Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category

The looming net energy cliff

December 30, 2017

I’m putting a link here to this guest post from Cassandra’s Legacy blog because the information in it is so important.

If you have a blog, please reblog. I’ve already shared it on Facebook.



December 27, 2017

Someone on Facebook asked about the implications of the linked article below…..

The end of growth sparks wide discontent

…..”Can you break this article down into a statement that can be understood in laymen’s terms? I read most of it and felt smart even though I’m almost completely lost on its implications ..”

This was my reply (here expanded a bit):

“Growth is a function of energy use. When all you have is the sun’s energy to grow with (via the photosynthesis of green plants), you can only support so many people and produce so many artifacts and much of this will be done with human labour. Fossil fuels made it possible to increase all that by a thousandfold. Now, they’re starting to run out—discovery and production have both peaked. So there will  be a contraction—in the number of people that can be supported and the number of things that can be done and produced. The implications of too many humans to be supported by photosynthetic energy? Wars over declining resources; thousands of deaths; loss of those things that need fossil fuels for their production*; a return to a simpler way of life, eventually with human numbers in balance with their energy supply. It won’t be pretty and we’ll lose a lot of what we now take for granted. And all that while trying to cope with the effects of climate change, which our thoughtless use of fossil fuels has caused.”

*including wind turbines and solar panels—so there goes your hopes that we’ll keep this way of life going on renewables. The only renewable sources of energy for life on earth are green plants.

Could you live off-grid?

June 19, 2017

In a world where the weeks seem to fly by, I’m pretty envious of anyone who can write a weekly blog and always manage to make it interesting and informative. Chris at Fernglade Farm is one of those people. Chris lives in Victoria about 100 km northwest of me and importantly, lives off-grid.

“For about a month either side of the winter solstice, my mind reflects upon the deficiencies of the off grid solar power system here. Don’t get me wrong, I love solar energy as it is a great source of electricity. It just happens to be subject to some deficiencies which generally show up at this time of year.”

Last week’s blog saw Chris adding another five solar panels to his system, making thirty in all. He made some important points about off-grid solar and solar in general.

  • Electricity storage batteries perform better and longer if they don’t go much below 70% charge.
  • If they get too low, they don’t always effectively power the things they’re meant to power (I assume that means not enough oomph).
  • The further you have to run electric cables from solar panels to the house (assuming they’re situated somewhere other than on the roof of the house they’re powering), the thicker/heavier the cable has to be to overcome heat losses.
  • Therefore, filling up the desert (aka Central Australia) with solar panels is going to be a difficult and expensive task, because the power has to be transported long distances to where it’s needed (and the high temperatures usually found in deserts reduce the output of the panels).
  • Location is ultra-important; the panels have to face the sun for optimum performance. That means north in our part of the world.
  • Cloudy winter weather can be a problem… need to get enough power to use, plus  enough to keep the batteries optimally charged.
  • Chris aims to use about 7-8 kWh per day, that’s very low compared with about three times that for an average household.

So I considered my own usage. I’m still grid-connected, but would like to get off it. The battery cost is the main problem.

My electricity provider, United Energy, maintains a very useful internet site, called Energy Easy, where I can register and log in to see my power usage—hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. Below is a partial screen shot of the page. This sort of information has only become available since the changeover to smart meters.

The dark orange vertical bars above the line show how much power I took from the grid at the particular time. The lighter orange bars underneath the line show the excess power from the solar panels which went back to the grid. The difference between that and what the panels actually produced is what went from the panels straight into the house (that happens preferentially, before any excess is exported to the grid). That’s not shown on the graph. I can get that from the inverter readout and a bit of subtraction.

The line at the top, joining the little circles, is supposed to represent the average daily use for a household in my suburb. I get the actual figures by mousing over the relevant parts on the graph.

So on Monday June 5, I took 2.6 kWh from the grid and sent 2.4 kWh back to the grid (for which the retailer paid me the princely sum of 8 cents per kWh—and from July 1 it’s due to go down to 5 cents!). But the average use for other households was 16.9 kWh.

Working it all out, with my present lifestyle, I might be able to get away with an off-grid system that would need to provide at least 5-7 kWh of power per day and preferably a bit more. That’s a lifestyle with no air-conditioning in summer and no electric heating in winter (I have a wood fire) and no water heating (I have bottled gas). And my panels aren’t optimally placed—I don’t have a north-facing roof section; there are 8 panels facing east and 12 facing west.

So if people think that by going solar they can continue with their present energy-hungry lifestyles, then they may be in for a shock. Either they’ll need more solar panels than will fit on the average optimum-facing roof, a huge battery backup, or a combination of both.

The other important fact about solar systems is that they aren’t sustainable long-term. Solar panels are currently manufactured using the energy from fossil fuels; so are the batteries used to store the excess power. That’s not saying anything about the resources needed either, or whether we’re all going to be running electric cars as well as household appliances. If the batteries are going to be Li-ion type, is there enough lithium in the world to make all the batteries required? Where is it located? Are the countries where it’s located going to be willing to share it, or will they want to keep it for themselves? It has to be mined and processed—again using fossil fuels. To be truly sustainable, an energy source needs to provide enough energy and of a suitable type, to reproduce itself, plus enough additional energy to run the sort of society we want.

Solar energy is only a means of getting away from coal-fired electricity in the short term. It won’t be part of a long-term future. For the same reasons, neither will wind power.

Even in the short-term, assuming you had the money to install a solar-powered off-grid system, could you live off it? Probably yes….but not the way most of us want to live today.


March 10, 2017

Interesting post from Ugo Bardi at Cassandra’s Legacy blog. I had no idea how jet engines work, so learned a few things from the video about fuel consumption and the relative costs of flying.

The bottom line is that oil running out will be the end of powered flight. No oil, no fly. Ah, well….it was always for the birds anyway.


“Peak Speed” for the World’s Airlines

So, it is true: planes fly slower nowadays! The video, above, shows that plane trips are today more than 10% longer than they were in the 1960s and 1970s for the same distance. Airlines, it seems, attained their “peak speed” during those decades.

Clearly, today airlines have optimized the performance of their planes to minimize costs. But they were surely optimizing their business practices also before the peak and, at that time, the results they obtained must have been different. The change took place when they started using the current oil prices for their models and they found that they had to slow down. You see in the chart below what happened to the oil market after 1970. (Brent oil prices, corrected for inflation, source)

It is remarkable how things change. Do you remember the hype of the 1950s and 1960s? The people who opposed the building of supersonic passenger planes were considered to be against humankind’s manifest destiny. Speed had to increase because it had always been doing so and technology would have provided us with the means to continue moving faster.

 Rising oil prices dealt a death blow to that attitude. The supersonic Concorde was a flying mistake that was built nevertheless (a manifestation of French Grandeur). Fortunately, other weird ideas didn’t make it, such as the sub-orbital plane that should have shot passengers from Paris to New York in less than one hour.

If this story tells us something is that, in the fight between technological progress and oil depletion, oil depletion normally wins. Airlines are especially fuel-hungry and they have no alternatives to liquid fuels. So, despite all the best technologies, the only way for them to cope with higher oil prices was to slow down planes, it was as simple as that.

Even slower planes, though, still need liquid fuels that are manufactured from oil. We may go back to propeller planes for even better efficiency, but the problem remains: no oil, no planes, at least not the kind of planes that allow normal people to fly, something that, nowadays, looks like an obvious feature of our life. But, as I said before, things change!

The implications of collapsing ERoEI

January 26, 2017

Judging by the relatively low level of interest the past few articles published here regarding the collapse of fossil fuel ERoEI (along with PV’s) have attracted, I can only conclude that mos…

Source: The implications of collapsing ERoEI

Reblogged from Damn the Matrix

Forget 1984…. 2020 is the apocalypse year

January 26, 2017

The crescendo of news pointing to 2020 as the date to watch is growing apace…. it won’t be the year collapse happens, because collapse is a process, not an event; but it will definitely…

Source: Forget 1984…. 2020 is the apocalypse year

Reblogged from Damn the Matrix


Oh, to be a fly on the wall as it unfolds…

The Great Contraction

December 19, 2016

Some time ago I found a new blog about energy and the economy and related issues. It’s written by a Canadian and it’s very good. He explains concepts in a way that makes understanding easy. He’s about to launch a new series of posts on ‘political realities’—the problems of running a country in an age of scarcity. But before he starts that, he’s posted a set of links to a similar series he wrote previously, in 2014. I’ve put the list of links below. For anyone who doesn’t understand how energy and the economy are connected these make an excellent starting point :

Energy and ecosystems

December 4, 2016

When I did physics in school we learned that energy is “the ability to do work”. That’s all I can remember about it from way back then, but it was a simple definition and easy to parrot back to an examiner. Nowadays, as I get older, I would be tempted to say, “energy is what I wish I had more of.”

Many years later when studying ecology, it came to mean a whole lot more and the subject took a fascinating turn, because energy flows through ecosystems are what determines life on this planet and how it is organised.

With a few exceptions, all life on the earth gets its energy from the sun. Green plants take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water from the soil and using the sun’s energy break down these compounds and reform them into glucose and oxygen. Oxygen is a waste product and vents through the leaves back into the atmosphere and the glucose is converted into more complex carbohydrates like starch and ultimately into proteins and fats. The whole process is called photosynthesis, literally, ‘putting together with light’.

For a given amount of sun energy, green plants use 90% of that energy just doing what plants do—growing, metabolising and producing flowers and seeds for the next generation. The remaining 10% is stored in the plant as chemical energy. Plants are the primary producers in an ecosystem. An animal that eats the plant (a herbivore), breaks it down and extracts the energy to drive its own metabolism, growth and reproduction. The same thing happens with that energy, i.e. 90% of the energy stored in the plant is used to fuel the herbivore’s activities and the remaining 10% is stored in the herbivore’s body. Along comes a carnivorous predator to eat the herbivore and again 90% of the energy is used to fuel the carnivore’s life and 10% is stored in the carnivore’s body.

This is called the ten percent law and it gives us a basic understanding of the cycling of energy through food chains. Each level in the food chain is called a trophic level (from ‘troph’, a feeder). There can be 3 or 4 trophic levels in a food chain: primary producers, herbivores, first order carnivores and (sometimes) second order carnivores.

For example :



What we get is a trophic pyramid like so :


And looked at in energy storage terms :

Image result for energy pyramid ecology

This is the energy pyramid that would result from 100,000 kcal of sunlight energy being collected by green plants. The amount of stored energy decreases by a factor of 10 as energy moves up the pyramid and only 10 kcal of that original 100,000 kcal remains at the top of the pyramid. The rest has been lost in the processes of metabolism, growth and repair and reproduction.

Furthermore, the ten percent law shows the inefficiency of energy capture at each successive trophic level. The rational conclusion being, energy efficiency is best preserved by sourcing food as close to the initial energy source as possible. As food writer Michael Pollan has observed : “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

The really interesting thing to understand is that the energy pyramid is also a biomass pyramid (biomass is the amount of living material at each level). So in the grass—>gazelle—>lion ecosystem, there is always more grass than gazelles and more gazelles than lions. If you think about it, it couldn’t be any other way. If it was the other way up and there were more lions than gazelles and more gazelles than grass, the lions would quickly eat out all the gazelles and starve to death, while at the same time the gazelles would eat out all the grass and starve to death.

For me, that understanding is one of the most fascinating aspects of how life on earth works and all thanks to that big ball of energy up in the sky.

However, I think it’s also important to point out that the pyramid is now top-heavy with the most efficient and resourceful top predator on the planet, namely us, Homo sapiens.

The predator-prey, pyramid-type systems described above have evolved to be that way, that’s why they work. Evolution has worked on these systems for 3.5 billion years. Spend that much time on something and eventually you end up with a system that works. So why have we humans ended up unbalancing the pyramid the way we have? Because in the naturally evolved systems, the availability of energy (via food) is controlled largely by competition from organisms at the same level as you and by the availability of food at the level below you. In turn, your numbers are controlled by predation by organisms on the pyramid above you. By adopting agriculture, humans made more food and energy available to themselves than the system would have provided naturally. Killing everything that competes with you for that food goes a long way to getting even more food for yourself and when you discover a wonderful energy source like fossil fuels and you can put that towards producing even more food/energy, well, you’re home and hosed.  Except that you’ve messed up a perfectly good working system and somewhere along the way, when those fossil fuels have run out and your numbers have exploded beyond what the systems below you on the pyramid can naturally support, you can expect a rather nasty crash.


In the real world, when civilizations exhaust their resource bases and wreck the ecological cycles that support them, they fall.
~~~~~~John Michael Greer (The Archdruid Report)


Every creature born in the biological community of the earth belongs to that community. Nothing lives in isolation from the rest; nothing can live in isolation from the rest. Nothing lives only in itself, needing nothing from the community. Nothing lives only for itself, owing nothing to the community. Nothing is untouchable or untouched. Every life in the community is owed to the community–and is paid back to the community in death. The community is a web of life, and every strand of the web is a path to all the other strands. Nothing is exempt. Nothing is special. Nothing lives on a strand by itself, unconnected to the rest.
~~~~~~Daniel Quinn (Providence: the story of a fifty-year vision quest)


Three short videos

November 30, 2016

I’m sure you all know this stuff by now, but if not, here’s three short animated videos from the Post Carbon Institute and Richard Heinberg :




So what IS ‘sustainable’?

November 23, 2016

In this post, in which I mentioned ‘renewable’ and ‘sustainable’ in the same breath, I claimed that few people really understood what ‘sustainable’ means. So what actually does the word mean?

That which can be sustained? Something…..a process, a thing…..which can be carried on or last for… how long? A short time? A long time? Indefinitely? There are all sorts of fancy definitions, such as the one from the famous Brundtland Report in 1987, which talked about ‘sustainable development’.

In searching for definitions I found this site. It’s extremely comprehensive and I think it’s one of the best I’ve seen on what is popularly known as the ‘sustainability crisis’. This extract is from the glossary which defines ‘sustainability’ :

We’re going to define sustainability quite differently from normal definitions because the most popular definition in the world, the Brundtland definition of so called “sustainable development,” is flawed. It’s so flawed it should be tossed on the rubbish heap of history’s biggest catastrophic mistakes.

First we’ll give you our definition, followed by a look at why “sustainable development” is not just flawed. It was designed to deliberately lead problem solvers astray, because guess who “development” benefits most, even more than developing nations? Why large for-profit corporations, of course.

So here’s their definition. Short and sweet and simple to understand :

Sustainability is the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely.

Indefinitely? How long is that? Until the sun burns out and everything on earth turns into a charred mass? I don’t think we need to go quite that far. Upright-walking humans have been around for about 4.5 million years. That’s the age of the oldest-known skeleton that has been found anyway. Noted biologist Edward O. Wilson, in one of his books, gives the average age of a species as around 5 million years. So we might have another half a million years to go. I reckon that’s enough to be going on with.

So what can be sustainable? Can things be sustainable? I’ve seen a newspaper article in which a couple claimed they’d bought a ‘more’ sustainable refrigerator. (I’ve highlighted that word ‘more’ because I want to go into that later). Refrigerators can’t be sustainable. Apart from the fact that an individual fridge will break down eventually, they’re part of a bigger system and that’s what has to be sustainable (did they consider whether the material resources and energy used to make the fridge were themselves sustainable?). Can a person be sustainable? I’ve seen people say they’re trying to be self-sustainable. Again no, because people are part of a bigger system which they depend on and can’t be sustainable as individuals unless that system itself is sustainable (what they really mean is self-sufficient). So what does sustainability refer to? This is the definition we learned in our permaculture design course :

A system is sustainable if it produces more energy than it consumes, with at least enough energy left over to maintain and reproduce itself indefinitely.

This is getting closer to the mark, especially because it uses the concept of energy in the definition and because all life on earth is defined by energy transfer between living things and their environment. And it refers to systems. Only systems can be sustainable, not individual things. A system can’t be sustainable if any process in that system isn’t sustainable, i.e. can’t be carried on indefinitely. There’s that word ‘indefinitely’ again. I think we might just opt for ‘a very long time’, but I’ll continue to use indefinitely because it’s easier to type.

So now we have two things to consider: a system and a time scale.

A system is a collection of components which are interacting, interconnected and interdependent, so in order to assess the sustainability of a system all the elements in the system and their interconnections to other systems need to be considered. If just one of those components is a part or a process that can’t be continued indefinitely, the entire system can’t be sustainable. The ultimate system, as far as humans are concerned is the biosphere…..the living earth. It’s a hierarchy of systems within systems, within systems, within systems. We don’t need to consider anything larger, like the solar system or the universe, just the earth will do.

So onto that word ‘more’ and why it irks me so much in this context. Either a system is sustainable or it isn’t. There are no degrees of sustainability. That which is sustainable persists; that which isn’t, doesn’t.

I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen or heard the words ‘more’ sustainable. There is no such thing as ‘more’ sustainable, just as there is no such thing as ‘more’ dead. There are no degrees of deadness. Either a thing is dead (not alive) or it isn’t. It’s a yes/no thing, an on/off thing, or if you’re into digital stuff, a 0/1 thing.

When I was Googling sustainable, I found dozens of sites claiming “10 ways (insert any number you prefer here) you can be more sustainable”, and so on. Without a thorough understanding of the concept we have no hope of planning a future that is truly sustainable.

The other phrase that shows that most people have little understanding of the concept of sustainability is ‘sustainable growth’, although I’m not seeing so much of that now. It’s been pointed out so many times that the earth is finite and that nothing can grow forever in a finite system, that people are catching on to that one.

So when you see something described as sustainable, think it right through. Look for all the connections it has to the entire system of which it’s a part and if one of those connections is unsustainable, then the whole system is also unsustainable.

This post wasn’t easy to write, because sustainability is a concept that few people think about and is therefore difficult to get across to the generally uninterested layperson.  So I want to thank Bernie, who is a regular reader, for his pre-publication input and comments. Bernie’s blog is here.



After writing this post I remembered a writer whose work I admire, Paul Chefurka, so I went to look at his website again. In an article on sustainability he says this:

I use a very strict definition of sustainability. It reads something like this: “Sustainability is the ability of a species to survive in perpetuity without damaging the planetary ecosystem in the process.” This principle applies only to a species’ own actions, rather than uncontrollable external forces like Milankovitch cycles, asteroid impacts, plate tectonics, etc.

Paul talks about carrying capacity and overshoot, then goes on to ask, “what is a sustainable population level?” He uses three methods of assessment:

  1. the ecological footprint, in which he comes up with a figure of 4 billion people.
  2. the thermodynamic assessment—a population of about 1 billion.
  3. the population density assessment—about 35 million people.

There is a fourth assessment—the ecological assessment, in which he quotes the work of American marine biologist Dr Charles Fowler. Fowler did three assessments based on different approaches and came up with figures:

1) 35 million, 2) 10 million, 3) 7 million. Quite a difference!

My own view is this, formed after much reading and thinking:

Humans lived sustainably within the constraints of the biosphere for over 4 million years. Those constraints apply to all living things and include food availability, predation and disease. As hunter gatherers, humans must have lived sustainably. If they hadn’t, they would have gone extinct and we, their descendants, wouldn’t be here now discussing it. Of course, human populations would have risen and fallen over that time, but on the whole didn’t grow appreciably.

Then, some 12,000 years ago, agriculture was adopted. Before this, hunter-gatherer societies had been in approximate equilibrium, relying on photosynthetic energy to supply plant and animal foods and fuels for cooking and heating and barely altering the Earth’s surface. Agriculture was probably an unavoidable consequence of a species with a large brain capable of observing and thinking, an upright habit thus freeing the forelimbs for holding tools, plus opposable thumbs, making holding things even easier. The main thing about agriculture is that it produces more food than would be available naturally and that allows more people to survive, so population increases. More people means more food has to be grown and more food means more people. We have been on that positive feedback treadmill ever since. Now, we could have gotten off that treadmill (and still could), if we had realised the problem and done something to control our numbers. But we didn’t and now there are way too many of us and our activities are destroying the biosphere on which all life depends. It is too late to go back. Finding and using fossil fuels to grow even more food just exacerbated the problem and has produced huge increases in population over a very short time.

Without food supply constraints and self-control of numbers, a crash is inevitable. Whether you call it a crash or an ecological correction, it is all the same. Nature (our name for the biosphere system) makes the rules, not any one species.

So my view is this: any form of food-growing, without self-control of numbers will prove to be unsustainable and that applies even to permaculture, which is still agriculture, although one of the permaculture principles, ‘apply self-regulation and accept feedback’, covers this nicely, so long as those who practise permaculture adhere to it.

It’s also my view (and the view of others I’ve read), that hunter-gathering was and is, the only sustainable way of living for humans, simply because that is the evolved way for all other species and we are no different; just another species of large mammal, living in a system in which the emergent properties of the system set and maintain the behaviour of that system. Our large and complex brain has enabled us to get where we are today, but it’s more than likely it will ultimately and quite literally, be the death of us.