Your gas tank is not an oil well. Your battery will not be a power plant.

Also published on Resilience

My car comes with an amazing energy-storage, demand-management-and-supply system; perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called the “gas tank”.

Thanks to this revolutionary feature, if I get home and the electric grid is down, I can siphon gas out of the tank and power up a generator. In a more urgent energy crunch, I can siphon out some gas, throw it on a woodpile, and get a really hot fire going in seconds. If a friend across town has no power, I can even drive over there, siphon out some fuel, and run a generator to provide power in an alternate location. It’s beautiful! I can shift energy provision and consumption both temporally and spatially.

There is one minor drawback, to be sure. If I siphon the fuel out of the tank then I can’t actually drive the car, at least not more than a few kilometers to the nearest fuel station. But let’s not let that limitation cast a shadow over this revolutionary technology. If this flexible load-management system were widely adopted, and there were cars everywhere, think how smoothly our society could run!

These thoughts come to mind when I hear someone rhapsodize about the second coming of the electric car. Recently, for example, a Grist headline proclaimed that “Your Electric Vehicle Could Become a Mini Power Plant. And that could make the electrical grid work better for everyone.” (June 21, 2021)

Stephen Peake, in Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons (review here) wrote that “new fleets of electric vehicles parked overnight could become another mass source of electricity storage and supply.” (emphasis mine)

One more example: an Oct 2020 article at World Economic Forum says that “When electric vehicles are integrated into a city’s energy system, the battery can provide power to the grid when the sun is down or the wind isn’t blowing.”

The key to this supply-and-demand magic is “bidirectional charging” – the electric vehicles of the near future will have the equivalent of a gas tank with a built-in siphon. Thus their capacious batteries will not only be able to quickly suck power out of the grid, but also to empty themselves out again to provide juice for other purposes.

But allow me this skeptical observation: electric car batteries do not have huge batteries because the drivers want to offer aid to the “smart grid”. Electric car batteries are huge because cars are huge consumers of energy.

(True, electric cars don’t consume quite as much energy as internal-combustion cars of similar class and weight – but they consume a whole lot more energy per passenger/kilometer than intelligently routed electric buses, trains, or especially, electric-assisted bicycles.)

And let’s be clear: neither an electric car vehicle nor its battery provide any “energy supply”. The car itself is a pure energy suck. The battery is just an energy storage device – it can store a finite capacity of energy from another source, and output that energy as required, but it does not produce energy.

As with internal-combustion powered cars, when the tank/battery is drained for a purpose other than driving, then the car ceases to be a functional car until refueled.

That will leave some niche scenarios where vehicle batteries really might offer a significant advantage to grid supply management. The Grist article begins with one such scenario: three yellow school buses which run on battery power through the school year, and serve as a battery bank while parked for the summer months. If all 8,000 school buses in the local utility service area were EVs, the article notes, their fully-charged batteries “could collectively supply more than 100 megawatts of power to the grid for short periods — or nearly 1 percent of Con Ed’s peak summer power demand.”

When parked for the summer, electric school buses would not need to be charged and ready to drive first thing every weekday morning. So they could indeed be used simply as (terribly expensive) battery cases for two or three months each year.

OK, but … let’s be careful about singing the praises of school buses. This might be a slippery slope. If big buses catch on, soon Americans might start taking their kids to school in giant pick-up trucks!

Of course I jest – that horse has already left the barn. The top three selling vehicles in the US, it may surprise people from elsewhere to learn, are pick-up trucks that dwarf the pick-ups used by farmers and some tradespeople in previous generations. (It will not surprise Canadians, who play second fiddle to no-one in car culture madness. Canadians tend to buy even larger, heavier, more powerful, and more expensive trucks than Americans do.)

The boom in overgrown pick-ups has not come about because North Americans are farming and logging in record numbers, nor even, as one wag put it, that a 4X8 sheet of plywood has gotten so much bigger in recent years. Yet urban streets, parking lots, and suburban driveways are now crowded with hulking four-door, four-wheel-drive, spotlessly clean limousine-trucks. Those vehicles, regardless of their freight-carrying or freight-pulling capacity, are used most to carry one or two people around urbanized areas.

If we are foolish enough to attempt electrification of this fleet, it will take an awesome amount of battery power. And as you might expect, car culture celebrants are already proclaiming what a boon this will be for energy transition.

A pre-production promo video for Ford’s F-150 Lightning electric pick-up truck gets to the critical issue first: the Lightning will accelerate from 0 – 60 mph (0 – 97 km/hr) “in the mid-4-second range”. But wait, there’s more, the ad promises: the battery can “off-board” enough power to run a home “for about three days”.

Keep that in mind when you start seeing big electric pick-up trucks on the road: each one, in just a few hours of highway driving, will use as much power as a typical American home uses in three days.

Keep it in mind, too, when you see a new bank of solar panels going up in a field or on a warehouse roof: the installation might output enough electricity each day to power 100 pickup trucks for a few hours each – or 300 homes for the whole day.

Given that we won’t have enough renewably produced electricity to power existing homes, schools, stores and industries for decades, is it really a good idea to devote a big share of it, right at the outset, to building and charging limousine-trucks? Are the huge batteries required by these vehicles actually features, or are they bugs?

Granted, an electric car battery can provide a modest degree of grid load-levelling capability in some situations. It can be drained back into the grid during some peak-power-demand periods such as early evening in the heat of summer – as long as it can be recharged in time for the morning commute. That’s not nothing. And if we’re determined to keep our society moving by using big cars and trucks, that means we’ll have a huge aggregated battery capacity sitting in parking spots for most of each day. In that scenario, sure, there will be a modest degree of load-levelling capacity in those parked vehicles.

But perhaps there is a better way to add load-levelling capacity to the grid. A better way than producing huge, heavy vehicles, each containing one battery, which suck up that power fast whenever they’re being driven, while also spreading brake dust and worn tire particles through the environment, and which significantly increase the danger to vulnerable road users besides. Not to mention, which result in huge upfront emissions of carbon dioxide during their manufacture.

If it’s really load-levelling we’re after, for the same money and resources we could build a far greater number of batteries, and skip building expensive casings in the form of cars and pick-ups.

Other factors being equal, an electric car is modestly more environmentally friendly than internal-combustion car. (How’s that for damning with faint praise?)  But if we’re ready for a serious response to the climate emergency, we should be rapidly curtailing both the manufacture and use of cars, and making the remaining vehicles only as big and heavy as they actually need to be. The remaining small cars won’t collectively contain such a huge battery capacity, to be sure, but we can then address the difficult problems of grid load management in a more intelligent, efficient and direct fashion.


Illustration at top of post: Energy Utopia, composite by Bart Hawkins Kreps from public domain images.

Sunshine, wind, tides and worldwatts

A review of Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons

Also published on Resilience

Fun physics fact: water carries so much more kinetic energy than air that “A tidal current of 3 knots has the same energy density as a steady wind stream at 29 knots (a fair old blow).”

And consider this: “Ninety-nine per cent of planet Earth is hotter than 1,000 °C (1,832 °F). The earth is, in fact, a giant leaky heat battery.”

Stephen Peake uses these bits of information and many more to lucidly outline the physical bases of renewable energy sources, including solar and wind energy, geothermal energy, wave energy and tidal current energy. But the book also touches on the complex relationship between the physics of renewable energy, and the role energy plays in human society – and the results aren’t always enlightening.

Peake takes on a formidable task in Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons. The book is part of the “Pocket Einstein” series from Johns Hopkins University Press (or from Michael O’Mara Books in Britain). He has less than 200 small-format pages in which to cover both the need for and the prospects for a transition to 100% renewable energy.

Key to his method is the concept of a “worldwatt” – “the rate at which the world uses all forms of primary energy.” Peake estimates the rate of energy flow around the world from various potential renewable energy sources. Not surprisingly, he finds that the theoretically available renewable energy sources are far greater than all energy currently harnessed – primarily from fossil fuels – by the global economy.

But how do we get from estimates of theoretically available energy, to estimates of how much of that energy is practically and economically available? Here Peake’s book isn’t much help. He asks us to accept this summation:

“Taking a conservative mid-estimate of the numbers in the literature, we see that the global technical potential of different renewable sources adds up to 46 worldwatts. There is a definite and reasonable prospect of humans harnessing 1 worldwatt from 100 per cent renewable energy in the future.” (page 31)

But he offers no evidence or rationale for the conclusion that getting 1 worldwatt from renewable sources is a “reasonable prospect”, nor how near or far “in the future” that might occur.

A skeptic might well dismiss the book as renewable energy boosterism, noting a cheery optimism from the opening pages: “There is an exciting, renewable, electric, peaceful, prosperous, safer future just up ahead.” Others might say such optimism is the most helpful position one can take, given that we have no choice but to switch to a renewable energy way of life, ASAP, if we want human presence on earth to last much longer.

Yet a cheerfully pro-renewable energy position can easily shade into a cheerful pro-consumptionist stance – the belief that renewable energies can quickly become the driving force of our current industrial economies, with little change in living standards and no end to economic growth.

Peake briefly introduces a key concept for assessing which renewable energy sources will be economically viable, and in what quantities: Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI). He explains that as we exploit more difficult energy sources, the EROEI goes down:

“As wind turbines have become larger and moved offshore, the EROEI ratio for wind over a twenty-year lifetime has declined from around 20:1 in the early 2000s to as low as 15:1 in recent years for some offshore wind farms.” (page 84)

Affordable renewable energy, in other words, doesn’t always “scale up”. The greater the total energy demanded by society, the more we will be impelled to site wind turbines and solar panels in areas beyond the “sweet spots” for Energy Return On Energy Invested. Peake’s book would be stronger if he used this recognition to give better context to statements such as “Renewable electricity is now cheaper than fossil electricity …” (in the book’s opening paragraph), and “solar is now the cheapest electricity in history” (page 70).

While Peake expresses confidence that a prosperous renewable energy world is just ahead, he doesn’t directly engage with the issue of how, or how much, affluent lifestyles may need to change. The closest he comes to grappling with this contentious issue is in his discussion of energy waste:

“We need to stop wasting all forms of energy, including clean renewable sources of heat and electricity. The sooner we shrink our total overall demand for energy, the sooner renewables will be able to provide 100 per cent of the energy we need to power our zero-carbon economies.” (page 141)

Near the end of the book, in brief remarks about electric cars, Peake makes some curious statements about EVs:

“Millions of [electric vehicles] will need charging from the network. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity in terms of managing the network load.” (page 130, emphasis mine)

And a few pages later:

“In the future, new fleets of electric vehicles parked overnight could become another mass source of electricity storage and supply.” (page 134 emphasis mine)

In my next post I’ll take up this concept of the electric vehicle as energy storage, supply and load management resource.

In conclusion, Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons is a valuable primer on the physics of renewable energy, but isn’t a lot of help in establishing whether or not the existing world economy can be successfully transitioned to zero-carbon energy.


Photo at top of page: Wind Turbines near Grevelingenmeer, province of Zeeland, Netherlands

 

Can big science be sustained?

Reflections on Fundamentals by Frank Wilczek

Also published on Resilience

During a long career at the frontiers of physics Frank Wilczek has earned many honours, including a Nobel Prize for Physics in 2004. Fortunately for general readers he is also a gifted writer with a facility for explaining complex topics in (relatively) simple terms.

Perhaps you have, as I do, an amateur fascination with topics such as quantum electrodynamics (QED) and quantum chromodynamics (QCD), and questions such as “To what extent do the laws of physics work the same running forward in time or running backward in time?” If so I heartily recommend Wilczek’s latest book Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality. (Penguin Random House, January 2021)

Wilczek shares with us the sense of wonder and beauty that has kept him excited about his work for the past 50 years. You might realize, as I did, that with Wilczek’s help you will understand aspects of particle physics, cosmology, and the nature of time better than you ever thought you might.

Yet from the opening pages of the book, Wilczek drops in assertions about history, society and the role of science that I found both troubling and worthy of a more focused examination.

What makes western science so great? (Or not.)

In Fundamentals Wilczek spends most of his time discussing scientific developments during the 20th century, particularly developments that weren’t even mentioned in high-school textbooks the last time I took a course in physics. But he grounds his discussion in a celebration of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.

“The seventeenth century saw dramatic theoretical and technological progress on many fronts, including in the design of mechanical machines and ships, of optical instruments (including, notably, microscopes and telescopes), of clocks, and of calendars. As a direct result, people could wield more power, see more things, and regulate their affairs more reliably. But what makes the so-called Scientific Revolution unique, and fully deserving of the name, is something less tangible. It was a change in outlook: a new ambition, a new confidence.” (Fundamentals, page 4)

In subsequent centuries, the applied science that grew from this scientific revolution led to internal combustion engines, electric motors, all manner of telecommunications, digital cameras, lasers, magnetic resonance imaging and the Global Positioning System – to name just a few of the technologies that have transformed ways of life.

I count myself a fan of the scientific method, and I haven’t personally known anyone who is either ready, willing or able to live without any access to any of the technologies Wilczek cites as outgrowths of this method. But can these technological successes be credited solely to a new and superior approach to inquiry?

In the opening pages Wilczek states that “prior to the emergence of the scientific method, the development of technologies was haphazard.” (page 3) He then slips in an observation that to him requires no elaboration, presenting a graph of GDP growth with this comment:

“This figure, which shows the development of human productivity with time, speaks for itself, and it speaks volumes.” 

Graph from Fundamentals, by Frank Wilczek, page 3.

The graph speaks for itself? And just what does it say? Perhaps this: when at long last humans learned to extract ancient deposits of fossil energy, laid down over millions of years, and learned how to burn this energy inheritance in a frenzy of consumption, with no worries about whether successive generations would have any comparable energy sources to draw on, only then did “economic growth” skyrocket. And further: it’s not important that a great deal of wealth – from accessible fossil energy reserves to biodiversity to climate stability – has gone down as fast as that graph of GDP has gone up. It doesn’t matter, since in GDP’s accounting for economic growth there is no need to distinguish productivity from consumptivity.

As you might guess, what I glean from that GDP graph may not match what Wilczek hears, when he hears the graph “speak for itself.” But I think the relationship of science to the larger human enterprise, including the economy, deserves further scrutiny here.

That GDP is a crude economic indicator should become clear if we reflect on the left side of Wilczek’s graph as much as the right side. He credits the scientific revolution with leading to an explosion in productivity – but his graph shows a barely perceptible change in world GDP per capita for the period 1500 – 1800. Significant growth in GDP per capita, then, didn’t arise for at least a century after the scientific revolution, until about the time fossil fuel exploitation began in earnest.

Can this be taken as evidence that there were no fundamental changes in the world economy during the centuries immediately preceding the fossil fuel economy? To the contrary, some of human history’s most epic changes began about 1500, as western european nations colonized the Americas, instituted the slave trade on a massive scale, colonized large parts of Africa and Asia, and began a centuries-long transfer of ecological wealth from both land and sea around the globe, at the cost of hundreds of millions of human lives. Global economic wealth per capita may not have changed much during those centuries – but the distribution of that wealth, and the resulting wealth of a small slice of educated european elites, certainly did change. And it was from these elites that, with few exceptions, came the men (again, with few exceptions) who worked out the many discoveries in the scientific revolution.

It shouldn’t surprise us that these new understandings would come from people who had the economic security to get good educations, acquire expensive books, set up laboratories, make patient observations for years or decades, and test their theories even if any practical applications might be so far in the future as to be unforeseeable. A well-rounded assessment of the scientific revolution, then, should look not only at the eventual technological outcomes that might be credited to this revolution, but also the ecological and sociological factors that preceded this revolution. And a balanced assessment of the scientific revolution should also ask about blind spots likely to accompany this worldview, given its birth among the elite beneficiaries of a colonialism that far more of the world’s population were experiencing as an apocalypse.

In particular, it should be no surprise that among the class of people who do the lion’s share of consumption, the dominant faith in economics has conveniently assured them that their consumptivity equals productivity.

How much energy is enough energy?

Wilczek spends much of Fundamentals illuminating energy in many guises: the energy charge of an electron, the energy that holds quarks together to form protons, the gravitational energy of a black hole as it bends space-time, the dark energy that appears to be causing the universe not just to expand, but to expand at an accelerating pace. His explanations are marvels of clarity in which he imparts the sense of wonder that he himself felt at the outset of his lifelong scientific journey.

When he turns to the role that energy plays in human life and society, unfortunately, his observations strike me as trite. He titles one chapter, for example, “There’s Plenty of Matter and Energy”.

Here he gives us the unit AHUMEN, short for Annual Human Energy, which he calculates at 2,000 calories/day, which over a year comes to about 3 billion joules. With this unit in hand, he notes that world energy consumption in 2020 was about 190 billion AHUMENs, or about 25 AHUMENs per capita. He draws this conclusion:

“This number, 25, is the ratio of total energy consumed to the amount of energy used in natural metabolism. It is an objective measure of how far humans have progressed, economically ….” (p 127, emphasis mine)

If tomorrow we consume twice as much energy as we consume today, then by this “objective measure” we will have progressed twice as far economically. This sounds to me like neither clever physics nor clever economics, but mere mis-applied arithmetic.

Wilczek adds that Americans consume roughly 95 AHUMENs per person, without pointing out what should also be obvious: if the global average is 25 AHUMENs per capita, and Americans consume 95 per capita, that means hundreds of millions of people in our advanced global economy are getting only a few AHUMENs each.

Proceeding with his argument that “there’s plenty of energy”, Wilczek says that if we consider only “the portion of solar energy that makes it to Earth, then we find ‘only’ about 10,000 times our present total energy consumption. That number provides a more realistic baseline from which to assess the economic potential of solar energy.” (page 127)

Indeed, there is and always has been a vast amount of solar energy impacting the earth. That energy has always been enough to fry a human caught unprotected for too long in the desert sun. It’s always been enough to electrocute a human, when solar energy is incorporated into lightning storms. That abundant solar energy can even freeze us to death, when increasingly unstable weather systems push arctic air deep into regions where humans are unprepared for cold.

That energy has always been enough to kill crops during heat waves or to flood coastal cities when storms surge. With each passing year, as our geoengineered atmosphere holds in more heat, there will be more solar energy theoretically available to us, but immediately active in global weather systems. That will make our economic challenges greater, not simpler.

For that abundant solar energy to represent “economic potential”, we need to have technologies that can make that solar energy useful to us, and manageable by us, in cost-effective ways. Wilczek both recognizes and dismisses this concern in a single sentence:

“Technology to capture a larger fraction of that [solar] energy is developing rapidly, and there is little doubt that in the foreseeable future – barring catastrophe – we will be able to use it to support a richer world economy sustainably.” (page 140)

Wilczek himself might have little doubt about this, but I wish he had included some basis on which we could be confident this is more than wishful thinking.

While this discussion may seem to have veered a long way from the core concerns of Wilczek’s book, I suggest that the relationship of societal energy consumption to the needs of the scientific enterprise may soon become a critical issue.

ATLAS detector being assembled at Large Hadron Collider, 2006. Photo by Fanny Schertzer, 27 February 2006. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The energy demands of big science

The work of 20th century physics has come with a high energy price tag. Famously, some of the major steps forward in theory were accomplished by brilliant individuals scribbling in notebooks or on chalk boards, using tools that were familiar to Newton. But the testing of the theories has required increasingly elaborate experimental setups.

The launching of a space telescope, which helps reveal secrets of the farthest reaches of our universe, is one energy-intensive example. But likewise in the realm of infinitesimally small, sub-atomic particles – where Wilczek has focused much of his work – the experimental apparatus has become increasingly grand.

Wilczek tells us about Paul Dirac, a pioneer in quantum electrodynamics who wrote in 1929 that “The underlying physical laws necessary for the mathematical theory of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known.” Yet much subsequent progress in the field had to wait:

“When Dirac continued, ‘And the difficulty lies only in the fact that application of these laws leads to equations that are too complex to be solved,’ modern supercomputers were not even a dream.” (page 120)

The theoretical framework for the Higgs particle was proposed decades before it could be confirmed, and that confirmation carried a huge energy cost. “In the years prior to 2012, Higgs particle searches came up empty,” Wilczek writes. “We know now, in retrospect, that they simply didn’t bring in enough energy. The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, finally did.” (page 176)

It’s not just that this collider involved the construction of a circular tunnel 27 km in circumference, nor that while operating it draws 200 MW of electricity, comparable to one-third the electricity draw of the city of Geneva. The power allows experimenters to smash protons together at speeds only 11 km/h less than the speed of light. And these collisions, in turn, result in nearly incomprehensible quantities of data being captured in the Atlas detector, which sends “all this information, at the rate of 25 million gigabytes per year, to a worldwide grid that links thousands of supercomputers.” (page 176)

When the tunnel had been bored, the superconducting magnets built and installed, the Atlas detector (itself twice the size of the Parthenon) assembled, the whole machine put into operation, and the thousands of supercomputers had crunched the data for months – then, finally, the existence of the Higgs particle was proven.

Wilczek doesn’t go into detail about the energy sources for this infrastructure. But it shouldn’t escape our attention that the experimental-industrial complex remains primarily a fossil-fueled enterprise. Fossil fuels fly researchers from university to university and from lab to lab around the world. Fossil fuels power the cement plants and steel foundries, and the mines that extract the metals and minerals. Many individual machines are directly powered by electricity, but on a global scale most electricity is still generated from the heat of fossil fuel combustion.

Wilczek cites the vast amount of solar energy that strikes the earth each day as a vast economic resource. Yet we are nowhere close to being able to build and operate all our mines, smelters, silicon chip fabrication facilities, intercontinental aircraft, solar panel production facilities, electricity transmission towers, and all the other components of the modern scientific enterprise, solely on renewable solar energy.

And if someday in the not-too-distant future we are able to operate a comparably complex industrial infrastructure solely on renewable energy, will this generate enough economic surplus to support tens of thousands of scientists working at the frontiers of research?

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory unveiled Summit as the world’s most powerful and smartest scientific supercomputer on June 8, 2018. “With a peak performance of 200,000 trillion calculations per second—or 200 petaflops, Summit will be eight times more powerful than ORNL’s previous top-ranked system, Titan. … Summit will provide unprecedented computing power for research in energy, advanced materials and artificial intelligence (AI), among other domains, enabling scientific discoveries that were previously impractical or impossible.” Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Just one clue

Wilczek cites a famous quotation from equally celebrated physicist Richard Feynman. During a lecture in 1961 Feynman offered this question and answer:

“‘If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms.’” (Feynman, quoted in Fundamentals, page 61)

And Wilczek proposes this revision:

“Instead of ‘all things are made of atoms,’ we should say that ‘all things are made of elementary particles.’” (page 62)

This may seem nothing more than an intellectual parlor game, with scientific knowledge today increasing at an accelerating pace. Wilczek doesn’t sound worried about the death of scientific knowledge, when he says that “Technology has already given us superpowers, and there is no end in sight.” (page 171)

But as we roar ahead into the climate crisis, I think it would be helpful and appropriate to revise Feynman’s question, replacing the “if” with “when”:

If When, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be is destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?

We can’t know for sure, of course, whether the climate cataclysm will destroy scientific knowledge. But what we can see is that we are on a so-far unwavering path to climate catastrophe, and that most governments around the world aren’t pledging (let alone fulfilling pledges) to make carbon emissions reductions that are even close to sufficient. With each passing year the challenge of transforming our civilization into a sustainable civilization grows more urgent, time grows shorter, and the consequences of failure grow more threatening not only to individual lives but to the very survival of our species. These threats are being documented and communicated in great detail by our scientific enterprises. And yet the greatest beneficiaries of our supposedly productive global economy (individual examples notwithstanding) lead the charge to the cliff.

So perhaps it’s time to consider seriously “What one sentence of information might be most useful to our survivors?”

Suppose we project our thoughts, right now, into a climate-ravaged future. Earth’s surviving inhabitants contend with a violently unstable climate. They struggle to gather enough food from deeply impoverished ecosystems, they try to build sufficiently robust shelters, they yearn to raise healthy children, and they face these challenges without any useful energy boosts from polluting fossil fuels (fuels which in any case will be hard to extract, since we’ll have already burned up the easily accessible reserves). Our digital networks of knowledge may well have gone dark, and our libraries may have flooded or burned.

In this future, will it be helpful to tell our descendants “All things are made of elementary particles?” Perhaps it will be many generations further on, if all goes well, before they can again support a scientific elite, armed with elaborate experimental apparatus, capable of making sense of these “elementary particles”.

I can’t help but wonder if, in this future, the best advice we might offer would be a simple warning: “Don’t do what we did.”


Photo at top of page: Grappling the Hubble Space Telescope. An STS-125 crew member aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis snapped a still photo of the Hubble Space Telescope after it was grappled by the shuttle’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System. Credit: NASA. Accessed at Wikimedia Commons.

Transition to a Low-Energy Future

One project has taken the lion’s share of my work time for the past year, and it has been a project close to my heart.

As long-time readers will have noted, my writings frequently concern the intersection between energy and economics. I was honored and grateful, therefore, to be asked to serve as guest editor of an issue of The American Journal of Economics and Sociology.

After a year’s work this issue is now published, under the title “Transition to a Low-Energy Future”. An issue overview and all individual articles can be found here.

I am now working on the next phase of this project – seeing this published as a generally-available print book. Inquiries and comments on this project are most welcome; please get in touch through the Contact page on this website.

Energy storage and our unpredictable future

A review of Energy Storage and Civilization

Also published on Resilience.org

It’s a fine spring day and you decide on a whim to go camping. By early afternoon you’ve reached a sheltered clearing in the woods, the sky is clear, and you relax against a tree trunk rejoicing that “The best things in life are free!” as you soak up the abundant warmth of the sun. As the sun goes down, though, the temperature drops to near freezing, you shiver through a long night, and you resolve to be better prepared the next night.

And so by the time the sun sets again you’ve invested in a good down sleeping bag, you sleep through the long night in comfort due to your own carefully retained heat, and then you greet the cold dawn by cheerfully striking a match to the pile of dry sticks you had gathered and stacked the day before.

In this little excursion you’ve coped with variable energy flows, using technologies that allowed you to store energy for use at a later time. In short, you’ve faced the problems that Graham Palmer and Joshua Floyd identify as critical challenges in all human civilizations – and especially in our own future.

Their new book Energy Storage and Civilization: A Systems Approach (Springer, February 2020) is an important contribution to biophysical economics – marvelously clear, deep and detailed where necessary, and remarkably thorough for a work of just over 150 pages.

The most widely appreciated insight of biophysical economics is the concept of Energy Return On Investment – the need for energy technologies to yield significantly more energy than the energy that must be invested in these activities. (If it takes more energy to drill an oil well than the resulting barrels of oil can produce, that project is a bust.) While in no way minimizing the importance of EROI, Palmer and Floyd lay out their book’s purpose succinctly:

“we want to argue that energy storage, as both a technological and natural phenomenon, has been much more significant to the development of human civilizations than usually understood.” (Energy Storage and Civilization, page 2)

Central to their project is the distinction between energy stocks and energy flows. Sunshine and wind energy – primary energy sources in a renewable energy future – are energy flows. Grains, butter, wood, coal, oil and natural gas are energy stocks. And storage mediates between the two:

“Energy storage deals with the relationship between stocks and flows: storing energy, whether by natural or anthropic processes, involves the accumulation of flows as stocks; exploiting stored energy involves the conversion of stocks to flows.” (page 1)

Our current industrial civilization relies on the vast quantities of energy stored in our one-time inheritance of fossil fuels. These energy stocks allow us to consume energy anywhere on earth, at any hour and in any season. If the limited supplies of readily accessible fossil fuels weren’t running out, and if their burning weren’t destabilizing the climate and threatening the entire web of life, we might think we had discovered the secret of civilizational eternal youth.

Fossil fuels are higher in energy density than any previous energy stock at our control. That energy density means we can ship and store these stocks for use across great distances and long periods. Oil is so easy to ship that it is traded worldwide and is fundamental to the entire global economy.

In particular, fossil fuel stocks can be readily converted to electrical energy flows. And electricity, which is so magnificently versatile that it too is fundamental to the global economy, cannot be stored in any significant quantity without being converted to another energy form, and then converted back at time of use – at significant cost in energy losses and further costs for the storage technologies.

This is the crux of the problem, Palmer and Floyd explain. The vision of a renewable energy economy relies on use of solar PV and wind turbines to generate all our electricity – plus electrification of systems like transportation, which now rely directly on fossil fuel combustion engines. A major part of the book deals with two closely related questions: How much storage would we need to manage current energy demand with the highly intermittent flows of solar and wind energy? and, Are there feasible methods known today which could create those quantities of energy storage?

Beyond simple technologies like huge tanks or reservoirs of oil and gas, and stockpiles of coal, our current economy has little need for complicated means of energy storage. Batteries, while essential for niche uses in phones and computers, store only tiny amounts of electrical energy. But in Palmer and Floyd’s estimations, to maintain an economy with today’s energy consumption without fossil fuels, we will need to expand “current technologically-mediated storage capacity by three orders of magnitude”. (page 28)

What might a thousand-fold or greater expansion of storage technology look like? Palmer and Floyd provide some excellent illustrations. Pumped hydro storage is one promising candidate for managing the intermittent energy flows of solar PV or wind generators. Where suitable sites exist, surplus electricity can be used to pump water to an elevated reservoir, and then when the sun goes down or the wind calms, the water can flow down through turbines to regenerate electricity. This is a simple process, requiring two water reservoirs that are close geographically but at significantly different elevations, and is already used in some niche markets.

But for pumped hydro storage to be a primary means of managing intermittent renewable electricity production – that’s another story. By Palmer and Floyd’s calculations, to produce half of current US peak electricity demand via pumped hydro storage, the combined water flow from all the upper reservoirs would need to be far greater than the typical flow of the Mississippi River, and closer to the total flow of the Amazon River (depending on the average elevation differences between the reservoir pairs).

Comparison of required Pumped Hydro Storage flow to major river flows (by Graham Palmer and Joshua Floyd, from Energy Storage and Civilization: A Systems Approach, page 143). This amount of Pumped Hydro Storage would be needed to meet half of current US peak electricity demand.

Building sufficient battery storage is equally daunting. Palmer and Floyd look at the challenge of converting the world’s gas- and diesel-powered passenger vehicles to battery-electric propulsion. Even after making appropriate allowance for the far greater “tank-to-wheels” efficiency of electric motors, they find that to replace the energy storage capacity now held in the vehicles’ fuel tanks, we would need battery storage equivalent to 142 TWh (TeraWatt hours). As shown in Palmer and Floyd’s illustration below, the key material requirements for that many batteries are vast, in some cases greater than the entire current world reserves. And that is to say nothing of the energy costs of acquiring the materials and building the batteries, or the even more difficult problems of electrifying heavy freight vehicles.

Material requirements for batteries for world’s fleet of passenger vehicles (by Graham Palmer and Joshua Floyd, from Energy Storage and Civilization: A Systems Approach, page 141). To match the deliverable energy stored in the fuel tanks, battery production would consume huge quantities of key materials – in some cases exceeding the current world reserves.

Barring unknown and therefore unforeseeable possible developments in storage technologies that might provide order-of-magnitude improvements, then, it is highly unrealistic to expect that we can simply replace current world energy demands from renewable energy sources. Far greater changes are likely: combinations of changes in technologies, trading practices, regulations, social practices, ways of life. The layers of interacting complexity, Palmer and Floyd argue, are beyond the capacity of computer models to predict.

Their book is a bit of a complex system, too. Although many of the ideas they present are simple and they explain them well, there are sections which go beyond “challenging” for readers who have no more than an ancient memory of high-school-level chemistry and physics. (I plead guilty.) Such readers will nevertheless be rewarded by persevering through difficult parts, because Palmer and Floyd do such a good job of tying all the strands together. The second-to-last chapter, for example, provides a lucid explanation of why the “hydrogen economy” offers real potential for replacing some of the energy storage and transport capacities of fossil fuels – while incurring very significant energy conversion penalties that would have major economic implications.

Civilizations both ancient and contemporary need practices that provide a sufficient Energy Return On Investment – but a high EROI is not sufficient cause for a technology or practice to come into wide use. Rather, we need complete socio-technical systems that provide the right combination of adequate EROI, and adequate and flexible energy storage.

Energy Storage and Civilization is a superb overview of these challenges for the waning years of fossil fuel civilization.


Photo at top by Radek Grzybowski – A stack of wood lays in front of a snowy and foggy forest, Gliwice, Poland; from Wikimedia Commons.

Platforms for a Green New Deal

Two new books in review

Also published on Resilience.org

Does the Green New Deal assume a faith in “green growth”? Does the Green New Deal make promises that go far beyond what our societies can afford? Will the Green New Deal saddle ordinary taxpayers with huge tax bills? Can the Green New Deal provide quick solutions to both environmental overshoot and economic inequality?

These questions have been posed by people from across the spectrum – but of course proponents of a Green New Deal may not agree on all of the goals, let alone an implementation plan. So it’s good to see two concise manifestos – one British, one American – released by Verso in November.

The Case for the Green New Deal (by Ann Pettifor), and A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal (by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos) each clock in at a little under 200 pages, and both books are written in accessible prose for a general audience.

Surprisingly, there is remarkably little overlap in coverage and it’s well worth reading both volumes.

The Case for a Green New Deal takes a much deeper dive into monetary policy. A Planet To Win devotes many pages to explaining how a socially just and environmentally wise society can provide a healthy, prosperous, even luxurious lifestyle for all citizens, once we understand that luxury does not consist of ever-more-conspicuous consumption.

The two books wind to their destinations along different paths but they share some very important principles.

Covers of The Case For The Green New Deal and A Planet To Win

First, both books make clear that a Green New Deal must not shirk a head-on confrontation with the power of corporate finance. Both books hark back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous opposition to big banking interests, and both books fault Barack Obama for letting financial kingpins escape the 2008 crash with enhanced power and wealth while ordinary citizens suffered the consequences.

Instead of seeing the crash as an opportunity to set a dramatically different course for public finance, Obama presented himself as the protector of Wall Street:

“As [Obama] told financial CEOs in early 2009, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” Frankly, he should have put unemployed people to work in a solar-powered pitchfork factory.” (A Planet To Win, page 13)

A second point common to both books is the view that the biggest and most immediate emissions cuts must come from elite classes who account for a disproportionate share of emissions. Unfortunately, neither book makes it clear whether they are talking about the carbon-emitting elite in wealthy countries, or the carbon-emitting elite on a global scale. (If it’s the latter, that likely includes the authors, most of their readership, this writer and most readers of this review.)

Finally, both books take a clear position against the concept of continuous, exponential economic growth. Though they argue that the global economy must cease to grow, and sooner rather than later, their prescriptions also appear to imply that there will be one more dramatic burst of economic growth during the transition to an equitable, sustainable steady-state economy.

Left unasked and unanswered in these books is whether the climate system can stand even one more short burst of global economic growth.

Public or private finance

The British entry into this conversation takes a deeper dive into the economic policies of US President Franklin Roosevelt. British economist Ann Pettifor was at the centre of one of the first policy statements that used the “Green New Deal” moniker, just before the financial crash of 2007–08. She argues that we should have learned the same lessons from that crash that Roosevelt had to learn from the Depression of the 1930s.

Alluding to Roosevelt’s inaugural address, she summarizes her thesis this way:

“We can afford what we can do. This is the theme of the book in your hands. There are limits to what we can do – notably ecological limits, but thanks to the public good that is the monetary system, we can, within human and ecological limits, afford what we can do.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, page xi)

That comes across as a radical idea in this day of austerity budgetting. But Pettifor says the limits that count are the limits of what we can organize, what we can invent, and, critically, what the ecological system can sustain – not what private banking interests say we can afford.

In Pettifor’s view it is not optional, it is essential for nations around the world to re-win public control of their financial systems from the private institutions that now enrich themselves at public expense. And she takes us through the back-and-forth struggle for public control of banking, examining the ground-breaking theory of John Maynard Keynes after World War I, the dramatically changed monetary policy of the Roosevelt administration that was a precondition for the full employment policy of the original New Deal, and the gradual recapture of global banking systems by private interests since the early 1960s.

On the one hand, a rapid reassertion of public banking authority (which must include, Pettifor says, tackling the hegemony of the United States dollar as the world’s reserve currency) may seem a tall order given the urgent environmental challenges. On the other hand, the global financial order is highly unstable anyway, and Pettifor says we need to be ready next time around:

“sooner rather than later the world is going to be faced by a shuddering shock to the system. … It could be the flooding or partial destruction of a great city …. It could be widespread warfare…. Or it could be (in my view, most likely) another collapse of the internationally integrated financial system. … [N]one of these scenarios fit the ‘black swan’ theory of difficult-to-predict events. All three fall within the realm of normal expectations in history, science and economics.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, pg 64)

A final major influence acknowledged by Pettifor is American economist Herman Daly, pioneer of steady-state economics. She places this idea at the center of the Green New Deal:

“our economic goal is for a ‘steady state’ economy … that helps to maintain and repair the delicate balance of nature, and respects the laws of ecology and physics (in particular thermodynamics). An economy that delivers social justice for all classes, and ensures a liveable planet for future generations.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, pg 66)

Beyond a clear endorsement of this principle, though, Pettifor’s book doesn’t offer much detail on how our transportation system, food provisioning systems, etc, should be transformed. That’s no criticism of the book. Providing a clear explanation of the need for transformation in monetary policy; why the current system of “free mobility” of capital allows private finance to work beyond the reach of democratic control, with disastrous consequences for income equality and for the environment; and how finance was brought under public control before and can be again – this  is a big enough task for one short book, and Pettifor carries it out with aplomb.

Some paths are ruinous. Others are not.

Writing in The Nation in November of 2018, Daniel Aldana Cohen set out an essential corrective to the tone of most public discourse:

“Are we doomed? It’s the most common thing people ask me when they learn that I study climate politics. Fair enough. The science is grim, as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just reminded us with a report on how hard it will be to keep average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But it’s the wrong question. Yes, the path we’re on is ruinous. It’s just as true that other, plausible pathways are not. … The IPCC report makes it clear that if we make the political choice of bankrupting the fossil-fuel industry and sharing the burden of transition fairly, most humans can live in a world better than the one we have now.” (The Nation, “Apocalyptic Climate Reporting Completely Misses the Point,” November 2, 2018; emphasis mine)

There’s a clear echo of Cohen’s statement in the introduction to A Planet To Win:

“we rarely see climate narratives that combine scientific realism with positive political and technological change. Instead, most stories focus on just one trend: the grim projections of climate science, bright reports of promising technologies, or celebrations of gritty activism. But the real world will be a mess of all three. (A Planet To Win, pg 3)

The quartet of authors are particularly concerned to highlight a new path in which basic human needs are satisfied for all people, in which communal enjoyment of public luxuries replaces private conspicuous consumption, and in which all facets of the economy respect non-negotiable ecological limits.

The authors argue that a world of full employment; comfortable and dignified housing for all; convenient, cheap or even free public transport; healthy food and proper public health care; plus a growth in leisure time –  this vision can win widespread public backing and can take us to a sustainable civilization.

A Planet To Win dives into history, too, with a picture of the socialist housing that has been home to generations of people in Vienna. This is an important chapter, as it demonstrates that there is nothing inherently shabby in the concept of public housing:

“Vienna’s radiant social housing incarnates its working class’s socialist ideals; the United States’ decaying public housing incarnates its ruling class’s stingy racism.” (A Planet To Win, pg 127)

Likewise, the book looks at the job creation programs of the 1930s New Deal, noting that they not only built a vast array of public recreational facilities, but also carried out the largest program of environmental restoration ever conducted in the US.

The public co-operatives that brought electricity to rural people across the US could be revitalized and expanded for the era of all-renewable energy. Fossil fuel companies, too, should be brought under public ownership – for the purpose of winding them down as quickly as possible while safeguarding workers’ pensions.

In their efforts to present a New Green Deal in glowingly positive terms, I think the authors underestimate the difficulties in the energy transition. For example, they extol a new era in which Americans will have plenty of time to take inexpensive vacations on high-speed trains throughout the country. But it’s not at all clear, given current technology, how feasible it will be to run completely electrified trains through vast and sparsely populated regions of the US.

In discussing electrification of all transport and heating, the authors conclude that the US must roughly double the amount of electricity generated – as if it’s a given that Americans can or should use nearly as much total energy in the renewable era as they have in the fossil era.1

And once electric utilities are brought under democratic control, the authors write, “they can fulfill what should be their only mission: guaranteeing clean, cheap, or even free power to the people they serve.” (A World To Win, pg 53; emphasis mine)

A realistic understanding of thermodynamics and energy provision should, I think, prompt us to ask whether energy is ever cheap or free – (except in the dispersed, intermittent forms of energy that the natural world has always provided).

As it is, the authors acknowledge a “potent contradiction” in most current recipes for energy transition:

“the extractive processes necessary to realize a world powered by wind and sun entail their own devastating social and environmental consequences. The latter might not be as threatening to the global climate as carbon pollution. But should the same communities exploited by 500 years of capitalist and colonial violence be asked to bear the brunt of the clean energy transition …?” (A Planet To Win, pg 147-148)

With the chapter on the relationship between a Green New Deal in the industrialized world, and the even more urgent challenges facing people in the Global South, A World To Win gives us an honest grappling with another set of critical issues. And in recognizing that “We hope for greener mining techniques, but we shouldn’t count on them,” the authors make it clear that the Green New Deal is not yet a fully satisfactory program.

Again, however, they accomplish a lot in just under 200 pages, in support of their view that “An effective Green New Deal is also a radical Green New Deal” (A Planet To Win, pg 8; their emphasis). The time has long passed for timid nudges such as modest carbon taxes or gradual improvements to auto emission standards.

We are now in “a trench war,” they write, “to hold off every extra tenth of a degree of warming.” In this war,

“Another four years of the Trump administration is an obvious nightmare. … But there are many paths to a hellish earth, and another one leads right down the center of the political aisle.” (A Planet To Win, pg 180)


1 This page on the US government Energy Information Agency website gives total US primary energy consumption as 101 quadrillion Btus, and US electricity use as 38 quadrillion Btus. If all fossil fuel use were stopped but electricity use were doubled, the US would then use 76 quadrillion Btus, or 75% of current total energy consumption.

Questions as big as the atmosphere

A review of After Geoengineering

Also published at Resilience.org

After Geoengineering is published by Verso Books, Oct 1 2019.

What is the best-case scenario for solar geoengineering? For author Holly Jean Buck and the scientists she interviews, the best-case scenario is that we manage to keep global warming below catastrophic levels, and the idea of geoengineering quietly fades away.

But before that can happen, Buck explains, we will need heroic global efforts both to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions and to remove much of the excess carbon we have already loosed into the skies.

She devotes most of her new book After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration to proposed methods for drawing down carbon dioxide levels from the atmosphere. Only after showing the immense difficulties in the multi-generational task of carbon drawdown does she directly discuss techniques and implications of solar geoengineering (defined here as an intentional modification of the upper atmosphere, meant to block a small percentage of sunlight from reaching the earth, thereby counteracting part of global heating).

The book is well-researched, eminently readable, and just as thought-provoking on a second reading as on the first. Unfortunately there is little examination of the way future energy supply constraints will affect either carbon drawdown or solar engineering efforts. That significant qualification aside, After Geoengineering is a superb effort to grapple with some of the biggest questions for our collective future.

Overshoot

The fossil fuel frenzy in the world’s richest countries has already put us in greenhouse gas overshoot, so some degree of global heating will continue even if, miraculously, there were an instant political and economic revolution which ended all carbon dioxide emissions tomorrow. Can we limit the resulting global heating to 1.5°C? At this late date our chances aren’t good.

As Greta Thunberg explained in her crystal clear fashion to the United Nations Climate Action Summit:

“The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5C degrees, and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.

“Maybe 50% is acceptable to you. But those numbers don’t include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of justice and equity. They also rely on my and my children’s generation sucking hundreds of billions of tonnes of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.” 1

As Klaus Lackner, one of the many researchers interviewed by Buck, puts it, when you’ve been digging yourself into a hole, of course the first thing you need to do is stop digging – but then you still need to fill in the hole.2

How can we fill in the hole – in our case, get excess carbon back out of the atmosphere? There are two broad categories, biological processes and industrial processes, plus some technologies that cross the lines. Biological processes include regenerative agriculture and afforestation while industrial processes are represented most prominently by Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS).

Buck summarizes key differences this way:

“Cultivation is generative. Burial, however, is pollution disposal, is safety, is sequestering something away where it can’t hurt you anymore. One approach generates life; the other makes things inert.” (After Geoengineering (AG), page 122)

Delving into regenerative agriculture, she notes that “over the last 10,000 years, agriculture and land conversion has decreased soil carbon globally by 840 gigatons, and many cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original organic carbon” (AG, p 101).

Regenerative agriculture will gradually restore that carbon content in the soil and reduce carbon dioxide in the air – while also making the soil more fertile, reducing wind and water erosion, increasing the capacity of the soil to stay healthy when challenged by extreme rainfalls or drought, and making agriculture ecologically sustainable in contrast to industrial agriculture’s ongoing stripping the life from soil.

Regenerative agriculture cannot, however, counteract the huge volumes of excess carbon dioxide we are currently putting into the atmosphere. And even when we have cut emissions to zero, Buck writes, regenerative agriculture is limited in how much of the excess carbon it can draw down:

“soil carbon accrual rates decrease as stocks reach a new equilibrium. Sequestration follows a curve: the new practices sequester a lot of carbon at first, for the first two decades or so, but this diminishes over time toward a new plateau. Soil carbon sequestration is therefore a one-off method of carbon removal.” (AG, p 102)

There are other types of cultivation that can draw down carbon dioxide, and Buck interviews researchers in many of these fields. The planting of billions of trees has received the most press, and this could store a lot of carbon. But it also takes a lot of land, and it’s all too easy to imagine that more frequent and fiercer wildfires could destroy new forests just when they have started to accumulate major stores of carbon.

Biochar – the burying of charcoal in a way that stores carbon for millennia while also improving soil fertility – was practiced for centuries by indigenous civilizations in the Amazon. Its potential on a global scale is largely untapped but is the subject of promising research.

In acknowledging the many uncertainties in under-researched areas, Buck does offer some slender threads of hope here. Scientists say that “rocks for crops” techniques – in which certain kinds of rock are ground up and spread on farmland – could absorb a lot of carbon while also providing other soil nutrients. In the lab, the carbon absorption is steady but geologically slow, but there is some evidence that in the real world, the combined effects of microbes and plant enzymes may speed up the weathering process by at least an order of magnitude. (AG, p 145-146)

The cultivation methods offer a win-win-win scenario for carbon drawdown – but we’re on pace to a greenhouse gas overshoot that will likely dwarf the drawdown capacity of these methods. Buck estimates that cultivation methods, at the extremes of their potential, could sequester perhaps 10 to 20 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide per year (and that figure would taper off once most agricultural soils had been restored to a healthy state). That is unlikely to be anywhere near enough:

“Imagine that emissions flatline in 2020; the world puts in a strong effort to hold them steady, but it doesn’t manage to start decreasing them until 2030. … But ten years steady at 50 Gt CO2 eq [carbon dioxide equivalent emissions include other gases such as methane] – and there goes another 500 Gt CO2 eq into the atmosphere. That one decade would cancel out the 500 Gt CO2 eq the soils and forests could sequester over the next 50 years (sequestered at an extreme amount of effort and coordination among people around the whole world).” (AG p 115)

With every year that we pump out fossil fuel emissions, then, we compound the intergenerational crime we have already committed against Greta Thunberg and her children’s generations. With every year of continued emissions, we increase the probability that biological, generative methods of carbon drawdown will be too slow. With every year of continued emissions, we increase the degree to which future generations will be compelled to engage in industrial carbon drawdown work, using technologies which do not enrich the soil, which produce no food, which will not directly aid the millions of species struggling for survival, and which will suck up huge amounts of energy.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) has earned a bad name for good reasons. To date most CCS projects – even those barely past the concept stage – have been promoted by fossil fuel interests. CCS projects offer them research subsidies for ways to continue their fossil fuel businesses, plus a public relations shine as proponents of “clean” energy.

A lignite mine in southwest Saskatchewan. This fossil fuel deposit is home to one of the few operating Carbon Capture and Sequestration projects. Carbon from a coal-fired generating station is captured and pumped into a depleting oil reservoir – for the purpose of prolonging petroleum production.

Buck argues that in spite of these factors, we need to think about CCS technologies separate from their current capitalist contexts. First of all, major use of CCS technologies alongside continued carbon emissions would not be remotely adequate – we will need to shut off carbon emissions AND draw down huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. And there is no obvious way to fit an ongoing, global program of CCS into the framework of our current corporatocracy.

The fossil fuel interests possess much of the technical infrastructure that could be used for CCS, but their business models rely on the sale of polluting products. So if CCS is to be done in a sustained fashion, it will need to be done in a publicly-funded way where the service, greenhouse gas drawdown, is for the benefit of the global public (indeed, the whole web of life, present and future); there will be no “product” to sell.

However CCS efforts are organized, they will need to be massive in order to cope with the amounts of carbon emissions that fossil fuel interests are still hell-bent on releasing. In the words of University of Southern California geologist Joshua West,

“The fossil fuels industry has an enormous footprint …. Effectively, if we want to offset that in an industrial way, we have to have an industry that is of equivalent proportion ….” (AG, p 147)

Imagine an industrial system that spans the globe, employing as many people and as much capital as the fossil fuel industries do today. But this industry will produce no energy, no wealth, no products – it will be busy simply managing the airborne refuse bequeathed by a predecessor economy whose dividends have long since been spent.

So while transitioning the entire global economy to strictly renewable energies, the next generations will also need enough energy to run an immense atmospheric garbage-disposal project.

After Geoengineering gives brief mentions but no sustained discussion of this energy crunch.

One of the intriguing features of the book is the incorporation of short fictional sketches of lives and lifestyles in coming decades. These sketches are well drawn, offering vivid glimpses of characters dealing with climate instability and working in new carbon drawdown industries. The vignettes certainly help in putting human faces and feelings into what otherwise might remain abstract theories.

Yet there is no suggestion that restricted energy supplies will be a limiting factor. The people in the sketches still travel in motorized vehicles, check their computers for communications, run artificial intelligence programs to guide their work, and watch TV in their high-rise apartments. In these sketches, people have maintained recognizably first-world lifestyles powered by zero-emission energy technologies, while managing a carbon drawdown program on the same scale as today’s fossil fuel industry.

If you lean strongly towards optimism you may hope for that outcome – but how can anyone feel realistically confident in that outcome?

The lack of a serious grappling with this energy challenge is, in my mind, the major shortcoming in After Geoengineering. And big questions about energy supply will hang in the air not only around carbon sequestration, but also around solar geoengineering if humanity comes to that.

Shaving the peak

Solar geoengineering –  the intentional pumping of substances into the upper atmosphere into order to block a percentage of incoming sunlight to cool the earth – has also earned a bad name among climate activists. It is, of course, a dangerous idea – just as extreme as the practice of pumping billions of tonnes of extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to overheat the earth.

But Buck makes a good case – a convincing case, in my opinion – that in order to justifiably rule out solar geoengineering, we and our descendants will have to do a very good job at both eliminating carbon emissions and drawing down our current excess of carbon dioxide, fast.

Suppose we achieve something which seems far beyond the capabilities of our current political and economic leadership. Suppose we get global carbon emissions on a steep downward track, and suppose that the coming generation manages to transition to 100% renewable while also starting a massive carbon drawdown industry. That would be fabulous – and it still may not be enough.

As Buck points out, just as it has proven difficult to predict just how fast the earth system responds to a sustained increased in carbon dioxide levels, nobody really knows how quickly the earth system would respond to a carbon drawdown process. The upshot: even in an era where carbon dioxide levels are gradually dropping, it will be some time before long-term warming trends reverse. And during that interim a lot of disastrous things could happen.

Take the example of coral reefs. Reef ecosystems are already dying due to ocean acidification, and more frequent oceanic heat waves threaten to stress reefs beyond survival. Buck writes,

“Reefs protect coasts from storms; without them, waves reaching some Pacific islands would be twice as tall. Over 500 million people depend on reef ecosystems for food and livelihoods. Therefore, keeping these ecosystems functioning is a climate justice issue.” (AG, p 216)

In a scenario about as close to best-case as we could realistically expect, the global community might achieve dropping atmospheric carbon levels, but still need to buy time for reefs until temperatures in the air and in the ocean have dropped back to a safe level. This is the plausible scenario studied by people looking into a small-scale type of geoengineering – seeding the air above reefs with a salt-water mist that could, on a regional scale only, reflect back sunlight and offer interim protection to essential and vulnerable ecosystems.

One could say that this wouldn’t really be geoengineering, since it wouldn’t affect the whole globe – and certainly any program to affect the whole globe would involve many more dangerous uncertainties.

Yet due to our current and flagrantly negligent practice of global-heating-geoengineering, it is not hard to imagine a scenario this century where an intentional program of global-cooling-geoengineering may come to be a reasonable choice.

Buck takes us through the reasoning with the following diagram:

From After Geoengineering, page 219

If we rapidly cut carbon emissions to zero, and we also begin a vast program of carbon removal, there will still be a significant time lag before atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have dropped to a safe level and global temperatures have come back down. And in that interim, dangerous tipping points could be crossed.

To look at just one: the Antarctic ice sheets are anchored in place by ice shelves extending into the ocean. When warming ocean water has melted these ice shelves, a serious tipping point is reached. In the words of Harvard atmospheric scientist Peter Irvine,

“Because of the way the glaciers meet the ocean, when they start to retreat, they have kind of a runaway retreat. Again, very slow, like a couple of centuries. Five centuries. But once it starts, it’s not a temperature-driven thing; it’s a dynamic-driven thing … Once the ice shelf is sheared off or melted away, it’s not there to hold the ice sheet back and there’s this kind of dynamic response.” (AG, p 236)

The melting of these glaciers, of course, would flood the homes of billions of people, along with a huge proportion of the world’s agricultural land and industrial infrastructure.

So given the current course of history, it’s not at all far-fetched that the best option available in 50 years might be a temporary but concerted program of solar geoengineering. If this could “shave the peak” off a temperature overshoot, and thereby stop the Antarctic ice from crossing a tipping point, would that be a crazy idea? Or would it be a crazy idea not to do solar geoengineering?

These questions will not go away in our lifetimes. But if our generation and the next can end the fossil fuel frenzy, then just possibly the prospect of geoengineering can eventually be forgotten forever.


1 Greta Thunberg, “If world leaders choose to fail us, my generation will never forgive them”, address to United Nations, New York, September 23, 2019, as printed in The Guardian.
2 In the webinar “Towards a 20 GT Negative CO2 Emissions Industry”, sponsored by Security and Sustainability Forum, Sept 19, 2019.

Designing Climate Solutions – a big-picture view that doesn’t skimp on details

Also published at Resilience.org

Let us pause for a moment of thanks to the policy wonks, who work within the limitations of whatever is currently politically permissible and take important steps forward in their branches of bureaucracy.

Let us also give thanks to those who cannot work within those limitations, and who are determined to transform what is and is not politically permissible.

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy is published by Island Press, November 2018.

An excellent new book from Island Press makes clear that both approaches to the challenge of climate disruption are necessary, though it deals almost exclusively with the work of policy design and implementation.

Designing Climate Solutions, by Hal Harvey with Robbie Orvis and Jeffrey Rissman, is a thoughtful and thorough discussion of policy options aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Harvey is particularly focused on discovering which specific policies are likely to have the biggest – and equally important, the quickest – impact on our cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. But he also pays close attention to the fine details of policy design which, if ignored, can cause the best-intentioned policies to miss their potentials.

One of the many strengths of the book is the wealth of graphics which present complex information in visually effective formats.

A political acceptable baseline

Though political wrangling is barely discussed, Harvey notes that “It goes without saying that a key consideration of any climate policy is whether it stands a chance of being enacted. A highly abating and perfectly designed policy is not worth pursuing if there is no chance it can be implemented.”

He takes as a starting point the target of the Paris Agreement of 2015, which has received agreement in principle from nearly all countries: to reduce emissions enough by 2050 to give us at least a 50% chance of avoiding more than 2°C global warming. (We’ll return later to the question of the reasonableness of that goal.)

Throughout the book, then, different aspects of climate policy are evaluated for their relative contributions to the 2°C goal.

Working with a climate policy computer model which is discussed in detail in an appendix and which is available online, Harvey presents this framework: a “business as usual” scenario would result in emissions of 2,253 Gigatons of CO2-equivalent from 2020 to 2050, but that must be reduced by 1,185 Gigatons.

The following chart presents what Harvey’s team believes is the realistic contribution of various sectors to the emission-reduction goal.

“Figure 3.4 – Policy contributions to meeting the 2°C global warming target.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 67)

The key point from this chart is that about 70% of the reductions are projected to come in three broad areas: changes to industrial production, conversion of electrical generation (“power sector”) to renewable energy, and cross-sector pricing of carbon emissions in line with their true social costs.

(The way things are categorized makes a big difference. For example, agriculture is slotted as a subset of the industrial sector, which boosts the relative importance of this sector for emissions-reduction potential.)

Harvey buttresses the argument by looking at the costs – or in many cases, cost-savings – of emissions-reduction policies. The following chart shows the relative costs of policies on the vertical dimension, and their relative contribution to emissions reduction on the horizontal dimension.

“Figure 3.2 – The policy cost curve shows the cost-effectiveness and emission reduction potential of different policies.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 59)

 

The data portrayed in this chart can guide policy in two important ways: policy-makers can focus on the areas which make the most difference in emissions, while also being mindful of the cost issues that can be so important in getting political buy-in.

It may come as a surprise that the transportation and building sectors, in this framework, are responsible for only small slices of overall emission reductions.

Building Codes and Appliance Standards are pegged to contribute about 5% of the emission reductions, while a suite of transportation policies could together contribute about 7% of emission reductions.

A clear view of the overriding importance of reducing cumulative emissions by 2050 helps explain these seemingly small contributions – and why it would nevertheless be a mistake to neglect these sectors.

To achieve climate policy goals it’s critical to reduce emissions quickly – and that’s hard to do in the building and transportation sectors. Building stock tends to last for generations, and major appliances typically last 10 years or more. Likewise car, truck and bus fleets tend to stay on the road for ten years or more. Thus the best building codes and the best standards for vehicle efficiency will have a very limited impact on carbon emissions over the next 15 years. By the same token, even the most rapid electrification possible of car and truck fleets won’t have full impact on emissions until the electric grid is generally decarbonized.

These are among the reasons that decarbonizing the electric grid, along with cross-sector pricing of carbon emissions, are so important to emissions reduction in the short term.

Meanwhile, though, it is also essential to get on with the slower work of upgrading buildings, appliances, transportation systems, and decarbonized agricultural and industrial processes. In the longer term, especially after 2050 when it will be essential to achieve zero net carbon emissions, even (relatively) minor contributions to emissions will be important. But as Harvey puts it, “There is no mopping up the last 10 percent of carbon emissions if we don’t eliminate the first 90 percent!”

International case studies

Harvey gets deep into the nuances of policy with an excellent discussion of the differences between carbon taxes and carbon caps. This helps readers to understand the value of hybrid approaches, and the importance in some countries of policies to limit “leakage”, whereby major industries simply shift production to jurisdictions without carbon prices or caps.

The many case studies – from the US, Germany, China, Japan, and other countries – illustrate policy designs that work especially well, or conversely, policies that have resulted in unintentional consequences which reduce their effectiveness.

These case studies also provide a reminder of the amount of hard work and dedication that mostly unsung bureaucrats have put in to the cause of mitigating climate disruption. As much as we may mourn that political leadership has been sorely lacking and that we appear to be losing the battle to forestall climate disaster, it seems undeniable that we would be considerably worse off if it weren’t for the accomplishments of civil servants who have eked out small gains in their own sectors.

For example, the hard-won feed-in tariffs and other policies promoting renewable energies for electric generation haven’t yet resulted in a wholesale transformation of the grid – but they’ve resulted in an exponential drop in the cost per kilowatt of solar- and wind-generated power. Performance standards for many types of engines have resulted in significant improvements in energy efficiency. These improvements have so far mostly been offset by our economy’s furious push to sell more and bigger products – but these efficiency gains could nevertheless play a key role in a sane economic system of the future.

The 2° gamble

Although most of the book is devoted to details of particular policies, Harvey’s admirably lucid discussion of the urgency of the climate challenge makes clear that we need far greater commitment from the highest levels of political leadership.

He notes that the reality of climate action has been far less impressive than the high-minded rhetoric. With few exceptions the nations responsible for most of the carbon emissions have been woefully slow to act, which makes the challenge both more urgent and more difficult.

Harvey illustrates this point with the chart below. The black solid and dotted lines represent the necessary progress with emissions, if we had been smart enough to ensure emissions peaked in 2015. The red lines show what may now be the best-case scenario – an emissions peak in 2030 – and the much more drastic reductions that will then be required to have a 50% chance of keeping global warming to 2°C or less.

“Figure I-7. The longer the delay in peaking emissions, the harder it becomes to meet the same carbon budget.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 9)

We might well ask if a 50% likelihood of worldwide climate catastrophe is a prudent and reasonable policy aim, or certifiably bonkers. Still, a 50/50 chance of disaster is somewhat better than assured civilizational collapse, which is the destination of “business as usual.”

In any case, the political climate has changed considerably in the short time since Harvey and colleagues prepared Designing Climate Solutions. With the challenge to the political status quo embodied in the Green New Deal movement, it now seems plausible that some major carbon-emitting countries will enact more appropriate greenhouse-gas emission targets in the next few years. If that comes to pass, these new goals will need to be translated into effective policy, and the many lessons in Designing Climate Solutions will remain important.

What about fossil fuel subsidies?

In a book of such wide and ambitious scope, it is inevitable that some important facets are omitted or given short shrift.

The issues of deforestation and forest degradation are duly noted, but Harvey declines to delve into this subject by explaining that “The science, the policies, and the actors for reducing emissions from land use are very different from those for energy and industrial processes, and they deserve separate treatment from experts in land use policy.”

The issue of embodied carbon does not come up in the text. In assessing the replacement of fossil-powered vehicle fleets by electric vehicles, for example, is the embodied carbon inherent in current manufacturing processes a significant factor? Readers will need to search elsewhere for that answer.

Also noteworthy is the absence of any acknowledgement that economic growth itself may be a problem. For all the discussion of ways to transform industrial processes, there is no discussion of whether the scale of industrial output should also be reduced. In most countries today, of course, a civil servant who tries to promote degrowth will soon become an expert in unemployment, but that highlights the need for a wider and deeper look at economic fundamentals than is currently politically permissible.

The missing subject that seems most germane to the book’s central purpose, though, is the issue of subsidies for fossil fuels. Harvey does state in passing that “for many sectors and technologies, pricing is the key. Removing subsidies for fossil fuels is the first step – though still widely ignored.” Indeed, many countries have paid lip service to the need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels, but few have taken action along these lines.

But throughout Harvey’s extensive examination of pricing signals – e.g., feed-in tariffs, carbon taxes, carbon caps, low-interest loans to renewable energy projects – there is no discussion of the degree to which existing fossil fuel subsidies continue to undercut the goals of climate policy and retard the transition to a low-carbon economy.

In my next post I’ll take up this subject with a look at how some governments, while tepidly supporting the transformation envisioned in the Paris Agreements, continue to safeguard their fossil fuel sectors through generous subsidies.


Illustration at top adapted from Designing Climate Solutions cover by David Ter Avanesyan.

Can nuclear power extend the economic expansion?

Also published at Resilience.org and BiophysEco.

Richard Rhodes’ new book Energy: A Human History does an excellent job of describing the scientific and technological hurdles that had to be cleared in the development of, for example, an internal combustion engine which can convert refined petroleum into forward motion.

But he gives short shrift to the social and political forces that have been equally important in determining how technological advances shape our world. That internal combustion engine might be a wonder of ingenuity, but was there any scientific reason we should make multi-tonne vehicles the primary mode of transportation for single passengers in cities, drastically reconfiguring urban landscapes in the process? When assiduous research resulted in more efficient engines, did science also dictate that we should use those engines to drive bigger and heavier SUV’s, and then four-wheel-drive, four-door pick-up trucks, to our suburban grocery superstores?

Unfortunately, Rhodes presents the benefits of modern science as if they are all inextricably wrapped up in our current high-energy-consumption economy, implying that human prosperity must end unless we find ways to maintain this high-energy system.

In this second part of a look at Energy (first installment here), we’ll delve into these questions as they relate to Rhodes’ strident defense of nuclear power.

To set the context, Rhodes argues that the only realistic – and the most ethical – way forward is a gradual progression on the path we are already taking, and that means an “all energy sources except coal and oil” strategy:

“Every energy system has its advantages and disadvantages …. And given the scale of global warming and human development, we will need them all if we are to finish the centuries-long process of decarbonizing our energy supply – wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, natural gas.”1

Three key points here: First, Rhodes recognizes the severity and urgency of the climate problem.

Second, he believes we have been “decarbonizing our energy supply” for centuries. That is true with respect to intensity: we now release fewer units of carbon for each unit of energy than we did in the 19th century.2 But in an overall sense, we emit vastly more carbon cumulatively (and vastly more carbon per capita) than we used to. It is the overall carbon emissions, not the carbon/energy intensity ratio, that matters to the climate.

Third, while energy production via natural gas has relatively low carbon emissions at the point of combustion, there is wide recognition that methane leaks throughout the production/transmission chain are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions, which may counteract the benefits of switching from coal to gas. Rhodes makes only an oblique reference to this critical problem in current natural gas usage.

It’s the issue of nuclear power, though, that really brings out Rhodes’ rhetorical heat. Consider this ad hominem attack:

“Antinuclear activists, whose agendas originated in a misinformed neo-Malthusian foreboding of overpopulation (and a willingness at the margin to condemn millions of their fellow human beings to death from disease and starvation), may fairly be accused of disingenuousness in their successive arguments against the safest, least polluting, least warming, and most reliable energy source humanity has yet devised.3

If someone warns that a social or technological development is likely to result in mass death, does that logically mean they want mass death, or that they are indifferent to it? Obviously not. They may well be sincerely motivated by a desire to save lives – just as those who promote the same social or technological development might sincerely believe that is the best way to save lives and promote prosperity.

So I think it is Rhodes who is being disingenuous with his ad hominem argument – even though I happen to agree with some of his substantive points on the relative safety of nuclear power.

What could go wrong?

As one who has lived for fifteen years just downwind of major nuclear facilities – first a uranium processing plant, more recently a nuclear power generator – I’ve had lots of incentive to study the potential safety hazards of the nuclear power industry. And on the issue of the relative operating safety of nuclear power generation, my conclusions have been much the same as those Rhodes puts forth.

I frequently take a short bike ride along the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail through the buffer zone around the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station. Is this a significant hazard to my health? Yes it is, but only because this route also requires me to share the road with trucks and cars for a few kilometers, and to ride right beside a stream of pollution-emitting traffic on Ontario’s busiest expressway.

As a close neighbour of nuclear facilities, my risk of death due to sudden catastrophic nuclear power accident is several orders of magnitude lower than my risk of death due to sudden catastrophic traffic accident. (Worldwide, well over a million people are killed in traffic accidents per year.4)

As for the health risk due to chronic exposure to the amounts of radiation that are emitted by a current Canadian nuclear generating plant, I fully concur with Rhodes’ more general conclusion: “Low doses of radiation are not only low risk; they’re also lost in the noise of other sources of environmental insult.”5

Likewise, I share Rhodes’ conclusion that shutting down our existing nuclear power plants for environmental reasons, while continuing to rely on coal for a significant part of electricity generation, is daft6 – we should replace carbon-emitting generating systems first.

In my region, I would be sorry to see Darlington Nuclear Station shut down if Ontario were still significantly reliant on gas-powered peaker plants, as it is now. And given that we have a very long way to go in electrifying personal transportation and home heating, our electricity demand may increase significantly, making the transition to a fully renewable electricity generation system that much farther down the road. In that context, I think our existing nuclear power plants are a better option environmentally than continued or increasing use of any fossil fuel, natural gas included, for generation of electricity.

But should we commission and build new nuclear power plants? That is a very different question. Rhodes recognizes that the economic viability of the nuclear power industry is very much in question, but he makes no significant attempt in Energy to resolve the economic question.

To adequately answer the economic viability question, we would need a much wider conception of science than the one that comes through in Rhodes’ book.7

Beyond physics and chemistry

The science Rhodes celebrates in Energy: A Human History falls almost entirely within very basic physics and chemistry. The discoveries and developments Rhodes discusses are highly significant, and they will always remain foundational – but they are not sufficient for a clear understanding of technological systems, which are also social phenomena.

A more recent scientific advance is essential in coming to grips with our current energy challenges. This is the concept of Energy Return on Investment (EROI). Over his long and distinguished career, ecologist Charles A.S. Hall posited that organisms, ecological communities, and human societies must derive more usable energy from their activities than the energy they invest in those activities. With this simple insight8, Hall gave economics a foundation in the very principles of thermodynamics that Rhodes reveres.

The resulting field of biophysical economics provides a deeper understanding of the socio-technological revolutions that Rhodes simply ascribes to “science”. After studying the Energy Return on Investment of major energy sources over the past 200 years, we can understand how the rapid exploitation of fossil fuels provided a huge boost in the the energy available to society, while simultaneously freeing the great majority of people from energy-procuring activities so that they could work instead at a wide variety of new activities and industries. We can understand that if any society is to use a high quantity of energy per person, while employing only a small number of people in its energy sector, then its energy sector needs a high rate of Energy Return on Investment.

With readily accessible supplies of coal, oil and natural gas, industrial civilization in the past 200 years has benefitted from a very high Energy Return on Investment. But with “sweet spots” exhausted or in depletion phases, the EROI of the fossil fuel economy has been in marked decline for the past few decades.

Thus one of the key questions about a supposed nuclear renaissance is, can the nuclear power industry achieve an EROI comparable to that of the fossil fuel economy we have known to date? Most published analyses say no9 – from an Energy Return On Investment standpoint, nuclear power generation is (at worst) not worth doing at all, or (at best) worth doing even though it will produce much more expensive energy than the energy we came to depend on during the twentieth century.

If nuclear power generation has a low EROI, in sum, it cannot and will not fuel a continued economic expansion.

Rhodes argues that nuclear power is vitally important because we really need it to extend our current model of prosperity to billions more people now and in coming generations, and he claims the mantle of science for this position. But a broader and deeper application of scientific analysis can deal with the economic viability questions about nuclear power that he simply sidesteps.

Illustration at top: high-voltage transmission lines on grounds of Darlington Nuclear Station, on north shore of Lake Ontario east of Toronto

 


NOTES

1Energy: A Human History, page 337 (return to text)

2This is a point explained in more detail by Vaclav Smil, who also gives a perspective on the relative degree of decarbonization. From 1900 to 2000, he says, “the average carbon intensity of the world’s fossil fuel supply kept on declining: when expressed in terms of carbon per unit of the global total primary energy supply, it fell from nearly 28 kg C/GJ [GigaJoule] in 1900 to just below 25 in 1950 and to just over 19 in 2010, roughly a 30% decrease; subsequently, as a result of China’s rapidly rising coal output, it rose a bit during the first decade of the twenty-first century.” Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History, page 270. (return to text)

3Energy: A Human History, page 336 (return to text)

4World Health Organization says there were 1.25 million traffic deaths in 2013. (return to text)

5Energy: A Human History, page 324 (return to text)

6This general statement must be qualified, of course, by noting that some particular nuclear plants should be shut down because their designs were inherently flawed to begin with, or because they have aged beyond the point where they can be maintained and operated safely. (return to text)

7Even if one accepts that the operating safety record of nuclear power stations is exemplary, there are the major issues of nuclear weapons proliferation, and the long-term storage of highly radioactive wastes. Rhodes doesn’t mention weapons proliferation, and he cavalierly dismisses the long-term disposal issue: “The notion that such waste must be successfully protected from exposure for hundreds of thousands of years is counter to how humans handle every other kind of toxic material we produce. We usually bury it, but we also discount its future risk, on the reasonable grounds that we owe concern to one or, at best, two generations beyond our own …” (Energy: A Human History, page 337, emphasis mine). Yes, that’s what we usually do, but in what sense is that “reasonable”? (return to text)

8Though the basic insight is simple, measuring and calculating EROI can be anything but simple. A key issue is deciding how far out to draw the boundaries of an analysis. As Hall, Lambert and Balogh noted in “EROI of different fuels and the implications for society” in 2014, “Societal EROI is the overall EROI that might be derived for all of a nation’s or society’s fuels by summing all gains from fuels and all costs of obtaining them. To our knowledge this calculation has yet to be undertaken because it is difficult, if not impossible, to include all the variables necessary to generate an all-encompassing societal EROI value”. (return to text)

9In Scientific American (April 2013) Mason Inman cited an EROI of 5 for nuclear electricity generation – lower than photovoltaic or wind generators, and only a small fraction of the EROI of 69 that Inman cited for global conventional oil production in 2011. In 2014 a meta-review of studies, EROI of different fuels and the implications for society, gave a mean EROI of 14 for nuclear power. A paper by the World Nuclear Association cites outliers among the published studies, highlighting a conclusion that nuclear generation of electricity has a higher average EROI than hydro or fossil fuel generating systems, and is “one order of magnitude more effective than photovoltaics and wind power”. (return to text)

Energy: A Human History – a slim slice of history and science

Also published at Resilience.org and BiophysEco.

“The population of the earth has increased more than sevenfold since 1850 – from one billion to seven and a half billion – primarily because of science and technology,” Richard Rhodes concludes at the end of his new book Energy: A Human History. “Far from threatening civilization, science, technology, and the prosperity they create will sustain us as well in the centuries to come.”1

Rhodes tells an engaging tale of energy transitions over some 500 years. Yet the limitations in his field of view become critical in the book’s concluding chapter, when he reveals which particular axe he is especially eager to grind.

Both the title of the book and its timing invite comparison with Vaclav Smil’s 2017 work Energy and Civilization: A History (reviewed here). There is a significant overlap, most notably in both author’s views that major energy transitions – from wood to coal, from coal to petroleum – have been multi-generational processes.

But Rhodes’ scope is far narrower, both in time and in geography.

Rhodes begins his story in sixteenth-century England. His cast of characters is overwhelmingly Anglo-American and male, with a sprinkling of western Europeans, and only a brief excursion outside of “western civilization” to discuss oil exploration in Saudi Arabia.

Smil, by contrast, starts his book in pre-history, with an erudite discussion of the energy implications of human evolution. He follows with more than 200 pages on developments in energy usage from ancient times to the Middle Ages, in Africa, India, China, Europe, and Mesoamerica.

Smil’s readers, then, arrive at his discussion of the industrial revolution and the fossil fuel era with an understanding that millennia of progressive developments, around the world, had gone into the technologies and social organizations available to sixteenth-century Englishmen.

The unspoken implication in Rhodes’ tale is that the men of the Royal Society of London started with a blank slate, and all our current technological marvels are due wholly to the magnificence of their particular current in science.

One question that never arises in Rhodes’ book is, how did it happen that a class of educated men had the time and resources to ponder theories, conduct long series of experiments, and write and discuss their essays? There is no mention that during these same centuries, the countries of western Europe were drawing vast quantities of basic resources from Africa and the Americas, at the cost of millions of lives.

In short, this is a woefully incomplete history of energy. But within those limitations, Rhodes writes engagingly and with admirable clarity.

A thermodynamic page-turner

For anyone interested in basic issues of physics and technology, the progression from scattered awareness of curious phenomena, to testable theories, to technologies that were applied on a mass scale and changed everyday life, makes a fascinating story. For example, observations of static electricity from a cat’s hair, frightening strikes of lightning, and the effects of magnets eventually grew into a comprehensive theory of electromagnetism. Rhodes ably outlines how this led through development of crude batteries, then to simple generators, and eventually to the construction of a massive generator harnessing some of the power of Niagara Falls for a new phase of the Industrial Revolution.

Likewise, his discussion of the long gestation of the coal-fired steam engine – which depended on an understanding of basic issues of thermodynamics as well as refinements in metal-working needed for the construction of high-quality boilers – illuminates important factors in the birth of the fossil-fuel era.

An excellent section on early oil drilling and refining processes leads to a fascinating aside: the profitable introduction of lead as a performance-enhancing additive to gasoline, notwithstanding severe health effects which were noticed and decried at the earliest stages of the leaded gas era.

Credit where credit is due

The social effects of these developments in basic and applied science have been sweeping and many of them have been salutary. It would be foolish to deny that science has played a major role in increasing life expectancy and making rapid population growth possible.

Yet many historians would argue that social and political factors such as labour rights and the push for universal education have been equally important.

Of most direct importance to Rhodes’ subject, it is clear that science was critical in helping us understand principles of thermodynamics and helping us harness the power in both fossil fuels and and renewable resources. But science has not decreed that, once having learned to extract and consume fossil fuels, we should use up these resources as fast as humanly possible. That trend, rather, is due to an economic system that requires profits to increase continuously and exponentially.

Likewise, science taught us how to use the fossil fuel resources which have helped boost our population seven-fold in the past 170 years. But science did not create those resources, which were cooking in the earth’s cavities for millions of years before the first protohuman scientist conducted the first experiment.

If, following Rhodes’ thinking, we give science the whole credit for making a population explosion possible, we should also credit science with blowing through millions of years of accumulated energy resources in just a few hundred years. We should give science credit for the fact that billions of people live in areas already being severely impacted by climate change caused by fossil fuel emissions (even though those people typically have used minimal quantities of fossil fuel themselves.) And we should ask, why can’t science come up with a cost- and time-effective way of replacing all those fossil fuels, so that all 7 billion of us plus our more numerous descendants can keep on living the high-energy lifestyle to which (some of) us are accustomed?

Ah, but science has already found a big part of the next answer, Rhodes might answer: nuclear power.

The questions raised by Rhodes’ concluding sections on nuclear power are complex, and we’ll dive into those issues in the next installment.

Illustration at top: “Bridge over the Mongahela River, Pittsburg, Penn.” from the Feb 21, 1857 edition of Ballou’s Pictorial, accessed via Wikimedia Commons


1Energy: A Human History, page 343