Intermittency revisited

by Solarevolution March 27, 2013 14:00

A new detailed analysis has been published on the intermittency of renewables, "Household Solar Photovoltaics: Supplier of Marginal Abatement, or Primary Source of Low-Emission Power?"

Here are some observations about this article:

  • Any future scenario involving the continuing indulgence or coddling of fossil fuel interests is delusional. Catastrophic climate change is at the door. Even if our only issue were peak oil, it is already too late for a smooth "transition" or "energy conservation." We are in a state of emergency and it is time to stop kidding ourselves about our plight, especially within the well-informed but small peak oil / EROI / climate change / renewables community. More than ever, the world needs clear, honest, deep understanding. The politicians and the business community will catch on only when we get real ourselves and "tell it like it is."
  • Given the high risk of social disruption due to climate change, the only rational future for nuclear power (including nuclear weaponry) is rapid decommissioning and secure sequestration. The last thing humanity needs is coastal nuclear power plants flooded by sea level rise and on-river nuclear power plants running out of cooling water while marauders are out on the front lawns of the nuclear industry custodians. Others may be in denial about this risk, but we need not indulge their fantasies of a nuclear resurgence. 
  • That leaves us with only one sane course of action: demand destruction combined with renewables. Any challenges to high EROI renewables carry the responsibility to find high EROI solutions. If batteries don't cut the mustard, then forget batteries. If the main challenge is intermittency, then it is time for us to set the bar higher and put qualified intermittency engineers to work. Many serious developers are working on low cost, high capacity, high round-trip efficiency storage. And they aren't wasting their time on batteries. If trees can survive the night (and winter even in Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia), then so can humans. 
    • By the way, a good peer reviewed scientific report on the costs and impacts of intermittency can be obtained from the UKERC:
      It explains the important concept of "root mean square error" and debunks a lot of the myths about intermittent generation.
  • Likewise, if we need a smarter grid to make renewables work, then we need to put more smart people to work, and pronto. One can identify the challenge and the inadequacy of efforts to date. Fine. Then what happens? (Robert Heinlein's admonition comes to mind: "Always listen to experts. They will tell you what can't be done and why. Then do it.")   
  • Residential rooftop solar has a place but it carries the challenges of high installation cost, poor orientation/shading, roof penetrations, etc. These issues stand in the way of large scale high EROI deployment. 
  • Better we look elsewhere. Stronger candidates are low profile commercial buildings, parking lots and streets (integrated with grade-separated transportation).
  • Nor does the need for scale necessarily imply huge remote solar farms out in the deserts. That's appropriate if we are up to something out there in the first place, but extensive transmission and environmental costs can be mitigated by integrating most renewables into the urban fabric.
  • Charlie Hall's claim that society's EROI has to be on the order of magnitude of 10 is similarly built upon the premise of many steps between, e.g., the well and the wheel. No wonder he's right. We fly rednecks from Houston to extract oil offshore in Angola, ship it to refineries in Rotterdam, conjure magic potions and send it off to who knows where by truck no less, and then run it through a 15% efficient engine pushing around mostly metal. What a waste! By uniting generation and application (source and sink) within a single physical structure, much of that inefficiency can be readily eliminated and the minimum EROI can get back down to a reasonable number. 
  • There is no significant future for electric cars (and thus V2G). Using the Biblical cliche, it doesn't make sense to put new wine in old wine skins. In the context of peak oil, humanity is poised to eliminate the treacherous bad engineering (misnamed "auto"-mobile / "free"-way) that willy-nilly juxtaposes children, pedestrians and bicyclists (not to mention pets, squirrels and deer) against heavy fast-moving machines on the same terrestrial plane. With grade-separated Solar Skyways, for example, we can reclaim the streets for people-not-machines and meet our energy needs as well. In the process, with a 10X improved solution, we can drastically cut the source-to-sink steps which whittle away at full EROI  / LCA / efficiency considerations.
For any new scientific inquiry, we must question the assumptions which underpin the conclusions reached. If one picks a marginal set of underlying premises, one will get marginal results.

And though one's conclusions may be valid within the present political framework and technology mindset, the science behind EROI and LCA relate first and foremost to physics, not BAU economics or political intransigence. As long as we are considering such scenarios as high residential rooftop solar deployment, it makes sense to also put forth bold scenarios with sound physics, irrespective of the political / industrial challenges we face. In the emerging milieu of severe natural consequences, bold is where the opportunities can be found.  


The debate about Sandy is heating up even if the planet isn't

by Solarevolution November 02, 2012 17:08
The debate about SuperStorm Sandy is heating up, whether the whole planet is or not. Here's what some have to say:
There is no doubt that warming is occurring but I am unclear that we understand that there is any clear correlation between warming and a bad storm although I understand the arguments for it.  I just don't think it is scientific.

I hear a hard edge in those who stridently assure us that big storms like Sandy are related to climate change.

I hear that too. I suspect fear enters into the picture for a lot of thoughtful people who have the skills and sufficient access to information resources to observe, think and act. Frankly, anyone who is not freaking out is just not paying attention. It's not just happening in New Jersey and New York. My family and friends in Sweden are in the most affected northern climate zone and they are experiencing dramatic weather changes first hand. As we rode through the Cordillera Blanca [White Range], my friends in Peru pointed out the now brown slopes. Glacier National Park had over 100 glaciers, now less than 30, and is predicted to be glacier free within 10 years. You can argue it's because of cattle in feed lots instead of cars, or chopping down the Amazon instead of burning black stones, but anyone who attributes these drastic changes to anything but human activity is delusional. We have adequate science to prove that the climate is way out of whack; how much is getting to be a detail.

I'm not suggesting people become apoplectic, but it is appropriate that we recognize the potentially devastating consequences and weigh our responses accordingly. There are those who have the skills and resources to sound the alarm about climate change. And logically, just as we don't have all the answers about peak oil (etc.), they don't have all the answers about climate change. That's a given. 
If you believe it, fine.  But acknowledge that is a belief and not a fact.
I don't base my actions on fairy tales. I operate by certain principles to avoid such traps:
  • I study issues carefully and read scientific articles, and employ journalism primarily to lead me to valid sources, not to jump to conclusions. I look beyond the sources to the support they receive, and apply Jim Hansen's adage: "It's difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it."
  • I devoted years of my youth to learning the analytic tools I would need to discern fact from fiction. As Winston Churchill allegedly put it, "Not everyone is entitled to an opinion; in order to have an opinion, you have to know something."
  • I apply those tools as things come up; I do the math. I have a well-honed "crap detector" and it comes in mighty handy: I encounter B.S. just about every day.
  • And when in doubt, I apply the precautionary principle. I didn't make this up. It is statutory in the European Union.

There are ways to get to the heart of the matter. 

you may be right but you don't know.
If we are in doubt about climate change, then under the precautionary principle, it is our responsibility to err on the side of caution, in this case to jettison our addition to burning stones at all costs, just in case the IPCC is right. If they are wrong, no harm can come of it. In fact, the consequence will be on the upside: a little more oil will be spared for our children. It is our moral obligation to do so anyway. If in the process we mitigate climate change, even a little, so much the better. They will thank us for holding to our principles in the face of ridicule or worse. 

And of course there's the argument that things are going to get very much worse as humanity crashes into peak oil, even if the climate tames down completely. There will be die off (thank you, Jay Hanson). There will be climate refugees. Do we therefore turn cynical? Do we sit on our hands?

My hat is off to those who are designing and building artifacts for a world beyond oil. They may be using oil / gas / coal to do so; they need not be apologetic about that. There is so much to do that they can go where they are welcomed, not where they face cynicism or worse. With success, there will be little post-carbon pockets of sanity, which with a little luck will propagate. No, they won't reach everywhere before things go really bad. It's like building life boats. Better than going down with the ship of fools on fuels.

Windmills Overload East Europe's Grid, Risking Blackout

by Solarevolution October 26, 2012 04:12

Windmills Overload East Europe’s Grid, Risking Blackout

Germany is dumping electricity on its unwilling neighbors and by wintertime the feud should come to a head.

Central and Eastern European countries are moving to disconnect their power lines from Germany’s during the windiest days. That’s when they get flooded with energy, echoing struggles seen from China to Texas over accommodating the world’s 200,000 windmills.

Renewable energy around the world is causing problems because unlike oil it can’t be stored, so when generated it must be consumed or risk causing a grid collapse. At times, the glut can be so great that utilities pay consumers to take the power and get rid of it.

Oh that we might have Germany's problem :: too much electricity.

An acquaintance of mine has been developing an electricity storage technology which can scale and has a low environmental footprint. I called him last month to find out how things are going.

I had thought he was going to tell me about progress on a megawatt-hour prototype. No, he's talking to, you guessed it, the Germans, and they're asking him to design for them a Gigawatt-hour system. Meanwhile, his American prospects haven't materialized.

The Germans will meet the renewable energy challenge. They will be selling American storage technology to electricity grid operators around the world. (Renewables aren't the only context for grid-scale storage.) 

Meanwhile the dominant energy storage technology comes straight from the stone age: digging up black rocks and burning them. But how long will this last? Hmmm... 

Chinese saying: There are two kinds of businessman, good and bad. Good businessman selling; bad businessman buying.

Burning rocks to get around

by Solarevolution June 25, 2012 04:27
Listen up!    
Unprecedented economic expansion over the past century has been powered by abundant and relatively inexpensive oil and other fossil fuels.  How would the U.S. and global economy respond to an oil supply crisis and the prospect of diminishing oil supplies?  What would economic “growth” and “development” look like in a future with less oil?

 I think this might be the time for me to highlight the theme of equity (in particular, international- and inter-generational equity).

That statement, "... in a future with less oil," is hinting in the direction of "oil continues to be treated as a fuel." Hmmm. If there is no awareness of the value of oil, not for burning up one-time-only, but as a substance for long term use by our progeny, what right do we have to tie up people's time talking about an economy? What is an economy without leaving behind some resources for a next generation to take over?

Where do we weave this fundamental into the peak oil story? I for one am coming to loath the continuing using the term "fossil fuels." We are burning stones to get around?! How do you explain that to your grandchildren? We are so shortsighted to consume these resources that belong to their future.

I'm probably going to drive to town soon, and jump in an airplane before the year is up. Shame on me. The point though is to put our heads together, to find common ground, so that collectively,  we can put a new spin on oil, to begin to treat it as a valuable resource, too precious to burn. Might that perspective serve well to transform our efforts into a more noble cause?

Today we look back in disgust at whaling for lamp oil. How primitive to kill those magnificent sentient leviathans just to light up a room. What will the beyond-oil people of the future think of us?!

Transportation 100 Percent Solar Powered?

by Solarevolution June 09, 2012 06:14
At this critical juncture in history, many factors must be considered in developing new transportation infrastructure. Going up blind alleys will be very costly; every day matters in the oil depletion count-down. The electric passenger car is one of those blind alleys, for many reasons. It's time to get a 21st century transportation system off the ground. Consider this thought experiment, Solar Skyways:
  • Cost of fleet maintenance: To maintain the global fleet of nearly 1 b vehicles including trucks, fuel at $5/gallon ($210/barrel, net after refining), wild guesstimate of 10,000 miles/year/vehicle [USA is 12,000] at 25 mpg, that's 10 T VMT (vehicle miles traveled; USA has 3 T VMT) = $2 T/year. Or, 30 B barrels at $100 * 60% [IEA] used for transport = $2 T. So, ignoring all other private vehicle maintenance costs, by eliminating fuel altogether for ground vehicles we have a budget of arguably $2T/year to offset new capital costs. Can we do better than that? If we were to transition to renewables in 10 years, we could invest $2T * 10 = $20 T in renewables infrastructure. After that, energy costs (maintaining solar systems) would be a tiny fraction of what it is today. No wars over oil, for one thing.
  • How much will Solar cost? Solar PV 4 meters wide yields 1 megawatt per mile. Placed over major roads (say 4 million miles worldwide, roughly 20-30%), we achieve 4 TW electric. Can we build 4 TW of solar for under $20 T? Prices are now <$3/watt installed at MW scale. That leaves money on the table to cover much of the cost of the Skyways' construction too.
  • How many vehicle-miles will solar deliver? Average worldwide solar capacity factor is 5 kWh/kW/day, so 4 TW * 5 * 365 = 7,000 TWh. Suspended robotic electric vehicles weighing 1/4 tonne will use < 200 Wh/mi, so we can achieve 7,000 T / 200 = 35 T VMT. (Recall USA has 3 T VMT; global is on the order of 10 T VMT. Projected global travel in 2050 is less than 35 T VMT.) It appears that we will have surplus electricity by 2X to share with the folks living along the street. Or we can have the solar panels 2 meters wide.
  • Load-matching: EVs charged at night for use in the daytime is a grotesque mismatch between source and sink (engineer-speak, or "supply and demand" to the economists) which would require mountains of batteries (and mountains conquered by huge mining trucks). Solar energy, on the other hand, occurs at the same time people do most of their traveling.
    Even in winter with less sun, people travel less anyway.
  • Won't we still need storage? Yes. Using the grid for storage will be far less costly than batteries. And if deep storage isn't ready for prime time yet, in the meantime maybe you get charged more for travel at night or on cloudy days in the wintertime. Beats having somebody blow up the Middle East in a huff!
  • Single use vs multiple use: If "Detroit" manufactures a car for private use, the cost is $20,000 per driver / 2 passengers per vehicle = $10,000/pax. If we manufacture an ultralight vehicle at $10,000 that is used in public infrastructure 10X per day, 2 pax, that cost will be $500/pax. If you and I go into competition with "Detroit" in these challenging economic times, who will win more customers?
  • Safety: The automobile has been considered an improvement on the quality of life. Tell that to the families and friends of the million people who die in traffic accidents every year. What about the tens of millions seriously injured? By getting urban vehicles off the ground, the land is freed for pedestrians and bicyclists who no longer have to fear for their lives.
  • Performance: When shared by five modes (trolleys, buses, cars, bikes, pedestrians) the existing public transportation infrastructure (a.k.a. streets) cannot perform well for any one mode. Cars get congested, trolleys slow to a crawl to avoid running over pedestrians, bicyclists and pedestrians meet walls of traffic. Put all vehicles above the human realm (gravity matters, after all) and everybody gets where they want to go painlessly and rapidly.
  • What might it look like?
    Uppsala Solar Podcar
  • Visual intrusion? Fair enough. You might ask Eddie Murphy (Bowfinger) how he feels about that!

Are fossil fuels superior to renewables?

by Solarevolution February 15, 2012 00:46
I read this on The Oil Drum.
"... fossil fuels are qualitatively superior on the matrix categories..."
It all depends on what qualities one cherishes. I cherish clean, quiet, powerful. My matrix I suppose would differ from the Oil Drum author's. In fact, I set forth such a matrix years ago: Scoreboard.

One day, the notion of burning fuels to move things will seem as primitive as cooking a meal in Manhattan at a campfire on the floor in the kitchen. Yes, fossil fuels are compact, but not as compact as electricity delivered by wire. Fuels are explosive too, whether fossil or bio, and it is absurd to have these dangerous substances held in conveyances being hurdled along at highway speed. Now please don't be confused; I'm not advocating EVs with batteries – yet another primitive notion for the urban landscape.

Teams around the world are designing transportation systems based on solar energy, with PV panels directly overhead to meet 100% of the systems' energy demand (on average, net-metered). Teams are designing these systems to place small, on-demand vehicles above the street, where they won't run into people, pets or deer. This is not a pipe dream

"... and that transportation without fossil fuels will be hard..."

Maybe that's true in the USA, but not in Europe. Really, how hard can it get?! When was the last time you looked at a freeway cloverleaf? That's what's hard: accommodating a free-wheelin' half-drunk cowboy in a 3-ton behemoth with a wide margin for error – 12' per lane?! – plus a shoulder or barricade. Tons of steel and concrete can be eliminated by greatly streamlining the urban transit system using this emerging technology, with 200 kg podcars on switched computerized networks above the streets. One day we will be jackhammering the streets to turn them into parks where kids can play again, in their village, without getting run over by the above-mentioned cowboy or a choo-choo train cleaving the community in half.

We can do better. Come on, it's time to roll up our sleeves and stop kicking the can down the road for our children's children to figure out what to do. It is obvious: the age of fossil fuels is moribund, and it's time we stopped killing over a million people a year (globally in traffic) with a transport system design that's completely out of step with peak oil realities – and the reality of 21st century technology that is 10X better in so many dimensions: 10X less weight, 10X less energy, 10X greater safety.

 Join the solarevolution!

Reducing global CO2 emissions the easy way

by Solarevolution February 13, 2012 02:35

Reducing global CO2 emissions could soon become a lot easier. Our fossil fuel supplies are in rapid decline, and since humanity is doing so little to address this decline, in more graphic terms, we might call this "sticking our heads in the tar sand."

Climate change activists wring their hands about increased emissions:

What Will the U.S. Energy Mix Look Like in 2050 If We Cut CO2 Emissions 80%?

As if we have a choice! Reducing carbon emissions 80% is a given if total energy consumption worldwide drops 80% due simply to depletion (and not just in the USA; we’re all in this together). With aggregate oil, gas and coal depletion from existing fields already reaching 5% or more per year, this isn’t a flippant scenario. Resource depletion has hardly been mentioned in the climate activist community, but depletion is as real as climate change. 

Market penetration of renewables in 2050 may well be close to 100%. But that may not be such a happy picture, as 100% of then could be more like the 20% of now.

In 2050 our descendants are likely to be using a lot less energy, period. Will they be happy about that? Not necessarily. Between now and then, fossil water aquifers will also be severely depleted; exhausted fuel supplies will not likely be on hand to pump these exhausted water sources from the deep. Since producing meat is so much more energy intensive than vegetables, it may come down to a choice between meat for the few or veggies for the many. Think about it.

I fret about humanity's ability and desire to find alternatives to fossil fuels while there's still enough fuel left to build a robust civilization equipped to survive beyond the age of oil. It won't happen if we continue to invest in fossil-fuel-dependent infrastructure, hoping that a long term solution will magically land in our children's laps in 2050. 

Humanity has been kicking the can down the road for decades, in the USA since Carter. If we want our children and their children in turn to thrive, we in our time must begin figuring out ways to do a lot more with a lot less. I call that notion 10X. We are seeing solutions that use 10X less energy for specific energy services (light, mobility, …). These will actually bring us a better quality of life … if, and that’s a big if, we actually get busy to transform our society from oil to ingenuity

 Of course, it is just the opposite for energy-empoverished countries like Nigeria (with 12 watts average electric power per capita) or Afghanistan (with 1 watt per capita). These impoverished countries will have a better quality of life when energy use is 10X greater than it is today. Where energy use now is 100X to 1,000X less than in the OECD countries, an increase in supply of 10X would greatly help to create a higher quality of life.

Afghanistan, a testimony to American diplomacy ten years on

by Solarevolution January 11, 2012 19:30

Part 1: Electricity and Oil 

Afghanistan is the country where average electricity consumption per capita was about the lowest in the world in 2001; it is even lower now ten years on, in 2012.

Average oil consumption per capita was about the lowest in the world in 2001; it is lower yet in 2012.


Population =  25,838,797

Electricity Consumption = 20  kWh(e)/year/capita
Always-on power use equivalent = 2.3 watts/capita average
%(US) = 0.16%

Oil consumption = 2.19 M bbl/year.
Oil consumption = 0.08 bbl/yr/capita
%(US) = 0.3%


Population =  29,835,392

Electricity Consumption =231.1 million kWh / 29,835,392 = 7.75 kWh(e)/year/capita
Always-on power use equivalent = 0.9 watts/capita average = 40% of 2001
%(US) = 0.06% or less than one tenth of one percent.

Oil consumption =  = 4,800 * 365 = 1.75 M bbl/year.
Oil consumption = 0.06 bbl/yr/capita = 75% of 2001
%(US) = 0.2%

Energy conservation has been taken to a whole new level in Afghanistan, with greater than 50% reduction in just 10 years, a testimony to American diplomacy.

Afghanistan has the second highest rate of infant mortality and second lowest life expectancy of any country, above only Angola.

Part 2: Solar Energy

Imagine what might have happened if the USA had invested a mere $1B in delivering solar panels to Afghanistan. Putting that amount in perspective, the cost of war in Afghanistan has been about $500 billion as of January 2012 and the war costs $300 million a day according to the Pentagon.

Let's use $3/watt as the price of solar. (Panels alone are now selling well below $1.50/watt and some complete large utility-scale systems are at or near that $3/watt price.)

$1B ÷ $3/watt = 333 megawatt, ÷  29,835,392 people = 11 watts/capita. Multiply this by 5 hrs equivalent production per 24 hour day (21%) and the result is 11 watts*21%= 2.3 watts/capita, the same as was available in 2001.

Conclusion: A timely investment of $1 Billion in solar panels in Afghanistan in 2001 would have doubled electricity production per capita in Afghanistan. The same investment today would increase electricity production by 250%.

Would Afghanistan have the third lowest literacy rate in the world if electricity were available to its people?

What are we shoveling with shovel ready solutions?

by Solarevolution September 09, 2011 08:29

I learned a new phrase a few days ago, "drop-in fuels." Leave the fuel-hogging devices all the same -- ask no questions about efficiency -- and concoct a new fuel to keep feeding the hogs. (On small islands in ancient Polynesia, it was discovered that hogs were competing for the same food as humans, and they were exterminated. Oh, that we could learn such lessons from our ancestors.)

The military is looking for a way to fuel jets, tanks, personnel carriers, etc., without oil, and the politicians are providing the rhetoric to suspend the laws of physics until they get re-elected.

Just as with the flawed notion of "shovel ready," we have institutionalized business-as-usual (BAU) remedies which have no future. Rebuilding America, fixing our infrastructure, etc., is all about constructing stranded assets -- artifacts of the age of oil which will last 50-100-200 years longer than the fuel that is needed to operate them. Pity. 

What is the alternative?

  • Simultaneously with putting solar panels on our roofs, we must swap out our incandescent bulbs and put in LEDs that use 10% as much energy. The same goes for the efficiency of refrigerators and washing machines. We can do better.
  • In the haste to convert our cars to electric propulsion...
    • Did anyone notice that the car itself is only about 1% efficient? (Most of the fuel is used to move metal. We use a ton of metal to move a person!)
    • With help from other 2 & 4 wheeled contraptions, the car kills a million people worldwide every year and maimes countless others.
    • The electric vehicle uses as much in materials as a conventional car -- or more. There are no savings in materials.
    We did not speed up the horse by feeding it on the newly discovered fuel, kerosene. We created the horseless carriage. As the horseless carriage scaled up, we didn't notice its limitations. We now know how to achieve mobility without oil, and we can solve the other flaws of our transportation system at the same time. Getting off oil is liberating, not confining.

If we do all these things and more, we won't be needing the over-powered military machinery which is being used mostly to protect our sources of oil. 

We have a unique opportunity in the context of peak oil to redesign our infrastructure, to transform personal transport to 100% renewables -- and while we are at it, eliminate the fundamental flaws in our present system.

First principles:

  • grade separation (put fast-moving vehicles above pedestrians and bicyclists with podcars or below with subways),
  • automated on fixed guideways,
  • dispatchable at will, not scheduled,
  • solar powered,
  • light weight, aerodynamic,
  • consuming less than 100 watt-hours per vehicle-km.

You don't know how to do that? If you jettison the oil, you will be able to figure it out. Don't leave it to future generations to struggle in an oil-depleted world. It is time for our generation to become responsible. Let's not kick the can down the road to the next generation.

Slam on the Brakes

by Solarevolution June 20, 2011 09:15

Reading all these price predictions by peaksters, I’m reminded of the Austrian economist Murray Rothbard who said, “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.”

We know that the media (government / business / religious leaders) are giving very little attention to Peak Oil, but I would like us to consider what we, the Peak Oil community, are not talking about.

We’re not talking about slamming the brakes on fossil fuels.

Even as our contribution to creating Peak Oil awareness begins to see a little light (at least in some circles), I am concerned that we will be so worried about saving our own bacon or appearing to be rational that we will fail to take posterity into account. If we are to save just a little oil for our children, we need to just plain stop using oil (gas, coal).

“Conservation” doesn’t capture the urgency of our existential moment in history. In fact, conservation is like a salve to assuage the conscience of well-meaning people who are stuck in “business as usual.” We can be conned into thinking that we are doing our part by swapping out incandescent light bulbs.

Why can’t we just use less oil? If you are drowning, drowning slower isn’t going to save your life.

If you are in the know (Peak Oil), it’s not about telling others to slow down. We have to abandon the artifacts of the oil-based economy and retool.

It requires a fundamental shift. It’s about transforming society from oil to ingenuity. We must slam on the brakes and turn about-face.

Nuclear power swirled down into the ocean in March and humanity’s perceived energy options narrowed sharply. We are back to where our great-grandparents were their whole lives: figuring out from-one-day-to-the-next how to live within a solar budget. They did it (or we wouldn’t be here having this conversation). We can do it too. But we have to shift gears.

We are sliding down the back side of the peak, and just like with most mountains, the dark side is steeper than the sunny side. Will it be a soft or hard landing? Well… it depends:

If we have already used up too much of our natural resources, it will be a hard landing. (Time will tell.)

If we “conserve,” I don’t see how we can avoid a hard landing. Going slower sliding off the cliff is still sliding off the cliff.

We are aiming at the tail feathers of the goose that passed by here already a while ago. We need a word somewhere between conservation (voluntary) and deprivation (involuntary, Mother Nature’s decision) – something to make it obvious that we aren’t stuck promoting the same old baggage. The ship is going down. I repeat: we must jettison the artifacts of oil. If we hang onto them, they will sink us for good. (Some of Cortez’ men loaded their pockets with gold as they were escaping the Aztecs. When a causeway collapsed, many of them sank like stones and drowned.)

What legacy are we leaving for our children? What robust assets will they have at their disposal to climb back out of the hole we put them into? Why are we postponing this radical change? By waiting even one day, we are willy nilly leaving the solution up to our children. But what advantage are we giving them by drilling for more oil, mining more coal, fracking more gas? We are handing them a polluted world, a mountain of debt, hobbled with depleted resource deposits, and blindfolding them – all the while talking seriously about the price of oil for the next year.

We aren’t calling enough attention to carbon-based boondoggles (“shovel-ready” projects). Anyone who designs a system or artifact (highway, bridge, tunnel, airport, automobile, bus) that depends on imported oil is a traitor. After all, eight presidents in a row have proclaimed that imported oil is a threat to national security. Promoting a construction project to convey vehicles operating on mostly imported oil is now an act of treason.

I hear the question, “What percentage of our energy demand can be replaced by renewables?” There are two unchallenged assumptions that frame this question and illuminate our fossil-fuel mindset.

1. One good answer is none. “Replacement” suggests doing things the same way. We can’t “replace” oil with sunshine any more than we were able to “replace” horses with high-speed 4-legged robots shaped like horses. We jettisoned horses and made devices with engines and wheels.

Now we must jettison devices with engines and wheels that are 1% efficient, that weigh 2 tonnes to move 100 kg.

For example, what about biodiesel? Consider this thought exercise. Define inefficient = stupid. A car engine is 13% efficient (per RMI); the average car weighs about 4000 lbs (per DOE, DOT) and carries an average of less than 200 lbs; that’s 5% efficient. So 13% (engine) * 5% (mass) = 0.65% < 1% efficient = stupid. Now how do we get biodiesel? Photosynthesis can convert 3-6% of sunshine into soybean plants. Then we take the oily portion of the plant (you can’t make oil out of the stems) so even assuming that it takes zero energy to harvest and process that plant material into oil, your net efficiency is <<1% = stupid. (Using 100 gal/acre/year, I estimated that 0.05% of the sun’s energy is converted to soy biodiesel. I’ve heard of yields as high as 600 gal/acre/year for “next-generation” biofuels. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and we’re at 0.3% efficient, still <<1%. Correct me if I’m wrong.)

Now put that <<1% efficient biodiesel (stupid) into a car that is <1% efficient (stupid) and you get << 0.01% efficient. The result? Compound stupid.”

2. Another answer is 100%. Built into the question (remember the question, “percentage of energy … replaced by renewables”) is the curious assumption that we have a choice. We don’t.

Most of humanity lived within a solar budget until World War II. As near as I can tell, we have no option but to return to 100% renewables, whatever that may look like. (I’m all ears if you think you have found something else.) With the incredible amount of knowledge and skills we have gained during the fossil fuel era, we are much more capable than our grandparents to take on the task. If we are to avoid becoming a dead branch on the evolutionary tree, we will switch to renewables now so we can leave something for our children to work with.

It’s not “practical.” We will face skepticism and ridicule. But those who embrace renewables now will be the sellers in the post-oil economy, and there will be plenty of buyers who postponed the inevitable shift.

Slam on the brakes! Save the oil!

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