that people's reducing consumption may actually lead to large grids becoming economically unsustainable. About 20 years ago we privatised electricity production, and the buying companies didn't invest in infrastructure. Consumption rose, and there were blackouts on hot summer afternoons. So government stepped in and forced the companies to invest in infrastructure to deal with future consumption rises.

The companies responded by raising prices. Consumers responded to rising prices by... consuming less. Companies are now responding to lower consumption by... raising prices. Which will lead to... and... and...

At some point this positive feedback loop leads to companies going bust: either the companies get taken over by government who then run the electricity grid as a loss-making public service (like pension funds or our public healthcare), or the companies can no longer afford to maintain the grid of production and distribution for everyone and just keep it up for a wealthy few.

Whatever the energy equations of the whole thing, energy conservation is an economic threat to the age of the One Big Facility. So while in principle simply conserving energy could have similar effects to closing down coal etc stations in favour of renewables, I don't see how it can happen economically. And while individual households can live "off the grid", I can't see that happening with tens of millions of households - the minimum-wage home isn't buying a Tesla Powerwall any time soon.

Small-scale grids as Greer describes seem inevitable. That or permanent blackouts - but I doubt most people will just stumble into oblivion, Third World slums show how inventive people will be when they need to.

Ares Olympus said...

This morning I heard a BBC story about the country of Costa Rica, which thanks to hydroelectric power, has nearly completely renewable electrical grid. So that's supposed to show us that a renewable sustainable economy is possible, and they also mentioned the falling price of photovoltaics.
Costa Rica has not discovered sources of fossil fuels—apart from minor coal deposits—but its mountainous terrain and abundant rainfall have permitted the construction of a dozen hydroelectric power plants, making it self-sufficient in all energy needs, except oil for transportation. Costa Rica exports electricity to Central America and has the potential to become a major electricity exporter if plans for new generating plants and a regional distribution grid are realized. Mild climate and trade winds make neither heating nor cooling necessary, particularly in the highland cities and towns where some 90% of the population lives.

I also notice from Wikipedia the GDP per capita is about $15k, low by U.S. standards, but lower incomes might still make for a good life if the cost of living is lower too. OTOH, I see the inflation rate 5.6% if sustained will quickly move people into poverty.

Anyway, at least it reminds me that when oil economy is gone, we will enter a world of differential geographical assets, and some regions may prosper for decades while others will fall into chaos, even now, like regions of war now leading to huge refugee movements.

Donald Trump might be wrong about his Great Wall of America aspirations, but you have to think modern liberalism of more "open borders" is a temporary feature of cheap energy, and the future will contain more intense defending of boundaries, for anyone who likes what they has, while their neighbors failed to have the same good fortunes or prudent ancestral planning.

I've also remembered you quote from 2010 in regards to communal boundaries.
"In my experience, there are at least two things essential to any viable community that the vast majority of Americans find completely unacceptable. The first is an accepted principle of authority; the second is a definite boundary between members and nonmembers."

I can see the reason multicultural liberalism tries to break boundaries is they are by nature discriminatory, giving special treatment to tribal ingroup members and shutting out people who are different.

But if individualism must end with cheap energy, then we will have to relearn how to deal with tribal thinking, and use its best qualities for resiliency while moderating its vices. (Like they say teddy-bear empathy has a dark side that enables aggression to people outside your circle.)

Fred said...

We lived in a town of 7,000 in a small brick home built 1950's and the mortgage and taxes were very affordable and could walk to the grocery store. Ten years ago we moved four miles out of town to a couple of acres and slightly bigger home and doubled the mortgage and taxes. Why? Because of the class of people of town. The term for it here is white trash. Dogs barked all day long, people put sofa's on the front porch, along with their beer cans and fast food refuse. Leaf blowers, lawn mowers, snow blowers, hedge trimmers filled the air with noise. I could never figure out why the care for the lawn while trash blew freely. Families screamed at each other with the windows open. Now heroin is taking over the town. Can't imagine what it's like to live there now.

David Veale said...

Been looking at h2 for years myself. Bottom line is that any leaks would quickly eat your ozone layer, which makes it too dangerous imho.

pathman said...

There are already some signs of problems in the solar industry. See for example:

SCA Heretic said...

Hello JMG:

This has nothing to do with this week's post, but I thought I would pass it along to you, for what should be obvious reasons to the author of Twilight's Last Gleaming. :)

trippticket said...

Thank you once again for a clear and concise look at the future, Mr. Greer! Timely too, as our federal tax return hit the credit union account yesterday, and my wife and I sit on the couch sipping coffee, finalizing details for our modest off-grid PV system installation. We've lived without any electricity to speak of for 4 years now - less than 30W total, including tiny pathway lights between the front gate and the porch. And the system we're installing probably won't be much more than an order of magnitude larger, but I have to say that having a refrigerator will be like heaven! A 'fridge!! Yee-ha!!! And a few fans and high quality LED lighting instead of oil lamps and gas lights with $8 mantles that break every time someone slams the front door (obviously that didn't take long to do away with...)

This post reminds me that perhaps the best gift we've given our two young children is the gift of comfort with intermittency. When the old laptop runs out of charge and the kids' movie goes dark, the children quietly stand up, close the lid, and go play. No tantrums, no "Aaaaaw, crap," no nothing. Out of all the organic gardening, orchards, mushroom cultivation, small livestock, water catchment, graywater reuse, herbal medicine, and so on, I wonder if this isn't the best gift of all.

By the way, congrats on a decade of blogging! Wish I'd been here all along. You are far and away the most influential person in my life, and I can't thank you enough for the last 4 years of time spent with you. And now I'll go slip a little something in your tip jar as a small token of thanks for all you do. Cheers.

M said...

It appears the bubble is bursting before it is even fully blown. From the NYT this morning:

"But even more troubling, SolarCity’s debt levels are soaring as cash levels shrink. Last year, the company’s interest payments on its debt totaled nearly a quarter of its revenue.

SolarCity executives continue to express faith in their business model. The potential market for solar panels is barely tapped, they say, and the extension of the federal tax credits bolsters their ability to capture it.

As governments around the world look to increase their share of solar power, Mr. Rive said, customers will continue to want a product that saves them money and offers a clean alternative to utility power.

But it is local rate policies, like the sharp cut in net metering credits in Nevada, that pose a threat to SolarCity and its ilk. The reductions, supported by the main utility, NV Energy, a subsidiary of Warren E. Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway, apply to existing contracts as well as to new ones, raising worries that customers will try to renegotiate or break them."

Full article here.

Of course, these articles never go deep enough to give the reader a true understanding of the dilemmas involved. Here the easy answer is that local policies are being changed before things can get going. Or something to that effect.

To me, the current hi-tech renewables (as opposed to the 1970s lo-tech that you espouse)is another example of the increasing complexity of systems. Or, as Ivan Illich would say, the watershed point where renewables made sense has long been passed. Just because something gets more complicated, does not mean it is better or more "efficient." See our educational system, health care, transportation, etc. Not to mention politics. Like these tools, our energy system is now mostly occupied with the task of keeping itself (and our lifestyles) in existence as much as it is in providing a reasonable assist to the basics of living in the world. We just never know when to say when when it comes to technology. Humans!

An example I like to use is the side view mirror on automobiles. Once it was a humble slab of mirror attached to a basic frame that swivels on a ball joint that could be adjusted by rolling down the window, sticking your hand out, and moving it into a useful position. Now it is operated electronically by several switches, and costs many hundreds of dollars to fix or replace. And for what? To save a few calories of small muscle movements? (It doesn't save time, these things take longer to adjust.)

I read recently that now automakers are set to roll out camera systems to take over this function, similar to the cameras that have replaced the rear view mirror. This of course further adds to the cost and complexity of cars. As for self-driving Google machines, again, more complexity, and more extraction, etc.

Knotty Pine said...

Excellent post! The main takeaway for me is the realization that the exorbitant lifestyles many of us take for granted are unsustainable and there is no panacea. Dogmatic adherence to "the solution du jour" is just as bad as burying one's head in the sand. The only thing I would add is that our monetary system is also reaching a point where the rubber hits the road. Much of our privileged existence is due to a bizarre economic paradigm which has enabled so much of the malinvestment (fracking) present in our system. The USD and and all it's complex derivatives is on a collision course with reality. I am hopeful that when true marked to market value is returned to our economic system the funding of future renewable projects will be more realistic. In other words capital will tend to gravitate towards quality rather than quantity.

Clay Dennis said...

JMG, I agree that if there is another "bubble" it will be renewables, but I am not sure that after the coming shakeout of Oil Patch debt, soverign debt, subprime car loans, mortagage bust II and student loan collapse ,the financial system will have much juice left in it. Also, here in the Pacific NW the windpower boom has already played itself out with all the local companies that made the steel towers ( the rest is imported) having been closed down and auctioned off. The once vaunted Oregon Department of Energy which was started by Governor Tom Mcall and was the original gathering place of much of the crew of 70's appropriate tech magazine RAIN is under fire for bad renewable energy loans. Nearly all of the loans it has made in recent rears for renewables projects have gone bad so the agency will probably be shut down this year. I think it will take a mighty PR campaign to start up the Ponzi again here.

Brian said...

I said to friends 15 years ago, "Look, when the oil goes so does the industrial base, so does the grid, so do our flashy plastic computers. It'll take a while, but that's the simple trajectory. and we'll be left with lots of ugly hollow plastic sculptures."

I said all along to the fanatical anti-frackers, "Look, you just need to stall. The numbers don't work and the industry will collapse in a few short years, though damage will be done."

I say now to the solar fanatics, "Look, what happens after you install all these panels and in 20 years they're putting out 3% of the energy they do today and they can't be replaced because to manufacture solar panels you need an industrial infrastructure and materials that aren't possible without oil? You can't run a factory or forge steel on solar-generated energy. Sure, you might be able to have electricity a few hours a day, but eventually you'll run out of light bulbs, and without a grid there's no communications network for your now irreplaceable phones and tablets. So why not just learn to do without this stuff now? Let's write letters so they'll keep the post office funded, let's work with machines and implements built to last and figure out how to fix them."

It's so depressing that this same message has to be rehearsed over and over again. But so be it. And there will be acres and acres of defunct solar panels poisoning the landscape. Well, maybe some bright young person will figure out how to turn them into surfboards.

bigsky generation said...

Michael, agree with the larger principle and have a few counterpoints on some of the details but not worth the debate. There is one aspect to your hypothesis that requires illumination. As a Project Engineer and Commissioning Manager on a number of wind farms I can say with some authority the element that will bring about their early demise in a catabolic collapse is complexity.

Current generation wind turbines are complex machines. They have 3 MW inverters that are intricate and complex power electronics communicating on integrated control systems. During Commissioning of one particular vendor's units in Southern Ontario they are controlled by engineers in Orlando. What does it take to build and maintain that complexity? Although in normal operation they are controlled by the local Park controller through the fiber optic communications.

It is quite common for a unit to be shut down due to a $10 or $100 part.

We know the current renewables buildout is a transition. Hopefully it is part of the path that gets us from here to there. As for social and habit change, this is why the promotional commercial by Jon Cooksey was made for This Is Insane Day. It's on YouTube.

Pentrus said...

How anyone can believe that renewables will ever match the energy available in fossil fuels ignores the incredible energy density in coal, oil, and gas. As we are forced to move away from such energy sources, either due to scarcity or climate change, we could use renewables to provide a very limited (compared to today's average usage)level of electricity to run a much more austere household (compared to today's typical household). Although austere may only mean moving back to a 1950s, 1920s, or 1850s lifestyle per Mr. Greer's Retrotopia model. It would take some getting used to, but it would not be like going back to the stone age. An advantage some older adults in the U.S. have is that they lived a much simpler lifestyle in their youth, so some of these changes will not be so foreign to them. For example, I grew up on a farm that had no indoor toilet, where we took baths from water gathered in a cistern, grew an acre+ garden (in addition to grain and livestock), always used old cars, did not take lavish vacations (often they were spent near home at relatives or local woodlands/parks), and made do with limited materials goods, many of which were handed down or recycles. We never felt poor, although by today's standards we would be judged as having lived in poverty.

The use of a very limited amount of renewable energy in the future is going to be constrained both by the simple fact that such sources can't produce power at nearly the same level as the current fossil fuel-based energy grid, and because the manufacturing infrastructure we have today that would be used to produce solar panels, wind turbines, and the like, cannot function without fossil fuel inputs.

For me, this means I have to scale back my use of energy in every area of my life. Relearn how to depend on shoe leather or a bicycle to perform many of my errands. Cut back on natural gas and electricity to light and heat my home (in other words, make the home better insulated, or go small so that it is easier to heat, and have a couple of alternatives that don't rely on the grid or fossil fuels). Quit buying so much stuff. Try to grow at least a portion of our own food. The real problem for me is getting to work. The distance to be traveled is great enough, the weather is weird enough (and getting weirder), and the roads between here and there are dangerous enough (crazy traffic and drivers), that daily biking is problematic. And, since the location is in a rural area, there is no public transport to the place (a school).

The good news is that I will retire in not too many years, and my follow-on job after retirement (assuming I can find one) will hopefully be close enough to where I live to make walking, biking, or using public transportation viable options. Boom, get rid of an automobile, save money on maintenance, insurance, and fuel. Put that money into things like seeds, tools (which I have been amassing over a lifetime), and more importantly, learning as many practical skills as possible (another lifelong endeavor). I live in a small city (less than 20,000) and have a pretty good sized lot that needs to have more of the land converted to growing fruit trees, as well as perennial and annual plants that produce things we can eat.

The point of all this rambling is that I understand that renewables can only play a very limited role in my future, and that I should not become dependent on them. The real future lies in adopting a different way of living that more realistically stays within the energy inputs outside of our current fossil fuel economy.

patriciaormsby said...

My lucky day! I don't even have to go off-topic to relay news from Japan.

For the past couple of days, the TV over here has been moralizing about a dire need to forge ahead bravely with technology. First, a popular prime-time documentary series about space that has a high degree of credibility brought up the rumor of a neutron star heading toward the solar system, due to arrive 75 years from now, presenting it as a fact. The only hope for humanity, they said, was first to colonize Mars and then, based on that experience, build a huge toroid biosphere for as many people as could fit and boogey on out of the solar system. I'm not making this up, and it's not April, and they don't even have April Fools Day over here! I told my husband I could find no credible sources on the neutron star, but he is still really upset, and I wonder how other people who watched it are feeling. I see the hand of the nuclear lobby at work in the background here, because their big argument is that we NEED a high-energy future, and here's why for all the doubters. Seventy-five years! Perfect timing. All our dear little rosy cheeked grandchildren will be trying to reach their golden years when this cosmic wrecking-ball thing arrives (undoubtedly sent by the space lizards).

There was another documentary on yesterday about medicines, but I blocked it off, because it was too high blown, with a lot of moralizing, but what I suspect was going on is an attempt to soften up the Japanese for the TPP transnational corporate dominance "trade" pact, which the Japanese delegate signed along with a bunch of other countries', with its over-priced drugs and GMOs. The minority that understand the TPP's contents are freaking out, but the rest will probably just stumble into it blindly if it goes into force, wondering whatever happened to things they took for granted.

Renovator said...

Out in once open fields, perhaps former farmland, I am starting to see what I call "PV farms" (hundreds of panels all tied in series with each other) go up. In the other open areas, large wind turbines have gone up like enormous weeds begging to be pulled. It saddens me that at the end of our current run of cornucopian madness, we are willing to trash any and all remaining untouched natural environments simply because we can't envision any other lifestyle. One has to look not to far back in history to see we've fallen into this trap before.

I have noticed lately that the sadness/anger/frustration that has been building in people, especially of lower economic means, has resulted in a falling away in faith in the god of Progress. Perhaps a bit of the current financial downturn we are about to go stumbling down is the result of people who finally see the rust showing through the chrome cities in the sky promised, but never delivered and have simply said, 'I can't follow this anymore'. Once one realizes the absurdness of the empty, unobtainable propaganda being shoveled endlessly their way, they will find a new alter to worship at.

Interesting times ahead...Thank you for your work.

Phil Harris said...

JMG wrote
“Angus, you know, that's an interesting point. I don't happen to know offhand how the energy per capita of, say, Victorian England compares to our current figure; I'll have to chase that down, compare other historical examples, and see if it's possible to identify a threshold below which no kind of industrial society can function.”

Per capita energy consumption was surprisingly high in Britain by the end of Victorian times. I understand that present USA per capita energy consumption is very roughly double that of the present British.

The rise in energy use in the UK per capita in my lifetime has been mostly from the increased use of petroleum. (I have ignored the relatively small contribution from nuclear power). The petroleum era really occurred at the end of my childhood after 1950.

Adapted from: Pearson 1998, The Energy Journal ‘A thousand years of energy use in the United Kingdom’,.

UK (England Wales, Northern Ireland)

Total energy consumption in coal equivalent (ce) million tones per year

Year Total
1900 167.8
1950 229.8
1960 272.4
1970 349.8
1996 385.8
One tonne of coal equals 0.6 tonnes of oil or 7.1 MWh of electrical energy or 1.016 long tons

Per capita UK in 1900 = 4.42 tonnes ce; 1950 = 5.6 tonnes ce; 1990 = 6.5 tonnes ce

And separately within the total: Petroleum and NG
(from L to R)
1900 negligible
1950 24.4; 1.0
1960 69.9; 1.1
1970 161.1; 19.2
1980 131.5; 76.1
1990 133.1; 86.0
1996 133.6; 140.1


patriciaormsby said...

I want to add as background to the above, the people of Japan are so upset with the nuclear industry that they've gone out and bought lots and lots of solar panels, and taken steps to reduce their own usage of electricity. As a result it is very hard for the government to justify using nuclear power, but they keep restarting reactors anyway. In the meantime, the difficulties with renewable energy are becoming clear to large numbers of people here too.

Lou Nelms said...

Faith in less is a hard sell where the promise of MORE underpins almost every aspect of our way of living.

The cornucopian germ is planted. Providing more for more people through the human hive of interconnected technologies and people dedicated to making it all come together in a global village. It is, to paraphrase Loren Eiseley, as if one highly maladapted, organic beast represented the sole vision and future of the planet.

Renewable energy is very much a part of this global vision. So, to put it somewhat mildly and also to paraphrase Eiseley, our deep earth centric view has become the strange odor among the herd. The herd of the departed. Eiseley's sporulation stage is upon us.

Paulo said...

BackyardFeast (and a few others),

I see we have some BCers on the reading list. (Ah, I don't feel so all alone.)

Justin, someone from Texas gave some excellent advice on buying rural. I just want to add that it doesn't happen overnight. You need the goal, a plan with steps to proceed, and a format to check your progress. Plus, you need to select a location/dream that isn't too pricey. You cannot have a mortgage unless you have sure-fire-way to pay it off, quickly. If you can't make it to a rural lifestyle, it really is about mindset, afterall. JMG calls it 'Collapse In Place'. My own opinion is that we will all get there, one way or another, so try and move to where you want to live.

The other thing, just like being in town it is easy to look around and see other folks who have a better setup; better location, neater buildings, barns, whatever. You just have to go your own way, do what you can, and be happy with what you accomplish. A personal suggestion, learn building and maintenance skills, now. Take some pre-apprenticeship classes. You want to be the person who can do things because you cannot afford to hire done what you need. Furthermore, when you build things take time and do it properly. Don't slap stuff together whether it is a chicken pen or front walk. Do it right so it lasts a lifetime, and then some.


Wolfgang Brinck said...

The color of energy, regardless of where it comes from is essentially brown. The color of energy can be green only if we use so little that it doesn't allow us to throw our environment out of balance. Energy of any kind gives us a leg up on all the other species on this earth and lets us exploit them and displace them to the point where the earth becomes unlivable even for us. Giving humans access to large amounts of energy allows humans to run the environment into the ground regardless of whether it produces greenhouse gases or not.
Whatever merit renewable energy technology has stems primarily from the fact that it cannot produce nearly as much energy as oil extraction technology can deliver. Another way of putting it is that conversion to renewable energy will force us to go on an energy diet sufficiently severe to starve the industrial virus that has infected the human species. So the fact that renewable energy cannot produce as much energy as oil is not a shortcoming, it is a virtue.

Ekkar said...

Thank you for another exellent post! My thinking (and know one likes this one) is that humans "natural state on earth" and a state which (if we survive(which i think humans will))will swing back around to is much closer to our hunter and gathering ancenstors, and every other living thing on Earth.
Civilization has cut our memory to shreds. Meaning that we have a very hard time remembering that there is or was anyother way.
Thanks again!

Pentrus said...

This comment is related to living with limited electrical power, but I am unsure if it is an entirely appropriate comment for this post.

I would like to think that communication, both withing communities (say a 5-10 mile radius) and to other communities further away will still be important and available in some respect in an age of energy scarcity.

I wonder it it will be anything like the current communication grid (I really doubt it)? Would we be better served to learn (or relearn) how to use simple radio communication (HF, VHF, UHF) to serve both the long distance and local community communication needs/wants?

I am a sixty year old new amateur radio licensee and have joined a local club to, hopefully, gain knowledge and skill in this new area (to me) of communication. The negative side of amateur radio today is the seemingly greater reliance on the maintenance, of repeaters (VHF, UHF), digital modes of communication, and always transmitting power (more and more power up to the legal limit). Such thinking, and operating methods, seem to me to be at odds with the original aims of the hobby which is to do more with less power, in fact, the least amount of power necessary to complete a communication. Would it not be better for most new amateurs to start with QRP (low power operation) first, and spend time in learning the very best operating techniques and the science of antenna design?

In a future world of energy scarcity it would be much easier to maintain and run 5 watt or less transceivers (good operator with well designed antennas can make contacts over hundred, and sometimes thousands of miles on less than a watt). QRP operators can do this with very models solar inputs or very small batteries that can be charged using a panel delivering only a few watts, or with a micro hydroelectric set up.

This assumes the contacts will be simplex (not rely on repeaters, analog or digital), that is, directly radio to radio.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this?

Wolfgang Brinck said...

Last year while camping in the Mojave Preserve we ran into a biologist who has been studying solitary bees in the Kelso Dunes for the last 30 years. Conversation came around to preservation of the fragile desert ecosystems and I ventured that the greatest threat to them was ranches and their cows which eat everything in sight. The biologist did not agree with me. Her opinion was that renewable energy projects were much more harmful to the desert than cows since energy schemes take up acres and acres of land and even if abandoned disrupt ecosystems for decades to come. Once you pull cows off the land, the desert has some chance to recover within a human life span.

Allie said...

Great post, JMG. This post really touched on a lot of things I've been thinking about and dealing with for the past couple of years as I try to downshift my lifestyle. Sorry for the longish comment but there are two topics I wanted to highlight that this post really hit home for me.

I think your prediction that solar PV and wind power will be the next energy bubble has a great chance of becoming reality. They will probably earn some big blue chip companies and hot start ups some very large subsidy checks and tax breaks from the federal government. Unfortunately, those will be the only entities allowed at the feeding trough. If some "collapse now and avoid the rush" folks wanted to take advantage of the bubble pricing, new tax breaks, and so on to get a really cheap solar thermal water heater system or a 2 to 4 kwh solar pv system to power some lights and ceiling fans and maybe a small fridge/freezer...forget about it! Those types of systems will not qualify or be part of the bubble. Only giant windmills and PV solar plants the size of a small town will qualify.

The other topic this post got me thinking about is the claim that solar and wind are rapidly approaching parity with coal for power generation. I have never seen anything factual that clearly demonstrates that claim. I have been kicking around the idea of installing a small solar PV system to power the well on our farm. It feeds water to our house, the main barn, some outbuildings and our garden. Long story short, every time I get some proposal for it and price it out (tax break included) against what I'm paying now it doesn't even come close. For example, assuming a 20 year service life and assuming that the average rate for coal powered electricity during that 20 years is DOUBLE today's rate, the cheapest solar system I have gotten pricing on is more than 150% more expensive than sticking with the grid. Now of course, there are all sorts of other assumptions one could make. Will the grid be on 24/7 in 20 years, will the USA even exist as a nation in 20 years, yadda yadda. All other things being equal on a dollars and cents analysis solar PV doesn't even come close!

So basically I guess we will see the government and big business waste time, effort and money to build out solar and wind subsidy dumpsters when the government could have helped individuals and communities build out realistic renewable energy infrastructure. What a shame...

Nathan said...

Gotta commend you on your title here, JMG. I am learning the craft of modern thaumaturgy for my day job, and I have to say I appreciate your deft skills in the area.

Wes Loder said...

Having lived off-grid now for six years, I feel I can relate to some of the feelings expressed today. Before we built and moved, we did an analysis of our energy use, eliminated the obvious and chose a system we felt would be enough. Our PV panels are only 1.2 KW plus 300W that only power our well pump. It's enough, and we do not feel constricted in our life-styles at all. Our house is less than 1400 square feet, passive solar and our heat backup is a masonry heater. Yet I look around and see people building and bragging about their eco-homes with more than 4KWs of panels and grid-ties to make up the difference. None of these well-intended folks are willing to give up the luxuries they feel are necessities. When the grey days in December come (as happened this Christmas), we cut back our electrical usage, then cut it again until the sun returns. We close curtains in summer to block the extra sun and open them in winter to let the solar heat in, then close them at night to hold the heat. A bit of common sense and a pro-active lifestyle and we are making it, and do not feel any restrictions in the life style we want and have.
But so many visitors, neighbors and friends still shake their heads. I would agree that solar will never work at a commercial, grid-tie level, but at the small, personal level, with low consumption rates, it's working fine. But it requires personal effort and a willingness to live without "stuff." WES LODER

Erik Buitenhuis said...

JMG said:
"I suspect [methane leakage from fracking]’s had more than a little to do with the abrupt spike in global temperatures and extreme weather events over the last decade."
It's possible to do a back of the envelope estimate of the maximum contribution. Atmospheric methane has increased by ~50 ppb between 2009 and 2015 (inclusive). At a global warming potential that is between the instantaneous one of ~100 and the 20-year one of 86, that's ~4.7 ppm CO2eq, not all of it from fracking leakage. CO2 increased by ~13 ppm during the same time.

Phil Harris said...

Bioenergy as a global industry is an ongoing nightmare. See the role of the EU here:

(btw Britain imports massive quantities of wood pellets from southern USA forests to burn in very large scale DRAX electricity power station. The excuse is 'climate change'. )


Gavin Burnett said...

Hi JMG. Here's something interesting on YouTube that shows the amount of energy that goes into banal everyday activites: Man vs. toaster.

Friction Shift said...

I think this may be the most important post you've written in a long while. The "green energy" cornucopians need to be called on their sh.., er, um, compost.

You've identified the crazy aunt in the attic no one wants to talk about (Who said that? Was it Ross Perot?), which is that we in the industrial world have to start using a lot less energy. Regardless of its source, we just have to use less. And the sooner we can have an adult conversation about that, the better.

It doesn't matter what type of energy you examine: algal biodiesel, tides, wind, PV solar, or good old fashioned hydrocarbons, a life structured on high consumption of energy sooner or later runs into a big brick wall constructed by the laws of thermodynamics.

Reality has already deconstructed the dream world of biofuels. Now we're on to the really sexy stuff: wind and solar, especially PV solar.

I am a big fan of solar, actually. I have friends in the Rocky Mountain states who have been living in passive solar houses they built back in the 1970s. The reason they're still living happily in those houses is that long ago, as an earlier poster pointed out, they adjusted their consumption to fit their energy incomes. But we're talking about back yard DIY solar pioneers, here. What is facing us now is an entirely different industrial-scale animal, funded with huge amounts of capital, selling the idea that we can continue our lifestyles as is by putting 6 kw of PV on the roof of our wood-chips-and-glue tract houses. As shastatodd has pointed out, here come the hucksters.

I would suggest that elements of this bubble are already evident. In my own state of Oregon the Department of Energy is embroiled in a scandal involving the state's generous and poorly regulated solar energy tax credits, which some big players like Elon Musk's SolarCity have been accused of misusing. Although just now, for perhaps unrelated reasons, SolarCity's stock is tanking.

As for wind power, it comes with its own sets of problems. For one thing, big wind farms kill birds. Lots of them. They just do. The intermittency of wind has been well discussed. But I have often also wondered if there is an upper limit of wind power deployment that we humans can hit before it starts affecting the climate. Because, gosh, nobody ever thought that burning stuff would change our climate system, did they? It turns out there just might be:

So we're back to that brick wall again. Thanks for pointing out that you can't keep looking at one side of the equation and ignoring the other side.

Glenn McCumber said...

About energy per capita:

Ralph Smithers said...

Your opening observation about people who actually live "off the grid" is accurate. My wife and I live in Northern California and rely on solar power for our electric needs. First, one always thinks before "flipping a switch". Second, in the winter we have many rainy, cloudy days. That means running a noisy, dirty diesel generator and of course using fossil fuel. The new generation of batteries coming out now means that we may get 3 or maybe 4 days of stored power before having to switch on the generator. But then of course we will need at least 2 days of clear weather to charge back up to 100%. Solar power is about understanding the privilege of living minimally and still being relatively comfortable. But, for example even in the summer with 14 hours of strong sunlight, air conditioning is out of the question. In the winter we wouldn't even use an electric kettle to make coffee. Using electricity to generate heat is extravagantly wasteful. You overall point is exactly correct: it is about using a lot less power to live our lives. The only alternative is using none.

dylan said...

"As a general rule, in fact, the less direct experience a given person has living with solar and wind power, the more likely that person is to buy into the sort of green cornucopianism that insists that sun, wind, and other renewable resources can provide everyone on the planet with a middle class American lifestyle"

Yep this sums it up, It's been great to read of others who have actually made the leap. I would encourage anyone who wishes to see what it's like to go stay somewhere off grid for a fortnight. That should be long enough for the charm to wear off and to get more of a feeling of what our really needs are.

Hauling water from our stream this morning for us, the pony and chickens, I was struck by how much you get when you give up. Not in a sackcloth kind of way, there's just a reconnection that happens. We are animals after all and it's helpful to be reminded of that and our place on Earth.

Sometimes our pv system seems more of a burden to keep an eye on. Then sometimes on a sunny day with more power than we can use, I get to cut wood with the electric chainsaw, and that feels like a satisfying and appropriate use of sunlight.

A quick anecdote on the animal theme: Our Pony decided to head for pastures new the other night and walked through our woods(40 acres) at night in the snow to a neighbours Field.

Huffing and puffing to catch up to his ground eating trot, I abruptly came across 6 pairs of green eyes regarding me just as my flashlight died. (Gulp)
As a recent Irish immigrant to New England I'm not used to meeting anything much bigger than a fox so it was quite an eerie feeling to meet 6 coyotes who were quite at home in "my" woods and idly considering having a shetland pony for Dinner.

Faced with the ponies easy speed and my lack of it, coupled with the coyotes nonchalant presence sure brought home to me the frailty of this modern Human and his now useless, Made in China Flashlight ;-)

Helix said...

I could not agree more with Jen's advice regarding paying cash for rural property, or working in town until it's paid for. Having to make mortgage payments with the income off a rural property is likely to be a severe test. This is why most successful family farmers inherited the family farm and just rent additional land.

As Jen stated -- and I can second from my own experience -- it takes time before a rural property can provide subsistence and generate income unless it's already a turnkey operation. Turnkey properties usually command a substantial price. Therefore, having savings that will enable you to span the gap is vital. Or you can work in town, either physically or by telecommuting. This will lengthen the time needed to set up your property, but if you need to work for a number of years to pay off the mortgage anyway, the timing may work out for you.

Finally, everyone involved has to be on board. The rural lifestyle isn't for everyone, and making a go of an agricultural enterprise is a team effort. If anyone is not behind it, animosities will likely arise.

I can recommend two books on this subject: "Five Acres and Independence" by M.G.Kains (1935) and "Ten Acres Enough" by Edmund Morris (1864). These are old classics, but because they were written in times when fossil energy use was not nearly as intensive as it is nowadays, they may actually be of greater interest to Archdruid Report readers than newer titles (some of which are also very good). They both include early chapters on what to look for in a rural property, and they describe their failures as well as their successes. The failures are highly instructive of pitfalls to avoid.

Thanks to JMG for your usual instructive and thought-provoking post, and to commenters here who provide additional information and food for thought.

Patricia Mathews said...

Yup. Forecasting snow in midwinter ...

You called it on the nose!

Glenn in Maine said...

Hi JMG, two points: 1) You may add a price spike in firewood to the ills of fracking, as my supplier informed me that the NY and PA frackers have gobbled up all the prime hardwood logs to use for their corduroy roadbeds; 2)decentralized grid-tie solar PV can make a positive contribution to easing the pain of collapse. My system is now 6 years old, and is halfway to payback, which will be reached at the halfway point of its lifespan, so I will realize a net benefit over the 25 years I expect to use it. A long term view is required however. Also, I would not use solar thermal (tubes) again for hot water, too fussy, and last summer's freak hailstorm broke two of the 'hail-proof' tubes. Rather, I'll add two more PV panels and switch the tank to an electric model if/when the tubes sustain more damage or require expensive maintenance. So my experiment in spreading the sources has had unexpected results.

Eric S. said...

I’ve found that one of the major hurtles in discussing the future of industrial society is a mess of confusion surrounding the phrase “industrial society” itself. Some people hearing “industrial society” get caught up in the mind-trap of technological determinism and think of it in terms of the “industrial age” which got supplanted by the “atomic age,” the “information age” and will eventually be supplanted by the “quantum age” or somesuch (interestingly enough I’ve never seen renewables play much of a role in that particular narrative). Other people contest the claim that the US is an industrial nation by pointing out the transition of the US economy from industrial manufacture to service jobs in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Others seem to confuse the term “industrial” with the concept you define as “technic” and assume in suggesting that Renewables, Fracking, Biofuels, Nuclear Power, etcetera, can’t power an industrial society you’re referring to everything from the jumbo-jet to the cotton gin… Others think of an “industrial society” in terms of the base resource of the technologies it powers, (taking the stone age/iron age/ industrial age/ atomic age/ refers solely to the type of energy that’s powering it, and thus that a trans, respond to “renewables, atomics, etcetera can’t power an industrial society” with “of course not, they’ll power a renewable or atomic society.” Still others seem to think in terms of industrial society as opposed to agrarian society, and think you’re saying that other energy sources can’t power a society with urban centers, international trade, factories, and mass production of any sort.

Is there anywhere either in past ADR essays, or in a book that agrees with your definition of the phrase that offers a clear set of parameters for what exactly constitutes an industrial society, what distinguishes it from other models of society, what specific details set an industrial society apart from other forms of technic society, what suites of technology that are associated with industrial society at present are unique to industrial societies and so on? Some things are obvious, but other places can be much more difficult to know where the line gets drawn… Things like energy per capita obvious quantifiable features, but are much harder to qualify, Centralized power grids and other infrastructure systems are important features but it’s much harder to say just how big a power grid or other infrastructure system has to be to be considered an industrial power grid… fossil fuels are an important feature but is that related to energy per capita or is it a necessary feature (i.e. would a society powered by renewables that maintained the same energy per capita still be considered an industrial society? Or would it be considered something else by definition?). Mass production and factory manufacture are important parts of the definition of industry, but they had plenty of industry by that definition in the ancient world. Automation is another important feature, but the concept of automation itself goes more under what you’ve termed “technics,” and could be maintained with a lower degree of infrastructure in a non-industrial society. So, with the concept of “industrial society” I’m kind of stuck in a situation where I can point it out where I see it, but most of the distinctions I can see between industrial and non-industrial societies involves degrees of scale, rather than specific clear parameters that I can use to define it in a concise way, since by some people’s definitions a nation-state on about the infrastructure scale of ancient Rome plus a few wind powered home or neighborhood sized power grids for lighting, heating, and long distance communication with factories playing an important role in the national economy and a rail system connecting some of the larger cities would count as an industrial society (which is a type of society I could see popping up in some future civilization).

Robo said...


A rational approach to non-human 'renewable energy' involves an acceptance of strict limitations on the fulfillment of individual appetites and desires that is quite un-American and will require the establishment of new communities and nations rather like your Lakeland Republic.

Perhaps the unexpected success of Trump and Sanders is the first stirring of this creative process. Although neither of them makes much practical sense, their supporters are motivated by an underlying awareness that the old ways aren't working very well any more.

111DFC said...


Great post! It is clear that a “renewable world” cannot sustain the wastefulness of this system

Anyhow, what do you think the elites will do when the “derivatives bombs” start to explode? (only the Deustche Bank has a derivatives’ notional value 16 times the GDP of Germany). Or in other words, when the Debt Hypercycle start to fall apart, which “contracts” will be respected and which one not? it will be based on weapons and guillotines or in others more “civilized” means?

No, the money is not a “token”, because from their inception (who, how and when is made) is a power’s tool, it is also a way to drive the society values and conform even the world perception. Money needs to meet a huge change in the future

IMHO the next “trumpet of doom” will be de financial system, and as in 1929, probably we will not see another big bubble in some decades (we have seen too many bubbles in historical terms in two decades)

Sincerely yours

WW said...

It's always of great interest to me when you approach this subject, as I happen to be one of the people being referred to in the popular phrase "They'll think of something." A lot of what I think about is the disconnect between the physical circumstances of modern American life and the understanding of how these effects are produced. I used to think about "customer education" which refers, as it turns out, not to actual edcucation, but instead to a species of marketing involving doing the same things that didn't work the last time while making a series of increasingly frustrated faces.
A lot of things in our current society are like that, a series of ineffective actions that seem like just the thing that would create the desired outcome if the situation you're in actually were as it appeared.
As I discovered from reading the ADR, it doesn't necessarily take ten years of weekly long form essays and discussion to get to a place where you start to get a grasp on the situation- if you're lucky you can do it in eight.

buddhabythelake said...


I'll add my thanks for another insightful post.

As I've mentioned previously, I work at a modestly-sized municipal electric/water utility (modest by national standards, though I believe that we are the largest municipal utility in the state). We are also somewhat unique in that we own a considerable (for our size) amount of generation -- two solid-fuel boilers powering three steam turbines. Right now, we co-fire biomass (good) with coal and pet coke (not so good), but have already established air permits to allow up to 100% biomass consumption (very good). I have been lobbying for the development of more localized fuel sources for biomass, as supply is our primary constraint. We are surrounded by farmland and I have proposed the idea of us producing our own pelletized fuel from crop residue. I see this as a multiple win -- farmers receive a revenue stream, we take greater control of our own supply chain, and we secure long-term access to a fuel supply less dependent on rail transport. reception has been mixed. Let's just say that I will have to keep proposing this idea for a while.

In further news on the political front, our local primary to narrow the field of city council candidates from seven to six (a state requirement) is next Tuesday. With a bit of luck, I will be one of the six to make it onto the April ballot. My brief (10-minute) local radio interview this past Monday went well -- it either really helped or totally sunk me, as I gave my honest opinion on several local issues :) We'll see!

Mark said...

I noticed a NY times article today on the downward prospects for solar providers. So maybe this is already happening to some degree.

We just had a proposal done for solar PV and water on our new (and quite small) home's roof. Crazy big numbers being asked to invest, for about a 10 year payback. 10 years is a long run and in the long run we'll all be dead, etc So, no to that. I've already done some small scale hot water stuff myself (for an outdoor shower) but PV seems more of a challenge. Question for US-based experienced PV users, what's a good book/resource to help get me started on building up my own small scale PV system?

zaphod42 said...

No matter that it has been said before, or that I have shared similar writings on Facebook... the usual few will read, acknowledge the truth of it, and make no change whatever. Sadly the rest will ignore the whole thing, and with a wave of the hand wish it all away.

Worse, we seem stuck in some sort of rut... going on with few alterations in our way of life. Yes, we use LED bulbs, now have 21-SEER HVAC, and drive a Prius. Other than that, our entertainment (diversion/misdirection) costs rise, we still drive to the supermarket... and mass transit, when it is running at all, is so bad that it is a 15 mile drive daily to the train or bus station closest to home.

Members of our household spend upwards of 10 hours per day playing games on line; we all have cell phones, and complain if they are slow, drop a call from time to time, or are less than the instant servants we imagine we need to aid what little intellect seems to have survived. How can we hope to survive the major dislocations coming if we cannot make the minor changes already required in order to at least minimize and delay the worst?

Though I am considered an optimist by most who know me, I do not wonder why my personal motto has long been, "... an interesting species, Homo Sapiens sapiens. I wonder if they'll be missed."


Karim said...

Greetings all!

Actually you need a 3rd group that does NOT believe what the first believes and does NOT have any or much experience either.

However there are certain things with which I disagree, for instance you have repeatedly quoted the Pedro Pieto and Charles study that came up with low EROEI. However, this study is only one of many and over the years the literature has come up with a range of values from 2.45 to 12 (I think!). The average being 5 to 8. Not great, yet not abysmal.

When reading the literature it is quite clear that coming up with an accurate EROEI is problematic and will be most probably never be settled to everyone's satisfaction.

Furthermore, EROEI figures change in accordance with materials and manufacturing processes used, it is NOT a simple function of thermodynamics. Actually, no one knows how high EROEI figures can reach for solar PV. I have not yet seen theoretical studies that would put an upper figure on the above for instance.

From my perspective, to argue that "the numbers are just as problematic" based principally on the Charles study weakens your argument significantly for it ignores the range of values different studies generate, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Of course, where you are correct is that we cannot power the whole grid on solar and wind and even less an american lifestyle. You are right but for the wrong reasons, says I respectfully.

It is not necessarily the lowish EROEI that is problematic but mainly because solar and wind start off from a very low base, are variable in nature and grids have been designed for stability. Furthermore, solar and wind require electrical power storage which is still fairly expensive and difficult to deploy at will. Actually, we do not even know how low EROEI must fall before it becomes impractical to use. Of course below 1 the source becomes a sink.

The good news is that we do NOT need to have a grid solely dependent on either solar and wind. As we more or less know now, we are facing not an abrupt collapse but a gradual decline, hence as time goes by fossil fuels prices go up and down violently and supply may become variable. What we need is a way to dampen the impacts of those variations so as to retain a viable grid that can sustain a viable economic system. Of course we urgently need to cut down on wasteful consumption as at the same time.

This is where renewables come in. Hopefully they can help us to gradually reduce our dependency on fossil fuels while retaining a viable but most probably lesser economic system.

Karim said...

Concerning the wind potential assessment, once more I think your stand as fairly unconvincing. The study you have quoted just makes a rough estimate of the upper limits of world wind potential to 1 TW, a huge amount by any standards. They then compare it to the world current consumption of 17 TW of primary energy, They are comparing apples with oranges, for wind gives electrical power directly usable whilst 80% of primary energy is fossil energy that must be burned before becoming usable to society and in so doing wasting away some 2/3 as waste heat. So 1/3 of 80% of 17 TW is 5 TW. No longer that negligible.

I note that you have not discussed the EROEI of wind energy, which ranges from 20 to 80 (I disbelieve the latter figure!) and the fact that it is now just as cheap as coal fired electricity. Furthermore, we tend to forget that in using coal we must burn it and so waste heat is generated, hence the EROEI of coal used to generate electrical power ought to be adjusted by reducing by 2/3 giving 1/3 of 80 = 26. Within the range of wind EROEI.

However, as discussed beforehand, wind is intermittent and electricity is expensive to store, making wind useful as power but difficult to power the grid with.

Finally, the main reason why renewables won't save our current industrial civilisation is that they cannot be used easily to power transportation, we need oil for that. We have a problem of non-susbtitutionability there. This is the elephant in the parlour that will wreck many things.

I do apologise for the length of that post and hope I have offended no-one and not made a nuisance out of myself!

Thank you!

pygmycory said...

Patricia Matthews, I love my R.A.C.K. dryer too. There is a conventional clothing dryer I have access to, but my landlady's family and I hardly ever use it.

Marinhomelander said...

"I have been wondering why I have a refrigerator plugged in when it is freezing outside. "

Two 3" holes cut in back of freezer or refrigerator with sheet metal round hole saw. Make sure where electrical and refrigerant tubes are located first.

Use stops to restrict holes to refrigerator, or wide open for freezer.

Insulated dryer vents to holes cut in outside walls, top and bottom for convection. Insulated plugs for closing holes when not freezing outside.

pygmycory said...

The Hillary Clinton sandwich has lots of pork! From all the pork-barreling and corruption around her. Also caviar eaten at ludicrously expensive conferences sponsored by Wall Street, and a single iceberg lettuce leaf to make the sandwich 'healthy'. It is served on stale white bread.

mrs slow loris said...

Noticed that Bernie Sanders mentioned energy efficiency before renewable energy in his New Hampshire victory speech. Something of a hopeful sign, if not much of one.

pygmycory said...

I'm sorry to hear the situation is Seattle is so bad. Do bear in mind that Victoria is a much smaller city than Seattle. All thirteen municipalities that comprise greater Victoria only have 330,000 or so people put together. And I think half the issue with InTent is that it is on the courthouse lawn where VIP have to look at it.

my best guess is that Canada is in a fairly similar situation to the one the USA found itself in early 2008. In western Canada at least, we haven't really had the stair step down that the US took in the last recession. This downturn is acting as a nasty shock, especially in Alberta.

Calgary is seeing jingle mail, with people walking away from their mortgages and sending the keys to the bank. Yet Vancouver and Toronto are, I believe, still rising. This can't possibly end well.

pygmycory said...

In the small town of Powell River, homelessness is much less obvious, as people are often living in the bush or on friend's couches. It's still there, though, and apparently it has gotten worse recently since a lot of people bought rental houses during the last downturn, squeezing the rental market a lot when prices went back up.

August Johnson said...

JMG – It’s completely amazing that you have to keep repeating this! It’s always the people who aren’t running their own house on totally on renewable that keep shouting that not only can their house run on renewable energy, but that the entire Industrial Monstrosity can! Only those who have actually tried know the truth. It’s a complete joke to think it’ll work. And, no, Grid-Tied isn’t running on renewable, not hardly! Yet the fallacy continues…

It’s financially impossible for anybody but an ultra-rich to install enough PV or other to actually power a conventional house 100%. And that’s only for its electrical usage. Our Industrial Society uses many times this just for electricity, not counting other sources of energy such as oil, gas, etc…

M – It’s not just that car manufacturers are going to roll out the cameras, it’s now law that cars must have back-up cameras!

Pentrus – You have it exactly right on Ham Radio! Yes, current thinking is quite dependent on complex and not so reliable systems. Simplex, lower power and simple equipment is the right way. I know one Ham who is quite dedicated to contesting in Ham radio, yet she just uses a 100 watt radio and has stated that it does all she wants and has no desire to use any more power. Thousands of contacts from all over the world with 100 watts and a wire antenna. Actually I know several that work this way.

I’d love to have more Hams in conversation over on the Green Wizards website, we need to have more GW members of the Ham Community!

August KG7BZ

MIckGspot said...

Another bubble in the works? Renewable. I think Bubbles are renewable, I like the Renewable bubble. Going to jump on the bandwagon of renewable energy, lots of opportunity for a while.

I still got another week with Spengler, TY Arch Druid.

Can I have another push up please sir?

Of course we must have some fun!

Patricia Mathews said...

@pygmycory - when I was visiting my daughter in Pacifica, CA, a damp, cool, town, I found that using her R.A.C.K. dryer dried my delicates in a much shorter time than running her dryer! And insisted on doing so for the rest of the visit. She? She ran the dryer, of course!

She has now moved to Gainesville, FL, a hot damp town if I understand it correctly. So she'll have waste heat, which was a bonus in Pacifica, to deal with as well.

John Michael Greer said...

Antonio, no doubt. Six to ten years from now, we'll know for sure, won't we?

Ed, and of course that's another issue as well -- what's the effective lifespan of big grid-tied renewable systems, remembering that they last only as long as their least durable irreplaceable part, and what kind of energy and resource inputs will be needed to replace them?

Cristina, on the other hand, Iceland did manage -- unlike every other country in the world -- to respond to the 2008 banking crisis the right way, by letting the banks fail and jailing the bankers for fraud. That bespeaks a very pleasant level of common sense, which might get you through this in one piece. By the way, who is Guðmundur bóndi? I'm guessing he's the Icelandic equivalent of John Doe, but inquiring minds want to know. ;-)

Mark, glad to hear it. I figure if I keep on bringing that up, it's just possible that sooner or later enough people will grapple with it.

Chloe, I certainly wish you a fast fracking bust -- no question, as energy bubbles go, fracking has some of the worst blowback. I admit there's also a certain amusement value in trying to imagine some English politician in wellies and a raincoat standing there in the pouring rain, making a speech at the construction site for a big new solar power facility...

Ien, the future's a big place, you know, and I think there's probably room in it for Retrotopia, and also for the splendid ecotechnic civilizations of the far future -- which will make use of renewable energy, of course, because that's all they'll have to work with.

MigrantWorker, no doubt that'll have its place in line. My guess is that we'll have three or four more bubbles, alternating between pseudo-green and pave-the-planet, until the whole system unravels far enough that blowing bubbles stops being much of an option any more.

Cherokee, you're welcome and thank you! Your comments here, and those of my other readers who have direct personal experience of living within the limits of renewable energy, contributed quite a bit to this post.

Deedl, it's quite possible that Germany could manage to downshift to a post-petroleum and post-coal economy, for exactly the reasons you've sketched out -- the built environment still follows pre-fossil fuel patterns, and what's been done with renewables so far, though it's an immense subsidy dumpster, may give you a little more wiggle room on the way down. Other than England -- which is hopelessly overpopulated -- and those countries that will simply vanish beneath the waves as the seas rise, I could see that happen to a fair bit of Europe. Over here? Not so much, outside of a few corners of the east coast.

Pavel, the bird- and bat-killing is an ongoing issue here in the US. As for your other points, well, we'll just have to see; as I noted, nothing I do or say is going to turn aside the renewables bubble, so in six to ten years we'll know exactly who's right.

Donald Mackay said...

Reminds me of something a biology professor wrote on the blackboard many years ago.
1. everything has to come from somewhere.
2. everything has to go somewhere.
3. there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Wish I could give a proper attribution, but it didn't make as much of impression on me then as it does now. I can give credit for planting it in my head to Vinnedge M Lawrence PhD

onething said...

" cold Spam on Wonder bread. "

And there you have it. The Chillary.

Justin said...

In response to the many friendly and helpful replies: I know that trying to transition between engineer living in the city (<500,000) and farmer is not exactly a realistic thing to do, which is not, and has not been my intent for a long time. The issue is that here on the East Coast of Canada, small towns have been so eviscerated that unless people start moving back, many of them will cease to exist in 20 years. What I am more concerned about was JMG's prognostication (which I agree with) that most North Americans will be squatters in 20 years. I do not think I will become some kind of independent farmer overnight, or over 5 years, or over 10, but I do not want to be a squatter or a tenant. I better hope that 50 lb bags of rice and beans are still available in 2030.

The issue that I am facing is that in 5 years, I likely will no longer be employable as an engineer because of the implosion of the North American economy - right now my employer benefits from cheap commodities and a low Canadian dollar, but ultimately still depends on the ability of the American consumer to buy our customer's products.

My internal conflict comes from the fact that right now, I could buy property in one of the smaller towns in Eastern Canada, but would have no realistic way of paying the mortgage. If I stick around in Halifax, I'll eventually have enough saved to buy a place, especially if the housing market crashes and my money stays valuable. Until then I am kind of in limbo. Maybe the best thing to do is buy a car and commute into town from the outskirts, although that would strain my ability to save money.

And yes, I know I am lucky, I have a good job for now, in a walkable city.

Varun Bhaskar said...


Indeed. It's definitely not just condescension, that's why I called it the "Devil's smirk." I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it, I have a feeling there's a layer of emotions there that I can't even being to understand.

As for renewables, have you seen this thing?

Leaving aside the ridiculous use of this thing for electricity generation, I can totally see it's value for other solar related projects. Wonder how well it boils water...



Allan Stromfeldt Christensen said...

I remember Eric Janzen writing in Harper's several years ago (2008, page 7 on the Internet version) about an alternative energy bubble. His fictitious estimation had its total market value as higher than even the housing bubble. (And I don't know how exact his fictitious estimation was supposed to be, but along with being several years too early, he also didn't include the upcoming fracking bubble.)

Susan Roberts, MDiv, OTR/L said...

Tell that water story in Flint and see how it flies.

LarasDad said...

@Justin "I do not think I will become some kind of independent farmer overnight, or over 5 years, or over 10, but I do not want to be a squatter or a tenant."

Here's 1 example of what you need to be looking for (from

John Michael Greer said...

Ondra, thanks for the link! It's really quite impressive, all things considered, to watch the amount of effort people are willing to put into inventing and believing daydreams that will let them think that someone else is going to fix everything.

Sherril, I hope he has the chance to practice that smirk behind bars for a good long time.

John & Louise, thank you!

Kyle, exactly. The most likely trajectory as I see it is a rough, crisis-laden transition in which grid power to rural districts goes away, starting of course with the poorest first; large-scale grids gradually get cut apart into smaller, more sustainable grids; the more than occasional disaster of one kind or another (climate, war, terrorism, industrial accident) shuts down sections of the grid, and each year the likelihood of replacement goes down. Eventually you end up with those areas that have long-term sustainable power sources (such as hydro) with their own microgrids, while everyone else either generates a little 12v for their own uses or simply does without.

Ares, my guess is that for centuries to come, those districts that have viable hydroelectricity will either be centers of political and military power, or the most tempting targets for conquest by those who have political and military power, and the risk of being overrun during periods of mass migration won't be small. My guess is that it will be a lot safer and more comfortable to be somewhere that doesn't have much in the way of hydro.

Fred, it's unquestionably true that the salary class and the wage class have very different cultures. I consider myself fortunate to be comfortable with both.

David, that's one of many problems. The one that strikes me as the most important is that hydrogen isn't an energy source, it's an energy storage system, and not a very efficient one at that. Again, you have to put more energy into making it than you get back from burning it -- those dratted laws of thermodynamics, again!

Pathman, that's no surprise. SolarCity is one of Elon Musk's enterprises, and he's basically the nation's leading manufacturer of subsidy dumpsters. All his enterprises are simply ways of funneling public money into his own pocket.

Heretic, yep. So far, at least, Obama's avoided the kind of military confrontation that would lead to a military debacle, but we'll see.

Trippticket, congrats on the forthcoming solar system! It's people like you, who are collapsing well ahead of the rush and finding their feet in the deindustrial future, who make this blog's project seem worthwhile to me; thank you.

M, a very solid point. White's law argues that economic complexity is a function of energy per capita, and so a viable strategy for the future involves sharply reducing complexity so we can handle decreasing energy per capita. Very simple and very obvious -- except, of course, that it's not obvious at all to those who have their heads stuck in the assorted orifices of the mythology of perpetual progress.

Pine, it'll be interesting to see whether the current mark-to-makebelieve economy does in fact come crashing down, or if it simply spins off into irrelevance; I know a lot of people who expected things to fall apart long before now, and it may be the case that hallucinations need not obey the law of gravity. Still, we'll see.

Justin said...

LarasDad, absolutely - right now I'm a 12-16 months away from buying that for cash, but such a move would have to have a clear 'and then what' - I lose out on a good salary by leaving engineeringland in a contracting job market, for the rest of my life, most likely. And yes, I know that a property 10-20 km out of a small town in the Maritimes is cheap. But hey, if the present situation holds together, I'm on track. Maybe there should be a dating site for people who want to take a great leap 'backwards' - it would be easier if I wasn't doing it alone.

John Michael Greer said...

Clay, well, I'm glad to hear that reality is sinking in out your way! The thing that concerns me is that a renewables bubble may be inflated now precisely because the solar industry is in trouble, and launching a bubble may be the only way that Elon Musk et al. can keep on raking in those government subsidies.

Brian, well, look at the bright side -- the steel and rebar from all those defunct solar installations will give a couple of generations of rural blacksmiths a local source of raw material, while the trade routes that will ship chunks of defunct skyscraper out from abandoned downtowns get up and running.

Bigsky, thanks for the data point! Complexity is a crucial issue, no question -- and that suggests that one of the core strategies for getting ready for the deindustrial transition involves eliminating excess complexity wherever it can be found. Hmm. I may want to do a post on this down the road a bit.

Pentrus, thank you! That's exactly the point, of course -- the only strategy that will get anything of value through the mess ahead starts with changing our own lives to use less energy and less resources. Any proposal that doesn't begin with that simply isn't serious.

Patricia, why don't they just send Gojira and Rodan to fight the neutron star? Sheesh... ;-)

Renovator, if you're right -- if people are finally beginning to see that the Great God Progress is a hollow mask in an empty temple where the paint is peeling off the walls -- then we may just be able to accomplish more than the sort of emergency salvage operation I've had as my Plan A. The abandonment of blind faith in progress is the one thing that might lead a significant number of people to grapple with the realities of our situation, and maybe even do something useful about it. That is to say, I hope you're right!

Phil, okay, that's worth knowing. In other words, you don't have the capacity for a Victorian-style industrial society on 5% of current energy input. That said, more research is definitely needed to get a sense of where the breakpoint lies.

Patricia, good -- that might inspire a lot of people to cut their energy consumption instead. Japan before 1868 managed an impressive level of culture and comfort on a very, very modest level of energy per capita; revisiting some of the lessons of the Edo jidai might be a good strategy now.

Lou, but that beast is so maladapted that at this point more and more people are being forcibly excluded from it. The question is how they'll react.

Wolfgang, excellent! That first sentence -- "The color of energy, regardless of where it comes from, is essentially brown" -- earns you tonight's gold star, for crisp enunciation of an unwelcome truth.

Ekkar, the only reason the urban-industrial model of society has become so widespread on the planet is, again, lots of cheap energy from fossil fuels. As that ends, I expect to see towns, roads, and the like vanish from fairly large regions that are now more or less integrated into the urban-industrial model, and human settlement in those regions will cycle back to horticultural, pastoral, or hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Thus it's not so much a failure of memory as the imposition of a human monoculture on the planet, and when that goes away, I expect the options to expand considerably.

John Michael Greer said...

Pentrus, it's valuable as part of the broader project of this blog. You ought to get in touch with August Johnson, another reader of this blog, at Green Wizards Radio -- or for that matter on the air for an old-fashioned ragchewing session! -- as there's an immense amount that amateur radio has to offer in the deindustrial age. All things considered, our current civilization may not leave many useful legacies for the future, but a simple, sustainable, flexible method of communicating across continental distances is one thing worth keeping.

Wolfgang, I've heard that from others, including quite a few people with extensive knowledge of desert ecology. Not that such concerns will slow down the faux-green promoters...

Allie, exactly. One of the necessary realizations in this business is that the government is not here to help you -- it's here to help the rich and their pet corporations. The most you can hope for is to slip past under the radar, and do what you need to do yourself.

Nathan, thank you. This blog has been a great place to learn that particular skill set.

Wes, exactly! It's perfectly possible to live a comfortable, decent, humane life using renewable energy sources -- and indeed to have a more comfortable life than most human beings have had. It's just not possible to maintain the absurd extravagances that characterize modern industrial lifestyles.

Erik, thanks for the numbers.

Phil, of course. Just because it's carbon neutral doesn't mean it's not wrecking the biosphere in some other way!

Gavin, thanks for the link.

Friction, exactly. I'm also a great fan of solar energy; solar water heating, passive solar space heating, solar ovens, solar greenhouses, and plenty of other ways of using the diffuse low-grade heat sunlight generates so readily are all wonderful technologies that deserve much more use than they currently get. I suspect the future will also make much use of solar electric technology, though I'm guessing that Seebeck-effect generators using bimetallic strips heated by reflecting concentrators will be more sustainable and rugged than any PV-effect technology. My point is simply that trying to force solar energy to do something it can't do -- that is, power a modern American lifestyle -- is an exercise in futility at a time when we have many better things to do.

Glenn, thank you, but Google won't let me access that page via your link.

Ralph, exactly -- and thank you for joining in and helping to remind people what it's actually like to live on renewable energy.

Dylan, that's a great story -- and a useful reminder that humanity's supposed ownership of the Earth is not of great interest or importance to most of its other tenants.

Patricia, that's the thing about historical parallels. Once you know what makes people stop thinking and start going through pointless repetitive actions, you can predict it to a fare-thee-well and be right every time.

Glenn, I've long had my doubts about the tubes -- too fussy, too many things that could go wrong. A good old-fashioned circulating solar water heater is a lot simpler and sturdier; admittedly, Maine may not be the best place for that particular technology.

Genevieve Hawkins said...

I can't understand how an electric grid has much usefulness except to mask our obvious direct waste. That's why I knew I smelled a rat on solar in Nevada--all the telemarketers calling. Of course this overpriced boondoogle they wanted to put on the roof would never be owned my me. Of course it had to be tied into the electrical grid. Well why can't I just but a few solar panels and hook my electronics to them if I need to charge my phone? I asked them. That would never work, the people trying to sell me crap on monthly payments assured me. Actually I think that's the only way it will work in the long did they manage to screw up solar in the sunniest driest state? How does it save energy for them to try to consolidate power far away and then have it travel through miles of transmission lines?

Glenn said...

John Michael Greer said...

"By the way, who is Guðmundur bóndi?"

I don't speak Icelandic, but I've read enough Sagas in side by side translation to parse out a few words. Bondi is farmer, and the phrase is "goodman farmer". The John Smith of the countryside in mediaeval Scandinavia.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

John Michael Greer said...

Eric, ah, yes, definition games. When people start those, I make it a point to roll my eyes and walk away, because someone who uses definition games isn't actually interested in a discussion -- only in scoring points. I don't offer any definition of "industrial society." I use the phrase "modern industrial society" -- note the first word -- as an ostensive label for something we all recognize readily enough, the particular mode of human social and technological organization that currently obtains in Europe, North America, Australasia, and the eastern shores of Asia, as well as some other places in the world. When I say "modern industrial civilization is unsustainable," I'm not trying to state an abstract principle that belongs to some category labeled "industrial civilizations;" I'm making a specific observation about the specific phenomenon we all see around us right now.

Robo, that may be the case -- but I'm interested that you think that Trump and Sanders make no practical sense. Did you think their rivals make some kind of practical sense, then?

111DFC/David, au contraire, money is just a token -- it's because it means nothing in and of itself that it can be loaded with so many illusory meanings by those who manipulate it.

WW, if you got it in eight, you're doing far, far better than a lot of people out there! Thank you for making the effort.

Buddha, all of that is good to hear. Best of luck in the primary!

Mark, PV is a very mixed bag. Have you looked into a solar water heating system? That can chop 10% off your annual energy consumption quite readily, depending on where you live.

Zaphod, if that's the way you want to live, fine. If not, why do you choose to keep living that way?

Karim, yes, I've seen those numbers as well. If sun and wind produced the kind of net energy that their proponents claim, neither one would need government subsidies to make them profitable -- and yet we see that neither one sees any kind of widespread adoption without substantial subsidies. The thing is, as I noted in the post, nothing this blog says is going to stop the renewables bubble; over the next six to ten years, I expect to see billions of dollars in new investment in solar and wind electrical generation capacity, and if they really do perform as well as their promoters insist, that should be the leading edge of a lasting boom. If, on the other hand, I'm right, a decade from now we'll be looking at cascading bankruptcies in the renewable industry because the numbers really didn't work. Shall we see what happens?

Pygmycory, good! Okay, we have the Hillary Clinton. What about the Ted Cruz sandwich? Canadian bacon and Cuba cheese on sourdough?

Mrs. Loris, that's good to hear. That anybody's mentioning conservation at all is good to hear.

Pygmycory, Seattle's in the middle of a tech bubble, so rents are being jacked up exorbitantly, and of course the city council and mayor are weeping crocodile tears over the plight of the homeless while doing nothing to change the situation. Tings are just as bad in a lot of other coastal cities, and even in the inland states, homelessness is rising rapidly as more people every month enter the ranks of the permanently unemployed. You're quite right that it won't end well.

Justin said...

I say the Rubio would just be 5 layers of whole wheat ;). And Pygmycory, surely, you can look across the water to Vancouver. One interesting piece I read recently said that tech companies in Vancouver are suffering because despite paying young, childless employees six figures, those employees are forced to live in basement apartments more than an hour from work. Canada's greenest city, is well, suffering from an abundance of green.

John Michael Greer said...

August, I have to keep repeating this because the vast majority of people in the modern industrial world are incapable of hearing it. Progress, to them, means that there must be a limitless supply of energy and resources for human beings to use, and the mere fact that the universe hasn't seen fit to provide that never gets past the brick wall of blind faith. All I can do is keep on trying to point out, to those few who are willing to listen, that it just ain't so.

MickGspot, of course bubbles are renewable. We've had a tech stock bubble, a housing bubble, a fracking bubble, and another tech stock bubble, just for starters, and I have no doubt that there will be more. A certain song somehow comes to mind...

Donald, those three rules ought to be hammered into the skulls of every human being on the planet. Thank you!

Varun, ah, concentrating solar PV. That was a hot new idea in the 1950s, you know!

Allan, thanks for the reminder! You're quite right, of course -- this one was visible a long way off.

Genevieve, excellent! You get a gold star for straightforward common sense. Of course it doesn't make any kind of sense -- but it certainly helps suck money out of the public coffers into the pockets of promoters.

Glenn, got it -- many thanks.

Justin, funny.

Justin said...

After watching tonight's debate, I am not entirely sure what's in a Sanderswitch. The notion that the path forward for America is more college educations is of course questionable, but at the same time, telling the truth would yield results even worse than what Jimmy Carter got for suggesting that the magic dino juice might be finite. Therefore, I vote for: Rye bread, cucumber, bologna, and yes, American cheese.

I think a crowdsourced history of American Presidential Sandwiches would be fascinating, and quite possibly a contributor to your eventual fame, whether you want it or not!

Karim said...

Yes! We shall see what happens! The proof of the pudding is in the eating after all!

On a last note, in my little country of Mauritius, we have begun to install solar and wind capacity for the grid.

As numbers come in I shall report to readers of this blog the situation as it unfolds, should that interest some of you.

Right now I can report that very small scale PV installations of less than 50kw get a subsidy.

However a medium sized solar farm of 15 MW was made operational in 2014 and it gets paid US $ 0.16 per kwh, coal fired electricity costs US 0.10 per kwh. The difference is substantial but not that enormous given that LPG turbines generate power at around US 0.15 per kwh. Note that I am not aware of any Government subsidies in this project.

Furthermore a few additional medium sized solar farms are being proposed to Government, all from private investments, they are proposing tariffs of less than US 0.16 per kwh.

The situation is getting interesting here.

patriciaormsby said...

@Patricia M,
I love my R.A.C.K.! In Japan, we have itty-bitty ones that you can swipe inside at a moment's notice when it rains, and stick over by the stove. We don't have a second story for a balcony, which is where you see people's bedding put out to sun, but we have created a porch with a greenhouse over it on the south side, and the car comes in handy on fine days as an improvised R.A.C.K. for that purpose. (At some point, it will also serve as a handy hothouse for seedlings.) I've been surprised to hear of some communities outlawing outside use of R.A.C.K.s. I recall the warm stiffness and pleasant scent of sheets we'd bring in at the end of long summer days when I was little.
(I enjoy your comments!)

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Justin, it might work for you as an interim measure to buy an inexpensive small house (if such a thing exists) in a location where you would like to live later on, fix it up, and rent it out. This could be a good idea or a very bad one, depending on the details. It is only a good idea if you can count on enough rental income to cover property taxes, maintenance and mortgage payments. Don't expect a positive cash flow; that usually only happens after the place is paid off or the area gentrifies.

The property has to be nearby enough for you to keep an eye on it and do most of the maintenance yourself. Before you buy, you want to make sure that the place doesn't have costly or unfixable hidden problems or criminal neighbors and you need a realistic plan to get a good tenant. Don't rent to a family member whom you won't get rid of if they fall behind on the rent. You should be well informed on what your legal responsibilities would be as a landlord, what the law requires you to do in order to perform a legal eviction, and you will want advice on how the rental property will affect your taxes.

If this works out well, you will have a steady long term tenant covering your costs of ownership. When you are ready to retire from your town job, either you wait until the tenant's lease is up and move in, or sell the property to the tenant or someone else and use the proceeds to buy a home for yourself. It's also possible that you will find being a small scale property manager congenial and sufficiently lucrative to become your post retirement occupation.

Being a responsible landlord requires some knowledge, skills, and time spent. Do the research before committing any of your precious capital.

patriciaormsby said...

@Genevieve, it's good you are aware of a potential scam there. We have a friend who wanted to do his part for a "greener" future, and had a solar panel system installed on his roof and hooked up to TEPCO's grid. He paid so much for it that the amount he saved on electricity bills wouldn't make up for it for more than twenty years, when it would start needing replacing. Furthermore, after Japan's big earthquake and Fukushima, when TEPCO's grid shut down, his solar system was shut down with it. That's necessary when you're attached to the grid, for the safety of repairmen.

Better deals emerged in the wake of Fukushima, and people took advantage of them to go into business, but Japan's electric companies started refusing to buy the electricity, and I'm hearing about resistance from established power generating companies everywhere.

Lots of people after Fukushima would put up a solar panel, but not know how to store the energy. They'd attach it to a light or something, which would only work when the sun was shining. Then they'd just give up. Information can be surprisingly hard to obtain here.

We put up a few panels and fixed up a way to swivel them, which basically doubles the amount of energy we get. The swivel unit consists of my husband, with a replacement unit available. A friend in car repair has given us a lot of old car batteries. With this and energy-saving light bulbs, we manage to light the house quite well, but not much more. We are still on the grid for the refrigerator and this computer, which is essential for my work. We have the potential for hydro out back of our house, with which we might become independent of the grid, but unfortunately, TEPCO owns the rights to all hydro in the area.

patriciaormsby said...

The Hillary: a s**t sandwich with lots and lots and lots of bread!

Dau Branchazel said...

I recently spent a couple of days off-siding for a solar panel installation guy (it was meant to last longer than a couple of days but I went and shattered my shinbone) and we were having very robust conversations about what solar was capable of doing.

My main point, was that at point of consumption (the time of purchase, or the point at which you are getting the benefits of the product) solar panels are awesome. They don't emit gases. They can operate on a personal level. No noise. Etc. The main issue with people's hopes for solar/wind/etc lie in the fact that they tend to only see it a piece of technology in their hands, doing what it does. No matter how well solar does what it does, they can't match fossil fuels pound for pound in energy production.

This led to my other point, more hard fought for it to be considered, that solar and wind are both recipients of huge fossil fuel subsidies. For a solar panel to be made, requires large inputs of fossil fuel energy. The mining, transportation, manufacture, maintenance of factories. All of it has raw crude lubing its path from concept to product. The other option is that it is that essentially all the materials and subsequent aspects of the supply chain are done by physical labour, which would make them a luxury item and not a worldwide energy solution.

I think people just don't wanna hear things that they think are negative or likely to discourage a transition towards the usage of renewable sources of energy via things like wind farms and solar panels. But it just has to be said, it's not about discouraging people away from cleaner forms of energy concentration and capture, it's about putting it in context. There is not a bauxite mine on the planet that sources its electricity from solar panels and its fuels and lubricants from bio-diesel or other non-toxic means. And If you were to divert all that low-grade power production to try and match what fossil fuels do, then there would be no bauxite mines because it would be cost prohibitive and and generally unfeasible.

I also brought up the idea of mini-grids, and even perhaps having a local producers of solar energy from whom others paid/traded for power. My gracious boss who did not mind arguing these points with his new staff member took issue with it, suggesting that the major grid network offers so many benefits. It does, it's true, but at what cost? And to what end? The modern industrial experiment has made the impossible possible, the inaccessible accessible, for some. By absolutely no means all. But the cost has been so great that it threatens the health of every ecosystem on the planet. Decentralisation, and there fore localisation of energy capture, concentration and distribution will be the only way to maintain an even mutant resemblance to our current habits of consumption.

Then came the argument for efficiency, and how all products are becoming more and more efficient. My response was, that there will come a time in the future, where from out of a bunker-lab emerges the world's leading efficientologist carrying the world's most extremely efficient thingy, to present it to an empty scorched earth, laid to waste in the quest for the most efficient way sustain unlimited growth on a finite planet.

Graeme Bushell said...

Don Stewart... Sorry, can't help myself this time... Fire is quite useful for cooking. Rice or anything else. You don't need electricity. LPG is great, fallen branches from trees much cheaper...

stravinsky7 said...

The problem is not going to be that residences are generating off-grid solar PV with all its benefits and disadvantages.

Nor will it be that people are making themselves some cheap trinket every day on their 3-d printers.

The problem is that all effort is by default, industrial, while individuals sit in the den snacking on what they've got, surfing the internet or watching tv.

If people were to have to implement the solar theirselves, we might just be better off for this bubble. Standard script says that's not how this will go though, and that's a shame.

Someone posted that long term efficiency of solar is low. I keep hearing, though, that it's surprisingly high.

Cherokee Organics said...


160 comments and it is only Friday night! Well done, you've hit a nerve here.

Thank you for writing that as my experience has taught me that it is an unwise gamble to bet the farm on renewable energy sources powering the sorts of consumption that people enjoy today. I mean, honestly, how many readers here could cope with only 4kWh of electricity in a single day and then do it again the next day, and the day after etc.? Not many at all I reckon. The funny thing is that visitors don't even notice that the house is not connected to the mains grid. 4kWh is a massive amount of energy too and few people realise that.

Incidentally relying on solar photovoltaics solely for electrical energy means: Making hay whilst the sun shines, but then so many other systems here revolve around that simple concept too. The McDonaldisation of our society to me appears to mean that we have somehow become so used to consistency of supplies, that we no longer understand what resources nature can feasibly and reliably supply us with. We have become like giant toddlers in an energy play ground throwing tantrums and stomping our feet, when the lights fail to go on at night because someone else used the energy instead.


Flo said...

Dear Archdruid,

you may not have to wait that long. This week, Austrian media are reporting on the biggest bancruptcy so far this year, coming from *drumroll* - a solar power company! With only 3 employees in Austria and a plant in Ukraine, the company managed to amass a debt of half a billion Euros, with assets of just 19 million. - Try to get that kind of loan from a bank for a proper business of your choice ;) And that doesn't, to my understanding, include any government subsidies already consumed.

Given, in this case it may have been a corrution and ponzi scheme from the start that exploded in the face of its creators early due to the regime change in Ukraine - but the dimensions involved and the willingness of mainstream banks to hand out that much money for practically no securities (but hey, what could go wrong? "Future markets" AND renewables? We're in!) does not cast a good light on the financial side of things... (unfortunately German only. This is one of the serious Austrian mainstream newspaper's website)

Cherokee Organics said...


As to 12V DC systems, the vast majority of solar PV panels out there as grid tied solar PV systems are readily suitable for 24V DC off grid systems. Of course a clever person could take out a cell or two or more really, here and there and connect the panel straight up to a 24V DC battery or even rewire the panel so that it can work with a 12V DC battery. It doesn't have to look pretty to be effective.

There are plenty of salvageable 24V DC items - look to the trucks as they use 24V DC equipment as standard...

On that point too, so many people want an off grid system to provide them with the sort of comforts that they enjoy today which if they are of the average consumption persuasion, is generally impossible. But that does not mean that a tiny little system isn't highly useful. Quite the contrary, a small system can power: radios (including ham radios); water pumps; lights; air compressor; soldering iron; refrigerator; fans even a television or computer. You name it, it can do it - no worries. Just don't expect heating - I actually tried an electric heater here and it was more effective to simply open the window and let the warm air into the house. Seriously! And the load it put on the equipment just wasn’t worth it.

Oh yeah, most of the grid tied inverters are boat anchors as they have no application to an off grid system. They are like a pump that can only ever run at one speed, whereas off grid inverters are far more complex beasts and can vary the output and provide for huge peak loads (mine can go up to 9kW for 5 minutes). It is one of those things that people don't realise but some electric motors – like induction motors can require huge amounts of energy to start functioning before backing off on their demand. A lot of cheap and simple off grid inverters can't power them and I've heard of many sad tales about that sorry story. A lot of the hybrid systems that people like to talk about have no hope of even running those sorts of peak demand loads. Some hybrid inverters can though, but they are very expensive hybrid inverters. People think of this stuff as being cheap, but to be useful it isn’t cheap.

That reminds me too: Batteries are only ever 80% efficient and they are a very old and mature technology, regardless of what anyone says. There are no easy gains to be made there. Just sayin... Oh yeah, and if one more person tells me about the Tesla powerwall – honestly, the off grid people down here have slam dunked them.

I've read most of the comments so far and am rather enjoying this topic.

Oh incidentally, the concept of running off to the boonies to set up an organic farm takes a whole lot of work and time. Years down the track, I still learn things every single day and I've learned enough to know that some of those errors would have been fatal to either myself, or the bit of infrastructure here that I was playing around with. Nothing can replace the time taken to gain the experience, and anyone thinking otherwise is daydreaming.



PS: I've got a new blog entry up: Tomato Jungle where coincidentally I show the 4.2kW off grid system performing as well as it is ever going to (which is only 80% efficient!). I hack a path into the now feral tomato jungle - yes you read that correctly! There are before and after photos – it is feral. I'm storing firewood which is a nice form of concentrated solar energy. There is a great photo of a mob of Kangaroos in my garden. A New Zealand Lolly cake was made to celebrate Waitangi Day with NZ friends. And more metalwork art stuff gets bolted to a rock! True story! Lots of cool photos - enjoy!

Stein L said...

I have solar and wind at my cabin in the mountains, together with a generator. Enough battery capacity to deliver the 230V/50Hz electricity I need while staying there, but I am not running any mod-cons, just basics such as lighting, power for the radio, computer and recharging the phone. You learn to question what you need electricity for, and how much you need, and you learn quite a lot about conservation, if you're smart.

As JMG writes, those who believe we're headed for a glorious renewable future, with no let-up on our energy use, don't have any practical experience with domestic renewable sources. You need to learn quite a bit, in order to ensure that your set-up is at optimum -- and there's a lot that can go wrong if you don't pay attention.
Yes, I did what most do: I destroyed a battery bank. One bit of advice I got was that "your first bank should be a cheap one, as you're going to kill it." I was confident I wasn't going to do that, but I did.

Sure, it's possible to install a huge battery bank, lots of panels, a turbine with a large swept area if you have enough wind. And if the dimension is right, you can run mod-cons, not as conveniently as with on-grid, but enough. Only trouble is that it's going to cost you, a lot.
Installers have lots of stories about people who calculate their energy needs, prior to getting a bid for the installation. Without fail, they have ludicrous requirements, and it takes some effort to talk them down from their expectations. Some get angry, when told what it would cost for them to have "everything as it used to be, but now off-grid".

After having run my solar/wind for over three years, I've become so good at it that I could sell my generator. Sun and wind are supplying enough energy to keep the batteries healthy, without a need to juice them up with the generator. But that took adjusting how much I demanded from the set-up.
The difference between what I would like to have on hand, and what I realistically should expect to have on hand, is probably nicely mirrored in society as large: what we'd like to do is far in excess of what we should do. It took breaking a battery bank for me to respect the difference; "society" will break a lot more, because it won't accept the difference.

Eric S. said...

@JMG: Your bubble projection for renewables of 6-10 years seems awfully long for an energy boom. Why that instead of the usual 3-5 years? is it because the technology has better wings than Fracking or Ethanol but isn't being combined with the long scale energy use reductions that would make it economically viable? Or is it because you think the next energy crisis is going to be enough of a whopper to make everyone desperate enough to keep spinning their wheels in the mud trying to get out for longer than they have so far? Or is it some combination/something else entirely?

Re: presidential sandwiches:
The Sanders would have to be fried chicken and Vermont cheddar on a sourdough roll.

Phil Harris said...

Thanks for your reply:
JMG wrote: “Phil, okay, that's worth knowing. In other words, you don't have the capacity for a Victorian-style industrial society on 5% of current energy input. That said, more research is definitely needed to get a sense of where the breakpoint lies.”

(O goodness! I just read my own comment again and see I left Scotland out of the UK.)

In that earlier comment this week - see also the reference cited - I calculated British energy consumption (expressed as coal equivalent):
Per capita UK in 1900 = 4.42 tonnes ce; 1950 = 5.6 tonnes ce; 1990 = 6.5 tonnes ce
One tonne of coal equals 0.6 tonnes of oil or 7.1 MWh of electrical energy or 1.016 long tons

Yes – always more research is needed! Good job I am retired (lower complexity! ;-)), and that we make compost and my wife is into veg gardening! I have a whole string of questions about breakpoints.

First-up question might be – why does the USA have double the energy consumption per head compared with Britain and the European average? And as a subsidiary question, at the same time why should the USA have such a poor and expensive health insurance system given the vast resources serving the economy? My first guess is that Kunstler is right when he points to the American suburb as 'the' major expense / 'consumer-good' needing (and getting) cheap oil / gasoline, but see also Elizabeth Warren, below.

[Elizabeth Warren back in 2006 pointed to the threat to the USA middle class – basically income insecurity – and to the then current major household expenditures for mom & pop and two kids. Big changes since the 1970s; and no, it is not expensive clothes and household goods and cost of food and running a car. See rather, larger mortgages from inflated house price, more cars for two jobs (and taxes), health insurance, and the biggest increase, childcare.]

Where does that leave complexity? [Next major research project ;-)] Maintenance of legacy-complexity is first up in my view, which includes inter-generational maintenance of, in particular, ‘knowledge’. My guess is that some ‘knowledge’ is relatively easy to maintain while other types become prohibitively expensive. (Some knowledge is exterminated and the ‘DNA’ is lost?) From analogy with ‘key species’ in specific ecosystems, there could be ‘key-knowledge’. Look around – there are planetary human systems that ‘get-by’ on 10% of British energy per head or 5% the energy consumed by a USA citizen. Some of these ‘lower energy-cost’ systems are dependent in some critical regard – at the critical margin - on the legacy of industrial civilisation, perhaps something like vaccines or a small number of IC engines, or even on the hand-ons of the Big Consumer. But … and so on and so on: research continues. :-)

Some places get by with adequate complexity on not much more than 15% of American per capita energy, like Cuba, and a few on only 5%, with enough ‘surplus’ to maintain a ‘knowledge base’ given their own legacy civilisation. On the other hand, others at higher levels fly apart already.


Jim R said...

Way back in 1970, when this stuff was a topic of conversation, a utility corporate rep came to my class and introduced the term "economy of scale". Big power plants, big turbines, generating a lot of electricity and distributing it to all the little guys out there.

That has been a trend throughout the 20th century, the "economy" of "huge". And I have mentioned re-naming it "profligacy of scale" in this very forum. Huge towers supporting wires distributing vast amounts of electric current, and losing more than ten percent of it in transformers and radiation into space. Huge investment in copper wiring and steel pylons.

The problem with solar PV, of course, is that the central-control model no longer makes any sense at all (not that it made much sense in 1970). Why waste all that precious energy driving a big grid? An article I noticed a couple days ago, the headline was that Morocco is building the biggest solar power plant ever. There was a picture of a field of curved mirrors in the desert. My first thought was that this thing is going to be offline every night...

Well, I think there's a place for solar PV in retrotopia. I suppose the crux is whether silicon can be sufficiently refined in small batches. PV does not need the extreme, obsessive, insane, purity levels required by microelectronics.

cristina said...

Hah, you shouldn't believe everything that's said about Iceland. The crash was maybe somewhat better managed than elsewhere and yes indeed, some people were convicted. But if you know that you actually have to wait at home for somebody else to be released in order to go to jail and if you wait for too long you don't have to go at all, it looks less impressive. Some people also got insanely rich before and during the crisis and nobody went after them. In a country where anybody is everybody's cousin you can expect people to look away.

There are plenty of other bubbles in the making right now in these parts ("clean" energy being one of them) and I have my own set of predictions about the future. But yes, you are basically right - we might have a soft landing compared to other places.

Guðmundur bóndi actually exists, by the way, and is some kind of a running gag in our family. It's not his fault, though, he's perfectly nice, the poor man. But yes again, he was intended as an icelandic John Doe :-)

Janet D said...

Did you ever see this article from The Register (originally posted Nov, 2014). Completely supports your post this week.

Top Google Engineers: 'Renewable Energy Simply Won't Work'

A brief sampling of the article: "Two highly qualified Google engineers who have spent years studying and trying to improve renewable energy technology have stated quite bluntly that renewables will never permit the human race to cut CO2 emissions to the levels demanded by climate activists. Whatever the future holds, it is not a renewables-powered civilisation: such a thing is impossible.....Whenever somebody with a decent grasp of maths and physics looks into the idea of a fully renewables-powered civilised future for the human race with a reasonably open mind, they normally come to the conclusion that it simply isn't feasible."

NickVictoryofthePeeps83 said...

Love this post. I'm longtime reader, occasional commenter. I appreciate how much you and a couple of others (escapefromwisconsin, and Dmitry Orlov in particular) do to maximize sanity and provide a deep perspective on the unfolding collapse.

Lou Nelms said...

JMG: "Lou, but that beast is so maladapted that at this point more and more people are being forcibly excluded from it. The question is how they'll react."

We are entering one of the great bottlenecks in earth history. A great force of convergence toward the centripetal pull of industrial civilization while splintering forces for divergence are waking to and resisting the pull. But it does seem inevitable that we will all be sucked into the global gauntlet. What emerges on the other side after the great selection occurs is anyone's guess. Will it follow a natural, post extinction course of selection for diversity or will it be some surviving offshoot, a fatal strain of our errant way?

I was working in my plastic covered, solar heated, cold frame yesterday, basking in the sun, preparing for a late winter planting of spinach and such. Thinking about plastic and oil and my dependencies on the course of it. And how our system seems reluctant to ask the inconvenient questions of our leaders and candidates (let alone ourselves). As we enter the age of the tail of oil, when will we get serious about the end of oil? Uncontrolled by oil. For example, rather than pour $4 billion from the federal larder into driverless car research, as has been proposed recently by some technocrats, you'd think we might be wiser to start disfavoring the auto. Stop the subsidies for this mythic icon. This god machine, our master on this unending road on tales of unending oil.

But back to that plastic question. What would be needed to start up small, local glass making industries? If we are to get serious about local food production, we will need to extend the growing season far into the fall, winter and early spring with the capture of shorter day sunlight. Just thinking of how we will do this, post oil, post plastic, post infrastructure built on oil. 'sides that, there is the big cost of replacing this plastic when the sun finally does it's job on it. Guess I could just expat it, fly off to Bocas del Toro, add to the strain on paradise, and drive up the price of real estate for the campesinos so they'd be forced to sell out and tend my tropical garden for campesino wages. Why am I so damned cynical?


Ekkar said...

Yes. I live in elkton a little river town in oregon.
When the sounds of machines are quiete when the wind carries only the sound of the trees, the songs of the birds, the soft rumble of the umpqua, I feel the most human. A surprisingly subtle feeling that is lost quickly when the machines again break the silence.
I spent a lot of my formative years in bigger cities dominated by machines. Cities full of machine people who have very little to no awareness of what has been lost. Full of humans who have become insane and collectively suicidal.
I can not help but welcome the fading away of machine domination.

latefall said...

I loved your comments dfr2010 and andy brown! I think they round off what JMG has written quite well. Apart from thermodynamics, there is "whole systems kinetics" which includes societal aspects. If you like physical analogies, then I guess you can describe leaving the modern industrial society as a phase transition. Again, kinetics are often crucial in real world applications. If you have a steel alloy you want to make a knife from - the way that you transition from point A to point C is critical.
This is where anthropological information would be really useful, because you can try to get to certain societal configurations if you know under what conditions they exist in a relatively stable way. What is technologically viable in these societies won't be easy to predict from a BAU/always-on-grid perspective.
Like Andy said, if you aren't even experimenting with alternative models while you have the ability to learn and plan as a society - you are stumbling into the twilight with eyes closed. Why not offer an alternative tax scheme? Why not have 3 days off per week on the days the weather is not right for energy intensive work? You'll directly condition people to use less energy in their spare time. Of course education (that is something I dearly missed in retrotopia by the way), paperwork, perhaps travel or military training should be affected (did you know WWI was delayed because Austria's army still had to bring in the harvest before they'd be ready?).

Re industrial renewables:
@Backyardfeast: When I see energy related pie charts (which sort of imply that, yes, you will be covering a 100% of demand) I like to just imagine a significantly bigger pie around it. If you have the chance, it is easy enough to draw and label it "shed". Then you can focus the ensuing discussion on the relationship of the part of the pie that says "efficiency" and the big pie. Between the question of "efficient at what exactly?", systems thinking, and perhaps the likelihood of being in the "inner circle" (conveniently loaded phrase) - you can have a lot of fun.

By the way there is currently a de-industrialisation datapoint in the making for the company German Pellets (high grade wood pellets), which is in the process of going broke. As far as I know they did not use a lot of subsidies though and are probably partially a victim of the oil price. I guess split logs will have larger market in the future.

@SamuraiArtGuy: BLIP = e.g. Kristian Olaf Bernhard Birkeland (from thin air). You may also use oil crops, but then you better not be hungry or be afraid of hungry people next door.

Unknown said...

Another boondoggle likely to be rolled out is Hydrogen technology.
Sure there's lots of Hydrogen in sea water of which there's a seemingly endless supply. But, it takes energy to get the hydrogen out (electricity, typically) and you lose energy with each transformation like separating the hydrogen out of water, recombining it into water (whether with a flame or an electrode). Better to use the electricity directly. Similarly, hydrogen can be a by-product or intended product of transforming some forms of fuels, but again, better to use the fuels directly because of losses in transformations (at least 15% with each one). And, finally, hydrogen lacks the energy density and ease of handling of gasoline or diesel fuels. Sure, it was used on the space shuttle and other rockets because of its high energy density when burned with liquid oxygen (and both the hydrogen liquid and oxygen liquid were used to cool the the rocket nozzles) but who wants to build a car with cryogenic tanks? Or let non-specialists refuel such cars? And, who wants to drive a car with that kind of fuel if there's an accident (and there will be!). Liquid fuels are dangerous enough in a crash, hydrogen! Perish the thought!

Sven Eriksen said...

Just adding these to the menu:

The "Bill Clinton" - whole weiner sausage in a french baguette

The "Jimmy Carter" - peanut butter and jelly on toast

The "Dick Cheny" - beef jerky, vinegar and children's tears on cracker bread

The "Ronald Reagan" - have all you want from the buffet, and ask your grandchildren to pay the bill at a later date

Steve Morgan said...

Thanks for this post, JMG. Especially this line:

"The all-or-nothing logic of George Orwell’s invented language Newspeak is astonishingly common these days: that which is good (because it doesn’t burn fossil fuels) can’t possibly be ungood (because it isn’t economically viable and also has environmental problems of its own), and to doubt the universal goodness of what’s doubleplusgood—why, that’s thoughtcrime..."

There's a big push around here to subsidize electric cars. The argument basically goes: "Climate change is bad, but people won't stop driving cars, so we should subsidize electric cars, because they don't run on oil." When anyone points out that coal-electric powered cars emit more CO2, while fracked gas-electric powered cars emit more methane and cause high levels of ground level ozone here in fracking country, it becomes "Stop living in the past. Cars can be powered by solar panels."

Speaking of fracking, this piece showed up in the local press a couple weeks ago. The domino effect of fracking company bankruptcy is hitting the minor leagues. It's probably not the first nationally, but it's the first one to show up in the local press.

Also, regarding your comment to Pinku-sensei, while I generally agree about Krugman, he wrote a book review a couple weeks ago that I found surprisingly out of character for him. Though he holds out the possibility of sweeping techno-progress changes throughout the piece, Krugman seems to honestly confront the compelling argument that the party may just be over. The final two paragraphs are worth quoting:

"It’s a shocking prediction for a society whose self-image, arguably its very identity, is bound up with the expectation of constant progress. And you have to wonder about the social and political consequences of another generation of stagnation or decline in working-class incomes.

Of course, Gordon could be wrong: Maybe we’re on the cusp of truly transformative change, say from artificial intelligence or radical progress in biology (which would bring their own risks). But he makes a powerful case. Perhaps the future isn’t what it used to be."

Anyhow, I suppose if renewables are the next investment bubble, at least the legacy will be somewhat less egregious than the abandoned leaking wells, earthquakes, poisoned air and water, and battered roads of the fracking bust. It won't be pretty, but with any luck we'll end up with plenty of salvage parts for more modest systems, as well as a few more people with skills and experience wiring up PV panels. In the meanwhile, it's time to get the vegetable seeds started for spring planting.

dltrammel said...

Anthony Romano said:
Individually I think the scariest thing about all this is that while peak oil may be here, peak landlord is still a long way off.

The Crash is already here for way too many people. Read this for a picture of the Future for too many of us.

"Forced Out - Inside the Eviction Epidemic"

At some point too many landlords will have gone bankrupt, businesses will have closed, and a ton of properties will be vacant to be "squatted" in. A smart local government will realize that homeless people who will keep up and improve an abandoned property owned by an absentee landlord are better for the community than trying to kick them out. There are some cases now where you can get a condemned property for a cheap price from the City, and as long as you make it better, after a period of time, it's yours.

Remember something too, just because you are homeless doesn't mean you can't vote. When enough of a city councilperson's constituents are poor and out of work, then you might finally see them helping to those voters.

dltrammel said...

As a side note, I see many here this week commenting about their own experiences with solar electric power generation. That's good to hear honestly for those of us not yet collapsing like we would like.

If anyone would consider writing up a guest blog post (or series of them) for the Green Wizards DotInfo site, our sort of gateway blog that I'm trying hard to reboot this Spring, on the basics of solar power, what the equipment is and the upside/downsides, please contact me at dtrammel at greenwizards dot info

Seems to me that the inverter is the weak link in the system, why take 12v DC from the panels, use the inverter to ramp it to 120v AC, if you could just build a secondary system that is 12v DC to start, and run the main equipment on that?

Bill Pulliam said...

One thing about household solar -- it's not an all or nothing thing. Just because solar won't work for you in January doesn't mean it is a bad idea for April! Gradualism in changing your lifestyle is so much easier than going in whole hawg with everything. From what I have seen, those who attempt the latter usually wind up running out of steam, or resources, not even halfway through, and then live in a half-functional pastiche of incomplete projects.

A few years ago I put in a solar home heating system. When I mention that, people usually assume something fancy involving PV or heat exchangers or big barrels of wax or whatever. Nope. All I did was make a black-painted south-facing room out of part of the attic, replace the metal roof over it with polycarbonate, and put in inexpensive ducts and fans to blow hot air into the rest of the house. Nothing that you can't buy in hardware stores, cost of a few hundred $$. Sure it doesn't provide all the heat we need in midwinter, but it provides a significant amount, and it does provide just about all the heat we need in September, October, March, and April, and a large portion of the November and February needs. And in Dec-Jan it significantly reduced our use of wood and supplemental electric.

Same with hot water. I have not put it in yet just because it hasn't gotten to the top of the project list. But the fact that it might not give me all the hot water we want in January is irrelevant. It still would reduce the use of the electric water heater, especially if I put it online as a pre-heater for the electric one.

And of course if the grid and fossil fuels become less affordable and/or less reliable during your lifetime, you'll still have *something* instead of nothing!

Moshe Braner said...

The rules differ among states and countries, but here in Vermont the popular "net metering" scheme for household-scale PV is clearly designed to dis-incentivize conservation. They never pay for excess power. They only offer credit towards future electricity bills, and that credit expires after a year or so. That means that a household on "net metering" must use a significant amount of electricity on winter nights to use up those credits - hopefully a heat pump, but some use resistive heat. Of course, THAT electricity is coming from other sources, mostly fossil. And the ability of the grid to accept the excess power on summer afternoons is a direct result of there being enough other customers who are using air conditioning. As I keep telling people, the grid is not a battery, and storing credit is not storing energy.

I believe this scheme was accepted by the utilities and the powers that be only because it does not cost them any market share: it actually helps them smooth out the summer peak demand. And they make money selling the renewable "credits" to other utilities (enabling them to legally burn more fossil fuels).

Me, I designed and built a small back-up power system that is not connected to the grid (although the house it on the grid). It includes PV (at first 400, now 800 watts nameplate), charge controllers, batteries (lead-acid, about 5 KWH nameplate), an inverter, thick copper cables, circuit breakers, etc. In such a system, the parts other than the PV panels are far more expensive than the PV panels - despite buying the electronic components used, and doing all the labor myself. And the batteries are only good for a decade or so.

I did this not to save the planet, but to be more resilient in case of prolonged outages, which I expect will be more common in the future (as they are already more common than in the past). That system is just large enough to run a couple of lights and a small chest freezer - a bit more in the summer, a bit less in the winter. With the well pump now a 115V soft-start model, it too can run on the inverter. So can the boiler that heats the water on demand - it burns propane, but needs some electricity to operate. A hot shower while the grid is down, now that's how I define "resilience"! Yes I know that can be done with thermal solar etc, but not so well here in the frozen north. And relative to the space heating, the propane amount used for cooking and hot water is small. At least I get most of the space heating from a wood stove and a heat pump.

Matthew Sweet said...

On the note of "collapse now". I ran a little budgetary experiment the other day. How much would my annual household budget needs be reduced if I quit my job, could then pull our daughter out of costly daycare, go down to one car, finish weatherizing the house and get into passive solar heating for hot water to cut down on energy bills, and reduce our grocery bills by devoting time to the garden and raising chickens? There are plenty of assumptions built into that (not least of which is the elimination of some consumer debt, and figuring out emergency funds), but the potential is there to reduce our annual budget needs by a third!

On the note of renewables, in Ontario the government has an incentive program so that homeowners who purchase solar panels and tie into the grid are paid so-many-cents per kw/h on a 20 year contract. That's all well and good and the panels would pay for themselves over time, but it's amazing when you go to suppliers / contractors and try to have a discussion about installing panels for personal home use instead. It's as though you are speaking Klingon. No one has the notion of personal use in mind when discussing solar panels here. It's all about making money.

Mikep said...

I can't see renewable energy as the next bubble because I’m not sure that the renewables industry has either the money or the political clout to influence enough politicians to push through the necessary legislation to game the system, both Agriculture (biofuels) and Fossil fuels (fracking) are massively rich and powerful industries which have been buying Politicians and writing their own legislation for decades. How can poor Jeremy Leggett a lowly Guardian columnist possibly compete?

Mikep said...

In my view Wolfgang Brinck's comment about the colour of energy sums up our dilemma nicely.

Patricia Mathews said...

Here beginneth the price spike:

Tom Christoffel said...

Yet we need technological advance. In the future there will be less. How will humanity and its inventions perpetuate? The intelligent design of breeding communities will likely make those choices, as they have in the past. The necessity is on many horizons, and competition/cooperation is working, as evidenced by this discussion. Cooperation Industry Earth is my particular wording: "Think local planet, act regionally."

jessi thompson said...

I don't know the archdruid's opinion on this, but I would say if magickal unicorns brought electrical appliances that ran entirely on daydreams, then the continuing supply of electricity would only hasten our rapid consumption of finite resources. Next we would need fairies to bring fresh water, elves to bring the phosphates and nitrogen for industrial agriculture, etc. There are some great youtube videos about hunanity's inability to understand exponential growth. We are exponentially growing (in both population and in environmental footprint per person) but we live on a finite planet. We have many hard limits approaching in a short time, all due to the short doubling period our exponential growth is causing. To continue growing, we need infinite sources of everything we use. OR we need to stop growing.

Ron M said...

No fear everyone -- don't you know in the future we can keep our cars and run them on air?

I'd love to see the EROEI on that!

Many thanks, JMG, for returning to the evergreen issue of the energy predicament we are in as the bubbles of delusion (and foolishly invested money) get regularly blown up and pop about us over the years.

pygmycory said...

Yes, the situation in Vancouver is bad. Guess why I don't live there anymore!

I put up that comment to talk about what I've seen recently with my own eyes. I haven't been to Vancouver more than passing through for many years.

latefall said...

@JMG re Glenn's per capita energy link, a quick squint gives:
1850 - 1.6 t coal equivalent, rising pretty linearly to 1890 - 3.6 t coal equivalent. After that it levels off for some time. This is for the UK based on Humphrey & Stanislaw (Economic growth and energy consumption in the UK, 1700–1975 I believe).

R. Fouquet has a relatively recent and accessible paper out that has some pretty good diagrams on the share of different energy sources over time,

mountain momma said...

The way to have intermittent refrigeration is to use something like one with an ammonia absorbtion cycle, they may still makes these, but in any case a known and older technology. It only needs a heat souce applied once a day to evaporate coolant up to the beginning and then it can cycle the rest of the day. used to use just a little oil or alcohol burner, could use direct solar if it was built in in a clever way, can use electric to have a little resistance heater -- this may be how current propane ones operate, I dont know. In any case, this type can be made to use inttermitantt power of some source.

data point on home solar : My system is grid-intertie with battery back up and was installed 17 years ago. My inverter was one of the early ones built in California, so is still running fine. I have changed batteries as I missuse them. The panels are fine. They do not go to almost nothing at 20 years, as some commentator tried to say, they likely are 10% less than rated original power.

Cherokee Organics said...


Oooo, thought I should add a bit of an explanation to my previous comment as I used a word in the final paragraph without properly explaining what I meant. I wrote:

"Oh incidentally, the concept of running off to the boonies to set up an organic farm takes a whole lot of work and time. Years down the track, I still learn things every single day and I've learned enough to know that some of those errors would have been fatal to either myself, or the bit of infrastructure here that I was playing around with. Nothing can replace the time taken to gain the experience, and anyone thinking otherwise is daydreaming."

Sounds like an extraordinary claim doesn't it? What I actually meant by using the word "fatal" was that if a person was relying solely on those systems for survival then my errors would have been fatal. Not that I haven't had the occasional accident here though... Novelty is a tough school when your very survival is at stake - fortunately, I started this whole process early enough that I have a bit of fat up my sleeve to learn the ropes and the why's of things.

I fully expect some serious economic turmoil this year. It is not going to be pretty either. I was reading the physical newspaper this morning and noticed a few articles in the business section, of all places, calling to the wealthy to take a hit to their wealth for the benefit of everyone. I reckon it is a timely reminder to the very wealthy to avoid the possibility of retribution of the lamp post sort, but if they fail to hear or learn from history, then so be it. Anyway one article from a guy that works in the advertising industry (which I'm always a bit wary of and for good reason): Inequality is no recipe for prosperity. Anyway, in amongst the hooplah and advertising speak, there is a fascinating statistic provided by Professor Joseph Stiglitz. It quotes his latest book, The Price of Inequality and the general conclusion is that: "He warns us that the last time inequality reached such alarming levels was just before the Great Depression." Whoa! That worked out so well last time, let's do it all over again...

I did enjoy his concern about climate change whilst flying to New York too. Well done. Isn't it a problem...

And, apparently public schools in New York now have a day off to celebrate Chinese New Year. Did I read that correctly? Mate, that’s not good… at all… Yes, whomever controls the debt, controls the asset. I wonder if in the final days of the Roman Empire, whether the barbarian hordes exercised economic warfare against the imperial rulers?

What an interesting time we live in.



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