This is the first of my “Don’t Add Up” series. It concerns energy. Energy is something I have been fascinated with for decades. I have done deep research. Most of my research has been during my time as a “Peaker”. This was when peak oil was all the rage back in early to mid-2000s. I learned then how troubling peak oil really is. Yea, it still is troubling. It is just that now it has been drowned out by other issues. Spoiler, renewables are not going to save us.
This is not about crying wolf, it is about tuning into a greater reality. Collapse is the result of this process but if you tune into reality then you see a cycle and process. Find your place in the process then this abstract talk about energy will give you meaning. Just feeling fear is of little use but not seeing the dangers is just as bad.
In 05 I had a radical departure into doom because of peak oil and the understanding of how unstable the current financial system is. I say radical because I moved too quick into the doom mode. These forces of doom manifesting in the unsustainable civilizational narrative move slow. The financial crisis came and went and the shale boom erased peak oil fears but that was the typical short sightedness of society. These forces of doom never sleep. Depletion is something that slowly erodes the net energy of society relentlessly. The reason I am including financial decline with depletion is important to understand.
Fossil fuels are still very abundant and we are in no danger of running out of them but that is not the whole story. Reserves are not resources and this is how the establishment hoodwinks the public into complacency. Resources are more than geology they are also a function of economy. You need an economy to bring resources to market and put them to productive use. The economy is in systematic decline which is complex and complicated. The complexity is the nature of globalism being interconnected and systematically based. The goal is ever greater efficiency and performance to achieve affluence growth. The complicated part is the internal networks and systems that continue to get more complicated because of the demands of performance and efficiency.
Diminishing returns with energy and economy is now going dangerously non liner into the condition of problem solving becoming the problem and growth that is actually decline. Imagine taking your time and money and investing in something that is a failure. Your time is lost and money. This type of investment loss is losing principal which is your money and interest which is time. This is a tipping over point, and I believe we are in the neighborhood of this. When Problem solving is the problem then failure occurs rapidly hence a non-liner inversion going vertical. Growth becomes malinvestment which means many great efforts at producing are instead destroying.
This vertical non-linear condition of breaking down will likely manifest on the other side as a stairstep down where unsustainable activity breaks down to more sustainable. This is where reality testing makes our efforts once again effective problem solvers meaning we get a surplus for living. The process continues like dominoes falling but with periods of regained stability.
The reason this will be an ongoing process is the amount of extension that occurred with centuries of affluence seeking with disregard for sustainability and resilience. Complete collapse is always possible but more likely regional and local collapse with the system holding. This is a mirror of how civilizations decline and fail. It is a process not an event although the process is a series of sub events. Finding your place in this process is critical just like getting a deck chair or a place on a life boat.
The important point to realize now is the global system’s financial system that supplies capital, transport and the just in time manufacturing is hitting limits. These limits are now even more dangerous because of the limits of change. We have burned bridges. This is a classic ending of a Ponzi scheme where an entity is paying out dividends from new member initiation. Real returns on the investments are negative in regards to promises made. This is unfunded liabilities. Not only is there no interest the principal is being reduced as new entrants dwindle but the promises remain to maintain confidence. At a point that confidence is lost, losses are inevitable and these investments will just be pennies on the dollar. In the case of our global system this is pursuing growth when growth is actually demolition of social fabric and critical infrastructure. The wasting of resources for irrational goals etc.
Our system is a Ponzi of growth from growth policies that are path dependent and carbon trapped. This is a hard wiring of self-organization and the inability to power this system with anything but dense carbon sources such as fossil fuels. In future posts I will deal with renewables which are little more than extenders much like fuel aditives like ethanol. There true holistic EROI is not adequate to replace fossil fuels and they can’t replicate themselves. Complex society that produces renewables can’t produce renewables with renewables. This is a long discussion so I don’t have time to elaborate.
Efficiency is hitting diminishing returns with cost being more than what is saved. Fission is fossil fuel supported plus fissile material is also suffering depletion. Fusion is a scientific fantasy and likely produce little power with huge cost. This is the same story as renewables with an unrealistic economic application of energy which ends up being just an expense or cost. Energy expense is the producing of energy at a cost not a surplus.
This is not to say efficiency and renewables are not useful and wise. What I am saying is basing the future on these sub energy vectors is just prolonging the breakdown to a more sustainable and resilient way of using energy and economics. I called them vectors because they are fossil fuel trapped and the economy in its current form is fossil fuel trapped. Renewables thus are like hydrogen just a way to reform fossil fuels to deliver energy. This is what I call carbon trapped. This behavior is path dependent from centuries of living this way. This way is using fossil carbon to grow on a finite planet. It is really quite simple and common sense.
The reason you need to understand this is fossil fuels are now as economic as geologic. When these fossil fuels were easy to get and produce they were geologic energy. Today they are more economic than geologic energy. As the economy declines you can see this pointing to a tipping point from growth to degrowth. At some point getting this fossil carbon will not support the tools of getting it. This is very abstract and systematic but the outcome is the same as the fox working too hard to get a rabbit for dinner. In this process her cubs will be the first to be lost so in this sense regions and locals are going to be allowed to fail. This is much like the body does in hyperthermia.
This means the embedded energy is getting so low that economically the performance and efficiency of handling them becomes very narrow. The margin of energy return on energy invested heads for diminishing returns where a point is reached where it cost more to produce the energy than the return on marketing the energy. EROI is not used by investors for a reason. It is holistic and something society needs to research. Investors look at ROI. Here an investment can treat energy as a constant with a narrow range of cost that is until energy is not available. Then energy’s constant is zero. 10% return on zero is still zero. This is the end game and why there are so many lies.
It is extremely important to understand how intricately linked energy and the economy are. Scientist are constantly pushing technology that they say will decouple this relationship and dematerialize it. Economist constantly are talking about substitution. They treat energy as a constant that is magically always there in some form to keep the economy growing. Keep in mind the economy must grow or forces of decline like abandonment, dysfunction, and irrational behavior take over. These problems don’t get solved. In these deceptive narrative situations, the real nature of high-quality energy that produces a net surplus is obfuscated.
The reason for the lies and deceptions are the cold hard reality of decline and depletion in not being embraced because they can’t handle the truth. If you understand economies have limits and so do energy resources on a finite planet then this is common sense. The human narrative is progress and advancement that always sidesteps limit. Limits to change are even more rarely discussed even with environmentalist that understand decline and collapse.
These people assume going back is as easy as it was going forward. This is where we get talk of circular economies nonsense. Circular economies only happen in semi-nomadic hunter gathering cultures. These degrowthers fail to consider system reality that indicates when a system is pushed beyond its stable envelope of recovery then elasticity is lost and breakage occurs. This breakage can have a long way to go until it is stabilized. There are those who think degrowth is an option when instead degrowth is a frame of mind of adapting to post system breakage.
Degrowth is not a policy of solutions to declining affluence represented by the current narrative. It is a way of life adapting to a great turning of a human civilization and a planetary epoch of abrupt change from human forcing. It is more individual and with smaller groups. Ideally degrowth should not be penalized by society. An optimum policy would be maintaining the traditional narrative of growth since it is trapped but also allow nodes of resilience and sustainability to form as seed beds for a possible system breakage. This is a pressure valve release just as a business sheds labor and closes facilities to keep the core functional. Today leadership does not take degrowth seriously and this is one of their biggest mistakes.
The economic system is now beset with so many systematic problems it is little more than a Ponzi scheme of growth meaning there is no real growth. It is fake growth that is actually decline. The productive base is being gutted for fake growth. This is because of systematic corruption and all those variables of limits of growth. This is parasitic decay and cannibalization of a productive base. The corruption part is lies and misinformation from the private sector realizing profits at the expense of the public domain. This is the parasitic nature of the current system. The elites are looting the system legally because they create the laws and apply them. So, all those valuable resources that modern man need to mitigate decline are being squandered by private entities the represent the elites of the world where power and privilege reside.
This decline is resulting in systematic abandonment, dysfunction, and irrational behavior. The flip side of this abstract systematic decline is the physical and material decline of infrastructure plus resource decline of depletion. A small variable input can crash the process when there is too much complexity with complicated subsystems. When sustainability and resilience are brittle a small perturbation or a tiny resource shortage can crash complexity or ruin a complicated system.
Society is swamped with debt and unfunded liabilities. These are themselves deceptive abstracts because in nature there is no ledger of assets and liabilities. In man’s world of systems, networks, and machines there is something called confidence which is liquidity. If we do not trust each other a global system will grind to a halt. This is the real nature of debt. Excessive debt represents broken promises and lies of promised returns that are instead costs. If these abstracts and physical things are net energy negative or close to zero then the system is just being cannibalized. This is the case now.
I bring this up because this is the case with fossil fuels and net energy. Not only are they in decline of quality which is high energy return they are also losing net energy from an economy that can’t produce them properly for a net return. These two issues are actually systematically tied together because it takes fossil fuels to make fossil fuels and economies need fossil fuels to create and maintain systems, networks and machines that produce growth. Growth equals energy and energy equals growth so when this approaches a net return of zero the result is cannibalization of wealth. This is eating your seeds instead of planting. This is so simple but obfuscated by complexity and our complicated systems, networks, and machines.
I want to add the issue of tech and its hitting of diminishing returns and systematic brittleness. Tech is reaching the point where its performance and efficiency is also maxing out. Digital revolution along with exotic materials are reaching the point of limits. Tech advancement, new materials, power and performance concentrations, and size performance are near limits. Scientist are dazzling us and mystifying with their claims but these are just more lies of theory being made to appear to be commercial. In the past this has allowed ever greater performance and efficiency. A great example is chips performance. Mores law is heralded as amazing but clearly near its climax.
This has driven economies to open doors to brittle resilience and camouflaged sustainability. These are doors that once gone through are closed. It is like getting on a ship without life boats so space can be saved for lounge chairs for viewing. Globalism is now dominated by delocalized nodes of narrow specialization, just-in-time manufacturing, monocultures, and long distance and heavy transport. These are all things that if one variable is in shortage, they all fail. Energy is a global commodity produced by this system so it is not only one of the variables it is only produced because of this system.
I have not given you any backup or facts for this. I am purposely doing this because I don’t have time but you have a wealth of resources at your fingertips so do some tapping. Keep in mind the bias of scientism where science is more political and deceptively a religion so policy will influence what science is considered true. Marketing and profit motive will push science deceptively too. What I am giving you is a healthy skepticism to doubt what the main stream wants you to believe to either sell you something or get you to invest your resources. They want you to feel safe not informed. When you approach an inflection of a nonlinear diminishing returns curve what you have is an accelerating acceleration. Time speeds up and results diminish rapidly. This is the true reality I am seeing and have seen now especially since 2005.
This is the time of real danger because humans want short term results and they have time value bias. This means they will not see the real picture of a building bifurcation as domains are extended out beyond a return to stability. Elasticity is lost and the result is a break to a new equilibrium. This is system language which is the only way this process can be thought through. It is so complex and complicated it must be reduced to abstract systems theory. This great engine of civilization is moving in its own time frame which is both faster and slower than normal human time. This means things are going to break sooner but others will last longer.
Humans are not wired for system time. I found this out when I had a radical doom conversion in 2005. Peak oil and the financial crisis came and went in 2005-2010. One must be very careful in reacting to this process or the reaction is worse than not doing enough. I overreacted and suffered financially but remember the financial crisis was almost a collapse. Also keep in mind the can was kicked down the road and now the payments are due as you can see with unsustainable debt, rising inflation, and the moral hazard of corrupt institutions of today. So, I was right just before my time.
REAL Green seeks to see this system time in a relative and realistic sense. Be yourself but be aware. See this with vision but live how you must because you are carbon trapped and path dependent being part of a society that sustains your life that is trapped. There is no transcending this you can only transform the trap. Carbon trapped is the nature of the high energy life we live and path dependent because of your nature and nurture. You were educated and have experience from a fossil fuel growth engine not a semi-nomadic hunter gatherer culture. You are trapped and only by having the awareness of the trap can it be transformed.
What you need to know as the individual is this human process, we call civilization, oscillates. It is not linear as we try to make it out to be with our elaborate history narratives that follow linear time frames. Even our language is 2 dimensional and abstract using terms and concepts to represent the non-linearity of life and the planet. Civilization is now in or near decline albeit on a systematic time frame humans have a hard time relating to because of dualism and linear fact patterning.
The planet’s systems like life, carbon, hydrologic, and nutrient systems are in abrupt change meaning the stability that humans need to produce food and run a global engine are forcing the system to bog down. Not only are fossil fuels running out but also other important resources. But there is also the situation of this system progressing so far that there is a limit to change. This limit to change is compounded by ecosystem destruction. The planet has been altered which means going back to pre-industrial and agricultural revolution is not possible without dramatic pain. Industry and agriculture are now linked directly. Food is energy too. Today food is industrial. Water is also an economic product now in regards to civilization. Water is industrial. The process is now in decline and at a nonlinear pace that is accelerating acceleration. Food and water so basic to life are now unsustainable industrial processes.
You the individual need to consider where you live and how you live if this even matters to you. I can’t tell you when this breakdown will hit nor where but I can show you bad behaviors that won’t survive this breakdown. I can tell you places without a future. I can point to places that are better. I can also tell you we can’t just walk back in time because of the consequences of activity that will be paid for just as smoking causes lung cancer and cancer kills.
What you need to consider is adaptation to this process in a relative and realistic way. By doing this you connect to this late-stage civilization and abruptly changing planet with degrowth doom. Before you can adapt you need to see these things do not add up. None of this adds up in an honest definition of sustainability. Most places are delocalized which means they are not resilient to the kinds of shocks building. Globalism makes delocalization sustainable and resilient as long as globalism is robust and growing. As long as there is trust in the system by billions of participants. Once this breaks down there is something called a Minsky moment when trust is gone and the engine stops. This is a plane crashing and no parachute.
I am telling you all this without facts, numbers, or footnoted theories. Common sense combined with education and experience will show this. You can do the research but when you do the research be careful to not be sucked in by your bias to be optimistic. This is why I preach pessimistic optimism. You understand things don’t add up but you find optimism in the meaning of it and you take action. That action for me is green pepping because what is greener is more prepped. Optimism is found in action that responds to the truth. The key to green prepping is physical and metaphysical. It is the proper balance of spirit and science. This discussion of energy would normally be strictly scientific by most sites. I add spirit because they must both be addressed to see each of them properly. Today there is an extreme separation of the two
You must embrace the wisdom of insecurity which is acceptance and humility of failure. The wisdom of less is recognizing stoic and ascetic living in response to the failing human narrative of progress. The key here is you have no choice but to use this failing human narrative and system to leave it into less. What this gives you is more meaning that is close to life’s way and further from the anti-life of the transhumanism of machines and the lies of this human Ponzi scheme that is global civilization.
This meaning is spiritual and it is what I would call approaching the truth. Truth is the ultimate value to a dualistic being in self-consciousness. This is about finding the proper scale and balance physically so you can balance metaphysically and with this you find naturalness. This naturalness is the way of the planet and if you can approach this the planet and life will support you in your efforts to live to die another day. You are a mortal life form that is here to live.
I am telling you this because I am an expert in green prepping. I have done a decade of focused investment. I have decades of education and experience. I can also tell you my middle-class life does not add up. All that I have done is not going to save me in many situations. There is no security so this is why I embrace the wisdom of insecurity as best I can. Keep in mind the truth and meaning that comes from this is not something I have and hold. My body and mind are in decline so eventually I may lose the truth through dementia and physical disabilities. I am now closer to the truth but before long I will be in a process of becoming a child again. This is if a tree does not fall on me and I die before my time. I see light but one day I may be in darkness. It is my hope I die in the truth but I accept dying in darkness.
I am embracing a life that is focused on less when I can. This is adapted with being realistic and relative in regards to people and place. I am embracing the planet and life and reducing man’s arrogance and anti-life tech but only where I can and to a degree my limits of change allow. That is as good as it gets. I am living to die another day. I am doing this in the warmth of the truth that is the light that shines from honesty and acceptance that there is ultimately not safety or security. Death will turn all to dust.
My message is for a few. These will be the leaders of the lifeboats. They will be the hospice nurses. If you are a sheeple enjoy life as best you can. If you did not understand what I just said and find it nutter then be yourself. You are just one of the flock blindly living the lie that is civilization. Real humanity is found closer to semi-nomadic hunting and gathering combined with permaculture agriculture. Real culture is more spoken than written but we must accept both because it is human nature to write down science and history with math and language. The culture found in small groups embedded in dynamic ecosystems is the grail of human life now rejected by techno power. Civilization was an aberration that comes with life’s frequent forays into evolution and devolution. Our modern civilization has been a planet shaking event little different than the cyanobacteria that brought on snowball earth.
If there is a universal intelligence that is not for us to know. It would dwell in the sacred. Humanity should stop the arrogance of seeking the deepest secrets of the universe and the building blocks of life. It is these actions killing us and destroying planetary stability. Forget travel to Mars. Instead, the truth is where we scale and balance properly in ecosystems of symbiotic support. If we are a species that causes succession then that is part of it. We disrupt so life can evolve but we can also destroy and that is where we are now.
Here are two great articles that support my above post. I have been following Resilience for 2 years now. Resilience is a great site although unfortunately it has recently gone woke leading to the diluting of the environmental message with social justice. These should be kept separate. Woke is based on lies and an elite hijacking in my opinion. Resilience is also populated by techno-optimist pushing renewables as a transition paradigm when I see it as a transformation to a power down of far less energy use.
The second article is from Our Finite World. I have been following Gail since the early 2000s. Gail and I have been coming to similar conclusions which to me is mutually supportive of an indication we are on the right track. Her discussion are technical and very useful support to mine which incorporates life systems. There are great graphs in both articles.
By B, originally published by The Honest Sorcerer
February 17, 2022
In my last two posts, I have highlighted how the depletion of once rich and abundant resources can have a potentially detrimental effect on this civilization. I’ve made the case that a transition to renewables does not stand up to scrutiny, and how a coming peak in copper production could hinder any efforts made at reaching Net Zero. I have concluded that, with peak oil most probably already behind us and with a looming peak in natural gas production, humanity is now facing peak energy — in fact peak everything — in the coming decade or two. What effect will this peak have on our complex societies? Is there a way to forgo this change? This will be the topic of this week’s post.
Increasing complexity was always a hallmark of civilizations. From rural villages to towns and empires, the development of societies always came at a cost of increased complexity. Anthropologist and historian Joseph Tainter has described this process and illustrated it with the story of many past civilizations in his seminal book the Collapse of Complex Societies.
According to the summary of his work, complexity can be recognized by:
numerous differentiated and specialized social and economic roles (bakers, shoemakers, jewelers, landlords etc.)
the many mechanisms through which these roles are coordinated (hierarchies)
the reliance on symbolic and abstract communication (writing, laws, accounting etc.)
the existence of a class of information producers and analysts who are not involved in primary resource production (clerks, lawyers, engineers etc.)
Following this definition above, the global techno-industrial society is the most complex civilization of all times. We are the pinnacle of social evolution! What could possibly go wrong…?
It’s important to note at this point, that increasing complexity has always been a way to get around “problems” instead of solving them, and not every society lived with this opportunity. In those cultures where it did occur, it came through as a necessity, from which no doubt many have benefited exceedingly. On the other hand, the process of ever increasing complexity has always been a sign of desperation and a major factor behind the fall of empires. Are we an exception to this rule?
According to Tainter, in modern industrial societies the cost of complexity is measured in energy and paid for by fossil fuels. What could illustrate this process more aptly than the green revolution in agriculture?
Let’s start by defining what was the problem we were trying to “solve”. By the middle of 20th century world population was growing exponentially, while the size of the planet apparently did not. We as a species have populated all habitable continents and started to reach, and in some places exceeded, the carrying capacity of the land. Soil fertility was already on the decline: there was an acute shortage of plant nutrients, primarily Nitrogen. Plants did not yield enough food. Something had to be done.
Modern bio-technology came to the rescue. A swathe of technologies were thrown at the apparent problem of “low yields”: chemical fertilizers from the Haber-Bosch process (made available by natural gas), herbicides and pesticides derived from oil, mechanization and long distance transport of produce via diesel fuel, irrigation powered by electricity (ultimately made available by fossil fuels), and new plant varieties producing better yields — relying completely on the previous three inventions to grow… It is needless to emphasize how complex agriculture has become as a result, and how it required ever higher inputs from fossil fuels. All this though has come at the cost of pollution, environmental degradation, species loss and climate change — now threatening the very results the green revolution has achieved.
Observe however, how the root cause of the problem, the underlying predicament of a finite planet’s inability to support unlimited population growth was not solved, but quite the contrary: has only been exacerbated. Now we are facing resource decline in a dangerously destabilized, massively overpopulated world — compared to the number of people the land could’ve support indefinitely without one-time inputs from fossil fuels and mineral phosphorus.
Another prime example, examined in detail last week, is mining. All throughout history we had to deploy ever more complex and energy intensive methods to get the next ton of metal, or next barrel of oil. We had to invent ever more complex machinery and methods — all coming at a cost of increased fossil fuel and electricity use… Thus driving up energy expenditure exponentially in return for an ever lower quality (1) energy carrier or ore. Again, the predicament of running out of cheap, easy to extract resources was not solved at all, but made worse by turning the process of extraction literally ‘a race to the bottom’ —at the cost of destroying the environment.
How long can we continue along these lines? What happens if we cannot? As we have seen, depleting resources demand an exponential increase in our efforts to obtain (the next step requiring substantially more work than the previous) — and thus none of them are exempt to Tainter’s other famous observation: diminishing returns. The problem here is that we humans tend to think in linear terms, while almost everything we do at a global scale have exponential results (2). Which is also true to the negative side-effects of technology: pollution, soil erosion, habitat loss, species extinction. These negative side effects tend to increase disproportionally with any additional use of technology, until the point they start yielding negative returns; i.e.: causing more harm than good.
It is very important to understand here, that no matter how worse the side-effects of technology-use get, turning back is not, and never was an option. The increase in complexity (and thus energy use) is a one way street. The population alive today have to be fed. The machines keeping this civilization functioning (providing electricity, healthcare, shelter, raw materials etc.) have to be powered constantly. Since we’ve built more and more of technology every year, their overall energy requirements only kept growing, despite efficiency gains made throughout the process.
Every increase in complexity has happened with a reason: we had a problem to “solve”. Now, there is no voluntary return to a prior, simpler state without the said problem raising its ugly head again. This is especially true to “problems” (or rather predicaments) related to depletion: you cannot go back mining copper with a pickax and a basket, as those easy to get resources are now long gone… and what remains requires huge, complex, energy hogging machines (not to mention the tons of water and the space needed to place those toxic tail-ponds). Sure, the efficiency of these machines could be improved still somewhat, but the next increase in energy demands (as a result of turning towards lower and lower ore grades) will nullify these results in a matter of years.
As long as we were able to increase energy availability at will there were almost no problems we could not “solve”. Using the metaphor of a rising tide in a harbor full of rocks: as long as water levels were getting higher, we could build ever bigger ships without hitting those pesky rocks. Now that the tide is turning and water levels are getting lower, we will experience problems not seen in a long time… Hidden from plain sight by a massive roll-out of technology and an ever increasing energy use.
There are natural limits to the human endeavor. Predicaments have a tendency of slowly getting worse over time and there is no limit to how gruesome they can become. So far we have “solved” the resulting problems by throwing more and more technologies, and as a result more and more energy at them, but there is a limit to that. As the very predicament of depleting finite resources start to affect energy production (either through fossil fuel depletion or a limit to copper or any other metal’s extraction), our very abilities to handle the problems caused by predicaments will start to wither.
Unless we admit that predicaments like ‘a finite planet’s inability to support unlimited growth or handle unlimited amounts of waste’ have no solutions to them, only outcomes, we will not be able to handle the situation. Only after accepting that there are hard limits has humanity a chance to change course and adopt to a drastically changing landscape. Whether we can do that, is question to be pondered…
Until next time,
Limits To Green Energy Are Becoming Much Clearer
SUNDAY, FEB 20, 2022 – 09:55 PM
We have been told that intermittent electricity from wind and solar, perhaps along with hydroelectric generation (hydro), can be the basis of a green economy. Things are increasingly not working out as planned, however. Natural gas or coal used for balancing the intermittent output of renewables is increasingly high-priced or not available. It is becoming clear that modelers who encouraged the view that a smooth transition to wind, solar, and hydro is possible have missed some important points.
Let’s look at some of the issues:
 It is becoming clear that intermittent wind and solar cannot be counted on to provide adequate electricity supply when the electrical distribution system needs them.
Early modelers did not expect that the variability of wind and solar would be a huge problem. They seemed to believe that, with the use of enough intermittent renewables, their variability would cancel out. Alternatively, long transmission lines would allow enough transfer of electricity between locations to largely offset variability.
In practice, variability is still a major problem. For example, in the third quarter of 2021, weak winds were a significant contributor to Europe’s power crunch. Europe’s largest wind producers (Britain, Germany and France) produced only 14% of installed capacity during this period, compared with an average of 20% to 26% in previous years. No one had planned for this kind of three-month shortfall.
In 2021, China experienced dry, windless weather so that both its generation from wind and hydro were low. The country found it needed to use rolling blackouts to deal with the situation. This led to traffic lights failing and many families needing to eat candle-lit dinners.
In Europe, with low electricity supply, Kosovo has needed to use rolling blackouts. There is real concern that the need for rolling blackouts will spread to other parts of Europe, as well, either later this winter, or in a future winter. Winters are of special concern because, then, solar energy is low while heating needs are high.
 Adequate storage for electricity is not feasible in any reasonable timeframe. This means that if cold countries are not to “freeze in the dark” during winter, fossil fuel backup is likely to be needed for many years in the future.
One workaround for electricity variability is storage. A recent Reuters’ article is titled, Weak winds worsened Europe’s power crunch; utilities need better storage. The article quotes Matthew Jones, lead analyst for EU Power, as saying that low or zero-emissions backup-capacity is “still more than a decade away from being available at scale.” Thus, having huge batteries or hydrogen storage at the scale needed for months of storage is not something that can reasonably be created now or in the next several years.
Today, the amount of electricity storage that is available can be measured in minutes or hours. It is mostly used to buffer short-term changes, such as the wind temporarily ceasing to blow or the rapid transition created when the sun sets and citizens are in the midst of cooking dinner. What is needed is the capacity for multiple months of electricity storage. Such storage would require an amazingly large quantity of materials to produce. Needless to say, if such storage were included, the cost of the overall electrical system would be substantially higher than we have been led to believe. All major types of cost analyses (including the levelized cost of energy, energy return on energy invested, and energy payback period) leave out the need for storage (both short- and long-term) if balancing with other electricity production is not available.
If no solution to inadequate electricity supply can be found, then demand must be reduced by one means or another. One approach is to close businesses or schools. Another approach is rolling blackouts. A third approach is to permit astronomically high electricity prices, squeezing out some buyers of electricity. A fourth balancing approach is to introduce recession, perhaps by raising interest rates; recessions cut back on demand for all non-essential goods and services. Recessions tend to lead to significant job losses, besides cutting back on electricity demand. None of these things are attractive options.
 After many years of subsidies and mandates, today’s green electricity is only a tiny fraction of what is needed to keep our current economy operating.
Early modelers did not consider how difficult it would be to ramp up green electricity.
Compared to today’s total world energy consumption (electricity and non-electricity energy, such as oil, combined), wind and solar are truly insignificant. In 2020, wind accounted for 3% of the world’s total energy consumption and solar amounted to 1% of total energy, using BP’s generous way of counting electricity, relative to other types of energy. Thus, the combination of wind and solar produced 4% of world energy in 2020.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) uses a less generous approach for crediting electricity; it only gives credit for the heat energy supplied by the renewable energy. The IEA does not show wind and solar separately in its recent reports. Instead, it shows an “Other” category that includes more than wind and solar. This broader category amounted to 2% of the world’s energy supply in 2018.
Hydro is another type of green electricity that is sometimes considered alongside wind and solar. It is quite a bit larger than either wind or solar; it amounted to 7% of the world’s energy supply in 2020. Taken together, hydro + wind + solar amounted to 11% of the world’s energy supply in 2020, using BP’s methodology. This still isn’t much of the world’s total energy consumption.
Of course, different parts of the world vary with respect to the share of energy created using wind, hydro and solar. Figure 1 shows the percentage of total energy generated by these three renewables combined.
Figure 1. Wind, solar and hydro as a share of total energy consumption for selected parts of the world, based on BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy data. Russia+ is Russia and its affiliates in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
As expected, the world average is about 11%. The European Union is highest at 14%; Russia+ (that is, Russia and its Affiliates, which is equivalent to the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States) is lowest at 6.5%.
 Even as a percentage of electricity, rather than total energy, renewables still comprised a relatively small share in 2020.
Wind and solar don’t replace “dispatchable” generation; they provide some temporary electricity supply, but they tend to make the overall electrical system more difficult to operate because of the variability introduced. Renewables are available only part of the time, so other types of electricity suppliers are still needed when supply temporarily isn’t available. In a sense, all they are replacing is part of the fuel required to make electricity. The fixed costs of backup electricity providers are not adequately compensated, nor are the costs of the added complexity introduced into the system.
If analysts give wind and solar full credit for replacing electricity, as BP does, then, on a world basis, wind electricity replaced 6% of total electricity consumed in 2020. Solar electricity replaced 3% of total electricity provided, and hydro replaced 16% of world electricity. On a combined basis, wind and solar provided 9% of world electricity. With hydro included as well, these renewables amounted to 25% of world electricity supply in 2020.
The share of electricity supply provided by wind, solar and hydro varies across the world, as shown in Figure 2. The European Union is highest at 32%; Japan is lowest at 17%.
Figure 2. Wind, solar and hydro as a share of total electricity supply for selected parts of the world, based on BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy data.
The “All Other” grouping of countries shown in Figure 2 includes many of the poorer countries. These countries often use quite a bit of hydro, even though the availability of hydro tends to fluctuate a great deal, depending on weather conditions. If an area is subject to wet seasons and dry seasons, there is likely to be very limited electricity supply during the dry season. In areas with snow melt, very large supplies are often available in spring, and much smaller supplies during the rest of the year.
Thus, while hydro is often thought of as being a reliable source of power, this may or may not be the case. Like wind and solar, hydro often needs fossil fuel back-up if industry is to be able to depend upon having electricity year-around.
 Most modelers have not understood that reserve to production ratios greatly overstate the amount of fossil fuels and other minerals that the economy will be able to extract.
Most modelers have not understood how the world economy operates. They have assumed that as long as we have the technical capability to extract fossil fuels or other minerals, we will be able to do so. A popular way of looking at resource availability is as reserve to production ratios. These ratios represent an estimate of how many years of production might continue, if extraction is continued at the same rate as in the most recent year, considering known resources and current technology.
Figure 3. Reserve to production ratios for several minerals, based on data from BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy.
A common belief is that these ratios understate how much of each resource is available, partly because technology keeps improving and partly because exploration for these minerals may not be complete.
In fact, this model of future resource availability greatly overstates the quantity of future resources that can actually be extracted. The problem is that the world economy tends to run short of many types of resources simultaneously. For example, World Bank Commodities Price Data shows that prices were high in January 2022 for many materials, including fossil fuels, fertilizers, aluminum, copper, iron ore, nickel, tin and zinc. Even though prices have run up very high, this is not an indication that producers will be able to use these high prices to extract more of these required materials.
In order to produce more fossil fuels or more minerals of any kind, preparation must be started years in advance. New oil wells must be built in suitable locations; new mines for copper or lithium or rare earth minerals must be built; workers must be trained for all of these areas. High prices for many commodities can be a sign of temporarily high demand, or it can be a sign that something is seriously wrong with the system. There is no way the system can ramp up needed production in a huge number of areas at once. Supply lines will break. Recession is likely to set in.
The problem underlying the recent spike in prices seems to be “diminishing returns.” Such diminishing returns affect nearly all parts of the economy simultaneously. For each type of mineral, miners produced the easiest-t0-extract materials first. They later moved on to deeper oil wells and minerals from lower grade ores. Pollution gradually grew, so, it too, needed greater investment. At the same time, world population has been growing, so the economy has required more food, fresh water and goods of many kinds; these, too, require the investment of resources of many kinds.
The problem that eventually hits the economy is that it cannot maintain economic growth. Too many areas of the economy require investment, simultaneously, because diminishing returns keeps ramping up investment needs. This investment is not simply a financial investment; it is an investment of physical resources (oil, coal, steel, copper, etc.) and an investment of people’s time.
The way in which the economy would run short of investment materials was simulated in the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth, by Donella Meadows and others. The book gave the results of a number of simulations regarding how the world economy would behave in the future. Virtually all of the simulations indicated that eventually the economy would reach limits to growth. A major problem was that too large a share of the output of the economy was needed for reinvestment, leaving too little for other uses. In the base model, such limits to growth came about now, in the middle of the first half of the 21st century. The economy would stop growing and gradually start to collapse.
 The world economy seems already to be reaching limits on the extraction of coal and natural gas to be used for balancing electricity provided by intermittent renewables.
Coal and natural gas are expensive to transport so, if they are exported, they primarily tend to be exported to countries that are nearby. For this reason, my analysis groups together exports and imports into large regions where trade is most likely to take place.
If we analyze natural gas imports by part of the world, two regions stand out as having the most out-of-region natural gas imports: Europe and Asia-Pacific. Figure 4 shows that Europe’s out-of region natural gas imports reached peaks in 2007 and 2010, after which they dipped. In recent years, Europe’s imports have barely surpassed their prior peaks. Asia-Pacific’s out-of-region imports have shown a far more consistent growth long-term growth pattern.
Figure 4. Natural gas imports in exajoules per year, based on data from on data from BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy.
The reason why Asia-Pacific’s imports have been growing is to support its growing manufacturing output. Manufacturing output has increasingly been shifted to the Asia-Pacific region, partly because this region can perform this manufacturing cheaply, and partly because rich countries have wanted to reduce their carbon footprint. Moving heavy industry abroad reduces a country’s reported CO2 generation, even if the manufactured items are imported as finished products.
Figure 5 shows that Europe’s own natural gas supply has been falling. This is a major reason for its import requirements from outside the region.
Figure 5. Europe’s natural gas production, consumption and imports based on data from BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy.
Figure 6, below, shows that Asia-Pacific’s total energy consumption per capita has been growing. The new manufacturing jobs transferred to this region have raised standards of living for many workers. Europe, on the other hand, has reduced its local manufacturing. Its people have tended to get poorer, in terms of energy consumption per capita. Service jobs necessitated by reduced energy consumption per capita have tended to pay less well than the manufacturing jobs they have replaced.
Figure 6. Energy consumption per capita for Europe compared to Asia-Pacific, based on data from BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy.
Europe has recently been having conflicts with Russia over natural gas. The world seems to be reaching a situation where there are not enough natural gas exports to go around. The Asia-Pacific Region (or at least the more productive parts of the Asia-Pacific Region) seems to be able to outbid Europe, when local natural gas supply is inadequate.
Figure 7, below, gives a rough idea of the quantity of exports available from Russia+ compared to Europe’s import needs. (In this chart, I compare Europe’s total natural gas imports (including pipeline imports from North Africa and LNG from North Africa) with the natural gas exports of Russia+ (to all nations, not just to Europe, including both by pipeline and as LNG)). On this rough basis, we find that Europe’s natural gas imports are greater than the total natural gas exports of Russia+.
Figure 7. Total natural gas imports of Europe compared to total natural gas exports from Russia+, based on data from BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy.
Europe is already encountering multiple natural gas problems. Its supply from North Africa is not as reliable as in the past. The countries of Russia+ are not delivering as much natural gas as Europe would like, and spot prices, especially, seem to be way too high. There are also pipeline disagreements. Bloomberg reports that Russia will be increasing its exports to China in future years. Unless Russia finds a way to ramp up its gas supplies, greater exports to China are likely to leave less natural gas for Russia to export to Europe in the years ahead.
If we look around the world to see what other sources of natural gas exports are available for Europe, we discover that the choices are limited.
Figure 8. Historical natural gas exports based on data from BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy. Rest of the world includes Africa, the Middle East and the Americas excluding the United States.
The United States is presented as a possible choice for increasing natural gas imports to Europe. One of the catches with growing natural gas exports from the United States is the fact that historically, the US has been a natural gas importer; it is not clear how much exports can rise above the 2022 level. Furthermore, part of US natural gas is co-produced with oil from shale. Oil from shale is not likely to be growing much in future years; in fact, it very likely will be declining because of depleted wells. This may limit the US’s growth in natural gas supplies available for export.
The Rest of the World category on Figure 8 doesn’t seem to have many possibilities for growth in imports to Europe, either, because total exports have been drifting downward. (The Rest of the World includes Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas excluding the United States.) There are many reports of countries, including Iraq and Turkey, not being able to buy the natural gas they would like. There doesn’t seem to be enough natural gas on the market now. There are few reports of supplies ramping up to replace depleted supplies.
With respect to coal, the situation in Europe is only a little different. Figure 9 shows that Europe’s coal supply has been depleting, and imports have not been able to offset this depletion.
Figure 9. Europe’s coal production, consumption and imports, based on data from BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy.
If a person looks around the world for places to get more imports for Europe, there aren’t many choices.
Figure 10. Coal production by part of the world, based on data from BP’s 2021 Statistical Review of World Energy.
Figure 10 shows that most coal production is in the Asia-Pacific region. With China, India and Japan located in the Asia-Pacific Region, and high transit costs, this coal is unlikely to leave the region. The United States has been a big coal producer, but its production has declined in recent years. It still exports a relatively small amount of coal. The most likely possibility for increased coal imports would be from Russia and its affiliates. Here, too, Europe is likely to need to outbid China to purchase this coal. A better relationship with Russia would be helpful, as well.
Figure 10 shows that world coal production has been essentially flat since 2011. A country will only export coal that it doesn’t need itself. Thus, a shortfall in export capability is an early warning sign of inadequate overall supply. With the economies of many Asia-Pacific countries still growing rapidly, demand for coal imports is likely to grow for this region. While modelers may think that there is close to 150 years’ worth of coal supply available, real-world experience suggests that coal limits are being reached already.
 Conclusion. Modelers and leaders everywhere have had a basic misunderstanding of how the economy operates and what limits we are up against. This misunderstanding has allowed scientists to put together models that are far from the situation we are actually facing.
The economy operates as an integrated whole, just as the body of a human being operates as an integrated whole, rather than a collection of cells of different types. This is something most modelers don’t understand, and their techniques are not equipped to deal with.
The economy is facing many limits simultaneously: too many people, too much pollution, too few fish in the ocean, more difficult to extract fossil fuels and many others. The way these limits play out seems to be the way the models in the 1972 book, The Limits to Growth, suggest: They play out on a combined basis. The real problem is that diminishing returns leads to huge investment needs in many areas simultaneously. One or two of these investment needs could perhaps be handled, but not all of them, all at once.
The approach of modelers, practically everywhere, is to break down a problem into small parts, and assume that each part of the problem can be solved independently. Thus, those concerned about “Peak Oil” have been concerned about running out of oil. Finding substitutes seemed to be important. Those concerned about climate change were convinced that huge amounts of fossil fuels remain to be extracted, even more than the amounts indicated by reserve to production ratios. Their concern was finding substitutes for the huge amount of fossil fuels that they believed remained to be extracted, which could cause climate change.
Politicians could see that there was some sort of huge problem on the horizon, but they didn’t understand what it was. The idea of substituting renewables for fossil fuels seemed to be a solution that would make both Peak Oilers and those concerned about climate change happy. Models based on the substitution of renewables for fossil fuels seemed to please almost everyone. The renewables approach suggested that we have a very long timeframe to deal with, putting the problem off, as long into the future as possible.
Today, we are starting to see that renewables are not able to live up to the promise modelers hoped they would have. Exactly how the situation will play out is not entirely clear, but it looks like we will all have front row seats in finding out.