Sunday, 20 September 2015

A Political Fantasy, Part 5: using energy wisely when we don't have much

In this series of "Political Fantasy" posts I've been talking about how enlightened government policy could smooth the coming transition to lower energy use. Of course, this is clearly a fantasy, since political realities make it extremely unlikely that governments will do anything but continue to support "business as usual". It's a nice fantasy to play with, though, and I find it a good way to discuss the issues we'll have to deal with when it final becomes clear that our governments aren't going to.

In my last post, I talked about having to switch from non-renewable energy sources to renewables, and how this will necessitate a big drop in per capita energy consumption. Now it's time to start talking about how exactly to get by on less energy and what sort of government policy could help make this happen.

It seems that renewable energy sources are only going to be able to supply somewhere between 10 and 20 percent as much energy as we are using today. That is a big change and I know there are people who will say that life wouldn't be worth living under such conditions, that it would be "the end of the world". While it may well mean the end industrial society in its present form, it is certainly not the end of the world, nor does it mean that we need to give up on the advances in social justice that have been made over the last century or so.

It will mean living through lots of changes, but if you don't want the world to change, you're living in the wrong world. Our world has been changing more and more quickly for the last few centuries and we've got a way to go yet.

One big part of the change we'll experience is in the level of technology that will be available to us. This is mainly because technology uses energy — it takes energy to build it and energy to operate it. Modern thinking tends to get this backwards — because we access energy via various sorts of technology, we think that technology makes energy. This is not so — even the tech we use to access energy uses up some of that energy in the process.

Indeed that is the problem with high tech but low EROEI renewable energy sources—they don't produce enough surplus energy to support a high tech civilization, and yet without a high tech infrastructure they cannot be maintained and replaced when they wear out. As I discussed in my last post, many renewables fit into this category and they aren't going to be much use to us.

If we are going to have a lot less energy available, then we are not going to be able to keep on using all of the technology that we have today. In our current globalized civilization everything is connected together on a worldwide basis and it may seem that technology is all one thing, to be lost as a whole if we are cut off from the worldwide trade network. You may feel, for instance, that without access to semiconductor factories, we'll be back to the stone age. Fortunately this is not so. Technology is really many separate pieces, some of which we will be able to maintain even if others are lost. We just have to determine what technologies we could support with the quantity and types of energy we have available and then choose which of those we actually will support.

Very likely we'll have to choose just a few of the many alternatives, but our loss of technology doesn't need to be an outright collapse. Instead we should plan a deliberate and controlled step down to technology appropriate for the energy we can produce. This change has a lot more chance of being "deliberate and controlled" if our governments understand all this and take steps to implement it. It is very important that we don't waste resources on trying to keep everything working, which will instead just lead to everything falling apart.

The other thing needed to make this change go smoothly is people with education and training appropriate to the level of technology we're aiming for. There's going to be fair bit of chaos as a result of prolonged economic contraction and given the current anti-science bent of much of the population, we may end up with no one trained to use the technology we're aiming for. An example of this is the way the potter's wheel was lost to Britain for centuries after Romans pulled out. Things like this can happen randomly when the knowledge is concentrated in a few people who didn't manage to pass it on to the next generation. Avoiding this sort of thing is going to be a big challenge. At the very least, maintaining literacy and libraries would be a big help.

So, where are we likely to end up at the end of such a step down? Well, we are entering a period of economic contraction which will continue until our energy use matches what is available from renewables. But abandoning the growth economy, whether willingly or not, will do a great deal to reduce our energy consumption because growth is a very energy hungry activity. What governments need to do is quit wasting money and energy on trying to restart growth, and instead focus on winding things gently down to a more appropriate state.

Of course, economic contraction will have negative effects as well, such as unemployment, weakened social support networks and stranded debt due to reduced productivity. I believe a clever approach to energy descent can, and must, address these problems. Exactly how to do this is one of the biggest challenges we face. I'll talk about how I think it can be done at the end of this post, after discussing specific measures to reduce energy use.

Beyond the energy savings that come with a non-growth economy, many current energy uses do not support anything positive in our society and could be abandoned with little in the way of ill effects. Most of these come under the headings of luxury and/or waste.

Luxury, of course, is relative. Especially in our consumer society where luxury is defined as the next must-have thing that you don't yet have. That's a treadmill that is pretty hard to even realize you're on and much harder to get off, but it's well established that once the necessities are securely taken care of, having more doesn't make people any happier.

The problem with waste is that much of it is seen as "the cost of doing business", an unfortunate but accepted necessity. In most cases a closer examination will show that the benefits of "doing business" are outweighed by the cost of the wasteful process. It's only when businesses are allowed to externalize costs that this isn't obvious. Even when waste is recognized as such, we tend to focus on gaining efficiency by adding complexity, rather than just eliminating the practices causing the waste in the first place, and switching to something that is both less wasteful and less complex. One example would be building cities in deserts, because people enjoy the warm dry climate, then using air conditioning to make buildings livable and pumping water in from far away to maintain bright green lawns. Yes, we could invest in more efficient air conditioning and water use. But, especially as climate change progresses, many locations will prove simply not feasible for large populations of people to inhabit. Abandoning them will save huge amounts of energy. Another would be the extreme lengths we go to to safely dispose of human wastes, when they are in fact desperately needed as inputs (fertilizer) for our agriculture. More about that in my next post.

Government policy should be to abandon consumer culture, to focus on meeting human needs rather than growing profits, and having done that, to use any surplus to increase resiliency. Much of this could be achieved by placing much tighter restrictions on the marketing industry, who work hard to create the demand for luxury, (especially banning advertising to children, so they don't get turned into good little consumers at an early age), and changing regulations concerning the operation of corporations which currently exist only to make a profit, regardless of the costs to society as a whole.

But let's look at some specific areas where we could get by with much less by reducing luxury and waste.

The first would be transportation. We are currently moving both goods and people around the world in ways that make little sense and waste a great deal of energy. There aren't any high EROEI renewable liquid fuels to replace the oil based liquid fuels such gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and bunker oil that our transportation network relies on, so we really will have to make some changes in the near future, like it or not. And high tech solutions, like electric cars and trucks, nuclear powered cargo ships and so forth, cost a lot and don't have a commensurate pay back. Also remember that high tech solutions use materials and energy at a time when both are becoming ever more depleted, and reduce jobs when we already have an unemployment problem. We need solutions that do just the opposite: put people to work while conserving energy and materials.

When the price of oil started to go down in the fall of 2014 and gasoline prices started to follow, sales of big fuel hungry vehicles began to increase. The price of transportation fuels has, more or less, continued to follow the dropping price of oil. This does not encourage the sort of behaviour that would benefit us in the long run. It would be a really good idea at this point for governments to increase fuel taxes to make it clear that we need to adapt to a world where these fuels are not readily available.

Of course, more than just fuel and lubricants directly used in vehicles is at issue. There's the embodied energy of the vehicles—the energy it took to build them, to mine, process and move the materials, to build the factories and deliver the vehicles to where they are being used. Then there's the material and energy used to maintain vehicles and beyond that there is the energy it takes to build, operate, police and maintain seaports, airports, railways, roads, bridges and parking facilities.

Several aspects of "business as usual" are particularly wasteful uses of transportation.

Globalization is one of these, in addition to being an economic disaster to the developed countries, impoverishing the workers who are also the consumers that make the system work. Its apologists say that we all benefit when each country specializes in doing what it does best, without artificial barriers to trade. But in practice what a great many countries do best is supply very cheap labour and very relaxed labour, safety and environmental regulations. So globalization has been embraced by transnational corporations as a way to reduce costs and increase profits, subsidized by cheap transportation fuels, with no for longer term consequences, economic or environmental.

This means getting materials where they are cheap, moving materials to where labour is cheap and then moving finished goods to where there is demand for them, even if the distance is thousands of miles — half way around the world and back in many cases. But if we are going to be forced to substantially reduce our consumption of transportation fuels, moving freight by ships, airplanes, trains and trucks simply doesn't have much of a future.

Already demand destruction is putting the brakes on economic growth everywhere and the demand for shipping is starting to taper off. Rather than signing free trade agreements to keep globalization going, governments should aim for relocalization.

I suspect that as demand continues to decrease with economic contraction, many goods will simply become unavailable because the overseas manufacturers have gone out of business due to lack of demand. In such a time of economic contraction, it will prove too expensive to rebuild or restart the factories in our own countries that were shut down, or torn down when manufacturing went overseas. This will eventually lead to us finding ways to make vital goods locally, using local materials and simply abandoning the manufacture of a lot of luxuries.

Commuting to work is another part of business as usual that doesn't make sense when cheap transportation fuels aren't readily available. Of course, we've set up our businesses and our cities to make commuting a necessity. This is going to have to change, and with it the whole of "car culture". Just as we'll have to stop moving goods around unnecessarily, we'll also have to stop moving people around unnecessarily. And our definition of what is "necessary" will get narrower as less energy is available to support it.

Already we are seeing people who are making barely enough to get by forced to drop out of the car culture. Usually because the old car they are driving finally has a breakdown that would cost more than they can afford to fix, and replacing it is out of the question—simply beyond their economic means. At the same time municipalities with dwindling tax bases are doing less maintenance on roads and bridges, which also discourages driving.

Government can play an important role in the end of car culture. They need to quit bailing out bankrupt auto manufacturers and assist in moving workers to localized industry.

It follows pretty clearly that long distance business travel and travel for entertainment (tourism) are luxuries that will see a drastic reduction as well. The airline industry doesn't have much of a future.

Of course, it is not clear yet just how local we'll have to go, and this will vary in different areas. Where we have to fall back on food and firewood as our only energy sources, goods and people will be moved by the muscle power of humans and draft animals. Pack sacks, wheel barrows, carts, wagons and so forth are very low tech, and can be made locally under such conditions, especially with the leftovers of our current civilization available for salvage. But this does limit the distance that people and goods can be moved and leads to a very localized way of life. While such radical relocalization is an effective response to energy shortages, it does have some disadvantages.

It is not at all certain that large cities with millions of people can function at all with so little energy available for transportation. There might simply not be enough energy to transport food, materials and firewood into the city from the surrounding area. And as the city gets larger, the surrounding area is even further away, especially in sprawled out cities like we have here in North America.

At the other extreme, isolated small villages are also less than ideal. In the few square miles around such a settlement it is unlikely that all the various materials needed to operate at even a moderate level of technology will be found. With a small population a village cannot support specialists in a wide range of technologies, even if it has energy enough to support the technology itself. And it will only be able to support teachers for fairly low level of education, and medical practitioners for a fairly limited level of medical care.

Regardless of the size of settlement people are living in, if all their food is being grown locally then their whole food supply can suffer from various sorts of bad weather and pests. It would add greatly to resilience if there was energy enough to support occasionally bringing food in from areas far enough away to not be affected by whatever has caused local crops to fail.

In many areas water transportation is also feasible at such low levels of technology and energy use, using either existing repurposed boats or newly built wooden boats. The Great Lakes area where I live is a prime example. As well as the lakes themselves, there are also a number of navigable rivers in this area, as well as canals that were built in the nineteenth century and could be converted back to run on water and muscle power.

This would allow for a few small and medium size cities at locations with good access to water transportation, as well as many smaller settlements. It will still be very much limited by energy considerations when it comes to how much people can travel and the extent that materials and goods can be shipped around. But it would overcome many of the limitations of having nothing but small, isolated villages.

In order to have more transportation, we need energy to power it, which is challenging to do with renewables. Rail seems to be a much better possibility that road transport. Wood powered steam trains are possible, but to move much with them requires a lot of wood, more than will likely be available, especially where it is needed for winter heating.

Electric rail is a good alternative where electricity is available, and offers the possibility of tying together fairly large areas with a transportation network that can move generous amounts of people and goods. Please note that I am talking about conventional light rail powered by electricity via a third rail, not high speed rail or maglev which needs even more energy and a much higher level of technology.

Electric rail would work best in close proximity to generation, since transmission lines have built in losses and take a lot of effort to build and maintain. But there are quite a few areas in the world where there is sufficient falling water to make this viable.

The technology for generating electricity using water power dates from the late 1800s. A great many medium to large size hydro generating stations already exist. And there are many small hydro sites that were developed in the past, then abandoned when grid power became available, that could be redeveloped. Hydro electric generation is superior to many other renewables, providing power round the clock, though it does vary somewhat on a seasonal basis. With sufficiently large head ponds, it also can provide some storage of power.

Of course, there are many other uses for which electricity is an ideal power source, and with only a limited amount available, decisions will have to be made as to the most important way to use it.

The bicycle makes very efficient use of human muscle power for transportation and bicycles can be built with a relatively low level of technology, late 1800s again. A source of rubber for tires in problematical. A little research seems to indicate that rubber trees are threatened by blight and in any case they only grow in the tropics. There are a couple of other plants that also produce rubber. One is a flowering shrub known as Parthenium argentatum, or guayule, that grows in hot deserts. The other is a type of a dandelion called Taraxacum kok-saghyz that grows in temperate climates. Unfortunately neither is actually in production as yet, and we are entering a period when research and development will be harder to afford.

If there were energy left over to use for transportation, there are lots of technologies we might consider: internal combustion engines using wood gas, battery powered electric vehicles and so forth. I suspect that only a few areas, particularly well endowed with renewable energy sources, will have the luxury of implementing these technologies.

Of course, luxury and waste are common in sectors other than just transportation. And "business as usual" is a major contributor to waste and supplier of luxury in those areas as well.

Our buildings consume a lot more energy than they really need to. It is possible, with currently available technologies to build buildings that have a net positive energy budget, even in hot or cold climates. But completely replacing our stock of buildings during an economic contraction is not likely to happen.

There are ways to make housing more energy efficient, ways that are low tech and simple. The foremost of these entail having more people per dwelling, turning thermostats down in winter and turning the AC off in the summer. People can adapt to a much wider range of temperatures than we have become accustomed to in the last few decades. It is only since I retired and no longer have to work in an air conditioned office that I have really been able to enjoy summer, even though the last few summers have been the hottest on record.

Beyond that, things like caulking and other measures to reduce drafts, insulating shutters for winter use, shade trees and awnings to keep the sun out in summer and added insulation where it can be done without major reconstruction.

When we do construct new buildings, we will have to use low energy building materials and designs that inherently use less energy.

Lighting has seen big improvements in energy efficiency in the last few years, but every step has been achieved using more complex high tech types of lighting. We desperately need something that is both low tech and energy efficient. Perhaps a way of making LEDs at an "appropriate tech" level. This may seem unlikely, but remember that all our efforts are focused on economies of scale in manufacturing in large complex factories, to improve corporate profits. We haven't even tried to make semiconductors in a less complex, small scale, localized way, and we don't really know what is possible. Improvement in areas like this is something governments should be investing in.

Manufacturing is another major consumer of energy, and materials as well.

We need to eliminate planned obsolescence and the regular release of "new and improved" models for the sake of keeping sales up. We're going to have to make some hard choices about which things are so important that we'll decide to keep on making them even when energy is in very short supply, eliminating a great many luxuries in the process, as well as things that are wasteful to manufacture or are generally used in a wasteful way.

The things we do decide to keep making will have to be durable and easy to fix when they do break down. They should be designed to that spare parts that can be made locally when needed.

Products made to use once and throw away, like a great many containers and packaging will have to be abandoned. This will mean revising our ideas about recycling, make things to be reused many times, be repaired when they break, and only after completely worn out finally recycled. And what must be recycled must be made out of materials that are easy to recycle.

As we have done in so many other areas, we have set up our manufacturing to use energy and machines instead of labour. Modern businesses are judged on their "labour efficiency", aiming to produce a much product as possible with a few manhours as possible. Now we have a situation where energy is soon to become scarce, and we have a surplus of labour. So it is going to be necessary to move in the other direction, using more manhours and less energy. This is known as rehumanization. We'll find it is possible to make high tech stuff in the "developed" countries, and we'll find low tech, low energy ways to make the things we need.

Currently in the large nations, particularly the U.S., the military is a huge part of the economy, a huge consumer and a huge waster. Especially since much of what it does is stir up trouble internationally and thus justify its own existence. We can save a lot of energy by downsizing the military and converting it to a civil defense and emergency response organization. If this is not done, the U.S. may one day soon find that it doesn't have the wherewithal to wind down its international military operations in an orderly fashion, and is in the position of having to abandon both materiel and personnel at overseas bases.

Agriculture is another sector that has been using energy to increase its productivity, while reducing the amount of manpower used. In fact there is good reason to doubt that we can continue to feed the planet's population without access to plentiful cheap fossil fuels. This is such an important issue that I'll be devoting my next post entirely to it.

As the economy contracts and the amount of energy we are using decreases, the electrical grid, which relies on economies of scale, will become less and less profitable to operate. Currently power grids tie together huge areas, provide essential infinite amounts of power and with nearly complete reliability. Much of this will have to change. The grid company I used to work for has already cut back significantly on maintenance of grid infrastructure and there is no doubt that it will be forced to cut further and begin to abandon the less profitable parts of its operation altogether.

Rural service, which involves a lot of miles of lines delivering a relatively small amount of power, will be the first to suffer. Already interruption times have grown longer due to reduction in staffing and inventory of repair parts, rural power rates are higher than urban rates and the customer pays for building new lines to areas currently without service. Soon we will see decisions made not to maintain or repair lines which service few customers, and the definition of "few" will change to encompass larger numbers as time passes and the power company profits decrease. Large areas of the countryside will find themselves going "off grid" whether they intend to or not.

Something similar will happen in the poorer sections of cities. Especially when municipal government doesn't have enough tax revenue to maintain infrastructure, and the amount of power being used shrinks along with the customers' ability to pay for it.

Eventually, even in those localities fortunate enough to still be generating electricity, only relatively small areas will be tied together in anything resembling a grid.

The internet is an extremely useful thing, but most of the cost is hidden from its users. I am told that 2 to 3% on world energy use goes to support the internet. When we are down to 10% of our current per capita energy use, that would be 20 to 30% for the internet, which might well change our thoughts about how important the internet really is.

Long before then, though, most people will probably lose access. The net has never really been a paying proposition, and has largely financed by debt. This worked as long as the net was growing, but that will come to a halt somewhere along the path of economic contraction and we'll have to start paying for the real costs. First the net neutrality wars will be lost and then the cost of service will shoot up. As more and more people are forced off grid, the economies of scale will disappear and the cost of access will go up even more. Finally only government, military and the very rich will have regular access to the internet and at some point even they may not be able to afford to maintain it on a world wide basis or with anything like the speed we have become accustomed to.

In both the cases of the power grid and the internet, a wise government will not waste precious resources in trying to maintain "business as usual", but will expend what resources it has to conduct an orderly descent to a lower level of energy use.

As I said near the start, economic contraction will have many negative effects, such as unemployment, weakened social support networks and stranded debt due to reduced productivity. I do believe a clever approach to energy descent can, and must, address these problems.

Neo-liberalism has become the default politics of most of the world, valuing the ability to make a profit above everything else. When times get tough under such a regime, the poor are called on to accept ever more severe austerity in order to support those at the top of the heap in their accustomed style. At this point, it's pretty obvious that I think a quite a bit of austerity is going to be unavoidable. The only way people are going to accept this without a great deal of conflict is if the pain is equally distributed at all levels of society and if steps are taken reduce the economic inequality that has grown to ridiculous levels over the last few decades.

No doubt we are all going to be a lot poorer, walking a lot more and doing a lot more physical labour. But with relocalization and rehumanization, there will be enough work for everyone to have the necessities of life. It is critical that people have a useful role to play in society which allows them to provide for their needs, according to their abilities and talents. And people need to be able to rely on support from society at times when they cannot support themselves, according to the resources that society has available.

When working in small groups, less than 200 people, it seems that we have the natural ability to arrange this for ourselves. Living in small isolated groups has enough disadvantages, though, that we should aim for a more connected and organized society, to the extent that energy resources allow. And that is where good government comes in. One can only hope that among with the many changes that lie ahead of us will be some changes in the present day "political realities".

As an aid to those who are reading this whole series of "Political Fantasy" posts, here is a complete set of links.


Anonymous said...

This is a test.

Anonymous said...

Irv: I just left a test comment because last time I wrote a long paragraph and it would not let me publish.

I do not agree with you about having to function with less energy when the oil runs out.

According to the National Geographic, enough solar energy hits the Earth in an hour to meet our energy needs for a year. See
So the problem is not availability of solar energy, it is capturing and storing it efficiently. Its true that the south half of the US has the best opportunity for solar energy today but as solar panel efficiencies and prices improve, northern areas will be able to use solar efficiently.

Ontario already produces 91% of its electricity without fossil fuels. Quebec produces 99% of its electricity without fossil fuels. BC, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick also have low dependency on fossil fuels for electricity. So EROEI is not a problem for them.

The bigger issue for most provinces in Canada is a bio fuel for transportation. One of the most hopeful things I have seen is Propel Fuels in California which is making biodiesel from animal fats, vegetable oils and food waste products. And they are producing it cheaper than diesel from oil. See more at and at

There are other fuel sources as well i.e. wood pellets, geothermal, tides and ocean currents.

Wood pellets are an excellent carbon neutral energy source for Ontario. Northern Ontario has no natural gas and they look after their commercial and residential heating just fine with wood pellets. Over 90% of Canada's wood pellet production is exported to Europe. There is absolutely no reason why we should not burn this renewable carbon neutral resource ourselves.

I think we will eventually have way more energy than we are getting from oil today. The energy is there, we simply have not learned how to tap into it. Either that or we don't want to tap into it because of our Conservative Government and the powerful oil lobby.

Mike Smith

Irv Mills said...

Mike, your big comment did get through, eventually.
As for why solar cells aren't the answer to our energy problems, see my post A Politcal Fantasy, Part 4, Renewable Energy. In brief, it's because the EROEI of photovoltaics is way too low. Or to put it another way, when you consider the energy it takes to make them, maintain them, and to store the power for when the sun isn't shining, there isn't enough left to making a growing industrial economy work. This isn't often apparent in the price of solar cells because quite a bit of the cost of making them is externalized, born by society as a whole, rather than the companies doing the manufacturing.
One of the saddest things I see happening today is techno-optimists telling people that we can switch from fossil fuels to renewables and have "even more energy than we do now", so no change in lifestyle will be needed. This may help with climate change, but it won't stop all the other negative things we are doing to the environment. Our "eocological footprint" will continue to grow.
I suspect we will build some big solar power generating stations, subsidized by the last blus of surplus energy from fossil fuels. The cost will have drive further economic contraction, and when it comes time to replace them a few decades down the road, without the surplus energy from fossil fuels, we won't be able to do it.