Blindspots and Superheroes

14 05 2017

I haven’t heard much from Nate Hagens in recent times, but when he does come out of the woodwork, his communications skills certainly come through….. We who follow the collapse of the world as we know it probably know most of what’s in this admirable presentation, but it is absolutely captivating, and you will learn something new, or see it in a different perspective. It’s an hour and twenty minutes long (I actually drove down town to use the library’s free wi-fi to download it, my mobile phone data allowance won’t stretch to a quarter Gig for one video!), so make yourself a cup of your favourite poison, and enjoy the show……

Nathan John Hagens is a former Wall Street analyst, turned college professor and systems-science advocate. Nate has an MBA with Honors from the University of Chicago and a PhD in Natural Resources/Energy from the University of Vermont. He is on the Boards of Post Carbon Institute, Institute for Integrated Economic Research, and Institute for the Study of Energy and our Future. He teaches a class at the University of Minnesota called “Reality 101 – A Survey of the Human Predicament”.

Nate, partnering with environmental strategist DJ White, has created the “Bottleneck Foundation”, a nonprofit initiative designed to help steer towards better human and ecological futures than would otherwise be attained. The “Bottlenecks” are the cultural, biological, and technological challenges which will arise as energy and terrestrial biomass begin their long fall back toward sustainable-flow baselines this century. The “Foundation” part of the name is a tip of the hat to Asimov’s “Foundation” series of novels, about an organization designed to mitigate the negative effects of societal simplification. BF is dedicated to making “synthesis science” accessible to a new generation of engaged people, through educational materials and projects which demonstrate that reality is a lot different from our culture currently thinks it is.





Forget 1984…. 2020 is the apocalypse year

26 01 2017

The crescendo of news pointing to 2020 as the date to watch is growing apace…. it won’t be the year collapse happens, because collapse is a process, not an event; but it will definitely be the year this process starts to become obvious. To people other than followers of this blog at least…!

RIYADH, Saudi ArabiaAccording to the International Monetary Fund, Saudi Arabia’s economy is in danger of collapse as oil prices grow increasingly unstable.

The warning appeared in the “Regional Economic Outlook” for the Middle East and Central Asia published on Oct. 15, an annual report published by IMF economists. Adam Leyland, writing on Oct. 23 for The Independent, explained the grim prognosis for Saudi’s economy, which is almost completely dependent on fossil fuels:

“[T]he IMF said that the kingdom will suffer a negative 21.6 per cent ‘General Government Overall Fiscal Balance’ in 2015 and a 19.4 per cent negative balance in 2016, a massive increase from only -3.4 per cent in 2014.

Saudi Arabia currently has $654.5 billion in foreign reserves, but the cash is disappearing quickly.

The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency has withdrawn $70 billion in funds managed by overseas financial institutions, and has lost almost $73 billion since oil prices slumped, according to Al-Jazeera. Saudi Arabia generates 90 per cent of its income from oil.”

AND……..

Tax-free living will soon be a thing of the past for Saudis after its cabinet on Monday approved an IMF-backed value-added tax to be imposed across the Gulf following an oil slump.

A 5% levy will apply to certain goods following an agreement with the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council in June last year.

Residents of the energy-rich region had long enjoyed a tax-free and heavily subsidised existence but the collapse in crude prices since 2014 sparked cutbacks and a search for new revenue.

Author Dr Nafeez Ahmed, a Visiting Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute, is making even more waves today, saying………:

“Syria and Yemen demonstrate how climate and energy crises work together to undermine state power and fuel terrorism. 

“Climate-induced droughts ravage agriculture, swell the ranks of the unemployed and destroy livelihoods.  Domestic oil depletion undercuts state revenues, weakening the capacity to sustain domestic subsidies for fuel and food.  As the state is unable to cope with the needs of an increasingly impoverished population, this leads to civil unrest and possibly radicalisation and terrorism. 

“These underlying processes are not isolated to Syria and Yemen.  Without a change of course, the danger is that eventually they will occur inside the US and Europe.”

Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence, authored by Dr Nafeez Ahmed, published by Springer Briefs in Energy includes the following key points…:
  • Global net energy decline is the underlying cause of the decline in the rate of global economic growth.  In the short term, slow or absent growth in Europe and the US is complicit in voter discontent and the success of anti-establishment politicians. 
  • Europe is now a post-peak oil society, with its domestic oil production declining every year since 1999 by 6%.  Shale oil and gas is unlikely to offset this decline. 
  • Europe’s main sources of oil imports are in decline. Former Soviet Union producers, their production already in the negative, are likely to terminate exports by 2030.  Russia’s oil production is plateauing and likely to decline after 2030 at the latest. 
  • In the US, conventional oil has already peaked and is in sharp decline.  The shortfall is being made up by unconventional sources such as tight oil and shale gas, which are likely to peak by 2025. California will continue to experience extensive drought over the coming decades, permanently damaging US agriculture.
  • Between 2020 and 2035, the US and Mexico could experience unprecedented military tensions as the latter rapidly runs down its conventional oil reserves, which peaked in 2006. By 2020, its exports will revert to zero, decimating Mexican state revenues and potentially provoking state failure shortly thereafter.
  • After 2025, Iraq is unlikely to survive as a single state.  The country is experiencing worsening water scarcity, fueling an ongoing agricultural crisis, while its oil production is plateauing due to a combination of mounting costs of production and geopolitical factors.
  • Saudi Arabia will face a ‘perfect storm’ of energy, food and economic shocks most likely before 2030, and certainly within the next 20 years.
  • Egypt will begin to experience further outbreaks of civil unrest leading to escalating state failure after 2021.  Egypt will likely become a fully failed state after 2037.
  • India’s hopes to become a major economic player will falter due to looming food, water and energy crises.  India’s maximum potential domestic renewable energy capacity is insufficient to meet projected demand growth.
  • China’s total oil production is likely to peak in 2020.  Its rate of economic growth is expected to fall continuously in coming decades, while climate change will damage its domestic agriculture, forcing it to rely increasingly on expensive imports by 2022.

I wish Julian Simon could read this….. it seems all our limits to growth chickens are coming home to roost, and very soon now.





2017: The Year When the World Economy Starts Coming Apart

20 01 2017

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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

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

Figure 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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





INDUSTRY IN A LOW ENERGY FUTURE: TURNING TO NETWORK THEORY FOR SOLUTIONS

15 03 2016

This is Simon Michaux’s follow up to his article on the Implications of Peak Energy

Simon Michaux

SIMON MICHAUX

Dr Simon Michaux has a Bach App Sc in Physics and Geology and a PhD in mining engineering. He has worked in the mining industry for 18 years in various capacities. He has worked in industry funded mining research, coal exploration and in the commercial sector in an engineering company as a consultant. Areas of technical interest have been: Geometallurgy; mineral processing in comminution, flotation and leaching; blasting; mining geology; geophysics; feasibility studies; mining investment; and industrial sustainability.

There is a macro-scale pattern unfolding under all of us. Every non-renewable natural resource we depend upon is now depleting to the point of peak extraction, or will soon. Industrial systems that are heavily dependent on energy reserves and metal resources are now at serious risk of collapse as production of those raw materials will soon not be able to meet demand, since easy to access reserves will be exhausted, leaving low-grade stocks that are expensive or technically challenging to extract. All living systems on the planet are under stress and are also heavily degrading. Natural systems of all kinds are being depleted in the name of economic development, and the planet’s climate is also undergoing change.

Our culture’s fundamental belief that there are no limits and growth is good, is related to the belief that all resources are infinite. Humans, like all animals on the planet, are biologically driven to consume and expand – it’s a built-in survival mechanism. Yet, as this is a finite planet and our exploitation of these natural resources is exponential in form, there will come a point where severe volatility and resource scarcity will become a reality.

Energy is the rate determining step, which facilitates the continued application of technology with economies of scale. As studies have shown, total world fossil fuel supply is close to peak, driven by peak of oil production. What’s more, putting all energy sources together gives a snapshot of our industrial capability and suggests that peak total energy is projected to be approximately in the year 2017.

energy sources

The industrial systems vital for our society to function are supported by each of these energy sources in quite different ways, and they are not interchangeable easily. A compelling case can be made that that our society and its industrial sector energy supply faces a fundamental problem, that is systemic in nature.

Our industrial requirements will have to be met with a fundamentally different approach to anything we have achieved before. We need to stop depending on non-renewable natural resources and stop the material requirements of the human societal footprint growing exponentially. Mining will continue but according to a radically different business model, and with a very different mandate.

NETWORK SYSTEMS THEORY

Network theory and systems thinking has some insights to what the required new system of industrialisation could look like. Our human society, its economic and social interactions could be modelled as a system, where each activity could be a connection, for example the transport of goods, or the consumption of electricity. Nodes are where many connections intersect. For example, most activities involve a finance transfer thus will engage the services of a bank. The bank is a node, where many connections are able to function through. Not all nodes are equal though in regard to the number of connections they facilitate. The node of a car manufacturing business, for instance, will have many fewer connections than, say, the European Union Bank.

Image: NASA / Flickr CC BY NC 2.0
Image: NASA / Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

If connections are broken due to circumstance (using a city example, heavy storms and flooding could temporarily interrupt power supply to an individual neighbourhood) then the network is smaller in size but it still functions (power is still being supplied to other parts of the power grid). But if that same storm causes the power station used for electricity generation (a node) to shut down, then every consumer attached to that power station will lose power. The whole grid will crash.

The complexity of a network is supported by and defined by the energy inputs that support it. Our current complex system is supported by cheap abundant high density energy – oil. Complex system networks are not made ‘in situ’, but are grown over time from simple system networks.

What does all this mean for the current industrial grid? Peak total energy means the node of energy supply is about to be disrupted. All links in the network system supported by energy will be logistically traumatized. As it stands, any replacement energy is less dense per unit volume than oil, and requires extensive infrastructure to be built. Think of the amount of energy invested in the creation of our current system over time – without plentiful, easy to access energy, the replacement network system will need to be less complex than the current one, once fully operational. It will also take time for the network to reach full complexity.

The old system cannot function because input energy is sourced from non-renewable natural resources, all of which are depleting or soon will. As energy is the master resource, it defines what happens with all other resource systems. Any replacement system that is a practical option will have to have certain signatures.

PROGNOSIS

Due to energy constraints, all industrial output would have to be sourced from a geographically local area. This would affect everything from raw material consumption, water consumption to waste disposal. Product delivery to market would also be changed. All of this would have to become as close to net zero footprint in terms of source material and waste disposal. Industrial output would have to be simpler. Technology cannot be as complex as it is now. This implies that manufacturing goods will require more effort on our part, which means that we would have to value ‘stuff’ differently. All waste products will also require greater effort to dispose of, meaning that if they could be recycled, reused or repurposed, there would be less strain on the system to function. Maintaining QA/QC material standards and equipment maintenance would all have to be done within a relatively local geographic region. These challenging statements represent practical limits of a low energy future. As this represents quite a paradigm shift from our current state of exponential consumption based on whim, the most difficult but significant task in front of us is a revolution in perception and a restructuring of governance.

Political systems like capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism, etc. are all built in the context of unlimited natural resources. Whatever the new system looks like, it won’t be anything like what has been seen before. We can call it what we like. Planning will have to be projected over 50 to 60 years into the future but be flexible to evolve organically to its environs. The current system is very centralised, whereas the new system would have to be very decentralised due to energy constraints. The flow of information will become very important.

The Great Acceleration indicators, published by IGBP in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre
The Great Acceleration indicators, published by IGBP in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre

From a civilisation network systems footprint viewpoint, we must ask ourselves how we can develop an economy that offers enough for everyone, forever. Real world systems and their inputs must reflect this, and the familiar exponential curves of today’s economy must move to flat line or sinusoidal wave functions. We also need to ask what profile human civilisation has amongst the natural environment. Dynamic natural systems must be able to operate unhindered, where natural capital and biodiversity is allowed to recover. The new economic framework must appreciate that inputs and outputs to all systems must be stable over time.

There are two related conceptual ideas which could be a starting point to help us develop the above requirements: the circular economy and the steady state economy. In a future in which peak energy has dramatically changed the rules of the game, these concepts are required to maintain our industrial capacity. It is not a question of choice, as our natural resources are being depleted at an exponential rate. The timing is now. The next 100 years will be very different to the last 100 years.





THE IMPLICATIONS OF PEAK ENERGY

13 03 2016

SIMON MICHAUX

Dr Simon Michaux has a Bach App Sc in Physics and Geology and a PhD in mining engineering. He has worked in the mining industry for 18 years in various capacities. He has worked in industry funded mining research, coal exploration and in the commercial sector in an engineering company as a consultant. Areas of technical interest have been: Geometallurgy; mineral processing in comminution, flotation and leaching; blasting; mining geology; geophysics; feasibility studies; mining investment; and industrial sustainability.

Our current society is one based on whim. Whatever we want can be had if we have the money. Not only can we have what we want any time we want it, it’s the done thing to throw it away and buy something else when it breaks or the latest upgrade comes out. We are conditioned to believe there are no limits within the current framework, and growth is our reason to be. The ‘how’ we can have all this fantastic stuff is considered someone else’s problem. But with a growing middle class population, for how long will it be possible to utilise finite, non-renewable resources in this linear fashion?

To date, our civilisation has been built on non-renewable natural resources.  What has facilitated all this is our sources of energy – the master resource.  Oil, coal and gas has accounted for the vast amount of industrial development over the last 160 years.

Untitled
World population, per capita-, and total energy consumption by fuel as a percentage of 2011 consumption, 1850-2011

Currently, we are a petroleum based society, where petroleum products and petrochemicals derived from oil provide goods and services for most of the vital requirements of our industrial civilisation. Everything from food production to plastics manufacture is dependent on oil in some form (there are some synthetic alternatives but they are costly and not as effective as natural crude oil as a raw feed product). World growth in GDP, energy consumption and oil consumption all correlate to demonstrate this basic concept.  The world economy is dependant not just on oil but high quality and high net energy oil.

afewfe

But all is not well with the oil sector.  Between 2000 and 2012, $2.6 Trillion USD was invested in oil infrastructure CAPEX, with no gain in oil production (this data includes shale oil production in USA).¹  Global crude and condensate production has plateaued since approximately 2005. The problem with this is world population is 13.8% larger now than in 2005 (7.4 billion people 5/2/2016 vs 6.5 billion in 2005). Increasingly unconventional sources of oil are being used to meet demand, where these sources are expensive to extract and struggle to meet the desired quantities.

Increasingly, conventional sources of crude oil have been difficult to discover and exploit. The picture below shows the pattern of oil discovery, listing all of the major plays that have dominated oil production.

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There will come a point where total oil production will peak and decline, the question is just when this will happen. Conventional crude oil production peaked in 2006, something now recognised by the International Energy Agency (Source: IEA World Energy Outlook 2010). Unconventional sources like tight oil (also known as shale oil) in the US have come on line to meet demand requirements, which have for some discredited previous predictions around peak oil.

However, The global combination of conventional crude oil production and unconventional oil production is predicted to peak and decline very soon, according to various studies. A sophisticated analysis on oil production has been conducted by retired actuary Gail Tverberg, where total oil production is predicted to have peaked in the year 2015. Others have suggested that we are in fact past peak, such as the report released by the Energy Watch Group (EWG), which claims that peak oil production (conventional and unconventional) happened around the year 2012.

conventional and unconv
Source: Zittel, W. et al, Fossil and Nuclear Fuels – the supply outlook Energy Watch Group March 2013

Gas as a commodity is important to our industrialisation. As industrial sites require large quantities of power, a gas fired power station is often installed. Acquiring data for gas production has been difficult but it is believed that conventional production of natural gas peaked in the year 2011 (data is spotty). To meet industrial demand, unconventional sources of gas like fracking and Coal Seam Gas (CSG) have been developed. Unconventional gas supply was believed to replace conventional sources of gas, and is in the process of doing so.

gas production
Gas supply scenario projections until 2030. Source: Zittel, W. et al, Fossil and Nuclear Fuels – the supply outlook Energy Watch Group March 2013

Coal is another energy resource that our industrial grid depends on to generate its electricity requirements. It is also often the case that the domestic power grid that supplies electricity is dependent on coal. The EWG report has a peak in coal production at approximately the year 2020. Four years away. Even if this estimate is imprecise, as it now takes about five years to build an industrial power station, it would behove us all to consider a replacement energy source.

geography
Global coal production. Source: Zittel, W. et al, Fossil and Nuclear Fuels – the supply outlook Energy Watch Group March 2013

Each energy source often serves different purposes, so one resource cannot necessarily directly replace another.  For the purposes of comparison though, all energy sources discussed have been put onto one graph:

 

energy sourcespeak energy reference

(Another good estimate has been provided by G. Tverberg  in “A Forecast of Our Energy Future; Why Common Solutions Don’t Work”)

Peak total energy is projected to be approximately in the year 2017. This means that industrialisation in a global context, based on the current rules of the game, will soon tip into contracting economies – the end of growth based economics. As this challenges would have taken 20 years to meet with an engineered alternative (once a viable one has been presented) (Hirsch 2005), the implications of the above charts are quite serious. Even if the projection was incorrect by 10 years, our industrial society would still be faced with an unprecedented challenge.

To examine the usefulness of a replacement energy source, the Energy Return On Energy Invested ratio (EROEI) is used, which is the ratio of the amount of usable energy acquired from a particular energy resource to the amount of energy expended to obtain that energy resource.

Oil when it was originally discovered was very good and returned about 100 units of energy for every one invested.  Now it’s around 12-18:1.  Most alternative energy sources are much lower than what oil currently delivers.  To put this in perspective, the European medieval society EROEI was Approximately 1.5:1.  For our industrial society to function, an EROEI ratio of 10:1 is required.

eroei
Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI ratio)

What this means is we have no replacement energy source that is as calorically dense as oil. It is simply not practical to replace oil as an energy source and maintain current energy demands. Colloquially, oil is butter-fried-steak wrapped in bacon and alternative energy is lettuce. This is why peak oil is so relevant and is the rate determining issue amongst the network of problems facing society at this time. With the possibility of peak energy on the horizon, the solution may lie in a fundamental upgrade to the operating system for our economy.

Notes

  1. Data collection stopped at 2012 because since then, there has been a non linear pattern unfolding in the form of global economic stagnation.  Currently the Baltic Dry Index is at a historic low (currently 332), where it was about 600 during the worst of the global correction of 2008.  This means global trade is at a historically low level.  More time is required to determine the true nature what is happening now.




Peak Farming….?

15 01 2016

As the financial system unravels, the weather goes ballistic all over the world, and the demands of a growing population increase the pressure on food production, breaking strains are starting to appear.  The perfect storm of Peak Debt, Climate Change, and even Peak Oil in its own pervert way are starting to even emerge in mainstream media. Except of course, they don’t call it what I call it, but nonetheless, the signs are here.

This appeared on the ABC’s news website this morning:

Rural Debt and Drought Taskforce hears calls for Queensland Government to set up own bank

Graziers struggling with debt in drought-declared North Queensland have lashed out and broken down in front of visiting politicians and economists.

The Rural Debt and Drought Taskforce met about 40 farmers in Ayr on Thursday to discuss what some called “criminal” and “disgraceful” behaviour by banks.

“You will starve — the whole country will starve” if governments do not “pull their heads in” and bail out the industry, one man warned.

People always look at me blankly when I mention food shortages in Australia……  ‘Is he mad?’  But there you have it, the farmers aren’t stupid.  AND we still have oil to farm with! What do they think……..  no, know, will happen when we start having fuel shortages?  And not too soon either the way the price of oil is going, now under $30 as I write.

The gathering heard some lenders were devaluing properties across the region by up to 30 per cent, forcing graziers to pay higher interest rates because the loans were now considered higher risk.

Nicole Foss was right all along, obviously….. deflation is here alright.

Taskforce chairman and Mount Isa MP Rob Katter again argued the Queensland Government should set up its own bank to takeover loans from private lenders.

“These things are effective instruments. They keep industries going,” he said.

Proof politicians have no idea.  Mind you, what else could you expect from someone wanting an ethanol industry?

Once upon a time, farming was about producing excess food to feed the masses. Now, farmers buy food in supermarkets, and work for money, trapped in the Matrix. Now I have an aware farmer for a neighbour, we have interesting discussions over the fence or over a beer or cider…. Thank goodness some people understand me, and what is going on…. otherwise we’d all go the way of the suicide wave happening in the Indian farming sector.





We will never again have as much energy as now – it’s time to adapt

5 03 2015

LOOK…..  it’s not just me anymore, the concept might be going viral soon…!

The Conversation

By Patrick Moriarty, Monash University

In the year 1800, the world used only about 10 million tonnes of coal – renewable energy, mainly biomass, dominated world’s energy supply.

By 2013, fossil fuels together supplied more than 11 billion tonnes of coal equivalent, or 87% of global commercial energy. Renewable energy sources supplied under 9% and nuclear power the remainder.

In the coming decades, fossil fuel depletion and the need to respond to climate change will ensure that fossil fuel use will fall. Because it is unlikely that either renewable or nuclear energy can take over the dominant role fossil fuels presently enjoy, I argue that the energy available to humanity will decline, and we will need to adapt to a lower energy future.

Fossil fuels’ twin constraints

The likely future production profile for fossil fuels is controversial. Nevertheless, even the International Energy Agency now accepts that peak production for conventional oil has already occurred. One recent study even argues that if business-as-usual fossil fuel use continues, combined use could peak in a decade or so.

Unconventional fossil fuel resources are probably large. However, their monetary, environmental, and carbon dioxide costs per unit of energy delivered are much larger than for conventional fuels, limiting their future use.

Especially in the US, much hope has been placed on unconventional (tight) gas, extracted by fracking. But a recent study of tight gas fields casts doubt on this optimism. Actual gas production could in future be much lower than official US forecasts. It could even peak in the next decade or so, then decline rapidly.

If the world does take climate change seriously, we would then have to leave most fossil fuels in the ground, which would be bad news indeed for fossil fuel corporations.

Could nuclear energy fill the gap?

Global nuclear output locally peaked in 2006, and was still below that value in 2013. Nuclear’s share of global electricity peaked at 17% in 1993, and by 2013 had fallen to 11%. Even the US Energy Information Administration doesn’t expect much improvement; they forecast average annual growth of 2.5% for nuclear power globally out to 2040, compared with 1.5% for all energy sources.

A key problem in rapidly expanding nuclear output is an ageing reactor fleet – in mid-2013 the weighted average age for reactors was 28 years, and rising. Over 190 nuclear plants (45%) worldwide have operated for 30 years or more. Given this ageing nuclear fleet, much new construction will be needed merely to replace retiring plants, and will not add to net capacity.

Nuclear energy is also very expensive. The cost of a 1000 megawatt plant in the US in 2009 was estimated at US$9 billion. Decommissioning old plants adds a further heavy cost, and could take decades.

The UK government now estimates that clean-up costs for the Sellafield reprocessing plant alone will be £80 billion. And despite nearly 60 years of commercial nuclear power, no permanent waste disposal repositories are in operation.

A final point. Uranium reserves may not be sufficient to support for long even a modest upturn in nuclear power, should it ever occur.

Renewable energy: essential but limited

The world has a variety of renewable sources available. Bio-mass and hydro-power are the two leading ones, but wind, geothermal, tidal and solar energy all presently contribute to global energy supply.

The only abundant renewable sources are wind and solar energy (and Australia is well supplied with both), but both are intermittent energy sources: they don’t generate without wind or sunlight. Hence reliance on renewables, not only for electricity but for other energy uses, will require conversion and storage of these intermittent energy sources.

This need for conversion and storage will raise renewable costs for each unit of energy delivered to the consumer. There is however, a further problem. Obviously, for any energy source to be viable, it must produce more energy output than the various energy inputs needed to construct and operate it – the energy ratio must be much greater than one. This ratio is already lower for renewable than for fossil fuel sources, and the need for energy storage and conversion will further lower it.

All energy sources have environmental costs, including renewable energy. Those for large hydro systems are well-known. Bio-energy crops such as ethanol from corn compete with crops grown for food for water and fertile soils. The adverse effects of these two renewable sources are better-known mainly because their output is highest.

Our low-energy future

The world will eventually have to rely again on renewable energy sources, just as it did at the start of the fossil fuel era around 1800. There is a big difference this time: in 1800 the world’s population was only about a billion. Today it is 7.3 billion, and still rising. We’ll never again have the high-energy society of the carbon civilisation.

Instead we’ll have to prepare for a low-energy future. Improving technical efficiency of energy use can help, but so far has not prevented global energy use from steadily rising.

Using less energy means less use of equipment — vehicles, air-conditioning, and other household appliances. Buildings will need to use passive solar energy more for heating, cooling, and even lighting, and generate some power from rooftop solar systems. Gardens could grow more fruit and vegetables. Households in dry regions can install tanks for rainwater.

What changes are needed for cities and their transport systems? For transport we must shift from our obsession with vehicular mobility to a focus on accessibility. Public transport will need to increase its share of a much smaller vehicular travel task. Activities will need to be more localised. Non-motorised modes can then be a major form of urban travel.

So we’ll need social efficiency improvements – we’ll need to rediscover ways of satisfying our needs with less use of energy-using devices. We can learn from earlier generations – how did they cope with far lower energy levels? We might even have something to learn from the more creative practices of presently low-energy societies.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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