By Tim Morgan: Good idea, bad idea

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Here is the latest essay by Tim Morgan in which he makes the case for wind and solar energy, and the case against electric vehicles.

https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/2018/02/02/118-good-idea-bad-idea/

The key points Morgan makes are:

  • The energy cost of extracting fossil energy (ECoE) is rising, due to depletion of our best quality reserves, and this trend will continue, forever.
  • Therefore, the surplus fossil energy that remains to run civilization will soon begin to decline, forever.
  • To protect our civilization, which runs on energy, we must transition to the best alternatives, which are solar and wind.
  • Given the scale of the project, and our limited surplus capital, it will be a serious challenge to build sufficient solar and wind to keep pace with declining fossil energy.
  • Adding new electricity requirements for electric vehicles will make an already difficult task impossible.
  • We need to change our expectations and lifestyles to make do with fewer and smaller fossil energy vehicles, and abandon our dreams of electric vehicles.

So far, so good. All valid points, except I wonder about the feasibility of Morgan’s key conclusion that we must substitute fossil with renewable energy.

Here and elsewhere Morgan presents data that shows increasing ECoE for fossil energy will prevent civilization from continuing as usual. He did not present here ECoE data to show that solar and wind have an advantage over fossil energy.

My expectation is that solar and wind ECoE will be worse than fossil energy because, as he points out, they are deeply dependent on fossil energy for construction and maintenance, and because solar and wind have inherently lower power densities and higher storage costs.

I also think we should view renewables as a flow rather than a stock, that must be replaced every 25 years or so when the equipment wears out, with materials that require fossil energy to produce and install.

What is the wisdom of spending all of our precious remaining surplus energy capital on a solution that will work at best for 25-50 years? Moving to solar and wind could actually worsen our predicament.

We might be wiser to invest our remaining surplus energy capital in building out a softer landing zone. For example local water systems that do not require high energy inputs, local food production, community food storage and preservation facilities, public and shared transportation, home energy efficiency, solar hot water systems, and support for small scale local manufacturing.

Choosing the correct strategy requires accurate data. I hope Morgan is able to present the full life cycle ECoE for solar and wind in a future essay.

 

In short, whilst the case for maximising renewables seems irrefutable, the logic supposedly backing conversion to EVs is hopelessly flawed. We need to start by looking at why renewable energy is such a good idea, before turning to why EVs are such a bad one.

The case for maximising the development of renewables (such as solar and wind power) is wholly compelling. Failure to do this would condemn the world economy to stagnation in the near-term, with prosperity deteriorating steadily in the developed world whilst making little progress in the emerging economies. In the longer term, continued reliance on fossil fuels would be a recipe for economic disaster.

Put at its simplest, investing in solar and wind power is imperative, and is one of the most important issues that society needs to address. It ranks in importance alongside tackling climate change, and raising living standards in emerging economies.

Renewables are vital because they offer the only plausible way of escaping the economic trap posed by the rising energy costs of fossil fuels. We’re not about to “run out of” oil, gas or coal, but the value that these energy sources contribute to prosperity is already coming under severe pressure.

In per capita terms, the implications of these trends are stark. Comparing 2030 with 2016, gross access to fossil fuels per person is projected to have declined by 14%. Higher ECOEs, of course, will exacerbate this problem at the net level – fossil energy per person, available for all purposes other than energy supply, is likely to be 19% lower by 2030 than it was in 2016.

A more fundamental reason for caution about the rate at which renewables output can grow is that these technologies are derivatives of fossil fuels. Building wind turbines and solar panels requires the use of materials which can be accessed only by courtesy of existing fuel sources, most importantly oil. Everything from humble steel and copper to many of the more sophisticated components relies on fossil fuel energy, all the way from extraction and processing to manufacture and delivery.

This consideration reinforces the case for developing renewables as rapidly as possible, because we need to use our dwindling legacy resources of net energy to create the alternative sources of the future. But it also adds to the bottlenecks likely to be encountered in the development process.

A further twist here is that, to the extent that they are derivatives of a fossil fuel set whose ECoEs are rising, there is likely to be upwards pressure on the ECoEs of renewables themselves. Thanks to two main factors – early-stage technical improvement (“low hanging fruit”), and economies of scale – we have become accustomed to declining unit costs in the development of renewables. Costs are likely to continue to fall, but at a decelerating rate, as the scope for ‘easy’ technical improvement diminishes, economies of scale benefits reach plateau, and the ECoE of inputs rises.

Finally, on this score, we need to note that, by 2030, renewables supply would need to multiply, not by the 3.5x projected here, but by 5.5x, just to keep the fossil fuel requirement for power generation constant at current levels. Delivering enough additional power from renewables to start reducing hydrocarbon-based generation looks extraordinarily difficult – and that’s even before we start adding to electricity demand by switching to EVs.

At this point, we need to note a number of mistaken assumptions which are sometimes made in creating a false relationship between EVs and renewables.

First, and as we have noted, EVs are not an essential driver for investment in renewables – this investment will (and must) happen anyway, even if EVs prove a blind alley.

Second, expansionary investment in renewables is not going to make EVs an appropriate strategy. Just like nuclear in an earlier era, renewables are not going to supply energy in such abundance that it will be “too cheap to meter”. We are going to need every KWH of renewable output just to keep up with growth in the baseload (non-EV) need for electricity.

Third, and unlike renewables, EVs are not going to make a positive contribution, let alone a major one, to stemming climate change. The fossil fuel currently burned in IC-powered transport will simply be displaced from vehicle engines to power stations. Battery technologies raise their own pollution and emissions issues, and some of today’s ultra-optimistic expectations for the life efficiency of batteries are already starting to look somewhat questionable.

Beyond the human fascination with the new, the shiny and the technological, the reasons why we are likely to invest huge sums of our scarce energy-legacy capital into pursuing the chimaera of EVs are simple enough.

First, leadership in government and business still fails to recognise the challenge posed by the mounting cost pressures jeopardising the energy (and hence) economic future.

Second, EVs are a form of denial over the really pressing need, which is to readdress and redesign patterns of travel and habitation that are being rendered unsustainable by energy pressures.

This implies that the push for all-out conversion to EVs is an exercise in denial, along much the same lines as the economic denial implicit in debt proliferation, pensions destruction and monetary adventurism.

We may not – yet, anyway – need to adopt a ‘one car per household’ strategy along the lines of China’s “one child” policy. But, at the very least, we need to be rethinking housing and transport patterns, and investing in incremental automotive technologies.

Leaner-burning engines, tighter (and strongly-enforced) emissions restrictions, hybrids, the increased use of engineering plastics and the imposition of a limit of, perhaps, 1.5 litres on engine sizes might be a better idea than building a new generation of heavyweight vehicles designed to harness an abundance of electricity which simply isn’t going to happen.

14 thoughts on “By Tim Morgan: Good idea, bad idea”

  1. I agree, we need to put in place a future energy scenario that DOESN’T need fossil fuels for any part of it’s implementation. Every one of these writers loses me as soon as they start talking about renewable energy which needs fossil fuels, or which is going to last only as long as fossil fuels. To say we need to rush ahead and convert the last remaining fossil fuels to wind turbines and solar panels (with a 25 year lifespan, or whatever), is madness.

    An energy source, to be sustainable, needs to reproduce itself. The number of odd looks I get when I say you can’t make a wind turbine in a factory powered by wind turbines (or even battery-stored wind energy) is proof that most people just don’t get it.

    The same goes for nuclear power advocates. We’ve been stupid enough to build a whole way of life around a finite, non-renewable energy source, and now they want to do it all over again with uranium, another finite, non-renewable source.

    Your comment about seeing renewables as a flow rather than a stock, really hit the nail on the head. Where are the systems analysts in all this discussion?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly. I used to think the flawed thinking was caused by a lack of intelligence and/or education. But the problem is also common in smart and well educated people.

      I now of course think the problem is caused by the evolved human behavior to deny unpleasant realities as explained by Varki’s MORT theory.

      Note that exactly the same discussion can be had about religions. Religions are so obviously untrue that the really interesting question is why do so many intelligent people believe in them?

      And the answer again is inherited denial of unpleasant realities, in this case mortality.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, but where do those of us who aren’t in so much denial fit in? Do we have a part to play? Maybe the answer is in Varki’s book and I’ll know by the time I get to the end.

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        1. I have a faint hope that some influential people might engage to increase awareness of denial after understanding that nothing will improve until we acknowledge this weakness in our decision making ability.

          But I suspect the reality will be that the few of us that understand will simply be observers to a tragedy.

          I do derive a lot of personal satisfaction from having a solid scientific theory for why our species is so unique, and why we do crazy things despite being so intelligent.

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          1. Hi Rob,

            My worthless opinion is that humans are getting dumber, there is some data to back this up however it’s not politically correct.
            One of the many unforeseen consequences of civilisation is a benign environment and a high standard of living which causes an accumulation of deleterious mutations in the human gene pool.

            Cheers,
            Iron Mike

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            1. It may be true that thinking skills are in decline but that’s not the core issue in my opinion.

              Plenty of really smart people believe totally wacky things like the goal of infinite growth on a finite planet, buying a new electric car helps fight climate change, debt doesn’t matter, and some form of life after death.

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              1. Hi Rob,

                Again in my humble opinion that is due to the fact that the brain demands security, certainty and permanency. Whereas the reality of life being, insecurity, uncertain and impermanent.
                Religion and optimism is the opiate of the masses.

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                1. You are correct that the brain prefers security, certainty, and permanency. But these are byproducts of the adaptation that enabled the uniquely human full theory of mind via denial of unpleasant realities, which evolution may have implemented via a tweak to the mammalian fear suppression module. If you are correct that security, certainty, and permanency are the primary behaviors, then you need to imagine a way for evolution to invent these in the short period that it took behaviorally modern humans to emerge.

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  2. I have had a theory for some time now that the crux of the Converging Catastrophic Constraints Conundrum (CCCC) is knowing about it. As soon as the required % of the population, 10%, 20%, more, understand that the jig is well and truly up for their bright future as well off consumers all hell breaks lose and nothing anyone says will stop it.

    No politician, no tech guru, no religious figure will be able to put that genie back in the bottle as they say. This is why the lies and denial have only gotten bigger and thicker. This explains all of the distractions thrown up by our leaders and the complicit media.

    GW Shrub represented an easily manipulated/compliant puppet to prop-up in front of the screen while TPTB/deep state gets on with phase 1 of the shift I call “create chaos to prevent chaos”. Obamanation was tossed up there to appease the Musilms and people of color (even though everything got worse for them) so that phase 2 could kick in “more chaos and setting the stage for big chaos. Trumpiter represents both an appeaser and a major distraction from reality so they can work hard at triggering massive chaos. It helps that few if any want to know and if they do know they are happy to find any excuse to stop knowing.

    Point is that the only thing keeping it all together is the general publics continued belief that if they just focus and work hard the World is their oyster, or at least they can have a decent life and their children can have an even better one. When that goes it all goes all the way down. The kind of chaos TPTB kicks up is perceived as temporary and solvable, CCCC is neither.

    TPTB knows that no matter how hard it is to keep the secret hidden, no matter what kind of dirty deeds they need to do to keep it in the can, no matter how chaotic the chaos they stir up is, it is all a million times better than telling the truth and allowing the ultimate chaos of the population knowing about the CCCC.

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    1. Welcome Jef,

      You make some interesting points. I don’t agree with them, but it’s possible you are right. Let me unpack them:

      1) Awareness leads to immediate collapse

      There is no doubt that our unprecedented bubbles (stocks, bonds, real estate) depend on faith of the majority. Any rational analysis of data shows that everything is overpriced. And this conclusion does not require an understanding that we’ve hit limits to growth. If and when the sentiment of the herd shifts, there will be a significant and well deserved correction in the market. Will this correction lead to total collapse as you suggest? I doubt it. We still have a fair amount of capital (energy) in the bank (underground). There will be a drop in energy extraction due to rising interest rates and falling incomes after the market correction, but that means we will be forced to live more within our means, which is a good thing.

      2) Powerful people are aware of our predicament and are manipulating public opinion

      This is a really interesting question. I watch very closely for any sign that our leaders (political, intellectual, religious, cultural) understand the human overshoot predicament. I don’t see any evidence. In fact I see the opposite. The smartest and most powerful people have no clue what is going on. So I do not subscribe to a conspiracy theory.

      No one is steering the ship. The ship’s course is determined by:
      a) thermodynamics (relationships between energy, wealth, food, and waste)
      b) complexity theory (adding energy to a system increases complexity)
      c) evolved human behaviors that block free will (denial of unpleasant realities, maximum power principle, discounting the future, status seeking, rationalizing, etc.)

      3) Awareness of reality is worse than denial

      Another very interesting question. I think awareness of reality is much better than denying reality, but I seem to be in a very small minority on this issue. My point is that we are in severe overshoot which means the elevation of our material well-being must decline. We are using debt backed by irrational faith to increase the elevation from which we will fall. There is no free lunch. Our actions today are making much worse the suffering we will experience in the future.

      A much safer and wiser path would be to acknowledge that our real capital is the oil that remains in the ground, and that we should decide very carefully how best to spend what is left. I think the best investment would be to prepare a softer landing zone. But others might disagree. The key point to observe is that we do not even discuss the issue. Hence my interest in Varki’s MORT theory.

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      1. Rob – Thank you for taking the time to reply.
        What I mean about awareness leading to collapse is about the awareness of a future of less, a future of no growth, all of which translates to less to possibly zero opportunity to “get ahead”.
        I certainly hope you are not one of those who think we can grow our way out of this.

        Understanding the reality of constraints brings out the worst in human behavior. On a simple level it triggers a run on what ever is in short supply. It is happening right now in Venezuela and elsewhere. We could argue that those situations are artificial and don’t need to be happening, true or not they are instructive. What if there is a run on opportunities and an understanding that it is permanent? CHAOS!!!

        WRT TPTB there is the infamous Cheney meeting which was leaked, where the heads of FF industry and others meet and talk about securing oil resources enough for future demand.
        There are plenty of clueless people in the upper echelons but there is also a lot of folks that know all of the hardcore realities that we know. It is unrealistic bordering on tin hat to believe that we know but they don’t. Not seeing TPTB reacting/responding as you would hope or expect them to does not prove anything. My point is that they are responding, just not in a good way.

        I obviously believe awareness of reality is much better than denying reality. I live there. But I have to say it ain’t pretty, its very lonely, and it doesn’t seem to help in any way. Which leads us back to my original point which is that what we have right now, denial of the constraints on a global scale seems to be going along smoothly depending on your particular situation but mostly so. Obviously we will eventually still hit the wall but not yet. Where as awareness insures a general understanding that the future is LESS, the future is shortages, the future is deflation, and on and on.

        Is your argument that the general population can be convinced/tricked, whatever that the future can still be great with less and all of the other stuff happening?

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        1. I do not believe we can grow out of our predicament. It’s simply not possible.

          I understand your points about scarcity bringing out the worst in people. Nevertheless, what we are doing with debt fueled fake growth is making future scarcity much much worse. But like I said, the majority of well informed people agree with your view. I am an outlier.

          This recent post answers your last question.
          https://un-denial.com/2018/02/05/the-case-for-renaming-gdp-to-gdb/

          Like

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