Friday, May 22, 2009

 

Electric Shock

Richard Duncan’s Olduvai Theory states that electricity is essential to industrial civilization. Here it is not my purpose to argue whether he is right or wrong, or to debate the merits of Duncan’s theory, but obviously without electricity the world would be much different, and I would not be writing this.

In fact, electric power shortages currently hinder “development” in many countries of the world in Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Load shedding, in which electric power is purposely cut for whole regions to keep grids from going down, is a common practice in places like Pakistan. India, which is considered one of the great lights of economic development in Asia, has a serious power shortage. With the cost of primary energy supplies going up, and the availability of financing tight, it is highly doubtful that countries in these regions will ever obtain all the electricity generating capacity they want.

But developing countries aren’t the only ones facing power shortages. In fact, the very symbol of modern technological civilization, the United States itself, could be in the same boat. A primary feature of the information economy is the data center, or server farm. These are heavy power users, and data centers are being continually built or expanded to accommodate the ever-growing amount of data that people like me are creating. Now there are warnings of an impending data center power shortage, and observations that in the US at least, fast-growing data center power consumption is threatening to overwhelm generating capacity and the grid. If data centers start going down, the shock waves would be greater than those about to be unleashed by the bankruptcy of GM.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

 

The Tao of Asparagus Prices

No doubt the headline German Woman Beaten Up Over Asparagus Prices at first made some people chuckle. And then dismiss this as an unfortunate, but freak occurrence. After all, if the man thought the seller’s price was too high, then the logical thing to do in the market economy is seek out a vendor offering the same delicacy at a lower price. And normally, of course, people who thought the goods were grossly overpriced would just move on.

It gives me no pleasure to say this — because I will be personally affected someday — but we are looking at the future here, my friends. The era of cheap food is ending, and this incident is a harbinger of what will happen on a large scale as more and more people are outraged at what they perceive to be “overpriced” food. I myself may be punched out by some “consumer” who thinks my rice is outrageously priced. And in time food theft will become endemic.

One more point to make: Cheap, industrially produced food has made us forget the real value of food. We live at the end of an age in which stuffing “consumers” with sugar, fat, and all kinds of processed foods is an industry, and eating is something that people do as a form of recreation or entertainment. But as “putting food on your family” (I love that phrase) gets to be increasingly difficult, and even desperate — as not a few people are already finding — our perception of eating and food will change dramatically, and “weight watching” will take on a whole new meaning.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

 

Alien Technology Reality Check

Certainly, there are many more important things to be writing about, but — although I realize it is hopeless to dissuade the “I-want-to-believe” segment of the population — indulge me this once on a pipe dream that refuses to die.

Here is yet another example of people claiming that the US government has alien technology that can provide us with unlimited, pollution-free energy, and thereby solve all our problems and bring us that elusive Glorious Technological Future. Talk about having your cake and eating it, too.

Similarly, there are many people claiming that the US government and or Big Oil is keeping the lid on free-energy machines or other similarly fantastic inventions that supposedly exist, by threatening or murdering the inventors. While I have no doubt that many governments will murder people who know too much, let’s take a dispassionate look at claims of reverse-engineered alien technology, free-energy machines, and schemes to keep them under wraps.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a major power. You are dead-set on maintaining your power and influence, and expanding them if possible. Your military-science complex works hard to come up with all sorts of new gadgets that will give you even a tiny edge on the global chessboard. But it’s not easy, because of course the other major players are not just sitting around twiddling their thumbs.

Now for some reason you obtain a technology — for example “UFO technology” that provides free energy and allows us to navigate the heavens at breathtaking speed — that promises to vault you far over the competition. Instead of getting your ass kicked out on the dusty desert in an attempt to control dirty hydrocarbon resources, you can zap your adversaries and proceed to easily dominate the Earth and even space. Given that opportunity, what government could possibly resist? To believe that a government would just put a lid on such a powerful weapon and not use it shows a total and willful misunderstanding of human nature. Sorry guys, the world doesn’t work that way.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

 

Renewable Energy Infrastructure: A Problem

Here I want to build on the previous post with an observation about renewable energy.

The plan is to replace fossil fuels by using other energy sources, with renewables being a major component. Or maybe the biggest component. That’s why everyone is calling for lots of investment in renewables, including construction of facilities and research into other potential kinds of renewables.

I’m all in favor of building all we can and as soon as we can, but there is a pitfall that almost everyone seems to be overlooking. All the infrastructure we are building now, and proposing to build in the future, needs to be maintained. Machines wear out and break down. Solar panels need to be washed. Renewable energy infrastructure also requires ancillary facilities, such as access roads, which also need to be maintained. All this infrastructure will be added on to the infrastructure we already have in place. Now you can see the problem: We have arrived at the point where we cannot maintain existing infrastructure, but the push for renewables will add still more, thereby increasing the already too-heavy burden. Competition for maintenance will just keep increasing as the energy available for maintenance is decreasing.

I can already see the visions of a Glorious Technological Future melting like ice cream on a hot summer day.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

 

Urban Infrastructure Deterioration

Around the world, cities — especially older cities — are harboring massive ticking time bombs that will soon bring them to ruin. No, I am not talking about explosives placed by terrorists. I am talking about crumbling urban infrastructure. Everything that makes the city what it is — the roads, water mains, sewerage, and the like — has been put in place with massive expenditure. Now, you may think that by “expenditure” I am speaking of money. And indeed, when people talk about building and maintaining infrastructure, they always speak about it in terms of money, i.e., how much it will cost to do the job.

However, that is highly misleading, and in fact obscures the real problem. It is not money that builds and upgrades infrastructure, it is energy (for an excellent treatment of money and energy, see Michael C. Ruppert’s new book A Presidential Energy Policy). Just look around yourself if you are in a city, and imagine the amount of fossil fuel energy embodied in just your immediate area: the streets, buildings, electrical grid, water mains, sewerage, traffic lights, sidewalks, and the rest. You can talk about how much money was spent building all of it, but money only buys access to energy; it does not actually do any of the work.

OK, let’s look at this in more real-world terms. Before going any further, read this short article, 1,600 km of Tokyo sewage piping needs renovation. It’s clear that this component of Tokyo’s urban infrastructure is deteriorating faster than it can be replaced or fixed up. Note this important statement of fact in the article: “In Tokyo, the laying of sewage pipes was conducted rapidly around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics...” The really key bit of information here is “1964.” Why? Because that was right in the middle of Japan’s period of blistering postwar economic growth. Since at that time oil was much cheaper, it’s clear what drove that rapid growth and allowed Japan to so quickly rise out of the ashes of war and build itself into a major economic power. And it’s also clear that cheap energy made it possible to lay so much sewage pipe. Now that we are at or near peak oil, there is no question that it’s all downhill from here for the infrastructure of Tokyo and all other cities around the world.

Finally, just think about the implications. To turn back to the article one more time, it makes this rather dry matter-of-fact observation: “If old sewage pipes corrode and leak, it will become impossible for residents whose homes are served by the pipes to use toilets or baths.” In big cities, which cram lots of people into small areas, this is nothing less than a recipe for disaster.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

 

Less Energy = Fewer Jobs

A few days ago Bloomberg posted a revealing article titled ‘Great Recession’ Will Redefine Full Employment as Jobs Vanish. This is a good read because it shows how economists and policymakers are now admitting that — even if there is a “recovery” — many of those lost jobs are lost forever. However, no one is making the connection, at least openly, between energy and rising unemployment. The bottom line is, there is no longer enough cheap energy in the world to bring employment back up to the previous level. Of course the world didn’t have full employment in the literal sense of the word, because there have always been unemployed people looking for work. It was just more or less held down to manageable levels until now, thanks to plenty of cheap energy and the economic growth it engendered.

We are entering a new phase. Last I checked, the world population was still growing, and economists and politicos were prattling on about how we need continued economic growth to find jobs for all the new people appearing on the job market. But with overall economic contraction now a certainty, finding jobs for all the new job-seekers is a definite impossibility because they are competing with an even greater number of unemployed for a shrinking job pie.

That reminds me of a recent post I did on the Japanese government paying foreign workers to go home. Here is a concrete example of how an industrial government understands that the future holds fewer jobs. Certainly, that is why the Japanese government attached the “don’t-come-back” condition to the payoffs.

It’s no wonder that governments are expressing grave concerns about industrial unrest brewing around the world. Soon enough, probably this near or next, the cup will runneth over and the situation will get very ugly. Peak oil means peak everything, and that includes peak jobs.

Monday, May 04, 2009

 

The Challenge of a New Energy System

Everyone is madly engaged now in developing all kinds of new energy technologies to generate electricity, convert biomass, and in other ways produce energy that can keep industrial civilization and the consumer society going, and — the Holy Grail of the global economic system — keep us on the path to infinite growth.

Let’s review the fossil fuel energy system that keeps the show running now. Simply put, it has two main characteristics.

First, the system powers itself. Fossil fuels provide the energy to obtain, process, and supply more fossil fuels. It keeps supplying itself with more energy and is therefore self-sustaining.

And second, there is plenty of surplus energy. Fossil fuels also power industrial civilization and the consumer economy. There is lots of energy left over after powering the energy system itself to keep the factories humming, the vehicles rolling, the aircraft flying, the farmers farming, and the consumers consuming.

Now, however, we have come to realize this won’t last forever. That is behind all the enthusiasm for alternative energy sources. But if we are to keep industrial civilization and the consumer society going — not to mention providing the energy source for infinite growth — the new energy system has to fulfill the same two conditions without relying on any fossil fuel inputs. That is, first, the energy system must power itself, and second, there must be a big energy surplus.

At this juncture, all the new energy schemes are in fact dependent on fossil fuel inputs for their bootstrap. The wind turbines, solar panels, ethanol plants, machinery for growing energy crops, the electric cars, their batteries, the factories for making electric cars, and what have you — it is all dependent on fossil fuels. The new energy system must dispense with fossil fuels, power industrial civilization and the consumer economy, and maintain continued economic growth with real-time solar energy.

I doubt that people understand the magnitude of the challenge.

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