Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Cool Predictabliity Of the Rate Of Energy Consumption

Lately it seems not a day passes and I find some totally fascinating thing, I hadn't previously guessed, understood, been aware of, or realized was well within my scope of pleasure if not sphere of competence.  More on my competence, later (of course).

I watched a lecture, for example, by Danielo Nocera, who is a Chemist at MIT.  He has a great wit, and a wonderful anger that one can't help but think is appropriate in this land we live in of goofy Christians and their seeming total disdain for science and progressive anything.  So needless to say, when he turns to energy, let's just say he isn't your average limp-wristed propellerhead (the absolutely wrong name for T Boone Pickens, but hey....)

What he is good at is laying out the simple facts for global energy consumption in the future.  When you see how people who actually have to measure this stuff measure it, and you remind yourself that real mathematicians, physicists, and other true scientists have to have their suppositions checked by peer review, ect, you start to allow yourself to see things that had previously been politicized and used against the better angels of your rational mind. 

For examplel, if you were to ask yourself how one determines world demand for energy, honestly, you might not know that a paper came out in 1999 that predicted backwards in time, and it has been agreed by a sizable proportion of journals and scientists who read them, forwards in time the energy consumption rate of the world.  This is no small thing, since knowing the energy consumption for the future is two very important things:  one, it clears your head of dreamy ideas about what is possible with solar, wind, hydro-electric, geothermal, public transport, infrasructure improvements, city planning, algae technologies, and new and improved genetic techniques for fermenting through the biological pathways that were previously the sole domain of bacteria, fungus, and glandular tissues (for example the new system coming into commercial development making oil out of sugar.  Bacteria have done that for a long time, but it wasn't cost effective till pathway could be replicated in a bioreactor without simply feeding bacteria.  It still may not be cost effective in a more important sense, which is what I will be getting to here).  The other thing knowing the raw numbers in standard kilo or megawatt units allows aside from relief from fantasy (if you can handle that) is, you guessed it, real numbers in standard units to compare to each energy production option to ask yourself:  will the options we have be enough?  Who would have guessed such a question would be possible?

With all due respect, most folks have been lied to for so long, and have such an abysmal grasp of how big these numbers are, that they (including me, until recently) would have had no hope of entering the commonsensical world of merely computing what we need and asking if we can do it.  Remember paying super high prices for gas and oil because of phantom demand.  Remember scientists not exactly lighting up the lines or swamping the op ed pages?  Yeah, this subject is a seriously confusing one.  But none the less, at a global level the numbers scale to a better accuracy than, say the petroleum, market of the western world.  

There are also the fairies of hope, which are good fairies in general, but have a tendency with technology to go off the rails so often that one could be forgiven for thinking this train was an airplane.  Alot of interest in wind and alternative energy is actually a kind of silent prayer that we can fix this energy thing with small changes, and without heating up the earth.   There is nothing wrong with praying.  But I don't think praying for these particular technologies to accomplish those particular goals, is going to ever be consilient with the American Dream.  So you might ask, "Why not Andy?"  I was hoping you would.

Two things are worth remembering here:

One:  we have enough hydrocarbons for our energy needs in the future.


Two:  it is only that frustrating issue of global warming that is keeping us from trusting the fossilized Jurrasic peat from warming our feet till our great great grandchildren are being wheeled to their assisted living center.

The surprising results of that 1999 paper that gives the backwards and forwards accurate algorythm for global energy consumption mostly is surprising due to what it reveals about the likelihood of renewables replacing petroleum and coal, especially.  At this stage, there is zero liklihood.  And the earth will heat up.  That is where we are going.  That is how we are acting.  For all intensive purposes that is our destiny given the raw math of what the worlds population today demands, yesterday demanded, and tomorrow, if you will forgive the unfortunate electrifying pun, will still shine their lights on.  You think my children, my wife and I are going to use less energy than I use now.  Guess what, probably the main concern my parents, for example have about my life, in some senses, is that I am not a greater net user of electricity.  It is abnormal to share a house, family style, and split, therefore, the energy usage among three men, in America, and certainly in the Midwest.  And let me be clear, I am not really living such a low energy lifestyle, to a great extent, from my principles.  Far more a matter of taste.  I like the way this life feels.  When I have a family I am going to warm my feet by hundreds of pounds of burning coal.  And every child I bring into the world is going to represent thousands, tens of thousands, many, many short tons, of burning hydrocarbon.  My children aren't gonna go for this boarding BS.  And my wife.  HA!  So, like the rest of you, we are somehow going to believe in the right thing AND burn, baby, burn!

That is the basic quandry of the Westerner.  And that is the template that my friends from South Korea are talking about when they say that South Korean women will not live in a town without a Starbucks.  So they take everything that a woman (or all women) represents to the workings of a town, and find a Starbucks.  The result?  Rapid lifestyle change for both women, who walk to the locality of their dreams (Starbucks) and men, who predictably regard a town without women as not even fit for a dog.  Replace Starbucks with words like "coal fired electrification" and "non-poverty for the first time in your life" (know any Chinese? I do.  If they were poor as children, and you have met them in America, then you know they are not grateful to be here so much as mad at our insane lack of awareness about the nature of poverty vs. the dictates of nationalism.  Unfortunately, for you, their probably too scared to offend.) Replace Starbucks with those concepts and you've got India, China, and Brazil (though, yes, I know Brazil is differet, but MOVING.)  All of which goes to illustrate that our current energy needs are rapidly growing for cultural reasons.  They will never return to any previous state without World War.  Period.  That is why the algorhytm is so reliable.  It is based on GDP and population, and that's just about all you need to know the past, present and future of energy consumption or rate of consumption.

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