Days of Revolt: Junk Economics and the Future (2/2)

23 05 2018

In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges continues his discussion with UMKC economics professor Michael Hudson on his new book Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy

Part 1 is available here…..

Advertisements




Michael Hudson – How We Got to Junk Economics

23 05 2018

In this episode of Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges interviews Michael Hudson, UMKC economics professor and author of Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy. In the first half of their conversation, Hedges and Hudson trace the history of classical economics and explore Marx’s interpretation of capitalism as exploitation. http://multimedia.telesurtv.net/v/day…

PART 2 is available here….





The Bumpy Road Down, Part 4: Trends in Collapse

27 01 2018

IrvMillsIrv Mills has just published part 4 of his Bumpy Road Down series of articles…..

This time I’m going to look at some of the changes that will happen along the bumpy road down and the forces and trends that will lead to them. If you followed what I was saying in my last post, you’ll have realized that the bumpy road will be a matter of repeatedly getting slapped down as a result of going into overshoot—exceeding our limits, crashing, then recovering, only to get slapped again as we go into overshoot yet again.

Along the way, where people have a choice, they will choose to do a range of different things (some beneficial, others not so much), according to their circumstances and inclinations. Inertia is also an important factor—people resist change. And politicians are adept at “kicking the can down the road”—patching together the current system to keep it working for little while longer and letting the guy who gets elected next worry about the consequences.

Because the world will become a smaller place for most of us, we’ll feel less influence from other areas and in turn have less influence over them. There will be a lot more “dissensus”—people doing their own thing and letting other people do theirs. I expect this will lead to quite a variety of approaches, some that fail and some that do work to some extent. In the short run, of course, “working” means recovering from whatever disaster we are currently trying to cope with. But in the long run, the real challenge is learning to live within our limits and accept “just enough” rather than always striving for more. Trying a lot of different approaches to this will make it more likely that we find some that are successful.

Anyways—changes, forces and trend…and how they will work on the bumpy road down.

I’ve included the stepped or oscillating decline diagram from my last post here to make it easier to visualize what I’m talking about.

ENERGY DECLINE

Because I’m a “Peak Oil guy” and because energy is at the heart of the financial problems we’re facing, I’ll talk about energy first. As I said in a recent post:

“Despite all the optimistic talk about renewable energy, we are still dependent on fossil fuels for the great majority of our energy needs, and those needs are largely ones that cannot be met by anything other than fossil duels, especially oil. While it is true that fossil fuels are far from running out, the amount of surplus energy they deliver (the EROEI—energy returned on energy invested) has declined to the point where it no longer supports robust economic growth. Indeed, since the 1990s, real economic growth has largely stopped. What limited growth we are seeing is based on debt, rather than an abundance of surplus energy.”

It is my analysis that there is zero chance of implementing any alternative to fossil fuels remotely capable of sustaining “business as usual” in the remaining few years before a major economic crash happens and changes everything. So the first trend I’ll point to is a continued reliance on fossil fuels. Fuels of ever decreasing EROEI, which will increase the stress on the global economy and continue contribute to climate change and ocean acidification.

Those who are mainly concerned about the environmental effects of continuing to burn fossil fuels would have us stop using those fuels, whatever the cost. But it is clear to me that the cost of such a move would be a global economic depression different only in the details from the one I’ve been predicting. Lack of energy, excess of debt, environmental disaster—take your pick….

It has been interesting to watch the governments of Canada and the US take two different approaches to this over the last couple of years.

The American approach has been based on denial. Denial of climate change on the one hand, and denial of the fossil fuel depletion situation on the other. “Drill baby, drill!” is expected to solve the energy problem without causing an environmental problem. I don’t believe that either expectation will be borne out over the next few years.

Our Canadian government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made quite a bit of political hay by acknowledging the reality of climate change and championing the Paris Climate Agreement in the international arena. Here at home, though, it is clear that Trudeau understands the role of oil in our economy and he has been quick to quietly reassure the oil companies that they have nothing to fear, approving two major pipeline projects to keep oil flowing from Alberta to the Pacific coast and, eventually, to Chinese markets.

Yes, Ottawa has set a starting price of $10 a tonne on carbon dioxide emissions in 2018, increasing to $50 a tonne by 2022. This is to be implemented by provincial governments who have until the end of the year to submit their own carbon pricing plans before a national price is imposed on those that don’t meet the federal standard. It will be interesting to see how this goes and if the federal government sticks to its plan. Canada is one of the most highly indebted nations in the world and I wouldn’t be surprised if our economy was one of the first to falter.

At any rate, sometime in the next few years the economy is going to fall apart (point “c” in the diagram). As I’ve said, this may well be initiated by volatility in oil prices as the current oil surplus situation comes to an end. This will lead to financial chaos that soon spreads to the rest of the economy.

On the face of it this isn’t too different from the traditional Peak Oil scenario—the collapse of industrial civilization caused by oil shortages and sharply rising oil prices. But as you might guess by now, this isn’t exactly what I think will happen.

In fact, I think that we’ll see an economic depression where the demand for oil drops more quickly than the natural decline rate of our oil supplies and the price falls even further than it did in the last few years. We won’t be using nearly so much oil as at present, so we will once again accumulate a surplus, and we’ll even leave some reserves of oil in the ground, at least initially. This will help drive a recovery after the depression bottoms out (point “e” in the diagram). Please note that I am talking about the remaining relatively high EROEI conventional oil here. Unconventional sources just don’t produce enough surplus energy to fuel a recovery.

But the demand for oil will be a lot less than it is today and this will have a very negative effect on oil companies. Some governments will subsidize the oil industry even more than they have traditionally, just to keep to it going in the face of low prices. Other governments will outright nationalize their oil industries to ensure oil keeps getting pumped out of the ground, even if it isn’t very profitable to do so. Bankruptcy of critical industries in general is going to be a problem during and after the crash. More on that in my next post.

During the upcoming crash and depression fossil fuel use may well decline enough to significantly reduce our releases of CO2 into the atmosphere—not enough perhaps to stop climate change, but enough to slow it down. As we continue down the bumpy road, though, our use of fossil fuels and the release of CO2 from burning them will taper off to essentially nothing, allowing the ecosphere to finally begin a slow recovery from the abuses of the industrial age.

The other trend involving fossil fuels, as we go further down the bumpy road, will be their declining availability as we gradually use them up. Eventually our energy consumption will be determined by local availability of renewable energy that can be accessed using a relatively low level of technology. Things like biomass (mainly firewood), falling water, wind, passive solar, maybe even tidal and wave energy. Since these sources vary in quantity from one locality to another, the level of energy use will vary as well. Where these sources are intermittent, the users will simply have to adapt to that intermittency.

No doubt some of my readers will be wondering why I don’t think high tech renewables like solar cells and large wind turbines will save the day. The list of reasons is a long one—difficulty raising capital in a contracting economy, low EROEI, intermittency of supply and difficulty of operating, maintaining and regularly replacing such equipment once fossil fuels are gone—to mention just a few.

Large scale storage of power to deal with intermittency will in the long run prove unfeasible. Certainly batteries aren’t going to do it. There are a few locations where pumped storage of water can be set up at a relatively low cost, but not enough to make a big difference. And on top of all that, I very much doubt that large electrical grids are feasible in the long run (and I spent half my life maintaining on one such grid).

THE FIRE INDUSTRIES

The next trend I can see is in the FIRE (financial, insurance and real estate) sector of the economy. During the growth phase of our economy over that last couple of centuries the FIRE industries embodied a wide range of organizational technologies that facilitated business, trade and growth. Unfortunately, because they were set up to support growth, they were unable to cope with the end of real growth late in the twentieth century. They have supported debt based growth for the last couple of decades as the only alternative that they could deal with. This led to the unprecedented amount of debt that we see in the world today. Much of this debt is quite risky and will likely lead to a wave of bankruptcies and defaults—the very crash I’ve been talking about.

The FIRE industries will be at the heart of that crash and will suffer horribly. Many, perhaps the majority, of the companies in that sector won’t survive. In today’s world they wield a great deal of political power. During the global financial crisis (GFC) in 2007-8 that power was enough to see them through largely unscathed. This is unlikely to be the case in the upcoming crash, creating a desperate need for their services and an opportunity to fill that need which will be another factor in the recovery after the crash bottoms out. But of course there is more than one way it can be done.

In the 3rd4th5th6th and 7th posts in my ” Collapse Step by Step” series, I dealt with the political realities of our modern world, which limit what can be done by democratic governments. I identified a political spectrum defined by those limits. At the left end of this spectrum we have Social Democratic societies, which still practice capitalism, but where those in power are concerned with the welfare of everyone within the society. At the right end we have Right Wing Capitalist societies where the ruling elite is concerned only with accumulating more wealth and power for itself.

Since the FIRE industries are crucial to the accumulation and distribution of wealth in our societies, the way they are rebuilt following the crash will be largely determined by the political goals of those doing the rebuilding.

At the left end of the spectrum there is much that can be done to regulate the FIRE industries and stop their excesses from leading immediately to further crises.

At the right end of the political spectrum the elite is so closely tied to the FIRE industries and so little concerned with the welfare of the general populace, that those industries will likely be rebuilt on a plan very similar to their current organization. A policy of “exterminism” is likely to be followed, where prosperity for the elite and an ever shrinking middle class is seen as the only goal and the poor are a burden to be abandoned or outright exterminated.(Thanks for Peter Frase, author of Four Futures—Life After Captialism for the term “exterminism”.)

In the case of either of these extremes, or anywhere along the spectrum between them, there are some common things I can see happening.

The whole FIRE sector depends on trust. In the last few decades (since the 1970s) we have switched from currencies based on precious metals to “fiat money” which is based on nothing but trust in the governments issuing it. This was done to accommodate growth fueled by abundant surplus energy and then to facilitate issuing ever more debt as the surplus energy supply declined. I don’t advocate going back to precious metals—what we need is a monetary system that can accommodate degrowth, of which a great deal lies in our future. Unfortunately we don’t yet know what such a system might look like.

It is clear, though, that the coming crash is going to shake our trust in the FIRE industries to its very roots. Since central banks will have been central to the monetary problems leading to the crash, they may well be set up as scapegoats for that crash and their relative lack of success in coping with it. People will be very suspicious after watching the FIRE industries fall apart during the crash and their lack of trust will force those industries to take some different approaches.

I think governments will take over the functions of central banks and stop charging themselves interest on the money they print. Yes, I know that printing money has often led to runaway inflation, but the conditions during the crash and its aftermath will be so profoundly deflationary that inflation will not likely be a problem.

The creation of debt will be viewed much less favourably and credit will be much harder to get. And of course this will make the crash and following depression that much worse. In response to this many areas will create local banks and currencies to provide the services that local businesses need to get moving again.

During the last couple of decades there has been a move to loosen regulations in the FIRE industries, to let single large entities become involved in investment banking, business and personal banking, insurance and real estate. Most such entities began as experts in one of those areas, but one has to question their expertise in the new areas they moved into. In any case they became “too big to fail” and their failure threatened the stability the whole FIRE sector. Following the GFC there was only minor tightening of regulations to discourage this sort of thing, but after the upcoming crash I suspect many governments, especially toward the left end of the political spectrum, will institute a major re-regulation of the FIRE industries and a splitting up of the few “too big to fail” companies who didn’t actually fail.

It is all very well to talk about business and even governments failing when their debt load becomes too great. But there is also a lot of personal debt that is, at this point, unlikely ever to get paid back. What does it mean, in this context, for a person to fail? What I carry as debt is an asset for someone else—probably the share holders of a bank. They are understandably reluctant to watch their assets evaporate, and I have to admit that there is a moral hazard involved in just letting people walk away from their debts. That feeling was so strong in the past that those who couldn’t pay their debts ended up in debtors’ prisons. Such punishment was eventually seen as futile and the practice was abandoned and personal bankruptcies were allowed.

One suspects that in the depression following the coming crash it will be necessary to declare a jubilee, forgiving large classes of personal debt. What might become of all the suddenly destitute people depends on where their country lies on the political spectrum. I wouldn’t rule out debtors prisons or work camps, the sort of modern slavery that is already gaining a foothold in the prison system of the United States.

If we were willing to give up growth as the sole purpose of our economic system, there are many changes that could be made to the FIRE industries that would allow them to provide the services needed by businesses and individuals without stimulating the unchecked growth that leads to collapse. I think we are unlikely to see this happen after the upcoming crash—we will be desperate for recovery and that will still mean growth at destructive levels.

I think the crash following that recovery will involve the food supply and still unchecked population growth and sadly a lot of people won’t make it through (more on this in my next post). Following that, it’s even possible that in some areas people may reach the conclusion that growth is the problem and quit sticking their heads up to get slapped down again. They’ll have to find a more sustainable way to live, but with it will come a less bumpy road forward.

AUTHORITARIANISM

In the aftermath of the next crash, I think we’ll see an increase in authoritarianism in an attempt to optimize the systems that failed during the crash—to make them work again and work more effectively. Free market laissez faire economics will be seen to have failed by many people. Others will hang tight, claiming that if they just keep doing yet again the same thing that failed before, it will finally work.

As is always the case with this sort of optimization, it will create a less resilient system, much more susceptible to subsequent crashes. And after those crashes governments will be reduced to such a small scale affair that authoritarianism won’t be so much of an issue.

Fortunately, beyond authoritarianism, there are some other trends that will lead to increased resilience and sustainability. We’ll take a look at those in my next post.





AND the shale oil rout continues unabated…….

16 11 2017

Republished from SRS Rocco Report….  for those of you who don’t know it exists!

U.S. SHALE OIL PRODUCTION UPDATE: Financial Carnage Continues To Gut Industry

As the Mainstream media reports about the next phase of the glorious U.S. Shale Oil Revolution, the financial carnage continues to gut the industry deep down inside the entrails of its horizontal laterals.  The stench of fracking fluid must be driving shale oil advocates utterly insane as they are no longer able to see financial wreckage taking place in these companies quarterly reports.

This weekend, one of my readers sent me the following Bloomberg 45 minute TV special titled, The Next Shale Revolution.  If you are in need of a good laugh, I highly recommend watching part of the video.  At the beginning of the video, it starts off with President Trump stating that the U.S. has become an energy exporter for the first time ever.  Trump goes on to say, “that powered by new innovation and technology, we are now on the cusp of a new energy revolution.”  While I have to applaud Trump’s efforts for putting out some positive and reassuring news, I wonder who is providing him with terribly inaccurate energy information.

I would kindly like to remind the reader; the United States is still a NET IMPORTER of oil.  We still import nearly six million barrels of oil per day, but we export some finished products and a percentage of our shale oil production.  Thus, we still import a net of approximately three million barrels per day of oil.

A few minutes into the Bloomberg video, both Pioneer Resources Chairman, Scott Sheffield, and Continental Resources CEO, Harold Hamm, explain how advanced technology will revolutionize the shale oil industry and bring down costs.  I find that statement quite hilarious as Continental Resources and Pioneer continue to spend more money drilling for oil and gas then they make from their operations.  As I stated in a previous article, Continental Resources long-term debt ballooned from $165 million in 2007 to $6.5 billion currently.  So, how did advanced technology lower costs when Continental now has accumulated debt up to its eyeballs?

Of course… it didn’t.  Debt increased on Continental Resources balance sheet because shale oil production wasn’t profitable… even at $100 a barrel.  So, now the investor who purchased Continental bonds and debt are the Bag Holders.

Regardless, while U.S. oil production continues to increase at a moderate pace, there are some troubling signs in one of the country’s largest shale oil fields.

Shale Oil Production At the Mighty Eagle Ford Stagnates As Companies’ Financial Losses Mount

It was just a few short years ago that the energy industry was bragging about the tremendous growth of shale oil production at the mighty  Eagle Ford Region in Texas.  At the beginning of 2015, Eagle Ford oil production peaked at a record 1.7 million barrels per day (mbd).  Currently, it is nearly 500,000 barrels per day lower.  According to the EIA – U.S Energy Information Agency’s most recently released Drilling Productivity Report, oil production in the Eagle Ford is forecasted to grow by ZERO barrels in December:

The chart above suggests that the companies drilling and producing oil in the Eagle Ford spent one hell of a lot of money, just to keep production flat.  Even though the shale oil producers were able to bring on 88,000 barrels per day of new oil, the field lost 88,000 barrels per day due to legacy declines.  We need not take out a calculator to understand production growth at the Eagle Ford is a BIG PHAT ZERO.

Here are the five largest shale oil and gas producers in the Eagle Ford where:

  1. EOG Resources
  2. ConocoPhillips
  3. BHP Billiton
  4. Chesapeake Energy
  5. Marathon Oil

The company that doesn’t quite fit in the energy group above is BHP Billiton.  BHP Billiton is one of the largest base metal mining companies in the world.  Unfortunately for BHP Billiton, the company decided to get into U.S. Shale at the worst possible time.  BHP Billiton bought shale oil properties when prices were high and eventually had to liquidate when prices were low.  A Rookie mistake made by supposed professionals.  I wrote about this in my article; DOMINOES BEGIN TO FALL: BHP Chairman Says $20 Billion Shale Investment “MISTAKE.”

I decided to take a look at the current financial reports published by the five companies listed above.  The largest player in the Eagle Ford is EOG Resources.  I went to YahooFinance and created the following Cash Flow table for EOG:

In the latest quarter (Q3 2017), EOG reported $961 million in cash from operations.  However, the company spent $1,094 million on capital (CAPEX) expenditures and another $96 million in shareholder dividends.  Applying simple arithmetic, EOG spent $229 million more on CAPEX and dividends than it made from its operations.  Maybe someone can tell me how advanced technology is bringing down the cost for EOG.

The next largest player in the Eagle Ford is ConocoPhillips.  If we look at ConocoPhillips net income at its different business segments, we can see that the company isn’t making any money producing oil and gas in the lower 48 states:

While ConocoPhillips enjoyed a $103 million profit in Alaska, it suffered a $97 million loss in the lower 48 states.  Thus, the third largest oil company in the U.S. isn’t making any money producing oil and gas in the majority of the country.  According to the data, ConocoPhillips produced twice as much oil and gas in the lower 48 states then what they reported in Alaska, but the company still lost $97 million.

The third largest company producing oil in the Eagle Ford is BHP Billiton.  Instead of providing financial results, I thought this chart on BHP Billiton’s Return On Capital Employed was a better indicator of how bad their U.S. Shale assets were performing.  If we look at the right-hand side of the chart, BHP Billiton’s shale oil resources have become one hell of a drag on the company’s asset portfolio:

While BHP Billiton is enjoying a healthy positive Return On Capital Employed on most of its assets, shale oil resources are showing a negative return.  Furthermore, the company makes a note to above stating, “Detailed plans to improve, optimize or EXIT.”  I would bet my bottom Silver Dollar that their decision will end up “EXITING” the wonderful world of shale energy, with the sale of their assets for pennies on the dollar.

Moving down the list to the next shale company, we come to Chesapeake.  While Chesapeake is the country’s second-largest natural gas producer, the company has been losing money for more than a decade.  Unfortunately, the situation hasn’t improved for Chesapeake as its current financial statement reveals the company continues to burn through cash to produce its oil and gas:

Chesapeake’s net cash provided by its operating activities equaled $273 million for the first three-quarters of 2017.  However, the company spent a whopping $1,597 million on drilling and completion costs (CAPEX).  Thus, Chesapeake spent $1.3 billion more on producing its oil and natural gas Q1-Q3 2017 than it made from its operations.  Again, how is advanced technology making shale oil and gas more profitable?

If it weren’t for the asset sale of $1,193 million, Chesapeake would have needed to borrow that money to make up the difference.  Regrettably, selling assets to fortify one’s balance sheet isn’t a long-term viable business model.  There are only so many assets one can sell, and at some point, in the future, the market will realize those assets will have turned into worthless liabilities.

Okay, we finally come to the fifth largest player in the Eagle Ford…. Marathon Oil.  The situation at Marathon isn’t any better than the other companies drilling and producing oil in the Eagle Ford.  According to the companies third-quarter report, Marathon suffered a $600 million net income loss:

Again, we have another example of an energy company losing a lot of money producing shale oil and gas.  You will notice how high Marathon’s Depreciation, depletion, and amortization are in both the third-quarter and nine months ending on Sept 30th.  While some may believe this is just a tax write off for the company… it isn’t.  Due to the massive decline rate in producing shale oil and gas, PLEASE SEE the FIRST CHART ABOVE on the EAGLE FORD GROWTH OF ZERO, these companies have to write off these assets as it represents the BURNING of CASH.

For example, Marathon reported cash from operations of $1,487 million for Q3 2017.  However, it spent $1,305 million on CAPEX and $128 million on dividends for a total of $1,433 million.  Thus, Marathon actually enjoyed a small $53 million in positive free cash flow once dividends were deducted.  But, that is only part of the story.  If we go back to 2005 when the oil price as about the same as it is today, Marathon was reporting quarterly profits, not losses.

In the first quarter of 2005, Marathon earned a positive $324 million in net income.  It also reported a $258 million net income gain in 2004, even at a much lower oil price of $38 a barrel versus the $48-$50 during Q3 2017.  So, the Falling EROI – Energy Returned On Invested is killing the profitability of shale oil and gas companies today, whereas they were making profits just a decade ago.

Now, I didn’t provide any data on the other shale oil fields in the U.S., but production continues to increase in several regions, especially in the Permian.  However, one of the largest players in the Permian, Pioneer Resources, isn’t making any money either.  If we look at their financials, we can see that Pioneer continues to spend more money on CAPEX than they are receiving from cash from operations:

In all three quarters in 2017, Pioneer spent more money on capital expenditures than it made from its operating activities.  Pioneer spent $400 million more on CAPEX spending than from its operations for the first nine months of 2017 ending on Sept 30th.  So, here is just another example of a U.S. shale oil producer who partly responsible for the rising production in the Permian, but it still isn’t making any money.

Now, some investors or readers on my blog would say that the situation will get better when the oil price continues towards $60, $70 and then $80 a barrel.  Well, that would be nice, but I believe we are heading towards one hell of a market crash.  Even though some economic indicators are looking rosy, this market is being propped up by a massive amount of debt and the largest SHORT VIX trade in history.  When the markets start to go south as the massive VIX TRADE reverses… well, watch out below.

Thus, as the markets crash, the oil price will head down with it.  Unfortunately, this will be the final blow to the U.S. Shale Oil Ponzi Scheme and with it… the notion of Energy Independence forever.





Dick Smith on growth; emphatically yes…and no

16 08 2017

tedtrainer

Ted Trainer

Another article by my friend Ted Trainer, originally published at on line opinion……

The problems of population and economic growth have finally come onto the public agenda, and Dick Smith deserves much of the credit…but he doesn’t realise what’s on the other end of the trail he’s tugging.

For fifty years a small number of people have been saying that pursuing population and economic growth on a finite planet is a very silly thing to do. Until recently almost no one has taken any notice. However in the last few years there has emerged a substantial “de-growth” movement, especially in Europe. Dick Smith has been remarkably successful in drawing public attention to the issue in Australia. He has done more for the cause in about three years than the rest of us have managed to achieve in decades. (I published a book on the subject in 1985, which was rejected by 60 publishers…and no one took any notice of it anyway.) Dick’s book (2011) provides an excellent summary of the many powerful reasons why growth is absurd, indeed suicidal.

Image result for dick smith

Dick Smith

The problem with the growth-maniacs, a category which includes just about all respectable economists, is that they do not realise how grossly unsustainable present society is, let alone what the situation will be as we continue to pursue growth. Probably the best single point to put to them is to do with our ecological “footprint”. The World Wildlife Fund puts out a measure of the amount of productive land it takes to provide for each person. For the average Australian it takes 8 ha of to supply our food, water, settlement area and energy. If the 10 billion people we are likely to have on earth soon were each to live like us we’d need 80 billion ha of productive land…but there are only about 8 billion ha of land available on the planet. We Australians are ten times over a level of resource use that could be extended to all people. It’s much the same multiple for most other resources, such as minerals, nitrogen emissions and fish. And yet our top priority is to increase our levels of consumption, production, sales and GDP as fast as possible, with no limit in mind!

The World Wildlife Fund also puts the situation another way. We are now using resources at 1.4 times the rate the planet could provide sustainably. We do this by for example, consuming more timber than grows each year, thereby depleting the stocks. Now if 10 billion people rose to the “living standards” we Australians would have in 2050 given the 3% p.a. economic growth we expect, then every year the amount of producing and consuming going on in the world would be 20 times as great as it is now.

Over-production and over-consumption is the main factor generating all the alarming global problems we face is. Why is there an environmental problem? Because we are taking far more resources from nature, especially habitats, than is sustainable. Why do about 3+ billion people in the Third World wallow in poverty? Primarily because the global economy is a market system and in a market resources go to those who can pay most for them, i.e., the rich. That’s why we in rich countries get almost all the oil, the surpluses produced from Third World soils, the fish caught off their coasts, etc. It’s why “development” in the Third World is mostly only development of what will maximise corporate profit, meaning development of industries to export to us. Why is there so much violent conflict in the world? Primarily because everyone is out to grab as many of the scarce resources as they can. And why is the quality of life in the richest countries falling now, and social cohesion deteriorating? Primarily because increasing material wealth and business turnover has been made the top priority, and this contradicts and drives out social bonding.

Dick has done a great job in presenting this general “limits to growth” analysis of our situation clearly and forcefully, and in getting it onto the public agenda. But I want to now argue that he makes two fundamental mistakes.

The first is his assumption that this society can be reformed; that we can retain it while we remedy the growth fault it has. The central argument in my The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World (2010a) is that consumer-capitalist society cannot be fixed. Many of its elements are very valuable and should be retained, but its most crucial, defining fundamental institutions are so flawed that they have to be scrapped and replaced. Growth is only one of these but a glance at it reveals that this problem cannot be solved without entirely remaking most of the rest of society. Growth is not like a faulty air conditioning unit on a house, which can be replaced or removed while the house goes on functioning more or less as before. It is so integrated into so many structures that if it is dumped those structures will have to be scrapped and replaced.

The most obvious implication of this kind is that in a zero growth economy there can be no interest payments at all. Interest is by nature about growth, getting more wealth back than you lent, and this is not possible unless lending and output and earnings constantly increase. There goes almost the entire financial industry I’m afraid (which recently accounted for over 40% of all profits made.) Banks therefore could only be places which hold savings for safety and which lend money to invest in maintenance of a stable amount of capital stock (and readjustments within it.) There also goes the present way of providing for superannuation and payment for aged care; these can’t be based on investing to make money.

The entire energising mechanism of society would have to be replaced. The present economy is driven by the quest to get richer. This motive is what gets options searched for, risks taken, construction and development underway, etc. The most obvious alternative is for these actions to be come from a collective working out of what society needs, and organising to produce and develop those things cooperatively, but this would involve an utterly different world view and driving mechanism.

The problem of inequality would become acute and would not only demand attention, it would have to be dealt with in an entirely different way. It could no longer be defused by the assumption that “a rising tide will lift all boats”. In the present economy growth helps to legitimise inequality; extreme inequality is not a source of significant discontent because it can be said that economic growth is raising everyone’s “living standards”.

How would we handle unemployment in a zero-growth economy? At present its tendency to increase all the time is offset by the increase in consumption and therefore production. Given that we could produce all we need for idyllic lifestyles with a fraction of the present amount of work done, any move in this direction in the present economy would soon result in most workers becoming unemployed. There would be no way of dealing with this without scrapping the labour market and then rationally and deliberately planning the distribution of the (small amount of) work that needed doing.

Most difficult of all are the cultural implications, usually completely overlooked. If the economy cannot grow then all concern to gain must be abandoned. People would have to be content to work for stable incomes and abandon all interest in getting richer over time. If any scope remains for some to try to get more and more of the stable stock of wealth, then some will succeed and take more than their fair share of it and others will therefore get less…and soon it will end in chaos, or feudalism as the fittest take control. Sorry, but the 500 year misadventure Western culture has had with the quest for limitless individual and national wealth is over. If we have the sense we will realise greed is incompatible with a sustainable and just society. If, as is more likely we won’t, then scarcity will settle things for us. The few super privileged people, including Australians, will no longer be able to get the quantities of resources we are accustomed to, firstly because the resources are dwindling now, and secondly because we are being increasingly outmanoeuvred by the energetic and very hungry Chinese, Indians, Brazilians…

And, a minor point, you will also have to abandon the market system. It is logically incompatible with growth. You go into a market not to exchange things of equal value but to make money, to get the highest price you can, to trade in a way that will make you richer over time. There are “markets” where people don’t try to do this but just exchange the necessities without seeking to increase their wealth over time e.g., in tribal and peasant societies. However these are “subsistence” economies and they do not operate according to market forces. The economies of a zero-growth society would have to be like this. Again, if it remains possible for a few to trade their way to wealth they will end up with most of the pie. This seems to clearly mean that if we are to have a zero-growth economy then we have to work out how to make a satisfactory form of “socialism” work, so that at least the basic decisions about production, distribution and development can be made by society and not left to be determined by what maximises the wealth of individuals and the profits of private corporations competing in the market. Richard Smith (2010) points this out effectively, but some steady-staters, including Herman Daly and Tim Jackson (2009) seem to have difficulty accepting it.

Thus growth is not an isolated element that can be dealt with without remaking most of the rest of society. It is not that this society has a growth economy; it is that this is a growth society.

So in my view Dick has vastly underestimated the magnitude of the changes involved, and gives the impression that consumer-capitalist society can be adjusted, and then we can all go on enjoying high levels of material comfort (he does say we should reduce consumption), travel etc. But the entire socio-economic system we have prohibits the slightest move in this direction; it cannot tolerate slowdown in business turnover (unemployment, bankruptcy, discontent and pressure on governments immediately accelerate), let alone stable levels, let alone reduction to maybe one-fifth of present levels.

This gets us to the second issue on which I think Dick is clearly and importantly mistaken. He believes a zero growth economy can still be a capitalist economy. This is what Tim Jackson says too, in his very valuable critique of the present economy and of the growth commitment. Dick doesn’t offer any explanation or defence for his belief; it is just stated in four sentences. “Capitalism will still be able to thrive in this new system as long as legislation ensures a level playing field. Huge new industries will be created, and vast fortunes are still there to be made by the brave and the innovative.” (p. 173.) “I have no doubt that the dynamism and flexibility of capitalism can adjust to sustainability laws. The profit imperative would be maintained and, as long as there was an equitable base, competition would thrive.” (p. 177.)

Following is a sketch of the case that a zero growth economy is totally incompatible with capitalism.

Capitalism is by definition about accumulation, making more money than was invested, in order to invest the surplus to have even more…to invest to get even richer, in a never-ending upward spiral. Obviously this would not be possible in a steady state economy. It would be possible for a few to still own most capital and factories and to live on income from these investments, but they would be more like rentiers or landlords who draw a stable income from their property. They would not be entrepreneurs constantly seeking increasingly profitable investment outlets for ever-increasing amounts of capital.

Herman Daly believes that “productivity” growth would enable capitalism to continue in an economy with stable resource inputs. This is true, but it would be a temporary effect and too limited to enable the system to remain capitalist. The growth rate which the system, and capitalist accumulation, depends on is mostly due to increased production, not productivity growth. Secondly the productivity measure used (by economists who think dollars are the only things that matter) takes into account labour and capital but ignores what is by far the most important factor, i.e., the increasing quantities of cheap energy that have been put into new productive systems. For instance over half a century the apparent productivity of a farmer has increased greatly, but his output per unit of energy used has fallen alarmingly. From here on energy is very likely to become scarce and costly. Ayres (1999) has argued that this will eliminate productivity gains soon (which have been falling in recent years anyway), and indeed is likely to entirely stop GDP growth before long.

Therefore in a steady state economy the scope for continued capitalist accumulation via productivity gains would be very small, and confined to the increases in output per unit of resource inputs that is due to sheer technical advance. There would not be room for more than a tiny class, accumulating greater wealth very gradually until energy costs eliminated even that scope. Meanwhile the majority would see this class taking more of the almost fixed output pie, and therefore would soon see that it made no sense to leave ownership and control of most of the productive machinery in the hands of a few.

But the overwhelmingly important factor disqualifying capitalism has yet to be taken into account. As has been made clear above the need is not just for zero-growth, it is for dramatic reduction in the amount of producing and consuming going on. These must be cut to probably less than one-fifth of the levels typical of a rich country today, because the planet cannot sustain anything like the present levels of producing and consuming, let alone the levels 9 billion people would generate. This means that most productive capacity in rich countries, most factories and mines, will have to be shut down.

I suspect that Dick Smith is like Tim Jackson in identifying capitalism with the private ownership of firms, and in thinking that “socialism” means public ownership. This is a mistake. The issue of ownership is not central; what matters most is the drive to accumulate, which can still be the goal in socialism of the big state variety (“state capitalism”.) In my ideal vision of the future post-capitalist economy most production would take place within (very small) privately owned firms, but there would be no concern to get richer and the economy would be regulated by society via participatory democratic processes.

So I think Dick has seriously underestimated the magnitude of the change that is required by the global predicament and of what would be involved in moving to a zero-growth economy. The core theme detailed in The Transition… is that consumer-capitalist society cannot be fixed. Dick seems to think you can retain it by just reforming the unacceptable growth bit. My first point above is that you can’t just take out that bit and leave the rest more or less intact. In addition you have to deal with the other gigantic faults in this society driving us to destruction, including allowing the market to determine most things, accepting competition rather than cooperation as the basic motive and process, accepting centralisation, globalisation and representative big-state “democracy”, and above all accepting a culture of competitive, individualistic acquisitiveness.

The Transition… argues that an inevitable, dreadful logic becomes apparent if we clearly grasp that our problems are primarily due to grossly unsustainable levels of consumption. There can be no way out other than by transition to mostly small, highly self-sufficient and cooperative local communities and communities which run their own economies to meet local needs from local resources… with no interest whatsoever in gain. They must have the sense to focus on the provision of security and a high quality of life for all via frugal, non-material lifestyles. In this “Simpler Way” vision there can still be (some small scale) international economies, centralised state governments, high-tech industries, and in fact there can be more R and D on important topics than there is now. But there will not be anything like the resources available to sustain present levels of economic activity or individual or national “wealth” measured in dollars.

I have no doubt that the quality of life in The Simpler Way (see the website, Trainer 2011) would be far higher than it is now in the worsening rat race of late consumer-capitalism. Increasing numbers are coming to grasp all this, for instance within the rapidly emerging Transition Towns movement. We see our task as trying to establish examples of the more sane way in the towns and suburbs where we live while there is time, so that when the petrol gets scarce and large numbers realise that consumer-capitalism will not provide for them, they can come across to join us.

It is great that Dick is saying a zero-growth economy is no threat to capitalism. If he had said it has to be scrapped then he would have been identified as a deluded greenie/commie/anarchist out to wreck society and his growth critique would have been much more easily ignored. What matters at this point in time is getting attention given to the growth absurdity; when the petrol gets scarce they will be a bit more willing to think about whether capitalism is a good idea. Well done Dick!





Limits to growth: policies to steer the economy away from disaster

14 09 2016

Samuel Alexander, University of Melbourne

Samuel Alexander

If the rich nations in the world keep growing their economies by 2% each year and by 2050 the poorest nations catch up, the global economy of more than 9 billion people will be around 15 times larger than it is now, in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). If the global economy then grows by 3% to the end of the century, it will be 60 times larger than now.

The existing economy is already environmentally unsustainable. It is utterly implausible to think we can “decouple” economic growth from environmental impact so significantly, especially since recent decades of extraordinary technological advancement have only increased our impacts on the planet, not reduced them.

Moreover, if you asked politicians whether they’d rather have 4% growth than 3%, they’d all say yes. This makes the growth trajectory outlined above all the more absurd.

Others have shown why limitless growth is a recipe for disaster. I’ve argued that living in a degrowth economy would actually increase well-being, both socially and environmentally. But what would it take to get there?

In a new paper published by the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, I look at government policies that could facilitate a planned transition beyond growth – and I reflect on the huge obstacles lying in the way.

Measuring progress

First, we need to know what we’re aiming for.

It is now widely recognised that GDP – the monetary value of all goods and services produced in an economy – is a deeply flawed measure of progress.

GDP can be growing while our environment is being degraded, inequality is worsening, and social well-being is stagnant or falling. Better indicators of progress include the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which accounts for a wide range of social, economic and environmental factors.

Cap resources and energy

Environmental impact is driven by demand for resources and energy. It is now clear that the planet cannot possibly support current or bigger populations if developing nations used the same amount of resources and energy as developed nations.

Demand can be reduced through efficiency gains (doing more with less), but these gains tend to be reinvested in more growth and consumption, rather than reducing impacts.

A post-growth economy would therefore need diminishing “resource caps” to achieve sustainability. These would aim to limit a nation’s consumption to a “fair share” of available resources. This in turn would stimulate efficiency, technological innovation and recycling, thereby minimising waste.

This means that a post-growth economy will need to produce and consume in far less resource-intensive ways, which will almost certainly mean reduced GDP. There will of course be scope to progress in other ways, such as increased leisure time and community engagement.

Work less, live more

Growth in GDP is often defended on the grounds that it is required to keep unemployment at manageable levels. So jobs will have to maintained in other ways.

Even though GDP has been growing quite consistently in recent decades, many Westerners, including Australians, still seem to be locked into a culture of overwork.

By reducing the average working week to 28 hours, a post-growth economy would share the available work among the working population. This would minimise or eliminate unemployment even in a non-growing or contracting economy.

Lower income would mean we would have less stuff, reducing environmental impact, but we would receive more freedom in exchange. Planned degrowth is therefore very different to unplanned recession.

Redirect public spending

Governments are the most significant player in any economy and have the most spending power. Taking limits to growth seriously will require a fundamental rethink of how public funds are invested and spent.

Among other things, this would include a swift divestment from the fossil fuel economy and reinvestment in renewable energy systems. But just as important is investing in efficiency and reducing energy demand through behaviour change. Obviously, it will be much easier to transition to 100% renewable energy if energy demand is a fraction of what it is today.

We could fund this transition by redirecting funds from military spending (climate change is, after all, a security threat), cutting fossil fuel subsidies and putting an adequate price on carbon.

Reform banking and finance

Banking and finance systems essentially have a “growth imperative” built into their structures. Money is loaned into existence by private banks as interest-bearing debt. Paying back the debt plus the interest requires an expansion of the monetary supply.

There is so much public and private debt today that the only way it could be paid back is via decades of continued growth.

So we need deep reform of banking and finance systems. We’d also need to cancel debt in some circumstances, especially in developing nations that are being suffocated by interest payments to rich world lenders.

The population question

Then there’s population. Many people assume that population growth will slow when the developing world gets rich, but to globalise affluence would be environmentally catastrophic. It is absolutely imperative therefore that nations around the world unite to confront the population challenge directly.

Population policies will inevitably be controversial but the world needs bold and equitable leadership on this issue, because current trends suggest we are heading for 11 billion by the end of this century.

Anyone who casually dismisses the idea that there is a limit to how many people Earth can support should be given a Petri dish with a swab of bacteria. Watch as the colony grows until it consumes all of the available nutrients or is poisoned by its own waste.

The first thing needed is a global fund that focuses on providing the education, empowerment and contraception required to minimise the estimated 87 million unintended pregnancies worldwide every year.

Eliminating poverty

The conventional path to poverty alleviation is the strategy of GDP growth, on the assumption that “a rising tide will lift all boats”. But, as I’ve argued, a rising tide will sink all boats.

Poverty alleviation must be achieved more directly, via redistribution of wealth and power, both nationally and internationally. In other words (and to change the metaphor), a post-growth economy would eliminate poverty not by baking an ever-larger pie (which isn’t working) but by sharing it differently.

The richest 62 people on the planet own more than the poorest half of humanity. Dwell on that for a moment, and then dare to tell me that redistribution is not an imperative of justice.

So what’s stopping us?

Despite these post-growth policy proposals seeming coherent, they face at least four huge obstacles – which may be insurmountable.

First, the paradigm of growth is deeply embedded in national governments, especially in the developed world. At the cultural level, the expectation of ever-increasing affluence is as strong as ever. I am not so deluded as to think otherwise.

Second, these policies would directly undermine the economic interests of the most powerful corporations and institutions in society, so fierce resistance should be expected.

Third, and perhaps most challenging, is that in a globalised world these policies would likely trigger either capital flight or economic collapse, or both. For example, how would the stock markets react to this policy agenda?

Finally, there is also a geopolitical risk in being first to adopt these policies. Reduced military spending, for instance, would reduce a nation’s relative power.

So if these “top-down” policies are unlikely to work, it would seem to follow that if a post-growth economy is to emerge, it may have to be driven into existence from below, with communities coming together to build the new economy at the grassroots level.

And if we face a future where the growth economy grows itself to death, which seems to be the most likely scenario, then building up local resilience and self-sufficiency now will prove to be time and energy well spent.

In the end, it is likely that only when a deep crisis arrives will an ethics of sufficiency come to inform our economic thinking and practice more broadly.

The Conversation

Samuel Alexander, Research fellow, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.





Eight Pitfalls in Evaluating Green Energy Solutions

4 07 2016

Does the recent climate accord between US and China mean that many countries will now forge ahead with renewables and other green solutions? I think that there are more pitfalls than many realize.

Pitfall 1. Green solutions tend to push us from one set of resources that are a problem today (fossil fuels) to other resources that are likely to be problems in the longer term.  

The name of the game is “kicking the can down the road a little.” In a finite world, we are reaching many limits besides fossil fuels:

  1. Soil quality–erosion of topsoil, depleted minerals, added salt
  2. Fresh water–depletion of aquifers that only replenish over thousands of years
  3. Deforestation–cutting down trees faster than they regrow
  4. Ore quality–depletion of high quality ores, leaving us with low quality ores
  5. Extinction of other species–as we build more structures and disturb more land, we remove habitat that other species use, or pollute it
  6. Pollution–many types: CO2, heavy metals, noise, smog, fine particles, radiation, etc.
  7. Arable land per person, as population continues to rise

The danger in almost every “solution” is that we simply transfer our problems from one area to another. Growing corn for ethanol can be a problem for soil quality (erosion of topsoil), fresh water (using water from aquifers in Nebraska, Colorado). If farmers switch to no-till farming to prevent the erosion issue, then great amounts of Round Up are often used, leading to loss of lives of other species.

Encouraging use of forest products because they are renewable can lead to loss of forest cover, as more trees are made into wood chips. There can even be a roundabout reason for loss of forest cover: if high-cost renewables indirectly make citizens poorer, citizens may save money on fuel by illegally cutting down trees.

High tech goods tend to use considerable quantities of rare minerals, many of which are quite polluting if they are released into the environment where we work or live. This is a problem both for extraction and for long-term disposal.

Pitfall 2. Green solutions that use rare minerals are likely not very scalable because of quantity limits and low recycling rates.  

Computers, which are the heart of many high-tech goods, use almost the entire periodic table of elements.

Figure 1. Slide by Alicia Valero showing that almost the entire periodic table of elements is used for computers.

When minerals are used in small quantities, especially when they are used in conjunction with many other minerals, they become virtually impossible to recycle. Experience indicates that less than 1% of specialty metals are recycled.

Figure 2. Slide by Alicia Valero showing recycling rates of elements.

Green technologies, including solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries, have pushed resource use toward minerals that were little exploited in the past. If we try to ramp up usage, current mines are likely to deplete rapidly. We will eventually need to add new mines in areas where resource quality is lower and concern about pollution is higher. Costs will be much higher in such mines, making devices using such minerals less affordable, rather than more affordable, in the long run.

Of course, a second issue in the scalability of these resources has to do with limits on oil supply. As ores of scarce minerals deplete, more rather than less oil will be needed for extraction. If oil is in short supply, obtaining this oil is also likely to be a problem, also inhibiting scalability of the scarce mineral extraction. The issue with respect to oil supply may not be high price; it may be low price, for reasons I will explain later in this post.

Pitfall 3. High-cost energy sources are the opposite of the “gift that keeps on giving.” Instead, they often represent the “subsidy that keeps on taking.”

Oil that was cheap to extract (say $20 barrel) was the true “gift that keeps on giving.” It made workers more efficient in their jobs, thereby contributing to efficiency gains. It made countries using the oil more able to create goods and services cheaply, thus helping them compete better against other countries. Wages tended to rise, as long at the price of oil stayed below $40 or $50 per barrel (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Average wages in 2012$ compared to Brent oil price, also in 2012$. Average wages are total wages based on BEA data adjusted by the CPI-Urban, divided total population. Thus, they reflect changes in the proportion of population employed as well as wage levels.

More workers joined the work force, as well. This was possible in part because fossil fuels made contraceptives available, reducing family size. Fossil fuels also made tools such as dishwashers, clothes washers, and clothes dryers available, reducing the hours needed in housework. Once oil became high-priced (that is, over $40 or $50 per barrel), its favorable impact on wage growth disappeared.

When we attempt to add new higher-cost sources of energy, whether they are high-cost oil or high-cost renewables, they present a drag on the economy for three reasons:

  1. Consumers tend to cut back on discretionary expenditures, because energy products (including food, which is made using oil and other energy products) are a necessity. These cutbacks feed back through the economy and lead to layoffs in discretionary sectors. If they are severe enough, they can lead to debt defaults as well, because laid-off workers have difficulty paying their bills.
  2.  An economy with high-priced sources of energy becomes less competitive in the world economy, competing with countries using less expensive sources of fuel. This tends to lead to lower employment in countries whose mix of energy is weighted toward high-priced fuels.
  3. With (1) and (2) happening, economic growth slows. There are fewer jobs and debt becomes harder to repay.

In some sense, the cost producing of an energy product is a measure of diminishing returns–that is, cost is a measure of the amount of resources that directly and indirectly or indirectly go into making that device or energy product, with higher cost reflecting increasing effort required to make an energy product. If more resources are used in producing high-cost energy products, fewer resources are available for the rest of the economy. Even if a country tries to hide this situation behind a subsidy, the problem comes back to bite the country. This issue underlies the reason that subsidies tend to “keeping on taking.”

The dollar amount of subsidies is also concerning. Currently, subsidies for renewables (before the multiplier effect) average at least $48 per barrel equivalent of oil.1 With the multiplier effect, the dollar amount of subsidies is likely more than the current cost of oil (about $80), and possibly even more than the peak cost of oil in 2008 (about $147). The subsidy (before multiplier effect) per metric ton of oil equivalent amounts to $351. This is far more than the charge for any carbon tax.

Pitfall 4. Green technology (including renewables) can only be add-ons to the fossil fuel system.

A major reason why green technology can only be add-ons to the fossil fuel system relates to Pitfalls 1 through 3. New devices, such as wind turbines, solar PV, and electric cars aren’t very scalable because of high required subsidies, depletion issues, pollution issues, and other limits that we don’t often think about.

A related reason is the fact that even if an energy product is “renewable,” it needs long-term maintenance. For example, a wind turbine needs replacement parts from around the world. These are not available without fossil fuels. Any electrical transmission system transporting wind or solar energy will need frequent repairs, also requiring fossil fuels, usually oil (for building roads and for operating repair trucks and helicopters).

Given the problems with scalability, there is no way that all current uses of fossil fuels can all be converted to run on renewables. According to BP data, in 2013 renewable energy (including biofuels and hydroelectric) amounted to only 9.4% of total energy use. Wind amounted to 1.1% of world energy use; solar amounted to 0.2% of world energy use.

Pitfall 5. We can’t expect oil prices to keep rising because of affordability issues.  

Economists tell us that if there are inadequate oil supplies there should be few problems:  higher prices will reduce demand, encourage more oil production, and encourage production of alternatives. Unfortunately, there is also a roundabout way that demand is reduced: wages tend to be affected by high oil prices, because high-priced oil tends to lead to less employment (Figure 3). With wages not rising much, the rate of growth of debt also tends to slow. The result is that products that use oil (such as cars) are less affordable, leading to less demand for oil. This seems to be the issue we are now encountering, with many young people unable to find good-paying jobs.

If oil prices decline, rather than rise, this creates a problem for renewables and other green alternatives, because needed subsidies are likely to rise rather than disappear.

The other issue with falling oil prices is that oil prices quickly become too low for producers. Producers cut back on new development, leading to a decrease in oil supply in a year or two. Renewables and the electric grid need oil for maintenance, so are likely to be affected as well. Related posts include Low Oil Prices: Sign of a Debt Bubble Collapse, Leading to the End of Oil Supply? and Oil Price Slide – No Good Way Out.

Pitfall 6. It is often difficult to get the finances for an electrical system that uses intermittent renewables to work out well.  

Intermittent renewables, such as electricity from wind, solar PV, and wave energy, tend to work acceptably well, in certain specialized cases:

  • When there is a lot of hydroelectricity nearby to offset shifts in intermittent renewable supply;
  • When the amount added is sufficient small that it has only a small impact on the grid;
  • When the cost of electricity from otherwise available sources, such as burning oil, is very high. This often happens on tropical islands. In such cases, the economy has already adjusted to very high-priced electricity.

Intermittent renewables can also work well supporting tasks that can be intermittent. For example, solar panels can work well for pumping water and for desalination, especially if the alternative is using diesel for fuel.

Where intermittent renewables tend not to work well is when

  1. Consumers and businesses expect to get a big credit for using electricity from intermittent renewables, but
  2. Electricity added to the grid by intermittent renewables leads to little cost savings for electricity providers.

For example, people with solar panels often expect “net metering,” a credit equal to the retail price of electricity for electricity sold to the electric grid. The benefit to electric grid is generally a lot less than the credit for net metering, because the utility still needs to maintain the transmission lines and do many of the functions that it did in the past, such as send out bills. In theory, the utility still should get paid for all of these functions, but doesn’t. Net metering gives way too much credit to those with solar panels, relative to the savings to the electric companies. This approach runs the risk of starving fossil fuel, nuclear, and grid portion of the system of needed revenue.

A similar problem can occur if an electric grid buys wind or solar energy on a preferential basis from commercial providers at wholesale rates in effect for that time of day. This practice tends to lead to a loss of profitability for fossil fuel-based providers of electricity. This is especially the case for natural gas “peaking plants” that normally operate for only a few hours a year, when electricity rates are very high.

Germany has been adding wind and solar, in an attempt to offset reductions in nuclear power production. Germany is now running into difficulty with its pricing approach for renewables. Some of its natural gas providers of electricity have threatened to shut down because they are not making adequate profits with the current pricing plan. Germany also finds itself using more cheap (but polluting) lignite coal, in an attempt to keep total electrical costs within a range customers can afford.

Pitfall 7. Adding intermittent renewables to the electric grid makes the operation of the grid more complex and more difficult to manage. We run the risk of more blackouts and eventual failure of the grid. 

In theory, we can change the electric grid in many ways at once. We can add intermittent renewables, “smart grids,” and “smart appliances” that turn on and off, depending on the needs of the electric grid. We can add the charging of electric automobiles as well. All of these changes add to the complexity of the system. They also increase the vulnerability of the system to hackers.

The usual assumption is that we can step up to the challenge–we can handle this increased complexity. A recent report by The Institution of Engineering and Technology in the UK on the Resilience of the Electricity Infrastructure questions whether this is the case. It says such changes, ” .  .  . vastly increase complexity and require a level of engineering coordination and integration that the current industry structure and market regime does not provide.” Perhaps the system can be changed so that more attention is focused on resilience, but incentives need to be changed to make resilience (and not profit) a top priority. It is doubtful this will happen.

The electric grid has been called the worlds ‘s largest and most complex machine. We “mess with it” at our own risk. Nafeez Ahmed recently published an article called The Coming Blackout Epidemic, discussing challenges grids are now facing. I have written about electric grid problems in the past myself: The US Electric Grid: Will it be Our Undoing?

Pitfall 8. A person needs to be very careful in looking at studies that claim to show favorable performance for intermittent renewables.  

Analysts often overestimate the benefits of wind and solar. Just this week a new report was published saying that the largest solar plant in the world is so far producing only half of the electricity originally anticipated since it opened in February 2014.

In my view, “standard” Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) and Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) calculations tend to overstate the benefits of intermittent renewables, because they do not include a “time variable,” and because they do not consider the effect of intermittency. More specialized studies that do include these variables show very concerning results. For example, Graham Palmer looks at the dynamic EROEI of solar PV, using batteries (replaced at eight year intervals) to mitigate intermittency.2 He did not include inverters–something that would be needed and would reduce the return further.

Figure 4. Graham Palmer's chart of Dynamic Energy Returned on Energy Invested from "Energy in Australia."

Palmer’s work indicates that because of the big energy investment initially required, the system is left in a deficit energy position for a very long time. The energy that is put into the system is not paid back until 25 years after the system is set up. After the full 30-year lifetime of the solar panel, the system returns 1.3 times the initial direct energy investment.

One further catch is that the energy used in the EROEI calculations includes only a list of direct energy inputs. The total energy required is much higher; it includes indirect inputs that are not directly measured as well as energy needed to provide necessary infrastructure, such as roads and schools. When these are considered, the minimum EROEI needs to be something like 10. Thus, the solar panel plus battery system modeled is really a net energy sink, rather than a net energy producer.  

Another study by Weissbach et al. looks at the impact of adjusting for intermittency. (This study, unlike Palmer’s, doesn’t attempt to adjust for timing differences.) It concludes, “The results show that nuclear, hydro, coal, and natural gas power systems . . . are one order of magnitude more effective than photovoltaics and wind power.”

Conclusion

It would be nice to have a way around limits in a finite world. Unfortunately, this is not possible in the long run. At best, green solutions can help us avoid limits for a little while longer.

The problem we have is that statements about green energy are often overly optimistic. Cost comparisons are often just plain wrong–for example, the supposed near grid parity of solar panels is an “apples to oranges” comparison. An electric utility cannot possibility credit a user with the full retail cost of electricity for the intermittent period it is available, without going broke. Similarly, it is easy to overpay for wind energy, if payments are made based on time-of-day wholesale electricity costs. We will continue to need our fossil-fueled balancing system for the electric grid indefinitely, so we need to continue to financially support this system.

There clearly are some green solutions that will work, at least until the resources needed to produce these solutions are exhausted or other limits are reached. For example, geothermal may be solutions in some locations. Hydroelectric, including “run of the stream” hydro, may be a solution in some locations. In all cases, a clear look at trade-offs needs to be done in advance. New devices, such as gravity powered lamps and solar thermal water heaters, may be helpful especially if they do not use resources in short supply and are not likely to cause pollution problems in the long run.

Expectations for wind and solar PV need to be reduced. Solar PV and offshore wind are both likely net energy sinks because of storage and balancing needs, if they are added to the electric grid in more than very small amounts. Onshore wind is less bad, but it needs to be evaluated closely in each particular location. The need for large subsidies should be a red flag that costs are likely to be high, both short and long term. Another consideration is that wind is likely to have a short lifespan if oil supplies are interrupted, because of its frequent need for replacement parts from around the world.

Some citizens who are concerned about the long-term viability of the electric grid will no doubt want to purchase their own solar systems with inverters and back-up batteries. I see no reason to discourage people who want to do this–the systems may prove to be of assistance to these citizens. But I see no reason to subsidize these purchases, except perhaps in areas (such as tropical islands) where this is the most cost-effective way of producing electric power.

Notes:

[1] In 2013, the total amount of subsidies for renewables was $121 billion according to the IEA. If we compare this to the amount of renewables (biofuels + other renewables) reported by BP, we find that the subsidy per barrel of oil equivalent in was $48 per barrel of oil equivalent. These amounts are likely understated, because BP biofuels include fuel that doesn’t require subsidies, such as waste sawdust burned for electricity.

[2] Palmer’s work is published in Energy in Australia: Peak Oil, Solar Power, and Asia’s Economic Growth, published by Springer in 2014. This book is part of Prof. Charles Hall’s “Briefs in Energy” series.