Slam on the Brakes

by Solarevolution June 20, 2011 09:15

Reading all these price predictions by peaksters, I’m reminded of the Austrian economist Murray Rothbard who said, “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

We know that the media (government / business / religious leaders) are giving very little attention to Peak Oil, but I would like us to consider what we, the Peak Oil community, are not talking about.

We’re not talking about slamming the brakes on fossil fuels.

Even as our contribution to creating Peak Oil awareness begins to see a little light (at least in some circles), I am concerned that we will be so worried about saving our own bacon or appearing to be rational that we will fail to take posterity into account. If we are to save just a little oil for our children, we need to just plain stop using oil (gas, coal).

“Conservation” doesn’t capture the urgency of our existential moment in history. In fact, conservation is like a salve to assuage the conscience of well-meaning people who are stuck in “business as usual.” We can be conned into thinking that we are doing our part by swapping out incandescent light bulbs.

Why can’t we just use less oil? If you are drowning, drowning slower isn’t going to save your life.

If you are in the know (Peak Oil), it’s not about telling others to slow down. We have to abandon the artifacts of the oil-based economy and retool.

It requires a fundamental shift. It’s about transforming society from oil to ingenuity. We must slam on the brakes and turn about-face.

Nuclear power swirled down into the ocean in March and humanity’s perceived energy options narrowed sharply. We are back to where our great-grandparents were their whole lives: figuring out from-one-day-to-the-next how to live within a solar budget. They did it (or we wouldn’t be here having this conversation). We can do it too. But we have to shift gears.

We are sliding down the back side of the peak, and just like with most mountains, the dark side is steeper than the sunny side. Will it be a soft or hard landing? Well… it depends:

If we have already used up too much of our natural resources, it will be a hard landing. (Time will tell.)

If we “conserve,” I don’t see how we can avoid a hard landing. Going slower sliding off the cliff is still sliding off the cliff.

We are aiming at the tail feathers of the goose that passed by here already a while ago. We need a word somewhere between conservation (voluntary) and deprivation (involuntary, Mother Nature’s decision) – something to make it obvious that we aren’t stuck promoting the same old baggage. The ship is going down. I repeat: we must jettison the artifacts of oil. If we hang onto them, they will sink us for good. (Some of Cortez’ men loaded their pockets with gold as they were escaping the Aztecs. When a causeway collapsed, many of them sank like stones and drowned.)

What legacy are we leaving for our children? What robust assets will they have at their disposal to climb back out of the hole we put them into? Why are we postponing this radical change? By waiting even one day, we are willy nilly leaving the solution up to our children. But what advantage are we giving them by drilling for more oil, mining more coal, fracking more gas? We are handing them a polluted world, a mountain of debt, hobbled with depleted resource deposits, and blindfolding them – all the while talking seriously about the price of oil for the next year.

We aren’t calling enough attention to carbon-based boondoggles (“shovel-ready” projects). Anyone who designs a system or artifact (highway, bridge, tunnel, airport, automobile, bus) that depends on imported oil is a traitor. After all, eight presidents in a row have proclaimed that imported oil is a threat to national security. Promoting a construction project to convey vehicles operating on mostly imported oil is now an act of treason.

I hear the question, “What percentage of our energy demand can be replaced by renewables?” There are two unchallenged assumptions that frame this question and illuminate our fossil-fuel mindset.

1. One good answer is none. “Replacement” suggests doing things the same way. We can’t “replace” oil with sunshine any more than we were able to “replace” horses with high-speed 4-legged robots shaped like horses. We jettisoned horses and made devices with engines and wheels.

Now we must jettison devices with engines and wheels that are 1% efficient, that weigh 2 tonnes to move 100 kg.

For example, what about biodiesel? Consider this thought exercise. Define inefficient = stupid. A car engine is 13% efficient (per RMI); the average car weighs about 4000 lbs (per DOE, DOT) and carries an average of less than 200 lbs; that’s 5% efficient. So 13% (engine) * 5% (mass) = 0.65% < 1% efficient = stupid. Now how do we get biodiesel? Photosynthesis can convert 3-6% of sunshine into soybean plants. Then we take the oily portion of the plant (you can’t make oil out of the stems) so even assuming that it takes zero energy to harvest and process that plant material into oil, your net efficiency is <<1% = stupid. (Using 100 gal/acre/year, I estimated that 0.05% of the sun’s energy is converted to soy biodiesel. I’ve heard of yields as high as 600 gal/acre/year for “next-generation” biofuels. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and we’re at 0.3% efficient, still <<1%. Correct me if I’m wrong.)

Now put that <<1% efficient biodiesel (stupid) into a car that is <1% efficient (stupid) and you get << 0.01% efficient. The result? Compound stupid.”

2. Another answer is 100%. Built into the question (remember the question, “percentage of energy … replaced by renewables”) is the curious assumption that we have a choice. We don’t.

Most of humanity lived within a solar budget until World War II. As near as I can tell, we have no option but to return to 100% renewables, whatever that may look like. (I’m all ears if you think you have found something else.) With the incredible amount of knowledge and skills we have gained during the fossil fuel era, we are much more capable than our grandparents to take on the task. If we are to avoid becoming a dead branch on the evolutionary tree, we will switch to renewables now so we can leave something for our children to work with.

It’s not “practical.” We will face skepticism and ridicule. But those who embrace renewables now will be the sellers in the post-oil economy, and there will be plenty of buyers who postponed the inevitable shift.

Slam on the brakes! Save the oil!

Also posted at

Energy and Material Requirements to Ramp up Renewable Energy

by Solarevolution January 24, 2007 12:00

From a friend

One question I have about renewables in general is has anyone done a rough calculation of the energy and material requirements to actually ramp up a renewable energy regime that would allow some semblence of a complex civilization to continue operating?
...and the friend's subsequent message:

there is no comfort in understanding how much potential energy is available from the sun ...


Actually, for me, understanding solar potential in its various forms _was_ the first step to discovering a plausible path to sustainability. Our challenge is merely to discover what we have to work with and how to use it. (Grown-ups' first job is to figure out how to live within their means, after all.) I did a chart in my recent Solar Today article on page 17 (same issue as Bartlett's article referenced below)

In this chart you note that the sun delivers 120,000 Terawatts ("TW") to the earth's surface continuously, while humans generate only 13 TW = 1/100 of 1% of solar -- everything from nuclear power to firewood. From there you can see how much each form of solar energy might be able to deliver, conservatively at least 60 TW using direct solar, and various amounts for hydropower, wind, geothermal, etc.


You may note in the chart that the potential of annual photosynthesis is 7-10 TW (theoretical) -- and far less as a practical matter. Without even considering its emotional baggage, nuclear is demonstrably pathetic. For details, see these pages on my website:


The next thing to consider is not merely how much energy we will need, but what technologies can plausibly work, post-peak-oil? It has been especially hard for society to dream up a substitute for oil in the private car; we've gone from the New Generation Vehicle (Clinton) to the Hydrogen Highway (Schwarzenegger), cellulosic ethanol and plug hybrids (Bush). These all fall into the category of answering the wrong question. No _fuel_ per se is going to bail us out: the automobile itself will follow the Hubbert curve down. It is just too grotesquely dangerous and inefficient. The IC engine is maybe 25% efficient to the flywheel and the transmission to the tires drops that down to 10% (if you're lucky), so you might think we're doing pretty well. But gasoline pushes 4,000 lbs of parasitic mass (steel etc.) for every 200 lbs of people -- 5% efficient! So take 10% to the wheel x 5% people and the car is 1/2% efficient in converting gasoline to moving people. Drive a Prius or a Tesla and you're up to 1% -- congratulations! You're doing almost as well as the 1813 Puffing Billy.

Conclusion? Pervasive use of fueled vehicles, even electrics (Sorry, Greg!) or hybrids, cannot possibly survive peak oil. And good riddance! Yes, we may still have gasoline ambulances and fire trucks, but not commuter SUVs.


Is there an alternative? Yes. Several well capitalized groups are building personal rapid transit ("podcar") systems which will get 100's of miles per gallon equivalent. A continuous overhead solar panel about 4' wide will deliver all the power necessary to move podcars carrying over 20,000 passengers per day -- a freeway lane's capacity. Solar panels producing electricity without _any_ subsidies will pay off in 4 years compared to liquid fuels (gasoline). Costing less than 10% as much as light rail or "freeway" construction, Podcars are about to scale up rapidly. If implementation in the USA gets bogged down, America will be even further behind Europe and Asia.

Once upon a time, humanity made the connection between hay and horses, and people moved faster. In our times we juxtaposed oil and the automobile, and those of us who survived moved around faster. (Four members of my immmediate family didn't make it. Many of you have also lost friends and family to the automobile.) After peak oil, it will be 80% electricity and 20% fuel (if that), or we will be riding horses again.


Technology isn't the whole story by any means, but here again technology is playing a critical role. Solar manufacturing is capital intensive: $1 million invested in a factory will support 1 million watts of production per year. This is about to change.


I know I've only touched the surface, but the starting point is to realize that the only way out of our collective mess is to make real changes. In his State of the Union last night, Bush spoke of 35 billion gallons of alternative fuel in 10 years. If he's right, the planet is toast. We must deliver credible EROI analyses to our policy makers pronto, so we won't keep wasting so much time and effort, destroying our soils and our aquifers. And we need to demonstrate the physics (thermodynamics) and the economics of plausible technologies.


The rest of my Solar Today article goes into some detail about ramping up to solar. For example, see my graph on page 19. Jack, I can help you to further define the parameters so that our team can effectively calculate the human capacity, energy and materials needed to build a bridge to a world beyond oil.

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