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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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Where Energy Modeling Goes Wrong

Where Energy Modeling Goes Wrong

There are a huge number of people doing energy modeling. In my opinion, nearly all of them are going astray in their modeling because they don’t understand how the economy really operates.

The modeling that comes closest to being correct is that which underlies the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and others. This modeling was based on physical quantities of resources, with no financial system whatsoever. The base model, shown here, indicates that limits would be reached a few years later than we actually seem to be reaching them. The dotted black line in Figure 1 indicates where I saw the world economy to be in January 2019, based on the limits we already seemed to be reaching at that time.

Figure 1. Base scenario from 1972 Limits to Growth, printed using today’s graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in “Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil,” with dotted line added corresponding to where I saw the world economy to be in January 2019, based on how the economy was operating at that time.

The authors of The Limits to Growth have said that their model cannot be expected to be correct after limits hit (which is about now), so even this model is less than perfect. Thus, this model cannot be relied upon to show that population will continue to rise until after 2050.

Many readers are familiar with Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) calculations. These are favorites of many people following the Peak Oil problem. A high ratio of Energy Returned to Energy Invested is considered favorable, while a low ratio is considered unfavorable. Energy sources with similar EROEIs are supposedly equivalent. Even these similarities can be misleading. They make intermittent wind and solar appear far more helpful than they really are.

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2020: The Year Things Started Going Badly Wrong

2020: The Year Things Started Going Badly Wrong

How today’s energy problem is different from peak oil

Many people believe that the economy will start going badly wrong when we “run out of oil.” The problem we have today is indeed an energy problem, but it is a different energy problem. Let me explain it with an escalator analogy.

Figure 1. Holborn Tube Station Escalator. Photo by renaissancechambara, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The economy is like a down escalator that citizens of the world are trying to walk upward on. At first the downward motion of the escalator is almost imperceptible, but gradually it gets to be greater and greater. Eventually the downward motion becomes almost unbearable. Many citizens long to sit down and take a rest.

In fact, a break, like the pandemic, almost comes as a relief. There is suddenly a chance to take it easy; not drive to work; not visit relatives; not keep up appearances before friends. Government officials may not be unhappy either. There may have been demonstrations by groups asking for higher wages. Telling people to stay at home provides a convenient way to end these demonstrations and restore order.

But then, restarting doesn’t work. There are too many broken pieces of the economy. Too many bankrupt companies; too many unemployed people; too much debt that cannot be repaid. And, a virus that really doesn’t quite go away, leaving people worried and unwilling to attempt to resume normal activities.

Some might describe the energy story as a “diminishing returns” story, but it’s really broader than this. It’s a story of services that we expect to continue, but which cannot continue without much more energy investment. It is also a story of the loss of “economies of scale” that at one time helped propel the economy forward.

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Humans Left Sustainability Behind as Hunter-Gatherers

Humans Left Sustainability Behind as Hunter-Gatherers

Many people believe that humans can have a sustainable future by using solar panels and wind turbines. Unfortunately, the only truly sustainable course, in terms of moving in cycles with nature, is interacting with the environment in a manner similar to the approach used by chimpanzees and baboons. Even this approach will eventually lead to new and different species predominating. Over a long period, such as 10 million years, we can expect the vast majority of species will become extinct, regardless of how well these species fit in with nature’s plan.

The key to the relative success of animals such as chimpanzees and baboons is living within a truly circular economy. Sun falling on trees provides the food they need. Waste products of their economy come back to the forest ecosystem as fertilizer.

Pre-humans lost the circular economy when they learned to control fire over one million years ago, when they were still hunter-gatherers. With the controlled use of fire, cooked food became possible, making it easier to chew and digest food. The human body adapted to the use of cooked food by reducing the size of the jaw and digestive tract and increasing the size of the brain. This adaptation made pre-humans truly different from other animals.

With the use of fire, pre-humans had many powers. They spent less time chewing, so they could spend more time making tools. They could burn down entire forests, if they so chose, to provide a better environment for the desired types of wild plants to grow. They could use the heat from fire to move to colder environments than the one to which they were originally adapted, thus allowing a greater total population.

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Fossil Fuel Production Is Reaching Limits in a Strange Way

Fossil Fuel Production Is Reaching Limits in a Strange Way

Strangely enough, the limit we seem to be reaching with respect to fossil fuel extraction comes from low prices. At low prices, the extraction of oil, coal, and natural gas becomes unprofitable. Producers go bankrupt, or they voluntarily cut back production in an attempt to force prices higher. As the result of these forces, production tends to fall. This limit comes long before the limit that many people imagine: the amount of fossil fuels in the ground that seems to be available with current extraction techniques.

The last time there was a similar problem was back in 1913, when coal was the predominant fossil fuel used and the United Kingdom was the largest coal producer in the world. The cost of production was rising due to depletion, but coal prices would not rise sufficiently to cover the higher cost of production. As a result, the United Kingdom’s coal production reached its highest level in 1913, the year before World War I started, and began to fall in 1914.

Between 1913 and 1945, the world economy was very troubled. There were two world wars, the Spanish Flu pandemic and the Great Depression. My concern is that we are again headed into another very troubled period that could last for many years.

The way the energy problems of the period between 1913 and 1945 were resolved was through the rapid ramp-up of oil production. Oil was, as that time, inexpensive to produce and could be sold for a very large multiple of the cost of production. If population is to remain at the current level or possibly grow, we need a similar “energy savior.” Unfortunately, none of the alternatives we are looking at now yield a high enough return relative to the required investment.

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Reaching the End of Early Stimulus – What’s Ahead?

Reaching the End of Early Stimulus – What’s Ahead?

Many people thought that COVID-19 would be gone with a short shutdown. They also thought that the world’s economic problems could be cured with a six month “dose” of stimulus.

It is increasingly clear that neither of these assumptions is correct. Despite the claims of epidemiologists, our best efforts have never been able to reduce the number of newly reported COVID-19 cases for the world as a whole for any significant period of time. In fact, the latest week seems to be the highest week so far.

Figure 1. Chart of worldwide COVID-19 new cases, in chart prepared by Worldometer with data through September 20, 2020.

At the same time, the economy, despite all of the stimulus, is not doing very well. Airlines are doing very poorly. The parts of the economy that are dependent upon tourism are having huge problems. This reduces the “upside” of economic recovery, pretty much everywhere, until it can be corrected.

Another part of the world economy doing poorly is clothing sales. For example, many fewer people are attending concerts, weddings, funerals, out-of-town business meetings and conventions, leading to a need for fewer “dressy” clothes. Also, with air travel greatly reduced, people don’t need new clothing for visiting places with different climates, either. Most clothing is bought by people from rich countries but made by people in poor countries. This cutback in clothing purchases disproportionately affects people who are already very poor. The loss of jobs in these countries may lead to an inability to afford food, for those who are laid off.

Besides these difficult to solve problems, initial programs set up to help mitigate job losses are running out. What kinds of things might governments do, if they are running short of borrowing capacity, and medical solutions still seem to be far away?

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Today’s Energy Predicament – A Look at Some Charts

Today’s Energy Predicament – A Look at Some Charts

Today’s energy predicament is a strange situation that most modelers have never really considered. Let me explain some of the issues I see, using some charts.

[1] It is probably not possible to reduce current energy consumption by 80% or more without dramatically reducing population.

A glance at energy consumption per capita for a few countries suggests that cold countries tend to use a lot more energy per person than warm, wet countries.

Figure 1. Energy consumption per capita in 2019 in selected countries based on data from BP’s 2020 Statistical Review of World Energy.

This shouldn’t be a big surprise: Our predecessors in Africa didn’t need much energy. But as humans moved to colder areas, they needed extra warmth, and this required extra energy. The extra energy today is used to build sturdier homes and vehicles, to heat and operate those homes and vehicles, and to build the factories, roads and other structures needed to keep the whole operation going.

Saudi Arabia (not shown on Figure 1) is an example of a hot, dry country that uses a lot of energy. Its energy consumption per capita in 2019 (322 GJ per capita) was very close to that of Norway. It needs to keep its population cool, besides running its large oil operation.

If the entire world population could adopt the lifestyle of Bangladesh or India, we could indeed get our energy consumption down to a very low level. But this is difficult to do when the climate doesn’t cooperate. This means that if energy usage needs to fall dramatically, population will probably need to fall in areas where heating or air conditioning are essential for living.

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Why a Great Reset Based on Green Energy Isn’t Possible

Why a Great Reset Based on Green Energy Isn’t Possible

It seems like a reset of an economy should work like a reset of your computer: Turn it off and turn it back on again; most problems should be fixed. However, it doesn’t really work that way. Let’s look at a few of the misunderstandings that lead people to believe that the world economy can move to a Green Energy future.

[1] The economy isn’t really like a computer that can be switched on and off; it is more comparable to a human body that is dead, once it is switched off.

A computer is something that is made by humans. There is a beginning and an end to the process of making it. The computer works because energy in the form of electrical current flows through it. We can turn the electricity off and back on again. Somehow, almost like magic, software issues are resolved, and the system works better after the reset than before.

Even though the economy looks like something made by humans, it really is extremely different. In physics terms, it is a “dissipative structure.” It is able to “grow” only because of energy consumption, such as oil to power trucks and electricity to power machines.

The system is self-organizing in the sense that new businesses are formed based on the resources available and the apparent market for products made using these resources. Old businesses disappear when their products are no longer needed. Customers make decisions regarding what to buy based on their incomes, the amount of debt available to them, and the choice of goods available in the marketplace.

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COVID-19 and the economy: Where do we go from here?

COVID-19 and the economy: Where do we go from here?

The COVID-19 story keeps developing. At first, everyone listened to epidemiologists telling us that a great deal of social distancing, and even the closing down of economies, would be helpful. After trying these things, we ended up with a huge number of people out of work and protests everywhere. We discovered the models that were provided were not very predictive. We are also finding that a V-shaped recovery is not possible.

Now, we need to figure out what actions to take next. How vigorously should we be fighting COVID-19? The story is more complex than most people understand. These are some of the issues I see:

[1] The share of COVID-19 cases that can be expected to end in death seems to be much lower than most people expect.

Most people assume that the ratios of deaths to cases by age group, computed using reported cases, such as those included in the Johns Hopkins Database, give a good indication of the chance of death a person faces if a person catches COVID-19. In fact, the cases reported to this database are far from representative of all cases; they tend to be the more severe cases. Cases with no symptoms, or only very slight symptoms, tend to be missed. The result is that ratios calculated directly from this database make people think their risk of death is far higher than it really is.

The US Center for Disease Control has published Planning Scenarios, based on information available on April 29, 2020.* Using this information, the CDC’s best estimate of the number of future deaths per 1000 cases with symptoms is as follows:

Ages 0 – 49    0.5 deaths per 1000 cases with symptoms

Ages 50-64    2.0 deaths per 1000 cases with symptoms

Ages 65+       13.0 deaths per 1000 cases with symptoms

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Increased Violence Reflects an Energy Problem

Increased Violence Reflects an Energy Problem

Why are we seeing so much violence recently? One explanation is that people are sympathizing with those in the Minneapolis area who are upset at the death of George Floyd. They believe that a white cop used excessive force in subduing Floyd, leading to his death.

I believe that there is a much deeper story involved. As I wrote in my recent post, Understanding Our Pandemic – Economy Predicamentthe problem we are facing is too many people relative to resources, particularly energy resources. This leads to a condition sometimes referred to as “overshoot and collapse.” The economy grows for a while, may stabilize for a time, and then heads in a downward direction, essentially because energy consumption per capita falls too low.

Strangely enough, this energy crisis looks like a crisis of affordability. The young and the poor, especially, cannot afford to buy goods and services that they need, such as a home in which to raise their children and a vehicle to drive. Trying to do so leaves them with excessive debt. If the affordability problem changes for the worse, the young and the poor are likely to protest. In fact, these protests may become violent. 

The pandemic tends to make the affordability problem worse for minorities and young people because they are disproportionately affected by job losses associated with lockdowns. In many cases, the poor catch COVID-19 more frequently because they live and/or work in crowded conditions where the disease spreads easily. In the US, blacks seem to be especially hard hit, both by COVID-19 and through the loss of jobs. These issues, plus the availability of guns, makes the situation particularly explosive in the US.

Let me explain these issues further.

[1] Energy is required for all aspects of the economy.

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COVID-19 and oil at $1: Is there a way forward?

COVID-19 and oil at $1: Is there a way forward?

Many people are concerned today with the low price of oil. Others are concerned about slowing or stopping COVID-19. Is there any way forward?

I gave a few hints regarding what is ahead in my last post, Economies won’t be able to recover after shutdowns. We live in a world with a self-organizing economy, made up of components such as businesses, customers, governments and interest rates. Our basic problem is a finite world problem. World population has outgrown its resource base.

Some sort of economy might work with the current resource base, but not the present economy. The COVID-19 crisis and the lockdowns used to try to contain the crisis push the economy farther along the route toward collapse. In this post, I suggest the possibility that some core parts of the world economy might temporarily be saved if they can be made to operate fairly independently of each other.

Let’s look at some parts of the problem:

[1] The world economy works like a pump.

To use a hand water pump, a person forces a lever down, and the desired output (water) appears. Human energy is required to power this pump. Other versions of water pumps use electricity, or burn gasoline or diesel. However the pump operates, there needs to be some form of energy input, for the desired output, water, to be produced.

An economy follows a similar pattern, except that the list of inputs and outputs is longer. With an economy, we need the following inputs, including energy inputs:

  • Human energy
  • Supplemental energy, such as burned biomass, animal power, electricity, and fossil fuel.
  • Other resources, including fertile land, fresh water and raw materials of various kinds.
  • Capital goods, built in previous cycles of the “pump.” These might include factories and machines to put into the factories.

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Economies won’t be able to recover after shutdowns

Economies won’t be able to recover after shutdowns

Citizens seem to be clamoring for shutdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19. There is one major difficulty, however. Once an economy has been shut down, it is extremely difficult for the economy to recover back to the level it had reached previously. In fact, the longer the shutdown lasts, the more critical the problem is likely to be. China can shut down its economy for two weeks over the Chinese New Year, each year, without much damage. But, if the outage is longer and more widespread, damaging effects are likely.

A major reason why economies around the world will have difficulty restarting is because the world economy was in very poor shape before COVID-19 hit; shutting down major parts of the economy for a time leads to even more people with low wages or without any job. It will be very difficult and time-consuming to replace the failed businesses that provided these jobs.

When an outbreak of COVID-19 hit, epidemiologists recommended social distancing approaches that seemed to be helpful back in 1918-1919. The issue, however, is that the world economy has changed. Social distancing rules have a much more adverse impact on today’s economy than on the economy of 100 years ago.

Governments that wanted to push back found themselves up against a wall of citizen expectations. A common belief, even among economists, was that any shutdown would be short, and the recovery would be V-shaped. False information (really propaganda) published by China tended to reinforce the expectation that shutdowns could truly be helpful. But if we look at the real situation, Chinese workers are finding themselves newly laid off as they attempt to return to work. This is leading to protests in the Hubei area.

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Easily overlooked issues regarding COVID-19

Easily overlooked issues regarding COVID-19

We read a lot in the news about the new Wuhan coronavirus and the illness it causes (COVID-19), but some important points often get left out.

[1] COVID-19 is incredibly contagious.

COVID-19 transmits extremely easily from person to person. Interpersonal contact doesn’t need to be very long; a taxi driver can get the virus from a passenger, for example. The virus may be transmissible even before an infected person develops symptoms. It may also be transmissible for a few days after a person seems to be over the virus; it is possible to get positive virus tests, even after symptoms disappear. Some people may have the disease, but never show symptoms.

[2] The virus likely remains active on inanimate surfaces such as paper, plastic, or metal for many days. 

There haven’t been tests on the COVID-19 virus per se, but studies on similar virusessuggest that human pathogens may remain infectious for up to eight days. Some viruses that only infect animals can survive for more than 28 days. China is reported to be destroying paper currency from the hardest hit area, because people do not want to accept money which may have viruses on it. Clearly, surfaces in airplanes, trains and buses may also harbor viruses, long after a passenger with the virus has left, unless they have been thoroughly wiped down with disinfectant.

[3] Given Issues [1] and [2], about the only way to avoid spreading COVID-19 seems to be geographic isolation. 

With all of today’s travel, geographic isolation doesn’t work very well in practice. People need food and medical supplies. They need to keep basic services such as electricity and garbage collection operating. Suppliers of food and other services need to come and leave the area and that tends to spread COVID-19.

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It Is Easy to Overreact to the Chinese Coronavirus

It Is Easy to Overreact to the Chinese Coronavirus

Recently, a new coronavirus has been causing many illnesses and deaths. The virus first became active in Wuhan, China, but it has already spread to the rest of China. Scattered cases have been identified around the rest of the world as well.

There are two important questions that are already being encountered:

  • How much of an attempt should be made to limit the spread of the new virus? For example, should businesses close to prevent the spread of the virus?
  • Should this disease be publicized as being far worse than flu viruses that circulate each year and cause many deaths among the elderly and people in poor health? The median age of those dying from the new coronavirus seems to be about 75.

Unfortunately, there aren’t easy answers. We can easily see the likely outcome of under reaction. More people might die of the disease. More people might find themselves out of work for a couple of weeks or more with the illness. We tend to be especially concerned about ourselves and our own relatives.

The thing that is harder to see is that reacting too vigorously can have a hugely detrimental impact on the world economy. The world economy depends on international trade and tourism. China plays a key role in the world economy. Quarantines of whole regions that last for weeks and months can have a very detrimental impact on the wages of people in the area and profits of local companies. Problems with debt can be expected to spike. The greater the reaction to the coronavirus, the more likely the world economy will be pushed toward recession and job loss.

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Expect low oil prices in 2020; tendency toward recession

Expect low oil prices in 2020; tendency toward recession

Energy Forecast for 2020

Overall, I expect that oil and other commodity prices will remain low in 2020. These low oil prices will adversely affect oil production and several other parts of the economy. As a result, a strong tendency toward recession can be expected. The extent of recessionary influences will vary from country to country. Financial factors, not discussed in these forecasts, are likely also to play a role.

The following are pieces of my energy forecast for 2020:

[1] Oil prices can be expected to remain generally low in 2020. There may be an occasional spike to $80 or $90 per barrel, but average prices in 2020 are likely to be at or below the 2019 level. 

Figure 1. Average annual inflation-adjusted Brent equivalent oil prices in 2018 US$. 2018 and prior are as shown in BP’s 2019 Statistical Review of World Energy. Value for 2019 estimated by author based on EIA Brent daily oil prices and 2% expected inflation.

Figure 2 shows in more detail how peaks in oil prices have been falling since 2008. While it doesn’t include early January 2020 oil prices, even these prices would be below the dotted line.

Figure 2. Inflation adjusted weekly average Brent Oil price, based on EIA oil spot prices and US CPI-urban inflation.

Oil prices can temporarily spike because of inadequate supply or fear of war. However, to keep oil prices up, there needs to be an increase in “demand” for finished goods and services made with commodities. Workers need to be able to afford to purchase more goods such as new homes, cars, and cell phones. Governments need to be able to afford to purchase new goods such as paved roads and school buildings.

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Recession Ahead: An Overview of Our Predicament

Recession Ahead: An Overview of Our Predicament

Many people have the impression that recessions come from financial missteps, such as the US subprime loan fiasco. If energy is involved at all, the problem comes from high oil prices as supply becomes inadequate to meet demand.

The real situation is different. We already seem to be on the road toward a new crisis; this crisis is likely to be much worse than the Great Recession of 2008-2009. This time, a major problem is likely to be energy prices that are too low for producers. Last time, a major problem was oil prices that were too high for consumers. The problem is different, but it is in some ways symmetric.

Last time, the United States seemed to be the epicenter; this time, my analysis indicates China is likely to be the epicenter. Last time, the world economy was coming off a high growth period; this time, the world economy is already somewhat depressed, even before hitting headwinds. These differences, plus the strange physics-based way that the world economy is organized, explain why the outcome seems likely to be worse this time than in 2008-2009.

I recently explained what I see as happening in a presentation for actuaries: Recession Likely: Expect a Bend in Trend Lines. This post is based on this presentation, omitting the strictly insurance-related portions.

The big thing that the vast majority of people do not understand is how important energy is to the economy. Because of this issue, I started my presentation with this slide:

Slide 3

After an opportunity for discussion, I offered the explanation that the role of food for humans is very much parallel to the need for energy of various types for the world economy. Food provides people with the energy required if they are to have the ability to think, move and speak.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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