Friday, October 30, 2009

 

Feral Houses

Have you ever wondered what happens to houses that are abandoned by humans? There are many such houses now, especially in Detroit, and here you can see some stunning photographs of what the blogger calls “feral houses.” It’s amazing how nature takes over and reinhabits spaces after humans decamp, and I have to admit that it’s quite beautiful, too. Which is not to say that I have no compassion for the unfortunate circumstances of the former inhabitants.

There will of course be more of this in the future, and not only in Detroit, as economic degradation induces the further retreat of humans from many far-flung suburbs. Since demolition is costly and generates much waste, cities should look into having salvage operators dismantle abandoned buildings for materials that can be reused. In fact, this article states that up to 80% of the materials can be reused or recycled. Surely building salvage will become a booming business in the future.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

 

Reality Check on Algae

Just a couple of posts back, I pointed out that fossil fuels and biofuels are in substance the same, and that what differentiates them is who has done most of the work.

R-Squared Energy Blog has just posted an interview with an algae company CEO who opens a very revealing window into this world. I won’t quote any of the interview here, as it’s not very long and should be read in its entirety. I will just say this: It’s an excellent example of what I was talking about. When humans have to do in a very short time what nature took millions of years to do, the challenge is more than just daunting. The interviewee is shockingly frank, and what he has to say will surely dampen the expectations of those who believe algae-derived fuels will soon be powering fleets of vehicles.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

 

The New World Order

Is Chaos. I treated this topic somewhat here and here. Briefly stated, as energy becomes more expensive, holding together empires and maintaining sophisticated socioeconomic systems gets progressively more challenging. Add to this the excessive complexity of the global system and the threat of black swan events, and we have a recipe for instability, breakdown of the global system, and pockets of chaos breaking out here and there.

The fear of chaos makes governments more repressive, and at the same time makes the general public more amenable to repressive government, simply because everyone wants stability. This is now very evident in Russia, as indicated by a couple of recent articles. A BBC article, Democracy loses support in Russia, notes that fewer Russians feel democracy is suitable for Russia, and that in fact 43% think that Russia sometimes needs an “iron fist” leader. While this article gives us the view from the Russian public, a Reuters article, Kremlin warns against wrecking Russia with democracy, gives us the government view. A Kremlin official states that Russia needs stability and a strong guiding hand for development, and specifically warns of chaos arising because of liberal reforms.

Say what you like about the Russians, but in time we will see that many more governments and peoples around the world will start to say the same things. When push comes to shove and countries are competing for dwindling resources and energy, democracy will fly out the window.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

 

Biofuels and Fossil Fuels

Are the same. It’s obvious when you think about it. We make biofuels by growing biomass feedstock, such as corn or trees, then harvesting it, transporting it to a manufacturing facility, processing the feedstock, and then treating the product to obtain fuel. In the case of fossil fuels, nature did most of the work for us over millions of years by growing biomass, gathering it up in huge quantities, putting it in giant pressure cookers for processing, and then storing it. All we have to do is extract this bonanza (as with oil, we sometimes need some final treatment).

Now it’s easier to see why biofuels cannot just pick up where fossil fuels leave off: We have to do all of the work ourselves. Much energy has to be expended in cultivation, logistics, and processing, and instead of waiting millions of years for nature to do it for us, we have to do it, and right away. And that’s why the energy return (EROEI) on biofuels is so pitifully low. Not only that, we are heavily dependent on fossil fuels to make biofuels.

Just recall that the next time someone starts talking enthusiastically about how biofuels will save the day.

Friday, October 23, 2009

 

“Collapse” Trailer Is Out

The trailer for “Collapse” is out. You can see it here.

 

Some Developed Countries to Become “Commodity Colonies”?

As the economies of China and India heat up, they have voracious appetites for resources and energy. There’s no shortage of news stories about China’s recent resource stockpiling (which was enough to drive up the Baltic Dry Index) and oil deals, or about similar activities by India. In fact, this appetite for commodities is expected to create boom times for Australia, and now Asian countries are fastening their gaze on Canada as another commodity supply base.

But how long the boom times will last is another question, as the virtually inevitable US financial collapse will send a tsunami around the world that will swamp many smaller boats and severely rock the bigger ones. In 2008 the US was China’s top trading partner, so the loss of that market will be a devastating blow to the Chinese economy.

 

Server Power Consumption

This BusinessWeek article notes that many servers around the world are just sucking juice and not really doing anything.
As many as 4.7 million servers worldwide—more than 15 per cent of the global total—are merely consuming energy without serving any productive purpose, according to a study sponsored by IT power management company.
This isn’t surprising, as data centers are built with excess capacity to absorb all the new data being created. So in time, those servers will be put to work. But an equally interesting fact — and one with greater implications for the future — was buried farther down in the article (emphasis mine).
A separate study by researcher IDC found that because of rocketing energy prices it now costs more to power some servers than to buy them in the first place.

IDC said that while the amount of energy required to operate servers and datacentres declined slightly between 2007 and 2008 this was not enough to offset the spiralling energy costs, pushed up by increasing electricity prices.
Because over the long term (or maybe even over the short term) energy prices have to go up, it is readily apparent that this spells trouble for the internet and cloud computing. Servers may become more efficient and less expensive, but they’ll run only as long as energy costs stay manageable.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

 

Brazilian Police Helicopter Downed

An incident in which Brazilian drug gangs shot down a police helicopter is yet another example of how non-state actors are becoming more powerful and challenging state power. Pirates, Mexican drug cartels, and attacks on the Pakistani state apparatus are other indications that non-state actors are finding the weak spots in the system and pushing.

As the world situation continues to deteriorate, it will become more chaotic as the excessively top-heavy and complex global system progressively unravels and spins out of control. Increasingly, nation-states will have their hands full just trying to hold themselves together in the face of economic collapse and separatist movements, and these non-state actors will move into the resulting power vacuum.

Stay tuned to this drama; the show is just getting started.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

 

US Is Insolvent, Batten Down the Hatches

As a follow-up on my previous post, here is a description which deals specifically with the grave — and frankly hopeless — financial situation of the US. Let me warn you that this is not pretty. If you have a faint heart, take your medication before reading. Crushing debt, a currency that grows more worthless by the day, a declining economy... but such is the way of all empires.

 

Defaults by Developed Nations?

You betcha. There’s a lot of complacency in the industrialized nations, with people thinking that debt defaults are things that happen to banana republics. Rich countries don’t go bust, right?

Think again. One of the prime indicators of fiscal health is the debt-to-GDP ratio, which shows how a country’s public debt compares to its GDP. You’ll hear different opinions on what a healthy or manageable level is, but if you think of it in terms of a household economy, having a debt load that’s near half your annual income is pushing your luck. Yet, many countries are at 50% or over. Here is a table compiled by the CIA. The latest figures are from 2008, so you can bet most of these are now higher. The big shocker for many people will be seeing that economic powerhouse Japan at the number 2 spot, right after Zimbabwe. It’s a prime example that a lot of our “prosperity” is actually financed with debt. While Japan is listed here at 173%, it is widely believed that it will approach 200% within the year. Now, let’s be realistic. Even if the world economy heats up again, which it won’t, do you think debt like that can be repaid? Can you spell “default”?

But of course, such talk is taboo. Yet, we are hearing more and more of it. This blog entry notes that “By 2014, says the IMF, total public debt in the advanced economies will balloon to an unprecedented 115 percent of their GDP, compared with 75 percent in 2008.”

Another thing to keep in mind is that this indicator is a ratio, so it changes when either debt or GDP changes. If a country has the same GDP, but rising debt, the ratio will go up. On the other hand, even if debt is not rising but GDP falls, the ratio will go up. Since GDPs have been sustained by growth that is in turn fueled by cheap energy, it’s a safe bet that few countries will escape GDP decline as energy constrains build. Do you see a problem here? The bottom line: Look for massive government defaults.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

 

Digital Rabbits

Here is an interview that affords another peek into this world of so-called “big data.” When asked about present and future data volumes, the interviewee says:
Today, we're looking at 1.5 petabytes of storage. [A petabyte is a million billion bytes.] If you just take the current growth curves and take it out over 20 years, you get numbers that are absolutely staggering.
If that’s staggering to people who are in the business, then it’s incomprehensible to mere mortals like us who have trouble visualizing the gigabyte-scale of storage on our own computers. Yet, capacity has to be found to store all of these data and always have them available. The interviewee is hoping for some kind of magic technological breakthrough, but absent such an event, some hard choices will have to be made. And indeed he admits that managing data is “getting harder and harder to deal with.”

But that’s actually small potatoes in comparison with that data pack rat, the US National Security Agency (NSA), which — having maxed out the grid at its own headquarters in Maryland — is busily constructing mammoth hutches in Utah and Texas for its rapidly growing family of digital rabbits. On this topic I direct the reader’s attention to this article, whose subject is not NSA’s data-gathering per se, but of great interest nonetheless.

Friday, October 02, 2009

 

Sweet Sign of the End Times?

As the global economy continues to crumble, as the ranks of the unemployed continue to swell, and as industrial civilization accumulates still more rust, we are informed that World’s largest sweet shop to open in Dubai. Never let it be said that the global economy won’t go out in style. This is impressive if for no other reason that it shows how we humans like to live it up in our last hours. Most impressively:
In addition to its sweets, the 10,000 square foot store features a huge 10-metre singing chocolate tree decorated with lollipops.
That really “takes the cake,” so to speak. If I were going to the UAE, I would definitely put this on my itinerary. And now I think I will have an ice cream cone. You never know when it will be my last...

Thursday, October 01, 2009

 

“Recession” Trigger

Here we have an account of a speech given by economist Jeff Rubin. Many people are now aware of his message that the world will undergo wrenching and momentous change in the near future due to the spiking of oil prices. Of particular interest was his assertion that “oil prices, and not sub-prime mortgages, caused the current global recession.” Although the accepted wisdom is that the subprime mortgage debacle triggered the world recession (here in Japan the term “Lehman shock” is used to name the event believed to have triggered the recession), I have to agree with Rubin that this explanation amounts to barking up the wrong tree. Clearly, the world economy as we know it cannot function long with oil in the triple digits.

The simplistic explanation that subprime debt was the trigger ignores the role of cheap energy in creating the global debt bubble. Specifically, cheap energy fueled economic growth, and the promise of continuing growth underwrote all the debt. If sizzling economic growth had continued, a high percentage (certainly not all) of the subprime borrowers could have been expected to pay off their debts. Of course there was a lot of greed, and much overreach, but that too was goosed by the expectation of continued expansion. When $147/bbl oil crashed the economy, the debt bubble had to collapse because it had been kept inflated by the expectation of continued growth.

Unfortunately, the belief in growth still dominates. Governments spill the red ink with abandon for “stimulus” programs in the expectation that the world economy will mend itself and get back to expanding, which (in theory) would make it possible to pay off all that debt, with interest. In reality, no person in his or her right mind would believe that this much debt could be paid off. Without a doubt, it is just a matter of time until massive worldwide defaults begin.

Finally, there is debate on whether to call this a recession or a depression, but that argument is misplaced. What we are seeing is the beginning of the end for industrial civilization — unless, of course, a cheap and highly dense form of energy can be found. Good luck.

 

Reality Check: Behind Those Solar Panels

As readers know, I am all in favor or building as much renewable energy capacity as we can right now, not because I think it will save industrial civilization, but because it will facilitate a soft landing. Better that the lights go out little by little than all at once.

To help illustrate one of the problems of renewables, look at their production processes. Here is an example (I want to emphasize this is just an example of the point I want to make; I encourage this company to go full speed ahead and make all the panels they can while it’s still possible). Take a look at the plant and equipment, and imagine how much fossil-fuel energy is embodied in just this one operation — and by extension, in the product itself.

Without fossil fuels, none of this would be happening. No one seems to be giving this any serious thought, but the problem should be obvious to anyone when looking at a factory and its equipment. Unless a source of dense energy to replace fossil fuels is found, this can only continue for as long as fossil fuels are affordable.

 

Plenty of Natural Gas, But...

Getting it to where it’s needed, and in sufficient quantities, is not always easy.

Take the state of Alaska, for example. Although the US is awash in gas right now because of the shale gas boom, an Alaskan news source tells us that Gas shortage could leave Anchorage in the dark. According to the article, Alaska had better have a mild winter, or Anchorage residents could be shivering in dimly lit homes — or worse. The reasons are declining local production and insufficient gas infrastructure.

On the other side of the world, we learn that Iran minister sees winter gas shortage. Iran has large natural gas reserves, but a domestic shortage has arisen because of growing consumption and slow development of gas fields.

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