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The Energy Transition Show: No Limits

The Energy Transition Show: No Limits

Are there fundamental limits to the energy transition that will slow it down, or prevent us from decarbonizing our energy systems? Critics and skeptics of the energy transition have pointed to issues like the problems of producing key minerals, or the costs of renewable energy, or path dependency in emerging economies. Some have questioned whether renewables resources even exist in sufficient quantities to displace the existing energy system, or whether there is enough land to site the requisite new wind and solar capacity.

In this show, we tackle these questions one by one, and explain why there are no fundamental limits that will bring the energy transition to a hard stop in the decades ahead. Quite the opposite, in fact. The safest assumption now is that renewables will continue to grow exponentially, and we should be thinking about the implications of that, rather than asking how the current system can struggle to persist. We’ll also explain why the transition will actually encourage economic growth, rather than restrict it.

Our guide for this discussion is Kingsmill Bond of the Carbon Tracker clean energy think tank based in London. We review several recent reports that he and his colleagues at Carbon Tracker have produced which specifically address these questions, and show how incredibly large our resources of renewable energy and key minerals really are. We’ll also discuss why emerging economies are more likely to leapfrog over the older conventional energy systems and go straight for the new technologies of the transition.

Finally, we share a number of exciting announcements about the future direction of this show and some new features we’re making available to annual subscribers!

Guest:Kingsmill Bond is the Energy Strategist for Carbon Tracker, a London-based clean energy think tank. He believes that the energy transition is the most important driver of financial markets and geopolitics in the modern era…

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The century of the limits

The century of the limits

IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING. JUST DO IT. SMASH YOUR LIMITS

We know much better some slogans that sell us that everything is possible, than the laws of thermodynamics, which govern our own nature and the limits that bound it. And so it goes. This is our frame of thought and from it derives some of our worst contradictions.

There is a story that is very interesting to share in order to talk about all this and that hides many clues about where we are now. In 1972, shortly before the first oil crisis and while computers were living their own prehistory, the Club of Rome -a recently founded scientific and cultural avant-garde organisation, which later has been key in the advancement of science and political ecology- commissioned a report from MIT in Massachusetts on the state of resources and the key variables to sustain our civilisation. System dynamics methodology had just begun to take its first steps, and its founder, Jay Forrester, developed several modesl to analyse the enviornment, resources, economy and population.

Almost five decades later, the incredible accuracy of the forecasts of the World3 model – a computer simulation programme – are an unparalleled milestone in terms of scientific anticipation.

It must be kept in mind that in reality there are an infinite number of interrelated variables that are impossible to take into account – such as the cultural/anthropological variables of a civilisation – and a complexity that no model can calibrate. However, in one of the many reviews that have been made of the MIT work, such as Graham Turner’s review in 2014, it was confirmed that this is probably one of the most impressive scientific works in the history of mankind. A few months ago, another review has reaffirmed its predictions.

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Myth #22: Nate Hagens discredits claim “We Can Always Get More Resources If We Have More Money”

Myth #22: Nate Hagens discredits claim “We Can Always Get More Resources If We Have More Money”

We can create money, but we cannot create energy, only extract what exists — FASTER.”

“We can create money, but we cannot create energy, only extract what exists — FASTER. And importantly, when money is created the interest is not. This creates a growth imperative for our economy to be able to pay interest in the future. Whenever we’ve encountered resource or energy limits – for example, the 1970s – we started to use the social construct of credit to overcome the near-term economic pain. In every single year since 1965, the United States and the world have grown their total debt more than they’ve grown their economies.”  —Nate Hagens, from his Myth #22

My transcript of this repost focuses on Nate’s 2:55-minute crash course in economics – a valiant attempt to explain to the untutored (like myself) the relationship between money and resources. Without fully understanding his explanation, I’ll just accept at face value that he effectively discredits Myth #22: “We Can Always Get More Resources If We Have More Money.” Myth #22 is one of 33 myths Nate covered in his May 21st Earth Day talk titled, Earth and Humanity: Myth and Reality. The beauty of his 2hr, 52min long, information-rich Earth Day talk is that it is more of an indexed reference tool for recurrent consultation than a lecture meant to be assimilated in one sitting.

At the bottom of this post is a complete time-stamped list of the titles of all of Hagens’ 33 myths, plus his opening Introduction and closing Interventions (and Wild Ideas). The myths can be watched in any order — but, as Hagens mentions, the order decided on seems logical.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Cramming cities full of electric vehicles means we’re still depending on cars — and that’s a huge problem

This week, the NSW government announced almost A$500 million towards boosting the uptake of electric vehicles. In its new electric vehicle strategy, the government will waive stamp duty for cars under $78,000, develop more charging infrastructure, offer rebates to 25,000 drivers, and more.

Given the transport sector is Australia’s second-largest polluter, it’s a good thing Australian governments are starting to plan for a transition to electric vehicles (EVs).

But transitioning from cities full of petrol-guzzling vehicles to cities full of electric ones won’t address all of the environmental and social problems associated with car dependence and mass manufacturing.

So, let’s look at these problems in more detail, and why public transport really is the best way forward.

EVs do have environmental advantages over conventional vehicles. In particular, they generate less carbon emissions during their lifetime. Of course, much of the emissions reductions will depend on how much electricity comes from renewable sources.

But carbon emissions are only one of the many problems associated with the dominance of private cars as a form of mobility in cities.

Let’s start with a few of the social issues. This includes the huge amount of space devoted to car driving and parking in our neighbourhoods. This can crowd out other forms of land use, including other more sustainable forms of mobility such as walking and cycling.

Men stand around a car

NSW Minister for Energy and Environment Matt Kean inspects an electric car following major budget announcements on electric vehicles. AAP Image/Joel Carrett

There are the financial and mental health costs of congestion, as well, with Australian city workers spending, on average, 66 minutes getting to and from work each day. Injuries and fatalities on roads are also increasing, and inactivity and isolation associated with driving can impact our physical health.

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How Energy Transition Models Go Wrong

How Energy Transition Models Go Wrong

I have written many posts relating to the fact that we live in a finite world. At some point, our ability to extract resources becomes constrained. At the same time, population keeps increasing. The usual outcome when population is too high for resources is “overshoot and collapse.” But this is not a topic that the politicians or central bankers or oligarchs who attend the World Economic Forum dare to talk about.

Instead, world leaders find a different problem, namely climate change, to emphasize above other problems. Conveniently, climate change seems to have some of the same solutions as “running out of fossil fuels.” So, a person might think that an energy transition designed to try to fix climate change would work equally well to try to fix running out of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, this isn’t really the way it works.

In this post, I will lay out some of the issues involved.

[1] There are many different constraints that new energy sources need to conform to.

These are a few of the constraints I see:

  • Should be inexpensive to produce
  • Should work with the current portfolio of existing devices
  • Should be available in the quantities required, in the timeframe needed
  • Should not pollute the environment, either when created or at the end of their lifetimes
  • Should not add CO2 to the atmosphere
  • Should not distort ecosystems
  • Should be easily stored, or should be easily ramped up and down to precisely match energy timing needs
  • Cannot overuse fresh water or scarce minerals
  • Cannot require a new infrastructure of its own, unless the huge cost in terms of delayed timing and greater materials use is considered.

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Clean energy minerals shortage: Who knew it could happen?

Clean energy minerals shortage: Who knew it could happen?

The race for so-called green energy has spawned another race, one for the minerals needed to make the devices such as solar panels and batteries that produce, store and transmit that energy. A hitherto largely unchallenged economic idea—that we will always have supplies of everything we need at the time we need it at prices we can afford—is in the process of being tested.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world will need to produce six times more of these critical metals than we are producing now to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a target widely held out as an essential goal for avoiding catastrophic effects from climate change. The need for lithium—the key component in lithium batteries that are prized for light weight and the ability to charge quickly—will grow 70 times over the next 20 years, the IEA predicts.

One wonders what the price trajectories of the minerals IEA mentions will look like in the coming years. The long-term charts are concerning for nickellithiumcobalt and others since this appears to be just the beginning of the run-up.

The world is experiencing shortages already of many key commodities and manufactured items (such as computer chips). This is, in part, due to lack of investment over the last decade after a general slump in commodity prices following the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 and a broad moderation in worldwide economic growth. Certainly, we can expect increased investment in these critical metals. But will it be sufficient to match our dreams for a green technology future?

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Climate Wars: IEA Warns Governments To Stockpile Battery Metals 

Climate Wars: IEA Warns Governments To Stockpile Battery Metals 

China’s dominance in green energy technologies are rare earth metal production is very concerning to the International Energy Agency (IEA), who posted a stark warning Wednesday advising western governments to stockpile critical battery metals such as cobalt and lithium.

IEA’s warning comes as the next chapter in US-China tensions will be climate wars as energy transition investment ramps up with peak oil around 2030. Many Western countries and China have estimated net-zero carbon emission economies somewhere around 2040-2060. The need for western economies to become less reliant on China for rare earth metals, such as lithium and cobalt, is a necessity for independence from the East.

China has arguably been faster in adopting green technologies than western countries. Climate wars are much more than climate action and saving the planet – it’s about the superpower race between the US and China and who can deliver climate change solutions and clean-tech.

Source: BofA

IEA said leading industrial nations should begin to develop stockpiles of metals and minerals.

“Meeting our climate change goals will turbocharge demand for mineral resources,” Fatih Birol, the head of the IEA, told Bloomberg by phone. “Voluntary strategic stockpiling can in some cases help countries weather short-term supply disruptions.”

The problem with rare earth metals is that only a handful of countries control more than 75% of the global supply. So if disruptions, for any reason, were seen, they would immediately ripple throughout the world, seizing the production of green technologies.

Bloomberg data shows demand for rare earth metals will soar this decade as countries decarbonizing their economies.

Source: Bloomberg 

Bank of America lists the metals that go into clean technologies.

Source: BofA

After decades of advising governments on oil and gas markets, the agency focuses on supply chain risks of rare earth metals.

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Our rapid ascent in energy and resource use has distorted our view of “normal”

Our rapid ascent in energy and resource use has distorted our view of “normal”

The new reality warns we are on a collision course with Earth’s finite limits —

Tom Murphy

“The delirious ascent in energy and resource use witnessed over the past few centuries has been accomplished via the rapid, accelerating expenditure of a one-time inheritance of natural resources—a brief and singularly remarkable era in the long saga of human history. It has produced a dangerously distorted impression of what “normal” looks like on this planet. …Thus far, heeding physical boundaries has not been necessary for the most part, as the scale of human endeavors has only recently become significant in a planetary context. We are now entering into a new reality: one in which our ambitions are on a collision course with natural limits on a finite planet. It is a slow-motion trajectory that has been apparent to some for an embarrassingly long time*, but not yet acute enough to have grabbed the lasting attention of the majority. [*D H Meadows et al. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. Universe Books, 1974]” —Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is an associate professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. Murphy’s keen interest in energy topics began with his teaching a course on energy and the environment for non-science majors at UCSD. Following his natural instincts to educate, Murphy is eager to get people thinking about the quantitatively convincing case that our pursuit of an ever-bigger scale of life faces gigantic challenges and carries significant risks.

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The Ugly Truth About Renewable Power

The Ugly Truth About Renewable Power

When Texas literally froze this February, some blamed the blackouts that left millions of Texans in the dark on the wind turbines. Others blamed them on the gas-fired power plants.

The truth isn’t so politically simple. In truth, both wind turbines and gas plants froze because of the abnormal weather.

And when Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway said it had plans for additional generation capacity in Texas, it wasn’t talking about wind turbines. It was talking about more gas-fired power plants—ten more gigawatts of them.

While the Texas Freeze hogged headlines in the United States, across the Atlantic, the only European country producing any electricity from solar farms was teeny tiny Slovenia. And that’s not because Europe doesn’t have any solar capacity—on the contrary, it has a substantial amount. But Europe had a brutal winter with lots of snow and clouds. Despite the often-referenced fact that solar panels operate better in cooler weather, sub-zero temperatures are far more drastic than cool. This is not even to mention the cloud cover that, based on the Electricity Map data above, did not help.

If we go back a few more months, there were the California rolling blackouts of August that state officials and others insisted had nothing to do with the state’s substantial reliance on solar and wind power. The state’s own utilities commission disagrees.

This is what the California Public Utilities Commission and the state’s grid operator, CAISO, said in a joint letter to Governor Newsom following the blackouts:

“On August 15, the CAISO experienced similar [to August 14] supply conditions, as well as significant swings in wind resource output when evening demand was increasing. Wind resources first quickly increased output during the 4:00 pm hour (approximately 1,000 MW), then decreased rapidly the next hour…

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Between the Devil and the Green New Deal

We cannot legislate and spend our way out of catastrophic global warming.

From space, the Bayan Obo mine in China, where 70 percent of the world’s rare earth minerals are extracted and refined, almost looks like a painting. The paisleys of the radioactive tailings ponds, miles long, concentrate the hidden colors of the earth: mineral aquamarines and ochres of the sort a painter might employ to flatter the rulers of a dying empire.

To meet the demands of the Green New Deal, which proposes to convert the US economy to zero emissions, renewable power by 2030, there will be a lot more of these mines gouged into the crust of the earth. That’s because nearly every renewable energy source depends upon non-renewable and frequently hard-to-access minerals: solar panels use indium, turbines use neodymium, batteries use lithium, and all require kilotons of steel, tin, silver, and copper. The renewable-energy supply chain is a complicated hopscotch around the periodic table and around the world. To make a high-capacity solar panel, one might need copper (atomic number 29) from Chile, indium (49) from Australia, gallium (31) from China, and selenium (34) from Germany. Many of the most efficient, direct-drive wind turbines require a couple pounds of the rare-earth metal neodymium, and there’s 140 pounds of lithium in each Tesla.

It’s not for nothing that coal miners were, for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the very image of capitalist immiseration—it’s exhausting, dangerous, ugly work. Le Voreux, “the voracious one”—that’s what Émile Zola names the coal mine in Germinal, his novel of class struggle in a French company town.

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green new deal, commune, mining, renewable energy, JASPER BERNES, fossil fuels, finite resources

Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet

Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet

Where is humanity going? How realistic is a future of fusion and space colonies? What constraints are imposed by physics, by resource availability, and by human psychology?  Are default expectations grounded in reality?

This textbook, written for a general-education audience, aims to address these questions without either the hype or the indifference typical of many books.  The message throughout is that humanity faces a broad sweep of foundational problems as we inevitably transition away from fossil fuels and confront planetary limits in a host of unprecedented ways—a shift whose scale and probable rapidity offers little historical guidance.

Salvaging a decent future requires keen awareness, quantitative assessment, deliberate preventive action, and—above all—recognition that prevailing assumptions about human identity and destiny have been cruelly misshapen by the profoundly unsustainable trajectory of the last 150 years.  The goal is to shake off unfounded and unexamined expectations, while elucidating the relevant physics and encouraging greater facility in quantitative reasoning.

After addressing limits to growth, population dynamics, uncooperative space environments, and the current fossil underpinnings of modern civilization, various sources of alternative energy are considered in detail— assessing how they stack up against each other, and which show the greatest potential.  Following this is an exploration of systemic human impediments to effective and timely responses, capped by guidelines for individual adaptations resulting in reduced energy and material demands on the planet’s groaning capacity. Appendices provide refreshers on math and chemistry, as well as supplementary material of potential interest relating to cosmology, electric transportation, and an evolutionary perspective on humanity’s place in nature.

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finite resources, finite planet, growth, thomas w. murphy jr.

Presidents Day: Carter’s Prescient Farewell Address in 1981

Presidents Day: Carter’s Prescient Farewell Address in 1981

Regardless of our opinions about President Carter and his legacy, his Farewell Address is worthy of our attention and study.

On Presidents Day 2021, I invite you to read/watch President Carter’s Farewell Address from 40 years ago. As a Washington outsider, Carter was relentlessly mocked and undermined by the Establishment, as insiders’ loathing of outsiders knows no bounds.

In a similar fashion, the loathing of the corrupt and self-absorbed for the faithful aspiring to better world despite our weaknesses and flaws also knows no bounds, and so the establishment insiders that run the nation had no use for Carter other than as a handy whipping post.

President Carter was not the only outsider president reviled by the Washington elites, of course; outsiders of both parties draw the fierce fire of a corrupt Establishment fearful of exposure.

Although many reckon it good sport to make fun of President Carter’s initiatives (along with his grin, hair, accent, etc. etc. etc.), a strong case can be made that he was the first and only 21st century President the nation has elected. Every president since, regardless of party or ideology or canned speeches (Soaring Rhetoric (TM), has been embedded in a continuation of the 20th century economy, politics and Imperial Project.

Carter was the first and only president to address DeGrowth, though the word had yet to be coined: DeGrowth is the idea that resources would eventually become scarce and thus unaffordable, and rather then pursue the insane fantasy of eternal growth on a finite planet, a new arrangement that did more with less would be needed.

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Peak Stainless Steel

Peak Stainless Steel

This study shows that there is a significant risk that stainless steel production will reach its maximum capacity around 2055 because of declining nickel production, though recycling, and use of other alloys on a very small scale can compensate somewhat.

The model in this study assumes business as usual for metal production and fossil fuel supplies (though the authors note that energy limitations are likely in the future, which will limit mining). If oil begins to decline within 10 years, as many think, shortages of stainless steel and everything else will happen before 2055.

There are two kinds of steel. Stainless which resists corrosion and is more ductile and tough than regular steel, also known as mild or carbon steel. 

By weight, stainless steel is the fourth largest metal produced, after carbon steel, cast iron, and aluminum. 

But stainless steel is limited by the alloying metals manganese (Mn), chromium (Cr) and nickel (Ni), which have limited reserves. 

There are over 150 grades of stainless steel which is used for cutlery, cookware, zippers, construction, autos, handrails, counters, shipping containers, medical instruments and equipment, transportation of chemicals, liquids, and food products, harsh environments with high heat and toxic substances, off-shore oil rigs, wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, battleships, tanks, submarines, and too many other products to name.

***

Sverdrup, H. U., et al. 2019. Assessing the long-term global sustainability of the production and supply for stainless steel. Biophysical economics and resource quality.

The extractable amounts of nickel are modest, and this puts a limit on how much stainless steel of different qualities can be produced. Nickel is the most key element for stainless steel production. 

This study shows that there is a significant risk that the stainless steel production will reach its maximum capacity around 2055 and slowly decline after that. The model indicates that stainless steel of the type containing Mn–Cr–Ni will have a production peak in about 2040, and the production will decline after 2045 because of nickel supply limitations.  

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Radical Plan to Save the Planet by Working Less

The Radical Plan to Save the Planet by Working Less

The degrowth movement wants to intentionally shrink the economy to address climate change, and create lives with less stuff, less work, and better well-being. But is it a utopian fantasy?

In 1972, a team at MIT published The Limits to Growth, a report that predicted what would happen to human civilization as the economy and population continued to grow. What their computer simulation found was pretty straightforward: On a planet of finite resources, infinite exponential growth isn’t possible. Eventually, non-renewable resources, like oil, would run out.

Historically, we have considered growth a positive thing, synonymous with job security and prosperity. Since World War II, the gross domestic product (GDP) measure has been used as “the ultimate measure of a country’s overall welfare.” One of John F. Kennedy’s staff economists, Arthur Okun, theorized that for every 3-point rise in GDP, unemployment would fall a percentage point—one reason why presidential campaigns fixate on the measure.

But growth has led to other problems, such as the warming of the planet due to carbon emissions, and the extreme weather and loss of biodiversityand agriculture that comes along with that. Consequently some activists, researchers, and policy makers are questioning the dogma of growth as good. This skepticism has led to the degrowth movement, which says the growth of the economy is inextricably tied to an increase in carbon emissions. It calls for a dramatic reduction in energy and material use, which would inevitably shrink GDP. 

The Green New Deal, popularized by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seeks to decrease carbon by growing the renewable energy industry. But the degrowth movement believes we need to take this further, by designing a social upheaval that disentangles the idea of progress and economic growth once and for all.

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Managing without Growth. Slower by Design, not Disaster

Managing without Growth. Slower by Design, not Disaster

Book cover

It took homo sapiens some 200,000 years to reach the first billion by about 1800. In just the 10 years separating the first and second edition of Managing without Growth: Slower by Design, not Disaster, the human population increased by the same amount putting increased pressure on an already crowded planet. In the past decade the global use of resources spiked upwards, greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase, income and wealth inequality rose to the highest levels in half a century, the global financial system almost crashed, and mammal, bird and insect populations declined markedly because of increased deforestation and industrialized agriculture. So, while material living standards of the poorest rose, mostly in China, which is something to celebrate, there are many reasons to be deeply concerned about what lies ahead. Humanity’s grossly unequal ecological footprints greatly exceed the Earth’s regenerative biocapacity and it is doubtful whether the planet can support the continued economic growth to which virtually all of the world’s governments are committed.  Can we do better?

The opening chapters of this updated, revised, and expanded second edition Managing without Growth tell how the recent idea of economic growth emerged from the idea of progress, itself only a few hundred years old. There are many reasons for questioning growth as a key economic policy objective supported in the book based on extensive data as well as on conceptual and methodological considerations.  Critical attention is given to the commodification of nature through monetization. ‘Natural’ capital captures the spirit of the times, but it can hardly be said to capture the spirit of nature.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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