Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Energy Transition: Too Little, Too Late

The idea of the energy transition ("energiewende" in German) originated in the 1980s and gained legislative support in Germany in 2010. The idea is good and also technically feasible. But it requires sacrifices and, at present, sacrifices are politically unthinkable since most people don't realize how critical the situation really is. What we are doing for the transition seems to be is too little and too late. 

So, how are we doing with the energy transition? Can we eliminate fossil fuels from the world's energy system? Can we do it before it is too late to avoid the disasters that climate change and resource depletion will bring to us if we continue with business as usual?

The debate is ongoing and it sometimes it goes out of control as in the case of the controversy between the group of Professor Jacobsen at and that of Professor Clack which even generated a lawsuit for slander. In general, the debate is based on qualitative considerations: on one side we see plenty of naive optimism ("let's go solar, rah, rah!"), on the other, we have pure statements of disbelief ("renewables will never be able to do this or to do that.").

But science is based on quantitative evaluations and we have plenty of data that should permit us to do better than play the game of the clash of absolutes. This is what we did, myself and my coworker Sgouris Sgouridis, in a paper that was recently published on "Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality," titled "In Support of a Physics-Based Energy Transition Planning: Sowing Our Future Energy Needs"

In our paper, we started from the Jacobson/Clack controversy and we tried to use physical considerations (not subjected to the vagaries of markets) to examine how fast we can grow renewable energy. That's constrained by several factors but, as a first consideration by the fact that we need to invest energy now in order to get energy in the future.

This is why we refer to "sowing" in the title of the paper: every farmer knows that one needs to save some of the current harvest as seed for the future one - enough for eating in the future, but not so much that one would starve. In the case of energy, it is the same. We need to invest some fossil energy for the future harvest of renewable energy, but not so much that society would collapse (it is the "Sower's Strategy").

So, we propose an approximate, but physics-based, criterion for the possible speed of growth of renewable energy production. The model provides results similar to a more detailed one that we published earlier on. Let me cite from our recent paper:

These questions can be discussed in terms of the concept of “energy yield” or “energy return” and, in particular, from the “Energy Payback Time” (EPBT), a measurement of the time necessary for a new plant to return an amount of energy equal to the amount invested for its construction. EPBT can be expressed as the ratio of the energy invested in the manufacturing of the plant divided by the yearly energy generated. From this definition, we can derive a measurement of the energy investment necessary in order to obtain a certain yearly production of energy. We perform this calculations in the reasonable assumption of a transition period T that is less than or equal to the lifetime of the renewable energy installations; in this way, we do not need to take into account plant replacement. For equal intervals of time, the energy invested is Einv(t)= Etarget (for t= T) × (EPBT/T). If we set “Etarget” as the current global production per year and we assume that we want to maintain it constant throughout the transition, then EPBT/T is the ratio of the needed yearly investments to the current yearly production. <..>
If, hypothetically, the EPBT were larger than T, the transition would be physically impossible since it would require more energy than the amount that could be produced. Instead, for T=30 years, EPBT values over ca. 5 years would require investing more than 15% of the overall energy production every year, hence making the transition extremely difficult, although not completely impossible. Conversely, values of the EPBT close to or under 1 year would make the transition relatively facile. For instance, an EPBT=1 year implies that about 3% of the world’s energy production would have to be set aside for the transition. Seen in this light, the current values of the EPBT for the most diffuse renewable energy technologies are promising. <...>
These considerations can be compared to the current situation. The nameplate renewable energy capacity that was installed in 2016 was 161 GWp (IRENA 2017). With an average capacity factor that we can assume to be roughly 0.2, it corresponds to an average power generation of 32 GW. In this case, for renewable technologies with EPBT= 3 years, the energy invested is about 100 GW, or about 0.8% of the world’s average primary power consumption, 12 TW (IEA 2016). According to these estimates, the current level of energy investments in new renewable energy is not sufficient to attain the transition within the assumed climatic and energetic constraints. <..>
With these calculations, we show that physical factors provide fundamental insight on the challenge that humankind faces: the energy transition will be neither easy nor impossible, but it will require a substantially larger rate of energy investment than the currently allocated one.  

In short, a transition that could maintain the "BAU" (business as usual) is technically feasible and physically possible if we were willing to increase of a factor of 5 (at the very least) our investments in it. Unfortunately, the trend is going in the opposite direction. The global investments in renewable energy seem to have levelled off and In 2016 were approximately at the same level as they were in 2010. Too little, too late.

Can we hope for some miracle that would increase the efficiency of clean energy technologies by a factor of 5 in a short time? Unlikely, to say the least. That's true also for the often idolized nuclear energy which is not more efficient than renewables in terms of EPBT and even more unlikely to go through rapid and revolutionary technological improvements.

So, basically, we are not making it. We are consciously choosing to go down the Seneca Cliff, even though we wouldn't need to. It is maddening to think that we are failing at the challenge not because the transition is technologically unfeasible or unaffordable, but because the transition is politically inconceivable. Increasing investments in renewable energy requires sacrifices and this is a no-no in our world.

So, what's going to happen? The fact that we won't attain the transition doesn't mean returning to Middle Ages or even to Olduvai, but that in the future not everyone, and not even a majority of people, will have as much energy as we are used to having today. The sacrifices we refuse to make now will have to be made, and much larger, in the future.

Note: our paper on "Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality" will be freely downloadable until Dec 31, 2017. After that date, ask me for a copy (ugo.bardi(geewhiz)

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Seneca Cliff Explained: a Three Dimensional Collapse Overview Model

A Three Dimensional Collapse Overview Model

In this post, Geoffrey Chia illustrates one of the fundamental characteristics of the "Seneca Effect", also known as "collapse," the fact that it occurs in networked systems dominated by feedback interactions. This is a qualitative interpretation of collapse that complements the more quantitative models that I report in my book "The Seneca Effect." (U.B.)

A post by Geoffrey Chia

The Limits to Growth was published in 1972 by a group of world class scientists using the best mathematical computer modelling available at the time. It projected the future collapse of global industrial civilisation in the 21st century if humanity did not curb its population, consumption and pollution. It was pilloried by many “infinite growth on a finite planet” economists over the decades. 

However, updated data inputs and modern computer modelling in recent years (particularly by Dr Graham Turner of the CSIRO in 2008 and 2014) showed that we are in reality closely tracking the standard model of the LtG, with industrial collapse and mass die-off due sooner rather than later. The future is now.

The LtG looked only at 5 parameters, with global warming being a mere subset of pollution. Dramatic acceleration of ice melt and unprecedented, increasingly frequent, extreme weather events over the past two decades clearly demonstrate that global warming is progressing far faster and far worse than anyone could possibly have imagined back in the 70s. Global warming certainly deserves a separate category for consideration on its own, quite apart from the other manifestations of pollution.

The LtG did not include a specific category looking at the human dynamics of finance, economics and political manoeuvrings, which was fair enough, because it is impossible to mathematically model such capricious irrationality. Economists may beg to differ, however no economic mathematical model has ever been shown to accurately reflect the real world, nor ever consistently predict anything useful (unlike the LtG and other proven science based models), not least because of their hopelessly incomplete and deeply flawed ideological economic assumptions. Garbage in, garbage out. In 2013, the “Nobel-type” prize for economics (properly termed the Bank of Sweden prize) was jointly awarded to different economists who had mathematically modelled diametrically opposing ideas. That was akin to awarding the physics prize to different scientists who “showed” that the universe is both expanding and contracting at the same time.

Despite that, I do advocate that we should include finance, economics and politics in our subjective conceptual framework of collapse mechanics, because financial and economic troubles are triggers for political upheavals which can lead to conflict and the collapse of nation states. Syria is a prime example. This unquantifiable category, despite being subjective and unpredictable, will nevertheless significantly contribute to population die-off, just as any quantifiable category such as global warming or resource depletion or ecosystem destruction can and will cause human die-off. Economic collapse can lead to loss of healthcare, homelessness and starvation. Political madness can trigger global thermonuclear war at any time, causing our extinction.

All the categories contributing to collapse are deeply inter-related and intertwined. This is the basis of systems thinking, which is essential for making realistic judgements about our future and mitigating against the troubles ahead. How can we confer such complex ideas to the general public in a manner which is clear and understandable, yet does not significantly compromise accuracy or detail?

I first alluded to the idea of a 3D collapse overview model during my Griffith University Ecocentre presentation in March 2017

It is a refinement of my older, less complete, 2D model "the three horsemen and one big fat elephant of the apocalypse", originally conceived as a joke, a play on a hackneyed biblical phrase, albeit with serious intent.

When various pundits try to analyse matters relating to sustainability, their biggest deficiency is often blinkered or tunnel vision. They focus on only one issue while ignoring other issues. Most global warming "solutions" advocated by climate activists fit this description. They assume limitless energy availability to deliver huge renewable energy infrastructures and massive carbon sequestration fantasies to enable an approximation of business as usual to support 10 billion people by mid century. 

In reality we are poised to fall off the cliff of net energy availability very soon 1,2 and not even the most optimistic carbon sequestration fantasies (all of which will require colossal energy inputs and none of which are proven) will be able return us to a stable climate unless the total human footprint is also reduced drastically and immediately 3 (which will not happen short of global nuclear war – which in itself will exponentially release greenhouse gases, devastate remaining ecosystems and destroy industrial civilisation and thus our ability to technologically sequester GHGs).

Blinkered views produce flawed pseudo-solutions, which if attempted often exacerbate other problems, or at the very least are a complete waste of time and energy.

Here is a 10 second video-clip, my first attempt to make this 3D model in real life, "doom explained by confectionery abuse"

In my 3D model I have maintained the central position of the total human footprint as the "big fat elephant", to emphasise that if this is not addressed, then nothing is being addressed. Few commentators advocate voluntary energy descent, reduction of consumption or simplification of lifestyles, however those are essential strategies to reduce our footprint. Even fewer talk about population reduction. This 3D model is a far superior way to visualise the predicaments we face, compared with disparate and disconnected one dimensional views or compared with simple mnemonic headings. For example, the three "Es" of energy, economy and environment represent a simplistic and incomplete text list, with no graphical demonstration of the links between each "E".

Trying to further subdivide, refine or complicate this model is likely to be counter-productive. As it is, this 3D model, a six sided double pyramid with a proliferating tumour at its core, probably represents the limit of complexity which can easily be stored in the average mind as a visual snapshot. It is an easily remembered image which can be conjured up at the dinner table by scribbling on a napkin or by building the actual 3D model with meatballs and skewers, to both entertain and horrify your guests.

Compartmentalising the various intertwined global issues is obviously an artificial approach, but is necessary to help us understand the highly complex dynamics involved. It is necessary in the same way that compartmentalising the study of Medicine into specialties such as Cardiology, Gastroenterology, Neurology, Nephrology etc is an artificial but proven approach to understanding the highly complex mechanisms within the human body. Just as different bodily systems (heart, gut, brain, kidneys etc) directly interact with and influence each and every other system, each component of my 3D model also directly interacts with and influences each and every other component.


R affecting F: every major oil disruption eg 1973, 1979, has always resulted in economic recession. Another R affecting F example: diminishing per capita resources leads to economic hardships, shattered expectations and anger in the population, which leads to the rise of megalomaniacal fascist demagogues, multiplying the risk of global conflict.

R affecting F affecting R, affecting E and P: decline of conventional oil production since it peaked in 2005 has led to desperate harvesting of unconventional oils pushed through by means of political deceit, fraudulent market misrepresentations and financial/economic distortions. This Ponzi scheme will lead to an inevitable market crash dwarfing the sub-prime mortgage scam. It has also led to severe exacerbations of E and P.

R causing C: this is obvious

C affecting R affecting C: as heatwaves worsen, airconditioning use and hence fossil fuel consumption escalate, liberating more GHGs and worsening global warming

Unfortunately with today's advanced state of planetary malaise, most of the feedbacks between components are "positive" or bad self-reinforcing feedbacks. Few are "negative" or good semi-correcting feedbacks. The reader will no doubt be able to think of many other examples of bidirectional feedbacks between components, both positive and negative.

I advocate that each article discussing sustainability (or lack thereof) should be slotted into the part or parts of this 3D model where it belongs, in order to appreciate how comprehensive or incomplete that article may be, and to enable other related discourses to be slotted into adjacent positions, so as to build up a more holistic picture.

As visual animals I believe this is a useful tool to educate ourselves. It can even be used in primary schools as part of their science curriculum (but will no doubt be banned amongst global warming denialist groups or neoclassical/neoliberal economic madrases). Children can make these simple 3D models with toy construction kits or plasticine and sticks. They should probably be discouraged from playing with their food, unlike us adults, who are terrible hypocrites anyway.

Geoffrey Chia MBBS, MRCP, FRACP, November 2017

Geoffrey Chia is a Cardiologist in Brisbane, Australia, who has studied and written about issues regarding (un)sustainability for more than 15 years.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Religion Called Economy

Published also in Italian in "Effetto Cassandra

A post by Michele Migliorino

The idea that religions are giving way to a more advanced human level of existence is part of common knowledge. Science and technology are emancipating humankind from mythical and religious discourses under the effect of the belief that only rationality should guide us. Reason has replaced the old God.

Nietzsche, more than a century ago, warned that God was dead and that we had killed him. Nowadays a spectre wanders in our societies: it is nihilism, a consequence of God's death. What is it? According to Nietzsche, it consists in the "devaluation of all values," including the sacred ones on which the Western civilization was founded.

"What I relate is the history of the next two centuries. I describe what is coming, what can no longer come differently: the advent of nihilism.  This history can be related even now; for necessity itself is at work here.  This future speaks even now in a hundred signs, this destiny announces itself everywhere; for this music of the future all ears are cocked even now.  For some time now, our whole European culture has been moving as toward a catastrophe, with a tortured tension that is growing from decade to decade: restlessly, violently, headlong, like a river that wants to reach the end, that no longer reflects, that is afraid to reflect". (Nietzsche, Unpublished notes, 1887-1888)

It is not necessary for a God to be transcendent. A consequence of the secularization of society is a new, immanent, God: it is now called "Economy". No longer "intra-world ascesis" (Max Weber) and will of salvation; oikonomos (in greek, "home care") has become the only concern of humans. This necessity had been growing over the centuries, starting already with the Renaissance when the growth of global commerce started the process that would lead, today, to a planetary commercial machine generating billions or even trillions of monetary, computerized transactions every second.

Why is the economy a God? Because it has taken the place of the old values and because we use it to fill the gap left by nihilism. Very simply, nihilism is the result of the outdating of a fundamental value: the afterlife. We are now in the unconscious condition of no longer finding an existential sense because for two millennia (maybe a lot more) we believed that there wasn't a sense in this life. That implied the existence of an "original copy" of our existence somewhere else, in a transcendent world. From Plato to Catholicism, this is the fundamental matrix we have to deal with when we talk about "our culture".

The extraordinary fact of our situation is that we do not want to "see" what we have done! This is why we are so troubled and restless: we can't accept that there is nothing beyond death! Our historical condition rather makes us committed to understanding the meaning of a finite mortal existence. But, today, we are sure that there is no sense in our earthly life and therefore that is better grab every moment of this ephemeral existence; we cannot afford to lose any opportunity because "any chance you don't take is lost forever."

Economy is this "running" in an infernal circle reminding Dante's "Comedy." It is an infinite growth in a finite world free from any limit which could hinder it. Since there is no sense in anything, "everything is allowed" (Dostojevski) and there will never be consequences. No transcendent God is judging us in terms of good and bad deeds.

However, if there is no sense in anything, wouldn't it be better to end it all here and now? Wouldn't it be a better form of forward-thinking?
Never to be born at all is best for mortal men, and if born to pass as soon as may be the gates of Hades. (Hesiod)
Economy acts as a big "repression." It is just like we were producing the meaning itself by means of our everyday activities. Indeed, the busier we are, the more life seems to have sense. When we are moving - just as a kind of merchandise - we forget about that "deep cosmic noise", of that lack that sometimes nags us asking: what is the meaning of all this?

Risultati immagini per città movimento

No matter how bad things become, only a few people will be ready to accept that the Economy it is not a good thing. We believe in Economy, we do not discuss its existence, precisely as a religion does with God. Instead of an afterlife, we have a Money-God allowing us to do everything we want, or at least this is what we believe. Everything consists of believing in something - this is why is difficult to understand the term "religion" in its wider meaning.

But why the Economy is not a good thing? Because it is not possible to create prosperity for all. Wealth is a relative term, it is something that can belong only to a few. I can be rich only if you are poor; wealth is a relation: there has to be poverty in order to have wealth.

You can see this easily when considering the inequality issue. Although the gap between the rich and the poor continues to grow decade after decade, the lifestyle of poor people has not really worsened. A success of Capitalism? Yes, sure. Here, our religion protects us from heresies such as the idea that we should reform the economic system, redistribute wealth, supervise big capital, control corporations! In this way, we save the world. So, we have to promote economic growth in Africa! And this justifies wars for exporting democracy. Only with democracy, the African governments will ensure that the Africans, too, will have access to wealth. 

You can see how the Economy religion destroys everything: forest, seas, living species, ourselves and our infinite cultures existing over the whole planet. By now, realism would tell us that it is time to throw the Economy GOd into the wastebasket history and try to create a society which won't imply such a despicable waste of energy and resources. It seems that it is time to become profane toward this religion. Yet, that doesn't seem to be happening.

The "crowd phenomenon" is hard to overcome because it is the very mechanism itself that generates our cultural evolution (according to Renè Girard). We are afraid of losing our ownership and we are afraid of each other. It is difficult to us to go against the others. It is extremely hard to reject what makes us living: The Economy-God.

But what if what makes us today prosperous is what will make us miserable tomorrow?


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). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017