Thursday, July 30, 2009


Embodied Energy in High-Tech Electronics

In the post of July 13 I mentioned embodied energy, which refers to the energy needed to make something, as opposed to that needed to use or operate it. For example, the computers we are using embody the energy used to obtain, process, and assemble the materials, as well as some of the energy expended in the technology itself, such as energy to train the designers, engineers, programmers, skilled workers, and the many other people involved in creating and producing the machines. That energy is apart from the energy actually consumed by our computers when using them.

As I pointed out before, embodied energy is much larger than most people imagine, and here is a fine article that goes into more detail on the embodied energy of digital technology, which is surprisingly high.

As you read the article, keep in mind where all that energy comes from.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Some News Items for July 28

Somali pirate attacks 'set to increase' as monsoon eases

Korea to Spend W10 Billion on Robot Project

Average Korean Now Overweight

China's Huge Construction IPO

China's hidden debt problem -- 60% of GDP?

Top US officials seek to reassure Chinese

Keeping car industry afloat

"Right now, only partly due to the recession, carmakers still have the capacity to make 20 million more vehicles a year than anyone can buy."

Japan: JAL, ANA to reintroduce fuel surcharges on international flights

Record jobless rate predicted

Japanese Shippers Report Losses

Recession in the past? Not so fast

"Forecasters highlight ballooning public debt, profits that reflect cost cuts, not a sales rebound"

Kyrgyzstan: At the Crossroad of Empires, a Mouse Struts

Zelaya Supporters Try to Make Honduras Ungovernable by Blocking Roads

Britain and US prepared to open talks with the Taliban

The Great Global Gap

Aging populations around the globe raise profound questions

US: Rail traffic still depressed

Defense secretary wins big on weapons cuts

Spitzer: Federal Reserve is ‘a Ponzi scheme, an inside job’

Almost 10% of US medical costs tied to obesity

Electric Grid Still Vulnerable to Electromagnetic Weaponry

Protecting Our Nation's Critical Infrastructure

Bernanke Feared a Second Great Depression

GDP: Don't believe the hype

Saturday, July 25, 2009


Shrinking for Profits

Which is what many companies seem to be doing. Although they might be making profits, they are sloughing off workers and non-performing assets to bolster their bottom lines. Here is an article that in fact makes this very point, by observing that profits are ahead of sales. A quoted experts nicely sums up the problem with this strategy by saying, “[Y]ou can’t keep on shrinking your way to profitability.”

If the economy keeps shrinking, which I expect to happen over the long term, many companies will shrink themselves right out of existence.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Who Is “al-Qaeda”?

This is, of course, for almost all members of the general public, a matter that is determined by governments and media. Media reports tell us that a certain group is, or is affiliated with, “al-Qaeda,” and people just assume it to be so. Here is an article that attempts to answer the same question, but in my view does so unsatisfactorily.

Let me have a go at it. I think it’s simpler to assume that someone can be al-Qaeda or affiliated with al-Qaeda just by proclaiming it. Why would they want to do this? One could think of various reasons. For example, they really believe in what “al-Qaeda” is doing, and want to jump on the bandwagon. Or maybe a group — or even a single person — has a similar agenda, but works alone, and just wants to be thought of as “al-Qaeda.” This would conceivably make the group or individual more feared by their intended targets. Or maybe the group or individual just hopes so. Or perhaps the leader of a group wants his operatives to believe they are part of AQ because it would bolster his authority and give his operatives more confidence in what they are doing. So he claims to be taking his cues or orders from the AQ leadership.

So, if you let your imagination take this and run with it, you can think of any number of possible reasons someone would claim to be AQ or affiliated with it, but actually have little or nothing to do with it.

But that’s not all. Alternatively, it might be of strategic or tactical value for one entity to identify another entity as AQ, regardless of the truth. For example, if a certain country wants to intervene militarily in another country but needs a good excuse, it could claim the presence of “al-Qaeda” operatives in the place it wants to enter, or say that a group of people there is “al-Qaeda” in order to justify the intervention. Or maybe there is someone in a certain place that the state entity wants to kill or capture for some reason unrelated to terrorism, but again needs an excuse. So, the state entity labels that person or group “al-Qaeda,” which these days seems to justify just about anything.

The writer of the Slate article seems to attach great importance to videos, but how do we know who actually made a video? The answer is, we don’t. Again, it is primarily Western governments and media who tell us, and almost all members of the public, at least in Western countries and Japan, take these seemingly authoritative statements at face value. But actually such videos could easily be faked by anyone with the resources, such as Western intelligence agencies who might, for the reasons described above, derive benefit by doing so. Maybe a video is made to fake the existence of a terrorist group to scare the bejesus out of the public.

Therefore the best answer to the question “Who is al-Qaeda?” is, whoever claims to be “al-Qaeda” or whoever is labeled “al-Qaeda.” Videos, websites, and other means can simply be tools used to claim that someone is AQ, or to label someone as AQ, or even to conjure up a group or “terrorist cell” that actually does not exist. And that makes the identity of AQ very fluid.

Monday, July 13, 2009


Can We Run Industrial Civilization on Renewables?

In public discourse on implementing renewable energy sources, it is just assumed that we will be able to transition (maybe not seamlessly, but somehow) away from fossil fuels and to renewable sources that will keep societies and economies running more or less just as they have up to now. We will have more technological advances, the airlines will keep flying, the fleets of motor vehicles will keep rolling, and — of course — we will have perpetual economic growth. But this scenario takes some things for granted, and tragically overlooks the essential role of fossil fuels.

Before going any further, I would like to acknowledge that I didn’t just come up with this essay out of the blue. I benefited greatly from a series of blog posts by Jeff Vail called “The Renewables Hump.” For those with the time, I recommend reading the whole series (you can find a list of all the posts with links here). I think Jeff is a little more sanguine than I am about the possibilities for keeping the show on the road, despite the fact that he himself has raised issues which cast serious doubt on those possibilities. So in a way I have brought together some ideas he has presented and flavored them with my own thoughts.

There is much disagreement over EROEI. Wind energy proponents are citing some fantastic (in the literal sense of the word) figures. Of course there is the endless argument over where to draw boundaries, but all the inputs are not readily apparent.

One apparent input is the energy embodied in the steel and other metals and materials that make up a wind turbine or a biofuel reactor or what have you. That part is relatively easy to calculate, but in fact I believe that is the smaller input.

The more high-tech the machine, the greater the input in terms of the energy embodied in the technology itself. For example, the design, testing, manufacturing, installation, and maintenance of the hardware requires the talents of many scientists, engineers, steelmakers, machinists, technicians, and other skilled people. They weren’t born with those advanced skills and knowledge; it required many years of education, from elementary school through university, plus years of experience on the job. Start adding up the energy consumed in their education and training, and you will no doubt come up with an amount that is far greater than the energy contained in the materials of the structures themselves. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist yourself to see that society expends a huge amount of energy producing just one rocket scientist. We often hear about the need to invest lots of money in education, but of course money is just a means of accessing energy, and we need to focus on the energy that is being invested in educating and training scientists, engineers, and skilled workers. And because people don’t live forever, we need to keep investing lots of energy in education and training if technological civilization is to continue. Therefore, that energy input has to be taken into account when calculating the net energy of renewables (or anything else, for that matter). And a vital question here is: Can renewables be counted on to churn out that much surplus energy?

Another vital question is: Can renewables really replace fossil fuels? Let’s for the moment ignore things like the petrochemical industry and focus on the use of coal and oil for their energy value. Proponents of renewables claim that achieving a certain EROEI will produce enough surplus energy to build many more of the same machines. I have not seen a detailed exposition of this claim, but I assume they are calculating energy equivalencies, finding that a wind machine, for example, produces electricity that is equivalent to the energy in a certain amount of coal and oil, and pronouncing it a success. But renewables produce much electricity, and relatively small amounts of liquid and solid fuels. Recall that making hardware starts with mining ore, smelting it, making steel, casting parts, and machining them. Are they going to run cables from a wind machine to a blast furnace and smelt iron ore? Having never seen this matter addressed anywhere, I imagine that continued mining and smelting is just assumed. But since we are trying to replace fossil fuels, we have to replace all their significant uses or the whole exercise is meaningless. Recall that fossil fuels will become prohibitively expensive long before they run out.

Finally there is the matter of legacy infrastructure. Proponents of renewables seem to have given little or no thought to the very large amount of fossil fuel energy embodied in the infrastructure of industrial civilization, such as that for metals (mines, mining machines, smelting facilities, steel mills, machine shops, etc.) and that for oil (drilling equipment, pipelines, terminals, oil tankers, refineries, etc.). How about railroads, factories, trucks, and highways? All these exist thanks to fossil fuels. Do renewables proponents claim that all this and more can be maintained with the energy produced by renewables? Do they realize that renewable energy hardware is piggybacked on this fossil fuel-built platform?

Proponents of renewable energy are going off half-cocked in claiming that we can keep industrial civilization running smoothly with the energy produced by renewable energy equipment. I agree that we should build as much renewable capacity as possible, as soon as possible. In fact, I advocate a crash program for doing so. But I am under no illusion that it will save industrial civilization. It will just help us achieve a soft landing.

Those who claim that renewables can prop up industrial/technological civilization need to account for all these problems instead of proclaiming a new “green” age with more economic growth.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Just What We Need: More Consumers

With all the miracle disease cures coming on line these days, you’d think someone would have come up with a cure for stupid disease by now, but its virus continues to mutate into more deadly forms and plague humanity. Not that it’s hard to find examples, but here is one that really caught my eye. An article titled China mulls urbanization of 140m migrant workers informs us that the Chinese government would like to speed up urbanization and make consumers out of migrant workers. They will spend spend spend, and the economy will really grow. The article quotes an official who says:
“There are 140 million migrant workers nationwide, and that figure can increase to 300 million, taking their families into account. If these people can afford to buy or rent an apartment to settle down in cities, the potential for expanding consumption is huge.” (Emphasis mine)
Wow! He’s not just whistling Dixie. That would indeed be a lot of consumption. I’ll leave it to the reader to imagine what economic and environmental impacts all that added consumption would have. Which is not to say that all those Chinese migrant workers don’t deserve to attain the same level of consumption as people in the developed countries. But in light of reality, it’s stupid to say this. Then there is the matter of urban infrastructure. Roads, power lines, water and sewage pipes, and the like, plus urban services like trash collection. Since infrastructure is already crumbling in the developed countries due to lack of cheap energy, there’s no hope of ever building and maintaining so much more of it.

But unfortunately, stupid disease blinds people to reality and makes them say the stupidest things.

Friday, July 10, 2009


Nuclear Power and Hot Weather

Nuclear power is supposedly just what the doctor ordered to combat global warming. Proponents tell us that we must vastly expand nuclear power because it does not emit carbon dioxide (which is of course untrue). But ironically, nuclear power itself is falling victim to global warming because of cooling problems. Indeed, that bastion of nuclear power, France, has been forced by hot weather to shut down some of its nuclear plants and import electricity from Britain. Of course proponents will claim that this problem can be solved by supplying plants with cooling towers. But that will further raise the already skyrocketing cost estimates for new nuclear plants, and the towers still need a supply of water. Is there any assurance of that in the hot and dry summer weather projected for the future?

Wednesday, July 08, 2009


Difficulties Facing Renewables

In addition to the need to use fossil fuels to build the equipment for renewable energy sources (raising the question of ultimately how “renewable” they are), a recent news item tells us that T. Boone Pickens’ plan to build the world’s biggest wind farm has been stymied by two problems: financing and the grid. Specifically, the credit crunch is limiting the funds available for financing renewable energy projects, and America’s grid isn’t up to handing the power that the wind farm would be feeding into it.

The lack of money for financing is crimping just about everything. We are also supposed to be looking forward to a revival of nuclear power, but the skyrocketing costs of these large-scale, high-tech installations is killing the nuclear renaissance even before it gets started. And while various costs are being quoted for upgrading the grid, they are all astronomical.

Thus, dreams of expansive wind farms, solar parks, and other installations need to be tempered with the reality of cost, which ultimately comes down to the price of fossil fuels.

Saturday, July 04, 2009


US Highway Maintenance Begins to Slide

Last month we learned that states are cutting back on mowing highway shoulders and median strips. Of course a considerable amount of fuel is consumed by all those mowers. This is another sign that road maintenance in the US is beginning to fall by the wayside, so to speak.

This more recent story informs us of yet another cutback that is even more symbolic of what is coming: Virginia is shutting down highway rest stops. It is highly doubtful that these rest areas will be reopened, and highly probable that this is just the beginning of further such closings.

Of course, it is not only the US where traffic infrastructure is beginning to crumble. Another recent press report informs us that thousands of stress fractures have been discovered in Tokyo’s expressways.

Cheap oil giveth, and expensive oil taketh away.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009


Nuclear Power and Fossil Fuels

On a daily basis the mainstream media and nuclear power proponents bombard us with propaganda about how nuclear power can stave off global warming because it supposedly emits no carbon dioxide. Of course this is absurd, as discussed in “Nuclear power is well-disguised fossil fuel.” Nevertheless, nuclear proponents will still argue that this is a necessary and acceptable tradeoff.

But in fact, the situation is much more serious. Because fossil fuels are necessary for nuclear power, the viability of nuclear power is totally dependent on access to reasonably priced fossil fuels. Yet, net oil energy has declined precipitously over the last few decades, and that problem is going to worsen at an accelerating pace in the near future as society has to expend increasing amounts of energy just to get energy. What this will do to the price of crude (and indirectly to that of coal) is obvious. Hence, it is just a matter of time until fossil fuels become too expensive, making it impossible to build any more nuclear power plants, not to mention any other such large-scale construction projects.

And remember, the corollary to this is that the deployment of renewable energy infrastructure will also be severely crimped because fossil fuels are needed to manufacture, deploy, and maintain renewable energy infrastructure.

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