Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The renewable revolution, III - the Jevons paradox



I received an interesting comment today on my first post on the renewable revolution. In answering it, I thought that the exchange was worth publishing as a post in its own, so here it is. 



Karl North said... 
 
Ugo, you are no doubt familiar with the Jevons Paradox, which says that energy efficiency gains, in a typical capitalist political economy of few policy constraints, are used in ways that lead to higher energy use at the macro level. In my view something similar is at work if the “clean” energy alternatives that you are advocating replace fossil fuels to a significant degree. The use of alternatives (again in our dominant form of political economy) will be used to chew up the same resources as fossil fuels do. Many of these resources are nonrenewable, many of them destructive of global carrying capacity in their production and use. As just one example, fossil fuels have permitted an industrialized form of agriculture that is an ecological slow-moving disaster but has temporarily doubled world population, which in turn is causing its own problems. As a systems analyst I am sure you can appreciate the positive feedbacks involved. So in general, significant production of alternative fuels would continue the disastrous process that is producing ‘peak everything’ both in terms of resource depletion and nest fouling.

Few writers on the subject of energy flow in our planetary system are considering the question: What is the level of energy use (of any sort) that is excessive, because it simply wears out the system. I liken the problem to running a car at rpms that are in the red zone of the car’s tachometer. Again, as a systems analyst I would think that you would be interested in such questions.

11 comments:

  1. I enjoy those three posts on renewables, including this one.

    It was just natural for humans to have a predisposition for sweet food; energy was always short in supply and our predecessors were rarely in the risk zone for diabetes. In modern society, where sugar is cheap and abundant, however, the craving for sweets needs to be kept in check. The consequences of not doing it are fatal. It is the same for our society at large when it comes to energy. Fossil fuel is like we found an enormous bag of candy that someone left, and we just eat and eat. Too much cheap energy screws up the metabolism and we have to voluntarily restrict our use. Energy scarcity is the only “natural” limitation to a total human expansion and conquest of everything and we should be happy that energy is not in unlimited supply. With our tendency for exaggeration we most certainly will destroy the basis for our own survival with an unlimited supply says Janken Myrdal (2008) and I agree with him. If we first adapt ourselves to a non-expansionist way of living, then cheap and easily available energy can be a boon. But we certainly need to ensure that the energy poor of today can get more access to energy.

    I linked to your post and added some comments on
    http://gardenearth.blogspot.com/2011/10/dopamine-probably-most-dangerous.html

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  2. Thanks for this comment, Gunnar. See, renewables are such a change of paradigm that most people haven't yet understood their consequences. One is about the distribution of energy. In my opinion, renewables are inherently suitable to reduce the wealth unequality in the world. That is for several reasons, it would need a complete post that I may succeed in writing one of these days

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  3. Correct, one cannot overexploit the sun, but my point is that alternative fuels can overexploit the earth. Earth’s natural ecosystems in the long run must function properly if we are to survive. Over several billion years of evolution, they have self-organized to use the sun’s energy at a relatively low level of capture. If PV technology can ramp that up to the levels you claim are now possible, it would be OK if the biosphere was designed to handle that, but it isn’t. For example, we could now use PV energy to continue to remove mountains to extract ever-poorer mineral ores to keep going civilization as we know it. And continue destroying essential ecosystems in many other ways.

    Your solution, removing the excess PV panels, for example, contradicts your dopamine model of what motivates humans: they just won’t do it. Fortunately, culturally programmed motivations (your “social brakes”) can override biologically programmed ones, as a large anthropological literature attests. As a fish in a capitalist sea, Jeavons did not consider whether there are other cultures where his paradox might not be operative. So he failed to point out that his paradox requires a particular type of social system, one where power can be used to manufacture endless desire. There is a large literature that details how that works, including a major contributor (Noam Chomsky) from MIT, the same institution that gave birth to The Limits to Growth.

    As I read Nate, I think he might concede that dopamine is not necessarily the only driver. But that raises the all-important question of how to get to a civilization whose beliefs and values provide sufficient social brakes avoid nature’s more drastic ways of “stabilizing the system to the sustainability level”.

    I wish that more people trained like yourself mostly in the physical sciences would look at the relevant social science literature on these questions. William Catton, using the combined perspectives of sociology and ecology, was able to project a powerful vision of human overshoot when few others could. Good systems thinking on these questions needs to consider both the social and biophysical contexts of a problem. Wasn't it Forrester or Sherman who said, “Always challenge the boundaries" (of your model). Wouldn't you agree?

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  4. Jevon's "paradox" is just basic supply and demand, and just about everyone seems to misapply it. It *assumes* that there is more of the resource to be had. If there isn't more of the resource to exploit, increasing efficiency doesn't magically allow people to use more in aggregate than before.

    So, if Jevon's paradox were in effect right now, world fleet fuel economies would be creeping up (which they are), the greater efficiency would lower the price (which isn't really happening), and people paying less would simply drive more. As it is, the price is only falling as people lose their jobs, which isn't inducing more demand or supply. Supply is being basically unresponsive to increased price, so people are using any additional efficiency to lower their above-norm transportation costs back to mean. If supply can't increase, there is no 'paradox'.

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  5. The only way to accelerate any kind of transition is volume taxes on fossile fuels, that's the bottom line.

    And being able to maintain some "proper" level of redistribution in the process.

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  6. Just a few points of fact for systems analysis regarding, for example, agriculture and fossil fuels .
    The British combined take-off of population and industry (pretty much first ever to do so) took place before fossil fuel was used in agriculture. (By 1850, 22% of the population fed just about the rest - total population in England had trebled over 100 years to 1850). The 18thC 'Agricultural Revolution' was based on biological N-fixation. Of course it could not keep up with continuing rise in the British population,
    The following account for N America does illustrate, however, a later overwhelming need/role for fossil fuel: in the expert book On the Great Plains, we read that the 1000 year accumulation of soil nutrients was quickly spent:
    They applied manure as it was available, rotated legumes when it was convenient. But they had no strategy for the very long term. By the 1930s, Rooks County fields had been planted, cultivated, and harvested sixty times without rest. Soil nitrogen was about half what it had been at sod-breaking and crop yields declined steadily. And now no western frontier remained. From the vantage of 1930s, crop agriculture in Kansas does not appear very sustainable. All the arable land in Rooks County - and in the nation for that matter – had been identified and plowed. Soil nitrogen and organic carbon drifted steadily downward, and with them yields and profits. Faced with this dilemma, farmers implemented a dramatic innovation in soil nutrient management. Rather than adopt one or more of the ancient strategies, farmers (and the industrial nation behind them) created a new option. They appropriated abundant cheap fossil-fuel energy to import enormous amounts of synthetically manufactured nitrogen onto their fields. …” page 219, ‘On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment’, Cunfer 2005; preview in googlebooksoted

    Footnote; currently about 5% of world natural gas (1-2% of world fossil energy) goes for nitrogen fertilizer (China still mostly uses coal to make urea). Most food in the world is still grown or consumed pretty much in situ: not much more than 12% of world primary grains supplies are traded across international borders, and partial 'subsistence farming' plays a role for not much under 50% of global population.
    My guess is that 'the world' could get by if consumption of fossil fuel per capita were 1/20th of US per capita consumption, or perhaps 1/10th of European levels.

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  7. Ugo and Karl, To keep it simple, I think the general reason Jevons' effect is no paradox is that the main purpose entrepreneurs have in using efficiencies is to create streamlined processes for growing their productivity and production. It's the main use of technology throughout history, I think, using it to make resource use more profitable.

    The purpose is not to reduce resource use... but to make money, and the confusion seems to come from everyone counting the embodied energy of money as "0" (for lack of information) rather than "average" (for lack of information).

    I have a very crisp and clean way of showing that, by comparing world GDP, Energy use and he GDP productivity of energy (economic energy efficiency). That's discussed at http://synapse9.com/pub/EffMultiplies.htm

    When you plot the three graphs together it shows ALL the many kinds of drag, stimulus, rebound and backfire effects together, aggregating them just as nature does in the system as a whole. For each unit of energy savings from the whole system becoming more efficient the economy has been producing 2.5 units of new energy uses.

    IF one's subject is the behavior of the system as a whole, that's the answer. The economy has been exhibiting a "backfire" effect for efficiency gains of 2.5. That implies rather directly that the problem is making money, and with detailed study as I did for Systems Energy Assessment you find out just why. http://synapse9.com/SEA

    There's also bad news on the composition of energy use per dollar of GDP. I't been completely constant for the past 30 years. Moral of the story??? Natural systems don't follow social policy...

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  8. Karl North:
    >Your solution, removing the excess PV panels, for example, contradicts your dopamine model of what motivates humans: they just won’t do it. Fortunately, culturally programmed motivations (your “social brakes”) can override biologically programmed ones, as a large anthropological literature attests. As a fish in a capitalist sea, Jeavons did not consider whether there are other cultures where his paradox might not be operative. So he failed to point out that his paradox requires a particular type of social system, one where power can be used to manufacture endless desire. There is a large literature that details how that works, including a major contributor (Noam Chomsky) from MIT, the same institution that gave birth to The Limits to Growth.

    >As I read Nate, I think he might concede that dopamine is not necessarily the only driver. But that raises the all-important question of how to get to a civilization whose beliefs and values provide sufficient social brakes avoid nature’s more drastic ways of “stabilizing the system to the sustainability level”.

    Seems to me that the ideology and culture of liberalism that more or less pervades all "developed" societies in the world today is a big part of the problem. "Economic liberalism", on one hand, is supported in order to increase economic growth, whereas "social liberalism" seems to demand more and more resources to be made available to all or some of a society's citizens.

    Is the ideology of liberalism sustainable? I don't think so, at least for the global, cosmopolitan version that seems to give many people especially in the "developed" countries very big part of their dopamine.

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  9. Can't we derive dopamine other than material, like love (of others), self-actualization, spirituality?

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  10. Ugo, I could not agree more with you about the link between energy its distribution and economy and inequality. And indeed, even if I am not a "material determinist", certainly some forms of energy are more suitable for centralised and unequal societies (nuclear power) and others more suitable for more equal societies (most renewables, but not really huge hydro-dams...)

    http://gardenearth.blogspot.com/2011/10/is-there-space-for-development.html

    I have written a few posts touching the topic
    http://gardenearth.blogspot.com/2011/08/agriculture-how-cheap-energy-and.html

    http://gardenearth.blogspot.com/2011/06/increasing-shortages-and-growing.html

    http://gardenearth.blogspot.com/2011/05/shortages-of-resources-will-be.html

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  11. "certainly some forms of energy are more suitable for centralised and unequal societies (nuclear power) and others more suitable for more equal societies (most renewables..."

    You have it backwards.  Renewables can and will be monopolized by those who own the land; landlords will own all the energy.  Nuclear power can be built in units as small as a few tens of megawatts and is not restricted by geography.  Even today, you can start a company to make nuclear reactors or buy shares in an existing one.

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