Friday, September 30, 2016

Do we really want the coal industry to teach renewable energy to our children?

From "Minerals Education Coalition"

So, here is a "fact sheet" titled "Metals & Mineral Products used to make a Solar Panel." If you know something about how solar panels are made, you can have a good laugh at reading this list. Without going into the details, let me just mention that they manage to list at least one element (lead) which is NOT used in any kind of solar panels, while they completely miss the only rare metal that IS actually used in standard silicon solar cells: silver. And, if you know something about sputtering and thin films, read their "interesting facts" about molybdenum at page 2. That will give you a good feeling of what the acronym ROFLMAO means.

Apart from the plain mistakes, the trouble with this list is that it gives the impression that "a solar panel" would have to contain ALL these minerals, whereas most of them are used only for special application and the. All this makes the depletion of rare metals look like a fundamental problem for solar energy; there has to be a reason why I am continuously confronting people telling me that solar panels use rare earths or some other rare and exhaustible mineral. This is exactly the kind of confusion that obscures the fact that, in order to make a solar panel, all you need is aluminum and silicon, a little silver (not strictly necessary) and traces of boron and phosphorous.

So, what do we have here? It is just a show of incompetence or something worse, a specific attempt at disinformation? What we can say that it comes from a purportedly "educational" organization that lists its purposes as:
The Minerals Education Coalition’s (MEC) mission is to identify, produce and disseminate fact-based K-12 minerals education lessons and activities and to inform and educate the general public about the importance of mining in their everyday lives.
This "Mineral Education Coalition" is a spinoff of the SME Foundation, the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration. They seem to be mainly a corporate lobbying group and surely they are perfectly honest in listing their sponsor on their site

Pinnacle Partner:
Freeport-McMoRan, Inc.

Champion Partners:
Caterpillar, Inc.
Newmont Mining Corp.

Benefactor Partners:
Alliance Resource Partners, L.P.
JoyGlobal, Inc.
Royal Gold

Patron Partners:
Cloud Peak Energy
Kinross Gold USA
Vulcan Materials Company Foundation

These are all mining companies, including coal mining ones. This being the case, it is not surprising that their site shows a clear anti-renewable, anti-climate science streak, as you see. Just a couple of examples, for instance at this link for the anti-renewable bias, and at this link for the anti-climate science attitude. And, certainly, their president has ideas about coal that don't seem to agree with the need of reducing emissions (boldface mine)
Another challenge facing coal, and other mining sectors as well, are government efforts in the United States and other countries to combat climate change. We have already seen significant impacts on mining. In the November 2014 issue of Mining Engineering, John Marsden’s column on climate change stirred up some debate. We all know that climate change has natural causes, but human activities can contribute to the change. This issue is a major challenge to not only the mining industry, but to the public that we serve because now it is primarily a political issue. Regardless of one’s position on the issue of climate change, its causes or its consequences, the reality is the movement to reduce emissions linked to climate change is growing in the United States and in other countries. I agree with John’s analysis and reiterate that regardless of the accuracy of climate change predictions, SME needs to be part of the conversation so that, we can continue to use our coal resources in a carbon-constrained world.

Of course, SME and its members have the right to think to publicly express whatever they like about climate science. But do we really want the mining lobby to create a spinoff dedicated to "educate children?"

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

When did you discover that there is something badly wrong with democracy?

For me, it was in 2009. I had been invited to speak at a meeting called "The Festival of Energy;" a thinly disguised public relation stunt for the fossil fuel lobby, designed to show that renewable energy is a cute thing and that, surely, someday in a remote future, it might be really used.

At the meeting, I found myself sitting in the audience in a debate about nuclear energy. The year before, Silvio Berlusconi's party, "the people of freedom," had won the national elections. Almost immediately afterward, the new government had announced that Italy was going to return to nuclear energy after a moratorium that had started in 1987, and that four new nuclear plants would be built. So, the debate was supposed to be about that.

The experts on the panel were divided between those who were enthusiastically favorable to nuclear energy and those who were mildly favorable. The audience listened in silence, somewhat awed. Then, there came the time for questions and answers. Someone rose up and expressed the opinion that the government should have promoted a national debate before taking a decision on nuclear energy.

The answer came from a functionary of the newly elected government and it provided for me a new understanding of the concept of "glee." Wearing an elegant double-breasted suit, this man addressed the person in the audience more or less as a Medieval lord would address one of the peasants of his feud.

"My good man," the functionary said, "there will be no national debate on nuclear energy. We have been elected by the people on a program that said that we would have Italy return to nuclear energy and that gives us the authority to do just that. So, we decided to start building the new plants and that's what we will do. There is no need for any debate. At most, the government will explain to the citizens the advantages that they will obtain from nuclear energy."

After such a treatment of verbal shock and awe for the audience, the debate veered on irrelevant questions. I thought that I could have risen up and challenged the double-breasted Lord on his rather extreme interpretation of "democracy". But I didn't do that. Maybe someone else did, but I can't say because I left before the end of the debate, in a rather dark mood.

In the following period, the government didn't really succeed in forcing a "non-debate" on nuclear energy; but they kept forging onward with their plans; hammering over and over the concept that they were doing what the people had empowered them to do and that no one had the right of stopping them. For sure, the ragtag group of historical relics, Greens and Reds, who tried to oppose them never seemed to very effective.

Then the Fukushima disaster came in March 2011, the government was badly defeated in June in a national referendum on nuclear energy, and Berlusconi was forced to resign in November. Possibly it was the result of not having been able to deliver the nuclear promises he had made to some higher powers.

What's interesting about this old debate (if we want to call it in this way) is that the double-breasted person at the meeting had lied; just as many of his colleagues had been doing at that time. He had said that the new government had been elected on a program that included a return to nuclear power. Well, I went to check that document and I found that it said nothing like that. The only statement about nuclear energy it contained said, "participating in European research projects on the latest generation nuclear power".

Of course, I was not the only one who noticed that. Many other people did, and several of them tried to use this concept in the debate. But the meme didn't stick; it was drowned in the great noise of the national media and the opposition made no attempt of using it. At that time, I was surprised but, rethinking about this story, I think I shouldn't have been. Apparently, in democracy you can get away with anything, especially if it is lies. That's something that you can see very well with the ongoing American presidential elections.

So, maybe it is true that getting swords from women lying in ponds is a better way to choose a government.

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Seneca Effect: Soon to Become a Book!

"It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid." Lucius Anneaus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91

This is very early as an announcement: don't expect this book to appear before Spring 2017 (and, BTW, the cover above is purely a fantasy of mine). However, I thought that things are advanced enough that I can announce this work in progress. I have signed a contract with Springer for publishing this book in their "Frontiers Collection" and it should appear in Spring 2017. The German edition should appear a little later, published by Oekom Verlag.

So, I have been working at full speed on this book all this summer and I can announce to you that, today - actually half an hour ago - I finished it!!! Yes, I arrived at the end of it; 97,000 words in total. I can tell you it was some work. Quite some work! And I looked at everything that I had made, and behold, it was very good!

Well, to say that the book is finished is a bit of an exaggeration: as it is, the manuscript requires a lot more refining, retouching, and rearranging. But it has taken a shape, a logic, a form - it is something that says what I wanted to say (more or less) and excludes what I didn't want to say (more or less). So, things are moving onward according to plan.

So, what will you be able to read in this book? It is a veritable smorgasbord of collapses: you'll read about the mechanics of fracture, the collapse of Egyptian pyramids, about financial collapses, famines, extinctions, the demise of the dinosaurs and - of course - about the fall of the Roman Empire, a favorite subject of mine. But the book is not just a list of collapses, it deals with the theory behind them: system dynamics, network theory, thermodynamics, entropy and more abstruse things which I am not sure I understand myself. And something about Seneca and Stoic philosophy, of course!

It is also too early for thanking anyone for having helped me with a book still in the making, but I would like to mention how my wife, Grazia, has gently supported me during a summer that was very busy and difficult for me. And we celebrated our 40th marriage anniversary just yesterday! Here she is, in a photo taken for the occasion!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Creative collapsing: a way to avoid the climate disaster

Illustration from the paper "The Sower's Way." by Sgouridis, Csala and Bardi  recently published in the IOP Environmental Research Letters journal. The main points of the paper are summarized in a previous post. Note how fast the production of energy must fall in order to prevent temperatures from rising above the 2°C limit. It is a true "Seneca collapse", necessary for the survival of the human civilization. The paper shows that it is possible to control the collapse and to use fossil fuels to produce enough energy to create a 100% renewable infrastructure and at the same time to avoid going over the edge.

Everyone is happy about the COP21 agreement in Paris and that there seem to be a certain willingness to avoid to go over the 2°C limit and the probable "tipping point" that will follow. But make no mistake: the task is enormously difficult. Look at these data from "The Global Carbon Project".

The blue lines are the pathways needed to have a fair chance to remain within the 2°C limit. We have to get to zero from here to 2070, but hoping in a technological miracle that, later on, will make it possible to pump away from the atmosphere some of the CO2 emitted earlier on. Otherwise, we must throttle emissions even faster. 

No matter which curve you think is most likely, there remains the fact that it took a couple of centuries to arrive to the level of fossil fuel production where we are. Now, we need to go back to zero in a few decades. If this is not a "Seneca Collapse" I don't know what is. This is a kind of collapse that I describe with the words of the ancient Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca "increases are of sluggish growth, but ruin is rapid."

So, it is a collapse that we need, and we'll probably have it. Even if governments and institutions fail to act on curbing emissions, it is likely that the fossil industry will collapse by itself because of increasing production costs and sluggish markets - it is happening right now. The problem is that, normally, when something very big collapses, a lot of people get hurt and we would like to avoid that.

Is it possible to collapse gracefully and glide down in style along the Seneca cliff? In principle, yes. The recent paper by Sgouridis, Csala and Bardi , titled "The Sower's Way." takes inspiration from a strategy well known to ancient farmers, the fact that they had to save something from their current harvest for the next one; it is the origin of the common saying "don't eat your seed corn!" So, the paper reports a quantitative calculation of how much energy we must squeeze out of the remaining fossil fuels reserves in order to build up the renewable energy infrastructure that will smoothly replace the present, fossil based, infrastructure. And how to do that without going over the climate edge. If we can manage that, it will be only the fossil fuel industry that collapses, but not the rest of us. And the calculations show that it is possible.

A nice idea, but there is one glitch: it will be very expensive. The data show that, if we want this transition, we have to pay for it and to start paying right now. We need to step up investments in a new energy infrastructure of at least an order of magnitude in comparison to the present level. It sounds very difficult, but it is not impossible. Creative collapsing may be the only way to avoid a climate disaster! 

The paper title "The Sower's Way" is open access on IOP Environmental Research Letters. Comments on this blog are welcome. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Sower's Way: some comments

Image: sower by Vincent Van Gogh

The publication of the paper "The Sower's way: Quantifying the Narrowing Net-Energy Pathways to a Global Energy Transition" by Sgouridis, Csala, and Bardi, has generated some debate on the "Cassandra's Legacy" blog. In the paper, we argue that the Sower's strategy consists in using the energy obtained from fossil fuels (the seed of the past harvest) in order to build the renewable energy infrastructure (the next harvest) that will replace the old, fossil infrastructure. In other words, we argue for and we quantify a strategy consisting in not eating one's seed corn. 

Among the comments received, here are some extensive ones received by Max Kummerow, together with some answers by Sgouris Sgouridis

Max Kummerow wrote:

Important ideas, of course, in this paper.  A powerful image: eating the seed corn. And a real problem for the transition. Comments and suggestions for extensions:

1. Kummerow: Does it skip past or make a rational assumption about ending growth? That issue deserves more explicit treatment.  Growth in global demand (if I missed  this in the paper, my apologies, but missing it would mean it needs clearer exposition or more emphasis) at present rates (see my Kaya Identity paper draft) must be something like: population 1.1%+incomes (gdp/capita) 1.7% less -1.4% efficiency (E/Y) gains. That nets to 1.4% or doubling time about 51 years, or say, two doublings in a century. Or, 1,2,4 times more energy in a century. 8,16 in two centuries. I think you need some scenarios with different growth rates.

Sgouridis: The paper assumes an end of growth (stabilization) in energy demand per capita. As is also expected/forecasted by the UN to level out, this creates a stabilization in total energy demand. We intentionally and explicitly do not bring into this a discussion on economic figures/GDP. They complicate and divert the issue. What we observe is that in OECD per capita energy demand has been stagnant for a decade or more. The growth in developing countries is slowing down. It is quite logical to assume that demand for energy to provide a decent life has to eventually converge to a point. It is clear that the world cannot support a US or UAE energy lifestyle for everyone on the planet. We assume that eventually there will be of some kind. The “easy" scenario of 2000W/capita by 2100 reflects a bare minimum (see the Marechal et al 2005 reference). My expectation is that a more reasonable estimate should be around 3000W.

2. And, for the scenario where growth ends, steady state economy, no growth in population or incomes (or energy consumption/capita, almost the same thing), how does demand stabilize?

Again, since we do not talk about incomes, for all we care income can increase nominally. It just not imply a growth in energy demand / capita. I agree this is unlikely and those who expect the great decoupling are in for a surprise but the point is demand in the OECD has already stabilized and there is a lot of slack for it to go down. Developing countries can go up by a bit. This convergence means that demand per capita cannot, should not, and need not be expected to grow eternally.

3. I’m sure you are enough of a philosopher and historian to share my worry that the rational paradigm can be overwhelmed by myths. My father, Fred, has been involved in a 60 year controversy about cholesterol and transfats, a place where myths die hard as well. And there are the big ones: religious beliefs. So there are no guarantees that just because science says humanity should do something, that it will get done. The limiting resource (Julian Simon’s insight) is actually human intelligence, or maybe ethics. It’s a very scarce resource right now. I think maybe papers on science should somehow mention the failures of science as a paradigm. The gap between discovery and application is wide in climate science.

These are extremely astute observations and I am personally in agreement. I would also say that it is about ethics rather than intelligence – the whole society has been captured by a cancerous host (financial capitalism) which manages to inject pieces of its DNA individualism, greed, market fetishism and others in essentially all of us turning us into consumable walking replicas to varying extent. This is true for education, science, and . Nevertheless, all these are very difficult to discuss especially in an academic paper. A suggestion of mine for limiting resources can be found here: 

4. A "limits to growth" perspective would ask: What becomes limiting when we start building SET? Your paper is about energy limits to SET. What other limits appear?

Again, I am sure you know of the planetary boundaries paper by Rockström et al. (2009)."A safe operating space for humanity. Nature", 461(7263), 472–475. GHG the nearest physical constraint but others include our handling of phosphate and the phosphorus cycle in agriculture, pollution especially from hard to crack endocrine disruptors, and a lot more.

5. It is hard to get everything into models because of complexity. Another issue is capital constraints. How many dollars?

Definitely an important point. As I mentioned in #1 and #2, we only look at the energy investment not the $ figure of it. Overall energy investment ratios stay below 10% or so for a viable transition. On the capital investment, we can do some rough estimates. According to REN21 we invested 270Billion USD in renewable energy in 2015. This comes down to roughly 2.4$/W. Now since this includes projects that were contracted in the past and projects in regions with high finance costs (e.g. Africa) there is no reason for this cost not to be around 1.5 with today’s technology (the state of the art is 1.4). So with technology advances and scale economies this should go down to around 1$/W by 2035. Since by this time we will need to build a minimum of 6 TW/year, this means an investment of say 6 T$ just for the supply side. For the batteries and long term storage and conversion (Power to liquids) the investment along with the electrification would be at least equal. So overall, 12 USD trillion per year at the peak (it will go down after) should be expected. Now we probably spend already in excess of 7 trillion for energy as fuel bills ( estimates for 2010 are 6.4 trillion) so the order of magnitude is certainly within the realm of what is already happening – it is simply a matter of saner investment. Why waste billions just for buying up land for fracking when you can build RE? This ties in well with my energy credits proposal in #3.

6. And, has anybody noticed that phasing out coal, if I read Jim Hanson correctly will increase net climate forcing by more than a watt/m2? The sulfur aerosols from coal are a major cooling factor, reflecting solar radiation. Hansen said (2009) that net forcing is about 2 watts/m2. But that is net of 1.5 watts cooling from aerosols. So do the cumulative carbon targets account for effects of increased warming as the coal is phased out. (Short term v long term tradeoff.)

This is an interesting question but we have taken the targets as is from the IPCC WGI 2013 report. In my view, they should include the eventual effect of the sulfur aerosols but we need to check this point.

7. The key factor is cumulative carbon. I’m not clear how the graphs in this paper relate to cumulative carbon.

As discussed in #6. Cumulative carbon in each of the carbon scenarios stays within the IPCC indicated limit (I.e. 550, 1000, 1500 by 2100). There are no further emissions from fossil fuels. 

8. What about technological feasibility? Can steel be made with renewable energy? Can everything be done without fossil fuels? How about making nitrogen, for example?

Nitrogen is an easy one – it is abundant and we can get to it either by liquefaction (cryogenic distillation) which is electrically driven or membranes (at lower purities). Hydrogen from electrolysis can be used instead of methane in the Haber-Bosch process. For steel, electric arc furnaces are a direct replacement alternative to CH4 driven ones. There are things that are harder than steel; some large agriculture farming equipment, and ships will need to be supported by either (limited) or power to liquids processes (can be fully renewable). There is a discussion of this but obviously not extensive.

9. Just for curiosity, what is the EROI now and after SET? Lower?

You can see the collective EROEI in the graph in the appendix. It more or less stays flat (PV goes keeps going higher, but eventually it drops).

10. Finally, I think population deserves a lot more attention. Countries like Japan, Germany, Italy are headed for big population declines (absent immigration, a big qualification). So maybe the world could reduce population. That is very cheap and feasible, requiring behavior changes and a little investment. Divergent fertility is evolving the world by “cultural selection” (Kaufman, 2010) towards continued population growth. UN 2050 estimates for 2050 have risen by 800 million between 2002 and 2015 revisions. No end of population growth in sight.

Good points all but also note that UN 2050 estimates fell between the 2010 and 2015 revisions. I think there is a tendency to reach equilibrium but the issue of cultural selection is something that I am not able to discuss.

More to chew on. You could expand this paper into a book on LTG of energy.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Sower's way: the path for the future

Our paper on "The Sower's Way" has been published in the IOP Environmental Research Letters journal. It is an attempt to quantify the physical limits of the energy transition from fossils to renewables.

The title of the article takes inspiration from a strategy well known to ancient farmers, the fact that they had to save something from their current harvest for the next one; it is the origin of the common saying "don't eat your seed corn!"

Starting from this ancient wisdom, we performed a quantitative calculation of how much "seed" we need in the form of fossil fuels in order to have enough energy to build a new "harvest" of renewable energy that can replace the old one. All that without emitting so much CO2 that we would go over the 2°C limit and without anyone being left out. 

Of course, it is a calculation that depends on a lot of debatable parameters, but we did our best to remain within realistic consideration, without asking for technological miracles or drastic reductions in the human population. We just assumed current technologies and that the population curve would follow the UN projections. At the same time, we recognize that perpetual growth is a dream that only madmen or economists can think as possible. We assumed that humankind would gradually move toward a stabilization of the economy and of the population on a level of per capita energy sufficient to survive. 

It is possible, here are the main results from the paper

You can see how we assume a rapid growth of renewable energy, built up in the beginning using fossil energy but, in the later stages of the transition relying on renewable energy to continue the process, while phasing out the fossil fuels which are completely abandoned by around 2060. In this scenario, emissions do not go over the COP21 limit.

So, our calculations don't confirm the pessimistic assumptions of those who see humankind as doomed. At the same time, we don't confirm the overoptimistic assumptions of some people who see the transition as easy. It will not be. If we want it, we have to pay a high price for it and to start paying right now. We need to step up investments in a new energy infrastructure of at least an order of magnitude. Not easy, considering the state of the debate, but not impossible, either. It is a big challenge, but there is still a chance for a better future for everyone if we want to take it.

The paper is open access on IOP Environmental Research Letters. Comments on this blog are welcome. 


Tuesday, September 13, 2016

An asteroid called "Peak Oil" - the real cause of the growing social inequality in the US

In a recent article on the Huffington Post, Stan Sorscher reports the graph above and asks the question of what could have happened in the early 1970s that changed everything. Impressive, but what caused this "something" that happened in the early 1970s? According to Sorscher,
X marks the spot. In this case, “X” is our choice of national values. We abandoned traditional American values that built a great and prosperous nation.  
Unfortunately, this is a classic case of an explanation that doesn't explain anything. Why did the American people decide to abandon traditional American values just at that specific moment in time?

In reality, the turning point of that time has been known for a long time. The first to notice it were Harry Bluestone and Bennet Harrison with their 1988 book "The Great U-turn: Corporate Restructuring And The Polarizing Of America." They noted that a lot of economic parameters had completely reversed their historical trends in the early 1970s, including the overall inequality measured in terms of the Gini coefficient. For nearly a century, the US society had been moving toward a higher degree of equality. From the early 1970s, the trend changed direction, bringing the US to an inequality level similar to that of the average South-American countries.

So, what was that "something" that changed everything in the early 1970s? Nobody really knows for sure, but at least there was a major measurable change that took place in 1970: peak oil in the US. (image below, from Wikipedia).

It was a true asteroid that hit the US economy and that changed a lot of things. Possibly the most important change was that the US ceased to be an oil exporter and became an oil importer. That change was "user transparent," in the sense that the Americans who were filling up the tanks of their cars didn't know where the oil that had produced their gasoline was coming from (and mostly didn't even care). But the change implied a major transfer of capital from the US to foreign producers, while a large part of it returned to the US in the form of investments. It was the "petrodollar recycling" phenomenon that mainly affected the financial system; all that money never really trickled down to the poorer sections of the US society. That may well explain the increasing inequality trend that started in the early 1970s.

But, if the oil peak of 1970 explains the inequality trends, shouldn't the new reversal of the trend - the "shale oil revolution" change everything again? Perhaps surprisingly, there is some evidence that this may be the case

The data from the World Bank indicate that the Gini coefficient for the US has peaked in 2006 and has remained constant, or slightly declining, ever since. Again, that makes some sense; one wouldn't have expected a return to the low inequality values of the 1960s since the great shale oil boom didn't transform the US into an oil exporter. At present, with the recent peaking of the Bakken field, it looks like that the good times of half a century ago will never return.

All this would require a lot of work to be better quantified and proven. But it is not a surprise that our life depends so much and so deeply on the production of that vital black liquid that we call "crude oil". And with the probable downturn of the US production that seems to be starting right now, we are going to see more, and more radical, changes in our society. What these changes will be, we have to see, but it is hard to think that they will be for better equality.

Note added after publication: in fact, the US became an oil importer already in 1940; the 1970 peak only caused a rapid increase in the volumes imported. You can see the history of these trends in a post by Matt Mushalik on "", from which I took the figure shown below. Thanks to Mason Inman for having alerted me about this point


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)