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“We continue to be amazed at how many commentators, otherwise very thoughtful and well-informed, seem to think that humans will find technological solutions, such as super-efficient appliances and mag-lev light rail, to cure the impending energy shortfall. That won’t happen, and our Ponzi money system is why.”
Ted Glick, in “Making a Renewable Energy Revolution,” Future Hope, March 2, 2014, writes:
A climate revolutionary is someone who works for a rapid and just transition away from oil, coal, gas and nukes to an economy powered primarily by wind, solar and geothermal energy, with energy sources increasingly decentralized and community-based, with society-wide energy conservation and energy efficiency, and with a conscious plan to ensure that this transition is done in a way which creates living wage jobs both for the currently unemployed and for workers in the fossil fuel industry who lose their jobs because of the shift to renewables. There are tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of activists in the United States who I believe are in general agreement with this perspective. They are part of the numerous local, state, regional and national groups which prioritize the climate issue in some way.
Don’t get us wrong. We admire Ted Glick.
We have been bullish on transitioning the world back to solar energy since the late 1960s, when we bought our first solar cells and started tinkering with wind generators. By the early 70s, when we started Global Village Institute as ‘Global Village Technology,’ we were constructing concentrating arrays using Fresnel lenses and exotic gallium arsenide silicon chips and bending our own windmill blades on self-made presses, as our copies of Soft Energy Paths and The Mother Earth News grew dog-eared. In the 80s we enjoyed a steady diet of encouragement from Barry Commoner, Bill Mollison and Denis Hayes and hoped fervently that the world would beat the last remaining blades of fossil sunlight into solar plowshares.
A half-century later, we are likely seeing the end of that dream, not for want of desire, but from simple arithmetic. Industrial scale renewable energy will inevitably decline. Don’t mistake this prediction as saying we are at peak renewables. Quite the contrary. Perhaps even the nascent industry has a good ways to go, borne on the wings of capital flight from fossil and nuclear, and much good can yet be accomplished. But as a share of overall energy production, renewables are still in the trough that they slid into at mid-Nineteenth Century. On a straight-line chart, they could climb out of that slump by mid- to late-Twenty-First Century. What we won’t have, though, is the technological civilization Ted Glick takes for granted. The renewable energy source with the biggest market share will be firewood.
How long the solar and wind farm phenomena persist will depend on how long our current ‘extend and pretend’ debt-based global economic paradigm can be sustained. Maybe another month. Maybe half a century. But when that is done, we will be back once more to something approaching fully solar. You can take that to the bank.
Lets run a few numbers to demonstrate.
Energy keeps our economy running. Energy is also what we use to obtain more energy. The more energy we use to obtain more energy, the less we have for anything else. That dilemma was most recently explained in superlative detail by Steve Kopits in a talk at Columbia University in February.
The trend is already clear: the energy of the future will have lower energy return on energy invested — EROEI — than the energy of the past. Apart from some rare abiogenic sources, all fossil fuels are biofuels — from plants and animals that grew and harvested sunlight over millions of years. All renewables derive from the current energy flux (sunlight, wind, tides, plant growth, or heat from the earth) in real time. Renewables have low EROEI compared to high-carbon fuels such as coal and oil. In some cases — the Alberta Tar Sands, many shale oil plays, new nuclear — the EROEI may even be net minus. What is being purchased with greater nature-debt is time.
Jeff Vail, in a 2009 post, offered these two examples:
Basic data: 1.2 MW array installed 2009 in Los Angeles, cost $16.5 million up front (ignoring rebates/tax credits/incentives), projected financial return of $550,000 per year. At the rough California rate of $.15 per KWh, that’s about 4 GWh per year (conservative).
Price-Estimated-EROEI Calculation: The $16.5 million up-front is, at $0.09/KWh (here using national average, as there’s no reason to think that manufacturers would use primarily California peaking power to build this system), an input of 183 GWh through installation (I’m ignoring the relatively small maintenance costs here, which will also make the figure more conservative). If we assume a life-span of 40 years, then the energy output of this system is 160 GWh. That’s a price-estimated EROEI of 0.87:1.
Wind Example: I’ve had a more difficult time finding a recent wind project where good data (on both cost and actual, as opposed to nameplate, output) is available. As a result, I’ve chosen a 2000 Danish offshore wind project at Middelgrunden. While up-front expenses may be higher off-shore (making the resulting EROEI more accurate for offshore projects than on-shore), I think this is a relatively modern installation (2MW turbines).
Basic data: Cost of $60 million, annual energy output 85 GWh. Price-Estimated-EROEI Calculation: At the US national average rate for electricity ($0.09/KWh), the $60 million up-front energy investment works out to 666 GWh. Using a life-span of 25 years (and assuming zero maintenance, grid, or storage investment, making the result artificially high), the energy output comes to 2125 GWH. That’s a price-estimated-EROEI of 3.2:1.
While it might have been possible to build a Maya-type or Roman-type civilization on an EROEI of 3:1, it is not possible to sustain modern technological complexity on anything much below 5:1. Remember, we put men on the moon and laid internet fiber cables under the oceans when EROEI was 100:1, so even 5:1 is pretty speculative, and would likely require some significant technological leaps that have not occurred despite vast capital being thrown at them, and now seem unlikely (i.e.: “fairy dust”).
One bellweather is air travel. Since Peak Oil was hit globally in 2005, airlines have been operating on the edge of bankruptcy, cutting amenities to allocate more cash to purchasing fuel. It has been reportedthat without the quick and dirty impact of US shale oil in 2012, some airlines would have already gone into receivership.
We continue to be amazed at how many commentators, otherwise very thoughtful and well-informed, seem to think that humans will find technological solutions, such as super-efficient appliances and mag-lev light rail, to cure the impending energy shortfall. That won’t happen, and the Ponzi money/debt system is why, but frankly, we find it difficult to imagine a civilization approaching ours in complexity being able to subsist on daily solar income in much the same style it had on that 500-million year fossil energy trust fund, even if money were magically reformed.
Since 2008 it has become clear that the timing of the crash of our oil-dependent civilization comes around to the fate of a single indicator. It comes down to James Carville’s famous imperative for the Clinton Campaign: “It’s The Economy Stupid!” We can count ourselves lucky, from a climate standpoint, that globalization was still relatively young when the party ran out of ice and had to break up.
All political systems exist to concentrate wealth at the center at the expense of the periphery. So to maintain their complex central operating systems and lavish gifts upon their extremely wealthy and wasteful bazillionaires, London, New York, Stockholm, Moscow and Beijing sucked wealth out of very large moneysheds — Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, Asia and Australia. When they can’t do that anymore — because the EROEI crisis has become a financial crisis — the sell orders will start to cascade. Distant trading relationships have a hard time remaining stable. Empire centers have to start maintaining their unsustainably high standards of living by sucking up marginal wealth from smaller, closer areas. This is what happened in ancient Rome and is now happening on the European periphery. That strategy only gets you so far before the local wealth is completely exhausted and there is nothing left to drain.
This is the soft underbelly of industrial scale renewable energy. It is not shortages of rare earths or energy inputs to make solar cells and windmills. It is the ability to finance production when your economic system is in free fall.
Intermittent renewables–wind and solar photovoltaic panels–have been hailed as an answer to all our energy problems. Certainly, politicians need something to provide hope, especially in countries that are obviously losing their supply of oil, such as the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the more I look into the situation, the less intermittent renewables have to offer. (Please note that I am not talking about solar hot water heaters. I am talking about intermittent renewables added to the electric grid.)
1. It is doubtful that intermittent renewables actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
It is devilishly difficult to figure out whether on not any particular energy source has a favorable impact on carbon dioxide emissions. The obvious first way of looking at emissions is to look at the fuel burned on a day-to-day basis. Intermittent renewables don’t seem to burn fossil fuel on day-to-day basis, while those using fossil fuels do, so wind and…
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The followers of this blog should be well ahead of the rest of the internet regarding the current extreme weather in America if they read Mark Cochrane’s guest post way back in July last year titled “Weather Whiplash”.
Of course, all the climate deniers are out in force these last few days, letting themselves believe that the snowball weather in the US is proof “climate change is crap”……. when in fact, nothing of the sort is true. As counterintuitive as it may seem, global warming is causing the polar ice to melt, and that melting is sending the weather haywire by making the jetstream do things it was never meant to do.
The dramatic melt-off of the Arctic sea ice due to climate change, is hitting closer to home for millions of Americans. That’s because melting Arctic sea ice has triggered a domino effect leading to increased odds of severe winter weather events in the Northern Hemisphere’s mid latitudes — think “The Day After Tomorrow”. Well, metaphorically anyway….. though who knowswhat the future may hold on that front!
Australians may think of Arctic climate change as this remote phenomenon that has little effect on our everyday lives, but what goes on in the Arctic remotely forces weather patterns, even here in Australia….. What drives the weather is energy. Heat energy to be precise. At any one time, there is a precise amount of energy in the Earth’s atmosphere. It is growing, apparently at the rate of four Hiroshima bombs per second, but even at such a mindboggling rate, over short periods like a week or a month, it may as well be constant, so able is the planet’s capacity to absorb it.
The Earth’s spin sends eddies in both the air and oceans, causing turbulence in the way this energy is distributed or moved about the biosphere. Heat normally wants to travel towards cold places and equalise the temperature of cold areas and hot areas. But these eddies don’t allow the heat to travel in a straight line, as it would in, say, a piece of metal heated at one end. Solar energy creates wind this way, and these eddies cause the wind to move along curved paths, as do ocean currents.
Add energy into the system by trapping heat under the blanket of greenhouse gases, and the eddies become more energetic. A bit like when you heat a saucepan of water; the water molecules become more and more energised, start convection currents, and eventually the water boils as the molecules can no longer remain in contact with each other and turn into a higher state of energy called a gas, in this case, steam. it’s Physics 101, really.
Because the amount of heat energy is ‘constant’, when it’s freezing cold in America, it’s stinking hot somewhere else, and at this time of the year, that means us in the Southern Hemisphere. That extra energy is causing more and more extreme weather, both here, and over there. As this sort of weather becomes more normal, the sum total of all the weather events become the new climate, and presto, we have Climate Change. And no Tony Abbott, it is NOT CRAP.
Cornell’s Charles H. Greene, professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and Bruce C. Monger, senior research associate in the same department, have detailed this phenomenon in a paper published in the June issue of the journal Oceanography.
Greene says, “What’s happening now is that we are changing the climate system, especially in the Arctic, and that’s increasing the odds for the negative Arctic Oscillation conditions that favour cold air invasions and severe winter weather outbreaks by diminishing latitudinal pressure gradient which is linked to a weakening of the winds associated with the polar vortex and jet stream. Since the polar vortex normally retains the cold Arctic air masses up above the Arctic Circle, its weakening allows the cold air to invade lower latitudes..”
Here is a good video explanation of what is going on:
Now what I want to know is…. what will happen to the jetstream in the Southern Hemisphere?