A Bridge to Somewhere

Last week’s discussion of the twilight of the electrical grid in an age after abundance turned out to be timely, in an ironic sort of way. Whatever conversations it might have set in motion in the peak oil blogosphere were all but drowned out by a flurry of proclamations that some energy resource or other would keep the grid up and running for the foreseeable future.

Mind you, some of that flurry could have been lifted straight from equivalent discussions in the alternative energy field three decades ago. Fans of nuclear power were busy promoting their glow-in-the-dark solutions, of course, though for some reason fusion didn’t get dragged into the discussion; the folks at Livermore must have been busy doing something else this week. Meanwhile a longish essay posted on The Oil Drum, and widely cited elsewhere, insisted that satellite based solar power was the solution to the future’s energy problems. For connoisseurs of energy vaporware, this essay was a treat – a Dagwood sandwich of untried technologies, enthusiastic assumptions, and more than Panglossian optimism concerning the potential costs and downsides of pursuing a wholly untested and dizzyingly grandiose technological project at a time when the industrial world is so far into bankruptcy that it’s scrambling to keep its existing infrastructure from crumbling under its collective feet.

Still, the chief focus of the discussion was less dated, though attentive observers will have seen it coming some time ago. "Fracking" technology – more properly, "hydrofracturing," but only engineers call it that these days – is part of the toolkit that’s used to extract fossil fuels, and it’s become all the rage among those who want to believe that the age of cheap abundant energy isn’t dead yet. Thus there’s been a great many claims insisting either that natural gas will fuel our current lifestyles for the foreseeable future, or that it will provide a bridge to a future of renewable energy that will, again, keep our current lifestyles supplied with all the power we think we need.

Now of course fracking is a reality, and one that’s had a significant impact on natural gas production in the US already. Those of my readers who, in their younger days, shook up a bottle of soda pop good and hard, and then opened the cap, already know a good deal about the fracking process. Instead of shaking gas-bearing rock, fracking pumps in a mixture of water and toxic chemicals under high pressure, but the result is the same: bubbles of gas that were trapped in the rock (or the soda pop) come bubbling out all at once. If you want a sudden fountain, it’s not a bad approach, but anyone who’s tasted soda out of a thoroughly shaken bottle knows part of the downside: you get most of the gas in that first big splash, and very little is left behind

That’s one of the two big problems with fracking. (The other comes from the toxic chemicals just mentioned, which inevitably get into the local water supply with predictably ugly consequences.) Natural gas wells treated with fracking technology produce a lot of gas at first, but production slows to a trickle within a year or so. The same thing is true, interestingly enough, of petroleum wells treated the same way; the drop in production there can be anything up to 80% in the first year. Thus fracking isn’t the answer to our energy future, unless "future" in this case means the next five years at most.

Nor, it probably has to be said, is it a bridge to a future of mighty solar and wind plants that will keep millions of electric cars rolling down America’s highways. Even if that energy scenario was possible, and the evidence suggests that it’s not, it’s a safe bet that the energy made available by fracking won’t be used for that purpose. Those of us who were paying attention to energy issues back in the 1970s will recall claims that the Alaska North Slope would provide just such a bridge to just such a future.

Of course it did nothing of the kind. Instead, it enabled Americans to postpone the energy crisis for a few decades, and take the thirty-year vacation from reality that threw away our chances of a less than traumatic transition to the Age of Scarcity. The relatively brief gas and petroleum boom that we can expect from fracking might well permit a speeded-up replay of the same wretched spectacle: a few years of low energy costs, during which no provision will be made for the inevitable exhaustion of the stranded gas and oil reserves that fracking wells can effectively exploit, followed by a plunge into renewed crisis made even more severe by the ongoing depletion of other fossil fuel reserves. If it’s a bridge at all, it’s a bridge to nowhere.

Fueling a set of unsustainable lifestyles via unsustainable resource extraction, in other words, is not going to get us to sustainability. Of course the term "sustainability" has seen heavy service as a rhetorical weapon in recent years, and has come through the experience with a fair number of dents and scratches, but it’s not actually that difficult a concept to grasp – or, for that matter to define.

To be sustainable, something – a technology, a lifestyle, or what have you – has to be able to keep going indefinitely despite whatever limits the future will throw at it. Two categories of limits deserve particular attention here. The first, ecosystem limits, sums up the relation between whatever you’re considering and the nonhuman world. If something considered sustainable depends on using nonrenewable resources, for example, or on using otherwise renewable resources at a rate that exceeds the biosphere’s ability to renew them, it’s just flunked its sustainability test. Equally, if a technology or lifestyle or what have you puts things into the biosphere that disrupt the natural cycles of matter, energy, and information that keep the biosphere going, it’s not sustainable no matter how much green spraypaint you apply to it.

The role of ecosystem limits in sustainability is tolerably well understood. Less often grasped, because of its unwelcome implications, is the second category of limits that has to be addressed, which might best be called complexity limits. This category sums up the relation between a supposedly sustainable technology, lifestyle, etc., and the social, economic, and technological dimensions of human society, now and in the future. If those systems have a significant chance of dropping below the level of complexity at which your supposedly sustainable item can keep running, no matter how green it looks or how enduring it might be in the abstract, it’s not sustainable.

This is why, for example, I’ve suggested here that the internet is not going to make it very far into the post-abundance future. To keep the internet up and running takes a vastly complex technological structure, ranging from gigawatts of electricity from centralized power plants, through silicon chip factories and their supporting industries and supply chains, to universities that can train people in the wide range of exotic specialties that keep the net functioning. It also requires an economic system complex and rich enough, that the internet can pay its bills and outcompete other ways of providing the services that net users actually use. None of those are guaranteed, and in a world facing energy shortages, economic contraction, and attendant social and political disruption, the chances that today’s faltering industrial societies can maintain the technological and economic foundation for the internet look uncomfortably like those of a snowball in Beelzebub’s back yard.

The electricity grid, as suggested last week, suffers from much the same set of limits. Its ability to deal with ecosystem limits is open to question, since none of the alternatives to fossil fuels seem at all likely to provide a large enough amount of electricity, reliably enough, at a low enough cost to make the grid economically viable. Its ability to deal with complexity limits is at least as doubtful, since national or regional grids as currently constituted depend on an equally sprawling technological infrastructure and an equally complex set of economic arrangements.

It seems quite possible that local grids – for example, the size of a small city or a group of neighboring towns – could keep going over the long term, given a stable source of electricity close at hand. There were plenty of grids on that scale across America in the first half of the twentieth century, a point that suggests that the second half of the twenty-first century could see the reemergence of at least a few. Outside localities where this is an option, though, the only electricity that’s likely to be available to families and communities in the deindustrial future is whatever they can generate themselves.

Fortunately, home generation of electricity in modest but useful amounts is an option, and it’s one that those of my readers who are getting into the green wizardry discussed on this blog can start to explore in their own lives right now. What makes it a complex option, however, is the awkward fact that most of the options for home-generated electricity available right now fail the sustainability test in one way or another.

Photovoltaic (PV) power might as well be the poster child for this effect. PV chips are made by a variant of the same process that produces computer chips, and face the same problems with complexity limits as the economic and technological basis for fab plants and worldwide supply chains comes unglued. Though silicon, the raw material of most PV chips, is one of the most abundant elements on the planet, many of the other substances used in manufacturing solar panel systems are noticeably scarcer, and there are also issues with toxic wastes and other pollutants, so there are significant ecosystem limits to the technology as well.

All things considered, it’s probably a safe bet that within fifty years or so, PV cells will no longer be manufactured – not least because a technology we’ve already discussed, solar thermoelectric power, can produce electricity from sunlight using devices that a reasonably enterprising medieval alchemist could have put together. (Given that medieval alchemists pioneered the use of solar energy for distillation, using polished copper reflectors, this isn’t as strange a suggestion as it might seem.) Does this mean that PV panels should be off the list for green wizards today?

That depends on what your PV panels are intended to do, for there are two sides to the challenge that green wizardry is intended to meet. The first and most obvious task before us is to begin the process of creating and deploying prototype versions of sustainable lifestyles, homes, and communities, on a scale small and local enough that the inevitable mistakes and mischances can be managed. The second, which is too often neglected in discussions of the subject, is to meet the needs and reasonable wants of the people who are doing all this creating and deploying, during an age of economic contraction and technological unraveling when relying on the continued functioning of today’s massive and centralized systems could at any moment turn out to be a sucker’s bet.

Down the road, solar thermoelectric generators are likely to become one of the standard ways that households and small businesses provide themselves with a modest supply of electricity, while PV panels will be an exotic legacy from the industrial past where they’ve survived at all. There’s a fair amount of road to be covered between now and then, however, and during much of that time, those solar thermoelectric generators will be making the journey that runs from handbuilt prototypes in the backyards of basement-workshop inventors, through balky first-generation models of many different designs turned out by green entrepreneurs on shoestring budgets, to the shaking-out process from which the standard, sturdy, widely available models of the future will finally emerge.

During that time, those of my readers who don’t happen to have a talent for nonferrous metallurgy and electrical engineering may find PV panels a useful investment. The fact that those panels won’t be available fifty years from now doesn’t make them useless today, and someone whose main efforts are directed toward organic gardening, say, or some other dimension of the Green Wizard project, could do a lot worse than to cut her electricity use down to size and then provide the current she needs from a bank of solar panels and a stack of batteries. For that matter, even someone who’s hard at work in the basement lab assembling bimetallic strips and a parabolic reflector into a prototype thermoelectric generator might choose to retool his lifestyle in the meantime to work off a hundred watts or so of 12 volt power, and put up a few PV panels to provide that power while tinkering with the generator and getting it through the teething pains every experimental project gets to enjoy.

That is to say, PV panels can be used as a bridge. Unlike the natural gas being pumped out of the ground so frantically by fracking operations just now, it’s a bridge that leads somewhere – or, more precisely, it has the potential to be a bridge that leads somewhere, though it can also be used in less productive ways. The sort of grid-tied PV panel system that’s designed to feed 110 volts of alternating current into the grid, and can’t be used at all when the grid goes down – and yes, there are plenty of PV installations like that these days – is another bridge to nowhere; it’s designed to prop up a way of life with no future, or more precisely to go through the motions of propping up that way of life, and as often as not serving primarily as a status symbol in the meantime.

The land on the other side of the bridge, to extend the metaphor a bit further, will inevitably be a place where the inhabitants use a lot less electricity than people in the industrial world do today. Just as you need to weatherize before you solarize, to quote the appropriate tech motto from the Seventies, you thus need to make very serious cuts in your electricity use before you can realistically turn to renewable sources to meet the modest power needs that remain. Here again, any response to the predicament of our time that doesn’t start out with using much less – less energy, stuff, and stimulation – simply isn’t serious; it’s yet another bridge to nowhere.

There are quite a few potential bridges that lead somewhere, just as there are other technologies that aren’t bridges at all but fully sustainable options that will still be running long after the last PV cell stops working. In a world where the industrial nations didn’t take a thirty-year break from reality, it probably wouldn’t be necessary to use the bridges at all; in such a world, entrepreneurs would long since have followed up on the intriguing chapter on solar thermoelectric generators in Farrington Daniels’ Direct Use of the Sun’s Energy, and you’d be able to pick up neatly packaged systems with parabolic dishes on sturdy sun-tracking mounts at the better grade of hardware store, right next to the solar water heaters, the fireless cookers, and the racks of 12 volt household light bulbs.

Still, that’s not the world we live in. The world we live in is one in which a small minority of people are belatedly waking up to the ghastly predicament into which the misguided choices of recent decades have backed us, while most others are squeezing their eyes shut and covering their ears with their hands in a desperate attempt to keep from noticing the mess we’re in. In that kind of world, saving much of anything at all is going to involve quite a bit of last-minute scrambling and a fair number of temporary expedients and jerry-rigged makeshifts, and one feature that will likely be common to a great many of those latter is the use of resources extracted in one way or another from the disintegrating mass of our current industrial system.

Quite a few of our bridges to somewhere, in other words, are going to depend on a strategy that makes calculated use of the process of catabolic collapse now beginning to pick up speed in industrial America and elsewhere. I’ve got a few posts more worth of things to say about energy, and then we’ll begin talking in earnest about the third of the core elements of Green Wizardry, which is also the third great legacy from the alternative movement of the Seventies. Most people nowadays call it recycling, and that’s not a bad term at all, but it’s come to mean little more than putting out bins once a week so that diesel-powered trucks can come haul a fraction of your waste products back into the industrial system. The work we’ll be discussing is both more robust and more personal, and so it needs a different name; we’ll be calling it salvage.