Economic Trend Report: Energy Descent, Transition and Alternatives to 2050

For the past few months, I’ve focused the time available for Beyond this Brief Anomaly on background research and modelling aimed at testing more rigorously some of the conclusions towards which the inquiry has pointed so far. This has come at the cost of keeping things active here though. I’m planning to share some of the results of this work shortly. In the meantime, I was recently looking back over a piece of work on energy transition as a key economic trend that I did last year for a client. It occurred to me that it provides a remarkably good summary of the inquiry’s findings to date, and sets out many of the conclusions that I’ve been stress testing behind the scenes. The report below is a version of the original briefing paper revised slightly for a more general audience than the original. It was last updated in November 2014, but for the most part— save perhaps for updated global oil production data and the post-price plunge tight oil situation in the USA—it continues to be relevant today. Also, the brief comments in relation to battery storage may, to some readers at least, seem rather at odds with the popular view that has gained such a significant boost in recent months. More on that when I report on the background work I’ve been up to.

Download the report pdf.

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EROI and the limits of conventional feasibility assessment—Part 3: Intermittency & seasonal variation

In the previous post in this sequence, I developed the concept of power return on investment as a complementary indicator to energy return on investment (EROI) for assessing the viability of wind and solar PV as alternatives to thermal electricity generation. I used as my departure point for this an article in which Ioannis Kessides and David Wade introduce a dynamic approach to EROI analysis.[1] Specifically, I drew on an illustrative example that they present, based on IEA data for coal-fired thermal and wind electricity generation in Japan, showing how the time required for coal and wind installations to provide sufficient energy to emplace additional generating capacity equal to their own can differ by an order of magnitude even where the EROI for coal and wind is identical. Given that the data on which this example was based was from prior to 2002, both the doubling time in Kessides & Wade’s example and the power return on investment in the extended analysis would likely be improved if up-to-date figures for emplacement energy and capacity factor were substituted for those from the IEA study. Unfortunately, this goes only a limited way to mitigating the central issue in terms of “real world” considerations. Continue reading

A rough guide to visualising energy density

In concluding the previous post, I pointed out the problem with comparing stock-based energy sources—such as fossil fuels and uranium—with flow-based sources—such as wind and solar radiation—on the basis of their associated energy densities. [Update: strictly speaking, we’re dealing here with the distinction between energy density and power density. While energy density is a straightforward and very useful way to characterise and compare energy storage media such as fuels and batteries, the infrastructure for producing fuels and electricity is often better characterised in terms of power density—the rate of energy transformation or supply per spatial unit. This reflects the more immediate dependence of a particular set of socio-economic arrangements, if it’s to be maintained, on its associated energy supply rates, rather than its energy reserves. For now though, I’ll continue the inquiry based on the concept of energy density, as it is arguably the more accessible concept given the nature of our direct experience with fuels—including our own fuels, the food that we eat!] Just to recap on the previous post, establishing a characteristic energy density for a given source requires that we first nominate an appropriate spatial dimension associated with that source. This is straightforward for stock-based sources involving a given quantity of material such as coal, oil or gas, and we can readily compare the energy densities between different sources. The characteristic spatial dimension is the volume occupied by the source material. Continue reading

Energy density and the prospects for renewably-powered societies

In the post prior to last week’s, I looked in some detail at the energy densities associated with each of the conventional fossil fuels that together account for over 80 percent of global primary energy supply. As I pointed out, the highly concentrated nature of these energy sources is a fundamental enabling factor in relation to the forms of social and economic organisation that have evolved over the course of the industrial age. The norms, expectations habits and tendencies with which we live together today—and that for most of us, most of the time, remain largely below our thresholds of awareness—are intertwined in various ways with the characteristics of our energy sources. Different energy sources necessarily entail differences in these characteristics. In transitioning between energy source regimes, if key characteristics associated with an emerging regime differ sufficiently from those with which our major techno-economic infrastructure and socio-cultural institutions have developed, then at some point the infrastructure and institutions will themselves need to change for the process of transition to proceed. When such transition points are reached, the connections between energy resources and cultural expectations can no longer remain submerged from view: we’re required to confront the changing situation, and in many cases, we too must undergo our own transformations, individually and collectively. Continue reading

Energy and the biophysical view of economic activity: from joules to fuels

The view of humanity’s energy supply and use presented last week painted a picture in the most abstract terms. The aggregate figures discussed there can be viewed as an attempt to describe all significant economic activity by means of a single quantitative measure. Such efforts may well have a familiar tone—in a sense, the data that the IEA provides in energy terms is a physical-world analogue to the financial-world perspective provided by bodies such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—the IEA’s parent inter-governmental body—when it measures global economic activity in terms of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP. In this sense, we could view the 510 EJ total primary energy supply (TPES), and 350 EJ total final consumption (TFC) in 2009 as the energetic equivalent of saying that in 2009, global aggregate GDP was around US$60 trillion. Continue reading

Energy transitions, feasibility studies and the limits of abstraction: the case for a (soft) systems approach

As noted in my introductory post, over the past five years a number of prominent reports have concluded that transition from fossil-fuelled to renewably-powered economies is technically and economically feasible on national and even global scales, without need for change in the cultural landscape. They conclude that entire national energy infrastructures can be replaced—over periods ranging from 10 to 40 years—with little need for us to adjust our socio-economic expectations. In fact, given the roles assumed for large-scale centralised infrastructure in these studies, relatively few of us would need to be involved in the actual implementation, let alone decision making, planning and co-ordination. A common message seems to be that we shouldn’t expect to be inconvenienced by these technologically significant but socially, culturally and economically benign changes.

To most observers, presentation of such findings in the language of technical and economic feasibility may pass without much remark. From an engineer’s perspective though, it raises a flag. Technical and economic feasibility have quite a specific meaning in engineering parlance—in essence, this means that a) sufficient work has been done to be confident that overall cost will fall within a specified range; and b) that following from this, financiers’ expectations with respect to return on investment can be met. To be clear, none of the studies that I’m thinking of actually make such claims directly—this is just what is usually expected for infrastructure projects on the scale of millions through to multiple billions of dollars, prior to commencing engineering design. Given the enormous scale of the proposals we’re talking about—from hundreds of billions of dollars upwards—then they’d surely be expected to conform with established conventions in this respect. At least, this would be the case if approached as top-down, centrally-administered engineering projects. You may well query, though, why I’d assume such an approach. Given the unprecedented nature and scale of the proposals perhaps they would demand a fundamentally different approach to that which suits, say, construction of a single power station. That’s a question I’ll return to in due course. For now though, I’m simply taking my cue from the nature of the reports themselves, and the general method on which they are based: aggregation of generic public-domain data from a wide range of primary and secondary sources, along with original work involving a variety of desk-based modelling techniques.
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Thinking about thinking about energy

The landscape of human history is scattered with the remains of societies that, at the peak of their prosperity, presumably seemed to their members no less resistant to decline than industrial society appears to most of us today. If this presumption is reasonable—if a general tendency to base expectations about the future of one’s society on present appearances is indeed a recurring theme in human experience across cultures and time—then we also know that present appearances may prove to be a rather unreliable guide to the future prospects for contemporary ways of life. Thanks to the work of historians and archaeologists, today we have access to detailed records of the life cycles of numerous past societies, and to diverse views on the processes by which they grew in size, influence and complexity before peaking and declining. While each societal story obviously differs significantly in its detail from others, and while different perspectives in relation to any one story emphasise particular factors, energetic considerations represent a recurring, foundational theme in both describing and making sense of the rise and fall of human societies. While they don’t determine a society’s prospects, principal energy sources and the technologies by which they’re harnessed are fundamentally important enabling and constraining factors in shaping a society’s past history and future prospects. Energetic considerations set the available budget for what a society can do, and bound the policy options for how it does what it does.

Industrial society is fossil-fueled. Around eighty percent of global total primary energy supply comes from coal, oil and natural gas. Just under six percent is from nuclear fission of uranium-based fuels. While there’s abundant uncertainty relating to resource sizes and economic reserves for each of these, there’s very little debate regarding their ultimately non-renewable status: the principal primary energy sources with which industrial society has arisen and that it continues to rely on can be treated as finite. Pick a long enough time horizon—and as Tom Murphy at Do the Math demonstrates, we don’t need to look out too far if anything like historical growth in energy use is assumed—and all futures for industrial society based on continued reliance on fossil fuels and uranium run up against their absolute physical limits. Long before such theoretical limits are reached, we’ll be contending with economic limits in the form of diminishing returns on effort, and ecological limits associated with Earth’s capacity to deal with the consequences of all of that fossil-fueled activity. Whichever way you care to look at it, we can safely say that long term futures for human societies will depend not on accumulated energy wealth from the past, but on present energy income. In this respect at the very least, the future for renewable energy looks rather bright indeed!
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