Archives for posts with tag: solar

There is no such thing as limited resources, there is only unlimited resourcefulness.

People often claim that infinite economic growth is impossible in a closed system. Besides the fact that planet Earth is not a closed system, a thousand tons of cosmic material falls onto Earth each year, it is not the confines of this system that constraints our growth, yet. Growth is by all practical scales and timeframes regulated by an open system, namely our brains. Its creativity and ingenuity knows no theoretical bounds and can be considered infinite. The cumulative knowledge it has been building has been growing for ever and continues to do so at a mindboggling pace of yearly doublings. It is this growth that has been paramount to our economic development.

When rivers flowed idly, its energy preserved in the flow, it was the knowledge of the waterwheel that enabled us to use part of that energy. The windmill provided means to tap into the energy of moving air. Coal was used in Roman times as jewelry, an increase in knowledge enabled its energetic potential and kickstarted the Industrial Revolution. Oil was a nuisance for many farmers in the 19th century, until technologic progress unlocked its energy, and it powered the Oil age. Uranium knew practically no use, until science cracked nuclear fission.

 The basic flaw of the impossible infinite economic growth claim above is that it fails to recognize what our fundamental resource is. Because our fundamental resource is not oil or gas, nor had it been coal, wood, water or wind, our fundamental resource is our brains. When people were struggling in the Middle Ages to obtain food to not die of hunger, it was not due to lack of resources, but due to the lack of knowledge how to make use of these resources. The difference between the economy now and the economy a thousand years ago is not that there are more resources now, but that we have more knowledge to extract and effectively use resources. And when people in Africa are in danger of starvation, it is not due lack of (physical) resources, because its lands are bountiful, but again, a lack of knowledge and knowhow how to extract, obtain and use these resources effectively.

Of course our infinite creativity operates within the finite boundaries of our planet, but on system Earth so much energy circulates, that the impending end of the Oil Age, need not to be seen as the impending end of energetic and economic growth.

Look at the following graphic depiction of energy availability. The finite resources are in total amounts of energy, the renewables in yearly numbers, with a small reference for yearly energy consumption. The potential for solar is immense.

  

The practice of extracting this enormous potential of the suns energy, has begun rather recently, but it has grown explosively since. 

 

Solar power generating capacity grew by 73.3% in 2011. Total capacity grew by 29.3 GW to reach 63.4 GW. Capacity has grown almost ten-fold over the past 5 years and had been growing for an exponential rate for 35 years already, doubling every 2 years. Below I plotted the cumulative solar output up to 2009 and extrapolated it onwards and a rough estimate of the world energy use is also shown, in a logarithmic scale. Bar the fact that cumulative output over the years can not be simply added up to provide a grant total, it does give a feel of the enormous strides being made in the field of solar production.

And solar is not the only renewable that is growing, other renewables show similar trends.

  

The potential of solar is big, but when we would talk fusion, the energy potential of planet Earth takes on an incomprehensible size. Below I plotted the yearly contribution of the sun of the energy of system Earth again, now together with a circle representing nuclear fusion. Where the sun is about a mm in diameter, the diameter of the energy available from fusion is 6 meter, and only a fraction can be shown. In fact, given current energy use and taking it as constant, fusion from deuterium from sea water only, would be enough to provide us with 75 billion years of energy supply or roughly 5 times the age of the universe. Again, it is not the physical boundaries that are constraining us, but the lack of knowledge to perform fusion effectively is holding us back.

For fusion it is always said that it is 30 years away and always will be. I believe this not to be so, but let’s take a look at energy supply now, its growth and direction, and bring the discussion back to understandable and practical dimensions.

We talked solar, and solar is poised to become big. Already growing exponentially for 35 years straight, it will soon become a significant part of our energy supply. But not only solar has been growing, in fact, practically all sources of energy have seen increased production also those with finite reserves. If resources become ever more scarce the more we mine them, how come we produce more of it now than ever before?

One way of looking at resource extraction is as if it were a pyramid. The oil on top is of prime quality, achieved through unlikely and lengthy purification processes; it is both very pure and highly accessible, think of the oil that surfaced in Texas beginning of the 20th century. Going downwards in the pyramid, oils of lesser quality and/or lesser accessibility are found, but these are also more plentiful, e.g. deep sea oil drilling. Further down oil has had practically no purification and remains within the so-called source rock, e.g. the Canadian tarsands.
Our ability to extract oil will then be related to two variables: the physical reality of how oil is present within Earth; the pyramid, versus our improving skills to find and extract oil. If our knowledge increases faster than that the pyramid empties, we will continuously increase our output. And judging our production of oil, which reached a new high in 2011, this is exactly what is happening.

 

Our ability to produce oil increases so fast, that every year the amount of proven reserves is actually increasing. And the years that we have oil left has risen from an estimated 30 years of proven reserves left in 1980, to 45 years left, 30 years later in 2010.

 

Natural gas can also be presented as a pyramid, here one with the reserves the lower 48 states of the US.

Also here productivity is foremost related to ingenuity, and ingenuity recently opened up new possibilities; fracking  and horizontal drilling enabled small pockets of gas within shales to be extracted that previously remained out of reach. So gas production has been sharply rising as well.

 

Coal use is growing as well, in fact all sources of energy show growth except for nuclear, which suffers from social backlash and safety concerns.

Picture our energy production as the mind’s competition with the physical, the mind over matter. In this system Earth we can get our energy from many different places. Solar might be cheapest in sunny areas, coal in areas where externalities are neglected, hydro electricity where rivers have might and gas where reserves are plenty. Many resources can substitute each other, some are mobile and all can produce electricity.

 Our energy use is not and never has been a function of the actual physical availability of resources, it has always been a function of increasing knowledge. The enormous amounts of energy available, its great variety in appearances, together with the exponentially increasing cumulative knowledge, leads to an ever increasing accessibility of energy for us humans. That’s why total energy use and even the energy per capita have been increasing as far back as we can measure them.

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The human mind is our fundamental resource

– J.F.Kennedy, 20-02-1961

 After the last Ice Age rising sea levels flooded the land bridge between Tasmania and Australia and effectively separated the islanders from the mainland. When Abel Tasman discovered the island 8000 years later, five thousand Aborigines were living there. Isolated, they had not only missed the progress of the mainland, but they had collectively lost knowledge. They did not use bone tools anymore, but made their tools of stone once again and they did not wear clothes, but rubbed their bodies with seal fat to keep warm. A collective of five thousand people was unable to maintain their level of knowledge, let alone be able to move it forward: technological regression.

 

Malthusian Catastrophe, AKA This time it’s different

In 1798 Thomas Malthus wrote his Essay on the Principle of Population and the Malthusian school of thought was born; population growth is exponential, Earth’s resources are limited and one of these days this equation will run amuck evoking a catastrophe of enormous proportions. Since then every era has had his envisioned limits and its intellectuals seeing the end of progress because of them. In 1865 William Jevons predicted in The Coal Question Peak Coal. He foresaw the end of progress and stated “I must point out the painful fact that such a rate of growth will before long render our consumption of coal comparable with the total supply. In the increasing depth and difficulty of coal mining we shall meet that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress.” Paul Ehrlich visioned starvation a hundred years later, stating “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.” (from: Population Bomb, 1971). England had Peak Coal, but progress did not stop there and Paul Ehrlich’s book just got its first print and the Green Revolution was well underway, the percentage of malnourished people shrank from 37% in 1970 to 17% in 2007 even as the population of the World doubled.

Nowadays, concern about overpopulation is the intellectual norm. Supposedly the Earth is not able to sustain this many people, let alone an even bigger population. And if Peak Oil will not be our end, surely the use of that oil and the carbon emitted will. But the opposite was true in the past, the larger the population, the better we all had it. What makes this time different? Why would the envisioned limits really be the constraint this time?

 

The more, the merrier

Since Malthus published his book the world population showed a seven fold increase. In the meantime quality of life made huge strides forward. In Indur Goklany’s excellent Improving State of the World a wealth of data is used to show that the human condition improved tremendously the last few centuries. In the face of all the doomsayers’ predictions nearly every human related measurable parameter has improved and is in better shape than ever. Healthy longevity, food availability, child mortality, maternal mortality, mobility, illiteracy, poverty, child labour, amount of worked hours, suffrage and freedom; all showed massive worldwide improvements. Recently even air and water quality have been improving in the developed world. Also forests and nature reserves have been growing, with many animals flourishing again, this in contrast with the popular opinion that economic growth necessarily comes at the cost of the environment. In the meanwhile, prices of resources become ever cheaper or put differently, we use an ever smaller portion of our income to buy energy, food, water and metals.

 

Limits of planet Earth

The limits of planet Earth are not absolute; they are solely constraint by the reigning paradigm. Wood, peat, coal, but also oxes, horses, wind and water energy (in the Middle Ages) were all used in their paradigm to their absolute maximum, than they were substituted by a new energy source through innovation and progress continued robustly. By definition one cannot see beyond your paradigm, which provides a sense of finiteness to the people living in the paradigm. This feeling is totally unjustified when looking at the facts. Of all energy circulating on planet Earth, we only use a tiny fraction. In fact, if we compare the World’s energy consumption with the energy the Earth receives from the sun alone, we only use 0.01%, or put differently, each year the Earth receives twice as much energy from the sun as all fossil and uranium reserves put together. It is only a lack of imagination that this energy is not up for grabs.

At this moment the paradigm shift is happening, the solar energy sector is the fastest growing energy sector in the world, doubling output every two years, for thirty five years already, in twenty more years the sun will provide all our energy needs.

 

Why should we want more people?

Man is a problem solver. We are intrinsically wired to want to solve problems, from puzzles to mathematical problems to curing diseases. The bigger the population the more we can create, build, innovate and solve. The more we can specialize and use our brains as efficiently as possible for ever more complex problems. But also, the more we are, the more music, movies and art we will make. The more Einsteins, Mozarts and Peles we will come to know.

All major problems mankind is facing, problems like cancer, aids, food, water and energy supply and global warming, we will solve sooner with more people than with less. This is because the limits are not defined by the Earth yet, but only by our creativity. In its essence every new person is primarily a problem solver, not a problem. That’s why up to now the bigger the population, the better we all have it and that’s why we are allowed  to embrace every new human being with rejoice and not need to fear a growing population. Like the average human being in existence, a new baby will probably be a net problem solver, an enrichment to the lives surrounding it and a contributor to the World’s wealth. In other words, a welcome addition to team human.

 

The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones

There are caves in the Netherlands, tens of meters beneath the ground, kilometres long where my ancestors in the Stone Age were digging for pieces of flint. Possibly they were also afraid that they would run out of their essential resource, their way of making fire and tools, trapped as they were in their paradigm. Also they would not be able to see the solutions of tomorrow for the problems of today and also they could not presume there was only one resource fundamental for our progress. That resource is the most complex object in the known universe. It is the ultimate resource: our brains and their  potential for creativity is infinite.

 

Ehrlich, Paul R. The Population Bomb. (1971).

 Goklany, Indur M. The Improving State of the World: Why We’re Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives On a Cleaner Planet (2007)

 Jevons, William Stanley ,The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (1865)

 Malthus, Thomas R. An Essay On The Principle Of Population (1798)

 Ridley, Matt, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010)