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and the dawning of the post-carbon eventuality...

Friday, August 14, 2015

Promises, Promises… and (dis-)Ability?

[or Money and Energy]

As noted in my previous post, Science has long defined energy as “the ability to do useful work”. Defining money, on the other hand is not necessarily as easily agreed upon, so what follows in this overdue entry at Kyotomotors, risks being over-simplified, if not contentious. But simplicity is actually my objective here. I aim to paint the backdrop of contemporary political and economic theatre with a very broad brush. To do so, I have settled on the definition of money as “the promise to do work.”

With these two definitions, it’s the notion of work that allows us to understand the link between money and energy. What follows, I believe, is a better understanding as to why the headlines these days have so much to do with debt, default, and financial crises. The explanation has everything to do with energy, which, in a global industrial civilisation, translates as having to do with petroleum and other fossil fuels. And this, in turn, explains why I have chosen this topic to begin with. It just so happens that the health of our economy is an energy issue, which means that the Kyotomotors alternatives for daily transport represent one of the more sane responses not just to the spectre of global warming, but also to the difficulties associated with widespread economic contraction, which is here to stay, if you hadn’t noticed…

Again, simplicity is my stated goal, so I’m not going to go into protracted detail about theories surrounding money as debt and industrial capitalism’s capacity to diversify and nurture specialization, which in turn begets ever more complex systems that are woven into the entire system. There’s a lot of interesting material on these subjects, and I encourage my readers to explore them [try Gail Tverberg here & here for starters]. For the purposes of this discussion, I want to simply step back and confirm the observation that the law of diminishing returns, which states that after a tipping point of sorts, for every new layer of complexity, the costs of  maintaining complexity outweigh the benefits. This is the basic dynamic in what William Catton observed in Overshoot [or, try a more legible version] – the period in which business as usual overinvests in everything unsustainable because there’s no negative feedback to shut down the system.

Only one other technical matter need be touched on here, and that’s the question of peak oil.  I have gone on at length about the phenomenon, and how easily misunderstood and misrepresented the facts are. But I am by no means the authority on the subject. Instead, I urge you to read the Hirsch Report – drafted for the benefit of the Pentagon. And for some perspective on the matter, try Rob Hopkins, David Hughes, Richard Heinberg as well as Colin Campbell -- all worth reading if you want to get into it. In short, peak oil is the point at which the world can no longer count on ever increasing supplies of petroleum. The peak of conventional crude is said to have already taken place in 2005-2006. We are now in the period of making up the shortfall with much more difficult (expensive) oil. Tar sands, deep-water and fracked oil are the poster-children of this phase. These sources are more expensive because they require enormous amounts of energy to get a diminished energy return at the end of the day.

The most important aspect of all this, for the purposes of my thesis here, is that as a society, we are faced with a diminishing ability to do work, when measured in simple units of energy. And it’s our inability to make good on promises that affect the economic, and financial realms.

I know this is where the cacophony of protest comes in. But before you throw up your arms and shout something about technology and efficiency, just have a look at two basic truths that have become features of industrial society from the get-go: The first is White’s Law, which states that the complexity of a system is directly proportional to the amount of energy that flows through that system. The second is Jevons Paradox, which states that increases in the efficiency of the use of an energy source results in net increase in the use of that energy.

While you chew on that, please allow me to proceed, if I may…

Another key element in the current energy situation right now is price volatility. Unpredictability is the order of the day, which is largely due to the complexity, and the uneven nature of the resource, by which I mean high-cost sources are trying to compete with still low-cost sources in places like Saudi Arabia. So while the fracking and tar-sands operations have been impressive in terms of sheer volume, the intense costs of doing business puts much of the capital on ice whenever the price of a barrel of oil takes a nose-dive…

So, if the supply of energy is slowly shifting from expansion to contraction, what does that mean for the money side of the equation? What I am suggesting – and I’m by no means the first one to make this connection – the financial crises and general economic downturn has everything to do with a diminished ability to do work. After all, every promise to do work (returning to my initial definition) has to be backed with the eventual ability to do work. To make matters worse, our ability to make promises has not diminished in step with the energy supply, which is why we hear so much about un-payable debt these days.

All money is borrowed into existence, and necessarily backed by industrial society’s ability to do work. Growing debt can be theoretically tolerated in the face of an expanding energy supply, since increases in energy can fulfill the promises made. Indeed, the history of industrial development is a testament to the interdependence of capital and energy, when viewed as two aspects of the work that goes into our collective accomplishments (and failures). But if on the one hand, the supply of petroleum (and other fossil fuels) is ruled by the earth’s very nature, and is non-renewable, on the other hand, debt (money) is a social construct and can theoretically be created out of thin air, with no apparent limit whatsoever.

Just as nearly every kid is likely to dream up the invention of a perpetual motion machine as a solution to energy woes, most kids respond to the problem of running out of money by suggesting a simple trip to the bank, or better still, to the printing press. Sadly, that has been the solution that the grown-ups at the helm of industrial finance have been resorting to for a number of years now. With the absence of a real-life perpetual motion machine, however, this child’s play is as dangerous as playing in traffic. That’s because debts eventually have to be settled, and if there is no ability to make good on a promise, well then things just get messy.

Things get particularly messy when the creation of debt goes into overdrive as a solution to the contraction of the economy, that rears it head at every turn. But the existence of more cash does nothing to expand the amount of petroleum at our disposal, despite all the theorising to the contrary. For example, Stephen Harper’s dream (and lie) is that the Athabasca tar-sands represents a promising ability to make up the shortfall in energy.  But it has proved to be anything but a resilient industry, and is choking on a crisis of capital formation. He has had his kick at the can, and the experiment is a failure.

But I pity his successor, who will inherit a minefield of a political/economic landscape. And since all would-be successors are allergic to the notion of contraction as the new normal, most purported solutions will be certain to make economic matters worse still.

Only once the contraction of energy supply is acknowledged, and the truly new economic landscape before us is perceived for what it is, can we advance with both an energy policy and the fiscal wherewithal to deal with the reality of the 21st century.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Dream of Free Energy

As a follow-up to last month’s satirical entry here at Kyotomotors on the fantasy for free energy, I thought I’d offer some further reflection as to why I suspect we tend to believe that free energy is a realistic objective, despite what science tells us. Somewhat paradoxically I’d like to add to that train of thought, an explanation as to why I actually consider that there is good reason to believe perpetual motion will be at our disposal in the future.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Like the protagonist in my satire from last month, when I was young, I convinced myself at one point that I had invented perpetual motion. I was hopeful that it could save my parents a whole lot of money, if we could only convert our Plymouth Fury according to my specifications. What happened next I don’t recall exactly, but needless to say, my invention never quite made it off the drawing board, even though, to the twelve-year old mind, it involved the seemingly air-tight logic of cause and effect where the forward motion of the car would capture wind power, and in turn, power the forward motion of the car!
It wasn’t until high-school physics class that I learned about entropy, and why the invention would never work. The truth of the matter is summed up in the second law of thermodynamics, which essentially states that (in this case kinetic) energy eventually dissipates across the board, and that my invention, no matter how well-intentioned, or well-engineered, would inevitably come to a stand-still.
It turns out that I, and the countless other young would-be inventors were not the first to dream of free-energy machines, but rather, we were participating in a fantasy that goes back at least four hundred years, when inventors were thinking of how best to grind their corn.
Work, work, work…
I’ve always found it curious that Science, in all its abstract and theoretical magnificence, defines energy as “the ability to do work”. It’s a definition so rooted in the real world of material things and human needs that it seems almost out of place next to theories of space time continuums and multiplicities of dimensions. To be sure, science’s cousin, technology has ensured that the former’s discoveries have been doing useful work for a long time now. I suppose ever since humans have made things to do work for them, we’ve extrapolated with the Faustian dream of not having to do any work ourselves whatsoever. From a purely lazy point of view, it seems reasonable to dream of free energy.
Similarly, from a business standpoint, where labour is expensive, and energy costs are on the rise, the incentive is there to come up with the holy grail of thermodynamics: perpetual motion.
In actual fact, we have had to settle for the next best thing, which is to say, we’ve come pretty close. I’d even go so far as to say we’ve been experiencing the illusion of free energy for at least a couple of generations now. I’m not talking about high-tech megaprojects like nuclear energy, which never lived up to the promise of being too cheap to meter, nor the perpetually-beyond-reach technology of nuclear fusion, (with its legacy price tag already spent, it can never be free). No, I am talking about an invention that came along quite some time ago, and has transformed the present civilisation so astoundingly by delivering amplified energy to the masses with the turn of a key.
Okay, so I’m simplifying here, but as you’ve probably guessed I’m talking about that regular object of extensive scrutiny here at Kyotomotors: the combustion engine. And of course I’m not just talking about the personal car, here: more broadly, I’m talking petroleum. Considering the present high price of gasoline (which despite the recent plunge, is still pretty high in historical context), most readers would probably protest at this statement. But take a step back and consider the bigger picture: have a look at the Twentieth Century, and you’ll see the story of cheap and abundant and accessible energy for pretty much all of the West, and even much of the developing world where industry has made its inroads on the path toward globalisation of the modern economy.

Think of the few short decades from the time of the first long distance automobile trip in 1888, to the business model and assembly line production by Henry Ford in 1913, to the ramping-up of production in the post war era. Sure there were a few kinks, and quite a lot of room for improvement, but the basic technology, (and more importantly the nature of the energy source) was rapidly perfected, and profoundly unprecedented.
Unlike subsequent attempts, such as nuclear fusion, and even nuclear fission, not to mention the suite of green technologies from hydrogen fuel cells to PV solar, the combustion engine was never anything like “rocket science”. From the start, there was an immediate return on investments, and a widespread suite of supporting technologies emerged: Mechanics and gas stations, highways and drive-thrus all cropped up in lock-step with the production of crude oil.
Never before was the ability to do work so amplified, and so accessible – as in, available to just about any working participant in the modern economy.
The phenomenon can be measured in terms of Energy Returned on Energy Invested; it can be described metaphorically in terms of harnessing “horse-power”(an industry standard) , or as some commentators have chosen to do, in terms of having “energy slaves” at your disposal. No matter how you slice it, gasoline’s “bang for the buck” is beyond considerable; it’s mind blowing.
It’s as close as we’ll ever come to having free energy.
But I should qualify this last statement, for it is only true if your idea of free energy is trapped by an especially Cartesian way of thinking about perpetual motion machines and the like. If free energy has to serve the modern industrial paradigm, then, well then yes, this is as good as it gets. If on the other hand you have different expectations about how and why humans might want to harness energy, then the possibilities open up enormously. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, you might ask, what does it matter if the combustion engine is an almost-half-decent, but not-quite-really, perpetual motion machine? It has served quite well, you say? Or maybe you’re of the mind that it’ll just have to do.
Well of course regular readers of this blog will know where I stand on that, which could be summed up by saying the combustion engine has already done quite enough, thank you very much.
What’s more, the joke is on us. It turns out that petroleum is cheap and ever-abundant no more. And with enormous and profound investments in all things petroleum, our dependence has slowly transformed into a great albatross around our neck. In other words, after being hooked on almost free energy, we are now stuck with much more expensive energy, and the spectre of global economic contraction. In the meantime, we have developed such a culture of entitlement combined with a collective faith in technology that our expectations speak more of our wishes and our emotions, than they do of any great understanding about how energy is concentrated to do work on an industrial scale. Of course we hope that something will come along to sustain and maintain what we’ve come to take as normal.
A lengthy discussion as to why this hope is likely to be met with  disappointment belongs to another series of posts, which I am happy to mention exists already in the ongoing blog of John Michael Greer, The Archdruid Report [why not start here!].
For here and now, at the risk of over simplifying, I’ll just sum it up by suggesting that technology in the advanced stages of the petro-modern industrial civilisation that we know, is subject to a heavy dose of the law of diminishing returns; that even industrial society is subject to ecological cycles and therefore limits, and that while we may have limitless imagination, Nature is by no means obliged to provide us with the means to realise every fantasy we come up with.
Fortunately for those of us who are willing to look outside the industrial model for the future of human existence, there is reason to believe in perpetual motion. If you are willing to accept continued production should adopt a human-scale, that economic activity should operate within the limits of Nature, and that, in the big picture you’re willing to accept a few billion years as approaching infinity, well, then you can confidently assert that the much sought-after perpetual motion machine already exists in the form of the solar system we happen to live in.
Each and every day we can count on the rising sun, the tides, prevailing winds and the changing seasons. We know how these cycles can work in our favour. We know what these cycles will always demand of us. These cycles of nature are the closest thing to constant we can possibly know. Once our attempts at perpetual motion and incessant motoring slowly fades into the history of the future, we can possibly put the fantasy of triumph over Nature where it belongs, roll up our sleeves and get to working with the only perpetual motion machine we could ever know.
Between the here and now, and that point in the distant future, there is a lot of ground to cover. I suspect it will be a bumpy ride…

Thursday, January 22, 2015

“Lad Scientist” Makes Perpetual Breakthrough

Exxon Mobil, General Motors, Fed to launch Free Energy Plan using 12-year-old’s invention

Last updated 10:28 pm, January 19, 2015 

Rugby, N.D.
In a town famous for being the geographical center of North Americathe people of Rugby North Dakota are now faced with being the center of attention. Everywhere you look, camera crews and network trucks are setting up camp, and the excitement on Main Street is palpable. What's all the fuss about? The hoopla is centered around a local middle school science fair. This is where seventh grade student Danny Yurkin, a student at McKinley Junior High has come up with an invention that is rocking the foundations of modern science. From this day forward, Rugby N.D. will most certainly go down in history as the place of the greatest scientific breakthrough since Einstein shattered the atom.

His invention? A perpetual motion machine designed to run an automobile “for as long as the tires have treads”.

In addition to the hoards of reporters, scientists from Harvard, Berkeley and Canada have already descended upon this small town to get a glimpse of the invention, which has been kept behind closed doors for the time being, while school officials and the student’s parents entered into talks with big-wigs from Exxon, GM, the Fed and a select few from the scientific community. The latter were brought in to observe the findings of the young inventor, first discovered by his science teacher Colm Campbell who was overseeing the annual science fair assignment last November.

"At first I was skeptical – I mean, I think all kids dream of perpetual motion cars – I know I did, when I was young – and, well I ain't no millionaire!” said Mr. Campbell. But he said it was only a matter of time before he’d come to see just how revolutionary young Mr.Yurkin's project actually was. “I couldn't believe my eyes! To see such a work of genius, of pure logic and incredible vision for the benefit of mankind – all from a kid,” adding “It’s really humbling.”

Now, it’s not just his teachers in the sleepy town of Rugby, but scientists from around the world who have so much to learn.

From the halls of the Hub Motel where a press conference was assembled early on the morning of January 13th, scientist and physicist Joel Tainter said “To think that a young student could come along and school us so completely. It truly is astounding!” But if there was a tone of excited anticipation, there was also an undercurrent of disgruntlement brewing the longer the crowd waited. Some scientists were growing impatient outside the locked doors of the conference room.

“This is the holy grail for us. It’s profoundly unjust to deprive the scientific community of what is clearly the greatest breakthrough any of us are going to see in our lifetime” said Devin Marcellus who has been developing cold fusion technology for the past 45 years.

“I’m very keen to see it,” said Noah Kawasaki, physicist from Alberta, “I have been dreaming of perpetual motion since I was 10. To think that I will actually live to see it come true is enough to bring tears to my eyes. Every minute that goes by without perpetual motion now seems excruciating!”

When the doors to the conference finally opened, a crush of reporters, video crews and camera men surged into the hall. All focus was on a stunned Danny Yurkin. Everyone in the room had one question on their minds: just how did this boy come up with the answers that have stumped modern science for centuries? The boy had this to stay: “I wasn't so much into science. I just like cars and stuff. Plus my dad lost his job. I thought it would be cool not to have to pay for gas anymore.”

Sources from the boy’s family confirmed his father’s loss of employment as a horizontal drilling rig operator. His grandmother claims it was then the boy started to dream about a future America where energy was free, and independent from oil.

When pressed on the matter, it was NASA’s Todd Murphy official scientist for the Free Energy Plan who fielded the question: “One look at his ingenious design and you’ll wonder why no one has ever come up with this before- it’s deceivingly simple”. Adding that for proprietary reasons, the invention would not be unveiled that day. 

When asked whether it was a conflict of interest to have Exonn-Mobil heading the partnership, the spokesperson from Exxon Hubert M. Roy spoke of the importance of the corporation’s role in solving the problem of peak oil and climate change, and make them issues of the past.

It appears that even before the news of Danny Yurkin’s invention broke, both Exxon and GM had entered negotiations with the boy’s teachers and parents, prompting some to worry that the invention will never see the light of day. But with the fracking industry in a quagmire, there’s reason to believe otherwise. ­­­­­­­­­­­Mr. Roy reassured the public at the press conference, saying that in collaboration with GM and the Federal Reserve, ExxonMobil would lead America to prosperity and independence thanks to the boy genius from Rugby. “After all, something has to fill the void left by the slumping production numbers in shale oil and the soaring number of job losses in the Bakken region”.

Disorder Erupts

The press conference was cut short by security when a gang of protesters disrupted proceedings shouting “it’s too good to be true” and handing out a leaflet from a group calling themselves “The Green Wizards Of America”. Spokesperson Johnny McGrier proclaimed that the environment is still in as much jeopardy as ever and that perpetual motion is against the laws of physics.

In the midst of the disruption, Yurkin, scientists and industry leaders were seen laughing with reporters as they were whisked away by security forces. Corporal Lt. Charles Keaton of the ND State Police force said it had become clear that tensions were only going to mount. No one was arrested.

A spokesperson for Gov. Jack Dalrymple's office expressed disappointment with the trouble-makers, saying "There's always got to be someone who wants to spoil the party".

Liberal politicians denied any association with the rabble saying that they “distance themselves completely from any and all wizards”, adding that they were totally for the scientific breakthrough, echoing sentiments expressed earlier by President Obama.

That morning, the president chimed in from the Oval Office: “I somehow knew all along that through the wishful thinking of our youth and our legacy of technological know-how, America would prevail. It appears now that we truly will rise above the competition and lead the way onward and upward, with perpetual motion.”
Exxon Mobile issued a final statement later explaining that a further presentation of the perpetual motion machine and the Free Energy Plan for America would be unveiled in Detroit once a working model of the boy’s invention was assembled by the engineers at GM.

A spokesperson from NASA confirmed that they have entered the partnership and are planning to look into the invention’s applications for space travel, particularly in the area of physics known as escape velocity.