City Planning

Let’s plan a new city. First, what’s its purpose? A city is for people to live and enjoy life. It’s easy to plan just for this. Also we want to be safe. Safe from flood, fire and each other. Further, we want a similar or better life for our children. We see that adding needs makes for a more complex city. Yet we do continue to build cities where none were before. We bring order into our random lives.

Typically, we expect cities to endure for a long time. After all, we invested lots of material and energy into their construction. And while new cities pop up all over the Earth, we also maintain the existing cities. In result, there are more and more cities. On a finite Earth. Thus, by design and perhaps inclination, we and our cities continue to reduce the wilds of the Earth’s surface. Cities reduce the local randomness, the entropy.

Yet the acts of planning, building and maintaining orderly cities come at a cost. The cost is energy. We must apply energy to install and operate all the infrastructure that makes up a city. And we keep adding energy for the city to endure. Otherwise the city fails. As did Rome in the first millennium. Ever wonder what happened to its million residents during their exodus? Ever wonder what would happen if Tokyo fails with its 38million residents? Should we plan for the future as adroitly as we plan cities?

There are lots of cities. Over half the human population lives in large cities. And we’re making more. And cities, by design, rely upon imports. Imports of food, raw materials and energy. As long as the imports continue then so do the new and old cities. And order reigns over chaos. But what happens if the demand for imports like energy exceeds supply. Will cities have been planned to deal with this?

Let’s Talk

Complex communication is one of humanity’s fundamental capabilities. With it, we organized and vanquished other species. With it, we improved our society. By talking we convey emotional feelings as adroitly as the fundamentals of nuclear physics. All this is achieved while expanding very little energy. Making noise for communication is something people readily and effectively accomplish.

At one time, we were limited in range by the volume of our voice, the strength of our vocal chords. Then along came telecommunications. Now we effortlessly talk with other people almost anywhere on Earth. And well above our planet too. Mechanical devices aid us in this. Often it’s the mobile telephone together with all its infrastructure like cell towers and fibre optic cables. With these and very little energy, our voices get encoded into digital data which gets transported to the listener and decoded back into words. Now there is no real limit to the range of our voices.

Mechanical devices like the mobile telephone, or cellphone, appeared in about 1973. And they flourished. Current estimates are that active mobile telephones now outnumber people. And these portable phones need energy. This comes from their internal battery. Assuming each phone uses a lithium ion battery which can store 0.8MJ per kg and each battery is 2 grams then over one year all the cell phones use +2.2E15 Joules to operate. That’s a large number. Additional energy is needed to support and operate the infrastructure. Hence, like all assistive mechanical devices, these aid but at an energy cost. A cost that appeared less than a lifetime ago.

With unlimited energy cellphones are an obvious boon. Will we still want or need to increase the range of our voices when energy supplies falter? In other words is this mechanical aid a base need of humanity? Would our society continue when we could only communicate with the people that we could see around us? Time will tell.

Boris

If you don’t have enough energy near at hand then what do you do? Typically, you go get whatever’s most convenient. Primitive humans burnt nearby dead branches. Industrial humans dug coal to burn. Today, we’re getting energy from just about every source imaginable, from solar collectors to fission reactors.  We’ve learnt to satiate our ever increasing thirst for energy.

Yet energy is anything but compliant to our demands. Fission reactor accidents such as at Chernobyl and Fukushima taught us a bit of hubris. Equally, coal fogs demonstrate unpleasant consequences of our energy lust. We can also make messes when we try to transport energy as with the Exxon Valdez. We’ve learnt. But are we learning fast enough?

A liquefied natural gas (LNG) carrier can transport up to 270 000 cubic metres of cargo. That’s over 6E+12 kJ of energy in its containers. If the containers fail then quite a mess would ensue. So we put restrictions on LNG carriers. And we assume that the restrictions are followed. Then there’s the Northern Sea Route transit by the Boris Vilkitsy. A transit by a ship without the proper safety systems. Can you imagine the results if it failed and its cargo releases?

There are about 170 LNG carriers at sea at any one time. All to satisfy our energy needs. Do you wonder what’s an acceptable level of risk for having energy near at hand? Can we afford to lose more energy to accidents? Will we apply the energy needed to clean up after a disaster? The future will tell.

Boris Vilkitsky

Local VS Global

Recently North America is seeing consistently lower prices for petrol as compared to a decade earlier. The credit for this is mostly attributed to the infrastructure build-out for natural gas: its extraction, processing and delivery. I.e. the ‘fracking’ news story. This lower cost has improved the living standard for people in North America. Does this improvement extend to the world?

The answer is somewhat yes. And somewhat no. It is yes in that there are natural gas reserves constantly being discovered all over the world. With today’s technology, these reserves can be extracted economically and the resource shipped for sale throughout the world. The answer is no in that there is still a finite amount of natural gas available. Only those people in the locales getting the resource will get a boost in their standard of living. And the boost will only endure for the lifetime of the resource. From the BP analysis the ratio of primary fuel reserves to production (R/P) is:

Oil R/P is 50.6 years

Natural Gas R/P is 52.5 years

Coal R/P is 153 years

These durations represent the time to effective resource depletion. They are important as even today, with all the focus on renewable energy, 85% of energy consumption is sourced from these three primary fossil fuels.

Now we don’t know what will become of the Earth over the next 50 years.  Or the number of people that will want to live comfortably on the Earth. But projections aim at well over 11billion people. And we show few signs of reducing individual consumption. So, we can expect a rather abrupt correction when the energy resources get exhausted. Both locally and globally.

Trees

Bitcoin

A refrain from an old song has it that ‘money makes the world go round’. There is a lot of truth to it. Many people spend their lives to obtain as much money as they can. And really, with the way our society functions, it’s hard to be a part of society without it. In result, or some say in cause, the financial institutes aid us by assigning value to money and by moving money from here to there.

While a bank as an institution may be a fairly recent construct, the concept of money is quite older. It was just so much more convenient than bartering. Yet money has changed. From commodity money, representative money and on to fiat money. What hasn’t changed was that money could be placed in the hand. Until now. Along came cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. This is valued like money. It is computer based. It requires a computer to be on so as to keep it in existence. And there’s a lot circulating about the Web. A recent debate argues that it requires too much energy. Counter to that claim is that the traditional financial institutions require more. From four times to ten times the amount. What isn’t argued is that the concept of money is very valuable and worth expending large amounts of energy. How much energy? In rough calculations the combined forms of money use 0.443 quadrillion BTUs or 4.63e17Joules each year to be in existence. And using energy may be the oldest concept known.

Cryptocurrencies use a lot of energy. Some say as much energy as Cuba does. And yes money does facilitate living in our society. Though it may not make the Earth turn. It does make for easy, fair trade. At an energy cost. Summing cryptocurrencies and financial institutes results in a usage of less than 1% of humanity’s energy expenditure. Per year. Will our future include real and virtual financial institutes no matter what their energy cost? Will we ever have to choose between energy for machines and energy for people? While the Earth keeps going round.