What can be done? — Part 2

Last week we have taken a tour on the “pessimistic” — or rather: the better informed — half of the spectrum of future possibilities. This time we will ride on the sunny side: reviewing the behavioral patterns aimed at reaching an optimistic outcome. Before we delve deep into what can be reasonably done to achieve these scenarios, let’s revisit the chain of underlying assumptions or premisses behind this analysis.

Premisses

  1. There is no central planning: as in all adaptive systems change is driven by evolution, running its ‘diversify, select, multiply’ algorithm in endless loops.
  2. In order for change to happen, first the circumstances (i.e. the natural or economic environment) has to swap into a new state. This is exactly what we are witnessing at the moment with climate change (due to humanity’s carbon release) and economic difficulties as a result of the increasing cost of getting energy and resource depletion.
  3. As a result, the coming changes affecting the course of our civilization will be a sum of adaptive responses. All of these responses will be tested against the changed environment and selected based on their fitness to keep energy use to its maximum level of availability — not based on how hard we wish them to become true.
  4. Maladaptive social behaviors (requiring or tying up too much energy) will be discarded on a large scale, while solutions suggesting an energy use too low compared to what is available will be outcompeted by other methods using net energy to its maximum available level — thus preventing society as a whole to run ahead of the curve in anticipation of what’s coming.

The scale revisited

Net zero

Superficially, it looks like governments and boards of management are finally doing what they are supposed to be doing for a long time. If someone is fully into this narrative, then he or she might think, that we have reached peak oil demand and do not even need the black gold anymore. Well, time will tell — I would not bet the farm on it though.

Is net zero an appropriate adaptive behavior then? Politically: a 100% so. Will it help with climate change, species extinction, or resource depletion? Certainly not. In fact it will make matters even worse. At the moment though, this is all invisible to the public who doesn’t have a clue about tipping points, ore grades, power laws of mineral distribution, ocean acidification (turning a once living environment into a dead blue desert), soil erosion and so on. These are not theoretical problems, but real world issues already affecting the biosphere and yes, the bottom lines of companies too. And no, this time it cannot be solved by printing more money… hence the diminishing returns on quantitative easing and financial stimulus. Yet, all we care about is how do we maintain our pleasant lifestyle and jobs to provide us with the necessary income. At least the supply and demand for green wizardry has been finally met.

How does the situation look like from a systems perspective then? Net zero — and similar pledges — are perfect examples for the lack of true central planning (calculating with all effects of an action) as well as playing along with rule #3: “In order for change to happen, first the circumstances (i.e. the environment) has to swap into a new state” and rule #5 (maximizing net energy use). Climate change is becoming harder and harder to deny, while resource depletion can be masked for a little while at least. These regulations are actually a step towards energy and resource rationing: forcing people and companies to burn less oil, coal and natural gas, while giving them a feeling that they are contributing to a greater good. Sounds much better than austerity ten years ago, isn’t it? It will be “interesting” to see though, how these companies and the public will respond to a carbon levy (if it gets accepted in the first place)… This could finally teach a lesson to economists, that supply and demand is not obliged to meet at an affordable price point — but that is a story for another day.

Your piece of action

The problem could be circumvented by using batteries — which is not only costly in money terms, but hugely unprofitable in energy terms too (not to mention the resource requirement — but hey, in a growth scenario [sic] everything is possible!). For starters your panels generate DC, then your inverter transforms it into AC by using as much as the equivalent of 10% of the generated electricity. Your battery charger however must convert AC back to DC (you cannot charge with AC directly) — with losses, again and again. When the power goes down, the process has to be reversed: DC from the battery will have to be converted to AC (eating electricity again) in order to power your devices at home.

A sensible solution could be to create a secondary DC network instead (at 48V for example) and convert your battery powered devices and fridge to use DC power. This would cut all the losses from system (except for electric resistance in the wiring — another incentive to move to a smaller house) and give you a first hand experience on the intermittent nature of renewables. Nevertheless, if green growth would turn out to be a fad, at least you will have basic necessities at your home (plus the tradeable skills to perform such a conversion!)

In a perfect world using wind or water should not be limited to electricity generation only. Using the mechanical power provided by these devices is far more efficient than electricity conversion and transmission. It follows that if we were serious about the “green revolution” then we should’ve aimed for a re-localized economy not much different from the one 270 years ago (before the steam engine). Windmills, small scale “factories” powered by mechanical force from water, sailboats or wind turbine ships carrying goods on canals and waterways are great examples of this. It would be a wise career choice to re-learn how to build such devices and experiment with new designs in the remaining years of abundant fossil fuels to soften the landing — instead of building out centralized electricity generation (off-shore wind and huge solar farms) to power an endless stream of battery powered “smart” devices.

Switching to “renewable” or “green” electricity generation via solar panels and wind turbines shouldn’t be treated as the savior of this high-power civilization. These technologies are as transitory and impermanent as the technology what gave birth to them: fossil fuels. Without the reliable 24/7, easy to transport, high density fuels and electricity derived from oil, gas and coal these “green” solutions will become increasingly harder to manufacture and replace, till — in a not so distant future — they became statutes themselves. For this reason the “green revolution” has a much higher chance of succeeding if it moves towards localization and simple mechanical solutions instead of trying to mimic a fossil fuel economy.

Warp me!

What would it take? First, humanity needs to identify an aim and direction of research. Next, sufficient funding needs to be provided and a research team hired for the task. With hydrogen fusion the direction has been set, together with sufficient funding and the necessary brainpower. The project is called ITER. According to their webpage:

Fusion, the nuclear reaction that powers the Sun and the stars, is a potential source of safe, non-carbon emitting and virtually limitless energy. Harnessing fusion’s power is the goal of ITER, which has been designed as the key experimental step between today’s fusion research machines and tomorrow’s fusion power plants.

Great! When can I plug in my electric vehicle?

ITER Members China, the European Union (through Euratom), India, Japan, Korea, Russia and the United States have entered into a 35-year collaboration to build and operate the ITER device. A two-decade research program is planned during which the Members will share in the experimental results and in any generated intellectual property.

Okay… that is 2040-ish for an experimental project to be considered done — and that is not to mean that it will produce useful electricity! If it succeeds it will demonstrate that sustained fusion is possible on Earth.

ITER will not capture the energy it produces as electricity, but — as first of all fusion experiments in history to produce net energy gain — it will prepare the way for the machine that can.

A machine to convert fusion power to electricity is yet to be developed— and probably could not be done before the experimental reactor starts working. Chances are, that this machine will be a sort of heat engine (fusion produces heat mostly). In practical terms it will be probably a water boiler coupled with a steam turbine invented in 1884. Maybe, and I’m guessing wildly here, that is 2050-ish at best for the first commercial reactor. Honestly, we don’t have that much time left. According John L Hallock and his colleagues validated geological estimate, by that time we will be able to extract only 1/5th of the oil (compared to what we are “producing” today) — and the world is still yet to see a copper mine powered exclusively by solar and wind (not to mention the refinery, requiring stable temperatures and thus stable energy flows) — in the meantime while commercial fusion becomes available.

In reality we are still very far from transitioning away from fossil fuels: humanity still haven’t managed to surpass the annually added capacity from new coal, gas and oil projects with new capacity from wind, solar and other renewables combined. We are not replacing anything — just adding new energy sources to the mix. Fossil fuel use will grow to its natural limits then decline unstoppably together with “renewables” fully dependent on them. What will provide the immense electric power, heat and mineral resources needed to manufacture and operate a commercial fusion plant in the 2040’s and 2050’s then? There seems to be a huge chasm between our desires and reality here.

The problem is — and correct me if I’m wrong — that scientists themselves are working in their own bubbles of expertise, with fusion physicists in one and earth scientists in an other (not to mention engineers, economists and politicians sitting in their own respective spheres). Wouldn’t it be better to have a well informed geologist in such a project right from the start? Someone who could inform the physics contingent that the raw materials and the energy required to obtain them might not be available by the time they finish working on a prototype? By the way has anyone made a calculation on the energy return on energy invested, including raw material production (like mining and manufacturing the 500 metric tons or 100,000 km-s of Niobium-Titan wire per reactor)? I have the uneasy feeling that this calculation was made only on the very superficial level aiming to produce net energy from the direct energy input to the reactor (not calculating at all with the energy costs of raw material extraction and manufacturing).

Our systems have became so complex that there are simply no one left on this planet who understands all of them to the necessary depth. Just look at ITER which is only one international project out of the many thousand cross boarder efforts. Our societies and most of our technologies have long reached the point of diminishing returns: where adding another layer of complexity detracts more value than it adds. Developing hydrogen fusion is a prime example of this.

It has started with a small camp-fire from dead wood somewhere in the African savanna to heat a pot of water, then continued — throughout many millennia — with chopping down all the wood in the developed world. When wood turned scarce, we went on mining and transporting coal to burn, then drilling-pumping-refining-transporting oil halfway around the world, and finally building a single super-conductor poloidal field coil driven fusion reactor, sucking up valuable resources and energy from all around the world, built with an immense mental effort, in order to prove that it is ultimately capable of… boiling water.

If human history isn’t full of irony, nothing is.

Business as usual

“There is no use burying your head into the sand, if you do not bury your ass along with it.”

While they live a busy life — overseeing the planning and digging of a bunker-complex among other things — they will continue shooting themselves into space to show how much energy (and thus power) they have, while also demonstrating that progress has not stopped: “Look, the time for civilian space flights has just arrived!”

Will it work? Living in a nice island in a heavily guarded, fully equipped, Armageddon-proof bunker is not a bad prospect at all. Unless you, or your descendants finally run out of food or water, maybe a key machinery breaks down with spare parts out of stock (together with the rest of the world economy). Or your guards had enough of your orders and would turn against you… either way, you will have to sleep with one eye open. Once again, the system corrects its imbalance in energy distribution and will put an end to your endless vacation from reality.

All in all, the world is just doing what it is supposed to do. Governments and companies are trying to survive on falling revenues, individuals in power are trying to stay in power — just a little bit more… while people are too busy making ends meet. Meanwhile energy use is pushed to the available maximum, till the point where the system begins to struggle with its own ultimate decline.

It is wholly unrealistic to hope that things will change course just because a new law gets accepted, a net zero pledge is made, or a small minority goes on protest — the only thing which will move masses and push society into a new state is an empty stomach. As it was phrased by Neil Gaiman:

“It has been said that civilization is twenty-four hours and two meals away from barbarism.”

For a proof look at what happened in Cuba recently, or during the Arab-spring (following a massive rise in food prices), or before the French Revolution. As the system starts to run low on energy (just like individual bodies it consists of) it will do whatever it takes to restore some sort of a balance and aim for redistribution. Slogans, social justice, grand goals etc. come only thereafter.

Our energy transition will be nothing different. The system will burn all its economically recoverable fossil fuels and following a “de-industrial revolution” it will slowly switch to a low energy, local economy. How could it happen? That will be the topic of next week’s post.

In the meantime, did any of this information change your expectations towards the future? How do you think things will unfold? Where are we in this process?

Until the next time,

B

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B

A critic of modern times - offering ideas for honest contemplation.