Friday, February 29, 2008

Build out: The Grid vs. The Household - Towards a Community-based Solution to CC and PO

Originally published on here in response to this on this thread which all started here. The post has been modified for this space.

The Grid vs. The Household

Some believe we have time before a crash, or, that there will be no crash, but a relatively smooth transition from fossil fuels to renewables. They believe this slow decline in fossil fuels will allow the time needed to build hundreds (the U.S.) and thousands (the world) of nuclear power plants/reactors. However, the assumption there is time and/or there will be no crash is a dangerous one. Failure to prepare to mitigate the effects of a swift decline in energy will almost certainly lead to disaster. We must look at risk.

When we can provide a huge amount of power for a fraction of the cost and time needed to build up our nuclear grid to a level that will protect us from oil production decline, why would we not do it? Nuclear plants take years to build and require very skilled workers that must be trained. In Return to Olduvai they estimate a minimum of 20, and an upper end of 90, new reactors and/or power plants per year. At 5 - 12 billion each. That's up to 12 TRILLION dollars for the U.S. alone. But where is it written the backbone of our power grid must be built before the localized, household-based renewable infrastructure? Why shouldn't they be built concurrently, at least?

My proposal is intentionally localized due to the high degree of certainty (my certainty, not a consensus) that neither the government nor the market will be able to handle this in isolation. You have the perfect example in WWII. Victory gardens weren't just a good idea, they were necessary for continued good nutrition. The same went for resources, which led to rationing and recycling.

My position on global warming is the same. The best thing we can do is build nuclear reactors to displace coal power plants.

How can the best we can do be something that is unsustainable? Nuclear plants will need replacing two or three times a century at a current cost of billions per. The localized grid will, too, but, again, you are looking at a very small fraction of the cost for the same degree of replacement. For the same billions per *one* reactor we can supply a good fraction of the total power generation needed and leave the robust solutions for backbone, greatly reducing the number of large plants we need. If we add to this equation lifestyle changes of reducing, recycling, reusing and localization, all the more so.

I would argue, in fact, that meeting the localization goal is more important because it deals with the real issue: consumption. A massive localization drive could achieve partial energy autonomy for every household in the US within a period of a few years, not decades. It would have the added benefit of *requiring* lifestyle changes with concomitant savings of energy by reducing use via the renewables and behavior changes. However, if we assume we have a 5 - 10 year period before the shit really hits the fan, then the current grid supplies the backbone as the new backbone is built out. Under this scenario, deprivation may be eliminated for some or all over that initial time span.

Additional benefits occur from the localization of the household-based energy build out. In order to achieve this, there will be flexibility needed. Economies of scale interfere if we just assign a few companies to build all the windmills, heat pumps, solar panels, retrofitting materials for homes/apartments/businesses, etc, needed. No, the key to the plan is that it be localized solutions built out by local people wherever possible. This means, for example, the scavenging of materials needed everywhere and anywhere possible, rather than the manufacture of new materials. In the cities, we would likely need to commercialize the process a bit, but hopefully only to the level of resources. I imagine a return to the days of barn raising, but with windmills, etc.

By making this a community-based process where community solutions are customized by the community with assistance from knowledgeable locals or other reference persons/professionals, we instantly integrate the whole system into a localized whole. This might have the added benefit or reducing the need for relocation. A localized solution of this magnitude would save incredible amounts of financial resources. Those resources might be applied to some of the macro level solutions (things other than backbone) that certain communities, such as cities in the southwest dealing with water shortages, might need.

If real net oil production declines of 4% or more a year set in, we will never have the opportunity for [a nuclear and/or BAU grid-type] plan. My plan would have a good chance of succeeding whether those declines come or not. This is simple risk analysis.

I realize a great deal of interest and even fun comes out of the intellectualizing entailed in the intellectual process we are all engaged in at TOD to deal with Peak Oil and Climate Change, but the time for chat and brainy ideas is quickly passing, if it has not already passed us. I hope to encourage people to begin narrowing the conversation to the realities at hand and try to get to some conclusions before the decisions are taken out of our hands by circumstances.

Tom Whipple serves up a similar view of the future. His article doesn't deal with the sequence of events, but does outline a vision of where we may end up, albeit not in a collapse scenario, per se.

The Peak Oil Crisis: Catenaries and Pantographs

As the availability of liquid fuels dwindles, those supplies that remain will be increasingly allocated to uses for which there are no readily available substitutes -- such as powering aircraft and ships. Electric power for land vehicles appears to be the most realistic option for the present...

...For the immediate future only electricity, which can come from conservation of existing power production, nuclear power stations and renewable sources, appears to be the most likely power source for land vehicles.

Powering cars and light trucks with electricity does not seem to be an insurmountable problem provided that one is willing to live with their limitations...

The U.S. currently has some 230 million light vehicles in its fleet... these vehicles are simply going to be abandoned...

...At the rate our natural resources are running out, however, it is doubtful we will be building and selling 100’s of millions of non-fossil fuel cars in the foreseeable future. rail lines would... use diesel-electric power initially... electric-powered railways coupled with short haul electric trucks, busses and cars...

...One idea... was to repower our long-haul trucks with electric engines, some battery capacity, and pantographs to contact overhead wires...

...We already have some 2 million 18-wheelers in America and one would hate to see them scrapped for lack of fuel.

...When affordable liquid fuels dry up, we are going to be left with a lot of vehicles and their infrastructure that will no longer be of use. With a little imagination, time, and money, much of this stranded investment can become useful again. There certainly will be powerful incentives to introduce whatever works.

The abandoned vehicles and infrastructure could instead be intentionally converted, before abandonment in at least some cases, to be used in the build out I outline above.

I agree with Tom:
In its day, the internal combustion engine was a wonderful device that served us well for over a century. That day, however, will soon be over. It is time to start thinking about and planning for alternatives.

Other articles by Tom Whipple can be found here.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Lucy! We're hooooome!

The image is at once unnerving, surreal and calming: coming home to a place you no longer know, and that no longer recognizes you. Walking the dusty ground and the ancient rock of Olduvai must be an awe-inspiring experience for those from a more modern world. The sort of experience a typical American might get visiting some of the very old or ancient sites of Europe, our sense of the age of human kind being so poorly developed by TV, video games, shopping malls and the like. Having seen Roman columns in Sevilla Spain, ancient forests in Costa Rica, stone temples in Korea, and more, I can imagine just a little the awe that might come over one at Olduvai speaking a silent "I'm home" to Lucy.

Going home again tends to be either joyful or traumatizing - or at least stressful. How and why we go home matters. Home for the holidays to a warm and loving family, who wouldn't look forward to that? Home for an extended period after the collapse of a marriage, hitting hard financial times, to care for a sick and/or dying parent... who would look forward to that? The one is full of happy moments (perhaps punctuated with the old bickering that families all do), the other is full of self-doubt, uncomfortable explanations, broken expectations and the sheer difficulty of living differently in a place that is no longer yours. These may be the choices we face as we race towards the end of cheap energy (at least, unless or until we harness solar energy on a grand scale).

In Olduvai Revisited 2008, an update to the Olduvai Gorge Theory proposed by Richard Duncan, Luís de Sousa and Euan Mearns of TheOilDrum:Europe present to us the choices we may face in how we go back to Olduvai Gorge. In a series of scenarios for the end of the Fossil Fuel age, the data suggests we may yet have a choice as to how we go home. We can go home beggers, paupers, broken and beaten, or we can go home with good news of grand new ways of doing things, and maybe a better life for all. They conclude:

According to our analysis, conventional fossil fuels are set to peak in a decade or so and following that, decline will open an ever widening gap from today's per capita energy use. Based on finite FF resources, energy per capita is indeed headed towards a cliff, and this may lead Mankind back to the Olduvai Gorge if action is not taken to address this problem. Many of those who have studied this problem in the past have concluded that the journey back to Olduvai is unavoidable.

The analysis presented here suggests that it is within the capacity of human endeavor to build new energy gathering infrastructure to substitute for the decline in conventional fossil fuels. By combining energy efficiency measures with the simultaneous expansion of solar, wind and nuclear energy Mankind may secure a civilised existence for the XXI century. A tremendous opportunity exists to build a more sustainable energy future and building this future will provide vast opportunity for economic growth and prosperity...

The next two to three decades are crucial, where the fastest build of alternative infrastructure is needed, and when the efficiency wedge will have the slowest effect. But the numbers contemplated here are not insurmountable, and should be tackled with the right commitment and timely action.

Click here for a video presentation of the above.
We have a choice. Do we go home to Lucy for a visit to our ancient ancestral home full of hope, vigor and new ideas for the Old Mother to squint at and whisper small wonders at, or do we go home out of desperation to share what little resources remain, struggling to survive as long as we can before the dust covers our bones and we are dug from the rock in some far future? Are we to be wondered at by beings puzzling at how we could have traveled so far just to end up back where, and how, we began?

Saturday, February 23, 2008


We're running out of food.

Famines May Occur Without Record Crops This Year, Potash Says

Feb. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Grain farmers will need to harvest record crops every year to meet increasing global food demand and avoid famine, Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan Inc. Chief Executive Officer William Doyle said.

People and livestock are consuming more grain than ever, draining world inventories and increasing the likelihood of shortages... Global grain stockpiles fell to about 53 days of supply last year, the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1960, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

``If you had any major upset where you didn't have a crop in a major growing agricultural region this year, I believe you'd see famine,'' Doyle, 57, said in New York.

The reasons are broad: drought in Australia...

Australia's farmers

Dried up, washed out, fed up

After rains fell in May after 11 dry years in a row, Bruce Crafter borrowed from his bank to sow a wheat crop... thousands of Australian farmers... have watched... country's worst drought in a century... follow-up spring rains in September... never arrived, and the crops that promised salvation have failed...

...The farming crisis is so bad that the federal government in late September announced A$1.1 billion ($1 billion) in drought aid. It included payments of A$150,000 each to the most debt-ridden of Australia's 130,000 farmers to leave their land... Its impact cut three-quarters of a percentage point off Australia's growth rate in 2006-07.
...massive economic growth in China and India...

Rising Economic Growth in China, India Contributes to Food 'Inflation'

...Mark Thirlwell... says China and India's economic growth has changed the nature of food demand, because their wealthier populations are shifting away from traditional meals based on rice and local vegetables.

"In China we are seeing increases in meat and dairy products, which has direct implications for those markets," said Thirlwell. "But also it has implications for the inputs into the meat and dairy, so grains for example." grain stocks are expected to fall to their lowest levels in 30 years. World export prices of wheat soared to record prices, up about 25 percent alone in September.

The result is higher prices in much of the world ...China's prices up more than 18 percent from a year earlier..

...U.S. milk prices are up 18 percent since the start of the year, while eggs cost 35 percent more than they did a year ago.

...and grains being diverted from food production to ethanol/bio-fuels...

Wheat shortage sends bread, pasta prices soaring

...The price of flour has doubled in the past two months as weather problems, including two years of droughts in Australia, have depleted wheat stocks to lows not seen since the 1970s.

Also contributing to the shortage is the flux of grain farmers switching to other crops, such as canola or corn, that produce biofuels.

"It's a very, very tight situation," said Canadian Wheat Board analyst Bruce Burnett. "World production has been under consumption in the last couple of years, so we have been drawing stocks down … and we've finally hit levels that have made the market very, very concerned about supplies and rightly so"...

Pasta la vista as world wheat shortages bite

...the looming pasta crisis is the result of Italian farmers increasingly growing durum wheat for biofuel production rather than food.

The report says the price of durum wheat is two-and-a-half-times higher than June last year as supplies have tightened, forcing some suppliers to cease pasta production...

By now you should be convinced there are problems looming. Just one more element of The Perfect Storm That Cometh, adding to its size and ferocity.

More headlines and links:

Rising prices threaten millions with starvation, despite bumper crops

Link found via the oil

There has never been anything remotely like the food crisis that is now increasingly gripping the world, threatening millions with starvation. For it is happening at a time of bumper crops.

All the familiar signs of impending disaster are here, and in spades. Across the developing world already hungry people are now having to eat even less. Food stocks have plunged to record lows. Food prices have scaled new heights. Food riots are spreading around the globe. Yet the world is still harvesting record amounts of grain.

Feed The World? We Are Fighting A Losing Battle, UN Admits

(From countercurrents via The Guardian)

27 February, 2008

“This is the new face of hunger,” Sheeran said. “There is food on shelves but people are priced out of the market. There is vulnerability in urban areas we have not seen before. There are food riots in countries where we have not seen them before.”

WFP officials say the extraordinary increases in the global price of basic foods were caused by a “perfect storm” of factors: a rise in demand for animal feed from increasingly prosperous populations in India and China, the use of more land and agricultural produce for biofuels, and climate change.

The impact has been felt around the world. Food riots have broken out in Morocco, Yemen, Mexico, Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal and Uzbekistan. Pakistan has reintroduced rationing for the first time in two decades. Russia has frozen the price of milk, bread, eggs and cooking oil for six months. Thailand is also planning a freeze on food staples. After protests around Indonesia, Jakarta has increased public food subsidies. India has banned the export of rice except the high-quality basmati variety.

“For us, the main concern is for the poorest countries and the net food buyers,” said Frederic Mousseau, a humanitarian policy adviser at Oxfam. “For the poorest populations, 50%-80% of income goes on food purchases.
Grain prices should be good this year, wheat board specialist says
... “Everybody was asleep at the switch. We’ve eaten ourselves out of the global food surpluses we had,” said Burnett.
...An estimated 3.9 million tonne increase in world wheat production will easily be absorbed by consumption as the globe enters a third year of less production than use...
Low global grain stocks, combined with weather events, will create volatile price swings...
...Minneapolis wheat prices exploded to $25 a bushel. The price was $12 last fall.
...Ethanol use of corn in the U.S. will require 10 million bushels more this year to use 87 million bushels of an estimated 277 million bushel crop.
The U.S. will have to curb corn exports if it wants to maintain year end stocks, he said.
Worldwide shortage of rice shoots prices soaring
Thursday, 21 February 2008

Wheat prices could defy a recession

Bread will cost more dough

Friday, February 8, 2008

A Malthusian Riff, Gonzo Style

Hunter S. Thompson would be proud. Don't take any valium before reading this, though it's a great lot of fun to read. You'll enjoy this rant on the state of the world even if you disagree with it. (You can't, really. Malthus was right.)

Are We There Yet, Pa?
Nine Billion Little Feet on the Highway of the Damned


The din of squealing, laughing children is the background white noise of the Third World. In Belize, as in most of the Third World, 45% of all people are under the age of 16... They do not look much like a global migration or crushing planetary population pressure. Yet they are among the most incredible wave of both ever in human history.

...Population growth is the rhino in the playpen, the root cause of our approaching eco-disaster that that no one honestly talks about... nowhere do we get an honest discussion about population growth. If you care to, argue that climate change may or may not destroy us. But uncontrolled population growth is guaranteed to do the job.


...six billion mouths and assholes running the world's resources through their gullets like shit through a goose is unsustainable, then nine billion of the same are waaaaaay beyond sustainable...

Still, if ever there were a time to show some guts, it's... by giving up the material life, the consumer life. Damned near all of it...

Americans and people of the developed world are in an unusual position. We can help by doing nothing. Simply by sitting on our asses and not buying stuff, not driving to the Gap or the organic market... We can refuse to consume...

He's not 100% right, though. The third world population exploding is going to have a small impact on energy for quite some time because per capita use is so small. Whereas the US uses about 26 barrels of oil a year per capita, a 2nd world nation like China uses closer to 2 or 3 (according to Matt Simmons) and 3rd world nations even less. Consumption is the short-term problem, and that is a 1st world and 2nd problem, not a 3rd world problem.

For example, the US currently uses @20,000,000 b/d of hydrocarbon liquids. At China's per capita use, the US would use a little over 2,000,000 b/d. Consumption is a problem. To flip it a bit, the 2nd world (China and India, especially) is now becoming a problem - and this is where population and consumption join hands. China wants to double GDP by about 2020. (They just doubled their GDP over the last 7 years or so, I believe, so this is hardly far-fetched.) But let's assume they someday catch up to US per capita consumption: that's 92,000,000 b/d. That's more than the WORLD currently produces in all oil liquids, including bio-fuels, etc.

You see, there is no way out except a complete and total change of how we live unless or until we can harness huge, huge, huge amounts of solar energy. And that's not happening before oil supplies start shrinking. I promise. (Hint: localize. Grow your own food. Build your own windmill. Build yourself a Hobbit home... whatever. But do something.)

Anywho... the article above is a lot of fun, so go at it.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Energy Crunch Hits S. Korea

The energy crisis, in the form of high prices, is definitely affecting Korea. Here's a story from last fall that is having its impact now. Even worse, S. Korea has already hit Peak Coal. (Note: I currently reside in Korea.)

Hope some of you are waking up to not only Peak Oil, but Peak Whole Bunches of Stuff.

Briquettes Make Pricier Comeback
By Jane Han
Staff Reporter

In this day of new energy sources and high technology, holed briquettes, or "yeontan," have been quickly fading into people's memories as a fuel of the past. But for the energy-poor households, the shortage of these coal blocks is emerging as a current worry ahead of winter.

...local briquette consumption doubled over the past three years, pushed by high oil prices and the sluggish economy.

Households, restaurants, offices and even large greenhouses are beginning to turn back the clock, as more and more, again, rely on charcoal for heat.

But... the price of the once-cheapest form of energy has risen steadily as supply is falling short of growing demand.

...briquette supply was halved to below 4 million tons this year from around 8 million tons in 2004, all the while as demand continues to rise.

...production cut in anthracite, falling from about 3.3 million tons in 2002 to less than to 2.8 million tons last year, with consumption during the same period jumping from 1.1 million tons to 2.3 million.

With production declining, the stronger demand has been chipping away at stocks _ up to a point where experts predict that the domestic coal supply will bottom out in about two to three years.

..."From 400 won to 500 won, we'll soon see each block priced at 1,000 won.

The government has distributed briquettes at relatively low costs by supporting more than 50 percent of the price. Some 255.6 billion won was used for subsidies last year alone, but because of the soaring demand and financial burden, the government announced in May that the state's support will be phased out by 2011.

...Officials estimate that about 1.2 million families, or about 8 percent of the nation's total households, suffer from relatively high energy costs, including electricity and gas rates.