In The World After Abundance

Over the past month or so the essays on this blog have veered away from the details of appropriate tech into a discussion of some of the reasons why this kind of tech is, in fact, appropriate as a response to the predicament of industrial society. That was a necessary diversion, since a great many of the narratives that cluster around that crisis just now tend to evade the necessity of change on the level of individual lifestyles. The roots of that evasion had to be explored in order to show that change on that level is exactly what can’t be avoided by any serious response to the crisis of our time.

Still, if it’s going to do any good, that awareness has to be paired with something more than a vague sense that action is necessary. Talk, as Zen masters are fond of saying, does not boil the rice; in the rather more formal language of the traditions of Western esotericism where I received a good deal of my training, the planes of being are discrete and not continuous, which means in practice that even the clearest sense of how we collectively backed ourselves into the present mess isn’t going to bring in food from the garden, keep warmth from leaking out of the house on a cold winter night, or provide a modest amount of electricity for those bits of modern or not-quite-modern technology that will still make sense, and still yield benefits, in the world after abundance.

That last phrase is the crucial one. In the future ahead of us, the extravagant habits of the recent past and the present will no longer be an option. Those habits include most of what people in the industrial world nowadays like to consider the basic amenities of a normal lifestyle, or even the necessities of life. An unwillingness to take a hard look at the assumptions underlying our current notion of what a normal lifestyle comprises has driven a certain amount of wishful thinking, and roughly the same amount of unnecessary dread, among those who have begun to grapple with the challenges ahead of us.

One of the best examples I can think of is provided by the ubiquitous wall sockets that, in nearly every home in the industrial world, provide as much electric current on demand as the residents want and can pay for. In most circles these days, when conversations turn to the prospects of energy for the future, the belief that the only possible way to use electricity is to keep uninterrupted power flowing to those sockets is very nearly as sacrosanct as the belief that the only possible way to handle transportation is to find some way to keep hundreds of millions of private cars fueled with as much ethanol, or biodiesel, or electricity, or what have you, as their drivers can afford. Both these beliefs take the temporary habits of an age of excess and treat them as necessities, and both of them box our collective imagination into a futile quest to sustain the unsustainable instead of looking at other options that are well within reach even this late in the game.

The sheer inefficiency of today’s habits of electrical generation, distribution, and use is rarely recognized. Behind those wall sockets lies what is very probably the world’s largest single system of infrastructure, an immense network linking huge power plants and end users via a crazy spiderweb of transmission lines covering whole continents. To keep electricity in those lines, vast amounts of fuel are burnt every day to generate heat, which produces steam, which drives turbines, which turn generators, which put voltage onto the lines; at each of these transformations of energy from one form to another, the laws of thermodynamics take their toll, and as a result only about a third of the potential energy in the fuel finds its way to the wall socket. Losses to entropy of the same order of magnitude also take place when electricity is generated by other means – hydroelectricity, wind power or what have you – because of parallel limits hardwired into the laws of physics.

When the resulting current comes out of the wall sockets, in turn, equivalent losses take place on the other end. Most electricity in today’s industrial societies gets turned into light, heat, or mechanical motion at its end use, and each of these transformations involves unavoidable inefficiencies. Furthermore, a very large fraction of today’s end uses of electricity are things that could be done just as well without it, with the application of a little ordinary muscle power or some other readily available energy source. That’s not even counting the gigawatts that go into lighting, cooling and heating unoccupied rooms, keeping electronic devices on unnecessary standby, drowning out the stars with light pollution, and, well, let’s not even start talking about Wii.

Having an energy system geared to so grandiose a level of excess seemed to make sense in the days when fossil fuels were cheap and abundant. Quite a few absurd things seemed to make sense in those days, and even when they no longer make any sense at all, the habits of that brief interval continue to dominate contemporary thought to an embarrassing degree. Notice how our economic system, as well as nearly all economists, still act as though replacing human labor with fossil fuel-derived energy is always a good idea, even at a time when unemployment is pandemic and the cost of energy is a rising burden on economies around the world.

The same fixation on maintaining the extravagant habits of the recent past still holds most discussions of energy hostage. Every source of electrical power these days is measured against the yardstick of whether it could provide enough cheap, abundant, reliable, continuous power to keep our existing electrical grids running. Proponents of each of the various contenders trot out an assortment of canned studies insisting that their preferred energy technology can do just that, while challenging competing systems with equally canned studies that insist that no other option will work.

Given the billions of dollars that have already been paid out to the winners in these competitions, and the trillions more that will likely follow, this sort of propaganda dolled up in scientific drag will most likely continue to be standard practice until the money and other resources for grandiose projects simply aren’t there any more. Meanwhile, there’s really no way to be sure in advance that any of the options can keep the grids running, and if there is, the chance that the one that ends up clawing its way to the top of the heap in the political free-for-all now under way will just happen to be one that will do the trick is not exactly something on which I’d choose to bet.

The difficulty here is that most current conversations about the future of energy are trying to figure out an answer without first making sure that what’s being asked is the right question. “How can we keep an electrical grid designed around the unquestioned availability of cheap abundant energy?” is the obvious question, and it’s also the wrong one. The right question – the question that we should be asking – is something more like “How much electricity can we count on having in a future after fossil fuels, and what are the best ways to produce, distribute, and use it?” That question has hardly been asked at all. It’s high time to remedy that omission.

There are many reasons for thinking, in fact, that trying to maintain an electrical grid on a regional or national scale in a future of scarce energy is a fool’s game. To run a large-scale grid of the sort currently in use, you need to be able to produce huge amounts of power every second of every day. It’s very difficult to get that much power that reliably by any means other than burning a lot of fossil fuels, either directly – say, in a coal- or gas-fired power plant – or indirectly. Tot up the total energy content of the fossil fuels needed to mine and refine uranium and urn it into fuel rods, to build, maintain, and decommission a nuclear reactor, to deal with the short-term and long-term waste, and to account for a share of the energy cost of the inevitable accidents, for example, and you’ll have a sense of the scale of the energy subsidies from fossil fuels that prop up nuclear power; do the same math for today’s giant wind turbines, and a similar realization is in store. Lacking these subsidies, it’s probably a safe bet that nuclear reactors and giant wind turbines can’t be built or maintained at all.

Still, an important point is generally missed here. Gigawatts of power are necessary for an electrical power grid. They aren’t necessary for any one of the homes and small businesses that make up the great numerical majority of end users. Get rid of the pointless excess that dominates our current approach to energy, and limit your use of electricity to the things it actually does better than other readily available energy sources, and a 12 volt circuit at very modest wattage is very often all you need. Powering a 12 volt circuit at modest wattage is child’s play, and can be done by any of a baker’s dozen or so of readily accessible technologies that can be built, maintained, and used by any moderately skilled handyperson.

Equally, having all that power on call every second of every day is necessary for an electrical grid of the modern kind. It’s not actually necessary for homes and small businesses. Again, get rid of social habits that amount to wasting energy for the sake of wasting energy, and it’s not that hard to live with an intermittent electrical supply, either by using electricity whenever it happens to be available and not otherwise, or by using batteries to store up current for a short time until you need it.

Seventy and eighty years ago, this latter was standard practice in a great many American homes. One of my vintage radio textbooks, A. and M. Marcus’ excellent Elements of Radio, dates from those days. At that time radio was the hot new technology, and even out in farm country, where rural electrification took its sweet time to arrive, most families who could scrape together the cash had a radio in the parlor, linking them to news, music, and other cultural resources from hundreds of miles away. Where did they get the power? Batteries, two of them per radio: an A battery to power the filaments on the vacuum tubes and a B battery to provide the working current. The A battery needed frequent recharging, and wind power was among the options for that; the iconic and ubiquitous windmills of rural America three quarters of a century ago had plenty of uses, and as often as not, that was one of them.

Long before electrical grids extended out of America’s urban cores, in fact, it was fairly common for households elsewhere in the country to have a modest amount of electricity to hand. There are a few things electricity does more efficently than any other form of energy – radio, broadcast or two-way; other electronic devices such as the phonograph; safe, smokeless lighting for the parlor and the kitchen for a few hours after sunset – and those were what people at that time did with electricity. (Nowadays a well-insulated refrigerator and the pump for a closed-loop active solar water heater might be worth adding to the same list.) Those things that electricity only does inefficiently and other energy sources do well – for example, providing diffuse heat or high-torque mechanical energy – people did by other means. Fairly often, those other means required a certain amount of muscle power, but that’s an inevitable reality of life in a world after abundance.

The distinction between those things electricity does efficiently, and those things that it doesn’t, is as important to keep in mind as it’s commonly neglected. Kris de Decker, in a recent and useful article on pedal powered technologies in Low-tech Magazine, has done a good job of mapping out the issues involved. He points out that most pedal power devices currently on the market use the back wheel of a bicycle to run a generator, and then use the electricity produced by the generator to do something. For most uses, this is hopelessly inefficient, since every transformation of energy from one form to another involves losses to entropy which can be saved by leaving the energy in its original form. How serious are the losses? Enough that you’ll be pedaling two to three times as long to do the same task with electricity as you would if the bicycle’s mechanical power did it directly.

If you want to power a blender to make yourself margaritas on hot summer days, for example, it’s a substantial waste of energy – your energy, expressed in sweat and tired muscles – to hook your bicycle to a generator and wire up the generator to the motor that drives the blender. The more efficient option is to use the mechanical motion of the bicycle wheel to spin the blender blades directly; there are still losses to entropy, of course, but they’re a small fraction of what they would be if you stick a generator and motor in the middle where they’re not needed.

The same principle applies to a great many other things that are currently done by means of electricity. Regular readers of this blog will readily be able to think of another example, since I’ve discussed more than once the misunderstandings that bedevil solar energy. They come from the same set of blinders as the notion that pedal power ought to be used to generate electricity, rather than being used to drive the mechanical motion a great deal of today’s electricity is used to drive. Sunlight can be turned into electricity on a small scale in several different ways; none of them are very efficient, and they’re all intermitted and difficult to scale up, but several are quite good enough to drive the sort of small-scale 12 volt system discussed here if you’ve got a good southern exposure. What sunlight does with great efficiency, on the other hand, is convert itself to diffuse heat – the sort of heat that will warm a room, heat a bath, or bake a loaf of bread in a solar oven. When planning for solar energy, in other words, it’s best to do as much as possible with the diffuse heat sunlight provides so readily, and convert sunlight to electricity only for the handful of uses where electricity is the only thing, or the best thing, for the job.

Apply the same logic across the board and you end up with the most probable energy system of a world after abundance: a patchwork of different energy sources and applications, right down to the level of the individual household or business. In the American households of three quarters of a century ago I mentioned earlier in this post, that was perfectly normal; the radio ran off the A and B batteries, the stove was powered by wood from the woodlot, two lamps in the parlor ran off batteries charged by the windmill while the rest burnt kerosene, the sewing machine ran off a foot-operated treadle, the water was pumped by the windmill and heated by the sun – yes, solar water heaters were hugely popular in the 1920s, especially but not only in the Sun Belt. One consequence of this crazy quilt of energy options is that if something disrupted access to any one source of energy, the rest of the household chugged on unaffected. Compare that to the electricity-dependent household of the present, where a blackout renders the whole household inoperable and quite possibly unlivable.

The crucial point to take away from all this, though, is that expectations formed by the extravagance of the recent past are not a useful guide to the best options available to us in the post-peak future. It’s a safe bet, of course, that plenty of resources will be thrown down a dizzying assortment of ratholes in the attempt to keep the infrastructure of the age of abundance up and running even as the abundance itself trickles away. Long after private cars have stopped making any kind of economic sense, for example, what’s left of the American economy will still be being jiggered and poked in an attempt to keep some mummified simulacrum of an auto industry propped up in its corner, and no doubt similar efforts will be made to support the big regional grids even when the impact of shutting them down would be less of an economic burden than the cost of keeping them going. That’s why it’s all the more crucial for individuals, families, and community groups to start shifting over to the habits of energy use that will make sense in the world after abundance, to work through the learning curve and develop the skills and technologies that will be there to pick up the pieces when the legacy technologies of our fading age of excess finally grind to a halt.