Energy at the Crossroads by Vaclav Smil (Part 1 of 2)

Where does our energy come from today, and how do we use it?  How much does it take to live the Good Life, and what, really, should that energy be used on?  Where might it plausibly come from in the future, and what does the Good Life consist of anyway?  Energy at the Crossroads by Vaclav Smil at least attempts to get at this stuff, looking at humanity’s utilization of energy, in the past, present, and several possible futures.  But the book is a such a dense mass of numbers and graphs that I think I’m going to have to do this in several posts.

The first two sections Long-term Trends and Achievements and Energy Linkages, look at how energy use correlates with other variables of interest, how those correlations have changed through time, and how they vary globally today.  If there’s an overarching message here, it’s that nothing about today’s global energy system is straightforward.  You can’t make many useful comparisons by looking at only one dimension, such as the total primary energy supply (TPES) utilized or the energy intensity (EI) of a nation’s economy, or by simply looking at mean values without considering the distribution they come from.  These variables are not normally distributed.  Another clear message is that the 20th century was an anomaly.  The explosive global growth in fossil fuel utilization that we have seen over the last hundred years will not be sustained, for a variety of reasons, any one of which would be convincing, but which in combination are downright scary.  Either the way our civilization uses energy will be utterly transformed, or the sources of that energy will change dramatically.  Or both.

Today global mean primary power consumption, per capita, is about 2kW.  Earlier this year Saul Griffith advocated this level of consumption as a a global goal in his Long Now seminar “Climate Change, Recalculated” i.e. that we should be trying to get those people who have less than this much power available to them up to that level, and those of us who are consuming more than 2kW should adjust our energy systems downward, by a variety of means, and thus, aggregate energy demand would only have to increase with population, over time (and then, one hopes, in the near future also decrease with population).  This plan, or something like it, sounds pretty good.  But without knowing how energy use is distributed now, and without knowing how much energy one actually needs to live what we consider a high quality life, it’s hard to assess whether 2kW is actually the right number.  Today’s mean value is, after all, totally arbitrary.

By coincidence, it turns out that even with today’s technology, you can live a pretty good life on 2 kW.  There are many examples of democratically governed, politically free countries having this level of energy usage, and also low infant mortality, long life expectancy, high literacy rates, and plenty of high quality food.  Those qualities go a long way toward defining the Good Life in my mind.  However, there are also some things you just can’t have today, if you want to live a 2 kW life.  You can’t drive or fly regularly; you can’t get very many of your food calories from animal products; you can’t own a lot of disposable things, and you can’t live in an energy-intensive dwelling like the ones that most people in the industrialized nations live in today.  To me none of these are show-stoppers, though I suspect many North Americans will probably disagree.  I’m convinced that they feel differently because the low-energy alternatives to their current lifestyles have not been effectively sold to them, not because a low-energy lifestyle is necessarily inferior.  In most of these QoL variables, there are no clear improvements beyond about 3.5 kW.  Just more disposable crap and conspicuous consumption.

Just for reference, here’s how global per capita energy consumption broke down by continent in the late 1990s:

  1. North/Central America: 7.0 kW
  2. Australia/NZ: 5.1 kW
  3. Europe: 4.8 kW
  4. South America: 1.1 kW
  5. Asia: 0.96 kW
  6. Africa: 0.48 kW

Three continents above the mean, and three below, but ~80% of humanity is on those three low energy continents, and just ten percent of the world’s population accounts for 50% of the world’s primary energy usage.  At the same time, nobody actually wants to live the near zero impact lifestyle practiced by the refugees in Chad.

One sobering example of the ways our energy use has changed in the last hundred years is agriculture.  Over the course of the 20th century, the harvested agricultural land area on Earth rose from 8.5 x 106 km2 to more than 15 x 106 km2, largely because of expanded irrigation and the introduction of synthetic fertilizers, both of which allow agriculture (at least temporarily) to be productive on marginal land.  This rise is significantly greater than one would expect from the increase in human population over the same span of time.  Globally, we now produce ~5000 food calories per person per day. In 1900, we were only producing ~2500 food calories per person per day, leaving a very small surplus, and precluding the consumption of much in the way of animal products (since producing a calorie of meat or milk uses up much more than a calories of grass or grain).  Today only about 5% of our primary energy consumption goes toward agriculture, but distressingly, a large, and rapidly growing, portion of the embodied energy in our food is derived from a non-solar (or more literally, paleo-solar) energy subsidy (synthetic fertilizers, tillage, etc).  In 1900, basically all agriculture was “organic”.  Today, globally, more than 1/3 of the energy in the world’s food comes from fossil fuels, and in the industrialized world, a much higher proportion of our food calories are heavily (energy) subsidized by fossil fuels.  Additionally, in the US around 2/3 of all the food calories produced end up being fed to livestock.  Globally, it’s around 40%.  Smil further backs up the numbers on outright food waste that Jeremy Siefert quoted in Dive!, namely that in the US we throw away about half the food we produce (never mind the fact that one might reasonably consider some large proportion of the calories that go into subsidized meat production wasted in the first place).  This is not a scalable system.  The developed nations can’t keep living that way for very long (even if we might want to), and the other 4-7 billion people on Earth in 2050 cannot expect to be able to live that way.  Every time I see statistics on the increasing rate of meat and dairy consumption in China, I cringe.  Another consequence of our fossil fueled synthetic agriculture is that today humanity fixes about as much nitrogen artificially as the rest of the biosphere combined.  Nitrogen is often a growth-limiting nutrient, and unfortunately, the majority of what we fix using the Haber-Bosch process today ends up being deposited in places where it has significant negative impacts on the biosphere, like the eutrophication of the Gulf waters where the Mississippi deposits agricultural runoff from America’s bread basket, or the vast shit-filled ponds strewn across Iowa’s hog farming country that contaminate local groundwater, or the fertilizer and pesticide salt-pan wasteland that occupies the now defunct Aral Sea basin.  Instead of re-fixing that nitrogen over and over again, and then dumping it like garbage, it should be put into a closed cycle, as was the norm on farms before they industrialized when individual farmers had both livestock and food crops.  Farmers like Joel Salatin have demonstrated that this is still feasible today, on a much larger scale, if we choose to end our massive meat subsidies.

Over the same span of time, we’ve also managed to enormously increase the efficiency with which we use almost all energy.  We use less than a third of the energy today per unit nitrogen fixed than we did during WWI, and we are now asymptotically approaching the stoichiometrically required energy.  The trend of both increased energy usage and increased efficiency exists across all the major energy domains.  The result is that today we residents of the industrialized world have access to hundreds of times more in the way of “energy services” than did our great-grandparents.

In a testament to the power of steadily increasing efficiency over the long haul, the real price of electricity has decreased by a staggering 98% since 1900 (most of that reduction was achieved by 1920).  At the same time, it’s interesting to note that the inflation adjusted prices of fossil fuels themselves — coal, oil, and natural gas — have remained essentially unchanged on average, despite significant short-term fluctuations.  Smil points out that this isn’t some kind of market magic.  Few global markets have been as consistently manipulated by governments and industry cartels as the energy markets (a point that Daniel Yergin’s book The Prize gets across very clearly in the case of oil… and Yergin is an industry cheerleader.)

Another interesting point that comes up is the use of energy intensity (EI) as a metric of an economy’s efficiency.  EI is the amount of energy required for a given amount of GDP output.  Japan, for instance, does much better than most of the industrial world on this mark, but this is in part because they import  a lot of their energy intensive economic feedstocks, like aluminum, produced in British Columbia’s hydroelectrically powered smelters.  As with so many other economic metrics, it’s unclear exactly how relevant nation-scale statistics are when trade has been pretty effectively globalized.  Why should we care how clean and efficient our own economy is, if all we’ve done is shipped the pollution overseas?  Why should we care that Toyota is domiciled in Japan, when half their shares are held by people in the US?

The third chapter is entitled Against Forecasting, and chronicles the comedy of errors which has made up our attempts at forecasting energy use, prices, demand, sources, technology, and and all manner of other complex systems over the last century.  As with the nonsensical market noise that Bloomberg spews 24/7, when you actually go back and look at how well predictions have panned out in the past, it becomes impossible to give them any serious consideration today.  However, we are a storytelling species, and when we’re told a tale that agrees with our expectations, based on recent events, we tend to be suckers.

Instead of forecasting, Smil seems to favor back of the envelope, order of magnitude calculations, which can at least sketch out the extreme range of possibilities, and then also what he calls “normative scenarios”.  Instead of trying to say what will happen, as if we have little control over the course of events, a normative scenario describes what we think should happen, what we’d like to happen, and what kinds of very bad outcomes are nevertheless possible, in theory, without assigning any kind of likelihood to the different scenarios.  I think I like this unusually humble approach, and am curious how he will apply it to the fossil and non-fossil fuel options we have at hand.  At the same time, however, he pokes fun at Amory Lovins’ “Soft Energy” path (1976), which I understand to be exactly the kind of “no-regrets” scenario that he’s describing.  I think Lovins was more saying that, should we want to, we can live at a high standard of living on much less energy (and at much lower cost) than we tend to think.  Obviously with the quantity of coal, tar sands, oil shales, and more traditional hydrocarbons available to us globally, we will not be compelled to take the soft path any time soon, and so the fact that we’re using twice as much power today as Lovins predicted (or rather, suggested we might use if we wanted to go that way) isn’t necessarily, in my mind, a good example of a failed forecast.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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