When I took the PDC down in Hancock, a big and growing concern of my other classmates, who actually live there, was gas drilling in the area. Catskill Mountainkeepers have put together the best summary on the issue I’ve seen. I’m linking to that in response to the Pickens Plan link (Drumbeat July 8th) on The Oil Drum. Shifting natural gas to transport doesn’t solve anything, and I’m guessing that Mr. Pickens has some $ interest in Big Wind.
Archive for the 'Energy' Category
George Monbiot finallly makes the point today in the Guardian, that I have been wanting to make about the emerging global food crisis. While some stories on the subject in recent days have mentioned the epic drought in Australia, likely due to global warming, most blame the situation on biofuel use of corn. The fact is that most corn, and indeed most food grain is fed to livestock. Livestock can eat a lot of things beside grain, but grain feed allows for factory production, where massive numbers of animals can be housed on small areas rather than free ranging on pasture. Corn-fed beef and pork are also more “marketable” than pasture-fed.
Monbiot says this:
But there is a bigger reason for global hunger, which is attracting less attention only because it has been there for longer. While 100m tonnes of food will be diverted this year to feed cars, 760m tonnes will be snatched from the mouths of humans to feed animals - which could cover the global food deficit 14 times. If you care about hunger, eat less meat.
He proposes eating farmed tilapia which is very protein-productive and efficient. I’m looking into raising a few in my new mini-pond, when it gets dug later this year. This is the first I’ve heard anyone mention tilapia outside Permaculture circles, although a commenter mentions problems with Chinese and Taiwanese farmed tilapia.
In energy descent, rather than centralized grocery shopping, fed by centralized distribution centers and trucking, fed by monoculture stockyards, fed by monoculture grain production, we need a system where most of the food is much closer to the point of consumption.
In other words, grow a garden. Farm some tilapia. Raise some chickens for eggs and perhaps meat, and maybe a goat for milk. Grain production may still be more efficient on medium to large scales, from an energy standpoint, but most industrial vegetables and fruits are clearly energy losers, even before they get shipped from Chile or California.
One point raised in the comments to Monbiot’s article indicates that the financial crisis does in fact play into the food crisis. Speculative excess capital has flowed into commodities of all kinds over the last two years and this is having a huge cumulative effect on grain prices, including energy and fertilizer input costs and a new midwestern land price bubble. Without being able to systematically untangle the skein of interrelated forcings, we can’t say for certain how much any of these factors —ethanol, oil, climate change, meat habits and speculation —directly contribute to hunger; we only know that they do.
With this post I want to complexify some of the terms that are commonly used in discussions around Peak Oil, climate change, economic viability and sustainability.
H. T. Odum shows that not all BTUs, kilocalories and quads are created equal. Since these measure heat, into which all forms of energy can be converted, they are convenience measures. However, dilute energy forms, such as solar radiation, are less able to do work than highly concentrated forms such as gasoline, TNT and high voltage electricity. Collected wood has about 0.5 Fossil Fuel Equivalents (FFE) in terms of quality. Collected sunlight calories need to be concentrated at a rate of 2000:1 FFEs through plant photosynthesis. The ability to do work determines economic as well as ecological growth.
Furthermore, he shows that there is a typical pattern in successful ecological energy systems, where a portion of high quality energy is fed back to improve the quality of a low quality energy source of greater volume. This pattern can be chained to move energy up the chain. When calculating net energy, we should consider the quality of the energy, not just raw heat equivalents.
Mollison shows that resources are not all created equal. They can be categorized based on the effects of their use on themselves and other resources. Some resources when used degrade or destroy themselves. Some, like a skill or knowledge, improve with use. Others degrade if they are not used. Some resources improve other resources with their use. An example is the one cited above, where a high quality energy source improves a lower quality source. Some resources are neutral with respect to themselves and / or others.
The worst resources degrade themselves and others with use. The extent and reversibility of this degradation, destruction or improvement indicates another dimension in grading resources. So when we talk about resource yields from use we can be more specific by identifying the downstream as well as upstream costs of resource usage. This is a largely ignored aspect of energy accounting, and is almost nowhere captured in micro-economics (though sometimes captured in macro-economic analyses).
From the foregoing we can see that waste, too, is a matter of perspective. One man’s trash, and so on. Waste is in fact simply a resource that degrades itself or other resources when used or not used.
Concentrated livestock manure is a “waste problem” under the current industrial divisions and geographical separations of livestock operation inputs and outputs.Manure is rich in nitrogen, fosters soil organisms, generates heat, and acts as water conserving mulch when spread on fields at lower concentrations.
For this reason, Permaculture says “the problem is the solution.” Also we can see that any gross accumulation of a resource, not used by the system, is a form of pollution to the next larger scale system. By this definition, even money, when highly concentrated and not reinvested in the system becomes a form of pollution.
Stuart Staniford of the Oil Drum posted yet another rosy scenario about the future of food. What has struck me about this series is the fantastic gaps, assumptions and leaps of faith Staniford takes as givens and most of the commentators go along with. To give just a brief example, he says that there’s no problem with producing nitrogen in the future, despite the fact that natural gas is a critical component in the production of ammonia, which is the critical component of all nitrogen fertilizers. No problem, we’ll just substitute the boundless renewable energy he talked about in a previous post.
David Holmgren points out that if there’s boundless energy, then all of our work in Permaculture and sustainability is probably a waste of time. There’s still that pesky global warming issue, but we can ignore it for a while longer. Nevertheless, Staniford’s posts represent a possible scenario in the future, and we need to consider it, however unlikely it is to come to fruition. Holmgren considers this view as the “green tech” solution- one among a number of possible scenarios, each of which require differing strategies.
My point here is not to take Staniford’s arguments apart. At least not yet. What’s interesting to me today is that the process of uncovering the assumptions leads to more learning. To me this is like digging a trench (to use my friend Bill’s expression). Working at the trench level of detail, close to the ground, gives a strong and coherent foundation to one’s knowledge. So while I intuitively disagree with Staniford’s conclusions, he’s providing tremendous service by defining this swiss-cheese structure, whose negative space is a patch pattern of very fertile intellectual ground.
Permaculture points out that the interesting stuff, the productive areas are at the edges and transitions. This suggests that it is not the anti-assumption that is interesting but the points at which the assumption and anti-assumption approach eachother, where the anti-assumptions spread out to touch eachother, like pioneer patches in a successional field.
I want to weigh in on the relocalization debate that has been going on for the last several weeks on The Oil Drum. The debate continued with the ArchDruid’s mixed-metaphor weigh-in on Friday. I’ve finally got some coherent thoughts about this. My argument follows.
Mollison defines yield in terms of a system, which creates both product and energy yield. Since energy is not created, according to the 1st Law of Thermodynamics, energy yield is not truly a “net” but rather the surplus energy after the system’s needs are met. This is the key measure of sustainability in a general sense.
System yield is the sum total of surplus energy produced by, stored, conserved, reused, or converted by the design. Energy is in surplus once the system itself has available all its needs for growth, reproduction and maintenance.
Cheap oil has allowed us to create really big systems, so that current agricultural grain system yields need to be measured against a system that includes oil inputs from Canada, refining in Texas, potash from Canada, nitrogen from Venezuela, processing and shipping to markets all over the world. For all practical purposes this includes the entire global ecosystem. Whether this system is in surplus is a question for another post. The point is that the scale of the system has been driven by cheap and abundant fossil fuels. Therefore, the end of cheap energy will necessitate a reduction in scale of all operations, including agriculture, if it is to be sustainable.
To Staniford’s point that BigAg can continue under improved economic conditions due to Peak Corn, at some point this cannot be argued to be sustainable. There’s a price point that will be reached if it has not done so already. Mollison’s items about all the needs for growth, reproduction and maintenance seem to indicate, in a world where 1/6 of the population live in extreme poverty, that this point has already been reached.
Relocalization can be defined as an attempt to create sustainable systems at a much smaller, more human scale. This would apply to food, money, transportation, media and other “extensions of man.” It follows then that the scale and progress of relocalization is a function of energy supply. This is not to imply that this is a linear relation; the function is necessarily complex.
This realization leads to a further question about the mechanisms and strategies for achieving relocalization. “Planning” is clearly a term with a lot of baggage, so I prefer Mollison’s term “Design.” This will still make Market Fundamentalists twitch, but the fact is the current system has been historically designed in very specific ways. Again this is subject for a future post. The IMF is a case in point, if you need one.
Donald Norman, the usability expert says there is no such thing as “no design”: there is good design or bad design. So we should start designing for a future with a much smaller scale, and the relocalization movement is attempting to do this. To the extent that we employ conscious systems design, for example using Permaculture strategies, relocalization is not a “reversalist” approach.
An important follow-on question is the pace at which re-scaling and relocalizing must take place. I would argue that this depends on whether we are in a Code Red situation or whether there is yet time to design a controlled energy descent, especially in light of Global Warming.
I’m seeing a lot of assumptions out in the Peak Oil blog traffic lately that really demand some critical response. To take a recent example, Dave Cohen yesterday wrote in Everybody’s Jumping on the Solar Bandwagon
Do we live in a world of ever flowing abundance, or do we live in a world of limits to growth?
If your answer is “abundance”, your approach to the future requires a shift in direction in a context of business as usual. If your answer is “limits”, your approach requires a shift in behavior in a context of living within your means. What follows examines possible constraints on the expansion of solar energy in the 21st century.
The assumed correct answer here is “limits.” However this doesn’t square with physics. In fact, the answer is that both are true. This is based on understanding what a system is, and what the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics actually says, and on our common thinking about natural resources and time.
What the 2nd Law says is that in a closed system not yet in equilibrium, entropy - the measure of disorder in a system - is always increasing. Clearly the Earth is not a closed system, thanks to the continuous inputs of solar energy, the vast quantities of which Cohen thoughtfully describes in detail. So from the perspective of systems thinking, the world is abundant from an energy and material perspective (since one can be converted into the other).
Systems theory has been around for a long time, and has been well-articulated in the last 70 years. One of it’s more popular incarnations has been Donella Meadows’, (et. al.) studies and books Limits to Growth and Beyond the Limits based on the systems work of Jay Forrester (Urban Dynamics, Industrial Dynamics, etc.). Big Gav recently had some interesting things to say about Limits to Growth.
Limits tried to predict, using a computer model, dynamic measures of world population, food, pollution and prosperity. Some aspects of systems theory were made clear by this work, including that systems behave in complex, non-linear and often counter-intuitive ways.
Where we come down on the side of limits is in the domain of natural resources: fossil fuels, minerals, forest and arable land for agriculture, air and water. Let me point out that the concept of “natural resource” needs further elaboration and critical analysis, being defined, as it is, from the viewpoint of economics. This analysis and the wildly undervalued way in which natural resources are priced will be the subject of a (near) future post.
Nobody (that I’ve read, heard or talked to) doubts that oil is a limited natural resource. The Peak Oil community has pointed out clearly that this limit is compounded by the shape of Hubbert’s production curve. Thus, “limit” is itself a complex concept, that has been assumed to be simple and straightforward in environmental discussions on both sides. A limit is a function of a system, not a hard and fast quantity in and of itself.
The POs also make clear that oil is basically millions of years of compressed sun-time. We have been living off our natural capital rather than natural income at least since the beginning of the fossil fuel age. They also rightly argue that the history of economics, that is of capitalism, is contiguous with the age of fossil fuels, and is dependent on many assumptions about the supply, demand and price of fossil fuel resources.
All of this discussion has profound implications for economic theory. This theory is still being worked out, by the way, no matter what Reagan-praisers and neo-Hayekian Thatcherites might say. Georgescu-Roegen is the key figure here, though his work is rarely mentioned in discussions on general economics. Not surprisingly, Georgescu-Roegen’s economic lineage inherits from Schumpeter and passes down to Herman Daly. A version of Daly’s famous “The Economy is a Wholly-owned Subsidiary of the Ecosystem” diagram can be seen here.
Underlying all this are my deep misgivings about concepts at the heart of economic theory and policy, including what we mean by cost, work, labor, value, trade, rationality, power and so on. These are the topics - energy, ecology, economics, sustainability, systems- I want to take up in the next several months. I’ve chosen to blog about them for two reasons: 1) I want your input, and 2) my method is what I would call “patch-and-mosaic”, to borrow a phrase from landscape ecology. What I mean is that I want the freedom to write topically, stochastically, in more of an essay form. My hope is that these threads and discussions turn into something more tangible, but for now my aim is to clarify our thinking on these muddy topics.
On Sunday, Sharon Astyk wrote at Casaubon’s Book about Victory Gardens. We must all be tapping into something here. There are a couple of links to sites that are promoting a new brand of Victory Garden, probably as part of the Relocalization movement. I’m going now to read the whole thing and maybe post a comment.
Hat tip to Energy Bulletin.
So WTI One-month futures hit $100 today for the first time. The end to Jerome’s countdown series. So I went back and read his second post from June 2005, which included this quote from a CERA study:
The balance of supply over demand has the potential to expand significantly over the next five years, and this could drive oil prices to the downside. If demand growth averages a relatively strong 2.2% through 2010, prices could weaken from recent record highs and slip well below $40/bbl as 2007-08 nears. If demand growth were notably weaker, a steeper price fall would be conceivable; however such a fall would likely slow capacity expansion and bring a market rebalance within two to three years.
I looked at another historic EIA (eia.doe.gov) report from around the same time predicting we would be seeing $50 prices by now. Obviously these predictions are whacked. I can’t find specific demand figures, but only China and Russia seem to be above the 2.2% growth estimate here. What didn’t happen is all the additional supply coming online that was supposed to, assumed to. Maybe the Peak Oilers are onto something…
The Guardian reveals this morning that Gordon Browne’s government is planning to move away from EU targets for renewables.
At the very end of the article is this staggering line:
Analysis by Mr Hutton’s department suggests it could cost the UK £4bn a year to achieve a 9% share of renewable energy by 2020.
£4bn a year? That’s about $8bn. This is such a tiny investment to make a major move toward sustainability that it’s pathologically insane not to do it!
Today President Bush will ask Congress for another $46bn for another 6 months in Iraq. That would pay for 6 of the 13 years for the UK to make the move.
The article also states that Germany now produces 9% from renewables, and has gotten there in the last 6 years. This is all good news. It means that the switch can be made, despite the lunatic resistance of politicians and entrenched interest. And it’s not catastrophically expensive either.
I’m working on the design of my home landscape and wanted to start doing zone and energy input planning. In looking for a solar chart of my latitude I came across this nifty University of Oregon Sunchart Online tool. Just enter your zip code, time zone and a couple of other parameters and presto! a PDF or PNG of the chart for your area.