Energy Funds, Energy Flows

It’s a safe bet that whenever I post something here discussing the limits to energy resources, one result will be a flurry of emails and attempted comments insisting that it just ain’t so. I’ve long since stopped responding to them, since the arguments they raise – they’re always the same – have been repeatedly addressed here and in my books on peak oil, and endlessly rehashing the same really rather straightforward issues isn’t that productive a use of my time. Still, I keep track of them; it’s a useful reminder of just how many people have never quite grasped the fact that the laws of nature are under no obligation to cater to our culture’s emotionally charged fantasies of perpetual progress and limitless growth.

That failure to come to terms with the realities of our predicament is by no means restricted to internet bloggers, to be sure. The World Wildlife Federation, to cite only one example, has just released a lavishly produced study insisting that the world can replace 95% of its fossil fuel energy from renewables by 2050, with ample room for population increases, ongoing economic growth in the industrial world, and a boom in the nonindustrial world that will supposedly raise it out of poverty. The arguments in the report will be wearily familiar to anybody who’s followed the peak oil debate for any noticeable length of time; Erik Lundberg of Transition Milwaukee has already commented on these in some detail, and his points don’t need to be revisited here.

Underlying all the grand and sweeping fantasies of endless economic growth powered somehow by lukewarm sunlight and inconstant wind, I’ve come to think, lies the simple fact that the human mind never quite got around to evolving the capacity to think in terms of the huge amounts of energy our species currently, and briefly, has at its disposal. It’s one thing to point out that a planeload of tourists flying from Los Angeles to Cairo to see the Great Pyramid, back when political conditions in Egypt allowed for that, used more energy in that one flight than it took to build the Great Pyramid in the first place. It’s quite another to understand exactly what that means – to get some sense of the effort it took for gangs of laborers to haul all those blocks of stone from the quarries to the Nile, load them on boats, then haul them up from the Nile’s edge east of Giza and get them into place in the slowly rising mass of the Pyramid, and then to equate all that effort with the fantastic outpouring of force that flows through the turbines of a modern jet engine and keeps an airliner poised in the thin air 40,000 feet above the ground for the long flight from LA to Cairo.

Like the age of the Earth or the distance to the nearest star, that torrential flow of energy is on a scale our minds are simply not capable of grasping in any but the most abstract sense. From the perspective we inherit from our evolutionary origins, where the effort needed to chase down an antelope or fight off a hyena lies toward the upper end of our imaginations, the power needed to keep a couple of hundred tons of aluminum, steel, fuel, luggage, and human flesh in midair for most of a day is so close to infinite that it’s all too easy to confuse the two.

As we prepare to navigate the rough waters of the immediate future, though, confusing the two is a major mistake. The fantasy of infinite energy is what’s behind the assumption, common throughout the industrial world, that using as much energy as possible in as many ways as possible is an unqualified good. Once supply limits enter the picture, unlimited use becomes problematic, but it’s important to grasp that there are two kinds of limits to energy availability and two kinds of problems that result.

The best way to think of the difference I’m addressing here is to borrow a metaphor from money. One kinds of energy limit is a limit to energy flows, which works like the limit imposed by the amount of a weekly paycheck. If you make five hundred dollars a week, that’s how much you have to spend that week, and if the potential uses for that money amount to more than five hundred a week, you have to prioritize. So much has to be set aside for rent, so much for food, so much for utilities, and so on, before you decide how much you can afford to spend on whatever else you have in mind. Neglect to prioritize and you can end up scrambling to get by until your next weekly paycheck shows up.

The other kind of energy limit is a limit to energy funds, which functions like the limit imposed by the amount of an inheritance or a lump-sum lottery win. If you have ten million dollars in the bank from a winning lottery ticket, the kind of limit the fund’s size puts on you is very different from the kind that a weekly paycheck puts on you. Treated as a fund, that ten million dollars is all you’ll ever have to spend, and unless there’s less than ten million dollars’ worth of expenditures you’ll want to make in your entire life, you have to prioritize, just like the guy making five hundred a week.

Notice, though, that if you’ve got a fund rather than a flow, the temptation to ignore priorities and run amuck with your wealth can be very high, because payback doesn’t come midway through the week; it comes when your bank balance drops too low to cover your current expenses, and when that happens, it’s far too late to do anything about it. If you have more than the usual amount of brains the gods gave hominids, you can dodge this by turning the fund into a source of flow. In the world of money, this is called investing: you buy assets that give you a steady return, and the resulting flow becomes the bedrock on which you build your financial life; even if you mess up and have to scramble, there’s always the next check to help you out. Still, you have to make the decision to do that, and then keep your grubby hands off the funds you’ve invested.

Apply this to energy and you’ve basically got the history of the modern world. Until our species broke into the Earth’s store of fossil fuels and started going through it like a lottery winner on a spree, we lived from paycheck to paycheck on the incoming flows from the sun, and we got fairly clever at it. Growing food crops, raising livestock, building windmills and waterwheels, designing houses to soak up heat from the sun in winter and shed it in the summer, and a good many other ingenious tricks gave us the annual paycheck of energy we used to support ourselves and cover the costs of such luxury goods as art, literature, philosophy, science, and the occasional Great Pyramid.

With the transformation of coal from ugly black rock to energy resource over the course of the eighteenth century, that changed radically. Simply put, our species won the lottery, and it wasn’t a paltry little million-dollar prize, either – it was the great-grandmother of all jackpots, unimaginably vast enough that for most of three hundred years, the major constraint on how fast we used fossil fuels was the struggle to figure out enough clever ways to use it all. What nobody noticed at the time, or for a long time thereafter, was that we’d switched from a flow to a fund, and the faster our fossil fuel use accelerated, the faster the bank balance depleted.

We could have done the smart thing and converted the fund into a source of flows. That’s what the alternative energy scene of the 1970s was all about: figuring out ways to use the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves to bridge the gap to a renewable energy technology that could last after the fossil fuels were gone. Even then, it was a gamble; nobody knew for sure if it would be possible, even using the world’s still-huge fossil fuel reserves, to create a renewable infrastructure sturdy and productive enough that it could keep providing ample energy into the far future. Still, it’s possible that it could have been done, if the initiatives launched in that decade had been pursued in the decades that followed.

The people responsible for the World Wildlife Fund study, and those people who deluge me with cornucopian screeds that aren’t simply chanting "Drill, baby, drill" or insisting that God Almighty will refill the world’s oilfields so that we can keep on living exactly the sort of life of extravagant luxury, wealth and pride their own Bible condemns in no uncertain terms, are basically insisting that this is still an option. It’s not, and the reason it’s not comes from the one major difference between money and energy resources: in the world of energy, a fund is also subject to restrictions on flow. It’s as though the bank account where you have your lottery winnings stashed has a regulation saying that you can only withdraw two per cent of your total balance per month.

If you’ve got ten million dollars in the bank, that limit hardly seems worth noticing at first, but as your tastes grow more extravagant and your bills mount up, the amount you think you need each month goes up, and the amount you can theoretically withdraw goes down as your balance depletes. Sooner or later those two lines cross, and once that happens only a drastic program of cutting expenses and prioritizing bills can save you from financial ruin. Unless you’re willing to suck it up and live very cheaply for a good long while, you certainly can’t afford to take the money you have left and sock it into an investment; you need the money to cover your bills right now, and the best you can probably hope for is that the remainder of your lottery winnings will clear your debts and maybe pay for some nice things you won’t be able to afford in the future, when you’re back to earning five hundred a week.

The restrictions on flow that affect fossil fuels are the product of geology and economics, not bank regulations, but the principle is the same. It’s simply not possible to extract more than a certain amount of oil from a given oil field per year – the amount varies from field to field due to fine details of geology – and trying to do so is a good way to exhaust the field prematurely, losing the chance to get some of the oil you might have had by doing things the right way. Despite all the ballyhoo about high-tech methods of extracting oil from the ground, in practice, those turn out to get about the same amount of oil as the old-fashioned method, just a lot faster; in practice, that means that the field keeps production at a higher plateau for a while longer, but runs dry sooner. The limits to coal and natural gas production are a bit more straightforward: neither one is cheap to produce, and the faster you want to produce it, the more it’s going to cost you and the sooner you run out of good places to dig or drill.

Thus you don’t have to run out of fossil fuels to end up in a world of hurt; you just need to get to the point where rising demand crosses decreasing potential flow. Worldwide conventional petroleum production passed that point in 2005; coal is closing in on the equivalent point, the point at which the cost of expanding production from depleting reserves will exceed the ability of the global economy to pay; natural gas is a little further off, though nothing like so far as the press releases from shale gas drilling companies hoping to buoy their stock prices would like you to think. In terms of the metaphor, our bills are mounting and our ability to withdraw enough cash to cover them from the First National Bank of Earth is starting to come into serious question.

Can we afford at this point to invest a very sizable fraction of what we have left in a project of the sort the World Wildlife Fund imagines? Not without a process of global economic retrenchment that would make the Great Depression – the last one, not the current one – look like a lawn party. Political realities being what they are, it’s not going to happen.

This means, as these essays have argued repeatedly already, that trying to find some new jackpot of energy to fuel our current lifestyles is not a viable response to our predicament. The foundation of any viable response needs to start from the other end of the equation, by changing our lifestyles to accept the drastic retrenchment that’s waiting for us anyway as fossil fuels continue to deplete. If our imaginary lottery winner wants to get out of the trap he’s made for himself, after all, the first thing he has to do is stop spending money so freely. Once that happens, the range of potential opportunities broadens significantly, but unless that happens, there’s no way that things are going to end well.

The distinction between funds and flows is important enough that I’d like to ask those of my readers who are working on the Green Wizards project to use it to expand on the list you made last week. That list, as you’ll remember, includes every way that heat enters into your house during the cold months of the year, and every way that it leaves. (If you didn’t think of the furnace, the stove, and other heat-producing appliances when you were coming up with ways that heat enters your home, by the way, you should probably do the list over again.) For this week’s work, take each of the ways that heat comes into your home, figure out whether it comes from a flow (for example, sunlight) or a fund (for example, natural gas), and if it comes from a fund, what restrictions affect your access to flows from that fund (for example, the cost of natural gas).

This may take you a bit of research. Your refrigerator, for example, puts a noticeable amount of heat into your home; if it’s electric, what energy source produces the electricity you use? If it’s coal or natural gas, it’s from a fund; if it’s hydroelectric, it’s from a flow; it may well be a mixture of these and more. Take the time to find out; it’s good practice, and will also give you a much better idea of what factors are likely to affect your electric bill in the future as different resources run short at different rates. More generally, go over your list from last week and see if you can expand on it. Next week, with the help of a pair of British musical comedians, we’ll begin applying this information to the next practical stage of the Green Wizards project.

My books on peak oil and the future of industrial society, The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future, are available from your local full service bookstore or direct from the publisher at the links just given. My forthcoming book on post-peak economics, The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered, will be available in June and can be preordered now from the publisher at a 20% discount.