Moving from peaking to booming
June 19, 2017 10:36 AM   Subscribe

Less than a decade ago, peak oil was a constant source of anxiety on MeFi (and around the world), but now the world faces an oil price anchored around $55/barrel. The reason is the swarm - US shale producers that can clamber into the market profitably at that price, and which are getting ever more competitive post recent fracking-bust as they drive down costs (and eliminate jobs, which are increasingly in renewables). Though the future is never certain, almost every major OPEC nation needs prices above $55 to balance their budget. While increased fossil fuel use can be very bad for climate change, the fracking boom is leading to the rapid replacement of coal with natural gas, which is generally a good thing for CO2 emissions, though leaking methane mitigates the benefit to an unceratin extent.
posted by blahblahblah (50 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
i've said it before and i'll will say it again:

fracking is delaying peak oil and hastening peak potable water
posted by entropicamericana at 10:37 AM on June 19 [40 favorites]


Thanks for a nuanced take on this issue.
posted by msalt at 10:43 AM on June 19 [3 favorites]


Given the hellaciously rapid increase in renewables uptake rates, I wonder if we'll ever see the swing over the supply curve post-peak oil. I think how the next decade plays out will be very important wrt the technology improving and how quickly uptake happens.
posted by bonehead at 10:51 AM on June 19 [4 favorites]




Capitalism is gonna drive us straight over the climate change cliff. Gradually transitioning to natural gas is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic when we need to be on a path to net negative greenhouse gas emissions within a decade.
posted by indubitable at 10:53 AM on June 19 [14 favorites]


Natural gas provides a bridge between hideously filthy coal and renewables+storage+natural gas. There's always going to be some fossil fuels in the mix, unfortunately. The faster we can phase out coal, the better off we'll be. I do think we'll need to grapple much more seriously with carbon sequestration, sooner rather than later. It'll be costly, but that's a reflection of previous generations' willingness to offload the externalities onto their children and grandchildren.
posted by Existential Dread at 10:59 AM on June 19


There's always going to be some fossil fuels in the mix, unfortunately.

This belief is why human civilization as we understand it is going to collapse within my lifetime.
posted by indubitable at 11:17 AM on June 19 [10 favorites]


Capitalism can always be counted on to solve the problem some externalities may apply.
posted by clawsoon at 11:31 AM on June 19 [3 favorites]


Another positive outcome of low oil prices: If they force nations to diversify their economies, the result might be more gender equality.
posted by clawsoon at 11:36 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]


This belief is why human civilization as we understand it is going to collapse within my lifetime.

Not sure I follow you there. Humans have never not relied on carbon-based fuels. Natural gas is a way to provide base power load when there is variance in renewable input to the grid. Battery storage is nascent, and would require incredible scale-up to replace NG. Nuclear is politically toxic and has been mismanaged, but is another option.

If your point is that these are all technocratic solutions to a massive global problem, then sure, I get it. But there's no political will to tackle this huge issue without making it an economic argument. You can't get rid of energy consumption, either; that would lead to societal collapse.
posted by Existential Dread at 11:38 AM on June 19 [9 favorites]


Less than a decade ago, peak oil was a constant source of anxiety on MeFi...

I wonder what current constant source of anxiety on MeFi will have faded by 2027?
posted by fairmettle at 12:22 PM on June 19 [5 favorites]


I guess what I'm saying is that the belief that there is no alternative to the status quo is widespread and counterproductive to heading off climate crisis. If you start out by asking how to maintain our current levels of energy consumption and arrive at the answer of continued fossil fuel use to maintain baseload capacity, it closes out the possibility of reducing energy use.

The problem is that continued reliance on fossil fuels to sustain our current level of energy consumption is growing less tenable by the day. This article talks up the feasibility of keeping temperature rise under 2C, for example, but goes on to note that the scenarios underpinning this assume massive carbon capture projects, both at the point of emission and extraction from the atmosphere. Unfortunately, we are not seeing the kind of investment in capture that was assumed. And then we have the more recent effects of the US withdrawing from the Paris accords, which who even knows how much worse that will make everything.

You can't get rid of energy consumption, either; that would lead to societal collapse.

I reckon that "food doesn't grow anymore" would do it more effectively. I don't see how scaling back energy use approaches that level of catastrophe.

I mean I would very much prefer to live in a world where I can still be halfway around the planet in a day's travel or any number of other great things afforded to us by our current levels of energy consumption, but the human race is facing some hard choices right now and it looks to me like it's unsustainable.
posted by indubitable at 12:27 PM on June 19 [9 favorites]


If you start out by asking how to maintain our current levels of energy consumption and arrive at the answer of continued fossil fuel use to maintain baseload capacity, it closes out the possibility of reducing energy use.

That's fair, and I'll admit that I speak in jargon about these issues because I work on them. When I speak of baseload power, I'm referring to things like the "duck curve"; the baseload is the floor that is needed to avoid brownouts and blackouts. That floor can and should be reduced as much as possible, but it's likely that there will be a need for things like NG power that can provide a stable power output.

I didn't mean to imply that scaling back energy consumption is not tenable; it's very important. Increasing energy efficiency is an area of major investment across industries, encompassing things like composites in aircraft, grid modernization, efficient buildings, and energy harvesting. Increasing access to energy is a huge force for reducing global poverty, which is another issue to consider.

I think there's a lot of reasons for concern, and some for hope.
posted by Existential Dread at 12:47 PM on June 19 [4 favorites]


... getting ever more competitive post recent fracking-bust as they drive down costs ... and eliminate jobs ...

You ain't seen nothing yet; just wait 'til interoperable drilling automation (sub)systems are standardized.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:12 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]


The term "peak oil" bugs me because it's not clear what it means.

In its original formulation, it referred to a specific predicted event, in which global oil production starts going down despite increasing global demand, causing shortages, skyrocketing prices and global economic turmoil. This did not happen the numerous times it was predicted, but peak oilers remained, and many still remain, convinced that this apocalypse is just around the corner.

When I point this out to committed peak oilers, the response is typically "well oil is finite, so there is some year afttwer which all subsequent years will have lower annual production. That is the peak. QED! Peak oil is a thing! Everyone panic!" Of course, this broader sense of "peak oil" does not entail the economic tumult originally predicted, but why let that detail spoil a good apocalypse narrative?
posted by andrewpcone at 3:17 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]


"I wonder what current constant source of anxiety on MeFi will have faded by 2027?"

I'd give 50/50 odds that Trump is either imprisoned, dead or destitute.
posted by klangklangston at 4:50 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]


"In its original formulation, it referred to a specific predicted event, in which global oil production starts going down despite increasing global demand, causing shortages, skyrocketing prices and global economic turmoil. This did not happen the numerous times it was predicted, but peak oilers remained, and many still remain, convinced that this apocalypse is just around the corner.

When I point this out to committed peak oilers, the response is typically "well oil is finite, so there is some year afttwer which all subsequent years will have lower annual production. That is the peak. QED! Peak oil is a thing! Everyone panic!" Of course, this broader sense of "peak oil" does not entail the economic tumult originally predicted, but why let that detail spoil a good apocalypse narrative?
"

I agree with you that it's a vague term, and as someone who was concerned about it not too long ago (though not by any means part of any, like, peak oil communities or consensus or whatever), what I always thought of it as being was that there's a certain point at which fossil fuel reserves will be effectively exhausted by any reasonable economic marker. Because of that, a devastating economic shock was likely absent any move to mitigate demand for fossil fuels. That's a serious consequence, but one that is while perhaps not entirely preventable, certainly one that is mitigable though various different solutions.

It's similar to (and connected to) though not synonymous with global climate change: If steps are taken to mitigate the risk, primarily through investments in alternate energy sources without the massive, known problems that fossil fuels have, the negative impacts can be greatly lessened. With "peak oil," that seems to have happened in no small amount, both with shifts toward other fossil fuels and toward broadening the sources of energy in general.

I didn't think it was an apocalypse, I thought it was something that would happen sooner or later and have greater or lesser consequences depending on how humanity planned for it. That it's at the very least significantly delayed because of increases in other extraction technologies and energy source diversity is a pretty good thing to my mind.
posted by klangklangston at 4:59 PM on June 19


Jesus, what a bunch of negative Nancies. The apocalypse is coming by way of Jesus' return, by way of climate change, by way of nuclear weapons, by way of economic imbalance, by way of GMO.

We're moving in the right direction. Be happy about that.

Deep breath.

We're going to be okay.
posted by tgrundke at 5:31 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]


I'd give 50/50 odds that Trump is either imprisoned, dead or destitute.

Can I put $5 on the trifecta?
posted by nickmark at 5:46 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]


tgrundke: The apocalypse is coming by way of Jesus' return, by way of climate change, by way of nuclear weapons, by way of economic imbalance, by way of GMO.

You forgot the plague and zombie apocalypse.

I'm still betting on nuclear. It has nothing to do with becoming politically aware during Reagan's arms buildup, I swear.
posted by clawsoon at 6:36 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]


Calgary, an O&G town, has the highest unemployment in Canada. Victoria, formerly a government and tourist town (now diversified into tech, shipbuilding and renewables), now has the lowest unemployment . Think about that.
posted by My Dad at 6:38 PM on June 19 [3 favorites]


Typically thoughtful backgrounder from RMI: The Grid Needs A Symphony, Not A Shouting Match
posted by flabdablet at 8:08 PM on June 19 [3 favorites]


That's a really interesting link, flabdablet. It reminds me, by analogy, of the relative decline of rail transport (very efficient, as long as you're doing everything in bulk) in the face of more flexible road transport. (My impression is that rail has made a bit of a comeback over the past couple of decades, for whatever that part of the analogy is worth.)
posted by clawsoon at 8:44 PM on June 19


very efficient, as long as you're doing everything in bulk

That's where the analogy breaks down, I think. Baseload generation has never been efficient. If it had been, cheap off-peak overnight power would never have been a thing.

Baseload generators got built because coal burners that can be quickly ramped up and down are hard to design; given a grid designed almost exclusively around those generators, the grid's customer base pretty much got shoehorned into accepting their limitations.

Off-peak overnight electric hot water has already been used for at least a century as a distributed demand management solution to the problem of matching baseload generator output to real-world end-use energy consumption requirements. As the number of baseload generators attached to the grid continues its steady decline, I can see no reason at all to assume that matching supply and demand via distributed demand-side time-shifting must somehow become inherently less effective or more expensive than it already is.

And while I take the point that a symphony is better than a shouting match, I think the other point - that reliable energy supply that's always available when it's needed is a system property rather than a necessary attribute of any given generator - is one that really does need to be shouted more loudly by more people more often.
posted by flabdablet at 9:23 PM on June 19


We already passed peak oil. the principles are still in operation. Oil is no longer oil, oil futures are financialized garbage.

oil is harder and harder to get. We destroyed the Gulf, is the Arctic next? the value of oil must be sustained through ever increasing political intervention, and eventually war.

A consistent type of political intervention has been to make it much easier to poison the water. In the eighties, Congress declared that E&P waste was magically "non hazardous" to shelter the industry from an estimated 43 Billion in clean up costs. Sure, people in Louisiana and Texas are dying from cancer around these facilities. But they are "non hazardous" forms of benzene, by a wave of the Reagan-era wand.

Political action against groundwater is what made fracking profitable. After Cheney, the burden of proof is upon the public, and not the drillers, to ensure the cleanliness of the groundwater.

So surprise! low birthweight babies, asthma, earthquakes, etc. We already know fracking causes these things, but these costs have been externalized by Congressional fiat.

Climate Denial is hardly the first method of getting around the economics of peak oil.
posted by eustatic at 10:10 PM on June 19 [7 favorites]


John Michael Greer had a nice post a year and a half ago, titled Whatever happened to peak oil? He pointed out,
Inevitably, the base case was turned into a launching pad for any number of lurid prophecies of imminent doom. The common contemporary habit of apocalypse machismo—“I can imagine a cataclysm more hideous and all-encompassing than you can!”—kicked into gear, and the resulting predictions interbred like hyperactive bunnies until the straightforward mathematics of peak oil were all but buried under a vast tottering heap of giddy fantasy.
He also points out that that doesn't change the underlying problems. What happened:

In 2004, depletion of existing oil fields caught up with the production levels of new fields. Oil prices began to rise. This had two results: (1) methods that were too expensive to bother with at $15/barrel were nicely profitable at $55/barrel, so suddenly there was a boom of new development, and (2) the lag time between new methods and people adjusting to higher prices, means that more production and lower demand hit at the same time, and you get price crashes. Lather, rinse, repeat; the cycle kicks off again.

And he points out that lower energy availability won't show up as "no gas to buy for cars" nor "mandatory brownout cycles for cities," but as a slow leak of coverage:
Thus declining net energy promises to play out over time in the form of creeping dysfunction throughout the economic sphere, in the form of neglected and abandoned infrastructure, failing institutions, a rising tide of permanent joblessness and homelessness, all papered over with an increasingly brittle layer of propaganda spewed out with equal enthusiam from the partisans of every officially acceptable point of view.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:11 PM on June 19 [6 favorites]


Oil is no longer oil, oil futures are financialized garbage.

Huh? How? As far as I know, oil futures have always paid out what they are supposed to, and they have pretty reliably tracked the spot price.

I'm all for critiquing financial markets, but that isn't license to just make things up.
posted by andrewpcone at 10:25 PM on June 19


As long as the hard facts of geology make it physically possible to do so, large volumes of “petroleum,” in some sense of that increasingly flexible word, will continue to be produced and consumed. With each year that passes, though, a larger fraction of that output will have to cycle right back into the extraction and refining process, leaving less and less available for all other uses. Thus declining net energy promises to play out over time in the form of creeping dysfunction throughout the economic sphere, in the form of neglected and abandoned infrastructure, failing institutions, a rising tide of permanent joblessness and homelessness, all papered over with an increasingly brittle layer of propaganda spewed out with equal enthusiam from the partisans of every officially acceptable point of view. (If this doesn’t sound familiar to you, dear reader, you need to get out more.)

That’s not going to reverse itself, either, because the resources that would be needed to flood the world with cheap abundant energy again don’t exist any more. We, ahem, burned them all. Again, the Earth is a sphere a little more than 7900 miles across; it never held that much in the way of concentrated energy resources in the first place, and our species squandered everything in our reach in three centuries or so of wretched excess. The cycles of contraction and dysfunction just outlined are part of the process by which that excess is going away, leaving us with, at most, roughly the same sort of access to energy and its products that our ancestors had before the Industrial Revolution.
There writes a man who has apparently been paying no attention at all to the ever-falling price per megawatt of renewable generation. There is really no sound argument for the idea that the decline in net energy available from fossil fuels necessarily translates to a declining economy.

And while there is indeed a rising tide of permanent joblessness, that's got far more to do with the ever increasing reach of IT-enabled automation than with the specific source of the energy that powers that stuff.

It's also interesting to note that the same business tradeoff that drives automation - acceptance of high though declining upfront capital costs in order to save ongoing expenditure on wages - also drives renewable energy, just with fuel instead of wages.
posted by flabdablet at 10:28 PM on June 19 [4 favorites]


Also no real surprise to me to watch a writer who opens a piece by complaining about other people's deluded doomsday prognostications spending the entire thing building up to one of his own :-)

"I can imagine a cataclysm more grinding and inevitable than you can".
posted by flabdablet at 10:31 PM on June 19


I'm not on top of current deployment statistics, but elsewhere in his blog Greer repeatedly makes the point that energy from renewables is a small fraction of global fossil-derived energy consumption and likely to stay that way due to other systemic factors such as the disintegrations of infrastructure and public policy resources. Renewables are themselves dependent upon energy intensive production processes which further debits the net energy available for other uses. It seems reasonable to exercise caution before adopting the opinion that renewals will replace fossil fuels.

I think he's right that we have dug ourselves into a hole we will not get out of with our current consumption habits and societal arrangements intact. Labeling that theory as an apocalypse scenario is neither accurate nor functional. Greer acknowledges, with his background in systems theory, that the transformation will be neither abrupt nor even; the effects of peak concentrated energy, if you will, are subject to localized variations.
posted by maniabug at 11:08 PM on June 19 [2 favorites]


Us hardcore doomers are all about Gail Tverberg these days.
posted by MrVisible at 11:10 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]


I'm utterly amazed that people here don't understand that climate change is an *existential* threat and the risk of societal collapse, if not extinction, is now probably well above 1-in-10.

Increasing energy efficiency is an area of major investment across industries, encompassing things like composites in aircraft, grid modernization, efficient buildings, and energy harvesting. Increasing access to energy is a huge force for reducing global poverty, which is another issue to consider.

The Carbon cycle doesn't recognise relative improvements. It is absolute. As is climate sensitivity.

In 2027 we will be wondering why the fuck we didn't do everyone possible to reduce GHG emissions when we still had time.
posted by 8k at 3:53 AM on June 20 [3 favorites]


I'm not on top of current deployment statistics

Check out this table of net US generation by source.

elsewhere in his blog Greer repeatedly makes the point that energy from renewables is a small fraction of global fossil-derived energy consumption

Total 2016 net US generation was 4099TWh of which 1264TWh was from fossil fuels other than gas, 805TWh from nuclear, 1393TWh from gas and 629TWh from renewables.

So 629/4099 = 15%, which is indeed a fraction but I wouldn't call it a particularly small one. Those wet and windy hippies are already making three quarters as much electricity as the neutron pushers, and they're employing more people than the miners.

and likely to stay that way due to other systemic factors

Over the ten years from 2007, generation from fossil fuels other than gas has declined by 818TWh and nuclear by 1TWh. Gas has grown by 483TWh and renewables by 275TWh.

Change over those ten years as a percentage of total energy generated in 2016 (4099TWh): fossil fuels other than gas -20%, nuclear 0, gas +12% and renewables +7%.

As a percentage of their 2007 contributions: fossil fuels other than gas -39%, nuclear 0, gas +53% and renewables +78%.

So, renewables as a class have been growing substantially faster than any of the others. It used to be reasonable to ignore that growth rate because it was coming off such a small installed base; it's not reasonable any more. Even making the rather conservative assumption that growth in renewables won't compound itself due to economies of scale and greater acceptance as a realistic option, any sector that's achieved 78% growth over ten years and now has 15% market share really needs to be taken seriously.

And sure, these are US figures rather than global ones. Pretty sure that's not going to change the conclusion a hell of a lot.

In 2027 we will be wondering why the fuck we didn't do everyone possible to reduce GHG emissions when we still had time.

No wondering necessary; the answer to that has been clear for decades.
posted by flabdablet at 4:32 AM on June 20 [5 favorites]


More from RMI: 35 Years of Bold Steps in the Clean Energy Race - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
posted by flabdablet at 4:49 AM on June 20


Thank you flabdablet, that's helpful.
posted by maniabug at 5:38 AM on June 20


I don't think "peak oil" always meant certain doom. It was more a warning that we need to invest in other sources so we can make a smooth shift. The big concern in the 2007 peak oil debates was that we had sat on our hands too long and now we're doomed. If the world could repeat what the US did in 2008-2015 (bring production up by a third, nearly hitting the previous peak production), we should have plenty of oil to switch if we keep pushing towards that.
I think the biggest problem is that people's concern is on a much shorter time scale than these sorts of problems. Instead of dumping this in the "chicken little" pile and forgetting about it until the next price spike, we need to keep moving steadily away from oil.
BTW, the "duck curve" issue above has a clear solution: home energy storage. We'll just have to set up the technical means, and then incentivize it.
posted by netowl at 7:21 AM on June 20


I'm utterly amazed that people here don't understand that climate change is an *existential* threat and the risk of societal collapse, if not extinction, is now probably well above 1-in-10.

It's not that we don't recognize it; it's that we're working to do what we can with what we have. Pointing out exactly how fucked we are gets people to shut down, go in to denial mode, throw their hands up and give up. Give them concrete actions they can take and a reason to do them, and we can make some progress, no matter how incremental or useless some might deem it.

So, renewables as a class have been growing substantially faster than any of the others. It used to be reasonable to ignore that growth rate because it was coming off such a small installed base; it's not reasonable any more. Even making the rather conservative assumption that growth in renewables won't compound itself due to economies of scale and greater acceptance as a realistic option, any sector that's achieved 78% growth over ten years and now has 15% market share really needs to be taken seriously.

Get going on those incremental steps and pretty soon, you've made real progress.
posted by Existential Dread at 8:35 AM on June 20 [1 favorite]


Exactly. A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon we're talking real money.
posted by flabdablet at 8:53 AM on June 20


Total 2016 net US generation was 4099TWh of which 1264TWh was from fossil fuels other than gas, 805TWh from nuclear, 1393TWh from gas and 629TWh from renewables.

I'd like to know where you're getting those statistics (not questioning them, just wondering, because a quick look around doesn't give me anything more recent than 2014). Do they include transportation costs, which are almost entirely fossil fuels?

Had a long-ish post here full of statistics. Deleted it. The claim by the "peak oil" people is that the renewables surge is great, but too little, too late. It really doesn't matter how much market share renewables have; it matters (1) whether entire cities could opt out of 90% of fossil fuel use and still be viable and (2) how much carbon is still being thrown into our air; how much toxic material is still being dumped into our water.

#1 matters, because our economy relies on fossil fuel costs - if a large number of people in a small area stopped buying, power companies would have fits. (They already complain about losing income, and point out that it just means driving up costs for others.) Their cost arrangement assumes that everyone is buying electricity, not that they pay to maintain power and gas lines to all locations but only a tiny fraction of people purchase from them, nor that everyone only purchases 10% of what they do now. There is no ability to scale down usage.

And that ties to point 2: the problem isn't just "energy use," with the issue of "will we run out of fossil fuels," but also "how much damage is our energy use doing to our environment?" And that's not slowing at a rate that's useful.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 8:54 AM on June 20


I'd like to know where you're getting those statistics

From eia.gov.

Do they include transportation costs

No.

which are almost entirely fossil fuels

That's also beginning to change, largely thanks to Elon Musk. And as RMI has been pointing out for decades now, there are strong synergies between the uptake of electric transportation and the robustness of the grid, because pervasive electric transport means pervasive battery storage, pervasive battery storage greatly lowers total required peak generator output, and it's peak output rather than average output that determines the total generation capacity that needs to be built.

A simplistic analysis says that roughly half of present-day fossil fuel use is in transportation, so cutting the transport fleet over to electric would have to approximately double the amount of generation capacity required; but in fact it shouldn't bump it up anywhere near that much due to assorted inherent inefficiencies that get eliminated by making electricity the near-universal energy transport format.

There's also a lot of good work being done on reducing the quantity of fossil fuel required for aviation.

whether entire cities could opt out of 90% of fossil fuel use and still be viable

China is in the process of beginning to try to answer that question.
posted by flabdablet at 9:16 AM on June 20 [1 favorite]


roughly half of present-day fossil fuel use is in transportation, so cutting the transport fleet over to electric would have to approximately double the amount of generation capacity required

This is exactly the kind of analysis that addresses the symptoms instead of the underlying problems. Not trying to be snarky at you - it's a solid basic analysis, but it starts with the premise that "energy use" is a fixed, unchangeable thing.

Switching to electric cars would mean doubling electric production assuming car usage doesn't change - assuming that freeways are still packed during rush hour with single-person vehicles, assuming everyone who currently drives two miles to the supermarket won't use a bike instead, assuming planes will still fly between SF and LA every hour around the clock and between SF and NY every few hours.

There's no thought put into reducing energy use; it's all based on "how do we switch our current energy use to sources that aren't running out or poisoning the planet?" And usually, that's followed by, "only, not switch so quickly that current mega-corporations that rely on energy economics fall apart."

(This is further compounded by social issues - any major push to reduce energy consumption is going to start with demands on the poor and disenfranchised, not the people and corporations who use the most.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:45 AM on June 20 [4 favorites]


Right on the money, ErisLordFreedom. That is one of Greer's most repeated and least acknowledged points – yes our civilization and economy rely on lots of cheap concentrated energy, and yes those institutions are going to take a real beating without petroleum's magic combination of easy extraction management and distribution, and high energy density.

Getting over that psychological hurdle of questioning the normalcy we've all grown up with is one of the most challenging barriers to functional response on personal and collective levels.
posted by maniabug at 11:03 AM on June 20 [1 favorite]


Most of the things you're describing as alternatives boil down to "Have you tried just being poor, like people in the 19th century were?" I don't think a billion Chinese people and a billion Indian people and almost a billion people in subsaharan Africa are going to say "Well, it would be nice to have refrigerators and tvs and a/c and take vacations away from home and all that jazz but you're right, white people, y'all used it too much and so we're just gonna be happy little campers and do without."

I mean, I think you're right that planning for the long-term future can't assume a constant, fixed level of energy use. But I think long-term plans need to be for a world where the global gdp per capita is around the level of current US gdp per capita. I have no idea what energy use that implies but would be shocked if it were much less than 10x current usage. And, of course, there's no reason that couldn't be done with some mix of renewables and nukes.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:05 AM on June 20


Massive buildout of renewables, starting now, would have to compete for resources against numerous more immediate pressures. As for nukes, we can't even manage to get started shipping the existing nuclear waste from maxed-out onsite temporary storages to some theoretical centralized "repository". Which is just as well, for all the risk that project presents.

Hating on the 19th century or any preindustrial civilization is one of our achilles heels. That hate and fear is a pillar in the church of progress, and serves those who profit from the present trajectory by foreclosing a broad range of sane responses to constrained energy supply. "Back to the Stone Age," they warn hysterically, if we do anything besides gobble up all available energy as fast as possible. The lower energy future will in some ways resemble earlier times when humans made do with less energy, but some of modernity's best features will carry forward, in some form, and lead to true innovation in sustainability.
posted by maniabug at 11:26 AM on June 20 [3 favorites]


This is exactly the kind of analysis that addresses the symptoms instead of the underlying problems. Not trying to be snarky at you - it's a solid basic analysis, but it starts with the premise that "energy use" is a fixed, unchangeable thing.

Exactly, which is why I called it "simplistic" and then proceeded to challenge it.

This particular point is one I've seen wheeled out repeatedly by people who insist that nuclear power is the only conceivably feasible alternative to coal because omg all that extra tricity we're gonna need when everybody has a Tesla. It's loaded with hidden assumptions, most at least questionable and many just flat wrong, and taking it seriously results in believing that we're all even more fuct than we actually are.

Don't get me wrong: we're fuct, no two ways about it, because there are simply too many of us now; I hold that opinion strongly enough to have got myself sterilized before reproducing. But the point is that we could be fuct worse than we need to be, if we keep making ill-informed decisions, and that avoiding that is worthwhile. I didn't make my kids, but that doesn't mean I don't care what kind of world they'll find themselves in when they get to my age.

There's no thought put into reducing energy use

Au contraire. There's a hell of a lot of thought put into that.

I first became aware of the work of Amory Lovins, the founder of RMI, on reading his 1977 book Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Durable Peace in the early 80s.

The soft energy path starts with a complete rejection of the idea that one should estimate future energy requirements by applying a simple growth projection to present requirements. As Lovins points out, what people value is not energy per se, but the services made possible by applying it - heating, lighting, transportation, industrial processes and so forth - and that there is plenty of scope for redesigning all of those things to make them work better with less energy consumption at lower cost.

And in fact the path we actually find ourselves on does resemble the soft path rather more than the hard path of more coal, more nukes, more centralization and ever-rising emissions. Not because the soft path is more virtuous though it obviously totally is, but because it works better and costs less.

If you're not already familiar with that book, I strongly recommend you buy it.
posted by flabdablet at 11:33 AM on June 20 [1 favorite]


I have no idea what energy use that implies but would be shocked if it were much less than 10x current usage.

I fully expect that you'll end up quite shocked.

I also expect that US GDP per capita will in fact decline quite substantially, but that the overall health and wellbeing of the population will not decline anywhere near as much as the GDP figure would have you believe.

GDP ain't all that.
posted by flabdablet at 11:36 AM on June 20 [1 favorite]


Also WRT Greer and the process of reimagining the future I'd recommend his futuristic novel Retropia, which presents a potential scenario for selective and structured transition away from industrial complexity. We get the story through the eyes of a skeptic, and it's an excellent read in my opinion.

http://writingball.blogspot.com/2017/06/book-review-retrotopia-by-john-michael.html

I haven't read Soft Energy Paths, thanks for noting it.
posted by maniabug at 11:47 AM on June 20 [1 favorite]


flabdablet: And as RMI has been pointing out for decades now, there are strong synergies between the uptake of electric transportation and the robustness of the grid, because pervasive electric transport means pervasive battery storage, pervasive battery storage greatly lowers total required peak generator output, and it's peak output rather than average output that determines the total generation capacity that needs to be built.

I don't get it. How do batteries in electric cars lower peak generator output? They can't be used to even out supply and demand, because that would mean that they'd be draining sometimes when people expect them to be charging, and that would make drivers very angry. Maybe they make the troughs closer to the peaks as people charge overnight, but that doesn't reduce peak demand, since they'll also be increasing the peaks when they charge during the day. Where does the reduction in peak generation come from?
posted by clawsoon at 6:36 PM on June 20


Where does the reduction in peak generation come from?

It comes from the fact that electric car batteries, just like so many other engineered products, have to be sized for the maximum desired range even though the overwhelming majority of the time that maximum range is not required.

Most electric cars will end up being used for commuting trips that need much less range than the batteries in the cars are capable of on full charge. Given appropriate price signals and appropriate charge controllers and accounting systems, an electric car that spends all night in the garage at home and all day in the workplace parking lot could be connected to the grid whenever it's parked, making a bit of money for its owner by automatically buying energy when it's cheap and selling some back when it's expensive, within the constraints of whatever reserve capacity the owner wants to specify for the end of any given parking session.

Once you notice that the full-range charge of a typical electric car battery is enough to cover the entire energy consumption of a typical home for two to four days, and that the number of electric vehicles will inevitably end up in the same ballpark as the number of homes, it's not crazy to envision a future where grid peak-shaving doesn't actually require any fixed utility-scale battery storage at all.

Places where cars spend a lot of time parked during the day would also become sensible places to consider for installation of solar PV panels in large quantities.

Again, none of this stuff is going to happen overnight. But it's worth keeping in mind that there is a possible endgame that looks like that.
posted by flabdablet at 9:20 PM on June 20


Even without the direct participation of cars in peak shaving, the existence of an electric car fleet requires the existence of enough battery manufacturing capacity to drive down the price of batteries to the point where using them for fixed-location utility-scale peak-shaving plant costs less than building gas-fired generators to provide the same services.

If Elon Musk's assessment of current conditions is correct, this has already happened even though electric vehicles have only just begun to get a foot in the market share door.
posted by flabdablet at 9:26 PM on June 20


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