The Real Population Problem

Sometimes considered a taboo subject, the issue of population runs as an undercurrent in virtually all discussions of modern challenges. Naturally, resource use, environmental pressures, climate change, food and water supply, and the health of the world’s fish and wildlife populations would all be non-issues if Earth enjoyed a human population of 100 million or less.

The subject is taboo for a few reasons. The suggestion that a smaller number would be nice begs the question of who we should eliminate, and who gets to decide such things. Also, the vast majority of people bring children into the world, and perhaps feel a personal sting when it is implied that such actions are part of the problem. I myself come from a long line of breeders, and perhaps you do too.

Recently, participating in a panel discussion in front of a room full of physics educators, I made the simple statement that “surplus energy grows babies.” This is motivated by my recognition that population growth bent upwards when widespread use of coal ushered in the Industrial Revolution and bent again when fossil fuels entered global agriculture in a big way during the Green Revolution. These are really just facets of the broader Fossil Fuel Revolution. I was challenged by a member of the audience with the glaringly obvious statement that population growth rates subside in energy-rich nations—the so-called demographic transition. How do these sentiments square against one another?

So in the spirit of looking at the numbers, let’s explore in particular various connections between population and energy. In the process I will expose the United States, rather than Africa, for instance, as the real problem when it comes to population growth.

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Solar Data Treasure Trove

I have not kept it secret that I’m a fan of solar power. Leaving storage hangups aside for now, the fact that the scale of available power is comfortably gigantic, that perfectly efficient technology exists, that it’s hard-over on the reality axis (vs. fantasy: it’s producing electricity on my roof right now), and that it works well almost everywhere—what’s not to like? Did you trip over that last part? Many do. In this post, we’ll look at just how much solar yield one may expect as a function of location within the U.S.

The ancient Mayans laboriously accumulated a substantial set of observational data on solar illumination across America well ahead of the present need. Okay, it wasn’t actually the ancient Mayans. It was the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), who embarked on a 30-year campaign beginning in 1961, covering 239 locations across the U.S. and associated territories. Imagine this. How many people were even cognizant of solar power in 1961? Yet the forward-thinking scientists at NREL appreciated the value of a solid baseline dataset way back then. This level of foresight seems akin to the Mayans constructing a calendar going all the way to 2012. That’s all I’m saying. It’s a gift from the past.

I have often consulted and enjoyed the product of this work over the years—called the NREL Redbook, or more formally, the Solar Radiation Data Manual for Flat Plate and Concentrating Collectors. But with a snazzy blog post as motivation, I have taken it up a notch and produced a variety of graphical representations of the dataset to explore what it can tell us. Let’s begin the guided tour.

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Chris Martenson Podcast

I’ll cheat on my bi-weekly posting plan and slip in this podcast conversation between Chris Martenson and myself, covering many of the topics I have written about in the last year.

If you don’t have 45 minutes, and are a faster reader than I am, a transcript is also available—mercifully leaving out many utterances of “um” and “you know” (which is all I seem to hear when I listen to a recording of myself).  The original source and surrounding intro/write-up can be found on the Chris Martenson website.

My Neighbors Use Too Much Energy

From www.christmasvacationcollectibles.com

I have described in a series of posts the efforts my wife and I have made to reduce our energy footprint on a number of fronts. The motivation stems from our perception that the path we are on is not sustainable. Our response has been to pluck the low-hanging fruit, demonstrating to ourselves that we can live a “normal” life using far less energy than we once did. We are by no means gold medalists in this effort, but our savings have nonetheless been substantial. Now we shift the burden off of ourselves, and onto our neighbors. You don’t have to run faster than the bear—just faster than the other guy. In this post, I summarize our savings relative to the national average, add a few more tidbits not previously covered, put the savings in context, and muse about ways to extend the reach of such efforts.

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My Great Hope for the Future

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So far on Do the Math, I’ve put out a lot of negative energy—whatever that means. Topics have often focused on what we can’t do, or at least on the failings or difficulties of various ambitious plans. We can’t expect indefinite growth—whether in energy, population, or even growth of the economic variety. It is not obvious how we maintain our current standard of living once fossil fuels begin their inexorable decline this century. And as I’ve argued before, achieving a steady-state future implies approximate equity among the peoples of the Earth, so that maintaining today’s global energy consumption translates to living at one-fifth the power currently enjoyed in the U.S.

In this post, I offer a rosy vision for what I think we could accomplish in the near term to maximize our chances of coming out shiny and happy on the tail end of the fossil fuel saga. I’m no visionary, and this exercise represents a stretch for a physicist. But at least I can sketch a low-risk, physically viable route to the future. I can—in part—vouch for its physical viability based on my own dramatic reductions in energy footprint. I cannot vouch for the realism of the overall scheme. It’s a dream and a hope—a fool’s hope, really—and very, very far from a prediction or a blueprint. I’ve closed all the exits to get your attention. Now we’ll start looking at ways to nose out of our box in a safe and satisfying way.

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Fossil Fuels: I’m Not Dead Yet

From Monty Python: "Bring out your dead"

Having looked at the major alternatives to fossil fuel energy production (summarized here), we come away with the general sentiment that the easy days of cheap energy are not evidently carried forward into a future without fossil fuels.  That’s right, fossil fuels will be dead and gone.  Is it time to pile them on the cart to be hauled away?

In the slapdash scoring scheme I employed in the alternative energy matrix, the best performers racked up 5 points, whereas by the same criteria, our traditional fossil fuels typically achieved the near-perfect score of 8/10. The only consistent failing is in the abundance measure, which is ultimately what brings us all together here at Do the Math. Fossil fuels are presently used in abundance—85% of current energy use—but this is a short-term prospect, ending within the century. The first effects of decline may be close at hand.  Do I hear talk of nursing homes?

The gulf between fossil fuels and their alternatives tends to be rather large in terms of utility, energy density, practicality, ease of use, versatility, energy return on energy invested, etc. In other words, we do not merrily step off the fossil fuel ride onto the next one by “just” allowing the transition to happen. The alternatives come at a cost, and we will miss the golden days of fossil fuels. But wait…what’s that murmur?  Not dead yet?

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The Alternative Energy Matrix

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Breathe, Neo. I’ve been running a marathon lately to cover all the major players that may provide viable alternatives to fossil fuels this century. Even though I have not exhausted all possibilities, or covered each topic exhaustively, I am exhausted. So in this post, I will provide a recap of all the schemes discussed thus far, in matrix form. Then Do the Math will shift its focus to more of the “what next” part of the message.

The primary “mission” of late has been to sort possible future energy resources into boxes labeled “abundant,” “potent” (able to support something like a quarter of our present demand if fully developed), and “niche,” which is a polite way to say puny. In the process, I have clarified in my mind that a significant contributor to my concerns about future energy scarcity is not the simple quantitative scorecard. After all, if it were that easy, we’d be rocking along with a collective consensus about our path forward. Some comments have  asked: “If we forget about trying to meet our total demand with one source, could we meet our demand if we add them all up?” Absolutely. In fact, the abundant sources technically need no other complement. So on the abundance score alone, we’re done at solar, for instance. But it’s not that simple, unfortunately. While the quantitative abundance of a resource is key, many other practical concerns enter the fray when trying to anticipate long-term prospects and challenges—usually making up the bulk of the words in prior posts.

For example, it does not much matter that Titan has enormous pools of methane unprotected by any army (that we know of!). The gigantic scale of this resource makes our Earthly fossil fuel allocation a mere speck. But so what? Practical considerations mean we will never grab this energy store. Likewise, some of our terrestrial sources of energy are super-abundant, but just a pain in the butt to access or put to practical use.

In this post, we will summarize the ins and outs of the various prospects. Interpretation will come later. For now, let’s just wrap it all up together.

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Nuclear Fusion

Ah, fusion. Long promised, both on Do the Math and in real life, fusion is regarded as the ultimate power source—the holy grail—the “arrival” of the human species. Talk of fusion conjures visions of green fields and rainbows and bunny rabbits…and a unicorn too, I hear. But I strike too harsh a tone in my jest. Fusion is indeed a stunningly potent source of energy that falls firmly on the reality side of the science fiction divide—unlike unicorns. Indeed, fusion has been achieved (sub break-even) in the lab, and in the deadliest of bombs. On the flip side, fusion has been actively pursued as the heir-apparent of nuclear fission for over 60 years. We are still decades away from realizing the dream, causing many to wonder exactly what kind of “dream” this is.

Our so-far dashed expectations seem incompatible with our sense of progress. Someone born in 1890 would have seen horses give way to cars, airplanes take to the skies, the invention of radio, television, and computers, development of nuclear fission, and even humans walking on the Moon by the age of 79. Anyone can extrapolate a trajectory, and this trajectory intoned that fusion would arrive any day—along with colonies on Mars. Yet we can no longer buy a ticket to cross the Atlantic at supersonic speeds, and the U.S. does not have a human space launch capability any more. Even so, fusion remains “just around the corner” in many minds.

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The Motion of the Ocean

With the exception of tidal energy, our focus thus far has been on land-based energy sources. Meanwhile, the ocean absorbs a prodigious fraction of the Sun’s incident energy, creating thermal gradients, currents, and waves whipped up by winds. Let’s put some scales on the energetics of these sources and see if we may turn to them for help. We’ve got our three boxes ready: abundant, potent, and niche (puny). Time to do some sorting!

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Basking in the Sun

Who hasn’t enjoyed heat from the sun? Doing so represents a direct energetic transfer—via radiation—from the sun’s hot surface to your skin. One square meter can catch about 1000 W, which is comparable to the output of a portable space heater. A dark surface can capture the energy at nearly 100% efficiency, beating (heating?) the pants off of solar photovoltaic (PV) capture efficiency, for instance. We have already seen that solar PV qualifies as a super-abundant resource, requiring panels covering only about 0.5% of land to meet our entire energy demand (still huge, granted). So direct thermal energy from the sun, gathered more efficiently than what PV can do, is automatically in the abundant club. Let’s evaluate some of the practical issues surrounding solar thermal: either for home heating or for the production of electricity.

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