Conceptual Transitions in Energy

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on January 27, 2013


Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

The difficulties involved in transitioning off of the current Energy Paradigm of fossil fuel usage are immense. So immense in fact that many of the pundits writing on the subject these days think we have a Hopeless situation here, and NOTHING can really be done effectively to reorient the cultures that have become dependent on profligate energy use. Two of our regular Cross Posters on the Doomstead Diner, Gail the Actuary from Our Finite World and Steve from Virginia on Economic Undertow both wrote articles this week looking at the problems from different perspectives.

First from Gail on the subject of transitioning to Renewables. As a solution to the energy problems we face, Gail sees little advantage to Solar and Wind power due to the intermitent nature of the power, and due to hidden embedded costs in these forms of energy production/capture:

Intermittent renewables–wind and solar photovoltaic panels–have been hailed as an answer to all our energy problems. Certainly, politicians need something to provide hope, especially in countries that are obviously losing their supply of oil, such as the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the more I look into the situation, the less intermittent renewables have to offer.

Gail’s 10 Reasons article this week provides a laundry list of issues Solar and Wind power have, from hidden Carbon Footprints to the longevity of the hardware for Electric production. She notes also that these energy sources don’t replace the Liquid Fuels we use in transportation, and the infrastructure isn’t there to transition the entire fleet of Cars, Trucks, Tractors and Mining Equipment over to electric power. Nor really is the battery storage problem for so many electric vehicles resolved either, particularly when faced with depleting resources in Rare Earth Minerals.

So, overall Gail paints the picture of a relatively Insoluble Problem with respect to Energy, not only are we running thin on the cheap Fossil Fuels necessary to power an Industrial Civilization, she holds little hope that any of the Renewable Energy resources available can be ramped up to keep this paradigm running either.

Steve from Virginia on Economic Undertow doesn’t see the problem as quite so Hopeless. In his estimation, if we just got rid of the Carz and implemented a few CFS ideas, we could if not maintain our current energy consumptive lifestyle, at least continue to live along a local paradigm utilizing the Rail system and other more basic technologies around since the 1800’s.

We need better management, we need to start facing our problems rather than hoping that Thorium or Chinese savers can bail us out. There are strategies for dealing piecemeal with large problems … those that have ballooned due to our own negligence. None is really that hard …

– Implement a world-wide moratorium on road- and highway building. This is yet another easy fix that is cost free, both it and the moratorium on logging are easily enforced by way of satellite surveillance. A parallel step is to eliminate World Bank subsidies for logging, road building, dam building and other environmentally destructive policies that also produce climate gases or reduce the ability of the biosphere to sequester carbon.– Electrify railroads and increase both freight and passenger capacity.– Ban land-grabbing in undeveloped countries by 3d parties. Much of the so-called ‘new’ farm land becomes biofuel plantations, cash crop industrial monocultures that produce climate gases.- Provide incentives — pay people — not to consume energy or other resources, not to have children, not to own or drive cars. Subsidizing the non-purchase of autos provides a direct capital return on investment that remains with the recipient. Subsidizing resource consumption leaves the consumer without the resource … without the subsidy either. He’s older … and poorer even if his consumption suggests otherwise.

This was just a small part of a long list of low-cost, non-controversial steps that could be taken to rein in climate change. The step-by-step approach would work with our other ‘issues’. Taking any steps at all would be good news.

We really don’t have a money problem, per se. Money is the embodiment of certain specific sets of rules, these rules can be changed, certainly to meet new challenges such as those we face right now. We can change money rules then solve money problems, afterward we can invent a more rational regime regarding resource capital. Money is important because it is the instrument by which we destroy capital. This must change or else: money must become the means to husband capital and improve it wherever we can. Those who have responsibility over capital much be given the incentive to conserve it; so that money is used to save capital rather than destroy it.

Indeed, the steps Steve mentioned in this most recent post are but a fraction of his Laundry List of Solutions, however the likelihood of any of them actually being implemented on the gross social scale of the Nation-State unless forced into it by Economics and lack of working Credit is Slim & None, with the probability way closer to the latter.

Even just looking at the few ideas suggested here, stopping all road building and logging, paying people not to have children etc are political impossibilities for reasons too numerous to mention. Road building and logging WILL cease as the energy to do these tasks becomes too expensive, but no politician will ever advocate for it because it destroys what little is left of the current economic system. Besides that, there are numerous PACs and Lobbies that actively fight such ideas. Paying people not to have children won’t happen, what will happen is Da Goobermint will STOP paying people enough to FEED the children already born. At least that seems to be how it is progressing in Greece & Spain, and there is no reason to suspect when the collapse crosses the Pond in earnest this won’t be the meme here also. Already the SNAP Card program has taken a hit, and more will likely come down the pipe as things get worse.

Here on the Diner, our own Renewables King Agelbert came in with his own Rebuttal for Gail’s Laundry List of Problems. Agelbert is convinced Renewables ARE the answer, and at least in theory can be implemented in such a way that on a Distributed Level they can be maintained and a decent level of technological living can be maintained with them.

Dynamic Markets to be found on all Continents

It is important to notice that for the first time, the most dynamic markets can be found on all continents: The ten largest markets for new wind turbines included next to China, UK, India, and Germany: Sweden (526 MW), Australia (475 MW), Denmark (416 MW), Romania (384 MW), and Canada (377 MW). Brazil as the 10th largest market added 281 MW, being the biggest Latin American wind country.

– 14 GW of new installations in the first half of 2013, after 16,5 GW in 2012

– Worldwide wind capacity has reached 296 GW, 318 GW expected for full year
– Dramatic slump in US leads to global decrease, partly compensated by new markets

– China has reached total capacity of 80 GW

Big Oil in the USA is flexing their muscles to slow wind power DOWN. This is about fossil fuel corruption, not the “ramping up” power of wind turbine production. The rest of the world is NOT going start being STUPID just because our oil pigs force us to.

As for myself, I am not as negative as Gail on the possibilities for Renewables, nor as Hopeful as Agelbert is. Nor do I think many of the ideas Steve projects out as means to salvage a decent tech lifestyle at lower energy inputs will work either, due primarily to Political Constraints, but also real problems with continuing use of the Rail systems, which may work OK for a while moving around commodities, but as People Movers never can substitute for Carz and besides that are dependent on decent large scale Electric power generation to maintain, which is not likely in the medium to long term.

By any reasonable measure, we face a future with much lower available per capita energy. The types of energy we can access also become increasingly circumscribed as time goes by. However, Energy and its possible collection never disappears entirely, at least not so long as the Sun still has enough Hydrogen to fuse and keeps the amount of energy reaching the earth within tolerable bounds for the ecosphere. Max time on that is probably around 500M more years in a Best Case scenario. It could be a lot less than that of course, but as a Goal Figure to keep this system operational, I like to set this as my outside limit. In reality, I’ll be happy if any of the solutions I propose can keep things going another Millenia. That is well past the time of even the Grandchildren of Children I know might still be walking the earth, so worrying out further than this is a waste of time. Eventually we go extinct no matter what, so if it is 1000 years or 1,000,000 years from now, what’s the difference there?

First off, you have to let go of the idea of maintaining many of the systems we now hold dear, like the Electrical Grid for example. Scaling up Renewable Energy sources to replace Fossil Fuel sources on a Kilowatt by Kilowatt basis is not going to happen. However, we most certainly do not NEED the vast energy consumption we currently use to live, here in the FSoA we could easily cut it to 1/10th what we currently use. It is mostly waste designed to operate systems that have evolved over time, but are not essential for life.

We don’t REALLY need Electric Lights, we have only had them for around a century or so. We don’t really NEED Refrigeration either, though it is nice to have around and keeping it around for as long as we can is probably a worthwhile thing to do. We currently depend on a vast JIT shipping system to bring to us food products from all over the world, but we don’t really need that either. Food CAN be grown individually, in small communities and locally, abd better practices for maintaining soil fertility and more efficient use of water resource are well known in the world of Permaculture. There are also even more conservative techniques possible utilizing Hydroponics, which requires some products from the Age of Oil, but not a lot and not energy intensive either.

So it is basically a question of Triage, eliminating the things we do not REALLY need in favor of those we really do need, reducing dependence on external energy inputs not available in your local area and relcaliztion of food production.

Most of this will actually occur organically, you don’t need a National Initiative for it to occur, though something of that sort could likely help ameliorate your total rapid Die Off numbers.

Simultaneously, while REDUCING the total per capita energy consumption, you begin the process of building out more resilient and less complex local energy systems. Not talking about trying to maintain a National Electric grid here, just enough local power to maintain some systems we currently use in a transitionary period. Longer term, electricity will go entirely, but that does not have to happen overnight. Over time, you transition to mechanical and thermal energy collection systems that are much simpler to maintain, but provide most of what you need for a fairly comfortable lifestyle.

For those of us involved in the SUN Project, we don’t hold out unrealistic ideas about what is possible long term. The life you would lead is much more local, much more involved with being a Caretaker of the Earth you live on. “Jobs” as we know them now would not exist, though there still will be Crafts to pursue and plenty of things to keep your life busy and interesting.

How many people the earth will support in such a paradigm remains an open question, but the battle here is not really about the total numbers, it is about Extinction or Non-Extinction in the Near to Medium Term. Given the political climate and the difficulties involved in any sort of downward transition from high energy input, a significant Die Off is inevitable. However, significant Die off is significantly different from EXTINCTION.

Even in the face of vast climate change, unless/until the Phytoplankton Collapse, there are survival memes possible in EITHER the scenarios of extreme Global Warming or a New Ice Age. Underground living is not out of the question. At the current global average temperatures, the Carlsbad Caverns in MO maintain a steady 60F or so. In even a 5 degree Celsius warming event, said caverns would come in at no more than 70F or so, perfectly survivable. So achieving a 100% Die Off inside 30-50 years JUST on the basis of Climate Change is unlikely.

Can Homo Sapiens survive these challenges at ANY level of population? I have no idea really, and nobody else does either or really can make a conclusive proof of their conclusions either.

So, you take it one day at a time, one step at a time, and you make changes as they become necessary to make. That is what we are doing with the SUN Project, and we invite anyone interested to join with us in this effort.



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