Friday, May 25, 2007

Three Cornered Ghost

Gas, oil and coal form ghostly triangles in a number of ways. Our necromancy for one affects our necromancy for the other two: as gas becomes harder to come by, we turn to coal, for example. Or, when the body count begins to rise in our efforts to secure oil supplies, thoughts again turn to coal.

There is one particular triangle that turns out to be very important and that is the shape of an oil fields production with time. When an oil field is discovered, its production increases as more and more wells are drilled to draw it out of its grave. But once one of these wells run dry, the rest soon follow and there a steep drop in production. This triangular shape forms the basis for an analysis which looks at the rate of discovery of oil fields to estimate future production integrated over all oil fields. Oil is the easiest (and most dangerous) of the three to transport so people generally look at the world supply in this case while local supplies are more important for the other two. The analysis of oil production is made difficult because oil companies tend to lie about what they have discovered to boost their share prices but it is thought that oil production has already reached its apex or soon will.

It is usually assumed that, at some expense, declining gas and oil supplies can be replaced by coal because there are centuries of reserves. Even George Monbiot, in his new book Heat makes this assumption though perhaps his goal of reducing energy use is reason enough to leave this unexamined. A new look at the available data throws this assumption into question. Using the same sort of predictive modeling that has been applied oil production, it could be that coal production will peak in fifteen years.

Richard Heinberg of the Post Carbon Institute gives an interesting summary and analysis of the report. Here, I want to look at its very suprising contention that coal production in the US has already peaked in terms of energy extracted.

Coal comes in various grades. The best, anthracite, contains the most energy and is the cleanest burning. Advertisers, attempting to displace a cleaner, more efficient and pleasant alternative used to say that a lady's dress would stay ghost white on a train ride through New York because the engine burned anthracite. Advertising is usually needed to get people to choose something so deadly.

Until recently the cost of coal in terms of mining deaths in the US has been declining owing to better regulation and, while the total mining deaths since 1900 still out number the oil war deaths, the numbers are becoming comparable. Grades of coal below anthracite are progressively softer and yield less energy. As can be seen in the last link, the number of miners has been growing recently (figures in include office workers) and, as might be expected, the amount of coal produced is also increasing, but what the German report says is that the amount of energy being produced from all this dangerous effort is going down. This is because softer coal is replacing harder coal. So, getting the number of mining deaths declining again is going to take a great deal of effort since more and more miners will be needed to mine more and more coal of lesser quality to just keep even on energy production.

It is not clear that the analysis applied to oil production works in just the same way for coal. In terms of energy extraction, the US is past its peak production for oil (1970s), gas (this decade) and now coal. But, whereas no amount extra fiddling gets an oil field to produce what is once did after it starts to decline, extra money could make coal production increase. We just have to pay more miners for less energy per miner as we have already begun to do. But, one thing looks to be similar, the cost in money should increase for coal just as it has for gas and schemes to replace gas or oil with coal will be more expensive as the trend towards less productive mining continues.

The triangles of ghost energy lead inevitably to disappointment. The shape of real energy is completely different. Striving is rewarded evermore richly as we hone our skills in participating in it. Costs come down as our efforts increase, reaching a sustainable plateau that is not set by some fixed lower limit on cost per unit energy but rather by what we will find satisfactory.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


A common characteristic of bio-fuels is that their feedstock is squeezed, mashed, pressed, shredded or otherwise processed to get the juice out. I used to live next door to a cane plantation in Hawaii and we'd end up with sticks of cane to chew from time to time as a treat. Even bio-gas from manure is twice chewed grass. There is quite a lot of work that goes into making bio-fuels.

The reason all this effort might be worth it is that liquid (or gas) fuels are pretty convenient to use in machines with automated power control. Furnaces are run by thermostats so you don't have to build a fire early in the morning when you first wake up. Car engines respond quickly to the accelerator rather than waiting for a head of stream from a boiler. Gas stoves heat right up rather than waiting for a wood fire to light. Pellet stoves are an attempted compromise, getting the fuel to flow by using smaller pieces, and hauling the sacks of pellets might be an adequate substitute for the swing of the splitting maul for those who like a bit if ruggedness, but pellets still don't flow through a pump.

Liquid fuels are easier to control as they burn, leading to higher efficiency engines and lower pollution with the addition of catalytic converters which would be poisoned by low temperature combustion products.

On Monday, I went to a conference that was mostly about how to divvy up the work of juicing the various feedstocks so that it would make sense to use these potentially real energy sources instead of ghost energy sources. The conference was organized by the Maryland Secretary of State's office as part of a sister state program with Brazil's Rio de Janeiro state that has been ongoing for a number of years. Brazil has the greatest experience with biofuels and so there was quite a lot to learn from the attendees from there.

The first presentation was given by Paulo de Sousa Coutinho of Brazil Ecodiesel. This presentation was impressive and I'm just going to steal figures from it to give an idea of the thought and planning that has gone into this effort. So, let's take the Energy Balance figures he gave:

Corn (US) 1.3
Beet (EU) 1.9
Cane (Brazil) 8.3
Soy (US) 1.9
Rapeseed (EU) 3.0
Sunflower (EU) 3.2
Castor bean (Brazil) 10.5

Now, Energy Balance is being used in a particular way here. It is the ratio of real energy out to ghost energy in. So, if it takes just as much energy from natural gas to produce the fertilizer for an energy crop as you get out in energy, then the value would be one. Now, let me say that some at the conference calculated the value for gasoline to be about 0.7, less than one, and this use does not make a lot of sense because there is no real energy out in the case of gasoline, but perhaps this was just an illustration assuming the numerator was nonzero. In any case, the numbers can be changed in the denominator as well by including more real energy in the production process. De Sousa Coutinho made this point rather dramatically when he pointed out that as soon as ethanol can be used instead of methanol for transesterification of plant oil to biodiesel, then the Energy Balance for their castor bean feedstock shoots up to 40. Similarly, for corn, which is very nitrogen hungry, substituting solar fertilizer production would raise its rather low value. Part of Brazil's high numbers are owing to their advances in real energy. Their farm equipment runs partly on ethanol for example. They are also planning for efficient use by spreading production of biodiesel across Brazil in close cooperation with unions. They expect 100,000 farmers this year. With more and more real energy bootstrapping all of these numbers head to infinity as the denominators go to zero. Since real energy is free, anything that has a positive (real) net energy gain should be fine.

Or should it?

While real energy just makes sense and we'll laugh at ourselves for our flirtation with ghost energy as one of our greatest follies, let us not forget that we are being pushed back to sanity by a crisis. We are stressing the ecosystem that sustains us, and we don't have a lot of room to make mistakes just now. If we make liquid fuels too high of a priority, we can make mistakes that may not be at all easy to recover from. Both de Sousa Coutinho and Alfred Szwarc, who presented next on ethanol in Brazil, emphasized the sustainability of their efforts and particularly that neither castor beans nor sugarcane are grown where the rain forest areas are. Why is this a sensitive topic? In part because EU demand for biodiesel has led the the deforestation of rain forests to produce palm oil and this causes much more carbon dioxide emission than using ghost energy because the peat in the soil rots. Oops....

There was another area of discomfort at the conference: $4/bushel corn. May people were quick to say its about time and this can't have anything to do with the price of tortillas. People were quick to point out that an extra $50 a year in grocery costs were nothing compared to the high gas prices we're seeing.

This is spin. High corn prices and high tortilla prices are related in a fundamental way and saying someone else is worse (OPEC) is not saying what you are doing is good. There are big problems with low corn prices but they are based on some pretty ancient wisdom: in Genesis 41 skinny cows eat up fat cows. Ensuring a surplus of grain avoids famine and surpluses mean low prices in a market economy. If we are seeing higher corn prices, we need to look to see if our policy for avoiding famine is still working.

In any case, Maryland seems like a good place to grow energy crops and it was interesting that barley came up at the environmental breakout session. This is a winter cover crop so it hardly seems like it is competing for food production. In Maryland, what we are really missing is our huge oyster harvest, the shells of which happen to sequester permanently about 30% of the carbon dioxide emission from cars in Maryland when it is at historic productivity. At this session Tom Simpson from UMD spoke on the impacts of bio-fuels on water quality and especially what fertilizer does to the Chesapeake Bay. You have to be smart about this kind of thing but I do wonder what oyster oil smells like run through a diesel engine?

Some people like their oyster raw
To feel it slither down their craw
I prefer my oyster juiced
To get the temperature reduced.

With apologies to Roy Blount Jr.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007


There is a great deal of panic going on with regard to ghost energy because of estimates that the growth in our grave robbing can't continue. The idea is that we will want more and more of the deathly diet of coal, oil and gas but the amount we can disinterre per year will not increase so that an economic law will put prices so high that civilization will collapse.

This is sometimes clothed in biological language that comes from the application of differential equations to the study of (non-human) population dynamics. Terms like overshoot, carrying capacity and overpopulation get bandied about without even a hint that clear thinkers have understood for quite some time that the use of the term surplus applied to people reflects more on the shriveled soul and lack of education of the speaker than on the situation at hand. It is as if the contradictions of Jeremy Bentham's support for both the abolition of slavery and the punitive workhouse have not been outgrown. The power of ghosts is enormous until we learn to laugh at them.

So, what is so ridiculous about thinking there is such a thing as overpopulation or overshoot. Why are these over-the-top?

Population dynamics modeling is a fine example of the use of coupled differential equations. Set up a situation, say foxes and rabbits on an island, or goats and grass on an island, enter a rate at which rabbits or grass increase and a rate at which an individual fox of goat consumes rabbits or grass. Then, let the equations run. At first the rabbits multiply because there are not enough foxes but then fox kits increase and there are too many foxes for the number of rabbits and both populations crash until there are not enough foxes and rabbits multiply again. This oscillation comes from the lag in the response of the fox population to the increase in the rabbit population. With the goats, everyone likes to add an additional factor like erosion. Then the goats multiply until there is not enough grass, both populations crash and the recovery of the grass is reduced owing to the erosion so that on the next cycle the goat population does not rise so high and so on.

Here we see an illustration of overshoot: the fox population continues to grow beyond the number of available rabbits, an illustration of carrying capacity: the grass can only support so many goats, and an illustration of carrying capacity degradation: erosion leads to less grass so the goat population can never rise so high again. It is a little hard to pin down the term overpopulation here since it is really a value judgement. The populations are what they are in these kinds of models. Should we say that there is an underpopulation of foxes when the model first starts out? From the rabbit's point of view that would seem foolish. Rabbits don't usually chew up the roots (except for carrots) so they would be just fine without the foxes reaching a stable population. Overshoot is just a mathematical term to describe ringing in oscillating systems, but somehow it implies blame when we start talking about ourselves.

Now, here is something to understand about differential equations: they like boundary conditions. In these examples, we have islands and this is what makes the whole thing go. Without the island, if foxes eat up most of the rabbits, they won't usually stick around so they won't experience a population crash. Goats also are known for wandering in their foraging. The idea of carrying capacity is really strongly based on the idea of boundary conditions. This time the island is the whole Earth. The ecology, as it is, may only support so many humans. What if goats decided to practice soil conservation and improvement? What if they enhanced the amount of grass for food by realizing that they could produce energy more efficiently with a wind mill, build a seven story greenhouse with artificial light powered with wind, used that for food and leave the rest of the grass on the island alone?

All of a sudden, it is not an island but an open system with plenty of free (real) energy.

The concept of the artificial boundary condition was defeated in World War II. The idea of lebensraum was replaced by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our reliance on ghost energy makes some of us regress to the old way of thinking because we start thinking it terms of scarcity, but the truth is that the amount of ghost energy we use is minuscule compared to the amount of real energy that is available. With this real energy we are able to support and enhance the ecosystem. We have no idea what the Earth's ecosystem's carrying capacity can be because we have not really begun to apply our creativity to nurturing it. We should know that it is vast because even our feeble, ghost energy using, and short sighted efforts have had a tremendous effect already. Thus, we have every reason to welcome, as an infinite blessing, every new person who might bring their new creativity to helping with this and honoring every person who brings their wisdom along to a riper age who can help in guiding our newest people.

Surplus Population? Bah Humbug!

Friday, May 4, 2007

Act Three: ACT!

We have been following the releases of the summaries for policymakers in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Executive Summary and Doom below) as though a play in three acts.

Act One: the scene is set, the villain, carbon, is shown in his evil lair, his plots already hatching.

Act Two: Carbon's plots are revealed, the deaths, the tyranny, the destruction already among us and bound to grow worse.

Now, Act Three: The hero raises his sword and what? Who let all these economists in?

The dismal science dominates this report and it is very heavily ladened with GDPs, sectors, carbon prices and mitigation potentials. Nowhere does the word "prosperity" appear in the report even though this is what it points to; talk about dismal. Let's see if we can make sense of it: The basic idea is that by increasing the price for carbon emissions, you reduce them. So, what will the impact of this be on economic activity? As it turns out, there is little downside and in some models economic activity is increased (more jobs at better pay). As we saw in the last post the green numbers look very very good. The choice is now clear even if the report is a little hard to read. Reduce carbon emissions and improvements in energy security, pollution, technological base and improved health follow in such a way that reducing emissions to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere seems almost secondary.

So, stabilization can be accomplished by just doing it. No one is going to die from doing it and most people will live better as a result. Let's act and no longer let fear of economic bogeymen keep us in the pathos of indecision.