Monday, July 27, 2009

Introducing the Litigation Wiki Project

I've alluded a few times in recent posts that I'll gradually begin focusing on law and legal issues in this blog, while maintaining the connection to my core interest in resilient, sustainable, and decentralized civilizational systems.  As part of that effort, and in an attempt to combine theory with practicality, I'm launching beginning to work on a litigation checklist.

If you aren't an attorney, this process may still be of interest as an exemplar of the spread of systems design and systems theory.  The checklist is still in early stages of development.  At this early stage it is certainly far from a complete tool, but I'll point to one example of its potential:  the Affirmative Defense checklist component of the Litigation Checklist.  Over 100 affirmative defenses and counting to date--certainly the most extensive list of affirmative defenses that is freely and openly available.  While this may not seem like a significant accomplishment, the identification of all relevant affirmative defenses is a significant task in most civil litigation.  In just the past week I've already used it to identify and plead an affirmative defense that will be potentially significant and that I most likely wouldn't have otherwise thought of.  With a bit of open-source collaboration--including brief explanations of each defense, related case law in various jurisdictions, and strategic considerations for use--this list could easily become the standard for the legal community on this subject.  Significantly, to my knowledge this would be the first free and open-source legal reference standard.

If this kind of project interests you--or if you know of people or resources that could contribute--please contribute.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Distributed Economies: Focus vs. Distractions

John Robb recently wrote about developments in distributed manufacturing and distributed production.  While I share John's enthusiasm for the potential of peer-to-peer, decentralized, localized, and otherwise distributed manufacturing and production, two of the projects he highlights are excellent fodder for a discussion of some thorny issues on the topic.  Take a look at these two videos:

Video 1:  Microfactory table cutting tool (link to article )

Video 2:  Windowfarm (link to website )

Forgive my skepticism, but despite my general enthusiasm these projects both look like gimmicks.  Is this weakness merely because these projects are at an early stage in the evolution of truly important techniques, or does this demonstrate a deeper problem?

Take the window farm concept:  good intent--an attempt to increase the ability of dense urban areas to feed themselves.  However, execution and focus are lacking:  this solution is high-tech (relies on artificial growing mediums that derive nutrients from industrial liquid fertilizers, not natural soil processes), high-cost/energy input (at least to the extent that light bulbs are required), while producing very low calorie output.  All the windows in an average family's urban apartment could--by this model--probably produce less than 1000 calories per year in salad greens.  Is it realistic to think that we can ever produce significant quantities of calories/nutrition in sparse urban windows, or is this just a token effort?  Certainly, by failing to recognize this weakness and address projections to output significant levels of nutrients or calories in future iterations, this projects seems off track.  Is there any kernel of value here, or is it so distracted from substantive distributed production as to be nothing more than a token?  While I don't think there is significant potential to adapt urban windows to significant calorie production, it may be more realistic to focus on significant nutrient production through the provisioning of year-round, high-nutrient vegetables (here the salad greens approach is OK, but a much better focus would be on spinach, chard, kale, etc.).  Bottom line:  window-farming may have real promise, but the failure to focus on any meaningful metric in this project makes me conclude that it is more gimmick--and potentially harmful to the point that it advances symbolism over substance.

Now consider the table cutting tool (Microfactory MOW):  again, good intent, to empower decentralized groups to capitalize on open-source design databases to increase their ability to provide their own manufactured products.  However, this certainly seems like an overly complex solution to a simple problem.  In the example of the coat hangar in the video, it would be significantly simpler and would require significantly less reliance on externally produced advanced tools like the various electric motors involved, to simply cut the design with a box cutter.  What is impressive here is the information distribution process:  the open-source provision of the DESIGN.  The actual manufacturing process seems like more of a gimmick.

However, while the automation of decentralized manufacturing may seem like a gimmick at this point, these efforts are pioneering a process that may bear fruit.  It would certainly be significant if:

- we could reach a level of automated, decentralized manufacture that could, utilizing only locally available materials, replicate itself
- we could use such decentralized manufacturing to--on a systemic analysis--reduce our localized dependencies on external systems
- we could use such decentralized manufacturing to save significantly on the energy required for transportation of products by, for example, only transporting the manufacturing system and then leveraging local materials to provide manufactured items to the locale

I'm actually fairly optimistic about the ability of distributed manufacturing to provide some of these sources of value mentioned above.  What concerns me about the cutting tool highlighted in the Microfactory MOW video is not that they are still at a very early stage along the road to these types of value, but that the designers do not appear to be consciously aware of these end goals or the current shortcomings of their design.  To the extent this is true, I see their efforts as more gimmick than substance, which is unfortunate as they clearly have the intelligence, motivation, and funding to pursue potentially important advances.

In a somewhat related note to "distributed economic systems," next week I'll introduce my open-source litigation checklist wiki project (for those interested in the future of law and legal systems).  The link is already available on my sidebar if you want to take an early peek...

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Renewables Hump 8: Concluding Thoughts on EROEI and Carbon

Time to wrap up my "Renewables Hump" series with a few concluding thoughts. Below are links to each of the prior 7 posts. My current plan is to synthesize this series into a shorter set of posts for The Oil Drum--I'll post those links here when they're up.

Renewables Hump 1: Introduction
Renewables Hump 2: Digging Out of a Hole
Renewables Hump 3: The Target
Renewables Hump 4: EROEI Issues
Renewables Hump 5: Proxy EROEI Calculations
Renewables Hump 6: EROEI of Solar and Wind
Renewables Hump 7: Can We Transision?

In wrapping up my thoughts on EROEI and the potential for our civilization to transition to renewable sources of energy, there remains at least one loose end I'd like to address:

Climate change. One of the most frequently-cited arguments in favor of transitioning to renewable sources of energy is that these technologies tend to be zero-carbon soruces of energy. What seems to go unsaid, however, whether we're talking about solar, wind, geothermal, or even (not really renewable) nuclear, is the up-front carbon footprint required to build this infrastructure. Simply put, the vast majority of the energy required to build a renewable energy generation infrastructure will be carbon-heavy fossil fuels. That means, in order to affect a transition, we need to spike carbon emissions in the build-up phase in order to reap lowered carbon emissions at some point in the future.

This necessarily cycles back to the EROEI questions that I have raised in this series. If the EROEI of renewable technology X is 40:1 over a 20-year lifespan, then only a very small amount of fossil fuels must be burned to produce long-lasting clean energy, and after a very short time the remainder of this transition can be financed with clean energy from the renewables build at the outset of the project (here, as fast as 6 months with a maximal investment at startup). Of course, if the EROEI is actually 4:1 over that same 20-year lifespan, for every 4 tons of carbon saved over that lifespan, one ton must be emitted in production, and that carbon emission must be up-front. Additionally, it won't be possible to bootstrap this clean energy to produce more clean energy for years, and likely far longer because it would create an impracticable energy price spike to build enough generation at the very outset of such a transition to allow for complete bootrapping of the next waves of production.

All this boils down to some of the most poorly understood aspects of climate science: are we better off raising carbon levels now in order to better reduce them in the future, or is it more important (from the perspective of various feedback loops, etc.) to keep levels from ever going over a certain threshold, even if that means more overall emission down the road? We simply don't have an answer to this question, but it suggests that the climate/carbon argument for a renewables transition is, at a minimum, built on a shaky and uncertain foundation. The real problem is that--much like broader discussions of the renewables transition--the uncertainty in the carbon-reduction argument for renewable energy flies under the radar because nearly all involved in the discussion use very high EROEI figures for renewables. If these figures, as I have argued, could actually be 10x lower than current estimates, then much of the current debate is off track.

None of this is to suggest that we should use uncertainty to abandon action, to stop efforts to transition to a sustainable society. However, we must accept this uncertainty in deciding HOW to best make that transition. More centralized wind and solar and a better grid might be the answer. It might not. Maybe the answer is decentralization and radical reduction in energy consumption? As I'll address in the future, structurally self-interested participants tend to argue for the former solution--you don't hear GE raising the uncertainties and potential socio-political pitfalls of centralized wind or solar. Unfortunately, we'll only find out if their confidence in our ability to transition was misplaced after such efforts have conclusively failed...

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Renewables Hump 7: Can We Transition?

Last week, I argued that the "true" EROEI of solar and wind power is far lower than that commonly advertised--closer to 1:1 for solar (photovoltaics) and 4:1 for wind power.  Additionally, these EROEI values don't account for the energy cost of the transmission, storage, and conversion to electric power that will be required in any large-scale transition to renewables.  Where does that leave us?  Does that mean the "transition" is dead in the water?  I don't think so?  But I also don't think this means that we can continue under the assumption that the EROEI of renewable technologies are high enough (if only we had political will, etc.) to facilitate the continuation of business as usual.

Simply put, we are presented with a series of unknowns.  People may (and will) continue to claim that the "true" EROEI of renewable X is 20:1, 40:1, 100:1.  We must recognize that we don't know these values to be true--they are probably sales pitches, and even if they are truly disinterested, they are guesses at best.  Until we have a verifiable methodology to calculate an unbounded EROEI value for a technology (and price-estimated EROEI does not claim to be such a solution), we will continue to only guess.  Others may argue that renewables are all less than 1:1, or less than some value higher than 1:1 required to keep our society afloat.  They mary argue that we should abandon renewables investment entirely on these grounds, but this is also just a guess.

In light of this uncertainty, I think it is clear that we must take a highly conservative approach, and focus immediately on efficiency and conservation.  One thing we can known for certain:  the EROEI of conservation is more than 1:1!  However, we must also recognize that efficiency and conservation alone cannot solve the root problem presented by a society and economic system predicated on perpetual growth.

I think this uncertainty is a compelling argument for shifting toward a non-hierarchal mode of civilization (as I suggested in The Problem of Growth) as a means to address this core problem of growth.  However, I do not expect humanity to voluntarily and proactively make such a switch.  I do, however think that there are tremendous opportunities for businesses, individuals, communities, and regions that successfully make such a switch (to what I have called "Rhizome," John Robb has called "Resilient Community," etc.).

Initially I had hoped to lay out an empirical analysis of our ability to transition to a renewables-driven society.  In some senses, the analysis of our ability to transition at a given EROEI is very interesting.  For example, at 3:1 EROEI returned over 30 years, what is timeline to transition 50% of our current energy use if we accept that it will be politically and economically impossible to divert more than 10% of global energy production into renewables investment?  It was my plan to conclude this series by answering (with pretty graphs, no less!) several questions like this.  However, I fear that such an exercise is largely meaningless:  I have been unable to come up with a verifiable proxy for EROEI measurement, and without that I would only be addressing hypotheticals.  Worse, questions that will be permanently hypothetical.  

Instead, I am left with only a confirmed sense of uncertainty.  Perhaps that uncertainty is itself valuable.  If I have poked holes in (what I believe to be) the widespread assumption that we can surely transition to a renewables-driven economy if only we make the decision to do so, then perhaps this series has been of value.  If I shift the discussion (even only in my own mind) toward what to do in light of this uncertainty, then I will feel that this has been worthwhile.  It is in answer to this last question that I am most excited:  I plan to focus more in the future on decentralized, networked, open-source, platform-based systems that we can use to simultaneously build resiliency, address this fundamental uncertainty, and address the problem of growth by reducing the hierarchal nature of our civilization.

It's also worth noting that there will be significant--though largely superficial--shift in the focus of this blog over the next several months.  Increasingly, I will work to write posts about law, legal systems, and legal processes.  While this will result in a reduced coverage of energy-related issues directly, it will still be the result of my core interest in systems, systems theory, and structural anthropology.  I've been writing about energy for some time now as a result of my view that our energy problems are the most significant and visible symptom of these deeper, structural systems.  I will write about law in the same light.  In part this is due to my (interim) conclusion that the uncertainty surrounding the kind of precise numbers that would be required to make definitive energy decisions is insurmountable.  In part, it is because law is my chosen profession, and I would like to increasingly merge this intellectual interest (systems theory and structural anthropology) into my vocation.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Renewables Gap Presentation

My presentation to the 2009 Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) international conference in Denver was re-posted to The Oil Drum today.  I'm planning to update this presentation and possibly to break it into a longer series to properly address multiple energy sources, efficiency, and conservation.  The original presentation and post was just meant to dispell the myth that we can just choose to quickly transition to renewable energy at some point in the future when peak oil is "confirmed."  However, many people were hoping for a comprehensive "problem and solution" post--coming soon...