Last week we have explored the basics of complex adaptive systems. Now let’s take a look under the hood and find out what role(s) energy has to play in such a system and see what are the options for adoption in light of the changes ahead.
What is energy?
In my previous post I’ve showed you how complex systems form themselves around the use of energy — but what it is actually? It is very hard to define, in fact it is better understood through the forms it takes: it is the heat and light from the sun, the power generated by our engines, the movement of parts, machines, cars; the work it performs. It is all around us and in us: in our every breath, in the warmth of our skin, in the strength of our muscles. Without it there is no heat, movement or light. No work could be done. It is thus the goal of every system to use — or control the use — of it the most: the more you have or control the bigger, stronger, powerful and ultimately more successful you will become.
As is with many other things in life, energy is not evenly distributed though — so not everyone gets an equal bite of it. And unfortunately not every bite is equally tasty. It has a certain quality to it: the more concentrated it is the more useful it could become for anyone to use. A slice of sweet and tasty watermelon can serve as good example here:
In this example slice you’ve got only 1 bite of the tastiest sweetest part, and as you eat your way through the rest of it, you will have more and more bites of less and less tasty stuff. The last 10 or so bites are really “ugh” compared to that very first single bite. The same is true with energy: you have a very few concentrated sources, and a lot-lot more diluted stuff (full of additional impurities which you have to get rid of first — like the seeds in the watermelon). In fact this property can be observed in almost every area of life (from mining to earth quakes or tornadoes): it is called the power law.
This is the biggest problem with energy: the Universe has relatively few concentrated sources of it; most of it is in the form of cosmic background radiation. In the end, this is the fate of all energy in the cosmos: it starts as concentrated heat in stars and either gets transformed into other forms of energy (like kinetic, or chemical energy) and then gets wasted, or gets straight to it’s end form: waste heat and radiation (and thus becoming totally useless). Every system — be it biological or mechanical — works by tapping into this transformation process and use a small portion of this energy flow for its own purposes.
The first and second law
The workings of energy are so universal across the known universe (the solar system included) that it can be formulated in two simple laws:
#1 Energy cannot be created or destroyed
#2 As energy is transformed, more and more of it is wasted
This means that the total amount of energy in the universe is constant, it merely shifts forms — but by doing so it increasingly gets degraded into its ultimate form: waste heat. In this final form its capacity for work tends towards zero — thus it becomes useless to any system as a source of power.
The only question for any system is then: how effectively can it tap into this transformation process and use the most free energy before it gets wasted? A regular petrol-engine car serves as a perfect example: it takes it’s energy by burning gas in its engine and convert a portion (roughly 1/4 or 25%) of that energy into motion — and yes, that means 3/4 of the energy gets wasted as excess heat right away. At the next red light though all of that one quarter in the form of kinetic free energy (which remains after loosing some of it to air drag, tire wear etc.) has to be transformed back to heat by the breaks (in other words: it gets dissipated). That’s all to it: in the end we’ve transformed (dissipated) all of the energy stored in petrol to low density waste heat.
Can we condense energy?
If we want to make more use of energy we can and in some applications we must concentrate it, but pointing to the 2. law of thermodynamics above, only at the cost of even more energy (and thus the production of even more waste heat). Take uranium for example: it is a very concentrated fuel, a few kilograms of it can power entire towns for years. In fact, all U-235 has been created in massive stars (much bigger than our Sun) with a tremendous amount of “waste” heat in the process (if you look at the process only from uranium’s perspective only). A few billion years later it got mined on a planet (by burning fossil fuels into waste heat), then refined and enriched by using a lot of electricity (which is converted energy coming from the burning of fossil fuels and thus dissipated as waste heat in the end too). A lot of fuss to produce a little uranium 235 which is then used to boil water and run a steam engine.
Another example for concentrating energy is solar panels. A lot of minerals (mostly iron, copper, and silica) needs to be mined, refined, heated, melted, manufactured into panels, then transported and installed — all this activity today is made available by the already “pre-concentrated” energy from fossil fuels.
How much pre-concentrated? Just compare the heat emanating from burning coal to sunlight hitting the palm of your hand. This is a great comparison: we are dealing with a relatively little amount of high density energy from fossil fuels compared to the enormous amount of low density energy coming from the Sun — perfectly fitting our watermelon model on a large scale across energy sources as well.
This job of pre-concentration was done for millions of years by plants using the light of the Sun — to be compressed and cooked by Earth in millions of years into coal gas and oil… While in the case of solar panels our civilization is supposed to do this hard work within a couple of years – using a large part of the hard earned energy in the process. This is why it’s magical thinking to say that solar power is the cheapest form of energy and can replace fossil fuels… As long as we have these dirty fuels, solar is cheap. After they are gone, it’s a completely different story: the world has yet to see a photovoltaic panel made (mined, refined, heated, melted, manufactured, transported and installed) by using renewable energy only. If they cannot be made this way, as I suspect, they become no more sustainable than the fuels they aim to replace.
As we have seen in the examples above the use of energy is really a one way street: most of the time systems go ahead burning it, but if they want to reverse the process there is a huge price to pay. As I indicated above complex systems try to burn all energy they can, the fastest way they can (as much as constraints allow) in order to be the first to tap the next unit of energy. If a system were to lag behind in this competition for energy, there would be little left for it. This is called the maximum power principle.
Fortunately there are a lot of constraints in this process. First it is the competition itself: actors are keeping each other in check to keep the balance and the party going for as long as possible (like lions killing just enough grass eaters to prevent them from turning the savanna to an empty desert). Another tactic to keep energy dissipation in check is cooperation, so everyone gets its share (but never all of it).
The second constraint is the quality (density) of the energy source. The higher its energy content the bigger (and more complex) systems grow around it. The bigger they grow, the faster they burn energy and in the end, the bigger they fall. There are balanced ways of energy use (like in the savanna example above) and there are unbalanced uses – which never goes without its consequences.
Food (as a source of energy) eaten by people exemplify this principle perfectly: hunter-gatherers had only lean (low fat) meat, chewy roots, and small berries on an average day (big sweet fruits or a fat mammoth was a rare feast). They maintained their way of life for tens of thousands of years — but built no skyscrapers either. They had a lot of leisure time, but little in terms of surplus energy and materials.
Mesopotamians on the other hand have found a much more concentrated energy source (grains) and could store surplus energy in the granary. This enabled them in turn to build huge stone walled temples and set up an army to obtain more land. In other words they formed a structure (an empire) to dissipate (eat and burn) all the surplus energy from grains and turn more of the land into producing more grain (a nice positive feedback loop). They grew until they’ve lost their source of energy (fertile soil producing wheat) — and their system collapsed as a result. After a fall of their empire they had to move down the river and start a new one… Kingdoms came one after another until the last empire (Babylon) hit the sea. (They lacked the technology to follow their eroded top soil carried down by the river under the sea.) Mesopotamia was a textbook example of a self organized complex adaptive system going through series of growth, stability and collapse phases (each lasting a mere couple of hundred years) — presenting a typical punctuated equilibrium in the process.
A couple of thousand years (and many more empires) later our current western civilization found an even more dense energy source in the form of fossil fuels and now is in the process of — literally — burning itself through it. The current problem (besides heating up our planet in the process) is that the flow of easy to get sweet crude oil and black anthracite coal has begun to wane: we have already ate the center of the watermelon. What is left takes more and more energy to obtain and process, leaving a steadily shrinking amount of surplus energy for the entire civilization to run on. Even though it might look like that we have more than half of the recoverable fossil fuels left, it is mostly lower quality heavy sour oils and tar sands. Both of which are high in sulfur — the seeds in our watermelon example – which we have to get rid of first before we can use the rest as fuel.
The cost of energy
This quickly leads us to the cost of getting energy — but not in terms of money (this concept of paper wealth is useless when dealing with the law of physics). Rather, what is more important for complex dissipative structures (from lions to human civilizations), is how much energy do they need to spend to get the next dose of energy? Does it worth for a lion to run (and thus spend a lot of energy) in order to catch a mouse? Certainly not. So how do we calculate if an effort to get energy worth the energy invested?
EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested) is the measure by which we can at least roughly estimate the costs and benefits of an activity. (Lions do this instinctively — they might try to catch a mouse, but give up soon.)
An EROEI of 10:1 means that we can obtain 10 units of energy for 1 unit invested. Various energy sources have different returns (see this study if you are interested in the details). As for the big picture take a look at the chart below:
It all looks good on paper, right? Over 90% of the energy extracted remains for civilization to use? Great! Well, as always there is a catch here: these calculations were made for the well-head or the mine’s mouth. As the study (linked above) explains: it is one thing to have 90 units of energy from oil after spending 10 for drilling or digging for the black gold. It is quite another, how much remains of this 90 when it finally reaches the end user. After deducting the energy cost of refinement, fuel transport and infrastructure maintenance little more the 20 units is left for consumption. And remember, machines mining coal, copper and iron ore etc. are all running on refined oil (diesel), not to mention transportation, or agriculture. What is still left from these 20 units (after all energy expenditures required by the industry was deducted) can be filled into your car’s fuel tank. So when EROEI starts to fall under 10:1 (or 90% surplus) it quickly eats into the energy available for these processes.
The trend of EROEI is not reassuring either: it is falling with time as we eat up easy to access, easy to refine sources and replace them with hard to access, hard to refine ones. The surplus energy provided by oil has dropped 3% points in 7 years, and keeps on falling. Together with a soon to be falling total supply this is going to be a problem (to say the least) affecting every aspect of our lives. As always though, this is a slow process taking decades to run its course, but eventually when the problem of declining net energy surfaces no one will be able to stop it.
Side effects to using energy
Besides producing waste heat, the use of energy has another side effect: pollution. In our world today this mainly translates to CO2, but it doesn’t stop there. Whenever energy is used to mine minerals, melt steel, manufacture goods etc. additional pollution is created. When you turn energy off, all of this goes away immediately (remember the first wave of COVID-lockdowns in 2020?). No matter what type of energy is being used: it will cause unintended harm anyway. Nuclear? Radioactive waste. Electricity? Mining mountains of metals leaving acid-lakes of waste behind. As long as our civilization uses such high amounts of energy (over 170,000 TWh per year) the pollution problem will not go away, only shift forms.
Do we have a choice then? Can we reduce our energy use to get rid of pollution? Well, before you can do that, you need energy to keep things from falling apart too: the second law above has a clause for matter and information as well. In simple terms: order, concentration and purity of materials (and information) tends to degrade with time — this is entropy. A practical example to explain this process is a sand castle. Imagine what happens to a sand castle left on the beach (assuming no one tears it down intentionally): it slowly dries out, small features break off and within a matter of days the entire castle turns into a regular heap of sand. The information it contained (how many towers did it have, how tall or how wide it was etc.) is lost together with the order between the grains of sand. Wind and waves will carry the grains along, laying them evenly across the beach. Entropy in other words is thus a measure of increasing disorder and randomness.
The good news is, that you can turn back entropy for a given period of time. All you need to do, is to be on the beach constantly repairing your castle, building back lost features whenever a gust of wind or a wave comes. Said differently: you have to spend energy regularly to keep entropy from destroying your work.
Natural systems are no exceptions either: disorder and disfunctionality rises within creatures too with time (this is what we call ageing) and when a creature eventually yields to entropy and dies it provides food (energy) and nutrients (materials) for other creatures to grow and complete their cycle. Nothing gets wasted, and the constant flow of energy from the sun keeps the wheels of life rolling, keeping entropy at bay. Can the same thing be told about human civilizations with their internal structures like roads and high voltage transmission lines? Most of the time the answer us yes, but there is a price to pay.
Every complex adaptive system has it’s internal infrastructure carrying energy to every part of it and removing waste products (the side effect of energy use). Take a modern city for example: a network of roads and transmission lines provide it with the energy it needs (both for humans and their machines), while a sewage system together with the road network takes care of removing its waste products. Just like in any living organism.
Both in the case of living things like fungus and cities like New York (as well as galaxy clusters) systems develop their internal structure around the flows and hubs of energy. The similarity in infrastructure “design” — for a lack of a better word — is so high, that it is very hard to tell which one is which; take a look at it yourself. Another great example that we are living in a complex adaptive system of our own making.
The bad news is that the second law applies to man made networks too. In the lack of constant maintenance our infrastructure degrades just like anything else and gives way to entropy. Roads develop potholes, electric grids fail at an increasing rate (proportional to their age) — similar to aging living organisms.
The life expectancy of human infrastructure networks are determined by the materials used. Some of the Roman road network is still in use thanks to the high craftsmanship and quality of stones used. Modern asphalt pavement has a much shorter life though; just like in concrete structures the binding between the grains of sand and stone break up within a couple of decades giving way to water which then freezes in winter and chips away the road surface or parts of the structure. Bridges made of steel are no exception either: water eventually find its way around the paint and rust will develop, weakening the structure.
At first it is enough to repaint the bridge or fill in minor cracks and potholes in the pavement. Later though the little damages add up and the cost of repair (both in terms of paper wealth (money) and real energy / materials) will increase exponentially. After a certain age it becomes cheaper to build a new road or bridge than to keep repairing the old one. This age is around 70 years (plus minus a couple of decades) depending on the structure.
In order to measure up the task of rebuilding ahead of us let’s see what was going on 70 years ago: the economy was growing like never before. It was the roaring 1950’s — the post war boom in the US, Europe and many other parts of the world. Many highways, bridges, tunnels, roads, piping, electricity networks etc. were built at that time adding a great boost to further GDP growth. Today, if we were to replace all of these networks we were not adding any further growth potential to the economy: we would simply end up having what we already have (only in a better condition). On the other hand, if we do nothing the whole system falls apart.
Shrinking surplus energy
Growth of these networks didn’t stop in the 1950’s though: it continued, and continues still to this day. Due to this expansion the maintenance and repair of this huge infrastructure requires an ever-expanding budget of energy and raw materials — on an exponential scale (remember 3–4% annual GDP and the corresponding infrastructure growth results in a doubling of every 20 years). As the available net energy starts to decline (due to worse and worse EROEI and gradual depletion) network maintenance will put an additional, exponential pressure on surplus energy, making it disappear faster than expected (see the chart below). The only “option” to stave this off for a few more years is to neglect infrastructure repair. My bet is that governments will focus on shiny new projects instead of maintenance to retain an illusion of growth, while letting the countryside slip back to the early decades of the 20th century.
As the recent example of the Italian cable car accident shows: companies will also be facing the hard choice of ever costlier repairs vs risking the lives of the customers. Morally the answer could not be simpler. In practice though the only other option is to raise prices (and loose customers) or go bankrupt. Such is life in an aging civilization.
A modelling example
In order to illustrate these points let me share with you a study made on quantifying and calculating the workings of the human enterprise; reaching conclusions purely from a mathematical modelling of our behavior. It’s titled: Long-run evolution of the global economy: 1. Physical basis by Timothy J. Garrett. How the entire world economy was managed to put into a simple physical model really struck me with an awe of wonder:
You can see the human system (the global economy) in the middle square. Its size depends on the width of its Energy Reserves (represented as a waterfall) and of a similar flow of Material Reserves. It can also be calculated (using this model) what will be the effect of the eventual degradation in the quality of energy (as well as materials) in the process following the second law of thermodynamics. The outcome couldn’t be put in a more concise way:
Linking physical to economic quantities comes from a fixed relationship between rates of global energy consumption and historical accumulation of global economic wealth. When growth rates approach zero, civilization becomes fragile to externalities, such as natural disasters, and is at risk for accelerating collapse.
If you are (still) interested in the details, I encourage you to read the entire study. Even if the mathematics within seems to be too high, read the text in between – it explains a lot. Be warned though: there is no sugarcoating on top or magic bullet solutions offered, just a plain and honest description of outcomes.
Adaption – new energy resources
Wait, there must be something we can do! If renewables do not cut it, then Hydrogen will do… or Thorium… if not, then Fusion! Well, let’s see if we can adapt to (or even turn back) a decline in net energy by implementing these technologies.
Let’s start with the ‘hydrogen economy’. Well, no matter how often the arch-mages of technology try to invoke it, it still remains what it is: an illusion. There are many objective reasons to this. Some of them are admitted by technology evangelists (marked with an A at the end of the statement), but the most serious issues are simply ignored (marked with an I). First, H2 cannot be found in nature (A) – it’s too light and flammable; either escaping the atmosphere or reacting with oxygen upon release. So, it has to be produced with – you guessed right – using energy (A). It doesn’t matter if you make it from natural gas or from water by electrolysis, hydrogen is an energy sink (I). The situation is especially „interesting” when the electricity needed is supposed to be produced by solar photovoltaics (which itself is on the brink of the breakeven point in terms of EROEI) – placed conveniently in North-Africa (where the most „stable” states on Earth can be found together with their „abundant” water supplies to be turned into H2) (I)… Well, a paper dog has a higher chance of succeeding in chasing an asbestos cat through the burning pits of hell – as the saying goes. But wait, there is more: H2 is the smallest molecule in the Universe and tends to escape containers (it even finds its way into steel making it brittle) and thus it is wasteful to store (I). In other words you loose energy in production, compression, forwarding and storage (I). Finally: so far only Platinum (a rare and expensive metal subject to depletion (I)) based fuel cells had a chance turning back H2 into electricity at a reasonable efficiency. Some estimate the total loss of energy in the complete cycle to 60-70%. In other words if you have 100 Watts of electricity to start with then generate, compress, transport, store H2 with it and finally convert it back to electric current via a fuel cell you get 30–40W max. (Sounds realistic to me, but this topic too would well deserve a decent research.) This would yield an EROEI <3 for the entire renewables to hydrogen to electricity cycle which is wholly incompatible with a complex industrial system – like what we have today (I).
Next on our list is Thorium. This technology, aimed at producing Uranium-233 fuel (by bombarding Thorium with fast neutrons) for special nuclear reactors, was fully developed in the 1960's – yet it only made its way into only a handful of experimental reactors around the world in the past half a century. Not even China considers it seriously, the investment plans in this type of nuclear technology are dwarfed by that of the normal Uranium based capacity increase, not to mention the coal industry… The reason is two-fold: 1. existing coal plants have to be kept fed – they cannot be abandoned overnight. This would cause a series of blackouts and civil unrest. 2. Building a new reactor type (this piece of tech doesn’t work with old reactors) costs (and risks) a lot in terms of already dwindling supplies of materials and net energy – we are talking about a 10+ years project with a questionable outcome. Even if were to prove this technology’s viability, it is worth to note the „watermelon model” applies to Thorium as well: there might be a lot of this element in Earth’s crust, but concentrated ores tend be rare and finite, not to mention the environmental cost of mining for yet another resource.
This leaves us with fusion as our last „hope”, which itself is nothing new either. It has been promised to make electricity „too cheap to meter” for half a century now – still, it is told to be ready in another 30 to 50 years from now. The reasons are complex, mainly due to physics, but resource constraints apply here as well. Let me explain. In order to keep the multi-million degrees hot plasma from burning through its casing, an electromagnetic field is needed to keep it in the center of the reactor, away from its walls. The resource-problem comes from the magnets generating the electromagnetic field: these are liquid nitrogen cooled superconductors built from literally tons of rare earth metals. Needless to say, no country could produce the raw materials alone to make such a reactor, the biggest economies of the world had to make a consortium (ITER) to build one. Does this sounds like a scalable option in a world where more rare earth metals are needed for renewables than that are economically recoverable? What will be left then for „commercial” fusion reactors 50 years from now…?
Biomass and an evolutionary response
Mineral resources can not be an answer to a problem caused by their depletion. There is no use in replacing a finite and waning resource with another one at the cost of increasing energy use and environmental damage. Can we run ahead of mineral depletion and start converting our economy to a biomass powered one? (Biomass is wood, dung, hay, charcoal etc. — I purposefully did not mention biodiesel or ethanol, because of their ultra-low EROEI and their use of valuable food producing land.)
This approach would be maladaptive at best and destructive at worst. If you run a business you cannot switch to a low energy future by burning wood instead of coal for example: the competition would still have the advantage of the high energy density and relative cheapness of fossil fuels, while you will be risking to destroy the last remaining natural habitats around you.
The system must run its course set by its incentives — and hopefully it runs out of energy before even more damage is done. This comes from the nature of complex adaptive systems: they do not plan ahead. Their adaption to changes is driven by evolution, which is a reactive process by default. First there is a change in circumstances then come the answers to it, and in the end the best solution is selected based on its fitness. Note: these solutions are usually available before the change happens, but are simply noncompetitive and only available in small niches. This is the reason why de-growth, permaculture and a ton of other great ideas have to wait a couple of years or decades more — no matter how much more useful they would be on the long run. Individuals can and sometimes do try to adapt ahead of change, but the system as a whole must follow its own logic, driven only by one motive: how can I expand to burn all the energy available to me…?
Fortunately for Earth, but unfortunately for those hoping to perpetuate the status quo (then leave the planet), mineral resources have started to fail us. Honestly, it would be better for all of us (humans and other living beings included), if we would not invent any new energy sources: should this happen, it would enable humanity to deplete and pollute whatever remains of the planet — and knowing our history no one would stop us from doing just that. There is no guarantee however that it is possible for us to leave the solar system alive (even with prodigious amounts of new energy) before the side effects of using that energy kills us…
Either way, after the eventual depletion of mineral resources (with or without new energy sources) Homo sapiens will be forced to live with what the annual cycles of nature can provide. Once the bonus energy using minerals (fossil fuels, uranium, rare earth metals for renewables etc.) is gone we will have no other choice than to live sustainably – again.
The analysis presented above and in my previous articles leads me to conclude that we are headed towards the most serious and longest energy crises humanity has ever seen. It will effect everyone on the planet putting our entire civilization at stake. We have used up most of the most energy dense, easy to obtain fuels (oil, gas and coal) — and all the alternatives (renewables, nuclear etc.) require immense amount of the hard earned energy to be used in building out a non-fossil infrastructure that will yield much less energy than the system it replaces. No matter how hard you twist and bend it, it is simply impossible to use a diffuse energy source (sunlight, wind, tidal etc.) and expect it to behave like highly concentrated fuels.
How will humanity cope with this coming energy shortage? How will our complex systems react to it? What are the lessons learned from prior civilizations? This will be the topic of next weeks post… But for now, take your time and contemplate on these issues — there was a lot to learn from this post.
Until the next time then,