Italy and energy: a case study

22 10 2018

Since discovering Jean Marc Jancovici a couple of months ago, I have been following his work, which is mostly in French; but now and again he publishes something in English, so you guys can benefit from reading this while I prepare to drive my wife’s Suzuki Alto with a full load to Tasmania……  yes I am going to get my life back and get to enjoy sharing the fruits of my labour after a three year wait…..

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Italy is in trouble. Or more precisely, the country has been “abandonned by growth”. It is one of the few OECD countries that is unable to recover from the “2008 crisis”: its GDP is still lagging below 2007 levels. Would it be the simple result of the unability of the successive governments to make the “appropriate reforms”? It might well be that the explanation lies in something much more different, but much more unpleasant: physics.

First, statistics are unequivocal on the fact that growth has vanished, so far.

Year on year change of the GDP in Italy (or “annual growth rate”) since 1961 (blue curve), average per decade (red curve), and trend on the growth rate (green dotted line). It is easy to see that each decade has been less “successful” than the previous one since the beginning of this series, and that the decade that started in 2010 has an average growth rate which is… negative. Italy has therefore been in recession, “on average”, for the last 7 years.

Primary data from World Bank.

As the two are generally linked in Western countries, the debt on GDP ratio has risen to heights, botbh for public and private debt.

Debt on GDP ratio in Italy since 1995. Primary data from Eurostat.

Households debt on GDP ratio since 1960. Data from Bank for International Settlements.

Credit to the non financial sector on GDP ratio (corporates and households) for Italy. Data from Bank for International Settlements.

All this would not be so annoying – well, from an economic point of view – if growth were to resume, because then the money to repay all this extra debt would be available. But why doesn’t growth come back? Some say that this is due to the lack of reforms. This is due to the lack of reforms, but not the same (reforms), say others.

But what if the true reason is… the lack of energy? In Italy, as elsewhere, the machines that surround us everywhere (rolling mills, chemical plants, trains, fridges, elevators, trucks, cars, planes, stamping presses, drawers, extruders, tractors, pumps, cranes…) have 500 to 1000 times the power of the muscles of the population.

It’s these machines that produce, not men. Today, homes, cars, shirts, vacuum cleaners, fridges, chairs, glasses, cups, scissors, shampoo, books, frozen dishes, and all the other tens of thousands of products that you benefit from are produced by machines. If these machines lack energy, they operate less, production decreases, and so does the monetary counterpart of this production, that is the GDP. And it is probably what happened in our southern neighbor.

First of all, energy is definitely less abundant in Italy today than it was 10 years ago.

Primary energy used in Italy (sometimes called “primary energy consumption”; “primary” refers to the fact that it is the energy extracted from the environment in its raw form – raw coal, crude oil, crude gas, etc, not processed fuels or electricity that come out of the energy industries: refined fuels, electricity, processed gas, etc) since 1965. There was a maximum in 2005, i.e. 3 years before the fall of Lehman Brothers. It is impossible to attribute the decline in consumption to a crisis caused by the bankers’ negligence!

It is interesting to note that maximum of the energy consumption in Italy corresponds to the maximum gas production of Algeria (2005), Italy’s second largest gas supplier after Russia.

Oil and gas production in Algeria since 1965 (oil) and 1970 (gas). Oil production peaked in 2008, and gas production in 2003 so far (monthly data from the Energy Information Agency suggest that the gas production in Algeria is anew on the decline). Primary data from BP Statistical Review.

Italy is a major consumer of gas, because its electricity production relies on it for half of the domestic generation. This maximum (of energy consumption in Italy) also corresponds to the beginning of the stabilization of world oil production that took place between 2005 and 2010, which also led to a decrease in Italy’s import capacity in this precious liquid.

Monthly production of liquids (crude oil and condensates) worldwide. Data from the Energy Information Agency. We can clearly see the “plateau” that runs from 2005 to 2010, before the rise of the American shale oil, which has rekindled global growth and allowed the subsequent economic “rebound”.

Combined together, oil and gas accounted for 85% of Italian energy in 2005 (and accounted for 65% of its electricity production): less oil available on the world market (because a constant production must be shared with a growing importation from the emerging countries), and less gas available in Europe and Algeria led to a decline in supply beforethe beginning of the financial crisis.

In fact, when looking at trends over long periods, we can see that, in Italy as in all industrialized countries, i. e. with machines that produce instead of men, GDP is driven by available energy.

Rate of change (3 year running average) of the energy consumption in Italy (green curve) and rate of change (also 3 year running average) of the Italian GDP. It is noteworthy that the trend is the same for both. Where’s the hen, where’s the egg? For what follows, we just need one valid rule: less energy means less running machines and thus less GDP. And we see that when the energy growth slower, so does the GDP, one to two years later, which supports the idea that when it is energy that is constrained, GDP is forced to be constrained as well.

Data from BP Statistical Review for energy and World Bank for GDP

This “precedence” of energy over GDP will show up in another presentation of the same data.

Energy used in Italy (horizontal axis) vs. Italian GDP (in constant billions dollars) for the period 1965 to 2017. The curve start in 1965, at the bottom left, and then follows the chronological order upwards to the right

We note that the curve makes a series of “turns to the left” in 1974, 1979, and especially from 2005 onwards. The “turn on the left” means that it is first the energy that decreases, and then the GDP, excluding in fact a sequence that would explain the decrease in the energy consumed by the crisis alone (then the curve should “turn right”).

One can also notice that after the decline in GDP from 2006 to 2014, the line goes back to “normal”, that is going from “bottom left” to “top right”, which reflects a GDP that grows again because of an energy supply that does the same.

Author’s calculation based on BP Statistical Review & World Bank data

And then?

Well, for the moment energy supply is going downwards, but will it continue to do so in the future? For the first 3 components of the energy supply in Italy, things look pretty settled. For coal, all is imported. This fuel is a nightmare regarding logistics: a 1 GW power plant requires between 4000 and 10000 tonnes of coal per day, and this explains why when a country is not a coal producer its coal imports are never massive. Add on top that coal is clearly the first “climate ennemy” to shoot: calling massively on imported coal to compensate for the decline of the rest seems very unprobable.

Consumption (dotted lines) and production (solid line, actually zero all the time!) of coal in Italy. Data from BP Statistical Review.

Then comes oil. Italy imports almost all it uses, and when world production stopped growing in 2005, Italian consumption fell in a forced way – as in all OECD countries – because the emerging countries took an increasing share.

Consumption (dotted lines) and production (solid line) of oil in Italy. Data from BP Statistical Review.

Eventually comes gas. Here too, Italy had to reduce its consumption in a compulsory way after 2005, when Algerian production – which provides about a third of Italian consumption – peaked.

Consumption (dotted lines) and production (solid line) of gas in Italy. Data from BP Statistical Review.

Italy gave up nuclear power after Chernobyl, and so no “relief” can come from this technology. Hydroelectricity has been at its peak for decades, with all or most of the equippable sites having been equipped. In addition, the drying up of the Mediterranean basin due to climate change should also reduce rather than increase this production.

Hydroelectric production in Italy since 1965, in TWh (billion kWh) electricity. Data from BP Statistical Review.

Then remain the “new renewable”, mostly solar, biomass and wind energy, that now represent about the equivalent of hydropower. But solar and wind require a lot of capital to be deployed, and thus the irony is that if the economy “suffers” because of a decline in the supply of fossil fuels, there is fewer money to invest in this supply! Biomass requires a lot of land to become significant because of the biomass that has to be grown.

Non-fossil electricity production in Italy since 1965. We see that the “new renewable” (biomass, wind, solar) do a little more than hydroelectricity, i.e. 20% of the total production (of electricity only, of course). Data from BP Statistical Review.

As these means cannot quickly supply large extra quantities of electricity, and will quickly be limited by storage issues, the energy used in Italy remains massively fossil, and will do so in the short term.

Share of each energy in Italian consumption. Data from BP Statistical Review.

It is therefore likely that Italy will remain massively dependent on fossils fuels in the next 10 to 20 years, and since the supply of these fuels is likely to continue to decrease on average, which means that Italy will have to manage its destiny without a return to growth, or even with a structural recession.

It is to this conclusion that a “physical” reading of the economy leads. And what is happening to our neighbours to the south is, most probably, the “normal” way in which an industrialized country reacts to the beginning of an unexpected energy contraction (and then populists follow, because of promises that coldn’t be fulfiled). As other European countries do not anticipate any better their upcoming energy contraction (that will happen anyway because oil, gas and coal are not renewable), let us look carefully at what is happening in this country. Something similar is likely to happen in France (and in Europe, and in the OECD) too if we do not seriously address the issue of fossil fuels, or more precisely if we do not seriously begin to organise society with less and less fossil fuels, including if it means less and less GDP.

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Primary Energy

27 08 2018

The internet is constantly bombarded with articles about how we need to go (or even ARE going) 100% renewable energy and get rid of fossil fuels…… now don’t get me wrong, I completely agree, it’s just that these people have no idea of the repercussions, nor of the size of the task at hand….)

Renewable energy zealots even believe that as more and more renewables are deployed, fossil fuels are being pushed out of the way, becoming irrelevant. Seriously.

Nothing of the sort is happening. In a recent article, Gail Tverberg wrote this…:

Of the 252 million tons of oil equivalent (MTOE) energy consumption added in 2017, wind ADDED 37 MTOE and solar ADDED 26 MTOE. Thus, wind and solar amounted to about 25% of total energy consumption ADDED in 2017. Fossil fuels added 67% of total energy consumption added in 2017, and other categories added the remaining 8%. [my emphasis on added…]

To put this in a graphic way, look at this…..

primary energy

Primary energy consumption has almost trebled since 1971, and renewables still only account for 2%…… while oil coal and gas has grown as a total percentage at the expense of nuclear. And…..  surprise surprise, OIL! Nothing to do with Peak Oil I suppose……

There is simply no way renewables will ever replace fossil fuels. California, with the aim of going 100% renewables doesn’t even have the necessary land available for the purpose according to some recent research…….

Last year, global solar capacity totaled about 219,000 megawatts. That means an all-renewable California would need more solar capacity in the state than currently exists on the entire planet. Sure, California can (and will) add lots of new rooftop solar over the coming decades. But Jacobson’s plan would also require nearly 33,000 megawatts of concentrated solar plants, or roughly 87 facilities as large as the 377-megawatt Ivanpah solar complex now operating in the Mojave Desert. Ivanpah, which covers 5.4 square miles, met fierce opposition from conservationists due to its impact on the desert tortoise, which is listed as a threatened species under the federal and California endangered species acts.

Wind energy faces similar problems. The Department of Energy has concluded in multiple reports over the last decade that no matter where they are located — onshore or offshore — wind-energy projects have a footprint that breaks down to about 3 watts per square meter.

To get to Jacobson’s 124,608 megawatts (124.6 billion watts) of onshore wind capacity, California would need 41.5 billion square meters, or about 16,023 square miles, of turbines. To put that into perspective, the land area of Los Angeles County is slightly more than 4,000 square miles — California would have to cover a land area roughly four times the size of L.A. County with nothing but the massive windmills. Turning over even a fraction of that much territory to wind energy is unlikely. In 2015, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban large wind turbines in unincorporated areas. Three other California counties — San Diego, Solano and Inyo — have also passed restrictions on turbines.

Last year, the head of the California Wind Energy Assn. told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “We’re facing restrictions like that all around the state…. It’s pretty bleak in terms of the potential for new development.”

Don’t count on offshore wind either. Given the years-long battle that finally scuttled the proposed 468-megawatt Cape Wind project — which called for dozens of turbines to be located offshore Massachusetts — it’s difficult to imagine that Californians would willingly accept offshore wind capacity that’s 70 times as large as what was proposed in the Northeast.

To expand renewables to the extent that they could approach the amount of energy needed to run our entire economy would require wrecking vast onshore and offshore territories with forests of wind turbines and sprawling solar projects. Organizations like 350.org tend to dismiss the problem by claiming, for example, that the land around turbines can be farmed or that the placement of solar facilities can be “managed.” But rural landowners don’t want industrial-scale energy projects in their communities any more than coastal dwellers or suburbanites do.

The grim land-use numbers behind all-renewable proposals aren’t speculation. Arriving at them requires only a bit of investigation, and yes, that we do the math.

“Without coal we won’t survive”. Yet coal will/could kill us all. It’s the difference between a problem and a predicament…. problems have solutions, predicaments need management. Here’s a trailer of a movie soon to be released….




Can we save energy, jobs and growth at the same time ?

20 05 2018

I apologise in advance to anyone with a short attention span, this is a bit long at almost one and a half hours……  especially as if you are new to limits to growth, you might have to watch it more than once!
If you ever needed proof that economics is an imbecilic proposal, then this is it.

Published on 30 Jan 2018

Jancovici’s conference in ENS School of Paris – 08/01/2018 To download the Presentation : https://fr.slideshare.net/JoelleLecon… The depletion of natural resources, with oil to start with, and the need for a stable climate, will make it harder and harder to pursue economic growth as we know it. It has now become urgent to develop a new branch of economics which does not rely on the unrealistic assumption of a perpetual GDP increase. In this Colloquium, I will discuss a “physical” approach to economics which aims at understanding and managing the scaling back of our world economy. Biography : Jean-Marc Jancovici, is a French engineer who graduated from École Polytechnique and Télécom, and who specializes in energy-climate subjects. He is a consultant, teacher, lecturer, author of books and columnist. He is known for his outreach work on climate change and the energy crisis. He is co-founder of the organization “Carbone 4” and president of the think tank “The Shift Project”. Original video : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ey7_F… Facebook page : https://www.facebook.com/jeanmarc.jan… Website : https://jancovici.com/




Wind will never make a significant contribution to energy supplies

9 04 2018

Portrait photographer newcastleMatt Ridley. May 15, 2017. Wind turbines are neither clean nor green and they provide zero global energy. Even after 30 years of huge subsidies, it provides about zero energy. The Spectator.

The Global Wind Energy Council recently released its latest report, excitedly boasting that ‘the proliferation of wind energy into the global power market continues at a furious pace, after it was revealed that more than 54 gigawatts of clean renewable wind power was installed across the global market last year’.

You may have got the impression from announcements like that, and from the obligatory pictures of wind turbines in any BBC story or airport advert about energy, that wind power is making a big contribution to world energy today. You would be wrong. Its contribution is still, after decades — nay centuries — of development, trivial to the point of irrelevance.

Even put together, wind and photovoltaic solar are supplying less than 1 per cent of global energy demand. From the International Energy Agency’s 2016 Key Renewables Trends, we can see that wind provided 0.46 per cent of global energy consumption in 2014, and solar and tide combined provided 0.35 per cent. Remember this is total energy, not just electricity, which is less than a fifth of all final energy, the rest being the solid, gaseous, and liquid fuels that do the heavy lifting for heat, transport and industry.

[One critic suggested I should have used the BP numbers instead, which show wind achieving 1.2% in 2014 rather than 0.46%. I chose not to do so mainly because that number is arrived at by falsely exaggerating the actual output of wind farms threefold in order to take into account that wind farms do not waste two-thirds of their energy as heat; also the source is an oil company, which would have given green blobbers a excuse to dismiss it, whereas the IEA is unimpleachable But it’s still a very small number, so it makes little difference.]

Such numbers are not hard to find, but they don’t figure prominently in reports on energy derived from the unreliables lobby (solar and wind). Their trick is to hide behind the statement that close to 14 per cent of the world’s energy is renewable, with the implication that this is wind and solar. In fact the vast majority — three quarters — is biomass (mainly wood), and a very large part of that is ‘traditional biomass’; sticks and logs and dung burned by the poor in their homes to cook with. Those people need that energy, but they pay a big price in health problems caused by smoke inhalation.

Even in rich countries playing with subsidised wind and solar, a huge slug of their renewable energy comes from wood and hydro, the reliable renewables. Meanwhile, world energy demand has been growing at about 2 per cent a year for nearly 40 years. Between 2013 and 2014, again using International Energy Agency data, it grew by just under 2,000 terawatt-hours.

If wind turbines were to supply all of that growth but no more, how many would need to windmountainbe built each year? The answer is nearly 350,000, since a two-megawatt turbine can produce about 0.005 terawatt-hours per annum. That’s one-and-a-half times as many as have been built in the world since governments started pouring consumer funds into this so-called industry in the early 2000s.

At a density of, very roughly, 50 acres per megawatt, typical for wind farms, that many turbines would require a land area [half the size of] the British Isles, including Ireland. Every year. If we kept this up for 50 years, we would have covered every square mile of a land area [half] the size of Russia with wind farms. Remember, this would be just to fulfil the new demand for energy, not to displace the vast existing supply of energy from fossil fuels, which currently supply 80 per cent of global energy needs. [para corrected from original.]

Do not take refuge in the idea that wind turbines could become more efficient. There is a limit to how much energy you can extract from a moving fluid, the Betz limit, and wind turbines are already close to it. Their effectiveness (the load factor, to use the engineering term) is determined by the wind that is available, and that varies at its own sweet will from second to second, day to day, year to year.

As machines, wind turbines are pretty good already; the problem is the wind resource itself, and we cannot change that. It’s a fluctuating stream of low–density energy. Mankind stopped using it for mission-critical transport and mechanical power long ago, for sound reasons. It’s just not very good.

As for resource consumption and environmental impacts, the direct effects of wind turbines — killing birds and bats, sinking concrete foundations deep into wild lands — is bad enough. But out of sight and out of mind is the dirty pollution generated in Inner Mongolia by the mining of rare-earth metals for the magnets in the turbines. This generates toxic and radioactive waste on an epic scale, which is why the phrase ‘clean energy’ is such a sick joke and ministers should be ashamed every time it passes their lips.

It gets worse. Wind turbines, apart from the fibreglass blades, are made mostly of steel, with concrete bases. They need about 200 times as much material per unit of capacity as a modern combined cycle gas turbine. Steel is made with coal, not just to provide the heat for smelting ore, but to supply the carbon in the alloy. Cement is also often made using coal. The machinery of ‘clean’ renewables is the output of the fossil fuel economy, and largely the coal economy.

A two-megawatt wind turbine weighs about 250 tonnes, including the tower, nacelle, rotor and blades. Globally, it takes about half a tonne of coal to make a tonne of steel. Add another 25 tonnes of coal for making the cement and you’re talking 150 tonnes of coal per turbine. Now if we are to build 350,000 wind turbines a year (or a smaller number of bigger ones), just to keep up with increasing energy demand, that will require 50 million tonnes of coal a year. That’s about half the EU’s hard coal–mining output.

The point of running through these numbers is to demonstrate that it is utterly futile, on a priori grounds, even to think that wind power can make any significant contribution to world energy supply, let alone to emissions reductions, without ruining the planet. As the late David MacKay pointed out years back, the arithmetic is against such unreliable renewables.

MacKay, former chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, said in the final interview before his tragic death last year that the idea that renewable energy could power the UK is an “appalling delusion” — for this reason, that there is not enough land.





“Energy Revolution? More like a Crawl” – Dr. Vaclav Smil

18 09 2017

Dr. Vaclav Smil was the speaker at a TISED and Fondation 3E event in September 2015 called “Energy Revolution? More like a Crawl”. He explored the current state of global and major national energy dependencies and appraised the likely speed of their transformation. In his words, “The desirable development of new renewables should not be guided by wishful preferences and arbitrary targets. Using more energy, albeit more efficiently and with lower specific environmental effects, is unlikely to change our fortunes — yet no serious consideration has been given to how to use less, much less.”




Making America great again, and other bullshit……

21 01 2017

nafeezIt appears Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed has been making lots of waves lately…. The New York Observer has just run his warning of the probability of a converging oil, food and financial crash in or shortly after 2018 which I discussed here on DTM a few days ago. Not only that, it went viral, hitting the top 20 stories on Medium for several days (at one point hitting number one), and giving him ‘Top Writer’ status on ‘energy’ and ‘climate change’ there….. is the word finally getting out…..?

It gets better….. Nafeez then wrote this via Insurge intelligence in solidarity with the arising people’s movement in the form of the worldwide women’s marches, tying together how the Trumpian inauguration represents at once the culmination of a global war on women, while simultaneously starting a war on the planet.

Nafeez thinks “there is a deep, fundamental but little-understood connection between white supremacist patriarchy and misogyny, and the interlinked environment-economic crisis.” This piece is perhaps the most important – because it highlights the real symbolic meaning of the women’s marches: a planetary declaration of intent to build bridges, not walls.

Then yesterday, Nafeez  wrote another piece for VICE anticipating the Great Orange Face’s ‘America First Energy Plan’, bringing together cutting edge science on why Trump’s fossil fuel madness is doomed to kill the economy.

It simply won’t work, cannot work….. It will backfire. Big time. And it will backfire economically before it even has time to “backfire planetarily” as he so well puts it…… We are already hearing a lot of outrage, rightly so, about the cleansing of the Wipe House website of climate information, and the promotion of this madcap anti-science scheme to burn our planet to hell. We’ll hear less about the science of global net energy decline, which proves decisively that this scheme can simply never work – but you’ll find it here: 

Nafeez begins…..:

As President-elect Trump spearheads plans to boost oil, coal and gas, a major new study by one of the world’s foremost energy experts shows just how dangerous this path would be—not just for the planet, but for the economy.

The new study, just published in January as part of the SpringerBriefs in Energy series, suggests that as long we remain dependent on fossil fuels, economic contraction is inevitable. And while renewable energy offers the only potentially viable future, it is also unlikely to sustain the sort of mass consumerism we are accustomed to—like three or more cars per household, SUVS or massive military projects like aircraft carriers.

The bottom line is that we can’t sustain our present rate of consumption no matter what energy source we rely on. And clinging to oil, gas and coal in the hopes of keeping the endless growth machine alive will be even worse: leading to a spiral of debt and economic recession that has already begun.

Nafeez then introduces his readers to the concept of thermodynamics….. yes, really…!

It all comes down to physics: the laws of thermodynamics. Economies need energy to function. And to grow, they need extra energy to fuel that growth in production and consumption. But as more energy is required just to extract new energy from fossil fuels, there is less “energy surplus” available to continue driving economic growth—to ramp up even more production and consumption. And increasingly, more and more energy is being used just to maintain the existing infrastructure of society as it is, leaving less room for further growth.

“Of perhaps greater concern than the quantity of oil and other energy sources is their declining EROI [energy return on investment]”, writes study author Charles Hall, ESF Foundation Distinguished Professor of Environment Science at the State University of New York. Hall is the founder of the concept of EROI.

Hall’s ground-breaking methodology is now used by scientists around the world to measure the total value of energy a resource can generate. It works by comparing the quantity of energy extracted to the quantity of energy inputted to enable the extraction.

He points out that throughout the energy literature “there is widespread concern that net energy returns (e.g. EROI) for oil and gas are declining and likely to continue declining.” This has economic implications:

We (as in DTM followers) all knew that of course, but it’s interesting that this stuff is actually starting to go viral…..

wheredidgrowthgo

Yes indeed, where did all the growth go…… down the Limits to Growth plughole, that’s where…..

Charlie Hall’s study, Energy Return on Investment: A Unifying Principle for Biology, Economics halleroeibookand Sustainability, clearly shows a correlation between the declining abundance of resources, “as reflected in lower production and EROI for oil and other important fuels”, and the decline of economic growth.

And that gets to the crux of the problem. We need more energy to get more stuff to grow the economy. So what happens when we can’t get as much energy as before? Growth slows.

That’s why Hall fingers the declining EROI of fossil fuels as the key culprit in decreasing rates of production, which in turn has played a key role in the economic slowdown: “Past investments— over the past century— were made at a time when the production of high quality fossil fuels was increasing at rates as high as 5% a year. At the time of this writing they have declined to no more than 1% a year, and the US (and global) economies show similar pattern.”

Hall argues that modern developed economies, with their enormous infrastructures, roads and cities, are rapidly approaching “a stage where all of the available energy is used in ‘maintenance metabolism’ to support the infrastructure that exists.” This leaves less and less energy “available for net growth.”

As I have been saying for a very long time now, the 20th Century was built one brick at a time, as and when it was required, using very cheap and very dense fossil fuels with very high ERoEI. Now we have to replace all the old stuff, more or less all at once (it is getting old now…), and simultaneously build all the new stuff, with low ERoEI energy that is literally costing the Earth.

Make no mistake, America will never be great again………. Trump or no Trump.





2017: The Year When the World Economy Starts Coming Apart

20 01 2017

Conclusion

The situation is indeed very concerning. Many things could set off a crisis:

  • Rising energy prices of any kind (hurting energy importers), or energy prices that don’t rise (leading to financial problems or collapse of exporters)
  • Rising interest rates.
  • Defaulting debt, indirectly the result of slow/negative economic growth and rising interest rates.
  • International organizations with less and less influence, or that fall apart completely.
  • Fast changes in relativities of currencies, leading to defaults on derivatives.
  • Collapsing banks, as debt defaults rise.
  • Falling asset prices (homes, farms, commercial buildings, stocks and bonds) as interest rates rise, leading to many debt defaults.

FOLLOWING ON from my last post exposing HSBC’s forecast of a peak oil caused economic collapse, along comes this piece from Gail Tverberg predicting it may all start this year…….

Most of this article is a rehash of things she’s said before all consolidated in one lengthy essay, and some of them were published here before. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to not recognise all our ducks are lining up on the wall…….

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Some people would argue that 2016 was the year that the world economy started to come apart, with the passage of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Whether or not the “coming apart” process started in 2016, in my opinion we are going to see many more steps in this direction in 2017. Let me explain a few of the things I see.

[1] Many economies have collapsed in the past. The world economy is very close to the turning point where collapse starts in earnest.  

Figure 1

The history of previous civilizations rising and eventually collapsing is well documented.(See, for example, Secular Cycles.)

To start a new cycle, a group of people would find a new way of doing things that allowed more food and energy production (for instance, they might add irrigation, or cut down trees for more land for agriculture). For a while, the economy would expand, but eventually a mismatch would arise between resources and population. Either resources would fall too low (perhaps because of erosion or salt deposits in the soil), or population would rise too high relative to resources, or both.

Even as resources per capita began falling, economies would continue to have overhead expenses, such as the need to pay high-level officials and to fund armies. These overhead costs could not easily be reduced, and might, in fact, grow as the government attempted to work around problems. Collapse occurred because, as resources per capita fell (for example, farms shrank in size), theearnings of workers tended to fall. At the same time, the need for taxes to cover what I am calling overhead expenses tended to grow. Tax rates became too high for workers to earn an adequate living, net of taxes. In some cases, workers succumbed to epidemics because of poor diets. Or governments would collapse, from lack of adequate tax revenue to support them.

Our current economy seems to be following a similar pattern. We first used fossil fuels to allow the population to expand, starting about 1800. Things went fairly well until the 1970s, when oil prices started to spike. Several workarounds (globalization, lower interest rates, and more use of debt) allowed the economy to continue to grow. The period since 1970 might be considered a period of “stagflation.” Now the world economy is growing especially slowly. At the same time, we find ourselves with “overhead” that continues to grow (for example, payments to retirees, and repayment of debt with interest). The pattern of past civilizations suggests that our civilization could also collapse.

Historically, economies have taken many years to collapse; I show a range of 20 to 50 years in Figure 1. We really don’t know if collapse would take that long now. Today, we are dependent on an international financial system, an international trade system, electricity, and the availability of oil to make our vehicles operate. It would seem as if this time collapse could come much more quickly.

With the world economy this close to collapse, some individual countries are even closer to collapse. This is why we can expect to see sharp downturns in the fortunes of some countries. If contagion is not too much of a problem, other countries may continue to do fairly well, even as individual small countries fail.

[2] Figures to be released in 2017 and future years are likely to show that the peak in world coal consumption occurred in 2014. This is important, because it means that countries that depend heavily on coal, such as China and India, can expect to see much slower economic growth, and more financial difficulties.

While reports of international coal production for 2016 are not yet available, news articles and individual country data strongly suggest that world coal production is past its peak. The IEA also reports a substantial drop in coal production for 2016.

Figure 2. World coal consumption. Information through 2015 based on BP 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data. Estimates for China, US, and India are based on partial year data and news reports. 2016 amount for "other" estimated based on recent trends.

The reason why coal production is dropping is because of low prices, low profitability for producers, and gluts indicating oversupply. Also, comparisons of coal prices with natural gas prices are inducing switching from coal to natural gas. The problem, as we will see later, is that natural gas prices are also artificially low, compared to the cost of production, So the switch is being made to a different type of fossil fuel, also with an unsustainably low price.

Prices for coal in China have recently risen again, thanks to the closing of a large number of unprofitable coal mines, and a mandatory reduction in hours for other coal mines. Even though prices have risen, production may not rise to match the new prices. One article reports:

. . . coal companies are reportedly reluctant to increase output as a majority of the country’s mines are still losing money and it will take time to recoup losses incurred in recent years.

Also, a person can imagine that it might be difficult to obtain financing, if coal prices have only “sort of” recovered.

I wrote last year about the possibility that coal production was peaking. This is one chart I showed, with data through 2015. Coal is the second most utilized fuel in the world. If its production begins declining, it will be difficult to offset the loss of its use with increased use of other types of fuels.

Figure 3. World per capita energy consumption by fuel, based on BP 2016 SRWE.

[3] If we assume that coal supplies will continue to shrink, and other production will grow moderately, we can expect total energy consumption to be approximately flat in 2017. 

Figure 5. World energy consumption forecast, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy data through 2015, and author's estimates for 2016 and 2017.

In a way, this is an optimistic assessment, because we know that efforts are underway to reduce oil production, in order to prop up prices. We are, in effect, assuming either that (a) oil prices won’t really rise, so that oil consumption will grow at a rate similar to that in the recent past or (b) while oil prices will rise significantly to help producers, consumers won’t cut back on their consumption in response to the higher prices.

[4] Because world population is rising, the forecast in Figure 4 suggests that per capita energy consumption is likely to shrink. Shrinking energy consumption per capita puts the world (or individual countries in the world) at the risk of recession.

Figure 5 shows indicated per capita energy consumption, based on Figure 4. It is clear that energy consumption per capita has already started shrinking, and is expected to shrink further. The last time that happened was in the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Figure 5. World energy consumption per capita based on energy consumption estimates in Figure 4 and UN 2015 Medium Population Growth Forecast.

There tends to be a strong correlation between world economic growth and world energy consumption, because energy is required to transform materials into new forms, and to transport goods from one place to another.

In the recent past, the growth in GDP has tended to be a little higher than the growth in the use of energy products. One reason why GDP growth has been a percentage point or two higher than energy consumption growth is because, as economies become richer, citizens can afford to add more services to the mix of goods and services that they purchase (fancier hair cuts and more piano lessons, for example). Production of services tends to use proportionately less energy than creating goods does; as a result, a shift toward a heavier mix of services tends to lead to GDP growth rates that are somewhat higher than the growth in energy consumption.

A second reason why GDP growth has tended to be a little higher than growth in energy consumption is because devices (such as cars, trucks, air conditioners, furnaces, factory machinery) are becoming more efficient. Growth in efficiency occurs if consumers replace old inefficient devices with new more efficient devices. If consumers become less wealthy, they are likely to replace devices less frequently, leading to slower growth in efficiency. Also, as we will discuss later in this  post, recently there has been a tendency for fossil fuel prices to remain artificially low. With low prices, there is little financial incentive to replace an old inefficient device with a new, more efficient device. As a result, new purchases may be bigger, offsetting the benefit of efficiency gains (purchasing an SUV to replace a car, for example).

Thus, we cannot expect that the past pattern of GDP growing a little faster than energy consumption will continue. In fact, it is even possible that the leveraging effect will start working the “wrong” way, as low fossil fuel prices induce more fuel use, not less. Perhaps the safest assumption we can make is that GDP growth and energy consumption growth will be equal. In other words, if world energy consumption growth is 0% (as in Figure 4), world GDP growth will also be 0%. This is not something that world leaders would like at all.

The situation we are encountering today seems to be very similar to the falling resources per capita problem that seemed to push early economies toward collapse in [1]. Figure 5 above suggests that, on average, the paychecks of workers in 2017 will tend to purchase fewer goods and services than they did in 2016 and 2015. If governments need higher taxes to fund rising retiree costs and rising subsidies for “renewables,” the loss in the after-tax purchasing power of workers will be even greater than Figure 5 suggests.

[5] Because many countries are in this precarious position of falling resources per capita, we should expect to see a rise in protectionism, and the addition of new tariffs.

Clearly, governments do not want the problem of falling wages (or rather, falling goods that wages can buy) impacting their countries. So the new game becomes, “Push the problem elsewhere.”

In economic language, the world economy is becoming a “Zero-sum” game. Any gain in the production of goods and services by one country is a loss to another country. Thus, it is in each country’s interest to look out for itself. This is a major change from the shift toward globalization we have experienced in recent years. China, as a major exporter of goods, can expect to be especially affected by this changing view.

[6] China can no longer be expected to pull the world economy forward.

China’s economic growth rate is likely to be lower, for many reasons. One reason is the financial problems of coal mines, and the tendency of coal production to continue to shrink, once it starts shrinking. This happens for many reasons, one of them being the difficulty in obtaining loans for expansion, when prices still seem to be somewhat low, and the outlook for the further increases does not appear to be very good.

Another reason why China’s economic growth rate can be expected to fall is the current overbuilt situation with respect to apartment buildings, shopping malls, factories, and coal mines. As a result, there seems to be little need for new buildings and operations of these types. Another reason for slower economic growth is the growing protectionist stance of trade partners. A fourth reason is the fact that many potential buyers of the goods that China is producing are not doing very well economically (with the US being a major exception). These buyers cannot afford to increase their purchases of imports from China.

With these growing headwinds, it is quite possible that China’s total energy consumption in 2017 will shrink. If this happens, there will be downward pressure on world fossil fuel prices. Oil prices may fall, despite production cuts by OPEC and other countries.

China’s slowing economic growth is likely to make its debt problem harder to solve. We should not be too surprised if debt defaults become a more significant problem, or if the yuan falls relative to other currencies.

India, with its recent recall of high denomination currency, as well as its problems with low coal demand, is not likely to be a great deal of help aiding the world economy to grow, either. India is also a much smaller economy than China.

[7] While Item [2] talked about peak coal, there is a very significant chance that we will be hitting peak oil and peak natural gas in 2017 or 2018, as well.  

If we look at historical prices, we see that the prices of oil, coal and natural gas tend to rise and fall together.

Figure 6. Prices of oil, call and natural gas tend to rise and fall together. Prices based on 2016 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

The reason that fossil fuel prices tend to rise and fall together is because these prices are tied to “demand” for goods and services in general, such as for new homes, cars, and factories. If wages are rising rapidly, and debt is rising rapidly, it becomes easier for consumers to buy goods such as homes and cars. When this happens, there is more “demand” for the commodities used to make and operate homes and cars. Prices for commodities of many types, including fossil fuels, tend to rise, to enable more production of these items.

Of course, the reverse happens as well. If workers become poorer, or debt levels shrink, it becomes harder to buy homes and cars. In this case, commodity prices, including fossil fuel prices, tend to fall.  Thus, the problem we saw above in [2] for coal would be likely to happen for oil and natural gas, as well, because the prices of all of the fossil fuels tend to move together. In fact, we know that current oil prices are too low for oil producers. This is the reason why OPEC and other oil producers have cut back on production. Thus, the problem with overproduction for oil seems to be similar to the overproduction problem for coal, just a bit delayed in timing.

In fact, we also know that US natural gas prices have been very low for several years, suggesting another similar problem. The United States is the single largest producer of natural gas in the world. Its natural gas production hit a peak in mid 2015, and production has since begun to decline. The decline comes as a response to chronically low prices, which make it unprofitable to extract natural gas. This response sounds similar to China’s attempted solution to low coal prices.

Figure 7. US Natural Gas production based on EIA data.

The problem is fundamentally the fact that consumers cannot afford goods made using fossil fuels of any type, if prices actually rise to the level producers need, which tends to be at least five times the 1999 price level. (Note peak price levels compared to 1999 level on Figure 6.) Wages have not risen by a factor of five since 1999, so paying the prices that fossil fuel producers need for profitability and growing production is out of the question. No amount of added debt can hide this problem. (While this reference is to 1999 prices, the issue really goes back much farther, to prices before the price spikes of the 1970s.)

US natural gas producers also have plans to export natural gas to Europe and elsewhere, as liquefied natural gas (LNG). The hope, of course, is that a large amount of exports will raise US natural gas prices. Also, the hope is that Europeans will be able to afford the high-priced natural gas shipped to them. Unless someone can raise the wages of both Europeans and Americans, I would not count on LNG prices actually rising to the level needed for profitability, and staying at such a high level. Instead, they are likely to bounce up, and quickly drop back again.

[8] Unless oil prices rise very substantially, oil exporters will find themselves exhausting their financial reserves in a very short time (perhaps a year or two). Unfortunately, oil importerscannot withstand higher prices, without going into recession. 

We have a no win situation, no matter what happens. This is true with all fossil fuels, but especially with oil, because of its high cost and thus necessarily high price. If oil prices stay at the same level or go down, oil exporters cannot get enough tax revenue, and oil companies in general cannot obtain enough funds to finance the development of new wells and payment of dividends to shareholders. If oil prices do rise by a very large amount for very long, we are likely headed into another major recession, with many debt defaults.

[9] US interest rates are likely to rise in the next year or two, whether or not this result is intended by the Federal reserve.

This issue here is somewhat obscure. The issue has to do with whether the United States can find foreign buyers for its debt, often called US Treasuries, and the interest rates that the US needs to pay on this debt. If buyers are very plentiful, the interest rates paid by he US government can be quite low; if few buyers are available, interest rates must be higher.

Back when Saudi Arabia and other oil exporters were doing well financially, they often bought US Treasuries, as a way to retain the benefit of their new-found wealth, which they did not want to spend immediately. Similarly, when China was doing well as an exporter, it often bought US Treasuries, as a way retaining the wealth it gained from exports, but didn’t yet need for purchases.

When these countries bought US Treasuries, there were several beneficial results:

  • Interest rates on US Treasuries tended to stay artificially low, because there was a ready market for its debt.
  • The US could afford to import high-priced oil, because the additional debt needed to buy the oil could easily be sold (to Saudi Arabia and other oil producing nations, no less).
  • The US dollar tended to stay lower relative to other currencies, making oil more affordable to other countries than it otherwise might be.
  • Investment in countries outside the US was encouraged, because debt issued by these other countries tended to bear higher interest rates than US debt. Also, relatively low oil prices in these countries (because of the low level of the dollar) tended to make investment profitable in these countries.

The effect of these changes was somewhat similar to the US having its own special Quantitative Easing (QE) program, paid for by some of the counties with trade surpluses, instead of by its central bank. This QE substitute tended to encourage world economic growth, for the reasons mentioned above.

Once the fortunes of the countries that used to buy US Treasuries changes, the pattern of buying of US Treasuries tends to change to selling of US Treasuries. Even not purchasing the same quantity of US Treasuries as in the past becomes an adverse change, if the US has a need to keep issuing US Treasuries as in the past, or if it wants to keep rates low.

Unfortunately, losing this QE substitute tends to reverse the favorable effects noted above. One effect is that the dollar tends to ride higher relative to other currencies, making the US look richer, and other countries poorer. The “catch” is that as the other countries become poorer, it becomes harder for them to repay the debt that they took out earlier, which was denominated in US dollars.

Another problem, as this strange type of QE disappears, is that the interest rates that the US government needs to pay in order to issue new debt start rising. These higher rates tend to affect other rates as well, such as mortgage rates. These higher interest rates act as a drag on the economy, tending to push it toward recession.

Higher interest rates also tend to decrease the value of assets, such as homes, farms, outstanding bonds, and shares of stock. This occurs because fewer buyers can afford to buy these goods, with the new higher interest rates. As a result, stock prices can be expected to fall. Prices of homes and of commercial buildings can also be expected to fall. The value of bonds held by insurance companies and banks becomes lower, if they choose to sell these securities before maturity.

Of course, as interest rates fell after 1981, we received the benefit of falling interest rates, in the form of rising asset prices. No one ever stopped to think about how much of the gains in share prices and property values came from falling interest rates.

Figure 8. Ten year treasury interest rates, based on St. Louis Fed data.

Now, as interest rates rise, we can expect asset prices of many types to start falling, because of lower affordability when monthly payments are based on higher interest rates. This situation presents another “drag” on the economy.

In Conclusion

The situation is indeed very concerning. Many things could set off a crisis:

  • Rising energy prices of any kind (hurting energy importers), or energy prices that don’t rise (leading to financial problems or collapse of exporters)
  • Rising interest rates.
  • Defaulting debt, indirectly the result of slow/negative economic growth and rising interest rates.
  • International organizations with less and less influence, or that fall apart completely.
  • Fast changes in relativities of currencies, leading to defaults on derivatives.
  • Collapsing banks, as debt defaults rise.
  • Falling asset prices (homes, farms, commercial buildings, stocks and bonds) as interest rates rise, leading to many debt defaults.

Things don’t look too bad right now, but the underlying problems are sufficiently severe that we seem to be headed for a crisis far worse than 2008. The timing is not clear. Things could start falling apart badly in 2017, or alternatively, major problems may be delayed until 2018 or 2019. I hope political leaders can find ways to keep problems away as long as possible, perhaps with more rounds of QE. Our fundamental problem is the fact that neither high nor low energy prices are now able to keep the world economy operating as we would like it to operate. Increased debt can’t seem to fix the problem either.

The laws of physics seem to be behind economic growth. From a physics point of view, our economy is a dissipative structure. Such structures form in “open systems.” In such systems, flows of energy allow structures to temporarily self-organize and grow. Other examples of dissipative structures include ecosystems, all plants and animals, stars, and hurricanes. All of these structures constantly “dissipate” energy. They have finite life spans, before they eventually collapse. Often, new dissipative systems form, to replace previous ones that have collapsed.