Rock and a Hard Place

We often face decisions that seem to have disagreeable results no matter what. An old mining expression “between a rock and a hard place” gives graphic imagery to this decision making. Are we facing such decisions now when it comes to energy allocation? That is, with our civilization relying upon copious amounts of readily available energy; what decisions must we make to keep our civilization prospering?

Our civilization feeds off of energy. Annual global energy consumption continues to increase, up to 5.85E+20 Joules in 2017. About 89% are from non-renewable resources: oil, coal, natural gas, uranium. The first three of these contribute to pollutants that are causing environmental changes for our planet. The last, uranium, results in large amounts of long-lived, contaminated waste. And reactors have a potential for wide area, accident-caused contamination. Nevertheless, we can and likely will use these energy sources until supply is exhausted. And by deciding to do this, we inherently accept any consequences.

We can also obtain energy from renewable sources; principally hydro, solar and wind. These amount to 11% globally. Certainly they have value, but they have cost. One measure of this is the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) metric. In other words, there is no free source of energy. For renewables, energy is needed to construct the collector and energy is taken from the ecosystem during the system’s operation. That is, we take for ourselves and leave less and less for other living things.

So which are the rock and the hard place? The metaphorical rock could be us taking more and more energy for our services with the inevitable crash when supplies of non-renewables fail. The metaphorical hard place could be that we access so much from renewables that our planet is no longer a pleasant place to live. According to the Doomsday Clock, we have precious little time remaining to make a decision. Need help with your decision? Contact me.

Coastal
Offshore food

Winter’s Coming

Winter is a harsh season for nature. The cold stops the growth of nearly all plant life. Animals that don’t migrate will forage on dried up leaves and branches. Hibernation can be their key to success; both beavers and bears do it. That is, they accumulate enough energy stores to survive through the long winter months. Beavers store plant life underwater, in and around their dens. Bears eat as much as they can, to fatten up. With winter’s onset, they head to sleep so as to minimize their energy consumption. When the warmth of the Sun returns, the foliage captures sunshine through photosynthesis. And, the hibernators leave the winter barrens behind and start another year by gorging on the plenties of Spring.

Cycles of feast and famine occur throughout nature. Typically when energy sources are plentiful, then consumers such as beavers and bears take great advantage, perhaps in preparation of future famines. What do humans do? One region seems to be doing the exact opposite. That is, they are enlarging their debt to artificially maintain low electricity costs. In effect, they are expending energy today at an unaffordable rate. And they plan to pay it off later; when there is less energy available. Imagine a bear who runs a marathon just before crawling into its den to hibernate. This bear will be fit. But will this bear survive winter? In corollary, will societies that cheaply burn off all their non-renewable energy resources today then survive an energy shortage in the future? Remember, once non-renewable sources are gone, an energy famine will be next.

How do you want to face the coming winter of energy shortage? Do you want the best chances of survival? Contact me and I can work with you for a better future for all.

winter's coming
Autumn glory

Wildfires

The human control of fire is often mentioned as the progenitor to civilization. Fire, as we’ve already noted, is the chemical release of energy. Typically it requires three things; fuel, oxygen and an ignition source. When these combine then there’s a release of energy. Wilderness fires are natural and can lead to a huge, acute release of energy. Humans changed this to a slow, chronic, controlled release such as when we chop wood and burn it in a wood stove. And our civilizations thus prospered with this skill.

The current firestorm in Australia vividly demonstrates the natural release that wild bush fires can engender. At least 11 million hectares have released their latent energy stores(about 2.4e19 Joules); that is, the fires have burnt all the plants. The plants are the primary producers as shown in the trophic pyramid. Current estimates arrive at over 480 million primary, secondary and tertiary consumers of the pyramid as being affected by the fire and will likely die. They will starve due to the fire burning all the primary producers.

Consider the consequence. An area about the size of New York state has just lost all its stores of energy. Lack of water means that regrowth may be long in coming or may never come. What does this mean for the future? As more and more regions of the Earth’s surface become barren then there is less for all consumers of the trophic pyramid, including humans. Thus, as the human population continues to grow, they will have less stores of energy from which to draw. And the Earth will have a simpler and simpler ecosystem. Is this the goal of civilization? Can our civilization continue to exist without fire?

Bushfire January 2020
Australia – Bushfire

Propane at the Table

The over-abundance of consumer outlets has made us complacent and, worse, dependent. With just-in-time management then consumers only acquire what they need at the moment that they need it. This is fine as long as the producer always ships their product and the supply line never fails. Given the current strength of the system then it’s no wonder that we’ve assumed a continual supply.

Yet, how about when it fails? For instance, a recent labour issue prevented the supply of propane to farms. Perhaps you didn’t know that farmers needed propane to dry their crop. So, when trains stopped and the shipments of propane failed, only days later the farmers worried about the loss of their harvest. Turns out that over 27 rail cars, or 9e13Joules of energy were needed every day for one large region affected by the strike. While the strike was resolved before the crops were ruined, this example does highlight the potential severe effects when the supply line fails.

Let’s now consider the other failure. The failure of the production. With this, then no matter how strong a supply line, there will be a failure of delivery by the consumer outlet. And all downstream producers will be negatively affected. And consumers will be without. This image not to your liking? Contact me and I can optimize your potential.

Lunch in the sun
Porcupine

Energy to Share

Our Sun is a great, big fusion reactor that combines atoms and strews out radiation in all directions. The radiation amounts to about 172 petawatts or about 5.4E24 Joules of energy at Earth’s upper atmosphere. While this is a huge amount, most of it gets re-radiated back into space. Luckily for life on Earth, the amount coming in usually equals the amount going back out; that is, there is energy balance so the Sun doesn’t fry the Earth.

Life makes the Earth unique from Mars, Venus and other worlds of our Solar System. Life has learned to absorb the energy from the Sun and use it to its own advantage. Photosynthesis gets credit for absorbing about 3E21 Joules a year. This is a tiny amount given the total. But a very important amount given the need to maintain a balance.

Over the last couple of hundred years, humans learnt to use a lot of energy. Almost a fifth that of all the plants or 5.4E20 Joules a year.  This is a chronic change that has put energy out of balance.  We’re using stores of energy in oil, coal and natural gas. Once they’re gone then what? Do we take the energy from the plants in some contrived sharing arrangement? Do we use less? Or do we take all? What’s your preference?

Photosynthesis
Along the river