#153. One for the sceptics


We need to be rather careful about the term “opinion is divided”.

When English league champions Manchester City were drawn to play fourth-tier minnows Newport County in the F.A. Cup, the opinions of football-watchers over the expected outcome probably were “divided” – but only in the sense that, whilst 99% expected the giants to win, only 1% hoped (in vain, as it turned out) for a miracle.

The same caution should apply to any claim that informed opinion is “divided” over the threat to the environment. Even if you’re not convinced by the concept of climate change, or of human activity as one of its main causes, you’d struggle to dismiss species extinction, water supply exhaustion, land degradation, desertification, melting glaciers or simple pollution as figments of the imagination.

We don’t, after all, have to assume that absolutely everything ever stated by ‘the establishment’ or the mainstream media is a pack of porky-pies, even if quite a lot of it is.

There’s one point, though, which really does need to be addressed. This is the widespread assumption that environmental and economic objectives are opposed, and that tackling environmental imperatives will have an economic “cost”.

This is a wholly false dichotomy. Far from ensuring ‘business as usual’, continued reliance on fossil fuel energy would have devastating economic consequences. As is explained here, the world economy is already suffering from these effects, and these have prompted the adoption of successively riskier forms of financial manipulation in a failed effort to sustain economic ‘normality’.

If you take just one point from this discussion, it should be that a transition to sustainable forms of energy is every bit as important from an economic as from an environmental imperative.

“What if?” A contrarian hypothesis

To explain this, what follows begins from a hypothetical basis that ‘there’s no truth in the story of man-made climate damage’.

Just for the moment, I’d like you to suspend your disbelief – as, writing this, I’ve had to suspend mine – and adopt the starting position that human activity, and in particular our use of energy, isn’t threatening the planet.

If they were of this persuasion, what conclusions might be reached by decision-makers in government and business?

It’s probable that, stripped of the environmental imperative, the case for transitioning our supplies of energy, away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources such as solar and wind power, would either be dismissed altogether, or watered down to the point of irrelevance.

Even as things stand, efforts to transition to sustainable sources of energy are faltering.

Once persuaded that we could do so safely, there would be considerable support – reinforced by the human traits of self-interest, conservatism and inertia – for taking a “business as usual” approach, in which oil, gas and coal remained, as they are now, the source of fourth-fifths of the energy that we consume.

From this start-point, a great deal of inconvenience could be prevented. We wouldn’t need to change our practices, or our way of life. We could carry on travelling in gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicles. Holidaying abroad would remain an activity with a future. We needn’t expend huge sums in plastering our countryside with wind turbines and solar panels. We’d be likely to abandon vastly-expensive, technically unproven plans to switch over almost entirely to EVs (electric vehicles), confining them instead to marginal urban use. By heading off the need for drastic increases in power supply, this in turn would make it easier for industry to keep on coming up with new products and processes (like drones and robotics) which call for increases in our use of electricity.

In short, in a purely hypothetical situation in which it could be proved that the environmental activists were wrong, there’d be a huge collective sigh of relief, from government, business and the general public alike. Few people, after all, really like change and disruption.

The energy reality of the economy

What has to be emphasized – indeed, it cannot be stressed too strongly – is that, even if it were environmentally safe to carry on relying on fossil fuels, doing so could be expected to cripple the economy within, at most, twenty-five years.

Indeed, the process of economic deterioration is already well under way.

That this is not generally understood results primarily from the mistaken view that the economy is ‘a financial system’.

It has long been traditional for us to think of the economy in this way. This, in part, is a legacy of the founders of economics, men like Adam Smith, David Ricardo and James Mill. They established what are called the “laws” of economics from a financial perspective. They demonstrated the way in which the pricing process determines supply and demand. Specifically, they contended that, if there’s a shortage of something, the solution is to raise its price, thereby encouraging increased supply. All of their work, then, was expressed in the notation of money.

We should be in no doubt that these founding fathers of economic interpretation have bequeathed us invaluable lessons, of which none is more important than the role of free, fair and uncluttered competition in promoting economic progress. The successors to the early pioneers have added new economic interpretations, of course, but almost all of these are money-based theories, which perpetuate the idea that the economy is a financial system.

But the founders of classical economics lived in a world totally different to that of today. Smith died in 1790, Ricardo in 1823, and Mill in 1836, and even Mill’s son, John Stuart passed away in 1873, which was 99 years before the publication of The Limits To Growth. In their era, there was little or no reason for anyone (other than the maverick Thomas Malthus) to think about physical limitations, still less of the environmental issues that have entered our consciousness over the last twenty-five years or so.

They were right to state that higher prices can stimulate the supply of shoes or beer – but no increase in price can conjure forth new, giant and low-cost oil fields where these do not exist.

There can be few, if any, other matters of twenty-first-century importance which are tackled on the basis of eighteenth-century precepts. Neither, logically considered, is there any reason for clinging on to monetary interpretations of the economy.

If, as in fig. 1, we look at the relationship between, on the one hand, global population numbers (and related economic activity), and, on the other, the use of energy, we can see an unanswerable case for linking the two. It’s no coincidence at all that the exponential upturn in the world’s population took off at the same time that, thanks to James Watt’s 1776  invention of the first effective heat-engine, we learned how to harness the vast energy potential contained in fossil fuels.

Not just the size of the world economy, but its prosperity and complexity, too, are products of the Prometheus unleashed by Watt and his fellow inventors.

Fig. 1.

Population and energy

Moreover, observation surely tells us that literally everything that constitutes the ‘real’ economy of goods and services relies entirely on energy. Without energy supplies, the economy would grind to a halt, and the society built on it would disintegrate.

After all, if you were adrift in a lifeboat in mid-Atlantic, and a passing aircraft dropped you a huge pile of banknotes, but no water or food, you’d soon realize that money has no intrinsic worth, but commands value only in terms of the things for which it can be exchanged.

Money, then, acts simply as a claim on the products of an economy which, itself, is an energy system.

The cost component

Anyone who understands the energy basis of the economy knows that the supply of energy is never cost-free, though the relevant measure of cost needs to be stated in energy rather than financial terms. Drilling a well, digging a mine, building a refinery or laying a pipeline requires the use of energy inputs, as, for that matter, does installing a wind-turbine or a solar panel, or constructing an electricity distribution grid.

This divides the aggregate of available energy into two streams – the energy which has to be consumed in providing a continuity of energy supply, and the remaining (“surplus”) energy which powers all other economic activity.

The cost component is known here as the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE). This is the critical determinant of the ability of surplus energy to drive economic activity. Low ECoEs provide a large surplus on which to build prosperity, but rising ECoEs erode this surplus, making us poorer.

Further investigation reveals that, where fossil fuels are concerned, four factors determine the level of ECoE.

One of these is geographic reach – by extending its operations from its origins in Pennsylvania to places as far afield as the Middle East and Alaska, the oil industry lowered ECoE by finding new, low-cost sources of supply.

A second is economies of scale – a plant handling 300,000 b/d (barrels per day) of oil is a lot more cost-efficient than one handling only 30,000 b/d.

Now, though, the maturity of the oil, gas and coal industries is such that the benefits of scale and reach have arrived at their limits. This is where the third factor steps in to determine ECoE – and that factor is depletion.

What depletion means is that the lowest-cost sources of any energy resource are used first, leaving costlier alternatives for later.

The crux of our current predicament is that ‘later’ has now arrived. There are no new huge, low-cost sources of oil, gas or coal waiting to be developed.

From here on, ECoEs rise.

To be sure, advances in technology can mitigate the rise in ECoEs, but technology is limited by the physical properties of the resource. Advances in techniques have reduced the cost of shale liquids extraction to levels well below the past cost of extracting those same resources, but have not turned America’s tight sands into the economic equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s al Ghawar, or other giant discoveries of the past.

Physics does tend to have the last word.

Unravelling economic trends

Once we understand the processes involved, we can see recent economic history in a wholly new way. The narrative since the late 1990s can be summarised, very briefly, as follows.

According to SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – world trend ECoE rose from 2.9% in 1990 to 4.1% in 2000. This increase was more than enough to stop Western prosperity growth in its tracks.

Unfortunately, a policy establishment accustomed to seeing all economic developments in purely financial terms was at a loss to explain this phenomenon, though it did give it a name – “secular stagnation”.

Predictably, in the absence of an understanding of the energy basis of the economy, recourse was made to financial policies in order to ‘fix’ this slowdown in growth.

The first such initiative was credit adventurism. It involved making debt easier to obtain than ever before. This approach was congenial to a contemporary mind-set which saw ‘deregulation’ as a cure for all ills.

The results, of course, were predictable enough. Expressed in PPP-converted dollars at constant 2018 values, the world economy grew by 36% between 2000 and 2008, adding $26.8 trillion to recorded GDP. Unfortunately, though, debt escalated by $61.5tn over the same period, meaning that $2.30 had been borrowed for each $1 of “growth”. At the same time, risk proliferated, and became progressively more opaque. Excessive debt and diffuse risk led directly to the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC).

With depressing inevitability, the authorities once again responded financially, this time adding monetary adventurism to the credit variety that had created the GFC. In defiance of a minority who favoured letting market forces work through to their natural conclusions (and who probably were right), the authorities opted for ZIRP (zero interest rate policy). They implemented it by slashing policy rates to all-but-zero, simultaneously driving market rates down by using newly-created money to buy up the prices of bonds.

This policy bailed out reckless borrowers and rescued imprudent lenders, but did so at a horrendous price. Since 2008, we’ve been adding debt at the rate of $3.10 for each $1 of “growth”. The proper functioning of the market economy has been crippled by the distortions of monetary manipulation. The essential regenerative process of ‘creative destruction’ has been stopped in its tracks by policies which have allowed ‘zombie’ companies to stay afloat. Asset prices have soared to stratospheric levels, supported by a tide of debt which can never be repaid, and can be serviced only on the assumption of perpetual injections of negatively-priced credit. The collapse in returns on invested capital has blown a gigantic hole in pension provision. As the Federal Reserve is in the process of discovering, no route exists for a restoration of monetary normality. We are, in short, stuck with monetary adventurism until it reaches its point of termination.

The relentless rise of ECoE   

Back in the real economy, meanwhile, ECoEs keep rising. SEEDS calculates that global trend ECoE has risen from 4.1% in 2000, and 5.6% in 2008 (the year of the GFC), to 8.1% now. Critically, the upwards trajectory of ECoE has become exponential, with each incremental increase bigger than the one before.

As this trend has progressed, prosperity has turned downwards, initially in the advanced economies of the West.

To understand this process, we need first to look behind GDP figures which have been inflated by the simple spending of borrowed money. In the decade since 2008, an increase of $34tn in world GDP has been accompanied by a $106tn surge in debt. What this means is that most of the reported “growth” in GDP has been bogus. Rates of apparent “growth” would slump to, at best, 1.5% if we stopped pouring in new credit, and would go into reverse if we ever tried to deleverage the world’s balance sheet.

Once we’ve established the underlying rate of growth – as a “clean” measure of GDP which excludes the effects of credit injection – we can apply ECoE to see what’s really been happening to prosperity.

In the West, people have been getting poorer over an extended period. Prosperity per capita has fallen by 7.2% in the United States since 2005, and by 11.3% in Britain since 2003. Deterioration in most Euro Area economies has been happening for even longer. Not even resource-rich countries like Canada or Australia have been exempt. As an aside, this process of impoverishment, often exacerbated by taxation, can be linked directly to the rise of insurgent political movements sometimes labelled “populist”.

The process which links rising ECoE to falling prosperity is illustrated in figs. 2 and 3. In America, prosperity per person turned down when ECoE hit 5.5%, whereas the weaker British economy started to deteriorate at an ECoE of just 3.4%.

Fig. 2 & 3.

EcoE & prosp US UK

World average prosperity per capita has declined only marginally since 2007, essentially because deterioration in the West has been offset by continued progress in the emerging market (EM) economies. This, though, is nearing its point of inflexion, with clear evidence now showing that the Chinese economy, in particular, is in very big trouble.

As you’d expect, these trends in underlying prosperity have started showing up in ‘real world’ indicators, with trade in goods, and sales of everything from cars and smartphones to computer chips and industrial components, now turning down. As the economy of “stuff” weakens, a logical consequence is likely to be a deterioration in demand for the energy and other commodities used in the supply of “stuff”.

Simply stated, the economy has now started to shrink, and there are limits to how long we can hide this from ourselves by spending ever larger amounts of borrowed money.

Safe to continue?

Let’s revert now to our hypothetical situation in which, unconcerned about the environment, we remain resolutely committed to an economy powered by fossil fuels.

The critical question becomes that of what then happens to the economy moving forwards.

Unfortunately, the ECoEs of fossil fuels will keep rising. SEEDS puts the combined ECoE of fossil fuels today at 10.7%, a far cry from the level in 2008 (6.5%), let alone 1998 (4.2%). Projections show fossil fuel ECoEs hitting 12.5% by 2024, and 14.5% by 2030.

For context, SEEDS studies indicate that, in the advanced economies of the West, prosperity turns down once ECoEs reach a range between 3.5% and 5.5%. Because of their lesser complexity, EM countries enjoy greater ability to cope with rising ECoEs, but even they have their limits. SEEDS analysis identifies an ECoE band of between 8% and 10% within which EM prosperity turns down. Sure enough, China’s current travails coincide with an ECoE which hit 8.7% last year, and is projected to rise from 9.0% in 2019 to 10.0% by 2025. A similar climacteric looms for South Korea  (see figs. 4 & 5).

Figs. 4 & 5

EcoE & prosp CH KOR

In short, then, continued reliance on fossil fuels would condemn the world economy to levels of ECoE which would destroy prosperity.

Hidden behind increasingly desperate (and dangerous) financial manipulation, the world as a whole has been getting poorer since ECoE hit 5.5% in 2007. As more of the EM economies hit the “downturn zone” (ECoEs of 8-10%), the so-far-gradual impoverishment of the average person worldwide can be expected to accelerate.

After that, various adverse consequences start to impact the system. The financial structure cannot be expected to cope with much more of the strain induced by denial-driven manipulation. The political and geopolitical consequences of worsening prosperity, exacerbated perhaps by competition for resources, can be left to the imagination. Economic systems dependent on high rates of capacity utilization can be expected to fail.

This, then, is the grim outlook for a world continuing to rely on fossil fuels. Even if this continued reliance on oil, gas and coal won’t destroy the environment, it can be expected, with very high levels of probability, to wreck the economy.

Even as things stand today, the energy industries seem almost to have stopped trying to keep up. Capital investment in energy, stated at constant 2018 values, was 20% lower last year (at $1.59tn) than it was back in 2014 ($2tn), and is not remotely sufficient to provide continuity of supply. Even shale investment only keeps going courtesy of investors and lenders who are prepared to support “cash-burning” companies.

Critically, what this means is that the supposed conflict between environmental imperatives, on the one hand, and economic (“cost”) considerations, on the other, is a wholly false dichotomy.

For the economy, no less than for the environment, there is a compelling case for transition. But the implications of the future trend in ECoEs go a lot further than that.

As the ECoEs of fossil fuels have risen inexorably, those of renewable alternatives have fallen steadily. It is projected by SEEDS that these will intersect within the next two to three years, after which renewables will be “cheaper” (in ECoE terms) than their fossil alternatives.

At this point, it would be comforting to assume that, as the ECoEs of renewables keep falling, and the extent of their use increases, we can make a relatively painless transition.

Unfortunately, there are at least three factors which make any such assumption dangerously complacent.

First, we need to guard against the extrapolatory fallacy which says that, because the ECoE of renewables has declined by x% over y number of years, it will fall by a further x% over the next y. The problem with this is that it ignores the limits imposed by the laws of physics.

Second, renewable sources of energy remain substantially derivative of fossil fuels inputs. At present, we can only construct wind turbines, solar panels and their associated infrastructure by using energy sourced from fossil fuels.  Until and unless this can be overcome, sources termed ‘renewable’ might better be described as ‘secondary applications of primary energy from fossil fuels’.

Third, and perhaps most disturbing of all, there can be no assurance that the ECoE of a renewables-based energy system can ever be low enough to sustain prosperity. Back in the ‘golden age’ of prosperity growth (in the decades immediately following 1945), global ECoE was between 1% and 2%. With renewables, the best that we can hope for might be an ECoE stable at perhaps 8%, far above the levels at which prosperity deteriorates in the West, and ceases growing in the emerging economies.

Policy, reality and the false dichotomy

These cautions do not, it must be stressed, undermine the case for transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables. After all, once we understand the energy processes which drive the economy, we know where continued dependency on ever-costlier fossil fuels would lead.

There can, of course, be no guarantees around a successful transition to renewable forms of energy. The slogan “sustainable development” has been adopted by the policy establishment because it seems to promise the public that we can tackle environmental risk without inflicting economic hardship, or even significant inconvenience.

It is, therefore, far more a matter of assumption than of verifiable practicality.

Even within the limited scope of declared plans for “sustainable development”, efforts at transition are faltering. Here are some examples of this disturbing insufficiency of effort:

–   According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), additions of new renewable generating capacity have stalled, with 177 GW added last year, unchanged from 2017. Moreover, the IEA has stated that additions last year needed to be at least 300 GW to stay on track with objectives set out in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

–   The IEA has also said that capital investment in renewables, expressed at constant values, was lower last year (at $304bn) than it was back in 2011 ($314bn). Even allowing for reductions in unit cost, this reinforces the observation that renewables capacity simply isn’t growing rapidly enough.

–   In 2018, output of electricity generated from renewable sources increased by 314 TWH (terawatt hours), but total energy consumption grew by 938 TWH, with 457 TWH of that increase – a bigger increment than delivered by renewables – sourced from fossil fuels.

The latter observation is perhaps the most worrying of all. Far from replacing the use of fossil fuels in electricity supply, additional output from renewables is failing even to keep pace with growth in demand. Where power generation is concerned, this has worrying implications for our ability to transition road transport to EVs without having to burn a lot more oil, gas and coal in order to do so.

The deceleration in the rate at which renewables capacity and output are being added seems to be linked to decreases in subsidies. These, though affordable enough at very low rates of take-up, have been scaled back as the magnitude of the challenge has increased.

This calls for a thoroughgoing review of energy policy, and it seems bizarre that a system which can provide financial support for the banking system cannot do the same for the far more important matter of energy. Even within the fossil fuels arena, the continued growth of American shale production has relied on cheap capital, channelled into loss-making shale producers by optimistic investors and seemingly-complacent lenders.

We need to understand that, when an individual pays for electricity, or puts fuel in a car’s tank, this represents only a small fraction of what he or she spends on energy. The vast majority of energy expenditure isn’t undertaken as direct purchasing by the consumer, but is embedded in literally all of his or her outlays on goods and services. The scope for direct purchasing is determined by the scale of embedded use.

As prosperity deteriorates, then, the ability of the consumer to purchase energy is reduced. There is every likelihood that energy suppliers could find themselves trapped between the Scylla of rising costs and the Charybdis of impoverished customers.

We should, accordingly, be prepared for the failure of a system which relies almost entirely on commercial enterprise for the supply of energy. Far from prices soaring in response to tightening supplies, it’s likely that the impoverishment of consumers keeps prices below costs, resulting in a shrinkage of energy supply as part of a broader deterioration in economic activity.

As the situation develops, we may need to think outside the “comfort zone” of current policy parameters. For instance, the promise that the public can exchange their current vehicles for EVs may prove not to be capable of fulfilment, forcing us to evaluate alternatives, including electric trams and rail.

For now, though, one imperative predominates. It is that we must stop believing in the false dichotomy in which the environmental need for a transition to renewables is “moderated” by wholly false considerations of “cost”.

Simply put, we’re likely to pay a quite extraordinarily high price for a continuation of the assumption that the economy, demonstrably an energy system, is characterised by, and can be managed using, purely financial interpretation.

= = = = =

SEEDS environment report July 2019



579 thoughts on “#153. One for the sceptics

  1. This is not so much to make a point as to ask for some further help in keeping myself informed. It is informative to see how the desire for energy transition is playing out in real life in Australia, a relatively warmer country that the UK.

    I wonder what the most reliable sources of information for the UK are.?

    In particular, what happens in the UK, given our current energy mix with many of our old nuclear plants seeing ongoing maintenance and reliability issues and most of our coal plants now gone.

    For example, a credible winter scenario might be that the long dark nights also see a prolonged cold spell caused by a northern blocking weather feature that results in little wind. This causes similar conditions across much of Northern Europe and consequently their demand is up too. I assume the electricity we buy via interconnectors is paid in euro’s?

    If the above scenario was to happen is the outcome that prices spike or that there are blackouts or do we just tell industry to close down?

    If we are to transition in the future, how much batter storage do you need to keep the nation going in the middle of winter with no wind to speak of for say 4 days?

    Lots of questions, sorry!

    • We always hear about big breakthroughs in battery technology but never see them come onto the market.

      Perhaps we could have giant towers that haul weights – or pump water- up to the top. Potential can then be converted to Kinetic when released.

    • Dinorwig is a large pumped-hydro storage facility in Wales, operating between an upper and a lower reservoir. The amount of energy it stores is about 10GWh (it can supply 1GW of electrical output for 10 hours, or 2GW for 5 hours, etc). We can use the Dinorwig facility as a metric for a national unit of energy storage.

      In round terms, for 5 dull, cold, winter days and nights the UK electrical energy usage might be about 5,000GWh. So we would only need 500 Dinorwigs, assuming that there would be 500 suitable sites around the UK. Also note that if the round-trip efficiency of energy storage was 75% then the number of storage units would be 33% greater.

      The Dinorwig power station was constructed between 1974 and 1984 for £425 million. That suggests current CAPEX would be between £1 and £3 billion for each unit. So 500 Dinorwigs would cost somewhere between £500 billion and £1,500 billion.

      Don’t ask about summer-winter balancing as it is more than an order of magnitude greater.

    • As regards electrical battery storage, Elon Musk made a $50 million bet that Tesla could install a 129MWh li-ion battery for the Hornsdale Power Reserve in 100 days, in South Australia. He won. So we can estimate what the cost of such batteries with a capacity of 5,000GWh would be – $2,000 billion.

      So perhaps comparable with pumped-hydro storage CAPEX. But factor in a battery life of say 10 years against a life of 100 years for a pumped-hydro facility and my money would be on the tried and tested technology.

    • “If we are to transition in the future“

      We won’t. Declining net energy is a real bitch, especially with 7 billion people in an jit interconnected world economy.

      Harsh measures instead of green pastures.

      Every day less to share with ever more humans. Roman empire on steroids.

  2. “backup for renewables”
    It is my impression that nuclear is not a ‘back up’…it is baseload. Gas is an excellent back-up. But nuclear cannot easily be stopped and started on a dime.
    Don Stewart

    • Nuclear can be stopped on a dime. Just not restarted for a while if you do that 🙂

    • Jackson

      Just as long as the nuke in question does not have a Positive Coefficient which was the fatal flaw in the RBMK reactor.

      Nuclear power is, like renewable energy, reliant to the hydrocarbon infrastructure that we have built. It is, as Don points out, an “all or nothing” option.

  3. @Jackson Howard
    It seems to me that, once one assumes no rationing of electricity, one has to build a reliable base load capacity which is not dependent on wind and solar. I don’t follow the UK situation very closely, but I believe there have been 7 day periods when there was zero wind and solar generated. So, if there is to be zero fossil fuel generating capacity, but some nuclear, then the UK must build enough nuclear to handle the peak load entirely by itself. There is then no real need for wind and solar…except perhaps for bragging rights.

    One could argue that wind and solar can be exported, as I believe much of Denmark’s wind is exported. But the same basic flaw in the renewables is still operational.

    I started with the assumption of ‘no rationing’. If one has a ‘smart grid’, then I suppose one could offer ‘interruptible power’ to people pretty cheaply in terms of fuel. It would be available only when the wind was blowing and the sun was shining. If the interruptible customers wanted to store the energy, they would be responsible for providing their own batteries. But the electric utility would still have the fixed costs, which can be considerable.

    When I read Johnson’s statement, it occurred to me that what he might be doing is living up to the letter of the Climate Emergency declaration, without intending to actually become dependent on wind and solar. In fact, if my thinking is on track, the wind and solar would play no important part in a nuclear scenario.

    Don Stewart

    • Interestingly the rush to go Green by Germany has ended in disaster.

      Merkel wanted to get away from Nuclear but now they’re having to rely on filthy Brown coal generating stations.

    • So, if we are to go for renewable electricity power generation and not have the consequent rationing that goes with several days of no or low supply when it’s not windy in winter then we need to factor in the cost of a parallel nuclear power fleet?

      That must result in the cost of converting to renewables not just being the cost of building and maintaining the wind turbines and extended distribution system to bring the wind power to where’s it’s needed but also the cost of building a parallel alternative baseload (nuclear) power source. Is that correct? I ask because it doesn’t seem to be well explained to the public either by the government, green movement or main stream media.

      Or we need to accept that there will be rationing whether by cost or actual disconnection and that too doesn’t seem to be well explained to the public either by the government, green movement or main stream media.

    • Intermittency is where current renewables technology economics break down. I’ve seen numbers indicating that installing enough battery capacity to smooth output 24/7/365 multiplies capital cost per GW by 10x.

    • With the current calamitous energy policy the UK will follow in the footsteps of Germany.

      Peak winter electrical demand in Germany is about 81GW; demand in summer is about 60GW. They have installed a total of 208.6GW of generating capacity – of which more than half is wind and solar:
      And they continue to add more offshore wind farms year on year. Basically they now have two electrical supply systems, one dispatchable (coal, nuclear, gas, hydro and biomass) and the other based on intermittent unreliables.

      Surely you might think this colossal investment in unreliables has had a major impact on CO2 emissions? Not so unfortunately. German CO2 emissions are virtually unchanged over the decade. http://bit.ly/2DVB4Xn

    • Jean-Marc Jancovici provides an interesting analysis of the difference in cost between a 100% nuclear electric power system and a system providing the same output using wind, solar and storage for mainland France.


      His conclusion: A wind/solar based energy system would be 2-20 times more expensive than a nuclear based system – with a factor of 10 difference being most probable. Keep in mind that a factor of 10 difference in cost includes the rather extreme cost escalations that have occurred in the nuclear sector due to very tight western regulatory arrangements. The cost of electric power under a 100% renewable scenario would be about 20% of the average family income, clearly suggesting that energy consumption (and living standards) would be much lower under this scenario.

      Given that we are developing industrial scale renewable energy because of misplaced public fears over nuclear safety and idealistic political objectives; the solution to the problem would appear to have nothing to do with renewable energy. We need a PR programme that explains why we need a nuclear future and why it is nothing to be frightened of. Pouring money into unproductive renewable energy assets is far more harmful to humanity than the worst conceivable nuclear meltdown.

    • This excellent analysis, conducted back in 2017, looked at the Hornsea offshore wind farm. Though the project itself is costed at £3.9bn, the article gives an estimate of £35.4bn for battery capacity sufficient to smooth the supply of power to eliminate intermittency.

      The article concludes that the latter number itself is pretty much academic, because nobody would spend this much as an addition to a £3.9bn project. There are probably far less costly alternatives, some involving backup capacity.

      The point, though, is that gives us a sort of “ballpark” feel for the cost of overcoming intermittency in wind power supply.

      It’s important that, when we compare costs, it’s vital that we compare the equivalent cost on a “when needed” rather than simply on a “when available” basis.

  4. Is Putin the Devil?
    So…Putin’s suggestion of nuclear for electricity and compressed natural gas for trucks makes some sense, at least in broad terms. Personal transportation can be some combination of electric vehicles plus compressed natural gas for public vehicles such as busses.

    If one also has an aggressive land remediation program to restore soil moisture and carbon, then a sensible program might be possible. Would also increase food reliability.

    Don Stewart

  5. On the topic of how we would fuel future aviation; I would suggest that jet aeroplanes are the most likely candidates for using liquefied natural gas as fuel. It’s mass energy density is some 25% higher than kerosene jet fuel. Also, boil-off is not such an issue for aeroplanes, as fuelling typically takes place shortly before take off and fuel is consumed rapidly during flight. There is therefore little time available for heat transfer into the tanks. The energy required to liquefy the gas could be provided by excess renewable energy.

    Much has been made of the potential for electric battery powered aeroplanes for short distance flights. However, even using lithium-ion technology, the energy density if batteries is only about 200Wh per kg. A gas turbine burning kerosene jet fuel yields 20 times as much work energy per unit weight and the weight decreases as fuel is used up, in contrast to batteries which remain just as heavy throughout flight. That means that a battery powered 747 would range only 700km, whereas its kerosene powered equivalent would deliver 14,000km – almost halfway around the world.

    One alternative would be to power the plane using gas turbine engines burning fuel, but to feed the turbine combustion chamber with stored liquid oxygen instead of compressed air from the turbine compressor. The compressor on a gas turbine consumes half to two-thirds of the work output of the gas turbine. So feeding the turbine liquid oxygen and dispensing with the compressor, would at least double the fuel economy of the aeroplane. Carrying the oxygen needed to burn the fuel would dilute the energy density of the fuel, because the oxygen needed to burn a hydrocarbon weighs about 4 times as much as the fuel being burned. But energy density is still about 4x better than battery power. Presumably, renewable energy could be used to produce separated liquid oxygen on the ground.

  6. Antifragile; Gambling
    Taleb has become famous in certain circles for explicating the notion of anti-fragility. Nietzsche said ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’…which is an earlier explication of the same concept. I’d like to meditate a little on how zero interest rates, quantitative easing, Neo-liberalism, and the paucity of good investment opportunities are playing out.

    My sister and her husband were on the Norwegian Airlines flight from Rome which suffered an explosion and had to return to the Rome airport minus one engine. I won’t speculate about Boeing or the engine manufacturer. Instead, I will focus on one small event after the plane landed successfully. At first, the passengers were told to go to the Norwegian desk, where someone would help them get on a different flight to Los Angeles. A little later, the passengers were told that Headquarters had decided that the airline was not responsible for helping the passengers re-book, so they were on their own.

    Norwegian is a ‘low price’ airline, and my conclusion based on their behavior is that they are far from being anti-fragile. It’s like the difference between a fine old oak table such as the one in Cavendish Lab in Cambridge where Faraday demonstrated electricity, and a modern table made from compressed sawdust and a thin layer of veneer. One is anti-fragile while the other cannot withstand the slightest stress.

    Why does it make sense to put together an airline which will simply disintegrate if it encounters any stress at all? And I think it is a result of the fact that venture capital is so cheap, that the expected results of careful nurturing of an organization are so small, that the legal, political, economic, and social expectations of what are basically financial corporations are so tiny, and that the Neo-liberal idea that it is all about money and mobile global capital has become so pervasive….that an airline’s life or death has so little significance that pursuing anti-fragility sounds hopelessly naive.

    Don Stewart

    • Same for ‘luxury’ housing developments here comprised of utterly shoddy structures that will need tearing down in a relatively short time (and should not have passed inspection) and made possible by ultra-cheap debt, compared to my nice, solid, brick house which was at the bottom end of the scale in 1949 – bits of it are not quite true, and when I had new ceilings put in after re-plumbing it was clear that some corners had been cut, but they would have stood for decades more…..

      Bankers and speculators just like all those zeros in their accounts when they contemplate their ultra-net worth (I know these people personally, and as they age they get no wiser) and the quality and durability of what they engage in is nothing to them, you are quite right.

      People who care about building durable and useful things simply do not go into finance. They want their wealth to increase, and they want it this quarter, and they all have their plans to run (one I know, Switzerland, another, Canada).

    • You are describing a mind-set that I see as a by-product of the tone of the official economic (and broader) narrative for well over three decades.

      I’ll repeat two stories that I think I told here last year, but which merit repetition.

      1. An English couple and their two teenage sons were sitting at a restaurant table near mine, and I overheard one of the boys recounting, in great detail and with undisguised glee, how wealthy he would be when the first and then the second of his grandmothers passed away. The parents – whose own mothers’ decease he was talking about, and by implication, looking forward to – said nothing to restrain him.

      2. An acquaintance of mine was depressed, because her elderly mother had died. My attempts to soothe her with well-meant platitudes stopped when I found out that it wasn’t her parent’s death that depressed her, but that her sister had ‘got in first’ to grab some possessions that my acquaintance wanted for herself.

      These people, obviously, are morons – but what made them that way?

    • A far cry from 17th – 18th century Yorkshire farm houses built to last from stone and gritstone.

      Some friends of my grandparents owned a farm up in the Dales and the walls were so thick and solid they could probably survive a nuclear attack.

      Buildings like this are good for centuries.

      When today’s poorly constructed matchboxes start falling apart I doubt we’ll have enough resources to repair or replace them.

    • Dr Tim posits this:
      These people, obviously, are morons – but what made them that way?
      A large part of this can be put down to the incessant propaganda spewed out by the BBC and others and it is insidious and relentless. There is a daily diet of programmes promoting property price rise must be a good thing nonsense in Homes Under the Hammer. When is this ****ing programme NOT on? For every competent builder who has a genuine plan there is always a chancer, who thinks that by adding a touch of Dulux paint the place will magically increase by approximately 10/15% overnight.
      Then there is Escape From the Riff-Raff – or something similar – where delusional folk go traipsing around the countryside to live in some outsized mansion. “Colin and Sandra currently live in a twelfth floor one bed flat in a 1960s style tower block in Tower Hamlets that is riddled with concrete cancer, the lifts don’t work, the stairwells reek of stale urine and skunk and there is a chronic anti social problem in the neighbourhood. They would like to sell this and move to a four bedroom, two reception place in the Shropshire countryside…” Ok I am taking the specimen here but you get the message.
      This is repeated ad-nauseam to reinforce the belief that by buying a property you are on the path to riches and prosperity. Which ignores all the externalities that puts an entirely different complexion on it. It is not just the BBC btw – other channels also broadcast this stuff (Channel 4 with the dreadful Kirstie Allsopp – but the BBC rams it down your throat. Constantly)
      It all promotes the “Aspirational Class” who are utterly delusional who believe all this stuff. I had the misfortune of living next door to a couple who were Aspirational Class – while they were pleasant enough they did make some utterly bizarre decisions that they made regarding their house. Rather than spend money on getting the guttering done, the windows fixed and a 17th edition sparky to do the electrics, they spent thousands on a kitchen unit that was hardly used and decking for the garden which did not need attention. Now they have gone I have heard what a state the place is in – not a very good one either.
      A lot of these Aspirational Class have bought into the incredibly shoddy and vastly overpriced new build developments. I could go on and on about some of the problems I have seen here but will leave that for another post. The house price market is stagnating and transactions are hitting new lows. They are already starting to decline – I bet in 5 to 10 years time these developments will become ghost towns.

  7. The dangers that people associate with nuclear power would appear to be an illusion.

    The Chernobyl accident, the worst nuclear accident in history, produced an estimated 4000 long-term mortalities due to radioactive pollution. It is noteworthy that whilst 30 or so firefighter deaths occurred due to acute radiation sickness accrued trying to stabilise the damaged reactor; no increase in cancer rates in exposed populations have actually been observed.

    Compare this to the 500,000 annual deaths that are attributed to fossil fuel air pollution in Europe every year.

    We would need something like 100 Chernobyl accidents every year in Europe to approach the routine mortality rate that we accept without question from fossil fuels. This would require that every nuclear reactor in Europe underwent complete meltdown every single year. Even the most incompetent nuclear safety standards could not come close to accomplishing this.

    Human attitudes towards nuclear power clearly make no sense. There is no realistic scenario in which radioactive pollution from nuclear accidents can approach the toxic load that we presently accept from fossil fuels. However, given the potential collapse in living standards that we face due to fossil fuel depletion; failure to build a fleet of nuclear reactors that can replace fossil fuel energy, does present a grave risk to our future safety. Given the disparity in risk between nuclear and fossil, achieving excessive standards in nuclear safety is far less important than being able to build nuclear power plants rapidly and cheaply. We need simple and standardised nuclear power plants that can be built rapidly and at low cost. To hell with nuclear safety.

    • I’m not sure this will persuade the general public, logical though the case is.

      In addition to Chernobyl/TMI-type risks, fears around nuclear include the mining process, the problems posed by storage of waste, and the possibility of nuclear weapons in the hands either of rogue states or terrorists. I’ve heard that nuclear weapons can now be made in very small sizes, and that these can be ‘dirty’ devices whose main effect is radiation rather than blast.

      It used to be said, in Cold War days, that “the first bomb to go off in WWIII will be in the basement of the Soviet Embassy in Washington”.

      The other issue is the supply of nuclear fuel.

      As I say, I’m not superstitious about this (having actually stood on the casing of an SSN just a few feet directly above a PWR) but I can’t say I’m wholly relaxed about it either.

    • The threat of nuclear proliferation is certainly not a trivial problem. By growing the nuclear industry globally and increasing the number of competent nuclear engineers, the amount of fissile material and isotope separation and fuel handling capabilities; it is inevitable that nuclear weapons development becomes easier for a determined rogue nation. There are controls in place to make that more difficult, but the potential is there. Then again, North Korea did not need a nuclear power programme to begin development of nuclear weapons. And plenty of countries have nuclear power reactors without nuclear weapons programmes. Nuclear weapons proliferation would still be a problem if there were no nuclear reactors on Earth.

      Nuclear waste is far less of a problem if we can develop closed fuel cycles. In this circumstance, waste is dominated by short lived fission products and irradiation products. Half-lives are in the decades. We also solve the fuel supply problem at the same time. Even without closed fuel cycles, waste is not a huge problem. We are generally talking about small volumes of material. The actinides in spent fuel makes it toxic for a very long time, but then again, the uranium extracted from the ground was toxic to begin with and human society produces large amounts of toxic waste from many sources. Every problem has to be viewed in proper context.

      The United States came very close to completing development of a commercial grade fast breeder reactor technology through its Integral Fast Reactor programme. The reactor would have provided a closed fuel cycle using compact electro-refining technology, which removed the potential for separating weapons grade plutonium and negated the need for bulky chemical reprocessing facilities. The fuel was melted in a small electric furnace; fission products were removed, fresh depleted uranium was added and fuel slugs were recast. This removed a lot of the additional cost traditionally associated with closed fuel cycles. The reactor also demonstrated passive safety technologies, such as negative fuel temperature coefficient and passive decay heat removal. By the early 1990s, it was ready for commercialisation. Upon achieving office, cancelling the programme was one of the first things that the new Clinton administration did. The far left of the Democrat party hated the technology, for the simple reason that its existence removed any justification for the development of renewable energy on an industrial scale. You can read all about IFR here:

      Click to access PlentifulEnergy.pdf

      With fossil fuel depletion now a serious, civilisation-endangering problem; and with industrial scale renewable energy shown to be an unrealistic pipe dream due to the enormous costs associated with energy storage; I would suggest that it is time to revisit the technology that was thrown out for being too successful.

    • ‘Human attitudes towards nuclear power clearly make no sense.’
      I think they do, if you consider not just the loss of lives, but the permanent loss of territory. The exclusion zones of Chernobyl and Fukushima. Consider, for example, the conflicts between states because of some territories, even small and useless ones… Our host is British, so let’s choose the Falkland islands as an example – why are they important? What profit can Britain or Argentina possibly derive from them? Probably not very much profit (especially compared to the cost of a war), yet there was a war, and maybe there will be another one…
      People just really hate losing any lebensraum at all and will go to great lengths to avoid that. That makes sense to me.
      So these are the kinds of nuclear accidents that must be prevented at all costs – or else people will be ready to FIGHT with nuclear industry. Is that possible to entirely eliminate any risk of accidents that result in permanent evacuation of population? Not with the currently used types of reactors, but perhaps with new ones. Until those arrive, massive nuclear build up is impractical.
      As for any other accidents that just kill or main people, those are no big deal – no more than car crashes (coal is also a good example).

    • “People just really hate losing any lebensraum at all and will go to great lengths to avoid that. That makes sense to me.”

      Good answer – it hits the nail on the head. It also suggests to me that forced evacuation of contaminated areas does not make sense. We do not ‘evacuate’ cities with high air pollution. That would be crazy. Likewise, it makes no sense to force abandonment of land contaminated with radioactivity. Ultimately, the health implications of both forms of pollution are the same.

  8. I think that nuclear is an interesting option, but a hard sell.

    On one hand it has high energy density and high load factor. It has a track record for decarbonation within the required buildup time. Also, the tech has large underexploited potential with fast neutrons and breeding (which pretty much solves the fuel supply). Deads per GWh is very low (much lower than fossils).

    On the other hand, the industry is a weakened state, suffers from expertise attrition and lack of new blood. Accident can be really nasty, and there is the proliferation side as well. The issue of waste is an on going problem (and their subpar storage under use now makes me very nervous wrt to potential bad actors). Also terrible branding/image.

    Nukes can indeed be made small, but that’s not an easy thing.

    The real risks are stuff like Pakistan tactical weapons getting stolen, or a terror attack on a spent fuel pool. I doubt that the pakistani PAL system is worth much.

    • Here’s the issue: Is nuclear a fossil fuel derivative? Can you have it when fossil fuels slow to a trickle? If you cannot have nuclear power without fossil fuels, then you don’t want it.

    • Good question, to which any informed answers would be welcome.

      My assumption is that we couldn’t build nukes without inputs made available by fossil fuels.

      One further cautionary point on nuclear is scaling. Last year, nuclear provided 4.4% of world primary energy needs. In fossil fuels, a supply crunch is due within perhaps 10 years – and how long does it take to build nukes?

      Just as an order of magnitude for reference, replacing, say, oil, would require multiplying current nuclear output by 7.6x

    • “Good question, to which any informed answers would be welcome. My assumption is that we couldn’t build nukes without inputs made available by fossil fuels.”

      The major material inputs to nuclear power plants are concrete, structural carbon steel and relatively small quantities of stainless steel on the nuclear island and even smaller quantities of uranium and whatever material is being used for control rods – boron, hafnium, cadmium, etc. So the question is, can you mine the requisites for these materials; reduce / refine them; shape them and transport and assemble them, without fossil fuels? A good place to start would be concrete and structural steel, as these absolutely dominate the total mass of the plant. Structural steel dominates in terms of raw energy input, as its manufacture requires about 30 times the energy input of concrete per unit mass. Given that most steel is now recycled, most of that input is electrical power within an electric furnace.

      On the plus side, nuclear power reactors are very power dense compared to alternatives. A 1970s era nuclear power plant uses only 40% as much steel as a coal burning power plant per MWe and about 1/10th of the steel per average MWe compared to wind power systems.

      Click to access 05-001-A_Material_input.pdf

      A wind power system with storage would require about 1000te of steel per MWe – if we include embodied materials within the store and extra wind capacity to make up for losses. By contrast, Advanced High Temperature Reactors would require as little as 10te per MWe – two orders of magnitude less. If we cannot build nuclear without fossil fuels, then we almost certainly cannot build renewable infrastructure on any large scale either.

      “One further cautionary point on nuclear is scaling. Last year, nuclear provided 4.4% of world primary energy needs. In fossil fuels, a supply crunch is due within perhaps 10 years – and how long does it take to build nukes?
      Just as an order of magnitude for reference, replacing, say, oil, would require multiplying current nuclear output by 7.6x”

      It is doubtful that nuclear power could be scaled up quite that quickly, as supply chains would need to be established, workforces trained, mining scaled up, etc. The reactor systems would also need to employ fast spectrum breeding cycles, as existing uranium reserves would not stretch to even a doubling of reactor capacity for more than a few decades. That being said, the much lower material requirements of advanced nuclear compared to renewables, could allow a rapid scaling if the political and public will were there. Nuclear projects are expensive at present because supply chains are poorly developed, workforces are not trained, economies of scale do not exist and regulatory systems stretch build times to infinity. For a rapid build-up, those things would need to turn around very quickly. That being said, there is the potential for build times to be short and costs reduced to very affordable levels. Back in the 1960s and 70s, new reactors were completed on a timescale of about 5 years, a few of them even less than that. Overnight construction costs were as low as $500/kWe and typically around $1000/kWe in 2010 dollars. We need to get back to that cost level quite quickly.


      One hurdle to very rapid global acceleration of nuclear capacity would be shortage of fissile material. The UK has the advantage of being in possession of about 100 tonnes of separated reactor grade plutonium and even more within legacy spent fuel, thanks to 60 years of nuclear power generation. This would be enough for perhaps 10GWe of breeder reactor capacity. The thing that would ultimately put the brakes on the speed of capacity build-up would be the doubling time needed to breed more fissile plutonium within the reactor cores. Using metallic fuel in a sodium cooled reactor, doubling time has a lower limit of about 8 years. Large reactor cores have better neutron economy than small ones and require less fissile inventory per MWe. That is good reason to build nuclear power reactors as large as possible – 2GWe per unit would be a good bench mark to aim for. This makes them cheaper per unit power as well.

    • All non fossil energies are fossil derivative at the moment, since our transportation grid is 90%+ running on them.

      Now, that means that both RE and Nukes have the same problems : they divert a part of fossils now, to deliver energy later.

      France did their buildup in 20 years, at a pace of about 2.5 reactors / year. That gives an idea of what is possible for such a sized country. Material input / GWh is actually better than RE (for stuff like copper, steel, rare earths, concrete). Enrichement can be run on nuclear, so that helps.

      In any case, I can’t see them getting build anywhere out of France, China and Russia at any relevant scale given the global public aversion. Maybe once things get really grim. But at that point the push will be for cheap and quick to build (in other words : unsafe). And big negative for me are the permanent cooling requirements, which will make global warming a problem for them too. In France they had to shutdown a few cores due to the exit water getting too downstream.

      IMO the real question is not how to replace oil. We can’t. Not in the considered timeframe. What we can try to do is replace oil when possible, and scaling down when not. Research shows that 2KW per person is likely sufficient for a confortable standard of living (instead of exhuberant like we have now). That means cutting by energy use by 3 in the EU and 5 in the US. Doing that scales down the problem a lot, and what seems impossible, is in fact quite possible with a strong push for :

      1) Insulation and passive houses
      2) Heat pumps
      3) Light rail/public transportation and rail for cargo (instead of trucking)
      4) RE buildup, with Nuke buildup when and where possible
      5) Convert all possible hydro to pump storage
      6) Relocate industry to shorten supply chains
      7) Acknowledging that individual cars and airplane trips are going to be a luxury

      If we do all that, we might be able to get 2KW/person and mitigate the oil crunch.

      Avoiding it altogether is a pipedream. It’s far too late for that. It would be interesting to have a look of carbon intensity / $ of activity for the different sectors and services, and do a 2×2 with their necessity. (basic need, civilisation need, luxury). Anything sitting in the luxury-high carbon intensity is likely to go bust.

    • Hi a list if very sensible ideas but getting any politician to listen is difficult as I found out.

      Regarding wealth as a young person in 1982 I had the following luxury items.

      A 14inch Sony Trinitron TV a Panasonic video cassette recorder and a Sinckair ZX81 computer that did very little except hang all the time. I also had to share a payphone.

      Now many in their 20s have a car – a supercomputer in their pocket aka a mobile phone access to incredible computer games – 50 inch HD TV sets with the ability to stream any content they want through different media platforms – are able to get off to the sun and a host of other electronic gadgets I couldn’t even of imagined.

      Now I wonder if – and not just young people – would be prepared to give these things up although it may well be forced on them

  9. Thanks for your reply Dr Morgan.

    Are you saying that increasing Ecoe is the only driver of declining prosperity ?. It seems hard to believe that the exponential growth of China and India wouldn’t have some significant impact on Western prosperity ?.

    You have previously discussed the ‘hollowing out’ of the Uk economy, the growth in jobs that amount to ‘taking in each others washing’ and the lack of internationally marketable output.
    This (the result of bad governance and a lack of an industrial strategy?) must be a significant drag on prosperity requiring a heavy dose of monetary manipulation to paper over the cracks…

    • The model indicates that ECoE starts to undermine economic performance in Western countries when it reaches between 3.5% and 5%. Developing economies are less complex, so they can cope with higher ECoEs, up to a range 8% to 10%. Significantly, China has hit 9% and its economy seems to be getting into big trouble.

      It’s certainly the case that policy mistakes can make things worse. The way in which the UK economy has been managed over decades is a case in point (pretty hopeless, in my opinion, short-term, and driven by ideological extremes, n.b. PPI). This includes mistaken energy policies which have made the increase in ECoE worse – for instance, exporting gas rather than keeping it for home use, burning gas for cheap electricity, and the complete horlicks that’s been UK nuclear policy.

      Astute management can’t evade the ECoE effect, but inept management can certainly make it worse than it needs to be!

  10. Looking at ECOE has the great advantages of enabling us to sidestep merely parochial political issues and stand above sterile ideological wrangles.

    • Indeed so – unfortunately, though, decisions keep being made by those who think that the economy is a financial system, and energy is “just another input”!

  11. Physical Factors vs. Intangibles
    This is NOT to argue that ECoE is unimportant, or that having air conditioning when it is hot and humid is a frivolity. It is just some recently discovered facts about human longevity and health.

    A study (not yet published) of California Medicare patients divided them into groups using 3 criteria: quality of diet; quality of exercise; whether they are lonely.

    It turns out that a lonely person who eats a high quality diet and exercises regularly will not have the health span that a socially connected person who eats badly and never exercises can expect.

    While we should be cautious in extrapolating results, it seems to me that engaging people in resolving the existential threats which surround humanity in a way that enables healthy social interaction is probably more important than minimizing the loss of luxury. People need to feel that they are part of something valuable. HOWEVER, it may well be that the super-rich, who control much of politics and business, are among the minority who strongly react to purely financial motives. Therefore, developing any coherent ‘downsizing’ strategy will be extraordinarily difficult.

    Don Stewart
    PS. This research result should not surprise us too much. As I remember, the longest running experiment in US medicine was following a group of men who graduated from Harvard about a hundred years ago. What most predicted longevity was social connection.

    • Yes. We turned into a greedy sociopathic community.

      Go to a shopping mall and look around you. Listen. Watch. Observe.

      There’s no soul.

      Only interests. And interest.

    • This raises another flaw in traditional economics, which is the misapprehension that money gained is or ought always to be the prime, even sole, motivator: and source of meaning in one’s efforts: one sees it in the writings of those 18th-century gentlemen who hadn’t a clue as to the satisfaction to e derived from achievement within a craft tradition,a way of life.

      For instance, it’s on record that with a change of ploughing technique due to new equipment, well-paid men left off their work and went to town to do different work, any work, ‘in disgust’, as they could no longer demonstrate their skill as they once could with the old ploughs – all meaning in the work had gone for them, the ‘I did that, and a damned fine piece of work it is!’ factor.

      Those ploughmen also had their own distinctive form of dress, more expensive than usual for farm workers, with specific and individual ornaments sewn in, which also gave symolic meaning to their existence.

      This also came to mind reading about the staff of a Pound Shop about to close who said that they would miss the family of workers, all there for years. It was clear from the article that they had, increasingly, been abused by the higher management, but had succesfuly stuck together in the face of it.

      If there is no meaning, 24/7 power is of no account and we might well be better off dead.

    • The fossil fuel leverage made us lazy and made us stop thinking who we are.

      We became hospitalized.

  12. Texas: Heatwave and plunging renewable electricity output equals tremendous spike in Houston energy costs


    Texas gets 25 percent of its energy from renewables (primarily, I think, wind on the high plains in West Texas). But now a high pressure ridge has settled over the plains so the wind is dead. Wind generation plummets, the temperature is hot so demand for air conditioning is high, and push comes to shove.

    Gail Tverberg, a longtime critic of renewables, claims that Texas needs 100 percent fossil fuel capacity…the renewables are not reliable.

    Don Stewart

    • Perhaps with renewables above a certain level one needs to ban air-conditioning, above all in any new construction – which would drive the adoption and development of more sensible construction -ie thick walls, small windows, wind towers and ventilation systems, cellars, screens to keep sun off walls, as in old Italian Southern French and Spanish architecture?

      Not at all compatible with the high density, high rise living favoured by certain sectors…..

      Ugo Bardi has an excellent article on his Cassandra blog about his new digs in Florence, half-underground. He says he just couldn’t keep the large house his parents built cool enough in the ferocious and extended heat waves now hitting Italy.

  13. Concerning Nuclear power Private Eye has posted a timely reminder of Hinkley Point.

    It’s well known that EDF will make no money until the plant us up and running – then ruinously expensive (for the consumer starts) payments start.

    However it’s been revealed that the actual reactor design has not even been finalised and ministers must have been aware that the a reactor on which the design was based in France is running 12 years late and is 4 times over budget.

    Now the UK needs more generating capacity so the worry here is that although it would cost the tax payers nothing (except power cuts) Hinckley may never be completed.

    I’m still puzzled why we didn’t go for proven designs – May’s signing of the contract against much scientific advice was pure madness but appears to connected to Brexit if the Eye is to be believed.

  14. @Xabier
    I saw Ugo’s article. It is an excellent example of a family thinking ahead. The problem comes when we try to imagine Houston living like that. I imagine one can count the number of basements in Houston on a very few hands. Neither is thick walled adobe suitable for the swamp that is Houston. Back in the 70s, when educated people were concerned about energy, my wife and I shared a shelter on the Appalachian Trail with a couple from Dallas. The Dallas couple said that they thought Houston would be abandoned in the near future…I most likely nodded agreement…not the first time I have been wrong.

    On top of the physical problems, we have the problem of declining oil. If we take Tad Patzek’s numbers (until Dr. Morgan publishes his numbers), we will consume only half the oil we do now in 10 years or so. It is very difficult to imagine us constructing anything except shanties at that rate of oil decline.

    Back to Ugo. I long ago concluded that which way a house was situated relative to the sun was important. For example, in the North one does not want a driveway on the north (shaded) side of the house on a steep hill…because of the winter ice which never melts because the sun never hits it. I diligently tried to convince my children to think about the geography before moving in to any place. I completely failed. My daughter was driving a delivery truck at that time. She complained about the truck being cold when she came back from delivering in the retail store. I suggested that she park the truck so that the sun was shining through the front window of the truck, so the interior would get warmer due to the greenhouse effect. I doubt she ever did it.

    Don Stewart

  15. The markets’ positive (almost euphoric) initial response to the delay on US tariff increases on China is a remarkable case of ‘believing what you want to believe’.

    For optimists, the delay means that Mr Trump might be ‘going wobbly’ on tariffs. Frankly, I doubt this, very much.

    My view, instead, is that it reflects (slightly) his enjoyment of tensions, and (mainly) sends a message about possible intervention in Hong Kong.

    • Dr. Morgan
      May I suggest one general line of thought? John Lewis Gaddis, in his book Grand Strategy, talks about Augustine and Machiavelli. Augustine was a devout Christian, and agonized about balancing the needs of The City of God and the city of man (politics). He concluded that Christianity was only possible if a political entity wielding deadly force provided cover for it. Machiavelli, who really was not a Christian, thought about the proper use of force by the State…it should be proportional and never involve force just for the sake of enjoying the violence.

      Fast forward to the 21st century and Neoliberalism imagines a global order in which States become mere administrative entities under the rule of corporations. There isn’t anything Amazon or Google or Microsoft or Facebook want the State to do for them…except leave them alone to do what they do, and enforce in the courts the laws that they have themselves written.

      The tension, as understood by Augustine and Machiavelli, was between aspirations and capabilities. Aspirations could come from God, but capabilities were human creations. In the world of corporations, the aspiration is really just about money, with power (e.g., Jeffrey Epstein) deriving from having bales of money at one’s disposal. In terms of capabilities, the corporations mostly see States as just impediments who create problems. So ‘US’ corporations are entirely willing to use the power of the US government to force the EU to accept US standards, which are composed by US corporations…but they would rather get both the US and the EU governance out of the picture altogether.

      Trump has certainly done his part in reducing the role of governance in the US. But when he talks about ‘making America great again’, he reintroduces the notion from Augustine and Machiavelli about the need for a powerful, violence wielding State. I think that Wall Street and the Corporations are uncomfortable with that idea. Apple doesn’t have a problem doing business with Huawei, but Huawei isn’t compatible with Trump’s ideas about America’s ‘greatness’. Similarly, the notion of Mutual Assured Destruction is the best capability that Russia and China think that they can achieve, but it is inconsistent with Trump’s and the Pentagon’s aspirations…which is absolute global dominance.

      So when Wall Street gets ecstatic that Trump’s tariff war may be failing, I think we need to keep Augustine and Machiavelli in mind. And the notion that Global Capital doesn’t see the world that way anymore.

      Don Stewart

  16. One more thing
    I forget the exact context, but in the last couple of weeks Trump said, more or less:
    “They are an American corporation, and none of Europe’s business”

    So Trump sees a ‘US Corporation’ as an instrument to be used by the US government. I don’t think Wall Street looks at it that way, and it should make the EU uncomfortable. Russia learned the lesson with Exxon-Mobil, when that company dropped out of Arctic drilling after orders from Washington.

    Don Stewart

    • Few seem to appreciate that one of the principle characteristics of developed feudalism in Europe was being obliged to use the services and amenities provided by the lord even if you had preferable, private and individual, lower-tech alternatives.

      The growing power of the tech and medical corporations – eg you must now have an i-phone to function at all, you must submit to their universal medical prescriptions, such as statins, etc – makes them the new feudal lords,and you an excluded outlaw if you choose resist.

      Feudal tenants were compelled to use the lord’s mill, and had their own hand-mills confiscated.

      We worry about Collapse: I am more concerned on what lies ahead for us in the advanced economies if we don’t….

  17. Forbes
    One should always take headlines in the financial press with a very large grain of salt. But for what it is worth, from Forbes:

    To Help The Stock Markets Trump Retreated On Chinese Tariffs

    Trump was not apparently concerned about global financial risk. He is just looking at the impact on ‘his’ corporations…which he needs to keep healthy so they can execute US national policies.

    This is Neo-Conservative thinking, definitely not Neo-Liberal thinking.

    Don Stewart

  18. Texas Electricity
    Search on
    On the Brink of Blackouts, Texas Makes Case for New Plants

    Some people are of the opinion that Texas will have to start paying operators for reliable capacity…not just electricity delivered in a spot market. I suspect such a move would seriously disrupt the wind and solar suppliers. Agriculture has traditionally operated more or less that way in the US. Government payments, guarantees, loans, and price supports were used to keep capacity on line, regardless of short term fluctuations in spot markets.

    There are so many ironies in the fact that shale drilling in the Permian basin was threatened that I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole.

    Don Stewart

  19. Pingback: #154. An autumn nexus | Surplus Energy Economics

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