It's a Beautiful World

by Solarevolution July 12, 2012 17:42
How do we communicate the message of peak oil to the curious, the uninformed, the skeptic?
Well, that depends upon the message. Is ours a message of fear? Is it fantasy? Is it a message of hope? Is it a call to action?

Here's an option to consider: Lamentations begone!

Way back then

My seventh grade teacher would habitually give us her backhanded praise, "Light dawns upon darkness," as we went through our lessons. In Sunday School I had learned the difference between truth and lies (not to be confused with fact and fiction).

I learned another important lesson in the Boy Scouts. We were taught to leave the campground better than we found it. It meant a little extra work to pick up after ourselves ... and the unconscious souls who had been there before us, leaving a big mess in their wake.

Fast forward...

Fast forward a half century. Without a doubt I now live in a world that is a lot more complex than the campgrounds of my youth. Leaving a better world for the next batch of campers isn't quite as easy as it once seemed. My Scoutmaster would be arrested today if he were driving to Yosemite with 30 kids in the back of that stake-side truck. Nor had I noticed at the time that the truck's exhaust was causing the climate to change, nor that the global fuel tank gauge was dropping fast.

Where do we stand now?

So here I sit today, hanging out with a bunch of savvy folks, imagining a world beyond oil. It's a little scary at times.

Some of the savvy folks are imagining a dystopia. It's hard to fault them for that. All you have to do is look out your window at the world, and you will readily see lots of things falling right apart. Some places are flooding worse than ever; other places are burning, with record highs. Low down depression lurks behind many a paycheck... and it attacks mercilessly where once there was plenty.

More than a million people die in traffic accidents every year; ten million and more are seriously injured. Turf wars (over oil and minerals for cars) add to the numbers and the suffering. In simple terms, the so-called autonomous vehicle ("automobile") has degenerated into a very bad design. Clearly Karl Benz and Henry Ford had the best of intentions, and their inventions served humanity well for a century. But just as the car rolled the horse off the streets a century ago, so must the car be driven out of town in this new century... or pushed all the way to the junk yard when it runs out of fuel. Keeping the same form (an artifact of the oil age) while switching from fuel to electricity might be likened to changing the horse's feed from hay to kerosene so it might run faster. What's wrong with this picture?!

Transferring the American dream to China and Indian is about to turn into a nightmare as both countries compete to see which can gobble up, one-time-only, more natural resources than the other. And they think it's only fair for us to sit on the sidelines to watch them go at it. We have our troubles; these countries will be unfettered to mimic us and chase after their own troubles.

Archeologists have uncovered enough of the past to realize that humans evolved to form a primitive society known as the Stone Age. That hasn't changed very much, realistically. Future archeologists no doubt will call ours the Burn Stone Age.

This race to the bottom is getting pretty insane. Is there any way out?

A Better World

At a recent talk in San Francisco, John Reed, Chairman of the MIT Corporation, former Chair of CitiGroup and the New York Stock Exchange, was asked, "There are a number of young alumni here ... [asking] ... how can they be successful in their careers?"

John Reed replied, "I always could dream. I had a sense of where we wanted to go. And I greatly believed that if you can interpolate it is much better than extrapolating.

"Most managers sorta say, 'Where are we today?' Then they sort of extrapolate, and say, 'We could be a little more efficient; we could gain a little market share; we could do a little this; we could do a little that.' And they spend their life trying to extrapolate from some core to, you know, being somewhat better.

"... I think you gotta have a vision of where you'd like to be and then you've gotta say, 'I'm gonna use my efforts to get from here to there.'

And I must say it served me well in my business career. I think it served the institutions I was working with well and if I had any recommendations for a younger person, it would be, "Dream enough, be realistic, figure out what it is you would love to be, and then figure out how you're gonna get there. Don't just try..."

To leave a brighter world for our descendants, we must begin envisioning a better way to live. We can't dwell incessantly on what a miserable mess we are leaving for them. That's self-indulgence, at a time when we need all hands on deck. A persistent example is to see so many wringing their hands about the intermittency of renewables. This is a bit like complaining that there weren't enough oars on the Titanic's lifeboats.

Since it will be a world without oil (coal, gas), we must envision that: a world beyond oil (coal, gas). What might that world look like? As John Reed said, let's create a vision of where we'd like to be and then let's interpolate -- figure out how to get there. Dwelling on the past and extending that model into the future (extrapolating) isn't going to get us very far. We might consider our accomplishments or lack thereof in light of our core message.

At the dawn of the World Wide Web in 1994, I staked a claim to my vision of a better world -- -- building upon Ernest Callenbach's vision of an ecologically sound utopia. Once we abandon the unwieldy and outmoded artifacts of the fossil fuel era, I envision a world that is comfortably powered by solar energy. I envision a world where expectations have changed such that we have learned to do more with less in order to meet the needs of all people, accepting the challenge to find ways to stretch natural resources ten-fold, and to stop burning rocks like tenants burning the landlord's picket fence to stay warm through the cold winter. Let the sun shine in!!

If we as peak oil aware folks want to gain market share, we will envision a better future.

[And I reiterate my challenge. I'm all ears to hear about any alternative to my vision which is constructive, plausible and durable. No "over unity" schemes in defiance of the Second Law. No fair kicking the can down the road. Belly to the bar.]

A vision without a task is a dream; a task without a vision is drudgery; a vision with a task is the hope of the world. (Inscribed on the wall of a church in Sussex, England, circa 1730, posted at )

Burning rocks to get around

by Solarevolution June 25, 2012 04:27
Listen up!    
Unprecedented economic expansion over the past century has been powered by abundant and relatively inexpensive oil and other fossil fuels.  How would the U.S. and global economy respond to an oil supply crisis and the prospect of diminishing oil supplies?  What would economic “growth” and “development” look like in a future with less oil?

 I think this might be the time for me to highlight the theme of equity (in particular, international- and inter-generational equity).

That statement, "... in a future with less oil," is hinting in the direction of "oil continues to be treated as a fuel." Hmmm. If there is no awareness of the value of oil, not for burning up one-time-only, but as a substance for long term use by our progeny, what right do we have to tie up people's time talking about an economy? What is an economy without leaving behind some resources for a next generation to take over?

Where do we weave this fundamental into the peak oil story? I for one am coming to loath the continuing using the term "fossil fuels." We are burning stones to get around?! How do you explain that to your grandchildren? We are so shortsighted to consume these resources that belong to their future.

I'm probably going to drive to town soon, and jump in an airplane before the year is up. Shame on me. The point though is to put our heads together, to find common ground, so that collectively,  we can put a new spin on oil, to begin to treat it as a valuable resource, too precious to burn. Might that perspective serve well to transform our efforts into a more noble cause?

Today we look back in disgust at whaling for lamp oil. How primitive to kill those magnificent sentient leviathans just to light up a room. What will the beyond-oil people of the future think of us?!

Afghanistan, a testimony to American diplomacy ten years on

by Solarevolution January 11, 2012 19:30

Part 1: Electricity and Oil 

Afghanistan is the country where average electricity consumption per capita was about the lowest in the world in 2001; it is even lower now ten years on, in 2012.

Average oil consumption per capita was about the lowest in the world in 2001; it is lower yet in 2012.


Population =  25,838,797

Electricity Consumption = 20  kWh(e)/year/capita
Always-on power use equivalent = 2.3 watts/capita average
%(US) = 0.16%

Oil consumption = 2.19 M bbl/year.
Oil consumption = 0.08 bbl/yr/capita
%(US) = 0.3%


Population =  29,835,392

Electricity Consumption =231.1 million kWh / 29,835,392 = 7.75 kWh(e)/year/capita
Always-on power use equivalent = 0.9 watts/capita average = 40% of 2001
%(US) = 0.06% or less than one tenth of one percent.

Oil consumption =  = 4,800 * 365 = 1.75 M bbl/year.
Oil consumption = 0.06 bbl/yr/capita = 75% of 2001
%(US) = 0.2%

Energy conservation has been taken to a whole new level in Afghanistan, with greater than 50% reduction in just 10 years, a testimony to American diplomacy.

Afghanistan has the second highest rate of infant mortality and second lowest life expectancy of any country, above only Angola.

Part 2: Solar Energy

Imagine what might have happened if the USA had invested a mere $1B in delivering solar panels to Afghanistan. Putting that amount in perspective, the cost of war in Afghanistan has been about $500 billion as of January 2012 and the war costs $300 million a day according to the Pentagon.

Let's use $3/watt as the price of solar. (Panels alone are now selling well below $1.50/watt and some complete large utility-scale systems are at or near that $3/watt price.)

$1B ÷ $3/watt = 333 megawatt, ÷  29,835,392 people = 11 watts/capita. Multiply this by 5 hrs equivalent production per 24 hour day (21%) and the result is 11 watts*21%= 2.3 watts/capita, the same as was available in 2001.

Conclusion: A timely investment of $1 Billion in solar panels in Afghanistan in 2001 would have doubled electricity production per capita in Afghanistan. The same investment today would increase electricity production by 250%.

Would Afghanistan have the third lowest literacy rate in the world if electricity were available to its people?

What are we shoveling with shovel ready solutions?

by Solarevolution September 09, 2011 08:29

I learned a new phrase a few days ago, "drop-in fuels." Leave the fuel-hogging devices all the same -- ask no questions about efficiency -- and concoct a new fuel to keep feeding the hogs. (On small islands in ancient Polynesia, it was discovered that hogs were competing for the same food as humans, and they were exterminated. Oh, that we could learn such lessons from our ancestors.)

The military is looking for a way to fuel jets, tanks, personnel carriers, etc., without oil, and the politicians are providing the rhetoric to suspend the laws of physics until they get re-elected.

Just as with the flawed notion of "shovel ready," we have institutionalized business-as-usual (BAU) remedies which have no future. Rebuilding America, fixing our infrastructure, etc., is all about constructing stranded assets -- artifacts of the age of oil which will last 50-100-200 years longer than the fuel that is needed to operate them. Pity. 

What is the alternative?

  • Simultaneously with putting solar panels on our roofs, we must swap out our incandescent bulbs and put in LEDs that use 10% as much energy. The same goes for the efficiency of refrigerators and washing machines. We can do better.
  • In the haste to convert our cars to electric propulsion...
    • Did anyone notice that the car itself is only about 1% efficient? (Most of the fuel is used to move metal. We use a ton of metal to move a person!)
    • With help from other 2 & 4 wheeled contraptions, the car kills a million people worldwide every year and maimes countless others.
    • The electric vehicle uses as much in materials as a conventional car -- or more. There are no savings in materials.
    We did not speed up the horse by feeding it on the newly discovered fuel, kerosene. We created the horseless carriage. As the horseless carriage scaled up, we didn't notice its limitations. We now know how to achieve mobility without oil, and we can solve the other flaws of our transportation system at the same time. Getting off oil is liberating, not confining.

If we do all these things and more, we won't be needing the over-powered military machinery which is being used mostly to protect our sources of oil. 

We have a unique opportunity in the context of peak oil to redesign our infrastructure, to transform personal transport to 100% renewables -- and while we are at it, eliminate the fundamental flaws in our present system.

First principles:

  • grade separation (put fast-moving vehicles above pedestrians and bicyclists with podcars or below with subways),
  • automated on fixed guideways,
  • dispatchable at will, not scheduled,
  • solar powered,
  • light weight, aerodynamic,
  • consuming less than 100 watt-hours per vehicle-km.

You don't know how to do that? If you jettison the oil, you will be able to figure it out. Don't leave it to future generations to struggle in an oil-depleted world. It is time for our generation to become responsible. Let's not kick the can down the road to the next generation.

Fracking the Future

by Solarevolution June 28, 2011 04:14

Based on a series of articles in the New York Times, the headlines and blogs this week are asking, "Is Shale Gas A Ponzi Scheme?"

The author questions the long-term reality of shale gas production and especially the financial underpinnings. Critics charge that the articles were poorly written or that the author has an agenda. Both sides are dancing around, talking about prices and debating the facts about reserves. Activists are rightfully worried about the environmental impacts of the new method of "fracking" (fracturing) shale formations to extract natural gas.

But neither side is asking the fundamental question:

What are we going to do when we run out of tricks to extract more fossil fuels?!

We are fracking our future.

Is there anyone out there who cares about our children?

Someone out there cares about being maligned by the press: Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy -- a company which was taken to task in the New York Times article. He offered these assurances to his employees and encouraged them to forward his message to the world:

In summary, you work for a great company and a great industry that is changing our country (and someday our world), much for the better. ... Again, thank you for all your hard work in building our company and in delivering to all Americans a brighter future through more affordable energy, more American energy, more clean energy and more job and wealth creation. ... we will now re-double our efforts to educate as many people as possible so that they may know the truth from us rather than distortions and dishonesty from others.
We hope that every Chesapeake employee can be part of our public education outreach.  ... You can do this by talking to your families, friends and others ... about the kind of company you work for and the integrity of what we do every day for our shareholders, our communities, our states, our nation, our economy and our environment. ..

Everyone, in other words, except the unborn. At one point, burning fossil fuels was arguably a rational thing to do. But we've passed the point of diminishing returns. Aubrey McCLendon thinks that burning our furniture to keep warm over the winter is wealth creation. He has company. I saw this in a discussion group:

"I disagree that we are foisting any challenges on future generations ....
A couple paragraphs later the same author wrote...
"I do not envision any ... disruptions for at least a century. Perhaps even two or three. By then, I think we can trust our great-grandchildren to have solved these problems.

I wouldn't know how to make this up. He didn't even see the irony: "Trusting" our great-grandchildren to meet their needs without the benefit of oil [plastics...], natural gas [fertilizer, glass...] or coal [steel, cement...].No, kids, that's right. We burned it all up! Just google "solve these problems" and you will find everything you need to rebuild the depleted world we left for you.

Our society's challenges extend beyond finding cheap and abundant sources of natural gas to make fertilizer and keep the lights on. The critical shift we need is to build awareness, to invest in our children's future by finding a pathway to energy self-reliance, not by extracting more of a finite resource.

It can be called intergenerational equity. Big words, simple Boy Scout concept: Leave the campground better than you found it. (Don't burn the picnic tables!)

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