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Posted by on Nov 22, 2008 in Science & Technology, Society | 12 comments

A Bold New Way

There is no dispute that fossil fuels are finite. It took millions upon millions of years to give us the oil reserves we have today. And we aren’t exactly replenishing the oil supply, unless we halt all life on this fine planet of hours (including mankind), break down into our carbon and hydrogen components over millions upon millions of years in order to form oil. Then we can all come back and fill up our automobiles! Acceptable and realistic, eh?

Transhumanist Michael Anissimov recently writes about the vast quantities of matter and energy in our grasp that dwarfs what we have in fossil fuels:

Part of the rationale for being a “transhumanist”, or, more broadly, having grandiose dreams for humanity’s future, is the extremely simple and mundane observation that the available matter and free energy in our general vicinity is far larger than what we have utilized of it thus far. The incoming solar energy is about a million times greater than global energy consumption, and the available hydrothermal energy to be extracted from the energy gradient between the mantle and the upper crust is many times that. These energy sources far exceed that available from all fossil fuels, uranium, and thorium combined. In the long run (less than a century?), solar and hydrothermal will become our primary energy sources, simply because nothing else will be able to meet our exponentially growing demand.

I concur 100% with his observation. Our planet Earth offers ridiculous amounts of energy that we just aren’t making use of. And add the Sun to the mix, you add over a million more Earths in energy output. One of my big gripes with my wonderful country known as America (don’t fret patriots, my gripe list is shockingly off the norm and low) is that we don’t get excited as a nation about grand innovation and discovery much. The phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” doesn’t apply to America when it comes to energy research and energy independence. This phrase fits much better:

If it’s broke, keep patching it. That will fix it!

Sorry ladies and gentlemen, that attitude just doesn’t fly these days. Solar energy is dismissed by many as too hard to obtain or impractical. Really? Look how hard the brave men and women who have built, currently work on, and maintain oil rigs work! Those platforms are difficult to build and the oil extraction process is always fraught with risk and danger. But oil extraction is considered normal and a viable business regardless. Then there are some of us talking about overcrowding and overpopulation being a barrier to alternative energy sources. I agree with another of Michael Anissimov’s points on this issue (from the same article):

The current impression that the planet is overpopulated is a selection effect resulting from people living in crowded cities, concentrated by technological and economic necessity. Decentralized manufacturing and high-resolution virtual communication will allow a more evenly distributed populace.

Just look at the population density of the United States in 2000 (lower 48 states only; the darker the color, the greater concentration of people per square mile):


There are natural features such as mountains and such to contend with but even with that we are far from a more-evenly distributed populace. If manufacturing is decentralized and we use techniques like vertical farming (performing agriculture in high-rise buildings) we can increase food output and optimize energy production and use. This isn’t Star Trek, this is the now.

I challenge us to lead the world by adopting the attitude of “normal and viable” in pursing those other forms of energy that are so much larger than fossil fuels can ever provide. Maybe I’m asking too much. Maybe patriotism is limited to the War On Terror and wars in general. But I can’t think of anything more patriotic than setting the future standards for the world in energy research, innovation, and discovery. Thus telling the world that the USA is breaking away from the tired old ways and engaging in bold new ways.

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Copyright 2008 The Moderate Voice
  • undertoad

    “Adopting the attitude” that other forms of energy are viable?

    If we all just BELIEVE in it maybe it will become TRUE!

  • cynicalone

    I agree with much of what you have to say but you contradict yourself.
    “Agriculture in high-rise buildings” and “normal and viable” don’t exactly mesh.
    A great deal of agricultural production and the most ideal locations for energy production through solar and wind happen to be in the center of the United States. A “normal and viable” solution would be more population concentration in this area but not enough to displace a significant amount of arable land.
    I believe “agriculture in high-rise buildings” stems from the idea of reducing carbon emissions through increasing the population density of cities and therefore relying more on mass transit than cars.
    However, if the goal is to quickly move away from the use of fossil fuels, then why follow this strategy?
    It seems to be more of a short term solution that will one day result in desolate hunks of glass and steel.
    Why not concentrate on a longer term strategy that will encourage people to migrate towards the food and energy, instead of wasting energy and resources on this bridging step?

  • BarkyBree

    People need to be careful with statements like “the incoming solar energy is about a million times greater than global energy consumption”. Although technically true, the problems are the conversion of energy like that to energy we can actually use.

    This involves the actual conversion process, and any loss associated with that. Then there’s the transportation of said energy, and when you talk about replacing the internal combustion engine, you need to make such energy portable and capable with retail trade.

    Solar, for example, does not convert well into electricity based on simple BTU calculations (see for an example). Based on that math, we’d have to clear cut thousands of square miles for solar to be effective. That’s [i]great[/i] for the environment.

    It’s not as simple as saying “well, look at all the energy in the molten core of the earth! Let’s use that!”

    I’m not saying we can’t research solutions, I’m just saying it’s not as simple as that.

    • mikkel

      Well they have recently announced that we are close to maximum theoretical efficiency (or if you go for a less efficient technology, close to having $1/watt) and that’s why the holy grail of energy has long been to cover massive parts of Arizona and New Mexico, combined with super conducting power lines. Well until fusion.

      I’m not saying that is necessarily practical now, but it might be within 10 years and projections say that it could be done for around $1-$2 trillion. I’m not sure it is really our best solution either…which is definitely increased efficiency.

      Fuel cells are also perfect for cars as long as we have good sources of energy production.

      And geothermal is pretty much that simple. It’s been actively used for over 30 years, powers all of Iceland and can very cheaply be used to power places with shallow heat reservoirs within the next 5-10 years, just to get a handle. MIT released a study that said a mere $1 billion for research over the next 15 years is sufficient to develop technology to use the deeper heat wells and the actual plants are really cheap. If we spent $5-$10 billion a year I think it’d be viable to supply much (15-20%) of our nation’s energy within a decade and a half, instead of the by 2050 that MIT suggested by spending $80 million a year.

  • mikkel

    Within 3-4 years we will have figured out how to do solar power at the same cost per watt as coal and MIT released a study on geothermal power that says it can supply enormous amounts of energy very cheaply. They said in some places a nuclear power plant’s worth for only $10-$20 million dollars!

    The problem is that both sides inherently protect the status quo. The “free market” side doesn’t appreciate what qualities are necessary to spur competition and efficiency: something that has killed us when it comes to energy and health care. When things require vast infrastructural changes or have very inflexible demand, then market forces will always select the status quo and price rises will be very hard to control, at least until there is a complete crisis and near collapse out of necessity.

    By contrast, the other side is always highly concerned with job loss that temporarily accompanies major shifts and since we have shied away from having government owned infrastructure, the support to industries we give to have them develop it are attached with non-compete clauses. This has the perverse reality where things like the energy and communication grid have been huge components paid for by the tax payers but then have government given monopolies attached.

    Personally, I’d rather see all our infrastructural grids treated like our roads: the government pays for and owns them completely but private companies compete for construction and maintenance. For energy and communications the actual producers would also be private companies and rent usage from the government based on how much capacity they are using. Then individuals would have options about which provider to select.

    As for encouraging the development of technologies, I’m not sure that we are doing things that incorrectly on the applicative side, but basic research has fallen almost completely out of favor and this is very dangerous. I truly hope that Obama doubles the research budget and really basic research should run at about 8-10% of our budget. I also think we need a new cabinet level office that coordinates basic research findings with government subsidies and tax breaks….it would have long cut off corn ethanol because the basic science says it doesn’t make sense, while encouraging a bit more solar and a ton more geothermal.

  • undertoad, attitude and belief are not the same. A certain attitude may steer a set of beliefs or change them. So your comment just doesn’t fly. Unless you being sarcastic, then your comment is funny.

    cynicalone, vertical farming is an idea that may help highly urban areas deal with a readily accessible food supply. Your points about the ideal locations are sound. But I think a combination of urban vertical farming and migrating would be best.

    Great comments BarkyBree and mikkel. I wish I could reply right now but I’m pressed for time. LOL!

  • Jim_Satterfield

    The problem is that both sides inherently protect the status quo. The “free market” side doesn’t appreciate what qualities are necessary to spur competition and efficiency: something that has killed us when it comes to energy and health care. When things require vast infrastructural changes or have very inflexible demand, then market forces will always select the status quo and price rises will be very hard to control, at least until there is a complete crisis and near collapse out of necessity.

    Precisely, mikkel. Market forces only naturally respond to existing demand with existing solutions. They are terrible at anticipation. If a problem requires research with an indefinite timeline like researching new ways to capture solar power the markets will not bring their full forces to bear on the issue. In addition they don’t deal well with indirect costs as our health care and environmental problems show. Another weakness is their inability to consider social issues. Markets are very good at determining what people want when it comes to relatively simple evaluations of products to buy when the facts are readily available and understandable and there is a great deal of competition to provide that product. Outside of that arena market forces are highly flawed.

  • DLS

    ??? Do I need to re-post from earlier? Or did I post to the wrong thread? Was it too long?

    1. Another, arguably prettier, view of population density is the “nighttime lights” view.

    2. Population density varies due to things that largely can’t be changed or always adapted to. It includes not only difficult terrain but climate (which makes farming in much of the West impractical).

    3. Fission, then fusion, has been known not only by informed laypersons but also by nuclear physists and others such as James Lovelock. (The alternative energy sources are not substitutes at this time and may never be; superconducting transmission is prohibitively expensive; wind and solar are intermittent; batteries aren’t practical or cheap enough to use, so we need fossil-fired plants to back up wind or solar plants.)

    4. We cannot hope for going always to decentralization (fuel cells for vehicles and off-grid home power may work someday, but not yet) or to farm or be self-sufficient. The best we can do is to modify terrain (using nukes and huge earth moving efforts to punch gaps in the Pacfiic and Rocky mountain chains to enable marine air to intrude to the east) as well as engage in things like large-scale water transfer projects, but nobody nowadays wants to even think of the smallest or least ambitious of these.

    • mikkel

      Now that the necessary properties of superconductors has been solved on the atomic level, it is only a matter of time before we figure out how to do it cheaply. Graphene shows a good possibility for it. As for the other stuff I agree that efficiency is what should be focused on the most.

      Also about the free market stuff: systems theorists with an interest in economics are increasingly showing that market forces optimize efficiency through selection, integration and consolidation. In other words, they tend to pick the “best” solution, integrate it as part of the business/social web until it is indispensible, and then consolidate until only a few players (or at the very least, all players have the same playbook) are left. The theory is that ironically, the highlight on efficiency makes the free market the most robust and exploratory system at one time point, and then the most fragile and rigid system when the inefficiencies are completely gone. This makes it highly sensitive to external changes and is what causes huge collapses.

      This phenomenon is well described in many artificial and natural systems, and it has been shown that fundamentally, a certain amount of noise (or inefficiency in this case) is necessary for stability. I wouldn’t say that market forces only use “existing solutions” to meet “existing demand,” I’d say that they only seek to optimize the efficiencies of the current paradigm of thought. We are in the petroleum paradigm for energy, and on an even greater level, the consumptive growth paradigm in general.

      This why even all the alternative energies focus on questions like meeting demand, and the argument is to decentralize and start more growth. Alternative paradigms that are not growth oriented have completely different economic, architectural and lifestyle solutions that will never be explored by private industry. This is the level that government involvement has a huge effect. Not only was the Frontier Movement a deliberative change in the fabric of American society brought on by the government, but the post WWII suburban climate was one as well.

      Of course this opens up a couple of philosophical questions. Let’s say the systems theorists are right. Does that mean our current way of doing things is necessarily “bad?” Sure it could be argued that it produces greater downfalls and more concentrated misery, but it also most likely produces more technological progress. It really depends what your goals are.

      Secondly, even if it does produce more progress is that really how we want to live? If you look at population model perspective, our current paradigm is one that optimizes our ability to reach current carrying capacity, and also works on increasing that carrying capacity — but on that end it is just a projection. When the projection is wrong for whatever reason, bad things happen. Further, large scale events outside our control can produce fast decreases in carrying capacity.

      The Middle Ages is a perfect example of what happens when unsustainable lifestyle has taken hold and a very small decrease in carrying capacity happens. I think there is a good chance that the next century will see the same sort of forces in play, unless we can do something miraculous and really increase the carrying capacity in an immediate fashion. Otherwise, there is a good chance of hundreds of millions if not billions of people being killed.

      So it’s a double edged sword, because on one hand you can argue for sustainable, non-growth oriented policies and — if actually implemented correctly — we would theoretically have fewer major disruptions. On the other hand, if we had done that back in the 1800s we wouldn’t have had very good standard of living today.

      This is why some futurists advocate using labor as the ultimate determinant of paradigm choice. The idea is that if we get technologically sufficient that robots/computers can meet our basic needs, then we should move to a completely sustainable living paradigm.

  • DLS

    “Market forces only naturally respond to existing demand with existing solutions …”

    Much else incorrect, too, but at least with the first statement here that you made, an example when it has been true can be used to explain when there is a corresponding case for interventionism. The example involves the center of this country and continent, and involves the settling and farming of those lands and the construction of railroads to those lands.

    Following the Civil War, in particular — with a West open for settlement before everyone —

    * The people won’t settle and farm the land until they have a market for their produce and can get it to that market (and get to the land cheaply).

    * The railroads won’t extend to the land until there are people there who will use the railroad to ship their produce, or use it to settle the land initially.

    It makes no sense for either side to go first. What did Washington, DC, do? (not necessarily waiting for the end of the Civil War, either)

    The foregoing, of course, is no “conviction” (not merely “indictment”) of the big, bad market, nor a general liberal (free) case for interventionism (least of all to meet largely ficitious or hopelessly impractical dreams. or largely delusion and emotion rather than reason insofar as the environment and society are concerned), but it is a real-world case that illustrates where interventionism is a valid topic.

  • DLS

    Neither wind nor solar are replacements for fossil-powered or nuclear or hydropower production of our electricity now and in the future. Wind power is making more progress now than solar; both merit additional R&D money. Transmission efficiency (and cost) is also a legitimate object of R&D. That includes ultra-high-voltage transmission (many lefties hate that) as well as direct-current transmission. Transmission improvements make sense because transmission not only is a show stopper with wind or solar in remote locations far from where most of the population is, or offshore, but because it already is a problem with our conventional systems. Not just with the NIMBY problem (which won’t go away!) but simply to provide enough capacity for load sharing as well as getting power (which already is often in remote areas or in less-populated areas; that NIMBY problem again, in California’s case; it uses power from Arizona) to those developed areas.

    Nuclear faces huge start-up costs for power plants and don’t forget decommissioning at the end of the life of those power plants. (Waste already has technical solutions; the problems with waste are political, not technical.) Irrational hostility to nuclear power (as one book I own puts it very well) is a worse problem than the cost problem, still, at this time, but the cost problems are there.

    As for transportation, people want automobility, and fossil fuels have no current substitute. I’ve been intrigued by an idea of a future where you have rail systems that are electrified for high-speed inter-city travel and electric vehicles that run on their own power or are periodically recharged locally (going to electric vehicles, even if charged by coal-fired electricity, would greatly improve metro area pollution in theory), then for inter-city use they get on a rail system (possibly with fully automated system control), put up a pantograph, and zoom at 200-250 mph to the exit point. For air travel, fuel cells powering props (maybe a bank of pusher props on huge blended wing body airliners), worth going somewhat more slowly if much, much more cheaply (350-400 mph if, say, cheap to go coast to coast). But these are just musings; even something like these will be decades away at their best.

  • futzinfarb

    Your agreement with Anissimov’s claim that concern about overpopulation is a selection effect based on people living in crowded cities, is patently and quantitatively unsupported by your argument. Showing that there are regions of this country where population density is higher and regions where it is lower, imagining that somehow all the population might be spread out so that both yellow and blue regions turn green, and from that sunnily concluding that there are enough resources on this finite planet to support six billion, rushing headlong to ten billion, people is sophomoric at best.

    Randomly selected from among a vast list of issues this conclusion ignores are the additional resource impacts of those formerly yellow regions turned green (shouldn’t our experience with the suburbanization and exurbanization of America have at least a bit of a role in considering how this might work out?), studies showing that dense urban areas can be more resource efficient in many ways than less dense communities, and a quantitative and scientifically/technologically grounded consideration of the many, many parameters beyond map colors that determine the population carrying capacity of the earth and the quality of life of its inhabitants.

    Technology, ah yes technology. It has been a wonder at, for instance, delivering porn to your desktop, engineering Segway scooters to search for a problem, developing Humvees that can lay siege to nearly any landscape, and providing obscenely large high definition television screens to homes across our great nation. At reducing the consumption of finite resources, um, not so much. In my own view, this is only partly due to the market failures other commenters have identified. It is also due in large part to the second law of thermodynamics – an inviolable principle that so many of the technology pollyannas have chosen to ignore, the brick wall to end all brick walls, dead in the path of all those schemes that propose to replace, joule-for-joule, the extraordinarily low entropy and high energy density, and efficient and easy to transport energy source of fossil fuel with high entropy and low energy density, low efficiency and difficult to transport energy alternatives. It’s all so reminiscent of that long ago watershed, when a president came before a nation in crisis and asked, not for sacrifice, but shopping. Our resource pollyannas flirt with telling us that maybe we’ll be able to shop ourselves out of this one as well, a more absurd and fundamentally flawed prospect than President Bush’s own prescription.

    The elephant in the room as the Hubbert peak passes, as ocean fish stocks collapse, as fresh water becomes a battleground, as media and corporate interests design, spread and buttress a culture of consumption even for the impoverished, as ugly anitbiotic resistant strains of microrganisms multiply, as atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations relentlessly eponentiate, as the global arms market continues to boom, as extinctions accelerate, as the economics of global food supplies continue to undermine the meager foundation that has kept many millions just this side of starvation (not to mention the many millions it has abandoned to that horrific fate) really IS becoming how many people is too many? As the most extraordinarily successful large life form that has ever existed on the planet, we had better start asking the very painful question whether it is possible to be too successful. I remember what I observed many years ago in a little jar of nematodes and pablum with a tight fitting lid, a failed science fair project, over the course of a few days: the problem with biological systems and finite resources is that they always ask that question about success – and then answer it – if someone else doesn’t ask it first.

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