Monthly Archives: October 2013

Seeking A Friend For The End Of The World


I sometimes run across news that I find depressing, and this last week or so I seem to have come across a whole string of such stories with regard to energy use. It seems sometimes like any hope of a sustainable future is on the verge of being overcome by the growth and momentum of the system. Thus, the bit of hyperbole in this post’s title, and my original intent to write about this gloomy side to humankind’s precarious situation, or at least about how we need to step up our efforts. I was thinking that perhaps we are indeed like characters in a disaster movie where an asteroid is set to destroy the planet, and we should all just accept it, concentrate on enjoying our last days, and just quit worrying about renewable power, permaculture, recycling, and adopting more sustainable lifestyles.

But, as I set out to bolster my negativism with facts, I ended up with a more-nuanced thesis. On the whole, it might not be as bad as I thought. Much of the info that gave me this perspective comes from a research company called Enerdata, a large and seemingly well-respected European research company, and, more specifically, their online interactive “Yearbook” about worldwide energy production and use. It’s a fascinating site.

So how are we doing, when you look at the actual numbers about energy? Here’s my admittedly-rough impression of their data, from 1990 to present, a period of almost a quarter of a century. I’ll include links to the graphs, so you can judge for yourself.

Crude oil production— Over the last quarter century, not much change. A slight upward trend from 3,000 megatons to about 4,000 megatons overall, but roughly flat for the last decade, with no visible “peak”, and no dramatic hockey-stick-like exponential growth. On the whole, it doesn’t appear out of control in any way (other than the fact that we’re still burning an awful lot of oil).

oil platform south thailand

Oil and gas production south of Thailand.

Natural gas production— A steady increase in production, from about 3,000 bcm (billion cubic meters) to about 3,500 bcm. The recent boom in U.S. production isn’t overly visible on the graph. From the point of view of sustainability, there could be worse news—burning natural gas creates only about half the CO2 emissions than burning coal does.

Electricity production— Like oil, a steady increase, from about 10,000 twh (terrawatt hours) to about 20,000 twh over the 23-year period, with perhaps even a slight leveling-off as of late. Like oil, it doesn’t appear that growth is out of control. In all of these cases, growth appears linear rather than exponential, and, in the case of oil and electricity, might even be tapering off a bit.

Coal production— Flat until about 2002, then steady uptick from about 4,500 mt to about 7,500 mt today. Most of this was due to increased consumption in China, BUT—the sub-heading on this page reads “Sharp slowdown in global growth mainly due to the slackening pace in China”. This graph isn’t great news for the planet, but again, the growth doesn’t look exponential.

All of these are just portions of the world’s total energy production, (and this graph isn’t just a compilation of the previous graphs, because some of the fossil fuels are used to make the electricity) which shows steady growth from about 8,000 Mtoe (million tons of oil equivalent) to about 13,000 Mtoe.

But, what of renewable generation? The proportion of electricity from renewable sources has been steady as a percentage of total production over the entire period. At first glance this makes it look like we aren’t making progress, but when you take into account that electricity production has gone up 10,000 twh’s, math dictates that the sum total of the increase in renewable generation has been tremendous. (Hydroelectric power is included in these numbers). We aren’t decarbonizing (yet), but renewables seem to be holding their own, at least in terms of percentages.

A thermal solar system, or SEGS, (solar energy generating system).

A thermal solar system, or SEGS, (solar energy generating system).

The result of all of the world’s fossil-fuel consumption is CO2 emissions, and this data is also included on the site. On the whole, another relatively flat graph. The world emitted about 20,000 mt of CO2 in 1990, and that number is about 30,000 mt today, but it isn’t increasing fast, and almost appears to be starting to level off. In the U.S., total CO2 emissions declined by 3.5% in 2012 (and CO2 from coal declined by over 12%). In fact, net CO2 emissions have declined in many industrialized countries, including Australia, Canada, and parts of Europe. While all is not rosy in this data as a whole, there’s no denying that these net declines are good news.

It is important to note that world population has increased steadily over the entire period that these graphs cover (world population was about 5.2 billion in 1990, and is almost 7.2 billion today). World population goes up by about a million people every 3 1/2 days, and has been this way for decades. (WorldMeter population ticker here.) So, when we place these energy graphs against the backdrop of a population that has grown by nearly 2 billion over the same time period, another positive trend is evident—relative decoupling. We’re still increasing damage to the planet, but we’re doing slightly better than we were, through efficiency and conservation. The Enerdata site graphs this, too, in a graph of “carbon intensity”—how much atmospheric CO2 we create for each unit of economic output. The news here is good—carbon intensity is falling steadily, and has been for decades. We are getting more efficient in how we use energy, and it shows. In more developed countries, carbon intensity has dropped by 40% since 1990. This is good news.

We’re not out of the woods, though. Our increased efficiency is a force in the right direction, but it is counteracted by two other forces—the demands of an ever-increasing population, and the demands of a world that is getting wealthier. Population is on track to begin to plateau, though it will be decades before it begins to level off appreciably. And millions being raised out of poverty (link to a good overview in The Economist) is a good thing, and hopefully this can be achieved for all of the people in the world. But this is why overall energy use continues to rise despite dramatic efficiency gains—it just takes more energy for ever more people to live more materially secure lives. We also aren’t out of the woods just yet because the human footprint is larger than some of these numbers show; recent studies have shown that when all impacts are taken into account, that we aren’t achieving as much as we might think we are in the way of decoupling. 

But, what the numbers do show, I think, is that we’re making some progress, even though we have a long way to go. And related to energy, which still largely comes from fossil fuel, recent information seems to suggest that perhaps the atmosphere isn’t quite as sensitive to CO2 as we thought, which might buy humankind a bit of time. There’s plenty of bad news out there, but with regard to that metaphorical asteroid, perhaps, just perhaps, it might not hit planet Earth. It’s going to be a close call, though. I’ll be checking back in with this Enerdata site next year, to keep watch on how we’re doing.

Image credit: tolotola / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: pancaketom / 123RF Stock Photo


Leaf Update—I Cannot Lie

Leaf fall shot

Still my favorite car.

It’s fall, we’ve had the Leafs for six months, and Mr. X thinks I should write an unvarnished, completely-unbiased review of the Leaf and what it’s like to drive an electric vehicle. I agree. Unfortunately, it’s going to be really hard to distinguish this from a varnished, biased review, because I really LOVE this vehicle. Well, vehicles, plural, since we have two of them. In the six months since we leased them we’ve racked up almost 10,000 miles between them both. (Or, to put it another way, we haven’t burned about 350 gallons of gasoline. As in about seven 55-gallon drums’ worth…)

My shortest review—these cars are smooth, quick, and quiet. (Plagiarism alert—I actually saw something similar to this three-word description in another article about a Leaf, but I couldn’t agree more). They have no transmissions, and therefore, unlike ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) cars, no powerband to speak of. The power is there, any time, all the time, for as long as you want it. In “B-mode” (extra regenerative braking, available in the SL and SV trim levels) the braking begins as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator. It’s true one-footed driving, and it’s fantastic. In fact, the cars are so fun to drive that it’s hard to drive them around slowly in a fashion that saves energy. There’s enough power that if you accelerate hard they will almost break the tires loose, especially if you’re turning. (On one occasion I caught up with, and then stayed even with, a souped-up pickup whose driver had it floored, from dead stop to 86 mph, up a hill, at which point I slowed down; didn’t want a ticket going 90+).

And, all of this quietly. No noise, no rattles, just slight road noise and an occasional low whine from the motor or regenerative braking. Oh, and the “Vehicle Sound for Pedestrians”, or VSP, which is a speaker tone that emanates at low speeds. More on that in a bit.

The cars are efficient, too. Their range on the highway is respectable, averaging 80-100 miles per charge, but they go even farther in town, despite all the stop-and-go. When stuck in traffic they don’t use any power to speak of, likewise for, say, going through a drive-through lane. When coming down a mountain you can actually watch the “fuel” gauge fill up. They’ve both been absolutely, 100% reliable. Which, when you think about it, is probably easier to achieve in these cars, because they really only have a tiny fraction of the moving parts of a “normal” car. The shaft of the (brushless) AC electric motor connects directly to the drive axles on both ends—this motor really only has one moving part, vs. hundreds in an internal combustion engine. And, with no transmission, it has zero transmission parts, compared to the hundreds of moving parts in a typical automotive transmission. (Update— I just realized that the Leaf does have a single reduction gear at a ration of 7.9:1, but a fixed gear isn’t something that will normally ever wear out, so my basic point it still valid, I think.)

Adapting to an “EV lifestyle” hasn’t been difficult. Most days in the summer I was able to charge enough each day from our solar power at home to go 20 to 40 miles on that power alone, and my wife and I can both charge at work. Shopping hasn’t been a problem, though I see a shift in our shopping habits where we tend to frequent establishments that are within walking distance of public chargers. The cars do get noticeably less range from their batteries when the outside temperature drops into the low 30’s, and this did put me squeaking into work on an almost-empty battery on one morning the other week. Nissan Leafs have a “turtle mode” that they enter when they are almost completely out of battery power; in this mode motor power is limited and a turtle icon appears on the dash. This mode reportedly gives a half mile or so of range before the car turns off completely, but even on that morning I didn’t run it down quite that far. It’s difficult to know exactly how much you have left at the very bottom of the gauge, because when you have about 8 miles left the “Miles to Empty” display goes to “—“, and after the battery percent falls below 5%, it does the same. Here’s a slightly blurry picture of the dash—

Leaf dash

I think Nissan did this on purpose to get you to really pay attention to getting to a charger when the battery gets low, but I think I’ve figured out one way to tell how much battery is left. There are twelve battery bars in that right-hand gauge when the battery is full, and each one represents 8% of the battery. They each stay lit until that 8% is gone—so as the battery goes from 92% to 91%, the 12th bar turns off, then the 11th bar turns off as the battery goes from 85% to 84%, etc. But, what this means is that when the last bar turns off , the car still has about 4% of the battery left (12 bars x 8 percent = 96 percent of the battery), plus the 1/2 mile or so in turtle mode. Together this is probably about 4 or 5 miles of range if you were driving slowly, and maybe more. I haven’t had occasion to experiment with this, but I will sometime soon; I’m pretty curious about how far I can creep along at lower speeds after that last battery bar turns off. I’ll find that turtle pretty soon, but I need to be right close to a charger when I do, lest I embarrass myself by purposely running my EV “out of gas”. 

I’ve also noticed that when the weather is cooler the cars use the battery up quicker at first, but then after about 30 minutes they start getting more efficient again (to me, “really efficient” is one mile per percent of battery charge, or 100 miles to a full battery). My conjecture is that this is because the batteries work better when they’re warm, and the internal temperature of the batteries goes up, even on cold mornings, as you drive and use them.

Other things I really like—because the heater doesn’t depend on engine coolant getting warm, the heat is near-instantaneous (Leafs use a heat pump, as it is more efficient than resistive heat). This is fantastic on cold mornings—with the heat and defrost on, and the steering wheel and seat heat on, it only takes a minute or so to be completely comfortable, AND have an ice-free and defrosted windshield. Not so with my Subaru—I’d be sitting in the driveway for quite some time trying to get the windshield clear enough to drive. And, you can access the cars via the internet, and check on your state of charge, or to turn the heat or air-conditioning on. (This feature enables you to use wall power, instead of the battery, to get the car to a comfortable temperature, and to get it there before you even get to the car.)

charge screen

The on-line screen to remotely check on charging status and to control climate control settings.

There are a few tiny things I don’t like, but they’re really just quibbles.  Continue reading

The Role of Self-Sufficiency

Farmer in Andra Pradesh, India.

Subsistence farming in Andra Pradesh, India.

Ever wonder where the phrase “dirt poor” comes from? It might have come from describing someone who farms at a subsistence level. Non-mechanized (or even partially mechanized) subsistence farmers are “dirt-poor” the world over, and have been throughout history. From medieval times, to the rural Inca in the 16th century, to many North Korean farmers today, such lifestyles, despite generations of handed-down expertise and skill, barely produce enough food for families to survive. As such, nearly everyone in such societies is scraping by as a poor farmer; production is so low that only a small fraction of the society can be supported in non-farming endeavors.

So, this is the underlying economic fact that caused me write my original (and now mostly deleted) post about Ben Falk’s book. Falk seems to be striving to achieve a large degree of self-sufficiency, and has created, with much labor, a beautiful natural area that provides him with much of his food, shelter, and fuel; a place of great biodiversity and low environmental impacts.

Thus the conundrum—how do we make sense of these two things that both seem true? Are lifestyles such as Falk’s a good thing, enriching the earth and producing food and fuel in largely carbon-free, organic, diverse, resilient, and natural ways? Or are they a mistaken path in the wrong direction, undertaken with the best of intentions but with a faulty view of the “big picture”, a path that feels right and yet would utterly fail to provide a “way out” of humanity’s conundrum, due to low productivity per unit of labor? Or, does minimizing one’s interactions with the economy slow the system but not change its direction, as I concluded in “The Environmental Paradox of Thrift”?

On one hand, there is still an efficiency penalty to be a jack-of-all-trades (which is what moves toward self-sufficiency require). Such lifestyles can be rewarding and interesting and meaningful, but they aren’t typically highly productive; that part of self-sufficient agriculture hasn’t changed. (They can be highly productive in terms of net-output per area of land, but not usually in terms of output per unit of labor). And, because none of us can be completely self-sufficient, we still end up interacting with the “outside world” and participating, indirectly, in modern production. If that larger system is on a negative track, then such participation spurs it on in that direction. Again, it was this line of thinking is what resulted in my original post about Ben Falk’s book.

It's hard to beat the efficiency and productivity (and wealth creation) of specialization and economies of scale.

It’s hard to beat the efficiency and productivity (and wealth creation) of specialization and economies of scale.

But, after much contemplation, I believe I have figured out how lifestyles like Ben Falk’s fit into the big scheme of things. In short, I think I have figured out the role of self-sufficiency.

To explain, I have to backtrack just a bit, to the issue of decoupling. If you need it, here’s a quick refresher on the concept—economic activity typically causes corresponding levels of damage to the environment, through pollution or habitat destruction or resource consumption, etc. With increased efficiency, and as we move toward circular systems, we can begin to have less and less impact on the environment per unit of economic activity; we can “decouple”. If the total damage is getting smaller, even as the economy grows, then this is referred to as “absolute decoupling” (as opposed to “relative decoupling”, where we’re doing better, but damage is still growing as the economy grows). The ideal end result here—a world where we have completely separated economic activity from any environmental impacts.

In real life, I don’t think there’s any way we could actually achieve this “ideal end result”, our very existence is dependent on the planet and its resources. Until we can live underground or in outer space and create our products with power from fusion and with minerals mined from asteroids, it just isn’t going to happen (read that “it just isn’t going to happen”). And right now, we aren’t even coming close; most of the time we’re lucky to even achieve some relative decoupling, so the damage that humans are wreaking on the planet is growing steadily, right along with growth in the economy and population. A new study by the University of South Wales confirms this, concluding that “All industrialized nations show the same typical picture over time . . . resource use has grown in parallel  to GDP with no sign of decoupling. This is true for the USA, UK, Japan, EU27  and OECD.” (italics mine.)

So, back to my point—because we can’t truly decouple, virtually all economic activity has, and will have, negative environmental effects. And because this is true, we have to quit growing the economy (and the population, if at all possible). That ideal economic growth of three percent a year is exponential, and we live on a finite planet; it just can’t continue. (Good post by Tom Murphy about the 1972 book  “The Limits to Growth”.) Economists call this a “steady-state economy”. I’m not sure how this will work, the books I’ve read about it are not completely convincing. But two related things seem clear to me—we will need to be able to work fewer hours, and productivity improvements will continue to make human labor less important (automation already seems to be outrunning economic growth, resulting in persistent unemployment).

The (dire) computer models in this book still appear predictive, after forty years.

The (dire) computer models in this book still appear predictive, after forty years.

So, here’s where we get back to self-sufficiency—if we’re slowing consumption, and slowing the economy, and if there is more and more automation, we all need, or will be able, to work less. And in this free time, in addition to hiking and biking and having time to read, we can all garden and practice these permaculture methods. Such self-production is decoupled, to a large degree. Your part-time production of food or fuel might not be efficient in terms of labor output, but because the activities are decoupled, they will be a net-positive in terms of the degree to which systems are decoupled, system-wide. A bushel of peaches, picked from the tree in your yard that didn’t need fertilized, peaches that didn’t have to transport across the country—this production is nearly completely decoupled. Every item you grow or gather on your own tends to reduce pressure on the system.

I actually think this is something close to the ideal—we all keep our “day jobs”, (production of goods and services that is highly productive and efficient), at reduced hours, and we spend big chunks of our free time actually repairing the planet and producing in ways that might not be as efficient, but are largely decoupled.

Continue reading