Sunday, December 31, 2017

Are We Decoupling? (Not really, but happy 2018 anyway!)

"Decoupling": are we really so smart that we can do more with less? Apparently not: we can paint things in green, but it is not the same thing. But so is life and happy 2018 to everybody! 

Decoupling looks like an obvious idea, isn't it? After all, isn't that true that we are becoming more efficient? Think of a modern LED light compared with an old lamp powered by a whale oil. We are now hundreds of times more efficient than we were and we also saved the whales (but, wait, did we.....?). So, if we can do the same things with much less energy, then we could grow the economy without using more energy, solving the climate problem and also the depletion problem. It is part of the concept of "dematerialization" of the economy. Then we paint everything in green and all will be well in the best of worlds.

But there has to be something wrong with this idea, because it is just not happening, at least at the global scale. Just take a look at this image:

Note how closely related the GDP an the world's energy consumption are. It is impressive because the GDP is measured in terms of money flows. So it seems that money, although not a measure of power in itself, is a proxy for power. The idea that "money is power" doesn't seem to be just a metaphor.

Now, by carefully looking at the curve, we could say that we have been doing a little better in recent years. That is, we seem to have been able to produce a little more GDP for the same amount of energy. But there are two problems: the first that the divergence we see today is not larger than anything we have seen during the past 50 years. The second that this is NOT decoupling as it is normally defined, that is, the ability to grow the economy (the GDP) while at the same time consuming less energy.

Of course, we may argue about the definition of decoupling, but nothing short of a complete inversion of the current trend would allow us to keep growing while, at the same time, avoiding the double challenge of climate change and of mineral depletion. But if that were happening, you would see the little circles in the graph completely change the slope of the curve, forming a kind of "hockey stick" shaped curve. That's not the case, obviously.

Actually, if you really eyeball the curve, you can see a small hockey stick that occurs at points 14-16. These points correspond to 1979-1981, a historical phase of reduced energy production during the most difficult moment of the great "oil crisis." For about three years, at that time, we had true decoupling, but it was hardly something pleasant or that we would want to repeat today in the same terms.

In the end, society needs energy to function and the idea that we can do more with less with the help of better technologies seems to be just an illusion. If we reduce energy consumption, we'll most likely enter a phase of economic decline. Which might not be a bad thing if we were able to manage it well. Maybe. Calling this "a challenge" seems to be a true euphemism, if ever there was one. But, who knows? Happy 2018, everybody!


Further notes: all the above is at the global level for the total (primary) energy production. It doesn't mean that some kind of decoupling can't be obtained at the regional level or for some specific kinds of sources. So, let's take a look first at the regional level:

I haven't been able to find the origin of this graph, but it seems to be legitimate (note how the axes are exchanged with respect to the one I showed before). The curves for single states are noisier than those for the global economy, which may indicate that states move high energy intensive activities from one to another. But, overall, the linear relation between GDP and energy consumption remains the same. We see "hockey sticks" (for Russia, for instance) they correspond to major economic crises, again not something that we would like to have.

Now, let's see some data for specific energy sources. The case of crude oil is especially interesting. Here, I am reporting some data from a paper by Michel Lepetit, of "The Shift Project" (h/t Thierry Caminel)

We clearly see here the hockey stick of the energy crisis o 1973-1982; it is much more evident for crude oil than it is for the aggregated world energy production. Note also how the slope of the curve of GDP vs. Production changed after the oil crisis. Evidently, the world's economy emerged from the crisis less reliant on crude oil: a certain degree of decoupling had occurred. 

But note also that the slope of the curve from 1982 onward still shows a positive dependence of oil production vs. the economy. A true "decoupling" would mean inverting the trend, as shown below (again from Le Petit's paper), where we see what we expect from the IEA scenarios

As you see, true decoupling is quite a challenge. We saw that kind of slope change only for the great oil crisis of the late 1970s. Maybe we could see it again, today, only for another comparable crisis. 

Nevertheless, I don't think it is impossible to decouple from crude oil. As I argued in a previous post, the oil industry may be facing a "Seneca Cliff" as the result of the contemporary challenges of depletion and of technological change in transportation. But that would mean little to save humankind from a climate catastrophe if it is compensated by an increase in the production of energy from other dirty sources, say, coal.  And so, we keep going and the future is waiting for us. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

An Open letter to the School of Public Health, UQ, re: the looming net energy cliff

Geoffrey Chia publishes here the letter that he sent to his colleagues a few months ago. As you may have expected, he received no answer. But we know it is how it goes. So, here it is, for the record. Geoffrey Chia has also been the author of a previous post on "Cassandra's Legacy" (UB)

Open Letter To: Staff of the School of Public Health,
University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, August 2017

From: Dr Geoffrey Chia, MBBS, MRCP, FRACP

Re: The looming Net Energy Cliff, Global Economic/Industrial collapse and Human Die-off

"infinite consumption from a finite resource base is impossible"
Dear Colleagues,

I am a Cardiologist who convened the group "doctors and scientists for sustainability and social justice" in Brisbane from 2006 to 2013 I am writing to your department in the virtually forlorn hope that a tiny handful of you may open your eyes to the most urgent public health issue we face, which will horrifically accelerate human suffering and die-off within a decade1. The effects are already being felt in many parts of the world, masquerading as global economic recession2 or the collapse of certain Middle Eastern societies. This issue has been ignored, denied and dismissed for years by "endless growth" economists and other flat earthers, but denial does not make a problem go away. I refer to the looming catastrophic curtailment of liquid hydrocarbon fuels, the "net energy cliff" that we face in the near future, which will trigger ever more wars (perhaps even nuclear war), cause global economic and industrial collapse, and cause the die-off of billions of people worldwide.

The countries most addicted to petroleum will be hardest hit and Australia will be no exception.
Climate catastrophe is undoubtedly the greatest existential threat to humanity. Despite a huge campaign of deceit and denial perpetrated by the commercial media bankrolled by fossil fuel interests, it can no longer be ignored, now that we see ferocious firestorms burning communities to the ground or torrential floods sweeping through countries or unprecedented droughts, heat waves and storms year upon year. The horrific humanitarian consequences of sea level rise alone boggle the mind, let alone the devastation of our food bowls and other impacts3. However blinkered focus on climate disaster alone, without examining all aspects of the limits to growth, will result in everyone being blindsided by this more urgent public health issue. Especially because mitigation against climate disasters (fueling the fire fighting vehicles and aircraft, relocating and rehousing communities etc) will depend on energy we will not have. The looming collapse of industrial civilisation due to the net energy cliff will curtail fossil fuel emissions far more precipitously and effectively than any greenie campaigning or the Paris Accords can ever achieve.

Why should you listen to anything I say? Because I cite robust information and analyses from honest independent researchers (not corrupted by business interests), views based on hard mathematics and the laws of Physics, every bit as indisputable as the law of Gravity4,5,6. I have repeatedly invited scientists and engineers to try to falsify these arguments, which they have been unable to do. "Sustainability" activists frequently state that "infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible" which is absolutely true. Equally true is the fact that "infinite consumption from a finite resource base is impossible". Our supply of "easy" oil is finite, is depleting in a non-linear fashion (net energy availability declines slowly at first, then abruptly falls off a cliff) and we cannot run industrial civilisation without it. It is a fact that we have overshot the carrying capacity of this planet and there will be hell to pay when the "easy" oil suddenly dries up and we face cold turkey withdrawal.

Contrary to the technofantasists, we have no upscalable alternatives6. Unconventional oil is a scam and those who promote it are liars or fools7,8 Current low oil prices have emboldened the peak oil deniers and led to widespread complacency. However low prices are largely due to demand destruction, not oil overproduction. Low prices do not change the reality of ongoing, relentless, terminal depletion of conventional oil.

Prior to the global financial crisis of 2008, a tiny handful of individuals who looked at the hard data predicted that a looming sudden financial crash was inevitable. The only uncertainty was the exact timing. Meanwhile the majority herd of sheeple continued to place blind faith in a fraudulent system without looking at any data. The same situation exists today with crooked financial shenanigans based on bogus claims about unconventional oils made by deceitful commercial interests8.
I expect most of you will ignore this message and bury your head in the sand.

You will only have yourself to blame when food vanishes from the supermarket shelves, mountains of garbage pile up in your neighbourhood and centrally controlled services grind to a halt with dry taps at home, unflushable toilets and failure of the electric grid6. If the impending population cull results in the die-off of stupid people, biologists will simply attribute that to natural selection at work. If you open your eyes however, you will discover how feasible it is to protect yourself and your family from the worst effects of collapse, provided you plan in advance9. But time is short. The tiny handful of you who are sapient enough to apprehend this vital reality must spread this message to other potentially sapient people and you must incorporate Peak Oil studies where they firmly belong: as an integral and essential part of the Public Health education and research curriculum. I can only speculate why so-called "centres of learning" like UQ have essentially ignored this massive elephant in the room10.

What about the risk of spooking the herd and causing a mass stampede by sending out this message? I have been a voice in the wilderness for more than a decade regarding this matter and despite meeting with and writing to politicians, doctors, scientists and engineers, have achieved no traction11. I know of only a few sapients who are truly aware of this issue, who can be counted on the fingers of an amputated hand. Richard Heinberg reckons that less than a million people worldwide actually understand how dire the near future is going to be.

It is irrelevant if the vast majority of sheeple believe that the Earth is flat. If the data and evidence show that the Earth is round, then it is round and the majority sheeple are clueless and deluded. Truth is not determined by democratic vote nor majority opinion of the masses, it is determined by objective scientific scrutiny. The herd mindset has been completely captured by trivial drivel and monumental deceit perpetrated by the establishment media (who propagated the criminal "WMDs in Iraq" lies). Those corporate lackeys dismiss realists such as myself as "alarmists", to which I respond: if a house is on fire, those who raise the alarm are acting to save lives, but those who deny it are murderers.

Listen or don't listen, live well or die miserably when the crunch comes, it is up to you.

G. Chia Aug 2017

  1. essential interview with energy expert Alice Friedemann:
  2. Former Queensland State Minister for Sustainability Andrew McNamara said to me years ago at a private meeting that he had no hope whatsoever that the political process will be able to address this issue. He should know, having tried his best during his time as Minister (he previously wrote a White Paper on Peak Oil vulnerability in Queensland with former Transport Minister Rachel Nolan, which was ignored). I was naively optimistic many years ago when Andrew and Rachel held office, that it may be possible for the majority of Australians to eventually transition to fossil fuel free sustainable lifestyles, guided by wise leadership and scientific recommendations. There is zero hope of that now and it is inevitable that the vast majority will die in chaos, perplexed and resentful that the promise of a flying car in every garage touted by the hubristic media was never delivered.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Book Review: Food Scarcity. Unavoidable by 2100?

This is an excerpt from the review by Ugo Bardi published on the "Journal of Population and Sustainability"

Scientific studies that examine the food supply and its correlation to human population have a long tradition that goes back to Thomas Malthus and his “An Essay on the Future of Population“ of 1798. From then on, the field has remained politically charged. Still today, Malthus is often dismissed as a doomsday prophet whose apocalyptic predictions turned out to be wrong. But Malthus lacked the modern concept of “overshoot and collapse” and he never predicted the kind of population crashes that we associate to modern famines.

Another study often accused of having been overly catastrophistic in terms of the future of the human population is the report to the Club of Rome titled “The Limits to Growth”, published in its first version in 1972. This is also a misinterpretation, since none of the several scenarios reported in 1972 foresaw a population decline before entering the second half of the 21st century.

Overall, studies in this field may be considered pessimistic or optimistic: it is a fact that, so far, the world's food supply system has been able to cope with an increasing population that is reaching today about 7.5 billion people. The question is for how long that will be possible.

In analogy with the first report to the Club of Rome, the recent book by Weiler and Demuynck, "Food Scarcity" approaches an old problem with a new methodology. While “The Limits to Growth” was one of the first studies to apply system dynamics to the study of the economy, “Food Scarcity” is among the first studies that applies the modern network theory to the world’s food system. The resulting book is an ambitious attempt to pack an enormous amount of material into just 150 pages. It starts with a review of the situation of the world’s food supply with extensive data on the different climate systems, cultivation technologies, geographical conditions, and more.

Is it a successful attempt? Under several respects, yes. An integrated approach is always better than the piecemeal approach of many superficial reports that don't go farther than admiring the increases in agricultural yield obtained so far and assuming that the trend can be continued forever and ever in the future. "Food Scarcity" does much better than this and identifies the limits to the world's food production system, which may lead to scarcity by 2100 or even earlier.

At the same time "Food Scarcity" has limits in its approach dedicated mainly to food production. Surely, it is the central point of the story, but food supply is not the same thing as food production. In particular, there is no mention in the book of the importance of the financial system in the issue of feeding the world’s population. As I argue in my book, "The Seneca Effect", food is delivered to people today because people are able to buy it, otherwise it would rot where it is produced. A long lasting global financial crisis could crash the food supply system and create again major famines. And for such an event, we may not have to wait for the food production system to reach its limits in 2100.

So, by all means an interesting book, well worth reading even though you have to take into account its aims and purposes. You can read the complete review by Ugo Bardi at "The Journal of Population and Sustainabilty

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Christmas Tale

This is a true story that took place a few years ago. There is no mention of "Christmas" in it, but I think it can be seen as appropriate to the Christmas atmosphere. A time in which we tell stories and we rethink about what we are and what we do. 

I have volunteered as a teacher to support disadvantaged children and I am here, helping boys and girls in junior high school who have fallen behind in their studies. Most of them are from poor families of immigrants. I have been teaching them science, history, literature, more or less everything in the curriculum.

Today, I have in front of me a boy of around 12, Ahmed. Earlier on, he told me that his family came from Algeria and his father is a cook in a restaurant. Tall, dark-haired, with a light brown skin, he speaks perfect Italian. A nice boy, friendly and smiling.

I am supposed to help Ahmed with biology. So, we open the textbook on the page he has to study. We read the text together, "eukaryotes have a nucleus and organelles, prokaryotes do not."

I look at him, he looks at me. Clearly, this sentence makes no sense to him. And I can understand why: the authors of the book, really, have no idea of what they are talking about. Prokaryotes and eukaryotes are described as curious little critters in the same vein as one could describe the animals of a zoo: "giraffes have long necks, zebras do not."

It is not the first time in my life that I feel like the last centurion of the Empire, defending a world that is ceasing to exist. I am supposed to defend science, but what's happened to the science I know? It seems to have faded away with the legions of a disappearing empire.

There is nothing in this biology book that describes the intricacy of the molecular mechanisms of life, nothing of the immense timespan of billions of years that led to life moving from bacteria and archaea to eukarya, and then to multicellular organisms. Nothing about the infinite complexity of ecosystems. Nothing about the amazing scientific journey that led us to understand how life evolved and changed. Nothing that could interest a 12-year old boy.

This book is totally flat: plenty of illustrations but as exciting as a painting supplies catalog. I looked at several of these books. They are all the same: slick commercial books designed to convince teachers to push their pupils to buy them. But they are all like this: flat.

Ahmed repeats the sentence as it is written, "eukaryotes have a nucleus and organelles, prokaryotes do not." He could as well be telling me that the capital of Madagascar is Antananarivo.

I nod at him, he smiles at me. I have in mind to ask him, "do you understand what that means?" But I don't.

I ask him, "do you like studying biology?" He says, "yes". Then he realizes that I understand that he spoke out of courtesy toward me. He adds, "but I prefer to study other things."

"What do you like to study?"

"The Holy Koran," he says. He seems to understand my perplexity, so he adds, "my sister and I are studying the Holy Koran. My sister is older than me. She can already recite some suras by heart."

The feeling of being the last centurion defending the empire is becoming even stronger. I see myself as standing on one of the few surviving ramparts of the ruined walls of the capital city. Behind me, the city is almost deserted; the temples and the buildings half ruined, infested with weed and mice, the emperors forever gone.

I say, "is it interesting to study the Koran?"

He looks at me, perplexed. For him, the answer is so obvious that he can't even understand my question. But he does his best. He says, "My father says that reading the Koran makes you a better person."

That's not an answer, it is an invitation. In no time, I have been turned from teacher to pupil. I try to answer the best I can, "I studied a little Arabic."

"It is good that you did that."

"It is not very easy."

He smiles. "You can learn." He says.

I nod, smiling at him. "I try to do my best," I say. We go back to the biology textbook.

Note: I was prompted to write this story now by the recent news appearing in Italian newspapers of a Science textbook for high school that described how astronauts fly weightless when in orbit because "they are so far away from Earth that gravity is not felt anymore." It took a real astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, to debunk this idiocy. But the poor quality of high school textbooks is well known; Feinman said that "But that's the way all the books were: They said things that were useless, mixed-up, ambiguous, confusing, and partially incorrect. How anybody can learn science from these books, I don't know, because it's not science".  I think we have here  one of the many symptoms of the decline of our civilization  

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Golden Rule of Technological Progress: Innovation Doesn't Solve Problems, It Creates Them

Image from RealPharmacy

See that thing up there? It is an autonomous security robot, something that's becoming fashionable nowadays. Obviously, for every problem, there has to be a technological solution. So, what could go wrong with the idea that the problem of homeless people can be solved by means of security robots? After all, they are not weaponized.... I mean, not yet.

There is something badly wrong with the way we approach what we call "problems" and our naive faith in technology becomes more and more pathetic. And now we are deploying security robots all over the world. Surely a "solution" but it is not so clear what the problem is.

The story of this silly robot made me think of a post that I published a few months ago where I stated what I called "the golden rule of technological innovation: "innovation doesn't solve problems, it creates them". And the more I think about that, the more I think it is true.

From "Cassandra's Legacy", May 24, 2017

The Coming Seneca Cliff of the Automotive Industry: the Converging Effect of Disruptive Technologies and Social Factors

This graph shows the projected demise of individual car ownership in the US, according to "RethinkX". That will lead to the demise of the automotive industry as we know it since a much smaller number of cars will be needed. If this is not a Seneca collapse, what is? 

Decades of work in research and development taught me this:

Innovation does not solve problems, it creates them. 

Which I could call "the Golden Rule of Technological Innovation." There are so many cases of this law at work that it is hard for me to decide where I should start from. Just think of nuclear energy; do you understand what I mean? So, I am always amazed at the naive faith of some people who think that more technology will solve the problems created by technology. It just doesn't work like that.

That doesn't mean that technological research is useless; not at all. R&D can normally generate small but useful improvements to existing processes, which is what it is meant to do. But when you deal with breakthroughs, well, it is another kettle of dynamite sticks; so to say. Most claimed breakthroughs turn out to be scams (cold fusion is a good example) but not all of them. And that leads to the second rule of technological innovation:

Successful innovations are always highly disruptive

You probably know the story of the Polish cavalry charging against the German tanks during WWII. It never happened, but the phrase "fighting tanks with horses" is a good metaphor for what technological breakthroughs can do. Some innovations impose themselves, literally, by marching over the dead bodies of their opponents. Even without such extremes, when an innovation becomes a marker of social success, it can diffuse extremely fast. Do you remember the role of status symbol that cell phones played in the 1990s?

Cars are an especially good example of how social factors can affect and amplify the effects of innovation. I discussed in a previous post on Cassandra's Legacy how cars became the prime marker of social status in the West with the 1950s, becoming the bloated and inefficient objects we know today. They had a remarkable effect on society, creating the gigantic suburbs of today's cities where life without a personal car is nearly impossible.

But the great wheel of technological innovation keeps turning and it is soon going to make individual cars as obsolete as it would be wearing coats made of home-tanned bear skins. It is, again, the combination of technological innovation and socioeconomic factors creating a disruptive effect. For one thing, private car ownership is rapidly becoming too expensive for the poor. At the same time, the combination of global positioning systems (GPS), smartphones, and autonomous driving technologies makes it possible a kind of "transportation on demand" or "transportation as a service" (TAAS) that was unthinkable just a decade ago. Electric cars are especially suitable (although not critically necessary) for this kind of transportation. In this scheme, all you need to do to get a transportation service is to push a button on your smartphone and the vehicle you requested will silently glide in front of you to take you wherever you want. (*)

The combination of these factors is likely to generate an unstoppable and disruptive social phenomenon. Owning a car will be increasing seen as passé, whereas using the latest TAAS gadgetry will be seen as cool. People will scramble to get rid of their obsolete, clumsy, and unfashionable cars and TAAS will also play the role of social filter: with the ongoing trends of increasing social inequality, the poor will be able to use it only occasionally or not at all. The rich, instead, will use it to show that they can and that they have access to credit. Some TAAS services will be exclusive, just as some hotels and resorts are. Some rich people may still own cars as a hobby, but that wouldn't change the trend.

Of course, all that is a vision of the future and the future is always difficult to predict. But something that we can say about the future is that when changes occur, they occur fast. In this case, the end result of the development of individual TAAS will be the rapid collapse of the automotive industry as we know it: a much smaller number of vehicles will be needed and they won't need to be of the kind that the present aotumotive industry can produce. This phenomenon has been correctly described by "RethinkX," even though still within a paradigm of growth. In practice, the transition is likely to be even more rapid and brutal than what the RethinkX team propose. For the automotive industry, there applies the metaphor of "fighting tanks with horses."

The demise of the automotive industry is an example of what I called the "Seneca Effect." When some technology or way of life becomes obsolete and unsustainable, it tends to collapse very fast. Look at the data for the world production of motor vehicles, below (image from Wikipedia). We are getting close to producing a hundred million of them per year. If the trend continues, during the next ten years we'll have produced a further billion of them. Can you really imagine that it would be possible? There is a Seneca Cliff waiting for the automotive industry.

(*) If the trend of increasing inequality continues, autonomously driven cars are not necessary. Human drivers would be inexpensive enough for the minority of rich people who can afford to hire them.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Mineral depletion need not be always a problem: the case of aluminum

In my book "Extracted" (2014) I make the case that mineral depletion is one of the main problems the industrial system faces today. Slowly degrading ore grades make the production of mineral commodities more expensive and this worsens the performance of the whole system. This is especially true for fossil fuels, although in this field it is not customary to speak in terms of "ore grades" but in terms of EROI (energy returned on energy.invested). But the depletion issue for a specific mineral commodity has to be considered in view of the whole production process, not just the extractive phase, and some commodities are much less affected than others. This is the case of aluminum, where the main production cost is not extraction but by far it is electrochemical smelting. There follows that if we can have energy that doesn't come from depletable resources - that is, renewable energy -  we won't face depletion problems for aluminum for the foreseeable future, quite possibly never if we use care in recycling it. In the following post, Sgouris Sgouridis examines the current situation of aluminum smelting and the perspectives of transitioning the production system to renewable energy. (UB)

Steering the Aluminum Industry in the face of the Energy Transition

By Sgouris Sgouridis

The post below was inspired by my participation at the ARABAL 2017 conference in Muscat, Oman to discuss the options for renewable energy integration in the aluminum industry. It addresses a seeming reluctance I encountered during the discussion to adopt RE with some initial considerations on how the industry can be transformed away from utilizing fossil inputs. It provides an overview of the industry’s products, scale and impacts, before discussing transition opportunities.

Aluminum: an Investment for both present and future?

Corrosion resistant when properly installed, malleable but strong and light, it is not surprising that aluminum is widely used. Globally, aluminum is the second most produced metal by mass after iron. Its historic production reached a peak in June 2017 at 175.5 thousand tonnes a day (approximately 60 million tonnes/year). Like all commodities, aluminum’s price fluctuates but has been growing since early 2016 from a low of $1500/tonne to above $2000/tonne in late 2017.

While aluminum is often used in what could be described as “frivolous” consumer applications, it also has central roles in durable goods. Its advantages make it ideal for mobile applications like lighter, fuel-efficient vehicles but also for frames, cladding and cabling. One interesting aspect of the industry is that the metal offers unlimited recycling possibilities without degradation. In fact, more than 70% of the aluminum ever produced is estimated to remain in use today. From a transition perspective, this high recyclability can be considered as a long-term energy investment in the future availability of materials. Along the same lines, given aluminum’s resistance to oxidation, when used for applications like solar plant substructures it can remain in use for several panel generations allowing repowering of the installation.

Primary Aluminum Production Overview

Primary (non-recycled) aluminum is produced from bauxite, an ore containing it at high concentrations. It is mined in open cut, surface mines that imply comparatively low energy intensity. As an ore, it contains impurities (primarily silicates) that need to be removed in order for high purity aluminum oxide (Al2O3), alumina in industry parlance, to be made available for further use. The Bayer process for refining requires both electric and thermal energy inputs. First, it involves crushing, washing, and drying the ore. The resulting powder is then dissolved in caustic soda (NaOH) at temperatures ranging from 160-280 C depending on the ore type. Once dissolved, impurities are separated leaving a residue red mud. The alumina slurry is dried in calciners at temperatures >1000C to remove chemically bound water giving the final product the texture and appearance of hard sugar. The global average energy input to the process was 11.4 MJ/kg Al in 2016 of which only about 7.5% was electrical.

Smelting (see Fig 1) takes place literally in a pot – the industry’s term for electrolytic cell. Cells are electrically connected in series (the cathode of one to the anode of the next) forming a pot-line that can be anywhere from 100 to 400 cells. The cell container has an external steel structure and acts as the cathode. Alumina is dissolved into an electrolyte formed by a molten mixture of cryolite (Na3AlF6) and aluminum fluoride (AlF3). Being highly corrosive, it is able to dissolve alumina powder at less than 1000C which otherwise would require much higher temperatures to melt (>2000C). Alumina is poured continuously into the cell to maintain a concentration level of around 2-4%. Normal operating voltage for each cell is 4-4.5V inducing 300-800kA currents to electrolyze alumina into Al and O2. To reduce adverse magnetic field impacts and help with insulation, cells are aligned the pots on their longer side (see Fig. 2) leading to facilities more than a kilometer long and around 50-meter wide.

Figure 1 Aluminum Smelting Process Overview (source)

Figure 2 Modern Pot-line (Source: Emirates Global Aluminum)
Perhaps the biggest complication of the process is the reactivity of the molten cryolite - it can quickly corrode most known materials. It is contained by keeping it in balance with solid cryolite. Power and thermal management are critical. In the event of a power outage of more than a few hours (max four), the cells cool down and eventually solidify requiring a very expensive cleaning and restarting process that can last months. Excess power may melt the solid cryolite lining leading to uncontrolled leakage of the molten contents - a tap-out.

Finally, as alumina is reduced to Al concentrating on the cathode, the oxygen atoms quickly consume the carbon anodes to form CO2. An entire wing of the smelter is dedicated to continuously manufacture these carbon electrodes using low sulfur petroleum coke (pet-coke) as a raw input.

Aluminum production: mentality, materials and energy

Like every transition process, renewable energy transition of the aluminum industry requires attention to its defining aspects: physical resources of energy and materials but also mental and social resources.

Smelter managers are understandably risk-averse. Two smelters in the MENA region recently suffered power outages, one due to a tap-out that melted the main bus bar, leading to significantly hobbled output for months. Stable, reliable, and cheap power is entrenched in their world-view and requires serious convincing and solid demonstrations of how alternative approaches would operate reliably. Nevertheless, no matter how high are the infrastructure capital expenditures - reaching above 1 billion USD for a modern refinery, the costs of its operation are equally high as we will see below and therefore there are clear economic reasons to consider both efficiency and lower energy costs.

To produce 1 kg of primary aluminum requires 1.93 kg of Alumina from 4kg of bauxite, 0.4-0.5 kg of Carbon, 20 g AlF3, 50 g cryolite, and 12-16 kWh of electricity. In terms of carbon dioxide emissions and assuming that perfluorocarbon emissions are avoided or treated, this implies 1.65 kg of CO2 from the anodes. If an efficient combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plant is used to generate electricity using natural gas as fuel, the specific emissions of electricity would be around 400g/kWh or 5.2 kg of CO2. The contributions of mining and global shipping of the material in a bulk carrier are comparatively much smaller (see Fig. 3) and will not be discussed here.

Figure 3 Global average GHG emissions by process in 2015 (source)

Figure 4 Different Chain Scenarios (S4: Mining & Refining: AUS, Smelting GCC, S5: Mining SA, Refining US, Smelting CAN)

The provenance of primary (non-recycled) aluminum significantly influences its carbon footprint. This is clearly shown in Fig. 4 where aluminum produced using coal-power in China (S1) may be four times more carbon intensive than aluminum produced using hydro-power in the Americas (from 20 tCO2eq/tonne Al to 5) under the most benign (idealized) scenario.

Primary aluminum production and the Sustainable Energy Transition

Alternative technologies like direct reduction of alumina by melting in a solar furnace or ionic liquid electrolytes that would allow the electrolysis to take place at low temperatures are considered but far from commercialization. Considering the time-frame of the transition and sunk investments, the current aluminum production process will be the prevalent production system for the critical transition period of the next few decades.

Looking at the key components of the current Bayer and Hall-Héroult processes for aluminum production, the focal points for decarbonization in order of magnitude would be (i) electricity input, (ii) thermal input for refining, (iii) substitution of the carbon anodes with inert ones. In order to achieve (i) and (ii) both efficiency and flexibility improvements would be helpful as the bulk scalable renewable energy will be coming from variable sources (solar and wind).

Practically, all smelters in the MENA sunbelt are auto-producers - i.e. they have their own captive power plants. Therefore, they are well suited to follow an incremental path to renewable energy adoption. We discuss how using the Sohar Aluminum plant as a case. The plant produced 377,000t in 2016 with an intensity of 13.7 kWh/kgAl - 590 MW average power consumption. It has a dedicated 1GW CCGT within 12km operating at 50% efficiency.

The building surface area of the Sohar plant is approximately 8 hectares (Fig. 5L). Installing roof-top PV (density 1.2 MW/ha) only provides 10MW – clearly insufficient. Ground-mounted, utility-scale plants are needed. The shaded strip to the North of Sohar (Fig. 5R) between the mountains and the coastline is 26000 hectares, flat and empty. It could host more than 13GW of installed PV, greater than the total installed capacity in the country (around 9GW). 

 Figure 5 Sohar Power Plant Aerial View (left) and larger area (right): (Source: Google Maps)

The economics of renewable energy for a smelter with a captive CCGT (combined-cycle gas turbine) are straightforward. The PV plant acts as a gas saver reducing the overall costs of energy. Assuming that the smelter acts as the off-taker guaranteeing a power-purchase agreement, for such a large-scale plant, it should be able to achieve at least $20/MWh given recent world-record bids. The plants could be bi-facial, single axis tracking allowing an increased capacity factor.

The financial benefits of off-setting natural gas use depends on its price. Alas, Oman does not have a clear market price for it. Oman exports LNG while it also imports gas from Qatar through the Dolphin pipeline and plans to build another pipeline to import gas from Iran. Oman uses NG for domestic needs including electricity, industry, and enhanced oil recovery and there are references to a shortage that anticipate stopping exports and diverting all gas to domestic uses by 2024. I infer that industries to date receive gas at subsidized prices but, from a country perspective, there is an opportunity cost in offering these subsidies. Unsubsidized gas prices would range between $4 to $8 per MMBtu.

If a decision was made to completely transition the smelter operations to renewable energy, storage would be needed. The options for overnight operations would include pumped storage using sea water, large-scale batteries, but the most viable option currently would be to rely on CSP (concentrated solar power) plants with thermal storage. Based on another world record, a PPA (purchase power agreement) of 80$/MWh for energy delivered overnight seems achievable.

In any case, given that the solar peaks in daytime, the ability to modulate the refinery energy consumption and match the supply flux would be highly desirable. While conventional smelter-management thinking considers any type of power modulation as detrimental, a system that is possible to be retrofitted to existing smelters allows for exactly this. Known as Enpot and implemented already commercially at a Trimet smelter in Germany permits the modulation of refinery output and consequently power use by +-30%. The technology relies on surrounding the cells with a series of heat exchangers. This allows power (and alumina feed-rate) modulation as cell-heat removal rates can be varied by opening or closing the heat-exchangers.

The 2016 production of 377 thousand tons required 35 million mmBtu at an annual cost of $176 million assuming a gas cost of $5/mmBtu, or a specific energy cost of $467.5/ton of Al. We considered four RE options against current practice, shown in Table 1 and Fig 5. In Cases 1-3 the CCGT plant remains in operation. Case 1 operates the plant at constant output. Installing a single-axis PV system of 1GW capacity with a PPA of 20 $/MWh would reduce the energy costs by about 13.6%. Increasing the PV capacity to 1.5GW to utilize the variable production system decreases energy costs by 22% (Case 2) or 20% (Case 3) if output is equal to BAU while emissions are halved. Case 4 combines 1.5GW PV with 610MW CSP and 12-hour thermal storage for near zero emissions. This option expectedly results in a 40% higher cost system. 

Figure 6 Case 1 (top), Case 2 (middle), Case 4 (bottom) for June conditions. The hourly supply used the NREL SAM software based on UAE weather data files, so actual results may vary slightly
Table 1 Summary Analysis of Solar Smelter Options

Summarizing, integrating large-scale solar PV generation in smelter operations in the sunbelt countries can provide unconditional economic benefits. This does not involve additional capital costs to the smelter assuming that an offtake PPA agreement is established with a build-own-operate (BOO) model for the solar plant. Incorporating output variability acts synergistically as it allows the smelter to leverage the peak insolation during daytime. Even more drastic emissions cuts to essentially carbon-zero can be achieved by incorporating a CSP plant with thermal storage for night operations. This would imply an increase in the electricity costs by about 40% at current prices and an additional 3800 ha of land. As other storage options become more competitive this calculus will change and it would reach cost parity once the cost of stored RE electricity drops below $50/MWh.

Dr. Sgouris Sgouridis is an Associate Professor at Masdar Institute (UAE). His current research interests focuses on sociotechnical systems modeling including sustainable transportation systems and sustainable energy systems management. Dr. Sgouridis is Principal Investigator researching ‘Commercial Aviation in a Carbon-Constrained Future’ at Masdar Institute and he is co-leading the development of the Sustainable Bioresource Projects.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Energy Transition: Too Little, Too Late

The idea of the energy transition ("energiewende" in German) originated in the 1980s and gained legislative support in Germany in 2010. The idea is good and also technically feasible. But it requires sacrifices and, at present, sacrifices are politically unthinkable since most people don't realize how critical the situation really is. What we are doing for the transition seems to be is too little and too late. 

So, how are we doing with the energy transition? Can we eliminate fossil fuels from the world's energy system? Can we do it before it is too late to avoid the disasters that climate change and resource depletion will bring to us if we continue with business as usual?

The debate is ongoing and it sometimes it goes out of control as in the case of the controversy between the group of Professor Jacobsen at and that of Professor Clack which even generated a lawsuit for slander. In general, the debate is based on qualitative considerations: on one side we see plenty of naive optimism ("let's go solar, rah, rah!"), on the other, we have pure statements of disbelief ("renewables will never be able to do this or to do that.").

But science is based on quantitative evaluations and we have plenty of data that should permit us to do better than play the game of the clash of absolutes. This is what we did, myself and my coworker Sgouris Sgouridis, in a paper that was recently published on "Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality," titled "In Support of a Physics-Based Energy Transition Planning: Sowing Our Future Energy Needs"

In our paper, we started from the Jacobson/Clack controversy and we tried to use physical considerations (not subjected to the vagaries of markets) to examine how fast we can grow renewable energy. That's constrained by several factors but, as a first consideration by the fact that we need to invest energy now in order to get energy in the future.

This is why we refer to "sowing" in the title of the paper: every farmer knows that one needs to save some of the current harvest as seed for the future one - enough for eating in the future, but not so much that one would starve. In the case of energy, it is the same. We need to invest some fossil energy for the future harvest of renewable energy, but not so much that society would collapse (it is the "Sower's Strategy").

So, we propose an approximate, but physics-based, criterion for the possible speed of growth of renewable energy production. The model provides results similar to a more detailed one that we published earlier on. Let me cite from our recent paper:

These questions can be discussed in terms of the concept of “energy yield” or “energy return” and, in particular, from the “Energy Payback Time” (EPBT), a measurement of the time necessary for a new plant to return an amount of energy equal to the amount invested for its construction. EPBT can be expressed as the ratio of the energy invested in the manufacturing of the plant divided by the yearly energy generated. From this definition, we can derive a measurement of the energy investment necessary in order to obtain a certain yearly production of energy. We perform this calculations in the reasonable assumption of a transition period T that is less than or equal to the lifetime of the renewable energy installations; in this way, we do not need to take into account plant replacement. For equal intervals of time, the energy invested is Einv(t)= Etarget (for t= T) × (EPBT/T). If we set “Etarget” as the current global production per year and we assume that we want to maintain it constant throughout the transition, then EPBT/T is the ratio of the needed yearly investments to the current yearly production. <..>
If, hypothetically, the EPBT were larger than T, the transition would be physically impossible since it would require more energy than the amount that could be produced. Instead, for T=30 years, EPBT values over ca. 5 years would require investing more than 15% of the overall energy production every year, hence making the transition extremely difficult, although not completely impossible. Conversely, values of the EPBT close to or under 1 year would make the transition relatively facile. For instance, an EPBT=1 year implies that about 3% of the world’s energy production would have to be set aside for the transition. Seen in this light, the current values of the EPBT for the most diffuse renewable energy technologies are promising. <...>
These considerations can be compared to the current situation. The nameplate renewable energy capacity that was installed in 2016 was 161 GWp (IRENA 2017). With an average capacity factor that we can assume to be roughly 0.2, it corresponds to an average power generation of 32 GW. In this case, for renewable technologies with EPBT= 3 years, the energy invested is about 100 GW, or about 0.8% of the world’s average primary power consumption, 12 TW (IEA 2016). According to these estimates, the current level of energy investments in new renewable energy is not sufficient to attain the transition within the assumed climatic and energetic constraints. <..>
With these calculations, we show that physical factors provide fundamental insight on the challenge that humankind faces: the energy transition will be neither easy nor impossible, but it will require a substantially larger rate of energy investment than the currently allocated one.  

In short, a transition that could maintain the "BAU" (business as usual) is technically feasible and physically possible if we were willing to increase of a factor of 5 (at the very least) our investments in it. Unfortunately, the trend is going in the opposite direction. The global investments in renewable energy seem to have levelled off and In 2016 were approximately at the same level as they were in 2010. Too little, too late.

Can we hope for some miracle that would increase the efficiency of clean energy technologies by a factor of 5 in a short time? Unlikely, to say the least. That's true also for the often idolized nuclear energy which is not more efficient than renewables in terms of EPBT and even more unlikely to go through rapid and revolutionary technological improvements.

So, basically, we are not making it. We are consciously choosing to go down the Seneca Cliff, even though we wouldn't need to. It is maddening to think that we are failing at the challenge not because the transition is technologically unfeasible or unaffordable, but because the transition is politically inconceivable. Increasing investments in renewable energy requires sacrifices and this is a no-no in our world.

So, what's going to happen? The fact that we won't attain the transition doesn't mean returning to Middle Ages or even to Olduvai, but that in the future not everyone, and not even a majority of people, will have as much energy as we are used to having today. The sacrifices we refuse to make now will have to be made, and much larger, in the future.

Note: our paper on "Biophysical Economics and Resource Quality" will be freely downloadable until Dec 31, 2017. After that date, ask me for a copy (ugo.bardi(geewhiz)

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Seneca Cliff Explained: a Three Dimensional Collapse Overview Model

A Three Dimensional Collapse Overview Model

In this post, Geoffrey Chia illustrates one of the fundamental characteristics of the "Seneca Effect", also known as "collapse," the fact that it occurs in networked systems dominated by feedback interactions. This is a qualitative interpretation of collapse that complements the more quantitative models that I report in my book "The Seneca Effect." (U.B.)

A post by Geoffrey Chia

The Limits to Growth was published in 1972 by a group of world class scientists using the best mathematical computer modelling available at the time. It projected the future collapse of global industrial civilisation in the 21st century if humanity did not curb its population, consumption and pollution. It was pilloried by many “infinite growth on a finite planet” economists over the decades. 

However, updated data inputs and modern computer modelling in recent years (particularly by Dr Graham Turner of the CSIRO in 2008 and 2014) showed that we are in reality closely tracking the standard model of the LtG, with industrial collapse and mass die-off due sooner rather than later. The future is now.

The LtG looked only at 5 parameters, with global warming being a mere subset of pollution. Dramatic acceleration of ice melt and unprecedented, increasingly frequent, extreme weather events over the past two decades clearly demonstrate that global warming is progressing far faster and far worse than anyone could possibly have imagined back in the 70s. Global warming certainly deserves a separate category for consideration on its own, quite apart from the other manifestations of pollution.

The LtG did not include a specific category looking at the human dynamics of finance, economics and political manoeuvrings, which was fair enough, because it is impossible to mathematically model such capricious irrationality. Economists may beg to differ, however no economic mathematical model has ever been shown to accurately reflect the real world, nor ever consistently predict anything useful (unlike the LtG and other proven science based models), not least because of their hopelessly incomplete and deeply flawed ideological economic assumptions. Garbage in, garbage out. In 2013, the “Nobel-type” prize for economics (properly termed the Bank of Sweden prize) was jointly awarded to different economists who had mathematically modelled diametrically opposing ideas. That was akin to awarding the physics prize to different scientists who “showed” that the universe is both expanding and contracting at the same time.

Despite that, I do advocate that we should include finance, economics and politics in our subjective conceptual framework of collapse mechanics, because financial and economic troubles are triggers for political upheavals which can lead to conflict and the collapse of nation states. Syria is a prime example. This unquantifiable category, despite being subjective and unpredictable, will nevertheless significantly contribute to population die-off, just as any quantifiable category such as global warming or resource depletion or ecosystem destruction can and will cause human die-off. Economic collapse can lead to loss of healthcare, homelessness and starvation. Political madness can trigger global thermonuclear war at any time, causing our extinction.

All the categories contributing to collapse are deeply inter-related and intertwined. This is the basis of systems thinking, which is essential for making realistic judgements about our future and mitigating against the troubles ahead. How can we confer such complex ideas to the general public in a manner which is clear and understandable, yet does not significantly compromise accuracy or detail?

I first alluded to the idea of a 3D collapse overview model during my Griffith University Ecocentre presentation in March 2017

It is a refinement of my older, less complete, 2D model "the three horsemen and one big fat elephant of the apocalypse", originally conceived as a joke, a play on a hackneyed biblical phrase, albeit with serious intent.

When various pundits try to analyse matters relating to sustainability, their biggest deficiency is often blinkered or tunnel vision. They focus on only one issue while ignoring other issues. Most global warming "solutions" advocated by climate activists fit this description. They assume limitless energy availability to deliver huge renewable energy infrastructures and massive carbon sequestration fantasies to enable an approximation of business as usual to support 10 billion people by mid century. 

In reality we are poised to fall off the cliff of net energy availability very soon 1,2 and not even the most optimistic carbon sequestration fantasies (all of which will require colossal energy inputs and none of which are proven) will be able return us to a stable climate unless the total human footprint is also reduced drastically and immediately 3 (which will not happen short of global nuclear war – which in itself will exponentially release greenhouse gases, devastate remaining ecosystems and destroy industrial civilisation and thus our ability to technologically sequester GHGs).

Blinkered views produce flawed pseudo-solutions, which if attempted often exacerbate other problems, or at the very least are a complete waste of time and energy.

Here is a 10 second video-clip, my first attempt to make this 3D model in real life, "doom explained by confectionery abuse"

In my 3D model I have maintained the central position of the total human footprint as the "big fat elephant", to emphasise that if this is not addressed, then nothing is being addressed. Few commentators advocate voluntary energy descent, reduction of consumption or simplification of lifestyles, however those are essential strategies to reduce our footprint. Even fewer talk about population reduction. This 3D model is a far superior way to visualise the predicaments we face, compared with disparate and disconnected one dimensional views or compared with simple mnemonic headings. For example, the three "Es" of energy, economy and environment represent a simplistic and incomplete text list, with no graphical demonstration of the links between each "E".

Trying to further subdivide, refine or complicate this model is likely to be counter-productive. As it is, this 3D model, a six sided double pyramid with a proliferating tumour at its core, probably represents the limit of complexity which can easily be stored in the average mind as a visual snapshot. It is an easily remembered image which can be conjured up at the dinner table by scribbling on a napkin or by building the actual 3D model with meatballs and skewers, to both entertain and horrify your guests.

Compartmentalising the various intertwined global issues is obviously an artificial approach, but is necessary to help us understand the highly complex dynamics involved. It is necessary in the same way that compartmentalising the study of Medicine into specialties such as Cardiology, Gastroenterology, Neurology, Nephrology etc is an artificial but proven approach to understanding the highly complex mechanisms within the human body. Just as different bodily systems (heart, gut, brain, kidneys etc) directly interact with and influence each and every other system, each component of my 3D model also directly interacts with and influences each and every other component.


R affecting F: every major oil disruption eg 1973, 1979, has always resulted in economic recession. Another R affecting F example: diminishing per capita resources leads to economic hardships, shattered expectations and anger in the population, which leads to the rise of megalomaniacal fascist demagogues, multiplying the risk of global conflict.

R affecting F affecting R, affecting E and P: decline of conventional oil production since it peaked in 2005 has led to desperate harvesting of unconventional oils pushed through by means of political deceit, fraudulent market misrepresentations and financial/economic distortions. This Ponzi scheme will lead to an inevitable market crash dwarfing the sub-prime mortgage scam. It has also led to severe exacerbations of E and P.

R causing C: this is obvious

C affecting R affecting C: as heatwaves worsen, airconditioning use and hence fossil fuel consumption escalate, liberating more GHGs and worsening global warming

Unfortunately with today's advanced state of planetary malaise, most of the feedbacks between components are "positive" or bad self-reinforcing feedbacks. Few are "negative" or good semi-correcting feedbacks. The reader will no doubt be able to think of many other examples of bidirectional feedbacks between components, both positive and negative.

I advocate that each article discussing sustainability (or lack thereof) should be slotted into the part or parts of this 3D model where it belongs, in order to appreciate how comprehensive or incomplete that article may be, and to enable other related discourses to be slotted into adjacent positions, so as to build up a more holistic picture.

As visual animals I believe this is a useful tool to educate ourselves. It can even be used in primary schools as part of their science curriculum (but will no doubt be banned amongst global warming denialist groups or neoclassical/neoliberal economic madrases). Children can make these simple 3D models with toy construction kits or plasticine and sticks. They should probably be discouraged from playing with their food, unlike us adults, who are terrible hypocrites anyway.

Geoffrey Chia MBBS, MRCP, FRACP, November 2017

Geoffrey Chia is a Cardiologist in Brisbane, Australia, who has studied and written about issues regarding (un)sustainability for more than 15 years.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017