Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The problem with mining

Table courtesy of Steven Rocco.

The image above is one of the best illustrations of the real problem we have with mining. As it was said already with the 1972 study "The Limits to Growth" we are NOT running out of anything. What we are running out of is the resources needed for mining, facing increasing fuel costs and diminishing ore grades.

So, in the table created by Steven Rocco, you see how the cost of diesel fuel used in gold extraction has nearly doubled during the past four years, arriving, at present, to represent about 10% of the market price of gold. We can still afford to mine gold, but the writing is on the wall and not just for gold. The cost of extraction is increasing for all mineral commodities, including fossil fuels, as an unavoidable result of progressive depletion. Obviously, that's not good news for the world's economy, and the increasing expenses needed for extraction are one of the reasons of the present economic troubles.

The question of depletion is the main theme of my new book "Extracted," published by Chelsea Green and expected to be available in May of this year.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Italy's slow collapse: how declining energy consumption affects GdP

This graph compares the historical consumption of oil and gas in Italy (summed together in energy units, Terajoules) and the decline in GdP (in constant 2000 US$). The data for Italy's GdP are from Index Mundi, updated to 2012 and 2013 (est.) from ISTAT.  The data for oil + gas consumption are from BP Statistical review of world energy. Conversion factors for oil and gas: 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas (bcf) = 1.1E3 TJ and 1 barrel of crude oil = 6.1E-3 TJ

As an integration of a previous post, where I was discussing the trends in oil and gas consumption in Italy, here is a comparison with the historical trends of the gross domestic product (GdP). As you can see, the GdP has started a clear trend of decline, after having peaked in 2007.

No GdP would exist without a continuous inflow of natural resources into the economy and the most important of these resources is energy. In Italy, gas and oil are by far the largest sources of primary energy (ca 77% of the total). So, qualitatively, we would expect that a decline in energy production would accompanied by a decline in GdP.

Now, the question is what causes what? That is, is the decline in GdP causing a decline in the demand and, consequently, a reduction in energy consumption? Or is the decline in energy availability that causes a decline in GdP? The data seem to favor the second hypothesis, since it is clear that "peak GdP" (2007) trails "peak hydrocarbons" (2005).

However, the concept of "cause and effect" may be misplaced in this case. Starting from the results of a paper published in "Energies" (U. Bardi and A. Lavacchi "A Simple Interpretation of the Hubbert Model" 2009), we can argue that the GdP can be seen as a proxy for the dissipation of the "capital stock" of a system where capital and resources are related in a feedback relationship. That is, capital is created in proportion to the rate of resource exploitation and resources are exploited at a rate proportional to the available capital. In the case of a non renewable resource, such as oil and gas, gradual irreversible depletion generates "Hubbert-like" (bell shaped) production curves and a peak in the rate of resource exploitation coming before the peak of capital dissipation.

In short, the economy of Italy seem to be declining as a consequence of the increasing cost (or - equivalently - declining energy returns, EROEI) of primary energy sources, mainly natural gas and crude oil. If such is the case, decline is irreversible. The only possibility to avoid this outcome is to decouple the economy from non renewable resources, generating energy using renewable ones.


Note for those who hate the concept of Gross Domestic Product, GdP. It has been said many times that GdP growth is not a worthwhile objective, since growth has little or nothing to do with quality of life and personal happiness. Fine, I agree, but we should not be confusing the concept of "growth", which we normally measure in terms of GdP and GdP itself, which does not necessarily imply growth. GdP is simply a useful measurement of the performance of an economy. Unfortunately, however, it is a fact that when GdP goes down, people tend to be very unhappy.

Note #2 (added after publication). You may be interested in a direct comparison of GdP and gas+oil consumption - which may be obtained by shifting the curve for GdP 2 years back in such a way to match the Oil+Gas peak. Here it is

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The other side of the peak: Italy's collapse of oil and gas consumption

Italy' peak oil has arrived: we are back to 1967 in terms of oil consumption.  
All the data in this post are from BP statistical review up to 2012, updated to 2013 from various sources.

Sometimes, peak oil looks like an intellectual game that people keep playing by arguing whether it has arrived or not. But the point with oil is not how much of it is produced, somewhere, but how much you can afford to use. And, for Italy, the peak of consumption has already arrived, as you can see in the figure above. It is impressive: consumption went down of more than 30% in less than 10 years. Today we are back to the levels of 1967. And, in 1967, Italy's population was around 50 million people, some ten million less than today. We really have reached the other side of the peak and we don't see the bottom of the descent.

So, why that? Simple: the reduction in oil consumption is directly linked to oil prices, as you can see here:

If you like to plot prices versus production, here are the results:

In short, the Italian economy can afford to grow its oil consumption when oil costs less than about 20 dollars per barrel (in today's dollars), it remains stable as long as oil is at less than ca. 40 dollars per barrel and it collapses when oil prices go above that level.

I am sure that now you are wondering about how's life in Italy with one third of oil consumption gone. You would expect empty roads, deserted towns, and a general post-holocaust atmosphere. Well, no; that's not the case. I can tell you that it is hard to see big changes in everyday life in Italy. In particular, at rush hour in town, the streets look jammed with cars as ever. From what I hear from friends and acquaintances, the situation is the same for all large towns in Italy.

But arriving to the conclusion that there are no problems in Italy would mean to make the same mistake that our former prime minister made a few years ago, when he said that Italy had no economic problems because "restaurants are full". Restaurants are not the economy and city streets at rush hour are not the country's transportation system. And there is no doubt that transportation is in trouble if we measure it in terms of km traveled. Here are the data (courtesy of Massimo de Carlo at "Mondo Elettrico"). The blue curve is for light vehicles, mainly cars, violet is for trucks, and red is all vehicles. Data from AISCAT, updated to 2012.

We see that the transportation system managed to cope - more or less - with the reduced oil supply until about 2008-2010. The peak in km traveled came later than the peak in oil consumption and the decline has been less pronounced: less than 10% for cars and about 15% for trucks. So, it makes sense that the loss of traffic is not clearly noticeable in towns, especially during rush hours. People have probably cut the non strictly necessary travels and it seems that they are still able to use their cars for everyday transportation. They could do that in large part by switching their cars to natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas as fuels. In part also by switching to more efficient cars, although small and hybrid cars in Italy seem to be vastly outnumbered by SUVs.

So, it seems that the main factor in counteracting the decline in oil consumption, up to a certain point, has been an increase in natural gas consumption. That has been a historical trend not just in terms of vehicle fuels, but for a variety of applications. You can see the story in the following figure:


Around 2006, gas consumption peaked and generated "peak hydrocarbons" in Italy. Afterward, consumption has been rapidly declining; much faster than growth. It is a behavior that I termed the "Seneca Collapse". Italy may have the dubious honor of being the first major Western economy to experience this kind of collapse in modern times.

So, what's going to happen, now, on this side of the peak? Difficult to say, but if the Seneca collapse continues, in the coming years it is unlikely that we'll be still seeing traffic jams at rush hour (and restaurants full of people).

Monday, January 20, 2014

Real gold? Are you sure? An examination of modern gold counterfeiting

Stacks of gold bars stored in the bank of England (from the Daily Mail). An impressive display of wealth, with only one small problem: can we be completely sure that all that glitters is real gold?

In life, I've discovered that there exist laws describing human behavior that seem to be as strong and inflexible as the laws of physics. One, that I call the "second law," says that if there is a chance to cheat, someone will (the first law is the well known one, "there ain't no such a thing as a free lunch). The second law of human behavior may hold in particular with the ancient human activity called "counterfeiting", in particular of money and precious metals.

The advantage of gold as currency has always been that it was very difficult to counterfeit. From the time when Archimedes screamed "Eureka!" in his bathtub because he had found a way to test the gold content of his king's crown, it was known that gold was much denser than anything else known. So, a good scale was all what was needed to discover if something was real gold, or it just glittered like gold.

But, today, things have changed: we have something that ancient gold counterfeiters couldn't even dream of: tungsten with a density almost exactly the same as that of gold and that makes density measurements nearly useless. Since gold costs almost a thousand times more than tungsten (ca. $ 40,000 per kg against about $ 50 per kg) you can understand that there is a lot of incentive for the second law to play a role, here: with a chance to cheat, someone will.

I spent some time looking into this matter and I can tell you that, yes, there may be problems with gold counterfeiting with tungsten nowadays (in minor measure, also with silver). Not so bad as some people say, but not to be underestimated.  There follows what I found - it is based on some 30 years of experience in materials science, but it doesn't claim to be the last word on the subject. If you know more details or you have different data, let me know. One of the things that I have learned in life (in addition to the second law of human behavior) is that you never finish learning.

1. Counterfeiting gold bullion.

The term "bullion" applies to nearly 100% pure (or "100% fineness") gold. Bullion ingots and bars come in different sizes: the typical kind traded between banks or governments comes in the "400 oz." size (corresponding to 12.4 kg). One such bar is worth today around half a million dollars. Ordinary people won't normally ever see one such bar, except in pictures. But gold bullion is commercialized in variable sizes and there exist much smaller ones, for instance ingots as small as just one gram. Dealers and goldsmiths also trade gold in the form of non standard bars or of foil, wire, and grains. In all cases, assaying methods are normally able to determine the fineness of the gold, but tricks with tungsten are possible and sometimes not easily detectable. There are two of these tricks, both are reported to have been actually used.

Gold plated tungsten bars and ingots. The start is with a pure tungsten bar. Such bars need special equipment to be made, but seem to be available on the market, although it seems that counterfeiters also use tungsten carbide (TiC) or "Tungsten Heavy Alloy" (WHA). These materials are almost as dense as pure tungsten, but easier to manufacture by powder sintering in the form of massive bars. Then, counterfeiters wrap the tungsten in gold foil 1-2 mm thick and then weld the two contacting surfaces by high temperature treatment. It is also necessary to treat the object in such a way to remove the "seam" were the edges of the wrapping foil touch each other, but that can be done with good welding skills. The final result is an object that is pure gold in the first few mm, but pure tungsten (perhaps carbide) below. The gold layer is thick enough that it can be stamped and punched as if it were solid gold all the way inside. Apparently, you can also buy these gold plated bars already made! The final result can mislead even experts if they limit themselves to visual examination and weighing. Also, the gold plating is thick enough that it makes the underlying tungsten undetectable to most common assaying methods such as X-ray fluorescence. There are only a few ways to detect the scam. Ultrasonic testing should work, although it may not be enough. Then, if the tungsten is in the form of carbide or WHA, it could be detected by a strong magnet, since both contain small amounts of magnetic metals (typically nickel), but the magnet would detect nothing if the tungsten is in pure metallic form. In practice, the only way to be sure of the scam is by drilling a hole in the object. That will immediately reveal the hard and dark colored tungsten inside. For a report of this counterfeiting method having been actually used, see here 

Tungsten bars buried in gold ingots/bars. It is done by inserting one or more tungsten bars/billets in a gold ingot or bar. It can be done while the gold is being melted in a crucible, or it can be done drilling a hole in the gold ingot, hammering in the tungsten bar, then plugging the hole with a pure gold plug and welding everything in order to obtain a smooth surface. In this case, the tungsten may be only a fraction of the gold, nevertheless it provides a nice profit for the scammer who has succeeded, in a way, in the feat of transforming a vile metal into gold. This trick is very difficult to detect because even drilling a hole in the ingot doesn't guarantee to find the foreign object inside. You need to slice the ingot salami style, or remelt it. However, ultrasonic examination will immediately detect that there is something wrong inside. For a report of this counterfeiting method having been used, see here.

2.  Counterfeited gold coins.  

Gold coins are a popular form of gold trading, diffuse among private owners. Their weight may go between 1 oz to 1/10 oz. They are rarely pure gold because they would be too soft, more typically they contain slightly more than 90% gold in weight, that is they rate as "22 carats".

There are standard and well known ways to counterfeit gold coins: the substrate can be made in brass or silver and then coated with a thin layer of gold - it can be done electrochemically. These fake coins are easily detected simply by weighing them: brass and silver are much less dense than gold. But, as I said before, tungsten has the same weight of pure gold, so if the substrate is in tungsten, weighing is useless to detect the scam. The problem, here, is how to manufacture a believable tungsten coin to be later coated with gold. Metallic tungsten is extremely hard - stamping a tungsten disk with an ordinary press simply wouldn't work. Perhaps it could be done with special and expensive equipment and maybe by hot-forming tungsten carbide or WHA. Both methods would be very expensive and require remarkable expertise. However, assuming that it could be done, the tungsten coins could be electroplated with gold and would have the right weight for a real gold coin. The trick could be detected only by expensive equipment such as X-ray diffraction. At home, the scam could be detected only by scratching the surface with a file to see the dark color below. But that could also ruin a perfectly good coin.

Do such coins actually exist? I think not. I searched the Web but there is no hard evidence of real tungsten coins anywhere. Sure, there are web sites which purportedly sell you gold plated tungsten coins. But I just don't believe that: what gives the game away, in my opinion, is that they only sell already plated coins. They don't even show pictures of the coins before plating. If they had unplated tungsten coins, they should be happy to sell them to people who would then plate them at home - that's the easy part (and possibly the illegal one) of the counterfeiting job. So, if you shell out the $1000 (the minimum that I found is needed) to buy the advertised coins, then you'll probably receive just the ordinary kind of gold plated brass coins. Of course, you would complain. Sure, and then?

On the whole, I think that gold plated tungsten coins are just a legend and not something to be worried about; at least for the time being.

3. Fake Jewellery. 

Jewels come in a wide variety of shapes; rarely at grades higher than 18 carats (75% gold in weight). Since there are so many varieties and so few standards, it is with jewels that counterfeiters have traditionally found their favorite playground. There are zillions of ways to make fake gold jewels and counterfeiters are helped by the fact that often we have composite objects for which it is difficult to make precise density measurements. Nevertheless, in some cases, such as for a simple ring, it is possible to tell if a jewel is gold plated brass or silver simply by weighing it and measuring its density. The problem is, again, with a tungsten substrate. Weighing, in this case, is useless.

Here, I think scams could exist. Search in the Web for "tungsten jewelry" and you'll find many companies selling you tungsten jewels, especially in the form of rings (actually, they are usually made in tungsten carbide). These jewels are real: they are shown in pictures and there are reports of people having bought them. Of course, there is nothing illegal in selling tungsten carbide rings and bracelets; although most of us would find them a little dull. The problem is that someone could plate them with gold and sell them as if they were pure gold. The weight would be the right one for 18 carats gold and even experts could be fooled. I wouldn't be surprised if it were actually done (remember the second law of human behavior!). However, for the time being, there don't seem to exist reports of people having been sold gold plated tungsten jewelry as it were real gold. It may be because it is still a new idea. In this case, we'll see such reports appearing soon. 

5. Silver counterfeiting

All what I was saying about gold can be said for silver as well. Traditionally, silver coins and bullion have been counterfeited using brass as substrate. But the scam is easily detected using a scale. So, in modern times, counterfeiters could use molybdenum rather than tungsten, as molybdenum ("moly", for friends) has about the same density as silver. Also here, it is probably possible to make fake silver ingots, bars, coins and jewels with the same technologies described for gold. The problem for the counterfeiter is that the monetary gain is much smaller: silver is worth much less than gold, while moly still costs about 1/10 of silver by weight. So, it is not obvious that all the work and the effort to replace silver with moly is worthwhile. Since there are no reliable reports of this kind of scam being actually done, I think it must be very rare - if it exists at all. So far, silver seems to be relatively safe.

6 - Defending yourself from gold and silver scams.

The defense against the kind of scams we have been discussing here depends on who you are and on what kind of resources you have. If you are a bank, you probably already have expensive and sophisticated gold assaying equipment and you feel safe (but don't forget the second law!). If you are a mafia boss, you know what to do with the cheaters who sold you counterfeited gold. If you are an ordinary person, however, you can't afford sophisticated equipment and you don't have henchmen who'll send the cheater to sleep with the fishes. You have to do your best with simple equipment and good common sense. In this case, I think I can suggest the following:

1. Buy thin. Thin objects (such as coins or small ingots) are difficult (and probably impossible) to fake with tungsten and molybdenum. That will defend you from most of the modern scams we have been discussing here.

2. Learn how to measure density. It is easy (see, e.g., here) and all what you need is a good electronic scale that will cost you less than $ 50. You can also use scales specifically designed to test gold coins. These methods can't detect tungsten, but they will defend you from old style scams (brass in the place of silver and silver in the place of gold). Note, however, that these measurements become difficult for very small objects, let's say under 5 grams.

3. Get a strong magnet to test your gold - it is a good idea in particular for jewelry. You can buy extra-strong rare earth magnets for a few dollars over the Web. If your gold doesn't stick to the magnet, that doesn't necessarily mean it is real gold but if it does surely there is something badly wrong with it. This test should reveal scams done with steel and also with tungsten carbide or WHA, which contain magnetic elements such as nickel. (silver is a somewhat different matter, as it is slightly attracted by strong magnetic fields)

4. Never forget the second law of human behavior: "if there is a chance to cheat, someone will."

7. Large scale counterfeiting

On the whole, it seems that there is little to be worried about for an ordinary person who buys small amounts of precious metals, especially if one takes some elementary precautions. However, this story leaves us with the impression that, with the advent of tungsten, gold has lost some of its glitter.

The problem is that the temptation of faking a large gold bar is strong: replacing a 300 or 400 oz bar with one in tungsten means making a few hundred thousand dollars with a relatively modest effort. And the scam is difficult to detect: if the bar rests in the vault of a bank or of a government facility, it may well stay there for decades before anyone will test it in ways that could detect the tungsten inside. Not surprisingly, it has been done; even at the level of National Banks. I have also reports from sources which I consider reliable in the gold industry telling me that the actual cases of tungsten scams are much more common than it would seem from what the media report. Yes, there are nice rules that should prevent such occurrences, such as the Gold Good Delivery standard. But all certifications are made by people, and people can be corrupted - especially when we are talking of millions of dollars. Remember the second law of human behavior: "if there is a chance to cheat, someone will"

Does that mean that, as some people said, the gold bars stored in Fort Knox are all in tungsten? Well, I think not, but pause just a moment to think: if they were fake, how would we know?

Friday, January 17, 2014

Photovoltaic energy already competitive without incentives in Europe

Ugo Bardi's solar panels on the roof of his home

The journal section "Energy Systems and Policy," published in Frontiers in Energy Research, is a new, open access journal that aims at publishing high quality papers also by means of an innovative peer review process. The journal has just started its activity but such good papers seem to be already flowing in. Here is a summary of Luis De Sousa's recent paper on Frontiers, as described in his blog "At The Edge of Time". The gist of the paper is that falling costs have made photovoltaics already competitive with traditional suppliers. The result is that the support measures put in place by many European governments have done their job: now PV energy is expected to start a phase of growth as off-grid, stand alone systems.

The full paper by Luis de Sousa is available open access on Frontiers in Energy Systems and Policy. Published by Frontiers in energy research

Photovoltaics: new policy challenges for Europe

by Luis de Sousa

"Photovoltaics: new policy challenges for Europe" is the title of an article of my authorship published by the Frontiers in Energy Systems and Policy journal. The abstract:
After the turn of the century governments across Europe set in place a series of programmes to expand investment on grid-connected solar power technology, especially photovoltaics (PV). But in face of rapidly declining costs most of these programmes have been tapered in recent months. Using a simple cost model this article shows that PV technologies can indeed supply electricity to the grid for less than 0.10 €/kWh in large swaths of the continent, apparently justifying this policy change. However, the roll back of fixed rates to PV suppliers will likely result in a market structure close to perfect competition, where profits are not expectable and the price should fall towards marginal generation cost: 0 €/kWh. Due to the scalable nature of PV, many consumers in Europe are now able to produce their own electricity at a cost considerably lower than the rates demanded by grid utilities. Investment on PV is thus set to continue in spite of recent policy changes, but henceforth on off-the-grid systems, conceived for self consumption. Long term this trend presents serious challenges to utilities and traditional electricity suppliers, putting at stake the existing electricity market framework.
This article continues and formalises my recent work on Photovoltaics in Europe, in particular its potential impacts on the electricity market. The roll back of feed-in-tariffs (FIT) seems justified by the rapid decline in PV modules and installation prices. However, this may have unintended consequences that I try to explore.

In this article I used the Solar Power Cost Calculator (SPCC) to compute maps of PV electricity cost in Europe, that put this question into a geographic perspective. Electricity at competitive prices is now a possibility in large swaths of the continent.

I then present an overview of the Perfect Concurrency (or Perfect Competition) concept, pointing out that most of its conceptual characteristics are met by an electricity market with large numbers of small suppliers. This supports the hypothesis that without FIT PV investors will have no incentive to connect their systems to the grid, rather using the electricity for self consumption.

Using the results from the SPCC and electricity rates to consumers I computed anther map portraying the gap between the cost of a Wh generated by a PV system and that of a Wh tapped from the grid. Half a dozen member states already exhibit gaps over 0.10 €/kWh, with another half also in positive territory.

These results lead to a reflection on several open challenges: (a) the smart grid concept, (b) scaling tools and methods for off-the-gird systems, (c) the future structure of the electrical grid and (d) unexpected impacts from storage technology developments.

All journals hosted by Frontiers are published in open access and thus the article is available to the public in its entirety.
The full citation:

de Sousa L (2013) Photovoltaics: new policy challenges for Europe. Front. Energy Res. 1:7. doi: 10.3389/fenrg.2013.00007

Friday, January 10, 2014

Gaia: you ain't seen nothing yet

The magnificent lady
who gathers up the divine powers of heaven and earth
and rivals great An,
is mightiest among the great gods.
She makes their verdicts final

(from the electronic text corpus of Sumerian Literature)

A review of the book by Tim Lenton and Andrew Watson "Revolutions that made the earth" (Oxford 2011)

The authors of "Revolutions that made the earth" start from the very beginning with mentioning the name of Gaia for the subject of their book; the story of the Earth's ecosystem. Some people see Gaia as a living being, some as a benevolent goddess, some as a tangle of feedbacks, and others think she just doesn't exist. Yet, out there, there is a pattern, there is a logic. The ecosystem, (aka "Gaia") is there to do something - it is there to dissipate entropy at the fastest possible rate. And it (She) does it very creatively, by means of the endless variety of things and creatures we see around us. We are just starting to understand how exactly this gigantic system works and how it (She) has changed over  the eons. It is perhaps the most fascinating story ever told - and it is not yet concluded.

If you know something of this multi-billion year story, you can't but feel sorry for the poor clods who think that the whole issue of climate change reduces to such silly statements as "climate is always changing". The Earth's climate, indeed, has been always changing, but always for some reason. And it is changing now very fast for a reason we understand: the human caused emissions of greenhouse gases. It is a change occurring way too fast for the planetary mechanisms that normally stabilize climate to intervene. The results could be very bad for human beings but Gaia doesn't care for humans. She simply survives.   

Unfortunately, humans don't seem to understand the mess they have put themselves in with their carbon emissions. One reason is that the Gaian climate mechanisms are described in scientific papers hidden behind publishers' paywalls and written in obscure and forbidding language. For the non initiate, learning the history of Earth and of its climate from academic papers is not unlike deciphering the hymn of the earth goddess Inanna (an earlier name for Gaia) from Sumerian cuneiform tablets. But the scientific knowledge about Gaia is starting to trickle down from the rarefied world of academia to the real world of ordinary people and the book "Revolutions that made the earth" gives you at least a fighting chance to learn the basics of the subject.

"Revolutions" is written in plain English, not in cuneiform, and the authors made a remarkable effort to be clear and understandable by the layman. That doesn't mean it is an easy book and Lenton and Watson are alerting the reader that "The book covers terrain that ranges in difficulty from easy to strenuous." They are right: sometimes you have the feeling that deciphering cuneiform could be easier than deciphering some sections of this book. That's probably unavoidable: Gaia is a complex system, one of the most complex systems we know of. As for all things which are important and fascinating, learning about the ways of the Goddess requires (and deserves) time and attention.

But if you let yourself to be taken in by the story that the authors of "Revolutions" are telling, well, you don't have to go into the most complicated details (say, the question of the mass independent fractionation of sulphur isotopes). And what a story they are telling! It spans four billion years and went through a series of dramatic events; "revolutions", as the authors correctly term them. They list a total of 8 such events, from the appearance of replicating molecules to the origin of symbolic languages, with humans. Gaia has been stepping up her metabolism toward a higher and higher efficient transduction of solar energy; every revolution has been, basically, a metabolic revolution. Lenton and Watson estimate (p.49) that the metabolic efficiency improvement has been at least of a factor one thousand from the first life forms on Earth to the present biosphere.

So, you ain't seen nothing yet as the planetary engine is revving up and may well go past redline. This is the point that Lenton and Watson are making: revolutions are not over. There is plenty of room for Gaia to grow since the whole biosphere, today, does not capture more than about 2% of the energy arriving from the sun. So, we may be ready for a new jump that could bring the complexity of the ecosystem to levels unthinkable up to now. What this new revolution could be, exactly, is difficult to say. Here, the chapter of  "Revolutions" describing the future of the ecosystem is - I must say - the least satisfactory of the book. It tries an impossible task: a few pages are just not enough to tackle such a gigantic issue. It is sure, anyway, that revolutions are never painless and it would be wrong to think that the new metabolic jump will save humankind from the self-inflicted disaster of global warming. It may save just a few of us, or perhaps none. Gaia doesn't care for humans, she simply survives. We will see what the future has in store for us. In the meantime, I am reading "Revolutions" a second time - as it deserves.


Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Frontiers in Energy Policy and Systems: a new open access journal

"Frontiers in Energy Systems and Policy" is a section of the new journal on energy the "Frontiers" series. It is an open access journal that aims at publishing high quality papers by means of an innovative refereeing proces. I thought it was a good idea, so much that I am trying to do my best in the role of chief editor. 

It is a difficult moment for science, under attack from many sectors. The recent smear campaigns against climate scientists show that the ivory tower doesn't exist any more. And, yet, it is a moment in which we desperately need science to face the multiple challenges we are facing: climate change, ecosystems disruption, resource depletion and more.

And, right in this difficult moment, scientists find themselves stuck with an obsolete paradigm of information dissemination. Their work is paid by the public but it remains hidden from the public and policy makers behind a paywall for the profit of commercial publishers. At the same time, the traditional refereeing process favors "excellent mediocrity" but doesn't work very well in filtering unacceptable papers. We need to do better if we want science to have a positive impact in the world.

The ongoing revolution of "open access" in scientific publishing is promising to open up science, improving the dissemination of scientific results but, at the same time, it has led to a proliferation of low quality journals. That doesn't mean that open access is bad in itself, but that we need to improve the quality of the reviewing process. That was the reasoning that led to the birth of "Frontiers," It was started in 2007 by Henry Markram and Kamila Markram at the EPFL in Switzerland and it is now a collection of open access, high quality journals. All of them practice the principle of "open reviewing"; that is, reviewers collaborate with authors and their identities are disclosed on the published articles. I thought it was a good idea; so much that I thought I could try to do my best as "Chief Editor" of the section titled "Frontiers in Energy Systems and Policy"

I know what you are thinking: it is what everyone asks me when I tell them about the new journal: open access is expensive! (*) But open access doesn't cost more than the traditional method - actually it costs less. It is just that, so far, libraries were paying and scientists were not even perceiving that these costs existed. But they do exist and someone has to pay them. Open access only makes these costs visible by shifting them from libraries to authors in exchange for a wider dissemination of their work. Think about that: if you don't believe that the results of your work should be widely known, then you should ask yourself if your work is worth doing.

Of course, new ideas often look better than the old ones, but you can't be sure until you try them in practice. It is what's being done with the new publishing paradigm. Open access coupled with open reviewing looks like a good idea, but we have to experiment with it and many things may change as we do that. In any case. of one thing I am sure: the old ways are not possible any more. 

To conclude, a note about "Frontiers in Energy Systems and Policy." It is a journal which, in my opinion, should go beyond the desperate search for miracle gadgetry that characterizes energy research nowadays. Rather, it should go to the hearth of the energy problem and publish true systemic research aimed at understanding the causes of our problems - including resource depletion, energy efficiency, EROEI studies, impact on the ecosystem of of our energy producing activities, and more. So, if you have good papers in these fields, you are encouraged to submit them to us!

Mission Statement

Energy Systems and Policy is a specialty section of Frontiers in Energy Research.

Energy is a physical entity but the way it is created, distributed, and stored is part of a technological, economic and social system that turns out to be a fundamental factor in shaping the organization of the whole society. In the past, societal energy systems have been based on agriculture. In modern times, we saw a switch to coal, then to crude oil and, progressively to natural gas and nuclear energy, with renewables fast becoming a major player in the field. The frontier in this area is not so much the details of a set of technologies which, by now, are often mature and well known. It is how to integrate these technologies in the form of new energy systems in the economic and social fabric of our world. This section welcomes the submission of original studies that examine the characteristics of new energy sources in a systemic way. That is, we welcome studies that aim at exploring parameters of energy systems such as the energy yield (or Energy Return for Energy Invested, EROI), the economic return, the pollution effects, in particular in view of the effects on climate, the general sustainability of the system in terms of the natural resources that must be engaged: e.g. land area and rare mineral resources. The possibility of obtaining energy from urban waste and the efficient exploitation of waste heat is also an important systemic factor in energy production. Storage and distribution are also a major components of energy systems; e.g. in terms of “smart grid” and its integration with storage systems at different scales. The specialty also accepts contributions dealing with the impact of energy systems in all sectors of society, including on the world's poorer regions in term of pollution, waste, land use, and climate change. Finally, the specialty accepts model studies on the future development of energy sources, both renewable and non renewable. We expect articles for Energy Systems and Policy to be in depth and original studies which will have an impact on the specific technological field addressed but also able to lead to reasoned choices not only by scientists but also by the public and by policy makers.

* About publishing fees, the mission statement of Frontiers says that "Frontiers...has a commercial mandate to develop multiple revenue streams that can be used to support open-access publishing." It means that if for some good reason you can't afford to pay the full cost of publishing (e.g. you work in a poor country) the publisher can help in various ways; it can be discussed.