Ugo Bardi and the Seneca Cliff

Off the keyboard of A. G, Gelbert

Published on the Doomstead Diner on May 25, 2013

Discuss this article at the Newz Table inside the Diner

This essay is a response to the article entitled, Leverage points in energy storage. by Ugo Bardi.
To summarise the article, Ugo makes a case against too much storage capacity in an energy infrastructure. He unfortunately does not differentiate the supply and demand dynamics of fossil fuel driven power grids from those of renewable energy driven power grids. His arguments seem well suited for fossil fuel driven infrastructure but, in my opinion, do not apply to renewable energy infrastructure even though I can see his basic assertions are well meaning given the environmental harm the excess use of fossil fuels cause, as highlighted here:

Ugo Bardi wrote:

… natural resources are limited, so that we should strive to consume less resources, not more.

The premise that natural resources are limited is accurate ONLY if the definition of natural resources excludes renewable energy directly or indirectly obtained for the sun, which considering we still have around another 5 billion years of sunlight must be considered a source of abundant energy. Therefore his premise CANNOT apply to solar energy because he bases his conclusion on scarcity, not a 5 billion year supply of abundant energy from the sun. More on this later.

This is not to say he is wrong in advocating LESS consumption. I agree with him. I just base a maximum consumption quota on the demands of the biosphere living systems that humanity depends on for a healthy environment and can be harmed by our excess consumption, not on excess storage capacity creating system instability.

Ugo proceeds from this conclusion of excessive storage to suggest we must consume less explaining in some technical jargon, how having energy storage capacity at various levels from very low to very high affects consumption in a capitalist economy. He goes into this concept further discussing the various business models, thermodynamic effects and other effects like the Seneca Effect that occurs both in politics and in energy systems.

In these systems and effects he shows a clear correlation between high storage capacity and exponentially increasing consumption which leads to a Seneca Effect cliff collapse. In other words, greater storage capacity feeds system INSECURITY and INSTABILITY, the exact opposite of the motive for installing higher storage capacity in the first place.

NOTE:He has some drawings of valves, available resources, and demand use and so on. You can look them over in the link if you like. I have not included them here because of my disagreement with the author’s assumption that just because you have some “use it or lose it” energy, you MUST lower the price so you won’t “lose” it.

He argues that at low levels of storage capacity, adding more improves system stability but once a certain threshold is reached increasing storage capacity further creates a phenomenon called a “leverage point”. This leverage point tips the system in the wrong way with too much storage capacity and starts a runaway increase in consumption. The metaphor for the leverage point is a valve that can open the right way or the wrong way.

Ugo gets into the leverage points with the valves demonstrating how the levers that open the valves can work in the wrong direction. Even with fossil fuels being the natural resource, I have some problems with his logic. The pressure to consume more in his model is NOT coming from the consumer!

In the capitalist model, he assumes that it is prudent, profitable and just good business practice to drastically lower the kWh price when you have some excess in the system that you wouldn’t make a nickel on if you didn’t lower the price. If the purpose of the power utility is MAINLY to make a profit and NOT to provide sufficient energy to run civilization, then his logic would be applicable; immoral, but still, in the predatory capitalist view, logical.

My view is that a power utility’s MAIN purpose is to provide power at the amounts the government approves along with a government approved profit margin. Ugo thinks a kWh is just another capitalist widget sold by the power utility and the more “widgets” it sells the better. It is disturbing to me that he sees no other option for the power utility but to maximize the use of any and all kWh laying around due to excess storage capacity as an unavoidable path to a Seneca Effect type collapse. That’s bad logic because there ARE other options. However, he NEEDS that flawed assumption to reach his final conclusion.

His final conclusion is that, in order to avoid system instability, storage capacity must be limited and kwh power be demand priced so poorer consumers are forced to reduce consumption due lack of ability to pay for power. Those who can pay the higher rates will guarantee a nice profit to the power utility so said power utility won’t feel “tempted” to increase storage capacity for increased revenue and profits. A nice fat, happy and profitable utility with a stable power grid results (supposedly). Through this “business model”, the leverage point that flips the “valve” the wrong way towards an exponential increase in consumption and, after increased instability, a Seneca Effect type collapse, will never be reached.

It’s pretty clear from the outset that Ugo’s heart is with the power company, not with the needs of society while he pretends to be concerned about environment damaging excess consumption. That is the pretence he uses because what he wants to prevent is power grid price volatility, energy instability and grid collapse, not environmental collapse.

First, as I said earlier, he mixes the oil type energy with renewable type energy in regard to storage. Big problem there. I’ll get to that. Second, he mentions the “need” to dispense with excess solar or wind energy quickly because it can’t be stored causing kwh rates to wildly fluctuating contingent on the sun or wind being there or not (feast or famine). Thirdly, he goes to the other extreme where the storage capacity is maxed out with still more power is coming in so they really have to go nuts lowering the price during said periods (glut).

Finally he uses this logical construct and justifies a happy medium of storage capacity. He didn’t talk about the power mix we have now where base load is the “always on” with coal and nuclear power and the “get it quick” power spikes come from natural gas, hydro and even battery banks. This is important because the storage regimen is radically different in a fossil fuel energy grid. You ALWAYS need to go fight wars someplace or get those resources stored in a tank. They just aren’t there on site except for hydro.

The reason that you have cheap and expensive kWh rates with fossil coal and nuclear are inflexible due to the fact they are hard to instantly power down or up. It’s a function of the fuel they use and how the power plants run, not the storage capacity.

The leverage points certainly would apply to the fossil fuel natural gas with its instant on or off power availability but that is why natural gas power plants are not used for base load at the moment. The natural gas is not free nor is the coal or the uranium fuel rods so they do not want those things putting out energy when it can’t be sold.

The economics and thermodynamics of solar and wind are a different ball game. Wind and solar are, for all practical purposes, going to have a guaranteed availability during, to be extremely conservative, one day out of every four or five days for as long as the sun exists (another 5 billion years or so). If the sun stops cold we turn into a dead ball of ice so it is unthinkable to exclude the sun from our energy calculus. So, in the ACTUAL Earth weather system, we already have a gigantic “storage capacity” of future solar and wind to draw on without worrying about running out.
Take this paragraph:

Ugo Bardi wrote:

If we want to reduce price volatility we should do exactly the opposite; we should reduce storage instead of increasing it. Of course, don’t make me say that we don’t need storage at all. We do need energy on demand for many practical purposes and for essential services, say for hospitals and the like. We need to be able to turn lights on even in a windless night. What we don’t really need is a system that aims to provide energy at any moment, at constant prices. It would be atrociously expensive and we would have big troubles in keeping it stable.

Yes, IF and when you turn on your power plant, it is using fuel that you mined for or drilled for and refined because you want a certain amount of money for every pound of coal, uranium, gallon of oil or cubic centimeter of natural gas.

His premise logically leads him to this conclusion:

Ugo Bardi wrote:

Instead, the best compromise in terms of cost would be a system with limited storage that uses prices as a way to manage demand. With such a system you can have as much energy as you want, at any moment, but you must be prepared to pay for it. That may be seen as a problem, but also as an opportunity. You may have to pay a lot for energy at some moments, but you may also have it very cheap in other periods – that’s an opportunity if you can be flexible.

It is certainly possible to set it up that way but I certainly don’t agree that it MUST be that way simply because of the way renewables function as opposed to fossil fuel run power plants. I also hate the idea of using price to manage demand because the poor will get the short end of the stick. You would then have to introduce subsidies for poor people through some kind of means testing bureaucratic nightmare. I’m against that. I favor one price for all and make it reasonable without encouraging overuse (possibly a quota system or smart grid control of excesses).

The economy run on fossil fuel creates the consumerist problem he mentions here:

Ugo Bardi wrote:

We can see the economy as a machine that stores energy in the form of “capital” and gradually releases it in the form of waste (or “pollution” if you like). The interesting point is that here, too, Forrester’s law applies; that is, we tend to pull the levers in the wrong direction. One of these wrong ways would be opening up too much the valve that connects the capital stock to the waste stock. It is what we call “consumerism.” Of course, consuming something means to destroy it and I have this feeling that maybe we are doing that really too fast, don’t you agree with me?

Sure we have to consume less energy but the point is not to base the decision on storage and leverage points but on biosphere bio-mimicry. Renewables have a built in rapid switch off capability for both wind and solar. Just because the wind IS blowing and the sun IS shining does not mean you HAVE to sell that energy. You turn it off or use it to pump water into a dam. The sun and wind aren’t going away. Fossil fuels ARE going away.

As long as you’ve got enough storage to tide you over for 4 days MAX, that is all you need as long as the sun exists. It’s a whole different ball game than worrying about where you are going to get your oil from tomorrow.

To show you how radically different the energy storage picture is with fossil fuels, how long do you think that “strategic national oil reserve” we have would last if the oil stopped? A year? I doubt it. That’s NOT a lot of Capital preservation or accumulation in my book compared to solar and wind renewable.

Ugo Bardi wrote:

The other possible way to operate the valve in the wrong way is that sometimes we accumulate so much capital – that is, so much potential – that we lose control of how it is dissipated. We may pass some threshold that makes dissipation very fast, actually disastrously fast. We call this kind of phenomenon “war,” which is, by the way, another example of how politics normally manages so often to take the wrong decisions.

That’s fear based and scarcity based pseudo capital accumulation. If you fight a war it’s because you think you don’t have enough, not because you’ve got too much. Some will say, NO, the big bully will beat up on the little guys but that has nothing to do with thermodynamics or energy storage; that’s empire politics and is a separate issue.

This quote from a peer reviewed scholarly book makes it crystal clear what the MAIN driver of fossil fuel costs is:

Dilworth (2010-03-12). Too Smart for our Own Good (page 399-400). Cambridge University Press – Kindle Edition:

“As suggested earlier, war, for example, which represents a cost for society, is a source of profit to capitalists. In this way we can partly understand e.g. the American military expenditures in the Persian Gulf area. Already before the first Gulf War, i.e. in 1985, the United States spent $47 billion projecting power into the region. If seen as being spent to obtain Gulf oil, It AMOUNTED TO $468 PER BARREL, or 18 TIMES the $27 or so that at that time was paid for the oil itself.

In fact, if Americans had spent as much to make buildings heat-tight as they spent in ONE YEAR at the end of the 1980s on the military forces meant to protect the Middle Eastern oil fields, THEY COULD HAVE ELIMINATED THE NEED TO IMPORT OIL from the Middle East.

So why have they not done so? Because, while the $468 per barrel may be seen as being a cost the American taxpayers had to bear, and a negative social effect those living in the Gulf area had to bear, it meant only profits for American capitalists. “

Mind you, the above referenced war was short, unlike the ruinously expensive post 911 Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I shudder to think what the trillion or so dollars spent on those wars (FOR OIL) did to the actual price of oil per barrel now.

Ugo claims we have a high “accumulation of capital” when we have high fossil fuel reserves and that will tempt us to go to war to get more in an endless Seneca Effect cycle to perpetually increase our reserves. We ARE NOT “accumulating” capital because the power plants that put out electrical energy always need more and more fossil fuel. We have to project power to get those resources which in no way can be considered capital preservation or energy storage. Excess storage capacity is a joke in fossil fuels because they are finite, not to mention that they are poisonous to the environment.

Ugo Bardi wrote:

So, you see that there is something as too much storage and I think that you are gaining some idea of how system dynamics coupled with thermodynamics gives to you a wide ranging view of many kinds of phenomena; most of them very relevant for our life.

I certainly agree that you can have too much storage but the criterion for renewables, as opposed to fossil fuelled machinery, is not based on avoiding uneconomical price fluctuations. The proper criterion is a hard look at base load (what you want 24/7). THEN you say: we need X for the noon spike or the 5 P.M. spike when people are cooking at home or the summer months 10:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M. air conditioning spike, etc.

You look at what you can count on from the sun and wind (studies in Spain have proven the energy is FAR more reliable than the naysayers had predicted) and you build your storage capacity from giant batteries, hydro, geothermal or some other renewable technology. You use a smart grid in case a super spike goes above capacity to prioritize the shutdown of nonessential power demands.

The bottom line is that WE CANNOT POLLUTE, PERIOD! Everything HAS to go full circle. THAT is the leverage point we passed in the WRONG direction when we went for fossil fuels. Capital? Is this guy kidding? WE are in debt up to our Global climate change ears and the bill with raging storms and seas is heading our way. I am quite willing to have the power turned off 12 hours a day RIGHT NOW so we can go 100% renewable and everybody get rationed the max kWh per person that any family can have. But that’s just me. Most people can’t handle that.

In summary, we have a lot of “valves” in our economic system already open in the wrong direction because we use polluting fuels. When we finally “get it” that we cannot afford to consume more energy than we can generate in an absolutely clean way, the least of our worries will be too much storage.

I do agree that, in the future, the use of renewable energy infrastructure that could destroy some biome or habitat just to get more energy may certainly become an issue. But the urgency now is to stop using fossil fuel of any kind and get ALL our hydrocarbons, be they fuels, oils and lubricants from biofuels or algae.

Our electrical grid should be designed to use renewable energy exclusively. That is the only prudent course of action!

But don’t worry; the weather will do wonders to get the politicians to FINALLY begin to deal seriously with this problem within three or four years. The weather is going to get really bad and we should prepare as best we can. But when it comes, it will be a pleasure to see the fatheads in governments all over the globe get with the 100% renewables program.


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