The Physical Cliff

by Solarevolution January 03, 2013 04:20

As Washington continues to deliberate over the fiscal cliff and the much-hyped notion that the US government is sufficiently functional to avert fiscal disaster, America's attention is being diverted from a much more profound cliff-hanger looming on the horizon.

The USA, Saudi Arabia and Russia are competing to see which country can "produce" the most oil. That translates into racing to see which country will reach the bottom of the barrel first. In their frantic race to the bottom, these countries are creating havoc on the ground -- destroying aquifers, watersheds, productive land, forests -- and on the high seas -- even to the point of attempting to drill in the Arctic Ocean where extreme conditions will thwart human arrogance.

Reports of production increases can be seen as just more warnings that the race to the finish is accelerating. Sadly those fossil fuelish players have little to show for a Plan B. 

Reports of profits can be seen as thieves bragging about who got away with the biggest heist. Oil only costs what it takes to steal it from our children's children's children. The notion that "they will come up with something to replace oil" is thoughtless and irresponsible. Tell those guys to be careful: they might stub their toes trying to kick the can down the road that far. The physical cliff may be closer than they think.          

In the decades to come, the fiscal cliff of December 31, 2012 will be remembered as a picnic when it is contrasted to the fall from glory which these great nations will experience as they slide down the physical cliff of rapidly depleting oil / gas / coal. 

The debate about Sandy is heating up even if the planet isn't

by Solarevolution November 02, 2012 17:08
The debate about SuperStorm Sandy is heating up, whether the whole planet is or not. Here's what some have to say:
There is no doubt that warming is occurring but I am unclear that we understand that there is any clear correlation between warming and a bad storm although I understand the arguments for it.  I just don't think it is scientific.

I hear a hard edge in those who stridently assure us that big storms like Sandy are related to climate change.

I hear that too. I suspect fear enters into the picture for a lot of thoughtful people who have the skills and sufficient access to information resources to observe, think and act. Frankly, anyone who is not freaking out is just not paying attention. It's not just happening in New Jersey and New York. My family and friends in Sweden are in the most affected northern climate zone and they are experiencing dramatic weather changes first hand. As we rode through the Cordillera Blanca [White Range], my friends in Peru pointed out the now brown slopes. Glacier National Park had over 100 glaciers, now less than 30, and is predicted to be glacier free within 10 years. You can argue it's because of cattle in feed lots instead of cars, or chopping down the Amazon instead of burning black stones, but anyone who attributes these drastic changes to anything but human activity is delusional. We have adequate science to prove that the climate is way out of whack; how much is getting to be a detail.

I'm not suggesting people become apoplectic, but it is appropriate that we recognize the potentially devastating consequences and weigh our responses accordingly. There are those who have the skills and resources to sound the alarm about climate change. And logically, just as we don't have all the answers about peak oil (etc.), they don't have all the answers about climate change. That's a given. 
If you believe it, fine.  But acknowledge that is a belief and not a fact.
I don't base my actions on fairy tales. I operate by certain principles to avoid such traps:
  • I study issues carefully and read scientific articles, and employ journalism primarily to lead me to valid sources, not to jump to conclusions. I look beyond the sources to the support they receive, and apply Jim Hansen's adage: "It's difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it."
  • I devoted years of my youth to learning the analytic tools I would need to discern fact from fiction. As Winston Churchill allegedly put it, "Not everyone is entitled to an opinion; in order to have an opinion, you have to know something."
  • I apply those tools as things come up; I do the math. I have a well-honed "crap detector" and it comes in mighty handy: I encounter B.S. just about every day.
  • And when in doubt, I apply the precautionary principle. I didn't make this up. It is statutory in the European Union.

There are ways to get to the heart of the matter. 

you may be right but you don't know.
If we are in doubt about climate change, then under the precautionary principle, it is our responsibility to err on the side of caution, in this case to jettison our addition to burning stones at all costs, just in case the IPCC is right. If they are wrong, no harm can come of it. In fact, the consequence will be on the upside: a little more oil will be spared for our children. It is our moral obligation to do so anyway. If in the process we mitigate climate change, even a little, so much the better. They will thank us for holding to our principles in the face of ridicule or worse. 

And of course there's the argument that things are going to get very much worse as humanity crashes into peak oil, even if the climate tames down completely. There will be die off (thank you, Jay Hanson). There will be climate refugees. Do we therefore turn cynical? Do we sit on our hands?

My hat is off to those who are designing and building artifacts for a world beyond oil. They may be using oil / gas / coal to do so; they need not be apologetic about that. There is so much to do that they can go where they are welcomed, not where they face cynicism or worse. With success, there will be little post-carbon pockets of sanity, which with a little luck will propagate. No, they won't reach everywhere before things go really bad. It's like building life boats. Better than going down with the ship of fools on fuels.

It's a Beautiful World

by Solarevolution July 12, 2012 17:42
How do we communicate the message of peak oil to the curious, the uninformed, the skeptic?
Well, that depends upon the message. Is ours a message of fear? Is it fantasy? Is it a message of hope? Is it a call to action?

Here's an option to consider: Lamentations begone!

Way back then

My seventh grade teacher would habitually give us her backhanded praise, "Light dawns upon darkness," as we went through our lessons. In Sunday School I had learned the difference between truth and lies (not to be confused with fact and fiction).

I learned another important lesson in the Boy Scouts. We were taught to leave the campground better than we found it. It meant a little extra work to pick up after ourselves ... and the unconscious souls who had been there before us, leaving a big mess in their wake.

Fast forward...

Fast forward a half century. Without a doubt I now live in a world that is a lot more complex than the campgrounds of my youth. Leaving a better world for the next batch of campers isn't quite as easy as it once seemed. My Scoutmaster would be arrested today if he were driving to Yosemite with 30 kids in the back of that stake-side truck. Nor had I noticed at the time that the truck's exhaust was causing the climate to change, nor that the global fuel tank gauge was dropping fast.

Where do we stand now?

So here I sit today, hanging out with a bunch of savvy folks, imagining a world beyond oil. It's a little scary at times.

Some of the savvy folks are imagining a dystopia. It's hard to fault them for that. All you have to do is look out your window at the world, and you will readily see lots of things falling right apart. Some places are flooding worse than ever; other places are burning, with record highs. Low down depression lurks behind many a paycheck... and it attacks mercilessly where once there was plenty.

More than a million people die in traffic accidents every year; ten million and more are seriously injured. Turf wars (over oil and minerals for cars) add to the numbers and the suffering. In simple terms, the so-called autonomous vehicle ("automobile") has degenerated into a very bad design. Clearly Karl Benz and Henry Ford had the best of intentions, and their inventions served humanity well for a century. But just as the car rolled the horse off the streets a century ago, so must the car be driven out of town in this new century... or pushed all the way to the junk yard when it runs out of fuel. Keeping the same form (an artifact of the oil age) while switching from fuel to electricity might be likened to changing the horse's feed from hay to kerosene so it might run faster. What's wrong with this picture?!

Transferring the American dream to China and Indian is about to turn into a nightmare as both countries compete to see which can gobble up, one-time-only, more natural resources than the other. And they think it's only fair for us to sit on the sidelines to watch them go at it. We have our troubles; these countries will be unfettered to mimic us and chase after their own troubles.

Archeologists have uncovered enough of the past to realize that humans evolved to form a primitive society known as the Stone Age. That hasn't changed very much, realistically. Future archeologists no doubt will call ours the Burn Stone Age.

This race to the bottom is getting pretty insane. Is there any way out?

A Better World

At a recent talk in San Francisco, John Reed, Chairman of the MIT Corporation, former Chair of CitiGroup and the New York Stock Exchange, was asked, "There are a number of young alumni here ... [asking] ... how can they be successful in their careers?"

John Reed replied, "I always could dream. I had a sense of where we wanted to go. And I greatly believed that if you can interpolate it is much better than extrapolating.

"Most managers sorta say, 'Where are we today?' Then they sort of extrapolate, and say, 'We could be a little more efficient; we could gain a little market share; we could do a little this; we could do a little that.' And they spend their life trying to extrapolate from some core to, you know, being somewhat better.

"... I think you gotta have a vision of where you'd like to be and then you've gotta say, 'I'm gonna use my efforts to get from here to there.'

And I must say it served me well in my business career. I think it served the institutions I was working with well and if I had any recommendations for a younger person, it would be, "Dream enough, be realistic, figure out what it is you would love to be, and then figure out how you're gonna get there. Don't just try..."

To leave a brighter world for our descendants, we must begin envisioning a better way to live. We can't dwell incessantly on what a miserable mess we are leaving for them. That's self-indulgence, at a time when we need all hands on deck. A persistent example is to see so many wringing their hands about the intermittency of renewables. This is a bit like complaining that there weren't enough oars on the Titanic's lifeboats.

Since it will be a world without oil (coal, gas), we must envision that: a world beyond oil (coal, gas). What might that world look like? As John Reed said, let's create a vision of where we'd like to be and then let's interpolate -- figure out how to get there. Dwelling on the past and extending that model into the future (extrapolating) isn't going to get us very far. We might consider our accomplishments or lack thereof in light of our core message.

At the dawn of the World Wide Web in 1994, I staked a claim to my vision of a better world -- -- building upon Ernest Callenbach's vision of an ecologically sound utopia. Once we abandon the unwieldy and outmoded artifacts of the fossil fuel era, I envision a world that is comfortably powered by solar energy. I envision a world where expectations have changed such that we have learned to do more with less in order to meet the needs of all people, accepting the challenge to find ways to stretch natural resources ten-fold, and to stop burning rocks like tenants burning the landlord's picket fence to stay warm through the cold winter. Let the sun shine in!!

If we as peak oil aware folks want to gain market share, we will envision a better future.

[And I reiterate my challenge. I'm all ears to hear about any alternative to my vision which is constructive, plausible and durable. No "over unity" schemes in defiance of the Second Law. No fair kicking the can down the road. Belly to the bar.]

A vision without a task is a dream; a task without a vision is drudgery; a vision with a task is the hope of the world. (Inscribed on the wall of a church in Sussex, England, circa 1730, posted at )

Burning rocks to get around

by Solarevolution June 25, 2012 04:27
Listen up!    
Unprecedented economic expansion over the past century has been powered by abundant and relatively inexpensive oil and other fossil fuels.  How would the U.S. and global economy respond to an oil supply crisis and the prospect of diminishing oil supplies?  What would economic “growth” and “development” look like in a future with less oil?

 I think this might be the time for me to highlight the theme of equity (in particular, international- and inter-generational equity).

That statement, "... in a future with less oil," is hinting in the direction of "oil continues to be treated as a fuel." Hmmm. If there is no awareness of the value of oil, not for burning up one-time-only, but as a substance for long term use by our progeny, what right do we have to tie up people's time talking about an economy? What is an economy without leaving behind some resources for a next generation to take over?

Where do we weave this fundamental into the peak oil story? I for one am coming to loath the continuing using the term "fossil fuels." We are burning stones to get around?! How do you explain that to your grandchildren? We are so shortsighted to consume these resources that belong to their future.

I'm probably going to drive to town soon, and jump in an airplane before the year is up. Shame on me. The point though is to put our heads together, to find common ground, so that collectively,  we can put a new spin on oil, to begin to treat it as a valuable resource, too precious to burn. Might that perspective serve well to transform our efforts into a more noble cause?

Today we look back in disgust at whaling for lamp oil. How primitive to kill those magnificent sentient leviathans just to light up a room. What will the beyond-oil people of the future think of us?!

Are fossil fuels superior to renewables?

by Solarevolution February 15, 2012 00:46
I read this on The Oil Drum.
"... fossil fuels are qualitatively superior on the matrix categories..."
It all depends on what qualities one cherishes. I cherish clean, quiet, powerful. My matrix I suppose would differ from the Oil Drum author's. In fact, I set forth such a matrix years ago: Scoreboard.

One day, the notion of burning fuels to move things will seem as primitive as cooking a meal in Manhattan at a campfire on the floor in the kitchen. Yes, fossil fuels are compact, but not as compact as electricity delivered by wire. Fuels are explosive too, whether fossil or bio, and it is absurd to have these dangerous substances held in conveyances being hurdled along at highway speed. Now please don't be confused; I'm not advocating EVs with batteries – yet another primitive notion for the urban landscape.

Teams around the world are designing transportation systems based on solar energy, with PV panels directly overhead to meet 100% of the systems' energy demand (on average, net-metered). Teams are designing these systems to place small, on-demand vehicles above the street, where they won't run into people, pets or deer. This is not a pipe dream

"... and that transportation without fossil fuels will be hard..."

Maybe that's true in the USA, but not in Europe. Really, how hard can it get?! When was the last time you looked at a freeway cloverleaf? That's what's hard: accommodating a free-wheelin' half-drunk cowboy in a 3-ton behemoth with a wide margin for error – 12' per lane?! – plus a shoulder or barricade. Tons of steel and concrete can be eliminated by greatly streamlining the urban transit system using this emerging technology, with 200 kg podcars on switched computerized networks above the streets. One day we will be jackhammering the streets to turn them into parks where kids can play again, in their village, without getting run over by the above-mentioned cowboy or a choo-choo train cleaving the community in half.

We can do better. Come on, it's time to roll up our sleeves and stop kicking the can down the road for our children's children to figure out what to do. It is obvious: the age of fossil fuels is moribund, and it's time we stopped killing over a million people a year (globally in traffic) with a transport system design that's completely out of step with peak oil realities – and the reality of 21st century technology that is 10X better in so many dimensions: 10X less weight, 10X less energy, 10X greater safety.

 Join the solarevolution!

Reducing global CO2 emissions the easy way

by Solarevolution February 13, 2012 02:35

Reducing global CO2 emissions could soon become a lot easier. Our fossil fuel supplies are in rapid decline, and since humanity is doing so little to address this decline, in more graphic terms, we might call this "sticking our heads in the tar sand."

Climate change activists wring their hands about increased emissions:

What Will the U.S. Energy Mix Look Like in 2050 If We Cut CO2 Emissions 80%?

As if we have a choice! Reducing carbon emissions 80% is a given if total energy consumption worldwide drops 80% due simply to depletion (and not just in the USA; we’re all in this together). With aggregate oil, gas and coal depletion from existing fields already reaching 5% or more per year, this isn’t a flippant scenario. Resource depletion has hardly been mentioned in the climate activist community, but depletion is as real as climate change. 

Market penetration of renewables in 2050 may well be close to 100%. But that may not be such a happy picture, as 100% of then could be more like the 20% of now.

In 2050 our descendants are likely to be using a lot less energy, period. Will they be happy about that? Not necessarily. Between now and then, fossil water aquifers will also be severely depleted; exhausted fuel supplies will not likely be on hand to pump these exhausted water sources from the deep. Since producing meat is so much more energy intensive than vegetables, it may come down to a choice between meat for the few or veggies for the many. Think about it.

I fret about humanity's ability and desire to find alternatives to fossil fuels while there's still enough fuel left to build a robust civilization equipped to survive beyond the age of oil. It won't happen if we continue to invest in fossil-fuel-dependent infrastructure, hoping that a long term solution will magically land in our children's laps in 2050. 

Humanity has been kicking the can down the road for decades, in the USA since Carter. If we want our children and their children in turn to thrive, we in our time must begin figuring out ways to do a lot more with a lot less. I call that notion 10X. We are seeing solutions that use 10X less energy for specific energy services (light, mobility, …). These will actually bring us a better quality of life … if, and that’s a big if, we actually get busy to transform our society from oil to ingenuity

 Of course, it is just the opposite for energy-empoverished countries like Nigeria (with 12 watts average electric power per capita) or Afghanistan (with 1 watt per capita). These impoverished countries will have a better quality of life when energy use is 10X greater than it is today. Where energy use now is 100X to 1,000X less than in the OECD countries, an increase in supply of 10X would greatly help to create a higher quality of life.

A hundred years of natural gas?

by Solarevolution January 25, 2012 02:49

The President of the United States has been duped. Last night he told the nation that the USA now has 100 years of natural gas reserves, thanks to new technology.  

No doubt his rhetoric was based on recent enthusiastic reports claiming that indeed the US has 100 years of natural gas. But did anyone in the White House notice who wrote those reports? Is it possible the authors hold investments in natural gas? What do they have to say about the consistently low yields of new natural gas wells?  Where does objectivity come into play? If it's true, why then is the USA still importing natural gas from Canada?

President Obama made 100 years sound like a long time. If he's right, what will America's grandchildren do 101 years from now if it's all used up by then?

Is the USA a hundred year flash-in-the-pan natural-gas-powered civilization? If not, it's time to panic! The USA needs to find an alternative to burning up all its natural gas in a couple more generations. 








If it's not true and there's less natural gas than advertised, then Americans must be even more conservative and really panic!

Either way, whether the nation may run out of gas in 10 years or 100 years, it's time to slam on the brakes and find viable alternatives to natural gas now, and not keep kicking the can down the road.

What are we shoveling with shovel ready solutions?

by Solarevolution September 09, 2011 08:29

I learned a new phrase a few days ago, "drop-in fuels." Leave the fuel-hogging devices all the same -- ask no questions about efficiency -- and concoct a new fuel to keep feeding the hogs. (On small islands in ancient Polynesia, it was discovered that hogs were competing for the same food as humans, and they were exterminated. Oh, that we could learn such lessons from our ancestors.)

The military is looking for a way to fuel jets, tanks, personnel carriers, etc., without oil, and the politicians are providing the rhetoric to suspend the laws of physics until they get re-elected.

Just as with the flawed notion of "shovel ready," we have institutionalized business-as-usual (BAU) remedies which have no future. Rebuilding America, fixing our infrastructure, etc., is all about constructing stranded assets -- artifacts of the age of oil which will last 50-100-200 years longer than the fuel that is needed to operate them. Pity. 

What is the alternative?

  • Simultaneously with putting solar panels on our roofs, we must swap out our incandescent bulbs and put in LEDs that use 10% as much energy. The same goes for the efficiency of refrigerators and washing machines. We can do better.
  • In the haste to convert our cars to electric propulsion...
    • Did anyone notice that the car itself is only about 1% efficient? (Most of the fuel is used to move metal. We use a ton of metal to move a person!)
    • With help from other 2 & 4 wheeled contraptions, the car kills a million people worldwide every year and maimes countless others.
    • The electric vehicle uses as much in materials as a conventional car -- or more. There are no savings in materials.
    We did not speed up the horse by feeding it on the newly discovered fuel, kerosene. We created the horseless carriage. As the horseless carriage scaled up, we didn't notice its limitations. We now know how to achieve mobility without oil, and we can solve the other flaws of our transportation system at the same time. Getting off oil is liberating, not confining.

If we do all these things and more, we won't be needing the over-powered military machinery which is being used mostly to protect our sources of oil. 

We have a unique opportunity in the context of peak oil to redesign our infrastructure, to transform personal transport to 100% renewables -- and while we are at it, eliminate the fundamental flaws in our present system.

First principles:

  • grade separation (put fast-moving vehicles above pedestrians and bicyclists with podcars or below with subways),
  • automated on fixed guideways,
  • dispatchable at will, not scheduled,
  • solar powered,
  • light weight, aerodynamic,
  • consuming less than 100 watt-hours per vehicle-km.

You don't know how to do that? If you jettison the oil, you will be able to figure it out. Don't leave it to future generations to struggle in an oil-depleted world. It is time for our generation to become responsible. Let's not kick the can down the road to the next generation.

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