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.”


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.


[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.

Why we are so bad at dealing with Limits to Growth..

15 05 2016


Raul Ilargi

I know I am prone to say “this is the best thing I have read in years”, but honestly, this essay by Ilargi of The Automatic Earth fame is something else……  read and enjoy, and share widely.  Originally published here…. and republished with the intent of spreading the word.


“As individuals we need to drastically reduce our dependence on the runaway big systems, banking, the grid, transport etc., that we ourselves built like so many sorcerers apprentices, because as societies we can’t fix the runaway problems with those systems, and they are certain to drag us down with them if we let them.”


I came upon this quote a few weeks ago in an interview that Der Spiegel had with Dennis Meadows, co-author of the Limits to Growth report published by the Club of Rome 40 years ago. Yes, the report that has been much maligned and later largely rehabilitated. But that’s not my topic here, and neither is Meadows himself. It’s the quote, and it pretty much hasn’t left me alone since I read it.

Here’s the short version:

[..] … we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.

And here it is in its context:

‘Limits to Growth’ Author Dennis Meadows ‘Humanity Is Still on the Way to Destroying Itself’

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Professor Meadows, 40 years ago you published “The Limits to Growth” together with your wife and colleagues, a book that made you the intellectual father of the environmental movement. The core message of the book remains valid today: Humanity is ruthlessly exploiting global resources and is on the way to destroying itself. Do you believe that the ultimate collapse of our economic system can still be avoided?

Meadows: The problem that faces our societies is that we have developed industries and policies that were appropriate at a certain moment, but now start to reduce human welfare, like for example the oil and car industry. Their political and financial power is so great and they can prevent change. It is my expectation that they will succeed. This means that we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.

I don’t really think that Dennis Meadows understands how true that is. I may be wrong, but I think he’s talking about a specific case here . While what he makes me ponder is that perhaps this is all we have, and always, that it’s a universal truth. That we can never solve our real big problems through proactive change. That we can only get to a next step by letting the main problems we face grow into full-blown crises, and that our only answer is to let that happen.

And then we come out on the other side, or we don’t, but it’s not because we find the answer to the problem itself, we simply adapt to what there is at the other side of the full-blown crisis we were once again unable to halt in its tracks. Adapt like rats do, and crocodiles, cockroaches, no more and no less.

This offers a nearly completely ignored insight into the way we deal with problems. We don’t change course in order to prevent ourselves from hitting boundaries. We hit the wall face first, and only then do we pick up the pieces and take it from there.

Jacques Cousteau was once quite blunt about it:

The road to the future leads us smack into the wall. We simply ricochet off the alternatives that destiny offers: a demographic explosion that triggers social chaos and spreads death, nuclear delirium and the quasi-annihilation of the species… Our survival is no more than a question of 25, 50 or perhaps 100 years.

Without getting into specific predictions the way Cousteau did: If that is as true as I suspect it is, the one thing it means is that we fool ourselves a whole lot. The entire picture we have created about ourselves, consciously, sub-consciously, un-consciously, you name it, is abjectly false. At least the one I think we have. Which is that we see ourselves as capable of engineering proactive changes in order to prevent crises from blowing up.

That erroneous self-image leads us to one thing only: the phantom prospect of a techno-fix becomes an excuse for not acting. In that regard, it may be good to remember that one of the basic tenets of the Limits to Growth report was that variables like world population, industrialization and resource depletion grow exponentially, while the (techno) answer to them grows only linearly.

First, I should perhaps define what sorts of problems I’m talking about. Sure, people build dams and dikes to keep water from flooding their lands. And we did almost eradicate smallpox. But there will always be another flood coming, or a storm, and there will always be another disease popping up (viruses and bacteria adapt faster than we do).

In a broader sense, we have gotten rid of some diseases, but gotten some new ones in return. And yes, average life expectancy has gone up, but it’s dependent entirely on the affordability and availability of lots of drugs, which in turn depend on oil being available.

And if I can be not PC for a moment, this all leads to another double problem. 1) A gigantic population explosion with a lot of members that 2) are, if not weaklings, certainly on average much weaker physically than their ancestors. Which is perhaps sort of fine as long as those drugs are there, but not when they’re not.

It’s quite simple, isn’t it? Increasing wealth makes us destroy ancient multi-generational family structures (re: the nuclear family, re: old-age homes), societal community structures (who knows their neighbors, and engages in meaningful activity with them?), and the very planet that has provided the means for increasing our wealth (and our population!).

And in our drive towards what we think are more riches, we are incapable of seeing these consequences. Let alone doing something about them. We have become so dependent, as modern western men and women, on the blessings of our energy surplus and technology that 9 out of 10 of us wouldn’t survive if we had to do without them.

Nice efforts, in other words, but no radical solutions. And yes, we did fly to the moon, too, but not flying to the moon wasn’t a problem to start with.

Maybe the universal truth I suspect there is in Meadows’ quote applies “specifically” to a “specific” kind of problem: The ones we create ourselves.

We can’t reasonably expect to control nature, and we shouldn’t feel stupid if we can’t (not exactly a general view to begin with, I know). And while one approach to storms and epidemics is undoubtedly better than another, both will come to back to haunt us no matter what we do. So as far as natural threats go, it’s a given that when the big one hits we can only evolve through crisis. We can mitigate. At best.

However: we can create problems ourselves too. And not just that. We can create problems that we can’t solve. Where the problem evolves at an exponential rate, and our understanding of it only grows linearly. That’s what that quote is about for me, and that’s what I think is sorely missing from our picture of ourselves.

In order to solve problems we ourselves create, we need to understand these problems. And since we are the ones who create them, we need to first understand ourselves to understand our problems.

Moreover, we will never be able to either understand or solve our crises if we don’t acknowledge how we – tend to – deal with them. That is, we don’t avoid or circumvent them, we walk right into them and, if we’re lucky, come out at the other end.

Point in case: we’re not solving any of our current problems, and what’s more: as societies, we’re not even seriously trying, we’re merely paying lip service. To a large extent this is because our interests are too different. To a lesser extent (or is it?) this is because we – inadvertently – allow the more psychopathic among us to play an outsize role in our societies.

Of course there are lots of people who do great things individually or in small groups, for themselves and their immediate surroundings, but far too many of us draw the conclusion from this that such great things can be extended to any larger scale we can think of. And that is a problem in itself: it’s hard for us to realize that many things don’t scale up well. A case in point, though hardly anyone seems to realize it, is that solving problems itself doesn’t scale up well.

Now, it is hard enough for individuals to know themselves, but it’s something altogether different, more complex and far more challenging for the individuals in a society, to sufficiently know that society in order to correctly identify its problems, find solutions, and successfully implement them. In general, the larger the scale of the group, the society, the harder this is.

Meadows makes a perhaps somewhat confusing distinction between universal and global problems, but it does work:

You see, there are two kinds of big problems. One I call universal problems, the other I call global problems. They both affect everybody. The difference is: Universal problems can be solved by small groups of people because they don’t have to wait for others. You can clean up the air in Hanover without having to wait for Beijing or Mexico City to do the same.

Global problems, however, cannot be solved in a single place. There’s no way Hanover can solve climate change or stop the spread of nuclear weapons. For that to happen, people in China, the US and Russia must also do something. But on the global problems, we will make no progress.

So how do we deal with problems that are global? It’s deceptively simple: We don’t.

All we need to do is look at the three big problems – if not already outright crises – we have right now. And see how are we doing. I’ll leave aside No More War and No More Hunger for now, though they could serve as good examples of why we fail.

There is a more or less general recognition that we face three global problems/crises. Finance, energy and climate change. Climate change should really be seen as part of the larger overall pollution problem. As such, it is closely linked to the energy problem in that both problems are direct consequences of the 2nd law of thermodynamics. If you use energy, you produce waste; use more energy and you produce more waste. And there is a point where you can use too much, and not be able to survive in the waste you yourself have produced.

Erwin Schrödinger described it this way, as quoted by Herman Daly:

Erwin Schrodinger [..] has described life as a system in steady-state thermodynamic disequilibrium that maintains its constant distance from equilibrium (death) by feeding on low entropy from its environment — that is, by exchanging high-entropy outputs for low-entropy inputs. The same statement would hold verbatim as a physical description of our economic process. A corollary of this statement is an organism cannot live in a medium of its own waste products.

The energy crisis flows seamlessly into the climate/pollution crisis. If properly defined, that is. But it hardly ever is. Our answer to our energy problems is to first of all find more and after that maybe mitigate the worst by finding a source that’s less polluting.

So we change a lightbulb and get a hybrid car. That’s perhaps an answer to the universal problem, and only perhaps, but it in no way answers the global one. With a growing population and a growing average per capita consumption, both energy demand and pollution keep rising inexorably. And the best we can do is pay lip service. Sure, we sign up for less CO2 and less waste of energy, but we draw the line at losing global competitiveness.

The bottom line is that we may have good intentions, but we utterly fail when it comes to solutions. And if we fail with regards to energy, we fail when it comes to the climate and our broader living environment, also known as the earth.

We can only solve our climate/pollution problem if we use a whole lot less energy resources. Not just individually, but as a world population. Since that population is growing, those of us that use most energy will need to shrink our consumption more every passing day. And every day we don’t do that leads to more poisoned rivers, empty seas and oceans, barren and infertile soil. But we refuse to even properly define the problem, let alone – even try to – solve it.

Anyway, so our energy problem needs to be much better defined than it presently is. It’s not that we’re running out, but that we use too much of it and kill the medium we live in, and thereby ourselves, in the process. But how much are we willing to give up? And even if we are, won’t someone else simply use up anyway what we decided not to? Global problems blow real time.

The more we look at this, the more we find we look just like the reindeer on Matthew Island, the bacteria in the petri dish, and the yeast in the wine vat. We burn through all surplus energy as fast as we can find ways to burn it. The main difference, the one that makes us tragic, is that we can see ourselves do it, not that we can stop ourselves from doing it.

Nope, we’ll burn through it all if we can (but we can’t ’cause we’ll suffocate in our own waste first). And if we’re lucky (though that’s a point of contention) we’ll be left alive to be picking up the pieces when we’re done.

Our third big global problem is finance slash money slash economy. It not only has the shortest timeframe, it also invokes the highest level of denial and delusion, and the combination may not be entirely coincidental. The only thing our “leaders” do is try and keep the baby going at our expense, and we let them. We’ve created a zombie and all we’re trying to do is keep it walking so everyone including ourselves will believe it’s still alive. That way the zombie can eat us from within.

We’re like a deer in a pair of headlights, standing still as can be and putting our faith in whoever it is we put in the driver’s seat. And too, what is it, stubborn, thick headed?, to consider the option that maybe the driver likes deer meat.

Our debt levels, in the US, Europe and Japan, just about all of them and from whatever angle you look, are higher than they’ve been at any point in human history, and all we’ve done now for five years plus running is trust a band of bankers and shady officials to fix it all for us, just because we’re scared stiff and we think we’re too stupid to know what’s going on anyway. You know, they should know because they have the degrees and/or the money to show for it. That those can also be used for something 180 degrees removed from the greater good doesn’t seem to register.

We are incapable of solving our home made problems and crises for a whole series of reasons. We’re not just bad at it, we can’t do it at all. We’re incapable of solving the big problems, the global ones.

We evolve the way Stephen Jay Gould described evolution: through punctuated equilibrium. That is, we pass through bottlenecks, forced upon us by the circumstances of nature, only in the case of the present global issues we are nature itself. And there’s nothing we can do about it. If we don’t manage to understand this dynamic, and very soon, those bottlenecks will become awfully narrow passages, with room for ever fewer of us to pass through.

As individuals we need to drastically reduce our dependence on the runaway big systems, banking, the grid, transport etc., that we ourselves built like so many sorcerers apprentices, because as societies we can’t fix the runaway problems with those systems, and they are certain to drag us down with them if we let them.

Another study on the ERoEI of solar PV

10 05 2016

Originally posted by Euan Mearns on his blog Energy Matters, this study makes Pedro Prieto’s look very good….. the differences in ERoEI between the two studies must be a function of the difference in latitude between Spain and the UK, and even possibly by the fact that as the ERoEI of fossil fuels drops like a stone, the ERoEI of renewables must follow suit, as they rely entirely on the former.  Is Mearns a fan of nuclear power?  You make up your mind….

As Fort McMurray burns, and its smoke plume reaches the East coast of the USA, it’s occurred to me that the inevitable efforts and energy smoke-plume-from-fort-mcmurray-fire-reaches-us-east-coastrequired to rebuild it once the fire is out (IF, that is, it doesn’t reach the tar sands and sets them alight…), should be included in the ERoEI of fossil fuels.  Whilst it’s impossible to say Climate Change caused the fire in Alberta Canada, it’s impossible to not make the connection that the only reason it was over 20°C when the fire started was entirely down to the jetstream going haywire because of the arctic melt……  in fact, the energy spent rebuilding destroyed infrastructure caused by Climate Change anywhere should now be included in the ERoEI of fossil fuels….



A new study by Ferroni and Hopkirk [1] estimates the ERoEI of temperate latitude solar photovoltaic (PV) systems to be 0.83. If correct, that means more energy is used to make the PV panels than will ever be recovered from them during their 25 year lifetime. A PV panel will produce more CO2 than if coal were simply used directly to make electricity. Worse than that, all the CO2 from PV production is in the atmosphere today, while burning coal to make electricity, the emissions would be spread over the 25 year period. The image shows the true green credentials of solar PV where industrial wastelands have been created in China so that Europeans can make believe they are reducing CO2 emissions (image credit Business Insider).

I have been asked to write a post reviewing the concept of energy return on energy invested (ER0EI) and as a first step in that direction I sent an email to my State-side friends Charlie Hall, Nate Hagens and David Murphy asking that they send me recent literature. The first paper I read was by Ferruccio Ferroni and Robert J. Hopkirk titled Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) for photovoltaic solar systems in regions of moderate insolation [1] and the findings are so stunning that I felt compelled to write this post immediately.

So what is ERoEI? It is simply the ratio of energy gathered to the amount of energy used to gather the energy (the energy invested):

ERoEI = energy gathered / energy invested

Simple, isn’t it? Well it’s not quite so simple as it appears at first sight. For example, using PV to illustrate the point, the energy gathered will depend on latitude, the amount of sunshine, the orientation of the panels and also on the lifetime of the panels themselves. And how do you record or measure the energy invested? Do you simply measure the electricity used at the PV factory, or do you include the energy consumed by the workers and the miners who mined the silicon and the coal that is used to make the electricity? Ferroni and Hopkirk go into all of these details and come up with an ERoEI for temperate latitude solar PV of 0.83. At this level, solar PV is not an energy source but is an energy sink. That is for Switzerland and Germany. It will be much worse in Aberdeen!

Why is ERoEI important? It is a concept that is alien to most individuals, including many engineers, energy sector employees, academics and policy makers. The related concept of net energy is defined as:

Net Energy = ERoEI – 1 (where 1 is the energy invested)

Net energy is the surplus energy left over from our energy gathering activities that is used to power society – build hospitals, schools, aircraft carriers and to grow food. In the past the ERoEI of our primary energy sources – oil, gas and coal – was so high, probably over 50, that there was bucket loads of cheap energy left over to build all the infrastructure and to feed all the people that now inhabit The Earth. But with the net energy equation for solar PV looking like this:

0.83-1 = -0.17

….. Brussels we have a problem!

So how can it be possible that we are managing to deploy devices that evidently consume rather than produce energy? The simple answer is that our finance system, laws and subsidies are able to bend the laws of physics and thermodynamics for so long as we have enough high ERoEI energy available to maintain the whole system and to subsidise parasitic renewables. Try mining and purifying silicon using an electric mining machine powered by The Sun and the laws of physics will re-establish themselves quite quickly.

In very simple terms, solar PV deployed in northern Europe can be viewed as coal burned in China used to generate electricity over here. All of the CO2 emissions, that underpin the motive for PV, are made in China. Only in the event of high energy gain in the PV device would solar PV reduce CO2 emissions. More on that later.

Energy Return

The calculations are all based on the energy produced by 1 m^2 of PV.

Theoretical calculations of what PV modules should generate made by manufacturers do not take into account operational degradation due to surface dirt. Nor do they take into account poor orientation, unit failure or breakage, all of which are quite common.

The actual energy produced using Swiss statistics works out at 106kWe/m^2 yr

We then also need to know how long the panels last. Manufacturers claim 30 years while empirical evidence suggests a mean scrapage age of only 17 years in Germany. Ferroni and Hopkirk use a generous 25 year unit life.

Combining all these factors leads to a number of 2203kWe/m^2 for the life of a unit.

Energy Invested

The energy invested calculation is also based on 1 m^2 of panel and uses mass of materials as a proxy for energy consumed and GDP energy intensity as a proxy for the labour part of the equation.

Two different methods for measuring energy invested are described:

  • ERoEI(IEA)
  • ERoEI(Ext)

Where IEA = methodology employed by the International Energy Agency and Ext = extended boundary as described by Murphy and Hall, 2010 [2,3]. The difference between the two is that the IEA is tending to focus on the energy used in the factory process while the extended methodology of Murphy and Hall, 2010 includes activities such as mining, purifying and transporting the silicon raw material.

In my opinion, Ferroni and Hopkirk correctly follow the extended ERoEI methodology of Murphy and Hall and include the following in their calculations:

  • Materials to make panels but also to erect and install panels
  • Labour at every stage of the process from mining manufacture and disposal
  • Manufacturing process i.e. the energy used in the various factories
  • Faulty panels that are discarded
  • Capital which is viewed as the utilisation of pre-existing infrastructure and energy investment
  • Integration of intermittent PV onto the grid

And that gives us the result of ERoEI:

2203 / 2664 kW he/m^2 = 0.83

The only point I would question is the inclusion of the energy cost of capital. All energy produced can be divided into energy used to gather energy and energy for society and I would question whether the cost of capital does not fall into the latter category?

But there appears to be one major omission and that is the energy cost of distribution. In Europe, about 50% of the cost of electricity (excluding taxes) falls to the grid construction and maintenance. If that was to be included it would make another serious dent in the ERoEI.

This value for ERoEI is lower than the value of 2 reported by Prieto and Hall [4] and substantially lower that the values of 5 to 6 reported by the IEA [5]. One reason for this is that the current paper [1] is specifically for temperate latitude solar. But Ferroni and Hopkirk also detail omissions by the IEA as summarised below.

IEA energy input omissions and errors

a) The energy flux across the system boundaries and invested for the labour is not included.
b) The energy flux across the system boundaries and invested for the capital is not included.
c) The energy invested for integration of the PV-generated electricity into a complex and flexible electricity supply and distribution system is not included (energy production does not follow the needs of the customer).
d) The IEA guidelines specify the use of “primary energy equivalent” as a basis. However, since the energy returned is measured as secondary electrical energy, the energy carrier itself, and since some 64% to 67% of the energy invested for the production of solar-silicon and PV modules is also in the form of electricity (Weissbach et al., 2013) and since moreover, the rules for the conversion from carrier or secondary energy back to primary energy are not scientifically perfect (Giampietro and Sorman, 2013), it is both easier and more appropriate to express the energy invested as electrical energy. The direct contribution of fossil fuel, for instance in providing energy for process heating, also has to be converted into secondary energy. The conversion from a fossil fuel’s internal chemical energy to electricity is achieved in modern power plants with an efficiency of 38% according to the BP statistic protocol (BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 2015). In the present paper, in order to avoid conversion errors, we shall continue to use electrical (i.e. secondary) energy in kW he/m2 as our basic energy unit.
e) The recommended plant lifetime of 30 years, based on the experiences to date, must be regarded as unrealistic.
f) The energy returned can and should be based on actual experimental data measured in the field. Use of this procedure will yield values in general much lower than the electricity production expected by investors and politicians.

Of those I’d agree straight off with “a”, “c” and “f”. I’m not sure about “b” and “e” I’m sure this will be subject to debate. “d” is a complex issue and is in fact the same one described in my recent post EU and BP Renewable Electricity Accounting Methodologies. I agree with Ferroni and Hopkirk that units of electricity should be used throughout but if the IEA have grossed up the electricity used to account for thermal losses in power stations then this would increase their energy invested and suppress not inflate their estimates of ERoEI. Hence this is a point that needs to be clarified.

Environmental impacts

The main reason for deploying solar PV in Europe is to lower CO2 emissions. The European Commission and most European governments have been living in cloud cuckoo land allowing CO2 intensive industries to move to China, lowering emissions in Europe while raising emissions in China and making believe that importing steel from China somehow is emissions free.

The example of solar PV brings this into sharp focus. Assuming the main energy input is from coal (and low efficiency dirty coal at that) and with ERoEI <1, making electricity from solar PV will actually create higher emissions than had coal been used directly to make electricity for consumption in the first place. But it’s a lot worse than that. All of the emissions associated with 25 years of electricity production are in the atmosphere now making global warming much worse than it would otherwise have been without the PV.

And it gets even worse than that! The manufacture of PV panels involves lots of nasty chemicals too:

Many potentially hazardous chemicals are used during the production of solar modules. To be mentioned here is, for instance, nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), (Arnold et al., 2013), a gas used for the cleaning of the remaining silicon-containing contaminants in process chambers. According to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) this gas has a global warming potential of approximately 16600 times that of CO2. Two other similarly undesirable “greenhouse” gases appearing are hexafluoroethane (C2F6) and sulphur hexafluoride (SF6).


The average weight of a photovoltaic module is 16 kg/m2 and the weight of the support system, inverter and the balance of the system is at least 25 kg/m2 (Myrans, 2009), whereby the weight of concrete is not included. Also, most chemicals used, such as acids/ bases, etchants, elemental gases, dopants, photolithographic chemicals etc. are not included, since quantities are small. But, we must add hydrochloric acid (HCl): the production of the solar- grade silicon for one square meter of panel area requires 3.5 kg of concentrated hydrochloric acid.

Comparison with nuclear

The paper offers some interesting comparisons with nuclear power. Looking first at materials used per unit of electricity produced:

  • PV uses 20.2 g per kW he (mainly steel aluminium and copper)
  • A nuclear power station uses 0.31 g per kW he (mainly steel) for a load factor of 85%

kW he = kilowatt hours electrical

Looking at labour, the authors observe:

The suppliers involved in the renewable energies industry advertise their capability to create many new jobs.

While of course the best forms of energy use as little labour as possible. At the point where ERoEI reaches 1, everyone is engaged in gathering energy and society as we know it collapses!

  • Solar PV creates 94.4 jobs per MW installed, adjusted for capacity factor.
  • Nuclear creates 13 jobs per MW installed covering construction, operation and decommissioning.

This may seem great to the politicians but it’s this inefficiency that makes solar PV expensive and kills the ERoEI. And looking at capital costs:

  • Solar PV needs CHF 6000 per kW installed (CHF = Swiss Franc)
  • Nuclear power CHF 5500 per kW installed

But normalising for capacity factors of 9% for solar and 85% for nuclear we get for effective capacity:

66,667 / 6471 = 10.3

Solar PV is 10 times more capital intensive than nuclear.

Energy transformation

When ERoEI approaches or goes below 1 we enter the realm of energy transformation which is quite common in our energy system. For example, converting coal to electricity we lose approximately 62% of the thermal energy. Converting coal and other raw materials into a PV panel may in certain circumstances make some sense. For example PV and a battery system may provide African villages with some electricity where there is little hope of ever getting a grid connection. Likewise for a mountain cabin. Individuals concerned about blackouts may also consider a PV battery system as a backup contingency.

But as a means of reducing CO2 emissions PV fails the test badly at temperate latitudes. It simply adds cost and noise to the system. In sunnier climates the situation will improve.

Concluding comments

The findings of this single study suggest that deploying solar PV at high latitudes in countries like Germany and the UK is a total waste of time, energy and money. All that is achieved is to raise the price of electricity and destabilise the grid. Defenders of RE and solar will point out that this is a single paper and there are certainly some of the inputs to Ferroni and Hopkirk that are open to debate. But there are reasons to believe that the findings are zeroing in on reality. For example Prieto and Hall found ERoEI for solar PV = 2. Looking only at cloudy, high temperate latitudes will substantially degrade that number.

And you just need to look at the outputs as shown below. Solar PV produces a dribble in winter and absolutely nothing at the 18:00 peak demand. There is a large financial cost and energy cost to compensate for this that RE enthusiasts dismiss with a wave of the arm.

Figure 1 From UK Grid Graphed. The distribution of solar production in the UK has grown 7 fold in 4 years. But 7 times a dribble in winter is still a dribble.  The large amount of embodied energy in these expensive devices does no work for us at all when we need it most.

Energy Matters has a good search facility top right. Insert solar pv and I was surprised to find how many articles Roger and I have written and they all more or less reach the same conclusions. I have added these links at the end of the post.

Figure 2 A typical solar installation in Aberdeen where the panels are on an east facing roof leaving the ideal south facing roof empty. This is a symbol of ignorance and stupidity that also pervades academia. Has anyone seen a University that does not have solar PV deployed? I’ve heard academics argue that orientation does not matter in Scotland, and they could be right. I dare say leaving the panels in their box would make little difference to their output. Academics, of course, are increasingly keen to support government policies. Note that sunny days like this one are extremely rare in Aberdeen. And in winter time, the sun rises about 10:00 and sets around 15:00.

Two years ago I fulminated about the random orientation of solar panels in Aberdeen in a post called Solar Scotland. And this random orientation will undoubtedly lead to serious degradation of the ERoEI. PV enthusiasts will no doubt assume that all solar PV panels are optimally orientated in their net energy analysis while in the real world of Ferroni and Hopkirk, they are not. A good remedy here would be to remove the feed in tariffs of systems not optimally deployed while ending future solar PV feed in tariffs all together.

But how to get this message heard at the political level? David MacKay’s final interview was very revealing:

The only reason solar got on the table was democracy. The MPs wanted to have a solar feed-in-tariff. So in spite of the civil servants advising ministers, ‘no, we shouldn’t subsidise solar’, we ended up having this policy. There was very successful lobbying by the solar lobbyists as well. So now there’s this widespread belief that solar is a wonderful thing, even though … Britain is one of the darkest countries in the world.

If the politicians do not now listen to the advice of one of the World’s most famous and respected energy analysts then I guess they will not listen to anyone. But they will with time become increasingly aware of the consequences of leading their electorate off the net energy cliff.


[1] Ferruccio Ferroni and Robert J. Hopkirk 2016: Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) for photovoltaic solar systems in regions of moderate insolation: Energy Policy 94 (2016) 336–344

[2] Murphy, D.J.R., Hall, C.A.S., 2010. Year in review-EROI or energy return on (energy) invested. Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. Spec. Issue Ecol. Econ. Rev. 1185, 102–118.

[3] Murphy, D.J.R., Hall, C.A.S., 2011. Energy return on investment, peak oil and the end of economic growth. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. Spec. Issue Ecol. Econ. 1219, 52–72.

[4] Prieto, P.A., Hall, C.A.S., 2013. Spain’s Photovoltaic Revolution – The Energy Return on Investment. By Pedro A. Prieto and Charles A.S. Hall, Springer.

[5] IEA-PVPS T12, Methodology Guidelines on the Life Cycle Assessment of Photovoltaic Electricity – Report IEA-PVPS T12-03:2011.

Global Economic Red Alert revisited

9 07 2015

Hot on the heels of publishing Global Economic Red Alert, this pops up over on ZeroHedge, an article from Phoenix Capital Research which gets a guernsey in this morning’s post too….

Greece is Just the First of MANY Countries That Will Be Going Belly-Up

Red-Alert-Button-460x306ALL of the so called, “economic recovery” that began in 2009 has been based on the Central Banks’ abilities to rein in the collapse.

The first round of interventions (2007-early 2009) was performed in the name of saving the system. The second round (2010-2012) was done because it was generally believed that the first round hadn’t completed the task of getting the world back to recovery.

However, from 2012 onward, everything changed. At that point the Central Banks went “all in” on the Keynesian lunacy that they’d been employing since 2008. We no longer had QE plans with definitive deadlines. Instead phrases like “open-ended” and doing “whatever it takes” began to emanate from Central Bankers’ mouths.

However, the insanity was in fact greater than this. It is one thing to bluff your way through the weakest recovery in 80+ years with empty promises; but it’s another thing entirely to roll the dice on your entire country’s solvency just to see what happens.

In 2013, the Bank of Japan launched a single QE program equal to 25% of Japan’s GDP. This was unheard of in the history of the world. Never before had a country spent so much money relative to its size so rapidly… and with so little results: a few quarters of increased economic growth while household spending collapsed and misery rose alongside inflation.

This was the beginning of the end. Japan nearly broke its bond market launching this program (the circuit breakers tripped multiple times in that first week). However it wasn’t until late 2014 that things truly became completely and utterly broken.

We are, of course, referring to the Bank of Japan’s decision to increase its already far too big QE program, not because doing so would benefit the country, but because it would bring economists’ forecast inline with governor Kuroda’s intended inflation numbers.

This was the “Rubicon” moment: the instant at which Central Banks gave up pretending that their actions or policies were aimed at anything resembling public good or stability. It was now about forcing reality to match Central Bankers’ theories and forecasts. If reality didn’t react as intended, it wasn’t because the theories were misguided… it was because Central Bankers simply hadn’t left the paperweight on the “print” button long enough.

At this point the current financial system was irrevocably broken. We simply had yet to feel it.

That is, until, January 2015, when the Swiss National Bank lost control, breaking a promise, and a currency peg, losing an amount of money equal to somewhere between 10% and 15% of Swiss GDP in a single day, and showing, once and for all, that there are problems so big that even the ability to print money can’t fix them.

This process is now accelerating in Europe where a country that comprises less than 2% of the EU’s total GDP (Greece) has managed to be FIVE-YEAR problem that cannot be resolved through more debt or money printing.

The ECB and EU have tried everything to kick the Greek “can” down the road. History has shown us time and again that Central Banks first attempt to deal with a debt problem by printing money… but eventually the debt default/haircut has to occur.

This process has now begun in Greece. The fact the markets are imploding should give you an idea of how fragile the system is. One can only imagine what will happen when a larger player such as Spain or France or even Japan goes belly up.

The Big Crisis, the one in which entire countries go bust, has begun. It will not unfold in a matter of weeks; these sorts of things take months to complete. But it has begun.

“It couldn’t happen here”

6 07 2015

This fantastic article explaining the Greek Tragedy unfolding today comes from Tim Morgan’s terrific surplus energy economics blog.  All followers of DTM should follow this one too….


It has become customary for investors and commentators to worry about unforeseeable “black swan events”. They might be better advised to note the number of perfectly normal, eminently visible white swans  that are circling over us right now. The idea that what has happened in Greece is some kind of freak event that “couldn’t happen here” is simply nonsense.

It could happen here, and, indeed, it probably will.

In a 1968 episode of the radio comedy Round the Horne, a misunderstanding takes place between the Emperor Nero (Kenneth Williams) and a messenger (Hugh Paddick). The messenger arrives with urgent news of Greece – but it turns out to be grease, and it has all been stolen.

It’s a terrible pun, of course, but in today’s context it’s also a terrible fact. Pretty much however you look at it, the wealth and prosperity of Greece have gone. Apportioning blame for this state of affairs, though not wholly pointless, is less important than looking at what might happen next, and at where it might happen.

In my previous article, I looked at whether the Greek crisis was the forerunner of a broader crash, which I’m convinced that it is. Here I take this theme somewhat further, looking at the dynamics of collapse, and at what warning signs we might be able to detect ahead of the event.

Though (at time of writing) we still await the outcome of the referendum called by Alexis Tsipras, it is clear that the choice before the electorate is between bad and worse. Though the most recent offer from creditors is no longer on the table, it’s pretty clear that it will be (in some shape or form) if the Greeks vote to succumb. If they vote no, however, Greece is likely to be a failed state, certainly within weeks and possibly within days. What does this really mean?

An economy in ruins

In the absence of emergency liquidity from the European Central Bank (ECB), the Greek banking system has all but ceased to function. Individuals can draw up to €60 per day from their accounts, but even this may stop within days, as there is reckoned to be only €500m of liquidity in the system (which is less than €50 per Greek citizen). Once this liquidity runs out, no-one will have any money to spend. In reality, that point has now been reached.

Already, the government cannot pay pensions or public sector salaries, but the biggest problem of the lot is that businesses cannot pay their suppliers. This means that the supply chain has snapped.

Once that happens, an economy is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, latest research from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows that, over the coming three years, Greece will need further loans of €50bn, in addition to the currently-suspended €7.2bn final tranche of the current bailout programme. Even this estimate looks optimistic, as it assumes Greek compliance with the agreement with its creditors, only modest shrinkage in real GDP, and the availability of funds at extremely favourable rates of interest. As a creditor, of course, the IMF might be scare-mongering, but I doubt it – the calculations used in the report look pretty solid.

Please note – especially when looking at other potential crises – is that what really matters isn’t aggregate debt (of €330bn) but the smaller, but critical, €57bn liquidity imperative.

The choice facing Greece is thus between immediate economic collapse or a long period convalescing in what amounts to a secure hospital, with bars on the doors and guards at the gate.

As of the most recent (2012) census, the Greek population was 10.8 million, so further loans of €57bn equate to almost €5,300 for each man, woman and child in the country, just to keep things ticking over. For comparison, per capita GDP is of the order of €15,000. As a rough equivalent, we are talking about Britain’s 63 million citizens needing to borrow about £560bn just to keep going until the end of 2018.

As we shall see, that figure is well worth bearing in mind.

The anatomy of collapse

The immediate issue, however, is that Greece is at the point of collapse.
You might think that the problem is simply a financial one, and that the “real economy” of goods and services should continue to function even if Greece has debts that it cannot repay.

The reality, however, is that the entire economy is already ceasing to function. With Greek banks effectively bust, money cannot circulate in the economy – workers and pensioners cannot be paid, and neither can suppliers, so there will be nothing in the shops even if you happen to have stored some Euro banknotes in a safe or a mattress.

(In parenthesis, I am amused by the British authorities’ brilliant advice to those holidaying in Greece, which is that everything should be fine if they take enough cash with them. I will be interested to see how far that cash gets them when there is nothing in the shops, no food or staff in restaurants, bars or hotels, and no petrol in buses or taxis. But I digress).

In his book The Five Stages of Collapse, Dmitri Orlov explains that finance will collapse first because it is a house of cards predicated on the assumption of perpetual growth. He also demonstrates, mathematically, that the cost of debt service will always outgrow the economy – something that we can all observe by looking at the ratios of debt to GDP across the world over the last three decades.

What happens next, Orlov explains, is that the collapse of finance is followed by the collapse of commerce. What Greece is showing us, however, is that these collapses are virtually simultaneous. If the banking system ceases to function, so do all commercial transactions, because the supply chain is severed in real time. How, without cash, can Greek businesses pay their staff, pay their suppliers or receive payment from customers? How, without tax income, can the state pay salaries or pensions? Would you, as a supplier, provide goods to a customer who you know has no access to money? Would you supply drugs to a hospital which cannot pay you for them? And, as a foreign supplier, would you export food or energy to a bankrupt customer?

Three sources of false comfort

Of course, there are three reflections that might comfort outsiders that what has happened in Greece “cannot happen here”.

First, there is the patronising belief that the Greeks have somehow behaved extremely stupidly.

Second, there is the observation that Greek debt, at some €330bn, is pretty small stuff in the global scale of things.

Third, of course, we can comfort ourselves that a Eurozone with a GDP of about €15 trillion ought to be able to cope with debt of this magnitude.

If you did draw comfort from these observations, you would be wrong on all three counts.

To be sure, Greeks and their governments have behaved fecklessly, but are we really much different? The Greeks may have been poor men living like rich ones, but walk down any seemingly-prosperous street in Britain or America and ask yourself quite how much debt is represented by the smart houses and expensive cars that you see there. The days when possessions indicated affluence are long gone, and the far greater likelihood today is that possessions indicate indebtedness. Look, next, at how much debt the British and American governments have, how much they are still adding to their debt piles, and how much they have taken on in off-balance-sheet obligations such as public sector pension promises.

If you tot that lot up, and, even before you include unprecedented levels of household debt, you will realise quite how hypocritical it is when Britons or Americans accuse Greeks of fecklessness. In Britain, for example, I confidently expect the Chancellor to find more money for the National Health Service (NHS) whilst further cutting already-inadequate defence expenditures at the outset of what the Prime Minister himself has called an “existential” war.

Feckless is as feckless does.

The second source of comfort – which is the modest scale of Greek debt – is also gravely misplaced. As Zac Tate has explained in an excellent article at CapX, the global banking system is owed $17 by China for each $1 owed by Greece, largely because Chinese household debt has soared from 60% to 200% of GDP in just five years. That, as Tate explains, is a vastly larger debt increase than the subprime madness that crippled the American financial system and triggered the 2008 banking crisis.

Within the Chinese debt mountain, it seems that somewhere between $2 and $3 trillion is already mired in “problem loans”, even before excess debt starts to exert its inevitable downwards pressure on broader debt viability. Again, the scale of British and American debt should reinforce what the Chinese numbers are telling us about the true scale of the problem.

The third comforting illusion – which is that Greece can probably be rescued by someone – is true, but only of Greece. The Eurozone or the IMF might be able to bail out Greece, but no institution exists capable of rescuing, say, America, Britain or China. For the world’s really big debt junkies, there will be no Seventh Cavalry riding to the rescue, not even with General Custer in charge.

The caravan of collapse moves on

As Richard Vague has pointed out, the ramping up of debt in China parallels the situation in Japan in 1991 and the United States in 2007. Far from being an unpredictable, “black swan” event, the crashes that followed in Japan and America were eminently predictable, flagged well in advance (for anyone willing to see the warning signals) in the rapid rise of household debt.

Earlier, I commented that the Greek scale of illiquidity – the need to find €57bn just to keep the system ticking over – equated to about £560bn in the context of the British population and GDP. Actually, this sum is exceeded by property debt downside in the UK. So, in terms of where such a cataclysmic loss could actually show up, we surely need look no further than the bloated housing market, where a one-third fall in paper values would easily wipe that much and more off the balance sheets of mortgage lenders.

Housing values have been ramped up by the stimulus of ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) which was itself taken on to cope with the previous asset bubble crisis. Therefore, even the most modest rise in interest rates could torpedo property values and, by setting off a full-blown crisis in the banking system, could cripple the economy, causing liquidity to dry up almost overnight.

That such a thing could happen is itself made more likely by ZIRP because, whilst making reckless property borrowing affordable, ZIRP has also ushered in the contradiction of a supposedly “capitalist” economic system operating without returns on capital.

So we need to stop worrying about “black swans”, taking note instead of the white ones.

We also need to stop thinking that Greece is some kind of “strange bird” experiencing something that “couldn’t happen here”.

Rather, Greece is the canary in the coal mine.

Are we there yet..? revisited

30 04 2015

Four years ago, I wrote a post with exactly the same title as this one, regarding whether we were at Peak Oil or not……  Then I wrote another two years later, about Peak Debt.  Well this one is about Peak Everything….. and the reason I’m writing this one is that….  well everything is going nuts out there in the Matrix.

First, this turns up on ZeroHedge:

Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds blog,

The entire economic and political structure is now dependent in one way or another on the continued expansion of financial markets.

The financial markets don’t just dominate the economy–they now control everything. In 1999, the BBC broadcast a 4-part documentary by Adam Curtis, The Mayfair Set ( Episode 1: “Who Pays Wins” 58 minutes), that explored the way financial markets have come to dominate not just the economy but the political process and society.
In effect, politicians now look to the markets for policy guidance, and any market turbulence now causes governments to quickly amend their policies to “rescue” the all-important markets from instability.
This is a global trend that has gathered momentum since the program was broadcast in 1999, as The Global Financial Meltdown of 2008-09 greatly reinforced the dominance of markets.
It’s not just banks that have become too big to fail; the markets themselves are now too influential and big to fail.
Curtis focuses considerable attention on the way in which seemingly “good” financial entities such as pension funds actively enabled the “bad” corporate raiders of the 1980s by purchasing the high-yield junk bonds the raiders used to finance their asset-stripping ventures.
Charles Hugh-Smith then says “This spells the end of the electoral-political control of the economy, as politicians of all stripes quickly abandon all their ideologies and policies and rush to “save” the markets from any turmoil, because that turmoil could destabilize not just the financial markets but the economy, pensions and ultimately the government’s ability to finance its own profligate borrowing and spending.”
Scared yet?  Read on……
A study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that 75 percent of the planet’s “moderate daily hot extremes” can be tied to climate change. That figure means that heat events which, in a world without climate change, would occur in one out of every 1,000 days (or about once every three years) now occur in about four or five out of every 1,000 days, the study’s lead study author, Erich Fischer, told the Washington Post. Basically, climate change has upped the odds that these types of heat events will occur.
But wait, there’s more…..

a new Financial Tsunami is beginning, this one, of all places, in the Texas, North Dakota and other USA shale oil regions. Like the so-called US sub-prime real estate crisis, the oil shale junk bond default crisis is but the cutting front of the first wave of what promises to be a far more dangerous series of financial Tsunami long waves.

Banking system vulnerability greater

I say more dangerous because of what governments in the USA, EU and elsewhere did after 2007 to make sure no repeat of that bubble-cum-collapse-of bubble cycle could repeat.

In a word, they did nothing. What they did do—explode US Federal debt and bloat the credit of the central bank to historic highs leave the USA in far worse shape to deal with the unfolding crisis.
First appeared:

And there’s more still…..

U.S. oil production decline has begun.

It is not because of decreased rig count. It is because cash flow at current oil prices is too low to complete most wells being drilled.

The implications are profound. Production will decline by several hundred thousand of barrels per day before the effect of reduced rig count is fully seen. Unless oil prices rebound above $75 or $85 per barrel, the rig count won’t matter because there will not be enough money to complete more wells than are being completed today.

Tight oil production in the Eagle Ford, Bakken and Permian basin plays declined approximately 111,000 barrels of oil per day in January. These declines are part of a systematic decrease in the number of new producing wells added since oil prices fell below $90 per barrel in October 2014 (Figure 1).

Chart_ALL New Prod Wells
Figure 1. Eagle Ford, Bakken and Permian basin new producing wells by month and WTI oil price. Source: Drilling Info and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
(Click image to enlarge)

Deferred completions (drilled uncompleted wells) are not discretionary for most companies. Producers entered into long-term rig contracts assuming at least $90 oil prices. Lower prices result in substantially reduced cash flows. Capital is only available to fulfill contractual drilling commitments, basic costs of doing business, and to complete the best wells that come closest to breaking even at present oil prices.

Much of the new capital from junk bonds and share offerings is being used to pay overhead and interest expense, and to pay down debt to avoid triggering loan covenant thresholds. Hedges help soften the blow of low oil prices for some companies but not enough to carry on business as usual when it comes to well completions.

The decrease in well completions provides additional evidence that the true break-even price for tight oil plays is between $75 and $85 per barrel. The Eagle Ford Shale is the most attractive play with a break-even price of about $75 per barrel. Well completions averaged 312 per month from January through September 2014 when WTI averaged $100 per barrel (Figure 2). When oil prices dropped below $90 per barrel in October, November well completions fell to 214. As prices fell further, 169 new producing wells were added in December and only 118 in January.

Chart_Eagle Ford Break-Even

Figure 2. Eagle Ford new producing wells (2 month moving average) and WTI oil prices. Source: Drilling Info, EIA and Labyrinth Consulting Services, Inc.
(Click image to enlarge)

Junk bonds

Since the shale oil boom took flight in 2011 Wells Fargo and JP Morgan have both issued shale oil company loans of $100 billion.There has been a huge rise in high risk high return bonds, so called “junk bonds.” They earned the appropriate name because in event of a company’s going bankrupt, they become just that—junk. The bonds have been issued by Wall Street banks to shale oil and gas companies since the bubble started in 2011. The US oil and gas industry share of junk bonds has been the fastest growing portion of the overall US junk bond sector of the bond market.

Now as oil prices hover around $49 a barrel, the shale oil companies that indebted themselves with junk bonds to finance more drilling are themselves facing bankruptcy or default more and more every additional day the US crude oil price remains this low. Their shale projects were calculated when oil was $100 a barrel, less than a year ago. Their minimum price of oil to avoid bankruptcy in most cases was $65 a barrel to $80 a barrel. Shale oil extraction is unconventional and more costly than conventional oil. Douglas-Westwood, an energy advisory firm, estimates that nearly half of the US oil projects under development need oil prices greater than $120 per barrel in order to achieve positive cash flow. 
First appeared:

And today, global share markets went down.  US quarterly growth was a mere 0.2% and the Fed still has not raised interest rates as promised.  They know we’re nearly there, I’m sure.  Not that it particularly fills me with glee now my ute and all our precious goodies we need to get on with the rest of our lives are parked almost 3000km away awaiting our house sale….  We sure live in interesting times.