Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Future of Energy and the Interconnected Challenges of the 21st Century

Guest post by Francois Cellier


Francois Cellier is senior researcher at the ETH in Zurich, Switzerland. He is known for many contributions in the field of modelling and perhaps the readers of this blog know him for his work with "The Oil Drum". Cellier was present at the meeting on Energy of the Club of Rome in Basel on which I reported earlier on "Cassandra's Legacy". Here, he presents a more detailed report. As a personal comment on this post, I note that Francois may appear very pessimistic when, at the end of his post, he ask the question "Are we merely a club of old men (and a few women) crying on each other's shoulders?" I think Francois' intention is not to imply that it was a meeting of old men as, instead, there were several young people attending and giving contributions. The point is, I think, is that we must never feel too old to believe that we can make a difference! 


The Future of Energy and the Interconnected Challenges of the 21st Century

François E. Cellier
Department of Computer Science
ETH Zurich
CH-8092 Zurich
Switzerland

Email: FCellier@Inf.ETHZ.CH
URL: http://www.inf.ethz.ch/~fcellier/



The Club of Rome, in collaboration with the Dept. of Environment and Energy of the City of Basel, Switzerland, recently convened a two-day international conference entitled The Future of Energy and the Interconnected Challenges of the 21st Century. The meeting was held October 17 and 18, 2011, at the Hôtel des Trois Rois in Basel. The conference -by invitation only- brought together a group of about 30 scientists from around the globe to discuss issues relating to resource depletion (Peak Oil) and climate change. Also present was a delegation of the Basel City government including the mayor and the minister for energy as well as several members of parliament.

This report summarizes some of the outcomes of our discussions.

_________________________________________

In Basel, the Club of Rome was given a warm welcome. Basel is by far the most environmentally conscious city of Switzerland. To illustrate my point: Basel reduced its per capita energy consumption between 1991 and 2010 from 5.4 kW to 4.0 kW, a reduction by a whopping 26%. This is a highly impressive figure. The average energy consumption in Switzerland is currently at 5.4 kW, down from 5.5 kW 10 years ago.

Basel has both topographic and political advantages over other cities and regions in the country. On the one hand, Basel-City is the smallest of our Cantons. It essentially consists of the city only. Thus, population density is very high, and public transportation systems are excellent.

While the average number of cars per 1000 inhabitants in the country currently lies at 514 cars, there are only 320 cars per 1000 inhabitants in Basel. Most of the houses in the inner city were built long before the advent of cars, and consequently, they rarely come with garages. There are a good number of public parking garages in the city center, but they are expensive and time-limited, and the residents usually have no parking lots anywhere close to their homes. Thus, in many cases, owning a car in Basel creates more of a problem than being of benefit. About 60% of the workforce comes to work by public transport, and only 30% come to work using private cars. The remaining 10% either walk, or ride to work by bike. Real estate is very expensive due to the limited space available, and therefore, there are few gas stations in the city. Car owners usually fill their vehicles outside the city limits, and as a result, their fuel consumption is not counted in the energy statistics of the city, which to some extent, distorts the picture.

In addition, Basel has political advantages. As in most high-income countries in the Western world, our city governments tend to be a bit more progressive, a bit more energy- and environmentally conscious than municipalities in the countryside. This is true for throughout Switzerland. In contrast to Basel, however, which is a city-state, other metropolitan areas are surrounded by a hinterland that is often more conservative and exerts considerable influence on the city and cantonal politics. The Basel-city government is able to pass any local legislation that suits them without facing opposition. The more conservative neighboring Basel-Countryside is a separate Canton and has no say on city regulations.

Yet, while these advantages may explain the lower energy consumption in Basel as compared to the Swiss average, they fail to explain the rapid decrease in energy consumption over the past 20 years. To this end, a number of different incentive schemes have been introduced step-by-step.

  1. At present, most homes in Switzerland continue to be heated by oil, while Basel is actively promoting the connection of private homes to a centralized district heating network. Centralized district heating is much more efficient than individual oil heating, because much of the heat used by the district heating network is waste heat from the waste incineration plant and other industrial plants in the region, which essentially is available for free. Any additional heat that needs to be generated by burning fuel is produced with higher efficiency, because industrial oil burners can be operated cost-effectively at higher temperatures than single-dwelling oil burners. In Basel, the percentage of central oil heating systems in private homes has decreased significantly, and the electrical resistance heaters advocated in some areas of Switzerland no longer exist at all.
  2. Then there was introduced an "energy levy" of some 5% that is being used for energy modernization programs and for upgrading older, less energy-efficient buildings, for subsidies of solar thermal installations, and generally for subsidies of investments in renewable energy systems of all kinds.
  3. In addition, inhabitants of Basel pay an additional 5 Cents incentive tax per kWh of consumed electricity. This tax is reimbursed to all households and companies in the city as a lump-sum payment of CHF 75 per year and is also being used to reduce payroll taxes of companies located in the City-State.
  4. Finally, Basel was the first city in Switzerland to introduce cost-covering feed-in tariffs for solar. These stipulate that the public electricity company must buy all electricity generated by photovoltaic systems and CHP (combined heat and power) plants at a standardized cost of production. Home owners offer their roofs to the local electricity company and to private investors, such as solar co-operatives, virtually for free. At the current time, the costs for this arrangement remain slightly above the market price for conventionally generated electricity. The electricity company is allowed to pass on the incurred costs to its customer base, leading to an increase in price of approximately 0.4 Cents per kWh. At present, Basel has already more than 3 MW of installed photovoltaic power. The Basel feed-in tariff model is expected to be adopted shortly throughout Switzerland. Similar legislation is in place in Germany and has, in past years, led to a veritable explosion in installed photovoltaic power.

The price of photovoltaic systems is dropping rapidly. One kg of silicon for a photovoltaic system cost as much as $500 on the spot market in 2008. The price has meanwhile dropped to $40 and may soon be as low as $5-10. This decrease is caused less by cheaper raw materials than by increasing efficiency in the production of crystalline silicon. Modern fluidized-bed reactors are considerably more energy-efficient than the previously used Siemens process, and as a result, the EROEI of photovoltaic systems is improving. Grid parity may be reached by 2012.

If you are interested in reading the exposé by Basel parliamentarian Rudolf Rechsteiner on these and related topics, you can find it here.

The Swiss National Parliament recently passed legislation pertaining to the fact that no additional permits for new nuclear power stations will be issued in the future, and the five currently operational nuclear power stations will need to be phased out over the coming 20 years. At this time, Switzerland generates approximately 35% of its total electricity through nuclear power. Yet, extrapolating from recent experiences in Germany and recognizing that photovoltaic systems can be deployed rapidly, Basel parliamentarians at the meeting were optimistic that the loss of nuclear power will be able to be compensated for by an increase in photovoltaic systems and other renewables in a timely manner. Additional pump storage reservoirs may be required for load balancing and other reasons, but the loss of nuclear power does not necessarily lead to electricity shortages in Switzerland.

The attendees at the meeting concurred that the supply of conventional oil will soon no longer be able to meet demand, i.e., Peak Oil, if it hasn't occurred already, is imminent. Switzerland, which consumes about 2/3 of its total energy in the form of fossil fuels, will need to reduce its energy consumption. Yet, even the gradual loss of fossil fuels must not necessarily lead to a catastrophic breakdown (at least not immediately). About half of our oil consumption is caused by central oil heating systems, and a huge potential exists for improving the energy efficiency of our buildings. Technology is already available that allows us to construct buildings that are energy neutral, i.e., that generate as much energy as they consume. Historic structures, of which there are many in Switzerland, may not lend themselves to easy upgrading; nevertheless, a lot can be accomplished to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels for space heating.

Undoubtedly, in the near future, we will no longer be able to take our SUVs to the nearest gas station whenever it suits us, but Switzerland features one of the densest public transportation networks on the entire planet. While other Western countries in the 20th century systematically dismantled their public transportation systems (under the constant and growing influence of the oil companies), Switzerland consistently modernized and enlarged its public transportation network. In the future, we may need to limit the use of our cars to shorter trips, e.g. to the nearest train station. A reduction in available gas may thus represent more of a discomfort and nuisance than a true disaster.

Unfortunately, these assumptions only hold true if we postulate that the rest of the world will be able to cope equally well with the consequences of diminishing oil reserves, which is anything but certain. Peak Oil means Peak Food. Even now Switzerland is unable to feed its population of 8 million people. We currently import about 60% of our food.

While world population will likely peak long before 2050, it is by no means a given that the Swiss population will have peaked by then as well. If Switzerland continues to outperform its neighbors economically, the already enormous pressures caused by immigration will continue to increase. A recent survey in Germany revealed that 10% of all Germans questioned expressed the opinion that they would consider moving to Switzerland – not because they like Switzerland better than Germany, but for purely economic reasons … and Germany is among the richest nations in Europe.

How will we feed additional immigrants if even now our arable land has shrunk drastically due to increased urbanization? How will we keep our own industrial base operational even with sufficient locally generated energy if the economies of the nations around us are faltering due to energy shortages? For these and other reasons, Peak Oil may still turn into a disaster for Switzerland.

In addition, concerning the issue of anthropogenic climate change, most attendees expressed a much more pessimistic outlook. Certainly the energy crisis will bite us long before climate change takes its toll. However, energy issues can be dealt with after the fact in a reactive mode, even if it is uncomfortable, while the "sins" committed today with respect to the continuing emission of greenhouse gases are expected to lead to irreparable damage fifty years from now. For this reason, anthropogenic climate change represents a challenge that needs to be dealt with pro-actively in the here and now, and there is no discernible political will to do so. Despite being cognizant of the fact that inactivity now may lead to a veritable catastrophe 50 years down the road, elected officials still opt for the coming long-term disaster over short-term inconvenience. Large segments of the population are lacking awareness of the coming disaster, and politicians are prepared to ignore it because unpopular decisions taken by them now will jeopardize their future reelection due to their constituents' poor comprehension of the issues at hand.

Some of the exposés presented were outright alarming. According to Ian Dunlop, a senior member of ASPO Australia and a member of the Club of Rome, unless we start reducing the CO2 emissions right now at a rate of 9% per year, we will be unable to stay within the 2oC increase in temperature considered safe by the IPCC. As this clearly will not happen, we are almost certain to end up with a rise of at least 4oC within the 21st century. Yet, an average increase of 4oC worldwide translates to a rise of 6oC in central Europe, and an increase of 8-12oC in the Arctic.

The melting of the glaciers will dry up rivers and the disappearance of the Greenland ice will lead to a rise of the sea levels by 7 meters. Coastal areas, including a large number of major cities, which are presently home to roughly a third of the world population, will be flooded. Coastal regions will be devastated by hurricanes of unseen proportions, while regions further inland will experience increased desertification. Such change may lead to a die-off scenario where the total world population would shrink rapidly.

According to Dunlop, measures to drastically decrease CO2 emissions would need to be taken within the next 5-6 years to prevent disaster. Thereafter it will be too late. The massive technological and social changes needed to accomplish these goals may entail a war-like setting where everyone is cooperating because there are no alternatives. Yet, as the effects of climate change will not affect us in major ways for another 30-40 years (some effects are already in evidence, as shown by the escalating number of extreme events around the world over the past decade in particular that have already claimed many lives), there is no political will whatsoever to tackle the problem, even if this should mean the end of the world as we know it.

CO2 emissions are inextricably linked to the burning of fossil fuels. For this reason, Peak Oil and anthropogenic climate change are not two separate issues. They must be addressed together. Mankind may choose to ignore one or the other, but cannot do so without risking serious consequences.

Our Western democracies served us well for the past centuries. They offered us freedom and prosperity to a degree never seen before. They also turned out to be more robust than the alternative model embraced by Eastern Europe in the 20th century. While countries that had implemented communist social systems were slow to change, our market economies proved to be highly adaptive to a changing environment.

However, we never before faced a situation where our decisions literally affected the survival of our civilization 50 years in the future, and it remains to be seen whether our political system is able to effectively deal with such a "stress test," or whether our political structures will force us to helplessly submit to our own destruction and that of our planet.

As it stands, the most cooperative and constructive government in terms of dealing with the brewing "perfect storm" ahead may be the Chinese government. Western governments are, at this point, run by representatives that are mostly lawyers (and in-officially by bankers and CEOs of multinational corporations). By contrast, the Chinese leadership consists primarily of engineers. They do understand models and are perfectly capable of reading and interpreting charts. They do everything in their power to help mitigate the coming disaster (and they can afford to do so, because they don't need to fear for their re-election), but their problems are formidable. The Chinese cannot reduce their per capita energy consumption now, and they will not be able to do so for a good number of years to come. The average Chinese citizen remains very poor, compared to their European or American counterpart. China needs to consume more energy to improve the desperate living conditions of a large segment of its population. China is currently burning lots of coal for electricity generation. They are fully aware that this adds significantly to the world's CO2 emissions. According to Prof. Wenying Chen of Tsinghua University, China currently does not see a way around it, as the Chinese are unable to generate enough electricity by other means. Yet, the Chinese leadership is willing to listen and is receptive to any suggestion that will help them reduce their CO2 emissions.

One last note: The Copenhagen meeting demonstrated once again that the top world leadership is incapable of addressing this highly urgent problem, although an immediate prescription for decisively reducing CO2 emissions may be necessary to save our civilization. It was mentioned that it is much easier to deal with politicians at the local level. City mayors and regional governments may have both the will and the means to positively contribute to a local solution. Good examples are likely to have a signaling effect and may convince governments of neighboring areas to adopt successful strategies seen elsewhere. Basel is a good example of that. However, will such a decentralized approach be sufficiently effective to save our planet in time from destruction?

I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to participate in this meeting. It turned out to be an eye-opener in more ways than just one. Yet, after two days of intensive talks, I am asking myself, what have we accomplished? Where is the outreach? Are we merely a club of old men (and a few women) crying on each other's shoulders over spilled wine? What can we do to make a difference?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The "anti-Cassandra" effect: believing the unbelievable



 Nobody ever said that Cassandra was dumb, but when she said that she didn't think that the wooden horse that the Greeks had left on the beach was exactly a "gift", nobody believed her. This is something that we could call the "Cassandra Effect". Sometimes, however, there happens the opposite effect. That is, people believe in improbable stories without the smallest attempt of applying a bit of critical analysis. This is something that could be called the "Anti-Cassandra" effect. As an example, let me analyze a recent report that has appeared on newspapers all over the world. It is the story of how the window of a Ryanair plane was repaired with sticky tape and that because of that, the plane needed to return to the airport soon after take-off. Above: photo from "The Sun".


On Oct 24 2011, "The Sun" published on their web site an article titled "Passengers watch Ryanair crew mend window with tape". It describes how the passengers of a plane leaving from Stansted were horrified at the sight and how the plane had to go back to the airport after take-off because of "damage to the windscreen". The article of The Sun has been reproduced in various forms in innumerable newspapers and web sites, for instance on the "Daily Mail.

Now, let's analyze this report. Can it be true that a major airline such as Ryanair (by the way, with an excellent safety record) can think of repairing a broken plane window with what the "Daily Mail" describes as "sticky tape"? Unlikely, to say the least; just as it is unlikely that the pilot of the plane would have accepted to take off with a window pane precariously held in place with scotch tape bought at the nearest hardware store.

Looking at the story a bit more in depth, we discover that there exists something called "speed tape" commonly used in aviation to repair minor damage and to stick parts together. It is not the common kind of tape, but a metal tape specifically developed for aviation. If that is what was being used to repair the cockpit window, then there is no scandal and there was no attempt on the part Ryanair of "penny pinching" (as stated in the Daily Mail). Indeed, the Irish Aviation Authority investigated on the question and both The Sun and The Daily Mail report that nothing wrong was found in the repair procedure.

But there is more in this story that may show that it was not just a mistake, but a true hoax. Let's go even more in depth in the report. Here is the image that appears on the Daily Mail; it is somewhat different from the one that appears on "The Sun" (shown above)



It is clear that this is the original photo; it has a better resolution than the one that appears on "The Sun," which has been retouched and reframed. Note how in the image on The Sun the left lower corner has been blanked out - we'll see later on that it was done for a reason.

Now, first of all, let's think in terms of perspective. From what I know, the nose of a Boeing 737 stands almost 3 meters high from the ground. Look at this image of a 737 and note how high the nose is with respect to the people standing.



Now, to take a picture like the one shown in "The Sun" or in the "Daily Mail", the photographer must be either at some distance from the plane or at a height comparable to that of the nose. Both conditions are highly improbable in the reported circumstances. When you board a plane they don't let you wander around to take pictures. And they don't let you climb on the roof of the passenger bus, either. Taken from where, then? Maybe from the inside of the passenger terminal? But that is just as unlikely; the level of the terminal floor is normally higher than the plane.

Besides, note another detail: the "arms" of the technician who is supposed to be repairing the window. These arms have been heavily retouched. But why? Possibly, because this is a photo montage where the technicians have been added to the photo of the plane.



But that's not all. Let's now read what they say in "The Sun,"  the original report.

"Passengers watched in horror as ground crew put the tape around the edge of the windscreen shortly before take-off from Stansted, Essex, to Riga, Latvia. "

But from where did they watch? It is weird, because we read that,

"We were kept in the dark, and were terrified. I could see guys taping in the windscreen with what looked like duct tape or gaffer tape. "

In the dark? What do they mean with that? If they mean actual darkness, it is impossible. The picture is taken in daylight and the passenger cabin of a plane is never "in the dark" when there is light outside. Besides, if the passengers were inside the cabin, how could they see the technicians taping the cockpit window from outside? Maybe they were looking from the passenger terminal, but again the story doesn't make sense. If they were really "terrified" would they have accepted to board the plane?

These contradictions would be enough to say that this story is a hoax, but there is more. Who took that picture? We cannot say that from the version of "The Sun" but we can from the one that appears on the "Daily Mail". It is written right there, on the left lower corner - just the region blanked out in the other photo. The author is one "Lee Thompson" who placed a copyright notice near his name. 



Isn't it weird that a "passenger" would put a signature and a copyright sign on a picture taken while on a trip that is described as for a "stag party" as we read in the "Daily Mail"? But there is no doubt that "Lee Thompson" is the name of the passenger - we are told that explicitly in the article on "The Sun." Not just that, we have a picture of Mr. Thompson in the article. Here it is (note the disgusted expression - is that the face you make when your plane is forced to an emergency landing?)



So, let's see..... we have someone named "Lee Thompson", it is quite a common name, but he must be a professional photographer (because he puts a copyright mark on his images) and he must be connected with "The Sun". A little search on the web and you find him. He is, indeed, a professional photographer and he works for The Sun. Here he is as he appears on his site.



I don't know what's your opinion, but to me he looks damn like the same Lee Thompson of the article on the Ryanair "accident". Nice coincidence, right? The same person was both a passenger of the flight and a correspondent from The Sun! That explains, by the way, why they had blanked out the name of the photographer and the copyright notice. But someone, most likely by mistake, has placed on line the original.

The curious thing is that this curious story has been reproduced everywhere in the press and on the web without any attempt of criticism on the part of those who reproduced it. So, we have here a good example of the "Anti-Cassandra" effect, that is of people believing something unbelievable without making the slightest attempt to apply a bit of critical analysis. Sometimes people refuse to believe in reality and sometimes they fall easy prey of legends. So, in this case, everyone - or almost everyone -  loved the chance of a little "Ryanair-bashing" given the fame of penny pinching of the company. It is the same effect that led so many people to believe in the "Climategate" story as a chance to do a little science-bashing against those nasty scientists.

It is part of the way we reason; we believe in what we want to believe and we don't believe in what we don't want to believe. It has always been like that from the times of the prophetess Cassandra of Troy and, apparently, things haven't changed so much today.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Cassandra in the 21st century: ASPO-Italy 5 in Florence on Oct 28


Luca Pardi, vice-president of ASPO-Italy, is the organizer for this year the fifth annual meeting of the organization in Florence on Oct 28. The title of the meeting is "Cassandra in the 21st century: Climate Energy and Food" and it is organized jointly with the "Climalteranti" association, a group of Italian climate scientists.


A brief period that I spent outside Italy this month has convinced me that our country, nowadays, is known for a few things; none of them very good. One, of course, is about the sexual exploits of our prime minister. Then, we have our Minister of Science and Education who thought that neutrinos travel in a tunnel from Geneva, in Switzerland to a place in central Italy. And, finally, an Italian guy who has built an electric boiler and who claims it is a nuclear reactor. Bad times, indeed.

So, maybe ASPO-Italy can try to do what is possible to uphold the honor of the country. Hence, we are doing our best to organize an interesting international meeting this year. Our vice-president, Luca Pardi, has taken this burden upon himself and he has succeeded beautifully in the task of assembling a great program. With the sponsorship of the Tuscan Regional government, we are glad to report that we'll have  speakers from international institutions as:

1. Ian Johnson - Secretary General of the Club of Rome
2. Nicole M. Foss - Known as "Stoneleigh", co-editor at The Automatic Earth
3. Toufic El Asmar - Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO)

And we'll have many well known speakers from Italy: Luca Mercalli, Stefano Caserini, Sergio Castellari, Sylvie Coyaud and others - we'll also have musical entertainment in the afternoon!

The first two talks are in English (translation to Italian provided), all the others will be in Italian (sorry, no translation available). The location is in Florence, at the Sala delle Feste - Palazzo Bastogi, Consiglio Regionale della Toscana, via Cavour, 18. We start at 9:00 a.m. (more or less), entrance is free and no registration is necessary.

Full program of the meeting at the ASPOITALIA site.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The BEST results: the scientific method works.


Recently released results by an independent research team ("BEST") confirm something that had been obvious for a long time: the Earth is warming.

The recent results by the Berkeley team (BEST) confirm that the Earth is warming. That's no surprise; we had known that for decades. So, what's so special in these results?

One point is, of course, the evident disarray of the skeptical tribe, as they had clearly put great hopes in this study. But that is a short term phenomenon as they are rapidly closing ranks and restarting the doubt-creating machine. Rather, what is interesting in the BEST study, I think, is a further demonstration of how well the scientific method works (*).

Think about that: the BEST study had started with great fanfare as a new study performed by people who defined themselves as "skeptics". It was supposed to be the final world on whether the earth is warming or not and clear hints were sent by the performers that they had strong suspicions that decades of work by climate scientists had been badly affected by an overlooked phenomenon known as "Urban Heat Island" (UHI). Considering some previous statements by the BEST team leader, Richard Muller, and some of the financing sources of the study, it was not an auspicious start.

But, instead, the team was staffed by professionals and worked professionally; applying the scientific method. At least three different teams had worked before BEST in examining the data provided by the temperature measuring stations. They all had used the scientific method; just as the BEST team did. In the end, all four teams arrived to the same results. The "UHI" bias does not exist (or, better said, it is correctly accounted for in the treatment of the data). See? The method works.

But then, why so much discussion? What made the BEST team think that previous studies were wrong? And what made critics of the BEST effort think that it would be biased in favour of anti-science theses? Well, it is a fact that scientists are human beings and they have their personal biases.

There are two kinds of typical scientific biases: one is when an aged scientist mistrusts everything new; it is the "not measured here" syndrome. Within some limits, that is a syndrome shown by Richard Muller in several of his public statements - but, in the end, it didn't affect the work of the team.

The other kind of bias occurs when scientists turn out to be easily gullible on matters they are not experts on. This is shown, among many examples, by the recent case of the "E-Cat," the device that was claimed to be able to produce energy by nuclear fusion reactions. This kind of bias is specular to the one described before; here, a scientist may take position on the basis of incomplete data, but "measured here." Eventually, however, also this bias can be corrected by the scientific method.

So, we have a good method that we can use to understand what's happening around us and what problems we will be facing in the future. We can use the scientific method to take action in order to avoid the negative effects of climate change and resource depletion. The problem? We are not using it.






(*) But what is exactly the scientific method? It is not so easy to say as it could seem, since different fields of science require different approaches and the complete description of the method needs a rather long article in Wikipedia - to say nothing of the many books and studies that have been dedicated to the subject. But I think there is a single fundamental point in the method: experimental results always take precedence over theory. In other words, reality always trumps hopes. It is this approach that defends us from the ideological bias that is part of our way of thinking.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Club of Rome is back


This picture was taken at the initial session of the meeting of the Club of Rome in Basel. Switzerland, held on Oct 17-18 2011 and titled "International conference on the future of energy."  From left to right, sitting at the tables, Guy Marin, mayor of Basel, Ian Johnson, secretary general of the Club  of Rome and Leena Srivastava of TERI (India). On the left, a glimpse of Martin Lees, former secretary general of the Club of Rome.

Yes, the Club of Rome is back. Actually, it had never gone away, but the demonization campaign that had been unleashed against its 1972 report, "The Limits to Growth," had largely convinced the public that the Club's approach to the world's problems had been based on a "wrong" model.

Instead, it turned out that the model was not wrong. The recent turmoil, the economic recession, the worries about "peak oil", and the rapid rise in the price of all mineral commodities have brought back the interest on "The Limits to Growth". That brings the sponsor of the report, the Club of Rome, again under the spotlight.

I am just back from a meeting on energy that the Club of Rome organized in Basel. When I have some time, I'll see to report on it in detail. For the time being, I can just note that I was surprised (but not so much) in finding at the meeting the kind of atmosphere that I had always imagined the Club's reunions would have. Of course, many things have changed from the time of the foundation of the Club, almost half a century ago. It may be that, today, the Club's activity is more focalized on practical solutions to the world's problems, whereas at the beginning it was more in understanding what the future had in store for humankind. But some elements of the Club's approach remain the same: the international vision, the "system approach", the attention to the interdependency of the ecosystem and the industrial system, the focus on the social problems and on the welfare of the poor.

That the Club of Rome could maintain its vision for all those years is all the more remarkable considering that it has been always defined as a "non-organization" that explicitly chose to avoid rigid and formal rules. It may be because of the personality of the founders, Aurelio Peccei, Alexander King, and several others. Or maybe it is because there is something intrinsically good in the Club's way of facing the world's problems. In any case, the Club of Rome still has a lot to say on how to manage our future.



Saturday, October 15, 2011

I believe it because it is absurd



Climate scientist Hans Schellnhuber is threatened with a noose while giving a lecture. (link to the video).  Are scientists our new enemies, the target of a new crusade? 


At the beginning of the third century A.D., Tertullianus, champion of Christianity against Paganism, gave us a startling revelation of the breakdown between the old and the new cultural vision. He wrote something that we remember today as, "Credo quia absurdum" that is, "I believe it because it is absurd." These are not exactly Tertullian's words, but this sentence nicely summarizes his thought. Tertullian was using absurdity as a weapon against the old paradigm. He was an apostate, a revolutionary, a subversive.

Rethinking about those ancient times, it is impressive to note how similar they are to the paradigm breakdown of our times which is often expressed in terms of what we call "conspiracy theories". Up to no long ago, the breakdown against the old cultural vision was expressed in complex and structured ideological forms: communism or socialism for instance. But what we are seeing now is nothing structured or complex. It is simply  the denial of everything that could give the impression of being "scientifically demonstrated". From chemtrails to climategate, we see the spreading of an attitude based on the concept that "if it is science, then it is a hoax." If Tertullian were alive today, his search for the creative absurdity would be expresses,  perhaps, maintaining that the planes flying above us are spreading terrible poisons over the atmosphere or that the idea of that human produced CO2 is warming the planet is an elaborate hoax designed to frighten us.

It is weird; sure. But for everything that exists, there is a reason for it to exist. That is true also for conspiracy theories, now and in old times. At the time of Tertullian, the material prosperity of Rome and of the Romans was often seen as the result of the favor of the Pagan Gods. When this prosperity disappeared, it was a shock: the old Gods didn't favor Rome any more. The result was a movement of ideas that saw the ancient gods as "evil," just as those people who kept worshiping them. We remember the story of the pagan philosopher, Hypatia, killed and dismembered by an angry mob. That happened a couple of centuries after Tertullian, when the break between the new and the old paradigm was not any more the domain of isolated subversives; it had become a wave of rage - a true tsunami.

Today, we find symptoms of exactly this kind of breakdown; of a tsunami of rage mounting in our society. Think of our prosperity: we tend to attribute it not to Pagan Gods but to our technological prowess. We worship the ability of scientists to create new and better machinery. We tell each other that any and every problem can be solved by scientists inventing a clever way out. Not enough oil? Let's drill deeper, invent better biofuels, create nuclear fusion in a bottle. Not enough food? Let's invent new fertilizers, genetically modified organisms, new pesticides. Pollution? Let's have new and better filters for car exhausts and incinerator smokestacks. Cancer? Soon we'll have the magic pill that cures it.

But now something different is happening, something unheard before. The scientists are telling us that there are no quick fixes for problems such as resource depletion and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That the more we grow, the more the problem gets serious. That we risk wiping out humankind from the planet by doing exactly the same things that we have been so proud of being able to do, so far. That we need to change our ways before it is too late.

It is the complete breakdown of the old paradigm. For most of us, it is totally disorienting to hear that we did everything wrong, and to hear it told by very people, the scientists, who had shown us how to do what we have been doing. That can only be seen as a betrayal and there is no wonder that the rage mounts against those treacherous, unfaithful, evil scientists. Such stories as the "Climategate" are signs of this rage. It is a terrible rage, something that cannot be explained except by the loss of a common frame of thought. It is a society that is losing the master-pupil relation. That is, losing wisdom, sapience, auctoritas.

When people lose wisdom, the easiest way out appears to them to find an enemy, Our new enemies seem to be the scientists. We haven't seen yet climatologists being lynched by angry mobs, as it happened to Hypatia long ago - but we seem to be getting close to something like that.  The rage of those people whom we call "conspiracy theorists" is still at the formless stage of denial of everything, but it may well develop in forms that we might describe as some sort of a new crusade where, this time, the enemies are the scientists. It would not be the first time that scientists become the target of political movements, from the times of McCarthyism in the US to the "Cultural Revolution" in China. Those movements eventually subsided, but maybe we haven't seen the anti-science rage appearing in full force, yet.

The transformation of the Roman Society from paganism to Christianity took centuries and involved all sorts of violent struggles until it settled into a new paradigm and a new sapience. A thousand years after Tertullian, the world saw that flowering of thought that we call scholastic philosophy; which involved rediscovering the old sapience and merging it with the new. We are seeing today the start of a new cycle and, in time, we will have to rediscover a new sapience and a new auctoritas. What we see today obscurely, as in a mirror, then we'll see face to face.

(thanks to Ludovico Pernazza for pointing out a mistake in this text; now corrected)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Hubbert hurdle: revisiting the Fermi Paradox


The "Orion" spaceship is pushed onwards by the detonation of nuclear bombs. It was a concept proposed in the 1950s as a way to reach the planets of the solar system in a few days and other stars in a few years. Such ships are theoretically possible but, with the amount of energy that we can manage today, is hard to think that we can assemble enough resources for building a fleet of interstellar spaceships. On the contrary, we may well be already sliding down the other side of the Hubbert curve and we may have to give up all dreams of space exploration. Could extraterrestrial civilizations do better than us? Perhaps not. It is possible that any industrial civilization based on non renewable resources would face the same problem, we are facing: collapse generated by depletion. We could call it the "Hubbert hurdle". 


When I started reading astronomy books, in the 1960s, nobody knew if there existed planets around other stars and the common view was that they were very rare. Of course, that contrasted with the main theme of the science fiction of the time, of which I was also an avid reader. The idea that planetary systems were common in the galaxy was much more fascinating than the "official" one but, at that time, it seemed to be pure fantasy. But it turns out that science fiction was absolutely right, at least on this point. We are discovering hundreds of planets orbiting around stars and the latest news are that one sun-class star out of three may have an earth-like planet in the habitable zone. Fantastic!

The measurements that are telling us of extra-solar planets cannot tell us anything about extra-solar civilizations, another typical theme of science fiction. But, if earth-like planets are common in the galaxy, then organic, carbon based life should common as well. And if life is common, intelligent life cannot be that rare. And if intelligent life is not rare, then there must exist alien civilizations out there. With 100 billion stars in our galaxy, we may think that also on this point science fiction might have been right. Could the galaxy be populated with alien civilizations?

Here, however, we have a well known problem called the "Fermi Paradox". If all those civilizations exist, then could they develop interstellar travel? And, in this case, if there are so many of them, why aren't they here? Of course, for all we known the speed of light remains an impassable barrier. But, even at speeds slower than light, nothing physical prevents a spaceship from crossing the galaxy from end to end in a million year or even less. Since our galaxy is more than 10 billion years old, intelligent aliens would have had plenty of time to explore and colonize every star in the galaxy, jumping from one to another. But we don't see aliens around and that's the paradox. The consequence seems to be that we are alone as sentient beings in the galaxy, perhaps in the whole universe. So, we seem to be back to some old models of the solar system that told us that we are exceptional. Once, we were told that we are exceptional because planets are rare, now it may be because civilizations are rare. But why?

On this point we should look back at some assumptions that are behind the Fermi paradox. The basic one is that there exist intelligent civilizations, of course, but there is another one that says that civilizations move along a path of progressive expansion that leads them towards the control of higher and higher levels of energy. If you think about that, this is a typical result of the way of thinking of the 1950s, when the "atomic age" had just started and people saw as obvious that we would hop from one source of energy to another. We would leave fossil fuels soon to move to nuclear fission. From there, we would move to nuclear fusion and then to who knows what. This progression is crucial for the Fermi paradox to make sense: of course it takes a lot of energy to embark in a gigantic task such as interstellar exploration and civilization. An estimate for the minimum power needed is of of around 1000 terawatts (TW) as an order of magnitude. It is just a guess, but it has some logic. The whole power installed today on our planet is of the order of 15 TW and the most we could do was to explore the planets of our system, and even that rather sporadically.

So, the Fermi paradox  requires that alien civilization would follow more or less the same route that was seen as laid out for us in the 1950s. They would start from fossil fuels, then move to various forms of nuclear energy. Up to a certain point, it is not a bad model. It is likely that extrasolar "earth-like" or "superearth" planets would have an active plate tectonics and, if they develop life, that would lead to the formation of fossil fuels as the result of the sedimentation and burial of organic matter. Then, we may assume that intelligent aliens would operate according to economic principles
similar to the ones that govern our behavior, that is they would tend to use the highest energy yield resources and therefore use fossil fuels as the start for their industrial civilization.

Fossil fuels, however, are an energy source too weak and too polluting to use for interstellar travel. An extrasolar planet might well be better endowed than ours, but that would not help. The limits for our aliens would be the same as they are for us: either depletion or the saturation of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases (and perhaps both). But the limit with fossil fuels is more subtle than that and it is related to the Hubbert model which says that the pattern of energy production of a non renewable resource is highly non linear and follows a "bell shaped" curve.


The  model is based on the concept that energy production grows depending on the energy yield of the resource (energy return on energy invested, EROEI). The higher the EROEI the faster the resource is exploited. As the best (highest EROEI) resources are exploited first, the EROEI declines and eventually affects the ability of extracting more resource. Production reaches a peak and then declines. The result is the typical, bell shaped, Hubbert curve. If, in addition, the resource being exploited produces significant pollution, decline will be usually faster than growth, that is the curve will be asymmetric and skewed forward (this I have called the "Seneca effect"). The curve is general for all non-renewable resources, although it is most often applied to fossil fuels.

Tim O'Reilly may have been the first to note, in 2008, that the Hubbert curve may be relevant for the Fermi paradox. Because of the non linearity of the curve, no matter what resources are being used, a civilization literally "flares up" and then subsides, being able to maintain the highest level of energy production only for a very short time. This phenomenon that we might call "The Hubbert Hurdle" may be very general and make industrial civilizations in the galaxy to be very short-lived. The decline associated with depletion and with pollution may rapidly bring a civilization back to stone age, from which it will never be able to develop again a sophisticated technology. That is an especially difficult hurdle if the Seneca behavior sets in (maybe we could call it the "Seneca hurdle"). In any case, this effect strongly limits the life-span of a civilization.

Note how this model is different from the view of the 1950s. In the 1950s, we believed in a continuous expansion of energy production, "hopping" from source to source was seen as a smooth process. But the Hubbert model says hopping to a new source is, instead, a dramatic hurdle and success is by no means guaranteed. We may well have failed our attempt to hop to the "next level", seen as nuclear fission. With the decline of fossil power, it may be too late to gather sufficient resources to invest in nuclear energy. Intelligent aliens might do better than us in gathering these resources, but the Hubbert hurdle remains a major problem. One problem with nuclear energy is that it creates a particularly disastrous form of pollution: nuclear war. The possibility that alien civilizations would routinely destroy themselves as they entered their atomic age is something that Isaac Asimov proposed in his 1957 short story "The Gentle Vultures." But, suppose that it doesn't happen. Can nuclear fission provide enough energy for interstellar travel? Most likely not.

Uranium and thorium, fissile elements, are extremely rare in the universe. For what we know, they are accumulated at levels that can provide a good EROEI only on earth-like planets which have an active plate tectonics. On bodies such as the Moon and the asteroids, uranium exists in extremely tiny amounts, of the order of parts per billion and that makes extracting it an impossible task. It is unlikely that an alien rocky planet could have much more uranium than we have on ours. So, let's make a quick calculation. Today, nuclear fission is generating a power of about 0.3 TW on our planet. We said that for expanding in the galaxy we need something of the order of 1000 TW. That's a far target for us, considering that, with the limited uranium resources available, we are not even sure that we'll be able to keep active the present fleet of nuclear reactors in the coming years. We could expand these resources to non fissionable isotopes of uranium and thorium if we were able to develop "breeder" reactors. In that case, an optimistic estimate has that the uranium mineral resources could last for "30.000 years" at the present rate of consumption. Maybe, but if we were to reach 1000 TW, we would run out of uranium in 10 years. This number gives us a rough estimate of the time span that a civilization could sustain at a power large enough to permit interstellar space travel: tens or perhaps hundreds of years, but not much more. Such a civilization could, in principle, generate a large spike of energy production but then it would have to quickly decline back to zero for lack of fuel resources. It is, again, the Hubbert hurdle at work.

So we arrive now to nuclear fusion, the poster child of the Atomic Age. Fusion can use hydrogen isotopes and hydrogen is the most abundant element of the universe. The idea that was common in the 1950s is that with fusion we would have had energy "too cheap to meter", so abundant that we could have had week-ends on the moon for the whole family. Well, things turned out to be much more difficult than they seemed to be. In more than half a century of attempts, we have never been able to get more energy from a fusion process than we pumped into it. Even “fusion bombs” are actually fusion enhanced fission bombs. Maybe there is some trick that we can't see now to get nuclear fusion working; maybe we are just dumber than the average galactic civilization. We might also maintain, however, that there simply isn't a way for fusion to be obtained with an energy gain outside stars. Of course, we can't say, but the Fermi Paradox could be telling us, actually, "look, controlled nuclear fusion is NOT possible."

Of course, there are other possibilities for a civilization to develop powerful sources of energy. For instance, think of black holes. If you can control a small black hole, throwing anything into it will generate a lot of energy that could be used for interstellar travel. Black holes are very difficult to control and a civilization using this technology would face the ultimate pollution problem: the creation of a black hole big enough that it would gobble everything around, including the civilization that created it. In any case, even black holes are subjected to the Hubbert Hurdle, as you keep throwing matter into them, you gradually run out of it. A civilization based on black holes would flare up very rapidly and then disappear, leaving nothing except black holes.

Clearly, we are entering a realm of speculation but the point I wanted to make with this post is that the Hubbert mechanism generates a short lifespan for a civilization based on non-renewable resources. It also generates dramatic problems in switching from a resource to another. If this is a general behavior for civilizations, then it can explain the Fermi paradox. Sentient beings may be common in our Galaxy, but their existence as industrial civilizations may be extremely short. So, we shouldn't be surprised that we don't find alien spaceships cruising around.  Perhaps we'll have a chance to get a radio signal from one of these civilizations, but that will be just like spotting another ship while crossing the ocean. There are plenty of ships crossing the ocean, but take a given moment and a specific place and it is very unlikely that one will be visible from there.

In the end, the energy source available to a planetary civilization is limited to what can be obtained from the planet's sun. That may be a lot: on Earth the total amount arriving is about 100.000 TW; which can be further increased using space installations. With that, it would be perfectly possible to arrive to those 1000 TW that we said are necessary for interstellar travel. But we have arrived to a concept completely different from the one that is at the basis of the Fermi paradox: the idea, typical of the 1950s, that a civilization keeps always expanding. A civilization based on a fixed energy source, a star, may reason and behave in completely different terms. It might concentrate on the exploitation of the star (this is the concept of the "Dyson sphere") rather than on interstellar travel.

As we move away from things we are familiar with, we find ourselves in unknown terrain. How would such a high power civilization manifest itself? What is in the universe that we can define as “natural” as opposite to “artificial”? The only thing we can say is that stars are wonderful engines: steady, powerful, reliable, and long lasting. If they were not natural, someone should have invented them..... But, of course, they are natural......yes...... I think they are......... .


Note added after publication: I discovered that John Greer had examined this subject in similar terms in 2007, (h/t Leanan)

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.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The renewable revolution - II

After that I published in "Cassandra's Legacy" a post titled "The renewable revolution" I was surprised at discovering that many of the commenters reacted negatively to it, taking for granted the fact that renewables, in the form of photovoltaics or wind, "have a low EROEI" and, as a consequence, are unable to exist without a subsidy from fossil fuels. This view has its origins in the 1990s, when it was commonplace to state that "A renewable plant cannot provide enough energy to repay the energy needed to build the plant." That is, the EROEI of renewables was supposed to be smaller than one. We can find this concept, for instance, in the 2001 book by Howard Odum titled "A prosperous way down." 

Perhaps the "low EROEI" of renewables was true in the 1990s, but it is not true any longer. There are various recent estimates of the EROEIs of wind and photovoltaics; but none that I know gives values smaller than one and several give high values, for instance in the range of 30-40 for the new generation of thin film PV. With such EROEIs,  renewables are perfectly able to get on without the support of fossil fuels. If fossil fuels are used to build renewable plants, then the energy invested is returned several times; making it an excellent investment for the remaining fossil resources we have.

But that doesn't seem to be common knowledge, yet, and some people reacted aggressively to my post in a classic display of refusal of accepting new data that challenge one's established world view (e.g. one Harquebus). It seems that some people have concluded long ago that we are heading back to Middle Ages (or to the Olduvai Gorge) and that nothing can (or even should) be done to avoid it.

To keep my role of Cassandra, let me say that it is perfectly possible that we are moving towards such a destiny, but that doesn't mean it is unavoidable or that we shouldn't try to do something to avoid it. Let me also say that the fact that we can have now high EROEI renewables doesn't mean that we can keep the economy growing, it doesn't mean that we can run around in SUVs, it doesn't mean we can fly to Hawai'i every year. It only means that in the declining phase of the Hubbert curve we can keep electric power in relative abundance. As a consequence, we can keep the Internet, digital computation, worldwide communications, scientific research and many other things that could make the future substantially different than a return to Middle Ages. But, if we want that, we must invest on renewables now.

This said, I thought it was  appropriate to reproduce another very un-Cassandric post that I published on this subject on "The Oil Drum" about one year ago. Here it is.

Renewables out of the bottle

From "The Oil Drum," April 2010

There is an old zen koan that says that a baby goose was placed inside a glass bottle and raised inside it. When it was fully grown it could no longer pass through the neck of the bottle. How can we get the goose out of the bottle without breaking it? It is the concept of "satori," "revelation". It is something that shakes you out of your old views and takes you to a new vision. It happens when you see something apparently impossible suddenly coming true, like the goose in the bottle suddenly appearing outside, free. Renewables have been growing as inside a bottle so far; a bottle made of disbelief, red tape and not enough financing. It is time for a little satori in renewable energy. Renewables can hold on their own with new and more efficient technologies, in particular the CdTe thin film version which may have an EROEI of 40. With such EROEIs, we can start thinking of renewable energy as abundant and cheap. 

A few years ago, at a meeting on energy, I met a lady who turned out to be the environment minister for one of the county governments in Italy. Talking with her, I started feeling a sort of cognitive dissonance. We were using the same words: solar, wind, and the like, but with different meanings. At some point it dawned on me: she was fully convinced that renewables don't really produce any energy; that wind towers and photovoltaic plants are nice toys to make environmentalists happy but that their main purpose is to create business and transfer money from one place to another. So, she saw that her duty as environment minister was to make sure that some of the money would find its way to the goverment of her region, in exchange for the permission they gave to build the plants.

I can't really fault this lady for the way she had understood the situation; not after I have seen expensive "cash for clunkers" programs being implemented in Italy and elsewhere. If a government is willing to pay cash for destroying perfectly good cars in the name of the environment, one wouldn't be surprised if wind turbines were to turn out to be little more than souped up lava lamps. Machines that turn and turn, but produce nothing.

This is an attitude that I have often seen in politicians and the public alike: renewables are nice toys, but little more. When it is time to get serious, you need something real. You can't produce energy without burning something. You need a smokestack, somewhere, that's why you need coal, or oil, or gas. That explains another story I was told: that of the national minister of industry who was shown an electric heater (about 1 kW) powered by a 300 kW photovoltaic plant and who refused to believe what he was seeing. "Where is the trick?" he kept asking. No smokestack, no energy, apparently. You can't power the world with little blue squares facing the sun or with propellers that turn in the wind, sometimes.

Even promoters of renewables seem to see renewable energy as at best a marginal source. Most environmentalits seem to think that the right way to go is energy saving. That's the real, untapped energy source that we need to exploit. This is a respectable opinion, but I think it doesn't take into account the real potential of renewables. And that potential is truly gigantic: think of the amount of sunlight that arrives on earth everyday - you probably have heard that it is almost 10,000 times larger than the primary energy we produce today (see here ). So, what prevents us from using it? Once you start thinking about the possibilities, you may experience a little satori , an illumination where you see renewable energy suddenly breaking free out of the bottle. Renewables can provide as much energy as we need and it doesn't have to be expensive. After all, sunlight and wind are free and there is plenty of both.

But even a Zen satori has to be based on some good physics when it is about energy. And, when talking renewables, the good physics is mostly contained in the concept of EROEI - energy returned for energy invested. It is the ratio of the energy that a plant can produce over its lifetime divided by the energy needed to build it, maintain it, and dismantle it when its useful life is over. A good energy source must have an EROEI larger than one; obviously. But that is not enough; it must have an energy much larger than one if it has to provide that surplus that we need to keep up what we call "civilization".

Now, if you look at Charles Hall's balloon graph with a list of EROEIs for various sources, you'll probably think that there is not much hope for renewables. In the graph, the EROEI of PV is given as under 10 and that of wind as under 20. The graph is dominated by the blue balloon of "Oil, domestic, 1930") which is rated as having EROEI= 100. If our economy has been built on oil and if oil's EROEI is so large (or, at least it was at that time) then we can't expect that renewables could substitute oil and fossil fuels. Renewables, it seems, are a marginal source at best and surely can't give us back the good times of old.

But things move on. Charlie Hall's graph is already outdated in some points. The EROEI of renewables is increasing, it is actually shooting up. Realizing how fast that is happening was a little satori for me, not more than a few months ago. It came when I found a 2007 paper by Raugei, Bargigli and Ulgiati that evaluated the LCA of various photovoltaic technologies (See the references at the end). Then, the same authors published another paper in 2009 and in a few years the change has been remarkable. They don't report the EROEIs directly, but these can be approximately calculated from the values of the EPBT (energy payback time). I discussed the results with one of the authors, Marco Raugei (incidentally, a former student of mine), and we arrived to the conclusion that, in favorable conditions of illumination (1700 kWh/(m2*year) and assuming a lifetime of 30 years, polycrystalline silicon has an EROEI of 15, while CdTe thin film cells have an EROEI of 40. 

Now, tell me if this is not enough for a good satori. An EROEI of 40? And that with a "state of the art" system? Yes, with CdTe cells that you can buy on the market! I can almost hear the objections - that I am too optimistic, that the EROEI depends on the initial assumptions, and how about intermittency, and don't you know that we passed peak tellurium? And so on. But let me discuss these objections in a note at the end of this post. For the time being, let's take this large value of the EROEI as a working hypothesis and let's see how we got there and what are the perspectives.

First of all, this high EROEI is the result of a breakthrough in thin film cells. There are many ways of making thin film cells; the advantage is that the amount of material needed is very small and that reduces the cost. The problem is that in some cases it is the manufacturing of the cells that is expensive; requiring, for instance, vacuum processing. In other cases, making the cell may be cheap, but it is the efficiency of light conversion that is low; that's the case of many kinds of organic cells. The low efficiency of the cells increases the cost of the installation (called "BOS", "balance of system") because larger areas are needed.

So far, thin film cells have been either too expensive or too inefficient (or both). However, in the past few years, CdTe (cadmium telluride) cells have reached conversion efficiencies of the order of 11% and that has led to a commercial boom all over the world. A breakthrough, indeed, compounded by further advantages of the CdTe technology: that of being less sensitive than silicon cells to high temperatures, and that of being more efficient in capturing diffuse light. First Solar , the company that makes CdTe cells, is now the second largest producer of solar cells in the world, with a yearly production corresponding to about 1.2 GW peak power. Plans have been announced for reaching 1.8 GW by 2012.

So, we aren't yet at the EROEI = 100 of oil in the 1930s, but the progress in this area has been remarkable. And if PV based on CdTe can have an EROEI of 40, what prevents us from getting much higher values, using the same or other thin film PV technologies? And not just photovoltaic cells are susceptible of breakthroughs. Not long ago, I had another satori when I reviewed the situation with Airborne Wind Energy (AWE) and in particular the implementation called Kitegen. Here, we are talking of prototypes still under costruction, but the simulations are extremely promising - the EROEI could well be over 100 .

At these EROEI levels, well, the goose is really out of the bottle (and the bottle is not broken). Of course we can't yet claim that the energy problem is solved. We may have high EROEI renewable sources, but we still have to build up the infrastructure needed to build and deploy the plants; we need to build up a "smart grid" system that can manage power production in such a way to overcome the intermittency problem; we need also to restructure our economy in such a way that it can use electric power instead of fossil fuels for such things as transportation. It can be done, but it is not at all obvious that it can be done before running out of the resources needed for doing it, that is of fossil fuels. But it is not impossible. It is a fighting chance, but it is there.


Note: The calculation of the EROEI depends on where exactly you take the "boundaries" of the system and that we still don't have rules on this point (see this paper by Charles Hall ). But as long as we compare different technologies then we can compare the relative EROEIs and that has a meaning if the same methodologies have been applied; which is the case here. About PV in general, I know that we need to take into account the question of storage, but that is very often overstated and PV is not supposed to be the only technology used for energy production. PV would be embedded in a mix of different sources over large areas that would compensate each other. The concept of of "smart grid" would provide the necessary management of the energy produced and consumed. Then, I know that the value of EROEI=40 it is obtained under rather optimistic assumptions: that the plant is located in a well irradiated area (e.g. Southern Europe or North Africa) and that it has a lifetime of 30 years. Optimistic, perhaps, but realistic as well. You CAN place these plants in Southern Europe, North Africa or Southern US and their lifetime can exceed thirty years if they are decently maintained. So, we are not talking futuristic applications - it is reality. Then, there are other objections that one can make to CdTe technology; that it needs the rare element tellurium, that cadmium is toxic and what happens in case of fire; etc. All reasonable objections, but notice that these very problems imply that there is a tremendous stimulus to recover and recycle the materials used. Finally, if one thin film technology can be made commercial, it is reasonable to think that there are more that can reach the same level.


References

"Life cycle assessment and energy pay-back time of advanced photovoltaic modules: CdTe and CIS compared to poly-Si", by Marco Raugei, Silvia Bargiglia and Sergio Ulgiati at Energy Volume 32, Issue 8, August 2007, Pages 1310-1318

"Update of PV energy payback times and life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions" V. Fthenakis, H.C. Kim, M. Held, M. Raugei and J. Krones, 24th European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference, 21-25 September 2009, Hamburg, Germany
>

Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)