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Sustainable energy

Everybody knows that the world is running out of oil. The predicted year of the peak varies from 2000 to 2100, but it is generally conceded that it won’t last forever. Of course, economists know that when you have a scarce resource, it doesn’t just suddenly run out: the price rises, more expensive sources or substitutes come into play, and so forth. So it’s unlikely to run out, but rather get more expensive.

I would argue, however, that for most practical purposes peak oil occured in the 1970s.

Consider this graph of worldwide oil production vs population:

20th century oil & population

There are two clear phases. First, up though the 60s, there was a nice exponential increase in oil and indeed an exponential increase per capita. Then there was a crash and oil per capita essentially flatlined (at about half a gallon per person per day).

Nanodot readers may remember this post in which I wondered about why people today seem to be so much more pessimistic about the future than people were in 1900. Or indeed, in 1960. This may well be a big part of it: before about 1970, that nice exponential means that energy was not a major constraint to whatever goals you might have had. It had a doubling time of about 10 years, comfortably faster than the economy as a whole. Energy availability was such as to make it increasingly easier, on the average, to do anything you wanted to do.

After 1980 or so, the flatline means that energy is now a straitjacket. The energy input to the average goal in life is getting costlier and costlier, making all of life harder and harder. (This is true whether you are simply paying more, or expending effort to make your energy use more efficient, effort you could have used for your goals.)

So: in terms of the energy we want, what would it really mean to have sustainable energy? Here’s my definition: A sustainable energy source must allow for a growth rate in energy use that is enough higher than the economy as a whole so that it acts as an enabler rather than a brake. In other words, it needs to be like oil was before 1970, and the future was a place we were happy to be going to.

Oil today isn’t sustainable; coal isn’t, biofuels are an environmental disaster, and so is ground-based solar. The current world energy use rate is about 15 terawatts. This is about one doubling from 1970; we should have had 4 (i.e. and be using 120 TW now).

To see just how poorly the so-called renewable forms of energy stack up against the standards of a truly sustainable source, consider solar. At 100 watts/square meter (averaged over nights, clouds, latitude, and so forth), 120 TW would require a square of land over 1000 kilometers on a side — and you’d have to double it every decade. By the end of the century you’re using the entire Earth as a solar collector, even with improved conversion efficiency.

Real sustainability requires a path to exponential growth. No energy source that requires a fixed amount of the Earth’s surface per kilowatt is sustainable.

On the other hand, space-based solar doesn’t have those problems. To begin with, there’s 10 billion times the sunlight currently going to waste as strikes the Earth. And it would be good to have as much of the processes consuming the power be off the Earth, as possible. Availability of crude oil isn’t the only bottleneck — you don’t want to dump too much CO2 or just plain heat into the biosphere.

Energy isn’t scarce. To a close approximation, all the matter we can see in the universe is part of fusion reactors. All we have to do is step out and get it.

In the1970s, the days when Jimmy Carter was creating the Department of Energy and energy per capita was flatlining, one used to hear a lot of well-meaning but clueless people decry the space program and say how we should pay attention to the problems we had right here. But most of the problems we have here, have to do with poverty (and that includes overpopulation — rich people have fewer children). Poverty is ameliorated by cheap energy.

Oil isn’t free energy handed down from heaven. It took all of human technological development up till about a century and a half ago to be able to use it. There are plenty of other forms of energy just as plentiful — excuse me, more plentiful by factors of billions — and more beyond that. It only takes developing the technology to harvest it.

17 Responses to “Sustainable energy”

  1. JamesG Says:

    Not a lot of specifics here. Coal can be turned into oil, at $50 a barrel, the ‘problem’ is, that drilled-for oil does not reliably stay above $50 a barrel in order for there to be profit in making coal-to-oil plants (south africa relied on these during the embargo of that nation.) Once oil stays comfortably above $50 a barrel, we will see companies building these plants, and there’s enough coal to last hundreds or thousands of years, even at increased usage rates. But, imo, nanotech is so close now that it won’t matter, nanorobots are the ultimate green technology, and we will have all the energy we need once nanorobots are made.

  2. Says:

    and the other overpopulated areas consume massive energy, amid the declining oil reserve,and so without a new effective alternative energy system, we can not expect renewed economy prosperity, and that is why ‘the global green new deal’ is required, I think.

  3. Says:

    The population curve can’t just continue as it has either. At some point it has to plateau, or we’ll all be standing shoulder to shoulder and covering all available land on the globe. Also, how much energy can one person use? I would argue that in calculating how much energy you need to be sustainable, you would have to take into acount how many people you can stack on the planet before population density related violence gets out of hand, and how much each of them requires for a comfortable existence. Once that limit is reached, the issue becomes sustainability on other colonized planets where, presumably, there is no existing ecosystem in place to worry about destroying..

  4. Says:

    It’s hard for private enterprise to invest in long term projects (oil drilling, coal, nuclear, or even space based solar) with all the draconian regulations we have. Agreed, there’s lots of energy out there for the taking. The problem isn’t technical, it’s political and in many ways philosophical: the environmentalists don’t think humanity has the right to exist on earth (or anywhere else, for that matter), so they will do everything in their power to stop any form of engergy development, even “politically correct” solar and wind power. They see the connection between energy use and human life and happiness. Their goal is the death of humanity and their means is the destruction of our ability to use energy, and their MO is saddling us with environmental guilt.

  5. Says:

    The article reads: “Real sustainability requires a path to exponential growth.

    This is an april fools joke?

  6. Drumbeat: March 31, 2009 | EcoSilly Says:

    [...] Sustainable energy Everybody knows that the world is running out of oil. The predicted year of the peak varies from 2000 to 2100, but it is generally conceded that it won’t last forever. Of course, economists know that when you have a scarce resource, it doesn’t just suddenly run out: the price rises, more expensive sources or substitutes come into play, and so forth. So it’s unlikely to run out, but rather get more expensive. I would argue, however, that for most practical purposes peak oil occured in the 1970s. [...]

  7. Says:

    “Real sustainability requires a path to exponential growth.” — This is one of the most idiotic statements ever. Exponential growth is, by its definition, not sustainable. Take “The Crash Course.” Sheeesh!

  8. J. Storrs Hall Says:

    Sorry, but the conventional-wisdom definition of “sustainable” is short-sighted and wrong. It’s a recipe for poverty and despair. A static society is one where doom-and-gloom takes over the zeitgeist, and with some justification. In a static society, the value of stealing increases (for the individual) relative to creating; moral values decline.

    The historical pattern is clear: a society with exponential energy is creative and optimistic: it could go to the moon (and wanted to).

    A society with flatline energy, just a generation later, is a slough of despond, awash in funk and fearmongering. Such a society won’t last; it isn’t sustainable.

  9. J. Storrs Hall Says:

    A note about population: poor people breed like rabbits; rich people breed like pandas. If the third world is kept in poverty, population will be a major problem in the 21st century; if allowed to develop economically at even U.N. projected rates, the projections are for world population to flatten out by 2050. But bringing the third world up to U.S. standards of living (and thus down to U.S. population growth rates) means 2-3 doublings of world energy use.

  10. Says:

    Certainly the ‘conventional-wishdom’ of sustainability of mainataining the static society is itself unsustainable. The exponential growth is indispensable but needs to be the nano-way, i.e., nano-baseed growth where production needs less energy, less stuff, generates less and /or no waste.That is the only sensible way out.

    Apoint about population-rich people breed like pandas but probably consume like rabbits. If calculated in terms of consumption, it is not the population of the third world that is alarming.
    Michael

  11. Says:

    I think the assumption that overpopulation is due to poverty is getting cause and effect mixed up. Cultures that overbreed are poor because of their overbreeding. This is encouraged by religions that want to keep their followers poor and ignorant, as wealth leads to education which leads to people abandoning religion.

  12. Commodities Broker | Drumbeat: March 31, 2009 | Commodities Options | Commodities Futures | Commodities Prices Says:

    [...] Sustainable energy Everybody knows that the world is running out of oil. The predicted year of the peak varies from 2000 to 2100, but it is generally conceded that it won’t last forever. Of course, economists know that when you have a scarce resource, it doesn’t just suddenly run out: the price rises, more expensive sources or substitutes come into play, and so forth. So it’s unlikely to run out, but rather get more expensive. I would argue, however, that for most practical purposes peak oil occured in the 1970s. [...]

  13. Says:

    I’ve invented the perfect microwave power transmission satellite. Solar is important to my
    satellite to power the internal mechanisms but there are others higher energies also free 24 x 7.

    T. Bone Pickens and other greed mongers want to line their pockets while I am concerned with
    saving mankind and could careless if I make a penny !

  14. Nanodot: Nanotechnology News and Discussion » Blog Archive » Acolytes of neo-Malthusian Apocalypticism Says:

    [...] Here are non-renewable resources, particularly fossil fuels, shown with upper and lower bounds: The key to understanding this graph, and indeed the entire LtG mindset, is that they assume there is a fixed amount of something we can’t do without, and then predict that if we continue to consume it, we must necessarily run out. Note, by the way, that even the “sustainable” prediction runs out too, as it must. It just takes longer. Perhaps one of the reasons that LtG got such play in the 1970s was that they were actually experiencing what was effectively “peak oil”, as I argue here. But the history since then actually bolsters the substitutability argument more than it does a finite-resources point of view. [...]

  15. Alexander Van de Putte Says:

    Oil is not about to get much more scarce. Peak Oilist have always been wrong because they don’t model at the project level and each project (i.e., field) has its own specific aspects (porosity, oil density, etc.). This starts to sound like Nostradamus who predicted the end of the world. We have consumed about 1.3 trillion barrels and there are at least 6 trillion barrels left. Technology has brough the cost of developing oil resources down and will continue to so. BRINK (Brazil, Russia, Iraq, Nigeria and Kazakhstan) could (and it the case of Iraq “will”) bring large amounts of incremental oil production to markets. Some of these are really cheap (in te $3/barrel range). Foresight experts should focus less on opinion, but instead look at the facts. We just finished a 1 year project with the US National Intelligence Council on Global Recession, Recovery and the Future World Energy Architecture: Scenarios to 2030. Some factors will accelerate energy demand growth like population growth, economic growth in emerging markets, etc. On the other hand energy efficiency and new conventional energy technologies will drive cost down of production down. While this will put stresses on the environment we are not running out of oil nor will we experience a time that oil supply won’t be able to meet demand anymore. Remember: Energy transitions didn’t happen because of fuel scarcity. Instead, they were driven by technology.

  16. Michael Says:

    Energy equations looks complicated however if we can change a bit of lifestyle, a bit of architecture of house and buildings,reducing energy by more efficient devices, reducing travel by proper job placement and urban planning, by more efficient collection of solar wind, geothermal, hydroelectric and other alternative sources. Cooling the earth a bit by reforestation and reducing unwanted gas emissions should somehow make things in better shape.

  17. Carrie Jayes Says:

    It seems that we are facing a disaster that we likely will be able to get through if proper actions are planned and implemented. While it is true that oil just don’t run out easily, the prices just rise, we must look for alternative sources for this fuel. And also, we must turn to renewable energy sources in order for us to have sustainable energy.

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