Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Ugo Bardi on "Plundering the Planet" - Part IV


Control over metals, coal and oil key to all empires / Fall-back into agrarian society possible

The control of noble metals was a key to ancient and modern empires. Soldiers were paid with gold or silver coins, so they were able to extent the empire and conquer more mines to pay more soldiers. Modern empires like the British Empire were built on coal – which went down with the end of British coal resources. The Empire of our times is built on fossil fuels as well: controlling them means to dominate the world. However, shortages of oil, coal and metals combined with catastrophic climate change could lead to a collapse of modern civilization and bring us back to an agrarian society. However this scenario is avoidable according to Bardi, if we stop mining the earth and start mining our waste, closing the resource cycle.


  1. This is one reason I based my model of a carbon neutral US economy on PV panels producing electricity, some of which is stored in Sodium-Sulfur batteries.

    The major component of PV is Silicon, both as PV cells and as glass. Silicon constitutes ~ 1/4 of the earth's crust.

    The major components of NaS batteries are Sodium, Sulfur, and ceramic. All of which are very common.

    I also envisioned conversion of all housing to PassivHaus standard, which requires energy conserving windows, using Glass, and structures with very low permeabilities and low energy losses to the exterior.

    Though much insulation today is foamed plastic and oil based, glass wool and diatomite insulation works too.

    Using drastic conservation measures, already proven in thousands of buildings, my model shows quantitatively that a functioning industrial sector can be powered by an economy using 10% of the energy used now, by a mix of renewables, primarily PV.

    Now, to the alternative mentioned by Hugo above, expoused by Gail-the-actuary, and Jim Kunstler.

    Given they are correct regarding total collapse of industrialization, the following things are likely:

    1. Deforestation on a massive scale to produce firewood for heating/cooking, using chainsaws/axes.
    2. Cannibalization of all electric transmission lines during darkness by those desperate for anything to sell to get funds for food
    3. Collapse of all mining activity
    4. Collapse of all oil extraction activity
    5. Collapse of all oil refining activity
    6. Collapse of all hydrocarbon transmission via rail/pipeline/truck
    7. Collapse of all road based freight haulage
    8. Collapse of all diesel fired rail haulage
    9. Reversion of all seaborne freight to sail
    10. Cannibalization of all existing steel structures for production of hoes, rakes, garden forks, nails, knives, and axes, fired by charcoal made from firewood, until the forests are gone, then nothing.

    There are other effects, see Jared Diamond's "Collapse" and pay special attention to the chapters on Easter Is., and the Greenland Norse.


    1. Just two questions on your model: EOEI of PV? and Who gonna pay all these?
      The first is easy: <3. Our society, 'as is', requires >15. Normal agricultural society requires >10 or, depending on other factors, as low as >5.
      The second is even easier: Nobody. Who (I mean people) can afford to buy PV in the scale and schedule required? And the batteries? In a crisis context, induced mainly due expensive oil and metals, scarce strategic materials, it will be difficult to find money (that basically it doesn't exist).
      Thermosolar plants are much more promising, cheap and offer greater modulability than PV, without having to use batteries.
      And the issue regarding the reconversion of many different activities to electricity must be also considered.
      No money, no time, no resources, no chance.
      PV is pure BAU, a mere fantasy, irreal, a 'bluff', another bubble.

    2. Anonymous - money isn't real. All that is real is what we (and the environment) can actually produce - food, metals, building materials, etc. Money is just an agreed-upon mechanism for allocating the real stuff. If we change the rules, we can build a hell of a lot of PV and other "green infrastructure" instead of building luxury automobiles and weapon systems.

    3. Yes, I know money isn't real. That is why I mentioned EROEI. Maybe the second question is no clear. Let me refrain it: Who is gonna do the effort (in energy terms) to switch the model?
      When someone mentions Gail the actuary and wants to develop a PV model, something clicks in my mind, I can't mix them together. Gail mentioned few times the EROEI required for a society to work, and PV are never up to this level. By far.
      Although generalization is not good, all those defending PV can be usually find in two cases. Those that work in the PV industry, as BAU as BP, Petrobras, Enron, where interests override racionalization. And those that believe PV is paradise and Tesla their prophet.
      While Dr. Oprisko seems to have done some basic research (Si is indeed around 27% in weight of the Earth's crust), it seems that he totally overlooks the energy required to build and run PV instalations, together with batteries. I bet this is simple ignorance, that is why I did the math few times and found that PV is simply a chimera. A magic trick that may be useful for very few and narrow fields, like satellites. But, while I can build a wind mill at home with few hand tools, wood and salvaging an alternator and few pieces from an old car, I can't build a PV.
      If PV is the energy source that requires more energy investment by far, probably more than one order of magnitude than any other, then I don't understand why this obsession with PV when thermosolar, wind mills, wind turbines, water mills, geothermal, even others are directly overlooked.
      Usually it looks like a mantra, an obsession, a religion regarding PV. Rationalism is simply out, since a simple approach to all requirements for such model renders it useless. Not only the huge effort to build and install all the PV required, but also all the changes needed to run many applications that are not electric by now. The infrastructure is really big and the task, daunting. No time, no means, no resources.
      On the other hand, money is and had always been used as a mechanism to evaluate many things, energy and effort being one of them. Money is much older than oil, industry, and even press. So, you can't deny that we have money, economical and financial troubles right now. And the society is more worried by urgent things, like unemployment, health, education, etc than for important issues like energy. Thus it seems quite improbable that the society will welcome a change in priorities in order to make front to the energy issue. If it minds to you, then go to an employment office here, in Spain, and tell to those unemployed that money isn't real and that we should fight against energy issues (instead of fighting unemployment). The response may be funny, huh?
      After all, this is only a 'solution' addressed to a collateral 'problem'. The root issue is no treated here neither in other forums regarding oil crash or global warming.
      So I totally agree with Dr. Oprisko that the ten points he raised are quite likely to happen.
      Although I'm more in the line of the catabolic collapse explained by J. M. Greer.

  2. EROI of PV <3? I don't think it's that low. I've seen estimates of 7+.

    1. I think it is not worth answering to people who think that a complex question such as the EROEI of PV can be discussed in these terms - in the comments of a blog and without referring to the scientific literature. Let's just say that, as any complex matter, the calculations of the EROEI of PV give values that go from 3 to 40, and we can reasonably take values around 10 for the present technology (that keeps improving, anyway). In appropriate conditions; with good sunlight and not too small plants, PV is perfectly able to sustain "civilization". That doesn't mean it can sustain OUR civilization in its Western form, including SUVs and vacations to Hawai'i for the whole family. But, as I said, it is not something that can be discussed in the comments of a blog.

    2. Before continuing the discussion regarding the EROEI of PV, I will insist in the two other points raised before in my post:

      Who will take the effort of changing the model? Electricity means about 20 - 30% of the energy used by Western Countries. Thus 70 - 80% of other uses must be deprecated or reconverted. This is not a minor issue. Plus the new energy sources must be built and bring into production. This is also a huge effort.
      Why should be switch to PV when we have other renewable energy sources with better EROEI and much simplier? Should we thrash the huge amount of wind turbines, hydroelectric dams, thermosolar and other renewable energy sources we already have in Western countries?
      No responses about that issues?
      Back to PV, I completely agree that EROEI of PV is really a big and complex matter. There are many discussions about it like:
      and many other.
      But I also did my own calculations and readings, and I found that usually, any post claiming EROEI of PV >7 is (IMHO) distorted and/or manipulated. As an example, you can find a little document I wrote under my usual nick of Beamspot in this link (in spanis, agin): Look at the pdf file in the last post. In it you will find a post claiming for EROEI>30 and my explanations why this is heavily bloated.
      But in any case, you can read this interesting book about real data gathered on the field, with a broad source:
      Thus the figures I gave are not fair. Of course, you can question Mr. Charles Hall and Mr. Pedro Prieto's credibility...
      An in that case, like happens often, the energy storage is not taken into account.
      From first hand studies about batteries efficencies and life span, they barely last more than 10 years, usually less as the place where they are installed is warm or even hotter, something that happens where there is a good sun exposure. And those batteries and their associated electronics hardly return >80% of the stored energy, and they also require energy to be built, even when they are recycled (it is cheaper than building a brand new battery, but it is by no means for free). All those data lower even more the EROEI of any energy system that uses them.
      So, again, why should we use PV when we can use wind turbines, wind mills, hydroelectric dams and other simplier, cheapter means with higher EROEI? Wind turbines are rated to EROEI > 20 in worst cases, up to 60 in (also manipulated and bloated) best case studies.

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Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)