By BJ Bjornson
In a comment to my post regarding electricity use and cars, Bill H. said the following:
Well it doesn't really matter whether a car, electric or internal combustion, uses more or less electricity, but whether it uses more or less energy. Electricity is, for the near future, generated almost entirely with fossil fuel, but even when that eventually is no longer the case, the consumption of energy in any form is detrimental to some degree.
And there is still the matter of the amount of energy and natural resources consumed in manufacturing the car, the type and availability of resources needed to make the energy storage devices for the car, and the disposal of worn out cars and, in particular, expired energy storage devices for the cars.
We don't need to be thinking in terms of cars that use a little bit less energy, we need to make a quantum change in the way we interact with our planet, such as thinking of a way to live without cars at all.
The comment brought to mind this rather excellent post by Tom Murphy on the Energy Trap:
In brief, the idea is that once we enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability�first in petroleum�our growth-based economic system will struggle to cope with a contraction of its very lifeblood. Fuel prices will skyrocket, some individuals and exporting nations will react by hoarding, and energy scarcity will quickly become the new norm. The invisible hand of the market will slap us silly demanding a new energy infrastructure based on non-fossil solutions. But here�s the rub. The construction of that shiny new infrastructure requires not just money, but�energy. And that�s the very commodity in short supply. Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term�effectively steepening the decline�for a long-term energy plan? It�s a trap!
He proceeds to lay out a pretty good analysis of the issue, and I encourage you to read through it. For my purposes, it is important to note that a major part of the reason for this trap is the significant upfront costs in energy for most renewable sources such as solar and wind. To use solar or wind power, you need to build all of the components and energy storage devices ahead of actually getting any energy out of it, and that upfront cost counts against what you have left over to use.
Best way to avoid having to deal with such an issue would be to invest in those upfront costs while enjoying a surplus, which on the energy front has been the case for most of the last several decades. The only problem being that we haven�t really worked all that hard in preparing for fossil fuels� replacement, and we�re now getting to a point where the trap starts to limit our decisions.
Even more fun from a policy standpoint is the fact that fossil fuels don�t tend to fall into the same kind of trap.
For resources that do not require substantial up-front cost in the form of infrastructure, the trap does not apply. Fossil fuels tend to be of this sort. The energy required to deliver a barrel of oil or a ton of coal tends to be specific to the delivered unit, and is not dominated by up-front cost. It is similar for tar sands, which requires substantial energy to heat and process the sludge. Even at 5:1 EROEI, filling a 2-unit gap can be achieved by producing 2.5 units of output while losing 0.5 units to investment. Thus it is possible to maintain a steady energy supply. The fact that fossil fuels don�t trap us encourages us to stick with them. But being a finite resource, their attractiveness is the sound of the Siren, luring us to stay on the sinking ship. Or did the Sirens lure sailors from ships? Either way, fossil fuels are already compatible with our transportation fleet, strengthening the death-grip.
Two things of further note. We are already at peak production of oil, which is why we�re seeing such wild swings in prices with major upswings whenever the economy starts to show signs of life and people start driving and using more energy again. While sinking our resources into new and improved ways of extracting the resource (and continuing the doom that is climate change and just plain old pollution) will help in flattening out the decline, it won�t stop it, and will likely assist in our reaching the peaks of other fossil fuels even faster.
The second point is that the analysis in Tom�s post assumed a constant energy need or usage, at least in respect to fossil fuels. Even at that point, we�re looking at painful shortages if we want to replace the source of that energy with renewables, but the situation is in some respects even worse.
The reality is that we�ve been increasing our energy needs year by year, even despite greater efficiency is our use of said energy. This is mostly due to more people using that energy, as living standards in even the Third World start increasing, but the end result is that the coming crunch will be worse due to the fact that we won�t just be trying to maintain a constant amount of energy for our use, but trying to find a way to continue increasing the energy available.
This is where you run into the reality that such a solution is just plain impossible. As the economist Graeme Maxton noted in a video Ron posted last week, �on a finite planet, the only people who believe we can grow forever are the mad, or economists.�
All of which brings us back to Bill�s point that we need a quantum leap in the way we deal with our planet. We are, and have been for some time, living well beyond our means, pilfering the planet�s inheritance at an astonishing and ever accelerating rate. This holds most obviously with fossil fuels, but also includes nominally renewable resources such as aquifers, forests, fish stocks, and numerous others, and it simply cannot last.
One way or another, we are going to be forced back into balance with nature, either through some incredibly tough choices or our effective self-destruction. Given our history, I wouldn�t put very good odds on the former, which means your best hope is probably something along the lines of John Robb�s resilient communities idea, where you hope you can leverage local surpluses now to create places that can survive the coming disruptions intact.
Any way you look at it, the future isn�t looking to be all that bright a place for humanity.