Sunday, April 26, 2015

Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society

We live in a fantasy world.  We have blind faith that we’ll be able to sustainably feed nine or ten billion people in 2050, a wish-based belief.  We have blind faith that technology will vaporize all challenges that appear in our path over the coming centuries.  Economic growth will continue forever.  We’ll celebrate a glorious victory over climate change by switching to safe, clean renewable energy, in a smooth and painless manner.  Our high standard of living will keep getting better and better as we zoom toward utopia.  The best is yet to come!

Australian professor Ted Trainer is not entranced by blind faith, and he explained his heresy in Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.  Attempting to transition to a future powered only by renewable energy, while maintaining our current mode of high waste living, would be the opposite of smooth and painless.  Indeed, it’s impossible, he says.  Renewables simply can’t produce as much energy as we currently get from burning enormous amounts of sequestered carbon (fossil fuel).

In modern societies, electric power is highly reliable for both households and industries.  Power companies generate electricity, feed it into their distribution grid, and send it to consumers.  Excess electricity cannot be stored, and insufficient electricity leads to brownouts.  So, utilities must be very careful to generate electricity at levels that closely match the swings in demand.  Today’s centralized power systems are designed to do a good job of this, but they are not designed to reliably distribute electricity generated by decentralized sources, like wind farms or solar facilities.

Coal-powered plants can run at full capacity all the time, and they can be built anywhere.  Solar and wind facilities can run at full capacity only during ideal conditions.  For example, a solar thermal plant can run at peak on a hot summer day, but its average annual production is just twenty-five percent of peak.  The capacity of solar and wind facilities is highly dependent on location.  They cannot be built anywhere, and the ideal locations are chosen first.  The potential for future expansion is limited.

Photovoltaic panels convert sunlight directly into electricity.  They produce little or no energy at dawn, dusk, night, or during cloudy periods.  For large-scale generation, solar thermal is better, because it generates heat, which can be stored for use during off-peak periods.  Ideal locations for solar thermal are deserts, like the Sahara, or the U.S. southwest.  The drawback is that ideal locations are typically distant from population centers, and significant energy is lost when power is sent thousands of kilometers away.  Even in ideal locations, output during summer is five times higher than winter.

Wind power is even less consistent.  Wind velocity varies from year to year, from season to season, and from minute to minute.  For 54 days in 2002, a wind farm in Denmark had zero production.  A farm in Australia was nearly windless for five straight days.  Winds can suddenly go calm over a wide region.  Ideal locations are on hills and ridges.

This hard-to-predict variability is a serious obstacle to a renewable energy future.  Neither wind nor solar can produce electricity sufficient to meet current demand, in a dependable manner.  To provide dependable power, backup capacity is needed.  One mode of backup is to use the surplus power, generated during peak hours, to pump water uphill into reservoirs, where it can later be used to generate hydroelectric power.  For most regions, this is not an option.

Surplus electricity can also be used to generate hydrogen, to be stored for later use.  Storing energy in hydrogen is highly inefficient, expensive, and problematic.  Putting one unit of hydrogen energy into a fuel cell requires at least four units of wind or solar energy.  Hydrogen atoms are tiny, which makes them especially prone to leakage.  A big tanker truck can only carry 288 kilograms (634 pounds) of hydrogen.  Hydrogen does not make economic sense.

Backup electricity can also be generated by burning sequestered carbon, but this would result in undesirable greenhouse gas emissions.  In a renewable energy future, for each megawatt of wind or solar capacity, systems would also need almost a megawatt of backup.  The backup systems would be expensive, and they would be idle much of the time.  They cannot be quickly cranked up to respond to demand surges, or to supply shortfalls due to clouds or calms.

A number of well-paid respectable-looking nutjobs are preaching that the cure for climate change is nuclear energy.  But eighty percent of the energy used today is not electricity.  Trainer concluded, “If all electricity was generated by nuclear reactors, carbon dioxide emissions might be reduced by thirty percent.”  Uranium is nonrenewable, the supply is finite, and the top quality ores are gone.  All facets of the nuclear industry are designed and operated by accident-prone tropical primates.  Meanwhile, spent fuel remains intensely toxic for more than a million years, and we have yet to discover how to safely store it.  A more mature option would be to focus intense attention on how we live and think.

The variability of wind and solar generation is a huge challenge to a renewable energy future.  A far greater challenge — the death blow — is the issue of liquid fuels.  Liquid fuels are used to power cars, trucks, trains, planes, ships, wars, and our food system.  Under perfect conditions, renewable energy might be able to generate ten percent of the energy currently produced by petroleum.  Options include ethanol, methanol, and hydrogen fuel cells.  Trainer discusses the serious drawbacks.

Clearly, a smooth and painless transition to a renewable energy future that allows us to continue living like crazy is an intoxicating fantasy.  In addition to being impossible, it’s also unsustainable.  The “clean,” high-tech wonderland will continue extracting non-renewable resources for wind turbines, solar panels, transmission lines, roads, tractors, fuel cells, air conditioners, cell phones, and so on.  It will do nothing to wean us from soil mining, water mining, forest mining, and fish mining — or shift population growth into reverse.

The consumer way of life is a dead end path.  While reading, I kept thinking about my four grandparents, all of whom were born into non-electric, car-free households.  They lived good lives.  Food is a genuine need, but unsustainable energy is a devastating addiction — lots of fun at first, but deadly in the long run.

Trainer thought along the same lines.  The big problem is that the dominant culture programs us to be competitive, acquisitive, individualists.  He presented a dreamy vision called The Simpler Way, a joyful utopia of voluntary frugality, stress-free lifestyles, lovely gardens, and small cooperative communities — and we don’t even have to give up modern technology!  Really?

Instead of struggling to continue living like crazy, for as long as possible, by any means necessary, the intelligent option would be to slow down — to really slow down!  That’s the message here.

In 2012, Trainer wrote an updated 22-page summary of his analysis of renewable energy, Can Renewable Energy Sustain Consumer Societies.  In 2011, he helped write a 48-page description of his vision for a happy green future, The Simpler Way Report.

Trainer, Ted, Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society, Springer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 2007.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The End of Nature

Long, long ago, in scorching-hot 1988, Bill McKibben was busy writing The End of Nature, a book that cranked up the global warming warning sirens.  It was the first climate change book written for non-scientists, and it was a smash hit.  It makes an eloquent effort to convince those entranced by the dominant culture to radically change their thinking and lifestyles, this week if possible, because the biosphere is more damaged than we think.  It’s about living with great care, fully present in reality, and pursuing the healing sanity of voluntary self-restraint.

The root issue is that human cleverness has succeeded in creating so many brilliant ideas that we’re blindsiding nature.  This does not mean we’re eliminating all life on Earth.  It means that humankind has spawned powerful cultures that no longer blend in smoothly with the rest of the family of life.  The biosphere can no longer run on autopilot, because humans are fooling around in the control room and, despite good intentions, are piling up an impressive collection of devastating misjudgments.

If we look at the world of 500 years ago, we can observe a number of blotches resulting from human activities, but the atmosphere remained fairly close to its original condition, as did the oceans, and much of the planet’s land surface.  The seas were loaded with fish, and millions of bison thundered across North America.  Overall, the world largely remained the domain of Big Mama Nature.  It was able to shake off the punches from human activities.

In the last 200 years or so, this has changed.  Human cleverness is now capable of causing disturbances that are global in scale.  These include DDT, ozone holes, radiation, acid rain, and an unstable climate.  The dominant culture is discharging pollutants that affect the biosphere everywhere.  Humankind has (temporarily) forced nature out of the pilot’s seat.  This is what is meant by “the end of nature.”  Legions of radicalized consumers are now vigorously rocking the boat, to a degree that exceeds nature’s ability to compensate and maintain balance.

In recent decades, our techno-juggernaut has invented a new and improved way of suppressing nature, genetic engineering.  This represents an enormous advance in our mistake-making talents.  By fooling around with gene splicing, we are beginning to interfere with evolution’s autopilot.  Highly specialized mistake makers have pushed us beyond the amateur level of mere biosphere destroyers.  They now strive to control the future of the family of life, by fooling around with matters that were once the sole domain of the Creator.  What could possibly go wrong?

Genetic engineering gave McKibben intense nightmares.  It’s a technology with fabulous potential for creating multitudes of unintended consequences; bizarre surprises that the mad scientists could have never imagined.  Some manmade organisms might survive for millions of years, affecting the biosphere longer than nuclear waste.  Obviously, GMOs are absolutely unnecessary for our long and challenging return to balance with nature.

McKibben is a good thinker, a good writer, and a good-hearted human being.  He’s an environmental wordsmith who is also a Christian, providing a perspective that is not common in green literature.  The end of nature deeply offended his beliefs.  Many Christians don’t get much farther than the instructions to “multiply and subdue,” which imply that God made the world for us to dominate and exploit.  McKibben knew that the scriptures could be annoyingly inconsistent.  He was fond of the Book of Job, which teaches that humans are not the center of the universe, and wilderness is not ours to trash.

As the dominant culture furiously thrashes the planet, glaring questions arise — why doesn’t God stop us?  Did he die, or move away?  McKibben sidesteps the sixth chapter of Genesis, where God realized that creating humans was a huge mistake, because they turned out to be remarkably wicked.  God corrected his blooper by bringing “a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die.”  Today, humans are the ones executing the end of nature, not the Creator.  No other species is so clever — or so willing to mindlessly imitate a pissed-off sky god.

The End of Nature is also notable because it does not reek with a pungent anthropocentric stink.  The path to healing requires the abandonment of human superiority, a deadly brain fever.  McKibben concurs with Dave Foreman, “Each of you is an animal, and you should be proud of it.”  It’s not easy for us to accept that we are delicious two-legged meatballs wandering around in the food chain, and that the rest of creation is at least as important as we are.

Green wordsmiths rarely reveal a profound love for the natural world, maybe because it’s unprofessional, or because they have no spiritual connection to life, the norm in this society.  The focus for many green thinkers is finding a way to maintain our “high standard of living” while leaving no scars on the ecosystem, an absurd and impossible quest.  Usually, their primary objective is generating enough electricity to keep their gizmos glowing and humming.  Food is lower on the list, and population reduction is nowhere to be seen.

Lately, hysterical electricity addicts have been hallucinating that nuclear energy is the silver bullet solution.  McKibben noted that if we quit burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, and switched to nuclear, our carbon dioxide emissions would only drop 30 percent, because much of our economy cannot run on electricity (ships, planes, trucks, trains, etc.).  Furthermore, carbon dioxide is only half of the greenhouse gases we are releasing.  Alas, there is no free nuclear lunch.

McKibben loved nature.  While writing, he lived in the Adirondacks, and he gushed with adoration for the surrounding forest and mountains.  Outdoors, he felt the presence of God far more than when he sat indoors among a congregation of holy rollers.  God created nature, not cities.  One of God’s great delights was annihilating cities, according to the scriptures.

McKibben confessed that he’s also an American who enjoys the cool things that modern living provides, and he has no desire to live in an unheated cabin.  Modern living is so comfortable.  Unfortunately, it’s beating the stuffing out of nature.  There is a vast chasm between the way of life we enjoy, and a sustainable life.  If we were rational, we would leap into “an all-out race to do with less.”  Instead, we desperately cling to a blind faith in technological miracles that will magically eliminate all need for living intelligently.

A memorable portion of the book describes the author’s sincere struggle to find answers, tirelessly wrestling with hordes of demons and inconvenient truths.  He tries so hard to find workable approaches, but there are no quick and easy solutions.  Centuries will pass before balance returns.  But our biggest obstacles are psychological, and radical change is not impossible, in theory.

The nations of the world actually cooperated in sharply reducing the use of DDT, and ozone-eating CFCs, because the risks clearly exceeded the costs.  Fossil energy is different.  Billions of people literally cannot survive without oil.  Therefore, the radical changes we need will not happen anytime soon, if ever.  We can continue living like there’s no tomorrow, or we can make a heroic effort to encourage a gentler collapse — McKibben’s preference.

To recharge his sanity, he enjoys stepping outdoors at night, and gazing at the stars.  The rest of the universe is still as wild and free as it ever was.  What could be more inspiring?

McKibben, Bill, The End of Nature, Random House, New York, 2006.  [1989]

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Essential Exponential

Galileo was a lad who had a powerful talent for thinking outside the box.  He was capable of believing what he saw with his own eyes, and rejecting what society told him to believe, if it was nonsense.  With his telescope, he could clearly perceive that the sun did not rotate around the Earth.  He was alone in comprehending the truth, whilst the rest of society was completely wrong — not fun!

Later, as the nightmare of the Industrial Revolution was picking up steam, the mindset of the elite went absolutely manic, soaring in vivid utopian hallucinations.  One of those wacky dreamers was the daddy of Thomas Malthus, and dad drove the lad mad.  The lad could think outside the box.  He commenced to write a book, which explained why perpetual growth was impossible (an atrocious heresy!).  For 200 years, the ultra ambitious mob has been tirelessly denouncing the lad who had an amazing ability to understand the obvious.

Since World War II, a growing number of heretics have been preaching about limits, carrying capacity, overshoot, and the dangers of ignoring them — folks like Hubbert, Youngquist, Ehrlich, Hardin, and Catton.  But few are listening.  It’s still a heresy.  “Grow or die” remains the law of the land, and no other ideas disturb our cloudy minds.

Today’s sermon is about Albert Bartlett and his book, The Essential Exponential.  Bartlett was a physics professor who was dumbfounded by the world’s inability to comprehend the dangerous power of exponential growth.  Virtually all high school graduates remain blissfully ignorant about the subject, just like most graduates of Ivy League schools.

You can see a tornado rip a town to smithereens.  But as you bike to work each morning, you cannot see or hear the far more destructive force of exponential growth.  It’s like a thousand invisible hurricanes battering the planet, and pounding the future.

Linear growth is like adding one marble per week to your collection of ten marbles (10, 11, 12…).  The rate of growth is steady.  On a graph, linear growth is a straight line.  Exponential growth occurs when something is increasing at a constantly growing rate, and the rate increases with each cycle — the way compound interest inflates the balance of your savings account.

For example, since 1950, world oil production has been growing exponentially, at about seven percent per year.  At that rate, production doubles every ten years.  Bartlett illustrated the scale of this doubling in the following diagram, showing the volume of oil consumed each decade.  Children born after 1966 “will see the world consume most of its oil during their lifetime.”

Population can also grow exponentially.  In 1986, the world population grew 1.7 percent, a rate that would double our numbers in 41 years.  In 1999, growth had slowed to 1.3 percent, doubling in 53 years — 80 million people were added in 1999.

Industrial society has been growing like crazy for 200 years.  This was made possible by resources that were once so abundant that they seemed infinite.  During the growth surge, few enterprises ran into limits that could not be worked around.  This encouraged a mindset that paid little or no attention to limits.  Nothing was impossible.  Nothing!

Leap to full alert whenever you encounter a statement that begins with “At the current rate of consumption….”  Bartlett saw an article claiming that, at the current rate of consumption, U.S. coal would last 500 years.  While statements like this may technically be correct, they are meaningless when consumption is growing at an exponential rate.  He calculated that, at the actual growing rate of consumption, coal would last 46 years — which is far more meaningful information.

In 1956, Shell Oil geophysicist M. King Hubbert analyzed the trends in oil discoveries and production, and predicted that U.S. petroleum production would peak between 1966 and 1971.  Experts called him a dolt.  In fact, the peak occurred in 1970.  People who understand numbers, like Hubbert and Bartlett, possess powerful magic.

When you understand the affects of exponential growth on finite nonrenewable resources, reality becomes spooky.  Hubbert produced the following chart to illustrate the era of fossil energy extraction on a 10,000-year timeline.  The surge lasts about three centuries, and what follows is sure to be exciting and memorable.

“Population growth is not sustainable,” Bartlett insisted.  “Can you think of any problem, on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way, aided, assisted, or advanced by having larger populations at the local, state, national, or global level?”  The worst population deviant was the U.S., because our society consumes resources at an extreme rate.

Sustainable growth is an oxymoron.  Bartlett carefully explained the original meaning of sustainability — a way of life that must remain stable for millennia.  He presented 18 laws relating to sustainability, and 23 hypotheses.  He devoted a great deal of thought to sustainability, because it’s an incredibly important concept.

Today, genuine sustainability has been rudely pushed aside by the trendy and highly intoxicating silliness of ersatz sustainability, a masterpiece of magical thinking created by shameless marketing hucksters.  Bartlett lamented that the herd is convinced “that the frequent use of the adjective ‘sustainable’ is all that is needed to create a sustainable society.”  He suffered from an amazing ability to understand the obvious.

Bartlett explained the basics of exponential growth in a lecture titled Arithmetic, Population and Energy, which he gave over 1,500 times.  YouTube carries a number of versions.  It’s an illuminating way to spend an hour of your life.  Arithmetic can be fascinating, when the storyteller is a brilliant heretic.

The Essential Exponential is out of print.  Some libraries and booksellers have copies.  Much of the book is available free online, in an updated form.  Some sections present calculus equations for understanding the mechanics (which go way over my head), but many others are good old-fashioned writing, and present important ideas in a manner that’s easy to understand.  I have three favorites to recommend:

Bartlett, Albert A., The Essential Exponential!, Center for Science, Mathematics & Computer Education, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, 2004.