Monday, May 11, 2009

The Renewables Hump 1: Introduction

This post is the first in a series on structural problems of transitioning to renewable energy.  Broadly labeled “The Renewables Hump,” this series will address net energy, scalability, bootstrapping, and time-frame considerations involved in such a transition. 

The requirement (and problem) of up-front investment. 

To the extent that America (and the world in general) is concerned with energy scarcity at all, there is a pervasive belief that, over the coming decades, we will overcome these challenges by gradually transitioning to a renewable-energy economy.  We know that fossil fuels won’t last forever.  We know that it is possible to generate renewable energy from sources such as the sun, the wind, waves, and geothermal heat.  And then, as a civilization, we tend make a huge leap, arriving at what has largely become an article of faith:  we will transition to these renewables as the basis of our future civilization. 

How? 

How will we prioritize this transition among competing economic desires?  How will we pay for it, both in terms of financing and the up-front energy cost of most renewables?  How do our assumptions about the availability of fossil fuels going forward affect this transition?  Does renewable energy technology provide sufficient net-energy returns to make this transition practical?  How will this transition be organized and implemented? 

There are many answers to these (often unasked) questions:  the market will take care of it, government subsidies and incentives will pave the path, technology will improve, etc.  These are all fine theories, but it is important that we must recognize them as exactly that:  possible, not certain, outcomes.  The purpose of this series is to examine the actual process of transition.  Specifically, I hope to take a system-wide perspective to identify systemic choke-points and externalities that may result from efforts to take existing renewable energy programs and technologies—currently comprising only a very small portion of our civilization’s energy production—and scale them up to meet the majority of our global energy needs. 

One focus will be on the systemic impacts and cascading effects of one simple reality:  renewable energy sources tend to require an up-front investment of energy, and then pay-back that investment (plus, hopefully, a significant surplus) over a period of time.   

Figure 1:  A breakdown of the up-front, maintenance, and marginal cost of generating electricity from a variety of sources.  This cost is a rough proxy for the amount of energy required at each stage.

The simple fact of the matter is that renewables, much more so than most fossil-fuel based modes of energy production, require primarily up-front investment (of both money and energy—to the extent that we should consider there to be any real difference between the two). 

So what?  Here’s the quick outline of why this matters:  We are currently in a climate of energy scarcity, and this will likely get worse in the future.  If you want to increase the amount of energy derived from renewable sources (and thereby help to ameliorate the energy scarcity), you need to first exacerbate that scarcity to use some of our available energy as an up-front investment in these new renewables. 

It's also worth addressing one concern raised previously on this point by readers:  the difference between electricity generation and the overall energy requirements of our civilization.  Right now, electricity is only a portion of the total energy consumed by our civilization.  And of that portion, the majority is generated by burning fossil fuels like coal, and, arguably, nuclear.  However, the renewables that are generally seen as the key to our society's energy transition (solar, wind, tidal, geothermal) all produce electricity.  This electricity can be used to substitute for liquid fuels consumption (either directly through electric motors and heating or indirectly through conversion to hydrogen, etc.).  In a post-peak fossil fuel scenario, a continuation of our society's energy consumption can only be maintained by substituting for the declining production of fossil fuels (first oil, then gas, then coal and fissile-materials used in nuclear energy, probably roughly in that order).  Shortfalls in fossil fuel production can be substituted with electricity (or a derivative such as hydrogen) or biofuels.  

Biofuels have demonstrated very poor EROEI, have a nasty habit to conflict with food production, are highly susceptible to weather changes (whether or not caused by global warming), and appear highly dependent on soil fertility that is currently maintained by massive inputs of iNPK fertilizers that will themselves become a serious resource constraint in the future.  The prospects for transitioning the majority of global energy use to a "sustainable" biofuels foundation are, in my opinion, unlikely at best, catastrophic at worst.  However, I will address this option toward the end of this series.

Renewable electricity generation, however, shows more promise, at least superficially.  Most serious policy discussions, environmental groups, and viridians (what's I've elsewhere called "Roddenberrys"--those who think the continuation of our current civilizational trajectory is possible through green technology) are counting on the use of renewable electricity generation to 1) replace fossil fuel derived electricity, and 2) provide a renewable, green source of energy to substitute for increasing portions of all other current energy consumption (e.g. liquid fuels).  My main focus will be on examining the practicality of this path.

So, returning to the question posed above, because of the up-front investment required by renewable energy options, if you want to increase the amount of energy derived from renewable sources (and thereby help to ameliorate the energy scarcity), you need to first exacerbate that scarcity to use some of our available energy as an up-front investment in these new renewables.  How much such investment, how much exacerbation of current energy scarcity, is practical?  Whether or not this amount of additional energy draw is practical is largely a factor of how much is needed to affect any significant degree of transition within the necessary timeframe (e.g. to keep pace with fossil fuel decline rates).  How much up-front energy investment is needed, I will show, is a factor of the true EROEI of these renewable technologies and the mechanics of net-energy scalability.  Those will be the topics of the next several posts in this series...

11 comments:

fablife said...

Jeff, great start to the "Renewables Hump". In my mental scenario making :) I could imagine that there is something between collapse and "the renewables dream". In fact, I believe that we won't be able to sustain the current society on such high levels of energy consumption.

We discussed the rhizome basics, and I still believe that the fundamental premises for such an arrangement is very probable and a way forward. In this light, I don't see that we need to maintain the current consumption, but to adjust to lower energy consumption, which for me still leaves a window open for technology and telecommunications. In fact, decentralized renewable energy can be used to power decentralized, appropriate-scale energy consumers, which need to pay the true costs of energy. Thus energy becomes much more valuable and thus better managed - we might just need less?

Just looking at how demand drop has affected (and feedbacked into) the economy, this becomes plausible...

Also, even in times of real turmoil, not all systems might collapse at once. I live in Switzerland, we have 40% energy from nuclear (...) and 60% from water - dams and rivers. Even in doom scenarios, Switzerland might be continuing having electricity for a while...giving time to adjust to lower energy levels, rationing, and maybe appropriate allocation towards renewables due to needs.

In short: could a decentralized, "small is beautiful", open source rhizome society (well, assuming peace here...) feature a certain level of technological advance at lower energy consumption, without necessarily implying pre-industrial connotations? I believe that is possible.

Jeff Vail said...

I think it's a definite possibility. My big-picture purpose in writing this article is to demonstrate that a continuation of business (and consumption) as usual based on a large-scale transition to renewables is not possible. IF I can make that argument persuasively, then it serves the larger purpose of informing decision-makers (at all levels, including individual) that this viridian dream is not practical and that we must instead focus on a different vision. That vision, of course, is very much like what you're proposing: a conscious energy descent plan that adopts many elements of rhizome and decentralization as is locally appropriate...

Theo_musher said...

I still don't see how fungibility plays into this scenario. If oil became way more expensive than coal then oil would no longer be fungible. We would it raise the price of all other fuels with it?

Also as far as Rhizome goes and other forms of heterarchy, I think they just pave the way for more destructive forms dominator hierarchies. Just like the Russian and Chinese Revolutions.

What is really needed is a type of holarchy. Its a positive type of hierarchy where people retain individual rights and personal autonomy while working in a hierarchical organization. Rhizome appeals to a certain mindset but it will never appeal to everyone, and so big disorganized clusters of people trying to be a Rhizome will just get dominated by the dominant hierarchy.

Theo_musher said...

Liberal (meaning capitalist) Democracy (meaing more or less a Constitutional Republic with representative democracy) is closer to holarchy than other forms that came before it like monarchy. America has been devolving back to a type of Corporate Aristocracy, but only after it achieved pre-eminence as being the most free society of its time.

Heterarchy seems to just lead to more oppressive hierarchies.

Seems like with this "renewables hump" series you are proposing centralized control of the Energy sector, like Nationalization of it, to put up all the money for these massive upfront costs. But then you take pains to illustrate why you think that wouldn't work.

Is that the veridian view, centralized control? I don't think so. Isn't that the Cyber Punk guy that came up with that Veridian stuff? So is it a straw man?

To me it looks like The free market would organize an energy transition more like a type of stigmergy. It would be self organizing and gradual.

Sure the markets are manipulated Big bussiness and Big government are in bed, so its not really a free market, but the fact that we don't have totally free markets doesn't argue against the free markets ability to organize.

Jeff Vail said...

Theo,

I disagree with you on the fungibility issue. If oil becomes more expensive than coal, then yes, it will lift the price of alternatives (oil for coal, coal for oil, etc.). This is only possible because there is fungibility among different sources of energy (though, certainly, they are not completely and instantly fungible).

Also, I'm certainly not suggesting the centralization or nationalization of a transition to renewables--one of my aims, in fact, is to show why we should avoid exactly that (because it won't work).

However, where I don't think we disagree greatly is on the role of the "Free Market." I think that, under the reality-driven constraints of energy descent and the types of scalability issues that I'll be discussing in this series, we'll see the free-market naturally tend toward small-scale, decentralized, open-source solutions because they'll work the best under those constraints (in the medium to long-term future). Today, and unfortunately possibly to a greater extent in the future, it's exactly the kind of anti-free-market regulations and controls imposed by liberal democracies to foster large, hierarchal business institutions that threaten this greater efficiency, in my opinion. In that sense, rhizome (and decentralization generally) IS a free-market response. Hierarchy and various forms of feudalism or large-scale capitalism will only be free-market responses, in my opinion, if you ignore a highly regulated market for violence (e.g. the nation-state structure) that will keep them in power rather than allowing them to gradually dissolve into a more decentralized structure. Where this political-economic topography ends up when all is settled will be a question of 1) the eventual sustainability of our energy and ecological systems, 2) the relative strength of decentralized vs. centralized military reality, and 3) the course of development that leads us from today to that future point. I think it's #3 that makes the future uncertain (e.g. not fatalistically determined), and is why it's so important that we work to uncover, understand, and address these issues today...

Theo_musher said...

If you are arguing against the Veridian design movement why don't you adress its ideas more directly?

Seems like what we see on t.v. is what Sterling was envisioning. Its basically a cultural elite pushing this stuff and like he proposed its initially been marketed to the rich and upper middle class. That's why there are all these multi million dollar Green buildings being built and LEED platinum mansions. That's why everyone is talking Green now.

But, I mean that's how the automobile started, also, that is being marketed to the rich first and then spreading to everyone else. Reading articles on that site from 1999 it seems like Sterling is a pretty good prophet.

I am not sure what you mean by this:
"1) the eventual sustainability of our energy and ecological systems, 2) the relative strength of decentralized vs. centralized military reality, and 3) the course of development that leads us from today to that future point. I think it's #3 that makes the future uncertain (e.g. not fatalistically determined), and is why it's so important that we work to uncover, understand, and address these issues today..."

Especially number 2. Is that what? If the "terrorists" win?

Seems like the Veridians are adressing 1 and 3 pretty well so far.

Rice Farmer said...

You are off to a good start. One more thing to consider (maybe you have already worked this into your plan) is the energy requirement of maintenance. For example, we can put up a wind farm, but we can't just forget about it. Turbines need to be maintained. We can build vast solar arrays in the desert, but it's a dusty environment, so panels will have to be frequently washed. And so on for all renewable energy infrastructure. Maintenance requires the manufacture of replacement parts and service vehicles, and the building and maintenance of service roads. Once we start looking into this, it's evident that there is a continuous stream of energy requirements.

Recall that all the machines and equipment needed by renewable energy systems are part of our infrastructure. And it is noteworthy that developed countries are already falling behind in their infrastructure maintenance. Roads are full of potholes, bridges are falling apart, and many water mains and sewage pipes are old and in urgent need of replacement. So we are already at the point where we cannot maintain existing infrastructure. Building renewable energy systems to substitute for the loss of energy-dense fossil fuels will entail building a lot more infrastructure. Since we can't maintain what we alread have, the outlook is pretty grim, if you ask me.

Ryan said...

Jeff,

I recommend Net Present Value considerations for any EROEI calculations. We've been working this pretty extensively here for all our cost analyses. I'm willing to assist in model design.

Ryan

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