Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Peak Oil, Growth, Digging Out My Compost Heap

For Aethelread - keeping the circle-jerk going! :-D

At the bottom of my compost heap, while intending to fertilise my runner beans to stave off hunger for the next winter, I found an old sheaf of paper containing notes for a rather poor essay I dashed off while flying in 2002 or 2003. Much stained, and bescrawled with bloodied slogans such as "We're All Going to Die!!!!", "Glass Half Full or Half Empty! Who Cares! Pass the Whisky!!!", etc, further inspection revealed a few facts and figures that might be amusing, if not accurate or interesting.

Note: I do not describe myself as a pessimist. Is it possible to see bad things in the crystal ball and feel optimistic that they might not be as bad as they could be?


Does a sustainable future depend on devising better ways of meeting current energy demands, or on reducing those demands for energy?

Basic Principles

The world is a place of finite bounds. Worth is measured in energy, not money: put differently, a £50 note and a £5 note have rather similar calorific values if burned or eaten.

First, it must be accepted the idea that "sustainable" has to mean "for an unspecified long period of time." (Bartlett.)

Secondly, the mathematical fact should be acknowledged that steady growth (at a fixed percent per year) can give very large numbers in surprisingly brief periods of time. For example: if the current world population increases at the current growth-rate of 1.7%, then it will cross the 1 trillion mark in about 300 years time.

It should be obvious and clear from this that any unchecked population growth is eventually going to meet its Malthusian nemesis.

There is a tendency to disprove a theory if its predictions have not yet been fulfilled: tomorrow never comes. Malthus’ basic idea: that at a certain point, population will outstrip food supply, and starvation will force a reduction of population; this is not in essence contestable unless the premise of a finite world and finite resource availability is disproved.

Is it possible to disprove this premise? Let it be assumed that the miracle of nuclear fusion happens, and mankind has superabundant and to all intents and purposes free energy. Let it be assumed that science finds a way of creating unlimited food from energy. In this wildly optimistic scenario, let a population growth of 1% be extrapolated over the next 20,000 years. The size of the population at the end of this period would be 1.58966E+96. Let’s round it down to 1.5E+96. That population would be fifteen quadrillion times the number of atoms in the universe (approx 1E+78). Is this possible? Could humanity grow the universe with its own masses? It would be wise to assume not. It follows that growth cannot be sustained indefinitely. Therefore, we have to work within a world-view that accepts finity.

‘Where the state of our planet is at stake, the risks can be so high, and the costs of corrective action so great, that prevention is better and cheaper than cure.’ (Costing the Earth, p.55-56)

At some point, then, an ever increasing population will reach a natural check to its growth. Since a check on population will be reached at some point, it would seem sensible to choose to check population at a level that is advantageous to everyone.

An economist called Kenneth Boulding developed the theorems that bear his name:

“First theorem: ‘The Dismal Theorem’
“If the only ultimate check on a population is misery, then the population will grow until it is miserable enough to stop its growth.

“Second Theorem: ‘The Utterly Dismal Theorem’
“Any technical improvement can only relieve misery for a while, for so long as misery is the only check on population, the technical improvement will enable population to grow, and will enable more people to live in misery than before. The final result of technical improvements, therefore, is to increase the equilibrium population which is to increase the total sum of human misery.

“Third Theorem: ‘The Moderately Cheerful Form of the Dismal Theorem.’
“If something else, other than misery and starvation, can be found which will keep a prosperous population in check, the population does not have to grow until it is miserable and starves, and it may be stably prosperous.” (Boulding 1971.)


Current energy demands, being the result of an economic system that depends on growth to be stable can never be sustainable. Even if we were to suddenly enforce energy use at today’s level, the effect on world economics would be the same as a cut or reduction in use, as the potential growth will have been cut.

How does the concept of growth work? Well, very crudely, when a bank lends money, with interest payable on the repayment, then it takes the view that it has created wealth (i.e., the interest portion. This is self-evidently erroneous: the interest is merely a monetary equivalent of part of the existing world energy budget to be paid at a future time). However, the economist’s view of the matter is that wealth is created by the act of lending. It is possible to see how the mirage of never-ending growth is glimpsed through the proverbial rose-tinted spectacles.

The other reason why economists believe growth to be necessary and good is that if supply of goods and services outstrips demand (or the growth in demand is less than the growth in supply) recession results. When a recession occurs, the wealth ‘created’ by the lending of money to an expanding economy is ‘destroyed’ as the borrowers of money default on their loans, or are made bankrupt, etc. (Marx and Engels).

It may be seen from this very brief and crude overview of modern capitalism that growth is fundamentally necessary to banks and other such rich lenders of money. As the political class’s raison d’etre is invariably the representation of the interests of ‘big-business’, growth is non-negotiable.

If standing still, as has been shown, is tantamount to a cut, then it is immaterial whether we consider any option apart from a theoretical reduction in demand, and the economic restructuring of society that would entail. Increased efficiency, however, should be striven for, as it gives the best value in terms of work output per energy input, and as we shall now see, net-energy input is too precious to use carelessly.

Embodied Energy and Emergy.

Embodied energy is a measure of the amount of energy embodied within different forms of energy. For example, solar energy makes plants grow, plants die and become coal, coal is burnt to produce electricity. One unit of coal-fired generated electricity embodies 160,000 units of solar energy.

Embodied energy is inversely proportional to efficiency. Therefore, if a process of energy transformation is only 10% efficient, the amount of embodied energy in the output will be ten times the input.

Generally, in the natural world, the higher the embodied energy, the higher the quality of the energy. Coal, for instance, is a higher-quality form of energy than peat: more heat can be produced from the same weight of material. However, in man-made systems, low-efficiency leads to more embodied energy. This makes a nonsense of the principle of energy-quality.

Therefore, to measure embodied energies in an absolute way, we use emergy; this word is a contraction of embodied energy. It refers to the measure of embodied energy when all processes are working at their maximum thermodynamic efficiency. Thus, the smallest possible value of embodied energy for a process is emergy (after Odum.)

Towards a Growth-Free World.

If it is accepted that there are limits to growth, then the only conclusion to be reached that presupposes continued existence is that mankind must develop sustainable energy technologies. What potential do the various technologies have to either be sustainable or to be bridges to a sustainable future?

Overview of Energy Technologies.


The greatest and overriding problem with nuclear fission is that the waste it creates is dangerous for such a long time, guarantees about its indefinite safe storage can not be given. On the other hand, the risk of global warming from carbon emissions may prove to pose a greater risk, and the nuclear route be re-opened. Last year, Finland led the way by deciding to build a new nuclear power station, the first in the European Union for twelve years. Finland’s justification was that it had to go nuclear to meet its 1997 Kyoto obligations.

It may be that the next generation of nuclear power stations are much safer and better designed than their predecessors, and that strategies for dealing with the waste-products are better. But, as we have seen, the risk is hugely magnified by the time-scales involved.

There would likely be strong local and national opposition to a new phase of nuclear building. It is also likely that opposition will increase over the short term as older stations are decommissioned: the attendant difficulties of that and the safe disposal of the waste beg the question: why start again if it is so dangerous and difficult?

The argument goes that nuclear takes very little in the way of resources from the environment. However, uranium is also a finite substance, although it may be prolonged considerably by the use of fast-breeder reactors.

There is, however, a strong case for using nuclear power in the sense of a bridging loan while sustainable systems are put in place: that is to say, build the sustainable revolution on nuclear foundations. The critical factor that decides whether we have to, will be the length of time in which the transition has to be made: we may not be able to afford to grow sustainable technologies from their own energies: a one-off input may be required to kick-start the process. If a great deal of power is definitely needed, and fossil fuels are ruled out on grounds of pollution or worth in other applications, then nuclear power can almost seem an attractive proposition. It is hoped that this is a last-resort endorsement of the lesser of two great evils.


All existing nuclear energy reactors today are based on nuclear fission, where atoms are split. Uranium or other fissile materials are split apart, which results in the release of enormous quantities of energy and production of large amounts of dangerous radioactive waste.

Fusion works by combining atoms together. The result is still the release of great quantities of energy, but only negligible amounts of radioactive waste is generated.

In comparison to fission, theoretically nuclear fusion is inherently safer in the long term. However, up to now, fusion experiments have not made more energy than was required by the apparatus of the experiment. The energy is controlled in a type of charged gas or plasma, held in place by electro-magnetic fields. Fusion is and has been the holy grail of energy production for two generations. However, it is unlikely that it will move out of the laboratory and into the real world in the foreseeable future.

Fossil fuels.

Aside from the all-important use of oil for powering transport and agriculture, and as the raw material for plastics, drugs, and a whole host of applications, fossil fuels have also been the mainstay of electricity generation; however, they are flawed in two fundamentally dangerous ways. Firstly, the emissions from power stations and vehicles are major factors that contribute to global warming, and acid rain, and other environmental problems, such as particulates. Secondly, they are non-renewable - the fact that they will eventually run out may have catastrophic effects on society if we do nothing to ameliorate our dependence upon them.

Oil depletion is already a fact of life. World conventional oil reserves are approximately half used up: the peak of production is variously expected between 2005 and 2012. (Campbell, Laherrere, IEA). That fact has a large implication: the ever rising demand soon will not be able to be met by an ever diminishing resource.

“An energy crisis is descending over the world. The situation is grave. The world has not run out of oil and North America has not run out of natural gas. What we are short of is any way to grow our energy supply. North America has no excess natural gas capacity. What we do have is extremely aggressive decline rates, making it harder each year to keep current production from falling. A massive number of gas-fired power plants have been ordered. But the gas to run them is simply not there.” (Simmons).

Conventional oil differs from all ultimately recoverable oil in one major respect: it gushes out of holes in the ground. This is very different from digging up tarry sand (in, say, Canada) and extracting the oil from it. The energy cost of extraction of conventional oil is very low. Oil has a high energy content per unit weight: it burns hotter, and can be carried more easily than its competitors. ‘A diesel locomotive wastes only one-fifth the energy of a coal powered steam engine to pull the same train.’ (Hanson, 2001).

This very usefulness of oil is the cause of our dependence on it. Oil has been the “fundamental driver of the 20th Century’s economic prosperity.” (Campbell, 2001.) When the myth of endless reserves is finally dispelled by the facts in front of us, the world economy will take a severe knock.

“The reality is that there is no real reprieve. Gradually the market – and not just the oil market – will come to realize that OPEC can no longer single-handedly manage depletion. It will be a dreadful realization, because it means that there is no ceiling to oil price other than falling demand. That in turn spells economic recession and a crumbling stock market, the first signs of which are already being felt.” (Ibid.)

It is to be hoped that in the aftershock of this realization, that serious thought be given at an international level to the importance of developing sustainability. Current U.S., European, and Russian stick-shaking may be attributed to gaining the most favourable deals with the Middle East. War, with all its attendant wastefulness, is not the answer to an unsustainable situation.

Any renewable energy programme must, if we are to sustain present populations, equal the energy demands of agriculture in particular: electric tractors at present could not cope with the work. A renewable programme must allow extra on top of the normal electrical appliances for perhaps hydrogen production. Alternatively, it would be wise to set aside the high-work-potential of oil and lpg for essential tasks such as growing food, while coaxing the world down from its pinnacle of unsustainability.

In conclusion to the above, arriving at a state of sustainability morally demands the sustenance of the world in the process. The importance of replacing the work done by oil cannot be underestimated.

In the short term, the use and production of fossil energy can be improved in many ways. Vehicle efficiency, caring and repairing vehicles for longer as the initial build costs are so energy-expensive, using combined heat and power in our power stations (although the costing of the energy saving must be set against the cost of the installation of the hot water pipes), the U.S. repealing their latest tax breaks for SUVs, the greater encouragement for insulating homes and workplaces, and the list goes on and on. Always, the energy cost of the improvement must be set against the expected saving of the improvement. The point cannot be overstressed: energy at the present time is so valuable, the best use has to be found at every turn. The true efficiency and environmental impact of an energy source is the sum total of a lengthy chain of events, from creation to disposal. Focusing on only one part of the chain may give a misleading picture of what is really going on. Feelgood practices such as cosmetic recycling are worse than useless: firstly they enable people to ignore the more important issues, and secondly they waste energy in their execution: Range Rovers driving five miles to recycle that week’s quota of champagne bottles.

It is likely that every last extractable drop of oil will be burned – the attraction is too great – and the potential threat of famine too compelling. It would be eminently sensible if every last drop was burned usefully.


An energy source to be truly sustainable and renewable, must be capable of producing enough energy to build itself, as well as enough net energy to justify its existence. Also, its implementation must not demand other energy inputs that would make it unsustainable. However, some energy systems, such as hydrogen extraction fuelled by electricity, while inefficient, may demand inclusion by their usefulness and transportability.


Although the first criticism of wind power is ‘what happens when it’s calm?’ by connecting enough remote wind turbines together, the various areas of calm and blow average out, and can generate useful quantities of reliable electricity.

The aesthetic aspect is also cited as a problem. However, aesthetic principles are soon done away with when hunger or cold is an issue. There may be issues with sea-bird populations. Also, the British Navy has objected due to RADAR coverage concerns. However, all these objections are relatively trivial compared to the environmental damage and impact of coal and oil fired power stations, oil tanker spills, oil refineries, et cetera.

Solar Power.

The sun's heat can be used directly in passive solar panels to provide household hot water and heating; south-facing conservatories utilising greenhouse glass; or in photo voltaics to convert solar radiation into electricity.

Solar panels have the advantage that once the energy payback period is complete, they produce electricity cheaply, with ever increasing efficiency, with very low levels of polluting emissions. However, they require sizeable quantities of space for industrial applications or to generate electricity for general distribution.

There is some argument about whether photovoltaics are a net energy sink. The general prognosis seems to be that they are not, and that they are improving all the time. The payback period is hoped to be about two years by 2010.

Ground-Source Heat.

The heat of the Earth's mantle contains virtually unlimited quantities of geothermal energy. However, using it effectively and efficiently is a complex, and expensive process. Nevertheless, ground source heat pumps (GSHP) can use refrigerator technology to heat and cool homes. They do not rely on volcanic activity, just the ubiquitous temperature of the ground, to warm household water and heating services. They are electrically powered and use the natural heat storage capability of the earth to lose or gain heat. Concrete structures such as foundations are used to absorb this energy from the ground. They can save up to 65% of electricity heating and cooling costs; this figure should be interpreted in the light of the inefficiencies of electricity for these purposes.


Biomass, or plant matter, can be directly burned or converted into liquid fuels such as ethanol. It is debatable whether the latter is an energy sink or not, i.e. makes a net energy loss having used more in its production than it can deliver. Once again, this may make sense depending on the suitability of the delivery to the application.

Electricity can be generated by using the tides flowing in and out to power underwater turbines. However, the flora and fauna of the estuarine environments which are suited to tidal barrages would be adversely affected. Also, eventually, they will silt up, and be rendered defunct unless they can also provide the surplus energy to dredge their own sedimentation.

Fuel cell technology dates back well over 150 years. Yet with the take-off of steam power interest in fuel-cells was non-existent. It generates electricity by splitting hydrogen molecules to release electrons, which are captured as a current in an electric circuit. The by-products pass through the cell and combine with oxygen and electrons returning from the other side of the circuit, producing water vapour as the only waste product. Of course, there may be issues concerning water-vapour based greenhouse gas emissions, as H2O is one of the most potent greenhouse gases. Hydrogen can be obtained from a range of substances including natural gas, gasoline, methanol, ammonia, and water, so there is virtually an inexhaustible supply. However, it always takes energy to produce it.

Compared to conventional engines run on petrol or diesel, fuel cells are considerably more efficient. Petrol and diesel generators convert only 30 - 35% at best of the fuel they burn, expelling the majority fuel as exhaust. The cutting edge of fuel cell technology can allegedly achieve up to 80% efficiency. This figure, it should be remembered, almost definitely refers to the energy loss from the potential energy in the hydrogen – not the energy that originally went into producing the electricity that produced the hydrogen. Fuel cells have been successfully used for transport. It would be interesting to know the limits of the portable power that can be had from this technology, e.g. bulldozers, for instance.

Overview of the Above.

While fossil fuels will eventually run out, or be phased out due to climate change concerns; and while nuclear power is undesirable in the short (and long!) term, it is probable that some interim strategy will need to be devised to bridge the gap between the profligate present and the future while the whole of the sustainably-bankrupt global capitalist economy is remodelled.

However, economies are one sense like large ships: they take a while to turn around. Yet it may be that the turnaround of an economy may be more easily accomplished, with individuals making the change at the personal level: as a flock of starlings changes direction.

The process of switching from unsustainable to sustainable energy cannot happen in a flash. A ‘supply-all’ technology with a ten year energy payback would require ten years of world energy demand levels to build. There is not, at present, the excess production capacity to spare.

Therefore, the transition must be staggered so that the first sustainable plants help fund the energy required for the next, and so forth. This presupposes, as has already been shown, a net energy increase. This is where the payback time becomes critical.

The payback time for a technology is the time that technology takes to replicate itself. If the payback took as long as the expected lifetime of the technology, then no energy-growth would be possible. Similarly, a long payback time, or a payback that represented a large proportion of the expected lifetime of the product, implies a slow energy-growth of that technology.

Theoretic Photo-Voltaic Based Supply of Energy for the UK.

Is it possible to meet current energy demands sustainably? To answer this question, an examination of a source the renewability of which is in doubt may be profitable. To that end, the possibility and economic considerations of providing energy purely through photo-voltaic panels is examined. (Data following based on Blakers 2000 et al. and UK government.)

The UK used 232.6 Mtoe (million tonnes of oil equivalent) in 2000. This is about 2705 TWh. In this country, a 1m­2 photo-voltaic panel in the north of England or Scotland could conceivably deliver 100kWh over the course of a year. That equals 2,705,138,000m2 of panelling, or an area approximately 164km by 164km. This represents about half a football pitch per person. While it is not inconceivable that photo-voltaic production of this scale could be attempted, the transition period would either be long, or extremely difficult. Basing the above figures on an embodied energy cost of 1060kWh/m2 implies an energy investment of 28,674TWh to create the aforementioned plant. From where could the UK suddenly find eleven years of surplus energy (the equivalent of 18 gigabarrels of oil, or about 2% of estimated reserves) to build such a plant?

If it is assumed that a panel delivers half as much energy on top of the amount that is needed to produce it, then we can assume an annual growth rate of 2.74%: if one invests the energy required to build two panels, then those panels can produce enough energy to build three by the end of their lifetime (assumed 15 years). That rate of increase means that one panel could become 57 panels 150 years down the line.

If the target was set to supply the whole of the UK from these photovoltaics by 2053, then we would have to invest 7500 TWh today, or about three year’s worth of energy. At today’s prices, that would cost approximately £84 billion, or a per capita investment of approximately £1400 in monetary terms, or 125,000 kWh.

However, with a two year payback as is forecast for the end of the decade, then energy growth could take place a lot more quickly.

However, the later plans like this are left before implementation the more costly they get.

The hypothetical solution briefly adumbrated above shows that if the will is there, a plausible strategy may be devised. It may be outrageous in its ambition, but it is essentially achievable. All it takes is a per head forgoing of 125,000 hours of an single electric bar fire heating a house. That could be assimilated over one year. All it would take is a little more willingness to wear one’s jumper an hour longer each winter evening.

That, and a little bit of organisation.

In the UK, a combination of wind and solar power could easily conceivably power the kingdom. Sadly, the will is lacking, because no-one quite believes the necessity for change yet. It is devoutly to be wished that any blunt hint from Mother Nature does not prove completely destructive.


aethelreadtheunread said...

Wow, that's some insightful (and fairly intense) stuff there! :o)

Points that occur to me (and which may well be utter tosh, of course - it's clear i know a lot less about this than you do...):

Malthus didn't say that population would eventually oustrip food supply, exactly. He said that population would expand exponentially while food production could expand only logarithmically (that looks like it's spelt wrong...), and predicted imminent mass starvation as a result. He was wrong. For shorthand, i might refer to Malthus as a pessimist, but it would be better to say that he examined the future only in terms of the present - i.e. he presumed that no future solutions would present themselves, and that everything would be the same, only more so. To the extent that his fears were very largely misplaced, i feel that Malthus fairly neatly highlights the potential problems in this way of thinking.

The model of capitalism you use seems to presume that all capitalism is finance capitalism. Anyone who charges more for something they produce than it has cost to produce (including their own living costs) is acting capitalistically, but a farmer who charges 1p more than she 'should' for an apple is not in the same league as a merchant banker charging 5% on a loan to the retail bank that will then lend the same money to a customer at 7%.

It can be useful to think about economic systems as though they were ecologies. Under this modelling, a financier relates parasitically to the actual processes of production - he extracts resources from the host 'organism' (i.e. society as a whole) while offering no benefits in return. The farmer, meanwhile, exists in a symbiotic relationship with the organism - she also extracts a disproportionate share of resources, but in return for some benefit. An economic system that excluded parasites but allowed symbiotes would still be capitalistic, but would represent a near steady-state form of capitalism, i.e. one that is not dependent on continuous rapid expansion. In other words, we don't have to overthrow capitalism in its entirety (even though we may want to...) before we can start to solve the sustainability problem.

I agree entirely with everything you say about the eventual limits to expansion. Fundamentally, the universe is a finite system, and even if we devise incredibly efficient methods for doing everything, we will eventually run out of universe to do them to. There is no escape from this, unfortunately.

I also agree with you when you say that it is logical to use non-renewable resources to 'prime the pumps', as it were, for renewable energy resources. In fact, we seem to be living through a period of time when this is happening, and in part because fears about 'energy security' are starting to hit home.

I guess that's my basic point, actually - we're already starting to fix the problem, at a point when we already have decades of oil left. And that means that, while the oil economy will inevitably contract, the renewables economy will be expanding to take its place - i.e. wholesale economic collapse is unlikely.

On the other hand, of course, i might just be a naive and tragically mistaken optimist... ;o)

Sorry for wittering on at such length in your comments.

Take care,

Philippa Brodie said...

Oh dear, you've a many pronged trident with which to burst happy bubbles here. I hope we manage to get our act together as a species somehow.

Abysmal Musings said...

Aethelread - no apologies necessary, I'll try and answer more fully at some point but v briefly: Malthus: I think (technicalities of his theory aside) that he was simply stating the obvious, but it's human nature to worry (selfishly) that the problem is imminent - it seems unfair to judge him in the narrow terms that he may have couched his own theory; he was, in his way, just an early exponent of the amusing concept that there might be limits.

And Capitalism: interesting. Steady-state capitalism... I'm sure such a thing might exist in an ideal world, but I'm not too sure about this world. I bet if anything has resembled it, say, back in the 1200s 1300s whatever... it would because growth was at its local limits. Of course, with better sources of energy... wood, coal, oil... we've expanded. I find it again amusing (I'm sorry to find it amusing, because it is an ultimately tragic subject, if this sorry race of apes can be ennobled with the term 'tragic') ... amusing because we seemed to hit the technological wall 60-70 years ago in finding the next big thing. Maybe we will. Maybe we won't.

I would just love a time-travel camera to 10,000 years in the future. To see if the planet is woodland, desert, or concrete jungle.

Ha, cheery old me! :-) Thanks for the comment, I'm sure we'll all be much more positive in front of a good glowing coal fire!

Abysmal Musings said...

Pippa, I'm optimistic for a few generations yet. It's my grandchildren I'll pity if I'm around long enough to see any. But mankind has been saying that ever since he learned to talk.

Humanity will survive, but not as we know it!

atb Dx