the Energy Conundrum

Seems appropriate to tackle this one at the moment, when the nut-case Gaddafi appears to be bashing seven bells out of his people, the energy situation could take a turn for the worse.

It’s not so much the uncertainty over the Arab world, which supplies most of the oil used worldwide, though not as much as it used to. It’s the fact that we’ve probably all got to have to start getting used to using a lot less of it. The uncertainty in the Arab world may bring this on sooner, but only by a few years.

The trouble is that we’ve been mining the power of ancient sunlight for many years now, and its let us get ahead of ourselves a bit. It’s also come in a damned convenient form, which with a bit of refinement and chemical wizardry enables us to get a very compact store of energy.

For a lot of energy applications the compact storage doesn’t matter – I’m not so concerned if my electricity comes from great hulking lumps of coal or from tiny amounts of nuclear fuel. But when it comes to fuelling my car, I have got awfully used to being able to load enough fuel good for about 400 miles in about five minutes.

In some ways even if we didn’t mine oil we’d have to invent it – it’s a really convenient store of energy, and indeed you can make oil from wood. So we can cancel all that hoo-hah about peak oil happening in 2009 then, and kick back and enjoy the ride, and another few hundred years of continuous growth?

Not so fast. There probably is a place for synthetic oil even if we don’t get it from the ground, because of a hundred years of experience in handling it in transportation applications. Although in Hollywood movies car crashes result in stupendous fireballs, we have got good enough at designing fuel storage that it doesn’t happen that way so often.

Obviously we may want to use electricity in future, and there is an awful lot ot be said for electrically powered traction in land vehicles – you get to lose the need to gear-shift to match the load to the narrow power band of an internal combustion engine. However, storing electricity is still a right mess, and high energy density batteries tend to use exotic materials, compared to the low-tech of a petrol tank.

People often cite human ingenuity as being ready to solve all our energy problems, so let’s assume we have decent, safe compact energy storage, even when it is no longer economically viable to mine oil to use as an energy source. We might still use it as a feedstock for plastics etc, but say that the cost of oil per unit energy rises above the value of the industrial output it can facilitate.

The trouble with human ingenuity it that it has no answer for the fundamental question

where is the energy going to come from?

and that is a real downer. Ingenuity will never find a solution to the First law of Thermodynamics. The last time humanity lived within the scope of the energy it could sustainably harvest from the sun was about 1900. Okay, so we can probably catch a hell of a lot more than they did then, but as David MacKay analysed in Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air renewables just ain’t gonna cut it for the UK, leastways not if we want to eat, or pretty much want to see any of this green and pleasant land rather than covering it with solar panels and industrial clobber.

One area we really could get to use some of our much vaunted human ingenuity is to apply ourselves to wasting less energy. That divdes into two areas – cutting down frivolity and improving efficiency. There isn’t any real excuse for air travel city breaks and domestic air conditioning (in the UK) and the sooner that sort of thing is priced out of the reach of the average Brit the better in my view, it’s the market doing the job it’s designed to do, not a revolting attack on the common man as it is sometimes portrayed. You’re entitled to air, not air travel…

According to David MacKay, the average annual energy usage of someone in the UK is 125kWh/d, broken up into 40kWh/d heating, 40kWh/d transport and 18kWh/d electricity consumption, with the rest being lost in transmission. I assume he’s counting the usage by industry, otherwise we are wasteful indeed in the UK – my personal usage is 15/13/2 for comparison.

Apart from air travel,the whole work/commuting/house price mess is susceptible to reductions. At the moment cheap energy/transport is distorting our economy andΒ  living patterns, concentrating them and leading us to commute long distances. In an energy challenged world we just won’t be able to do that, and hopefully the requirement to produce bulk consumables (food, building materials etc) closer to the point of use will spread things out a bit more.

I haven’t really come to a view yet on how an energy challenged world will change the balance between capital and labour. In today’s world, capital has used cheap energy to drive te cost of labour down, but this has been facilitated by better communications. We will probably retain most of the better communications, but we may end up focusing more on the basics and essentials of life.

I also haven’t taken a view on the effect of an energy crunch on human population because I haven’t got any way of getting my head round the data. It will probably range somewhere between the living standards of the 1960s in the West and the sort of thing is all about. It’ll probably be different from life today, and curiously enough I think that some of that difference may not necessarily be a bad thing.


8 thoughts on “the Energy Conundrum”

  1. Very much the same as my own analysis of the energy situation. The Three Laws of Thermodynamics seem to be incomprehensible to many, both in the techno-cornucopian camp and in some corners of techno-green-Utopian camp. Electric cars and the ‘hydrogen economy’ idea both seem to suffer from this. Eletricity and hydrogen are carriers, not primary fuels, and both need an energy input, and suffer from one or other of the Three Laws, namely we can only get out less than we put in.

    Back in my student days, one prof summarised the laws as: “You can’t win; you can’t break even; and you can’t get out of the game”. An excellent summary in my opinion and a quick and easy touchstone for testing against some of the more … optimistic … suggestions for solving the energy conundrum.

    I agree totally that the best leverage point for our much vaunted human ingenuity is in rethinking our usage. As I’ve said on previous comments, I think ‘less is inevitable’ both personally and on a civilisational level, and the best response is to get ahead of the curve. The consumption figures quoted by MacKay seem enormous to me. My figures over the past year are about 11kWh/d on nat gas (heating, cooking and hot water) and <2kWh/d electricity. Much of the time the only electricity load in my home is the fridge. Even so, my PC uses half my total juice!

    I'm trying to get ahead of the curve by finding functions which can be met without mains power. I now have a solar/wind up radio, which releases a 22W load – shaved another 0.1kWh/day off the total… and have just built myself a solar oven. Looking forward to being able to try that out πŸ˜‰ And that was built from scrap materials, all apart from the foil for the reflectors (so a whole Β£1 invested). I'll report back on that once I've tried it out.

    As for transport, well I've 'redesigned my lifestyle' towards self-employment and no longer have a daily commute. My modest 5,000 mile/year habit on 5 days commuting a week has now sunk considerably. I don't think I've made five journeys this year, so far (and two of those were to help out a friend). I should be on schedule for a target of <1,000 mile/year for 2011.

    We've definitely let our imaginations atrophy due to energy subsidy. We build houses any which way without regard to energy flows (insolation, wind exposure etc), have segregated land uses seemingly in order to maximise transport needs, have deprecated the ancient art of land stewardship in favour of massive chemical intervention and energy-intensive machinery leaving us farmers that know all about super-phospate and various byproducts of the nerve gas industry and naff-all about the life cycle of earthworms, ichneumon wasps or the potato blight fungus.

    So much lazy thinking, because we've relied on our 'energy slaves'. So much sense of entitlement – it's not just the American way of life which is 'not negotiable' – and it will hinder attempts to power down gracefully. We'll make heroic efforts to sustain the unsustainable, ultimately in vain, and with great opportunity costs in terms of managing the inevitable decline. We can improve quality of life whilst reducing our 'standard of living' – which is simply a proxy for 'resource use'.

    I'm hoping we balance out somewhere around pre-WW1 England, plus the internet πŸ™‚


  2. Glad to see you’ve given a mention to MacKay’s excellent book. My usage is 16/0/2 kW/d. The average UK figures must include the huge commercial/social infrastructure consumptions that we all tacitly enjoy.

    The Internet is the fastest growing consumer of energy, but developments like virtualisation and low power h/w devices may help to change that.

    I think a soft landing is possible with the rising cost of hydrocarbons making new reaearch worthwhile and new technologies viable.

    Sourcing energy is not difficult, it’s capture, conversion and storage that is hard. We’ve made some progress on the first two, however.

    It’s a while since I did the sums, but I think our external energy consumption is now around 20 times our internal (i.e. food) and the former first exceeded the latter probably in the early C19th, having taken about half a million years to achieve that. Putting a brake on that increase would be highly beneficial.

    There are no easy answers, though, and unless there is a breakthrough on mass electrical storage, the future is not very golden.


  3. Yes, Mackay has been an interesting book to get reality checks (I keep his link on my site for visitors to get to know him). But he acknowledges that he’s omitted economics in the book (where’s the steel going to come from? Cement, Aluminium, etc.? for building the necessary solutions). Any good book for that? I’m aware of Stephen Leeb, but other than him?

    LOL on pre-WWI UK lifestyle comment. A quick leaf through Sherlock Holmes and Peter Wimsey should put any doubter to rest that it is no different to the lives we live today! This is why I always submit to the theory that culturally we’re still the same. Anyone from that era would fit right into today with minimum discomfort (some technology adaptation – gas lamps to switches, etc.) and vice-versa.

    Agreed that synthetic fuel research is getting more funding now than before. But IMO like everything else, there’s limits to Human ingenuity despite what gets told on the contrary. Secondly “research” only takes place when there’s surplus in “resources” and huge “grants” (I hold a PhD, hence the cynicism!). When “real” resources themselves are dwindling, then there’s real limits to what’ll get done on paper and what’ll get done for real (e.g., see NASA funding stats).


  4. @Macs,
    Very good point about Land-stewardship and losing touch with cycles of nature (Mandala)! Naff-all sounds like my feelings too.

    In the end, it’s going to be that which will mean the difference between life and death.


  5. @Macs you’re way ahead of me on the energy saving game πŸ˜‰ I run a 12V solar system for lights and you could power a radio from that – indeed at the smallholding I power a car radio off the battery for the electric fence, with a door switch so it doesn’t get left on.

    The ichneumon wasp ref is well appreciated – I Googled those fellas to find out what you were talking about and I’m chuffed. Not only do I see quite a few of them, but the long dangly thing I’d alwayes feared as a sting isn’t, these are friends not foes!

    WW1 England eh, well, it could be worse πŸ™‚

    @SG, not sure I can quite agree with

    > Sourcing energy is not difficult

    but I sure as hell hope you’re right. I don’t see that much that can step into the breach left by oil, and MacKay’s book shows whatthere is is very diffuse, scale seems to be the problem.

    @Surio, well, if you liked Stephen Leeb then Dmitry Orlov’s Reinventing Collapse is pretty good, and James Kunstler has his own appeal though a tendency to overcook things!


  6. ermine,
    Thank you, but I am aware of those two’s works as well – agree with your assessment of the works. I am looking for technically qualified writers like Mackay, something like Club of Rome – Dana Meadows, Catton etc?


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