The Already-Written Future?

thumbnail as it appeared in NYT

thumbnail from NYT

As a rejoinder to my piece a couple weeks ago (not really), the New York Times published an article on population growth, and why we need not worry. The problem—and solution—is all in our head.  The bottom line was that we have always transformed our ecosystem to provide what we need, and in so doing have pushed the carrying capacity along with our growing population. In fact, the author says, “there really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity.” And he goes on to ask, “why is it that highly trained natural scientists don’t understand this?”

Clearly there is a misunderstanding, but I’ll side with the natural scientists, naturally. The succinct answer is that natural scientists are not comfortable with ruthless extrapolation of past trends.

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Ruthless Extrapolation

We humans owe much of our success to our ability to recognize patterns and extrapolate trends to anticipate a future state. My cats, on the other hand, will watch a tossed toy mouse travel toward them across the room—getting ever-bigger—all the way until it smacks them between the eyes (no, they’re not strapped down—I’m not that sort of scientist). But far beyond an ability to avoid projectiles, our ancestors were able to perceive and react to changes in local food and water supplies, herd movements, seasonal cues, etc. Yet this fine tool can be over-used, and I see a lot of what I call ruthless extrapolation. In almost every case, extrapolation works until it doesn’t.  When the fundamental rules of the game change, watch out!

As with many aspects of human behavior, some of the finest commentary on the matter is served up by The Simpsons. In one episode, Lisa Simpson is taken to the orthodontist to evaluate whether or not she needs braces. The “doctor” runs a simulation based on current growth rates, producing an alarming graphic of teeth gone wild.

Image obtained from saucesome.net

Marge shrieks and is ready to do whatever it takes to protect her daughter against this cruel fate. Extrapolation can, of course, be used to argue both for impending doom or future prosperity—sometimes based on the same data. I started this blog with an extrapolative foil to demonstrate the insanity of continued physical growth, in fact. A tangential follow-up illustrated the hopelessness of differentiating a steady-state energy future from an energy crash using current data (although a continued exponential rise is already a poor fit).

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The Way is Shut

When I first approached the topic of societal energy in 2004, I became aware for the first time that our energy future was not in the bag, and proceeded to explore alternative after alternative to judge the viability and potential pitfalls of various options. I have retraced my steps in Do the Math posts, exposing the scales at which different energy sources might contribute, and the practical complexities involved. My spooky campfire version of the story, a la Tolkien: The Way is Shut.

Alright, I’m overstating things a bit. The good news is that there do exist energy flows and sources that qualify as abundant or at least potent. However, many of the alternatives represent ways to produce electricity, which applies only to about one-third of our current energy demand. The immediate threat is therefore the short term liquid fuels crunch we will see when the global petroleum decline commences within the decade.

In this post, I will reflect on the lessons we learn after having characterized the various alternatives to fossil fuels. There will still be some tidying-up to do on energy alternatives not treated thus far, but by and large the nature of content on Do the Math is about to pivot toward addressing the question “What can we do now?” In some sense, a common thread so far has been: “easier said than done,” or “don’t count on that technology saving our bacon.” I’ve closed all the exits to get your attention. We’re boxed in. Okay, the exits aren’t really closed: they’re just not as wide open as they would need to be for me to be complacent. So 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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Peak Oil Perspective

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It was by teaching a course on energy in 2004 that I first became aware of the enormous challenges facing our society this century. In preparing for the course, I was initially convinced that I would identify a sensible and obvious path forward involving energy from solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal, tides, waves, ocean currents, etc. Instead, I came out dismayed by the hardships or inadequacies on all fronts. The prospect of a global peak in oil production placed a timescale on the problem that was uncomfortably short. It took several exposures to peak oil for me to grasp the full potential of the phenomenon to transform our civilization, but eventually I was swayed by physical and quantitative arguments that I could not blithely wave off the problem—despite a somewhat unsettling fringe flavor to the story.

Aside from excursions here and there, Do the Math represents—in computer terms—a “core dump” of years of accumulated thoughts and analysis on energy, growth, and the largely unappreciated challenges we face on both short and long terms. During this queued process—with much more to come—I have made references to peak oil, but have refrained from a head-on treatment. As important as peak oil has been in motivating my quantitative exploration of life beyond fossil fuels, it seems overdue that I share my thoughts.
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Stranded Resources

A few weeks back, I made the case that relying on space to provide an infinite resource base into which we grow/expand forever is misguided. Not only is it much harder than many people appreciate, but it represents a distraction to the message that growth cannot continue on Earth and we should get busy planning a transition to a non-growth-based, truly sustainable existence. To prove what a distraction it is, I will distract myself again this week with another space post. This time, true to the brand, I will do the math on why the infinite resources of space appear to be of questionable use to our human enterprise.

Part of my motivation comes from the bruised, and bruising comments in reaction to the Why Not Space? post. The faith is strong that technologies are already in hand and that we just need NASA to get out of the way so the commercial bounty of the sky will open up and we’ll finally be off to the races. I myself refrained from ruling out such a future, but the mere suggestion that we may fail to expand into space was clearly considered by many to be ridiculous—as if such a fate is predestined: as sure as the sun will tomorrow. Sociological impulses tugged at my physicist bones, tempting me to study exactly how such an unshakable faith has been implanted in so many obviously smart people. For these folks, the arc of the future is as sure as the historical progression from the Dark Ages until now. Wait? Was there something before the Dark Ages? Something grand? Alas, my history fails me.

Leaving the sociology aside—but before we get busy with the math—I’ll share the story that during the comment firestorm, an individual contacted me from NASA headquarters (not to revoke my funding, thankfully), offering thoughtful perspectives on space policy. The part I can’t shake is the statement that it takes decades of serious research to answer two simple questions: “Can humans live and work in space for the long term?” and “Can an economically viable activity be found in space?” Opinions aside, these are open questions, and have been for some time. We have no proof—or even firm expectation—that either is practical or possible.

Lots of Stuff

Around the time of the final U.S. Space Shuttle flight, a NASA official was asked in a radio interview to explain what was left to inspire young kids about space. The answer was that mining asteroids and the Moon offered a new grand challenge to inspire our kidlets. Granted, space mining probably is a bit more inspiring than off-shore drilling or coal mining as a career choice. It’s got space in it. But are we really serious about getting materials from other bodies within the solar system?

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Garbage In, Garbage Out

How many times have you heard it: if we could tap into the energy embedded in our copious waste streams, we could usher in a new era of energy independence—freeing ourselves of the need to support oppressive regimes who happen to sit atop the bulk of the oil reserves in the world. In fact, these sorts of claims are abundant enough to give the impression that we have a cornucopia of fresh (and sometimes not so fresh) energy solutions to pursue if we got really serious. This is a hasty and dangerous conclusion, so in this case, waste makes haste.

I consider this perceived abundance of technological solutions to be one of our worst enemies in developing sensible solutions to the coming fossil fuel energy crunch. If ideas abound, each claiming some ability to free us of foreign oil, then surely we’ve got the situation under control and don’t need to invest substantial time and energy today to solve what looks like a non-problem of tomorrow. But what if the claims are overblown, hyped, or just plain wrong? At best, this is irresponsible behavior. At worst, the resulting sense of complacency could delay substantive action to our ruin. Continue reading

Personal Energy Cubes

In this post, we’ll put a physical, comprehendible scale on the amount of energy typical Americans have used in their lifetimes. No judgment: just the numbers.

The task is to estimate our personal energy volume, so that we can mentally picture cubic tanks or bins corresponding to all the oil, coal, natural gas, etc. we have used in our lives—perhaps plunked down in our backyards to bring the idea home. Go ahead and try to guess/picture how big each cube is.
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A Nation-Sized Battery

As we look to transition away from fossil fuels, solar and wind are attractive options. Key factors making them compelling are: the inexhaustibility of the source with use (i.e., renewable); their low carbon footprint; and the independence that small-scale distribution can foster (I’ll never put a nuclear plant on my roof, even if it would make me the coolest physicist ever!).

lovely future of solar, wind, and honking-big battery

With full-scale solar in the desert southwest, and wind in the plains states, we're going to need a big battery (items not to scale!).

But solar and wind suffer a serious problem in that they are not always available. There are windless days, there are sunless nights, and worst of all, there are windless nights. Obviously, this calls for energy storage, allowing us to collect the energy when we can, and use it when we want.

Small-scale off-grid solar and wind installations have been doing this for a long time, typically using lead-acid batteries as the storage medium. I myself have four golf-cart batteries in my garage storing the energy from eight 130 W solar panels, and use these to power the majority of my electricity consumption at home.

It’s worth pausing to appreciate this fact. Compare this scheme to the dream source of fusion. Why do people go ga-ga over fusion? Because there is enough deuterium in water (sea water is fine) to provide a seemingly inexhaustible source of energy, and there are no atmospheric emissions in the process. Meanwhile, solar provides a source that will last longer (billions of years), produces even less pollution (no radioactive contamination of containment vessel), and is here today! It’s even affordable enough and low-tech enough to be on my roof and in my garage! People—we have arrived!

Storage works on the small scale, as many stand-aloners can attest. How would it scale up? Can it? Continue reading

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