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Ch. 1: Understanding Energy

#186: Jan. - March 2023 (Non-Fiction)
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Ch. 1: Understanding Energy

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Ch. 1: Understanding Energy


Please use this thread to discuss the above referenced chapter of How the World Really Works: The Science Behind How We Got Here and Where We're Going by Vaclav Smil.
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Re: Ch. 1: Understanding Energy

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Smil’s review of fuels and energy is a good introduction, particularly for non-specialists. He underlines several useful perspectives before moving on to the more applied discussion.

It’s worth a few minutes to take on board his overall orientation, which is explained in the Introduction: he believes that extreme opinions are formed out of ignorance. Two of his examples are the notion that human ingenuity can overcome all problems, so we don’t need to worry about, e.g. global warming, and the contrasting notion that we must magically convert all energy use to renewables in a decade or two. These are both based on empty wishful thinking rather than basic understanding.

Several of his well-considered background ideas are found in the first subsection “Fundamental Shifts”. He goes through the gradual progress of organisms in exploiting the environment, emphasizing the dramatic change that came when hominins learned to control fire, giving access to “extrasomatic” energy sources. This was followed eventually by crops and then domestication of animals, a new source of power used for plowing, carrying and, of course, warfighting.

As a benchmark against which to compare industrial power, he notes that in 1500 more than 90 percent of useable power was from humans or animals (about equally divided). Presumably the rest was in windmills, waterwheels and the like. Moving into the later stages, he begins to emphasize the time required for shifts. The first 30 years of steam engines, up to 1800, only managed to replace a small percentage of animate power. I would have liked some detail fleshed out, such as all the carts and barnraising and plowing of fields that did not suddenly change to steam engines, but the reader can fill that in. Similarly, by 1950 coal still dominated energy sources, although oil had been on the scene for more than 70 years.

Smil wants us to take seriously the amount of time it takes to make dramatic shifts, and there is nothing wrong with that point as a generality. But after watching the amount by which Zoom meetings scaled up during Covid, permanently reducing business travel below its former trend, it seems clear that the point has its limits.

First, the pace of technological development and adaptation has stepped up considerably. Shifts to electric cars, for example, have proceded much faster than forecast. Second, his historical examples are “unpromoted” shifts (though some changes such as railroad development did have considerable governmental assistance).

Prices change gradually with learning curves, infrastructure locks in some of former methods, and in other ways the normal transitions “drag their feet.” But a truly dramatic change could happen rapidly even in previous centuries such as with the building of railroads and the adaptation of small-scale manufacturing to the availability of electric power. Normal inertia can be overcome, in other words, when dramatic opportunity makes an appearance or government policy decides to speed things up.

This is background to the discussion of transition away from fossil fuels toward renewables, which is his real subject for the chapter.
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Re: Ch. 1: Understanding Energy

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How The World Really Works Smil
Harry Marks wrote: Fri Jan 20, 2023 11:04 pm Smil’s review of fuels and energy is a good introduction, particularly for non-specialists. He underlines several useful perspectives before moving on to the more applied discussion.
Hi Harry, thanks very much for taking on the leadership of this discussion. Your economic expertise and broad scholarship offer a great basis to see where there are important themes in Smil’s argument, and also to open up critique and dialogue. I hope we can encourage more people to participate.
Harry Marks wrote: Fri Jan 20, 2023 11:04 pm It’s worth a few minutes to take on board his overall orientation, which is explained in the Introduction: he believes that extreme opinions are formed out of ignorance.
As a general principle the avoidance of extremes is an essentially wise position. If you do find yourself attracted by an extreme opinion, you should exercise the humility of asking yourself, or even better asking others in conversation, if there may be some factor that you have not fully understood. Even so, it may on occasion happen that expert conversation can lead to a rejection of the social consensus. The risk in Smil’s principle of moderation is the ad populum fallacy, the belief that because an opinion is popular it must be true.
Harry Marks wrote: Fri Jan 20, 2023 11:04 pmTwo of his examples are the notion that human ingenuity can overcome all problems, so we don’t need to worry about, e.g. global warming, and the contrasting notion that we must magically convert all energy use to renewables in a decade or two. These are both based on empty wishful thinking rather than basic understanding.
I find the debate around ingenuity troubling. One of the big issues in climate change is around the need to change thinking. Greta Thunberg argues in her latest book, where she provides the popular public face for numerous expert contributions on climate change, that reliance on ingenuity simply continues the “same domineering thinking” that caused the problem. It seems she sees climate change as requiring a religious reformation to solve, given how deeply the psychology of human dominion is entrenched in social and economic values. The problem with that Thunberg line is that climate change is like a flood that is about to swamp the levee, and if we don’t focus on ingenuity to fix the levee then it will break. So I don’t see what else can overcome problems other than ingenuity.
Harry Marks wrote: Fri Jan 20, 2023 11:04 pm Several of his well-considered background ideas are found in the first subsection “Fundamental Shifts”. He goes through the gradual progress of organisms in exploiting the environment, emphasizing the dramatic change that came when hominins learned to control fire, giving access to “extrasomatic” energy sources. This was followed eventually by crops and then domestication of animals, a new source of power used for plowing, carrying and, of course, warfighting.
Finding a way to tell the story of Big History is central to seeing who we are and where we should go. These themes have been discussed by big authors like Hariri and Diamond, with the whole Promethean story of reliance on fire and technology, and the risks that involves as told in the cautionary myth of Prometheus on Mount Caucasus.
Harry Marks wrote: Fri Jan 20, 2023 11:04 pm As a benchmark against which to compare industrial power, he notes that in 1500 more than 90 percent of useable power was from humans or animals (about equally divided). Presumably the rest was in windmills, waterwheels and the like. Moving into the later stages, he begins to emphasize the time required for shifts. The first 30 years of steam engines, up to 1800, only managed to replace a small percentage of animate power. I would have liked some detail fleshed out, such as all the carts and barnraising and plowing of fields that did not suddenly change to steam engines, but the reader can fill that in. Similarly, by 1950 coal still dominated energy sources, although oil had been on the scene for more than 70 years.
It is remarkable how much the First World War still relied on horses. All this material reminded me of the work of Will Steffen on The Great Acceleration. His observation is that numerous key social and economic indicators have followed an L-shaped curve, flatlining close to zero until 1950, and then basically going vertical. An extract of this phenomenon is in the chart below from his paper. His article is available at https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu ... N_2015.pdf and provides excellent context for Smil’s argument. But where Smil derives optimism from this triumph of technology, Steffen is far more fearful and cautionary, saying we have so fundamentally transformed our relation to our planet that collapse is very likely.
Harry Marks wrote: Fri Jan 20, 2023 11:04 pm Smil wants us to take seriously the amount of time it takes to make dramatic shifts, and there is nothing wrong with that point as a generality. But after watching the amount by which Zoom meetings scaled up during Covid, permanently reducing business travel below its former trend, it seems clear that the point has its limits.
You can’t extrapolate from the simple and convenient and enforced enablement of online meetings, driven by the twin factors of technology and lockdown, to the challenge of decarbonisation. I think Smil’s assessment of the momentum and power and inertia involved in shifting energy systems is spot on. There is immense false hope vested in renewable energy. To that I would add that this religious-style hope around renewables is fundamentally unscientific, failing to look at cause and effect in systemic ways. Fossil fuels are so convenient, effective and familiar that the latent constituency for their retention has been systematically underestimated by advocates of renewable energy. I will come back to this in regard to how geoengineering fits with Smil’s analysis.
Harry Marks wrote: Fri Jan 20, 2023 11:04 pm First, the pace of technological development and adaptation has stepped up considerably. Shifts to electric cars, for example, have proceeded much faster than forecast. Second, his historical examples are “unpromoted” shifts (though some changes such as railroad development did have considerable governmental assistance).
I predict a backlash against electric cars. Just as the wave of enthusiasm for emission reduction in the 1990s led those whose interests were challenged to mobilise, so too I expect to seen a lot more criticisms of the problems with this shift.
Harry Marks wrote: Fri Jan 20, 2023 11:04 pm Prices change gradually with learning curves, infrastructure locks in some of former methods, and in other ways the normal transitions “drag their feet.” But a truly dramatic change could happen rapidly even in previous centuries such as with the building of railroads and the adaptation of small-scale manufacturing to the availability of electric power. Normal inertia can be overcome, in other words, when dramatic opportunity makes an appearance or government policy decides to speed things up.
Acceleration of a technology shift needs broad consensus. With renewable energy, there has been a tendency just to ignore some fundamental problems, namely the environmental impact of new transmission systems, the need for full cost accounting, and most crucially in my view, the fact that a shift to renewables will be marginal to actually cooling the planet, which will rely firstly on increasing albedo and then on converting CO2 into useful products.
Harry Marks wrote: Fri Jan 20, 2023 11:04 pm This is background to the discussion of transition away from fossil fuels toward renewables, which is his real subject for the chapter.
Many thanks for kicking off the conversation Harry. Here are the graphs of the Great Acceleration from Steffen’s paper that I mentioned.
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Re: Ch. 1: Understanding Energy

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Electricity
Smil has a strong overview of the advantages and limitations of electric power. It is incredibly convenient: flip a switch and the grid is at your disposal. He has some good examples of the changes wrought by convenient and reliable electric power, and if you have ever lived where it is not reliable I am sure you have a great appreciation for its flexibility. And that is without a very good grasp of all the industrial uses, from sewing machines to the smelting of aluminum.

I would like to have seen some discussion of the ways materials science has given us incredible gains in efficiency in applications, particularly with LED lighting and with microwave cooking, but he already has a lot in here.

He is very good on the limitations of electrification of air travel. He develops the concept of energy density with some care: fossil fuels pack much more deliverable energy per pound than batteries do, and that means airplanes will probably continue to fly by burning fossil fuel for the foreseeable future. (No discussion of hydrogen fuel cells, though, which apparently offer some hope.) He discusses the high-speed train alternative which has done well in Europe and East Asia, but that is not likely to take off in the U.S. outside the Northeast corridor.

However, we are now post-Covid and everyone is familiar with the rapid growth of remote work. The flights may not switch power source, but they may decrease as people get more familiar with Zoom and Skype and all the other ways to move information instead of people. And of course if fossil fuel costs reflected their harm to the environment, that trend would be accelerated. Maybe Meta is on to something: soon we may take if for granted we can suit up for a business meeting in VR equipment and shake hands with someone on another continent.
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Robert Tulip wrote: The problem with that Thunberg line is that climate change is like a flood that is about to swamp the levee, and if we don’t focus on ingenuity to fix the levee then it will break. So I don’t see what else can overcome problems other than ingenuity.
Well, government has the task of meeting crises with mobilized action. You tend to dismiss that as an option, but eventually as a crisis worsens, the need becomes clear. I have no problem with ingenuity, but Smil makes the point that endless faith in it is probably a response of ignorance.
It is remarkable how much the First World War still relied on horses. All this material reminded me of the work of Will Steffen on The Great Acceleration. His observation is that numerous key social and economic indicators have followed an L-shaped curve, flatlining close to zero until 1950, and then basically going vertical. But where Smil derives optimism from this triumph of technology, Steffen is far more fearful and cautionary, saying we have so fundamentally transformed our relation to our planet that collapse is very likely.
Thanks for the link and graphs. The overall impression is striking. I tend to think the truth is somewhere in between the two views. Emergence from poverty has led to population stability, for example. Yet it's clear that humanity is far from learning to manage the challenges posed by its industrialization. Collapse is a distinct possibility.
You can’t extrapolate from the simple and convenient and enforced enablement of online meetings, driven by the twin factors of technology and lockdown, to the challenge of decarbonisation. I think Smil’s assessment of the momentum and power and inertia involved in shifting energy systems is spot on.

The evidence in favor of inertia is strong. I merely observe that different conditions can lead to different results. Certainly the substitution of information movement for movement of bodies has a powerful momentum of its own, and the Covid reaction was merely the most dramatic illustration. Smil has made a very strong claim, by claiming "How the world works" in his title. So I feel called on to set up a counter analysis.
There is immense false hope vested in renewable energy. To that I would add that this religious-style hope around renewables is fundamentally unscientific, failing to look at cause and effect in systemic ways.
The book does a pretty good job of looking at the implications of unevenness of power generation by renewables. Another serious flaw is the "low-hanging fruit" problem that the best opportunities tend to be taken first, so that there are questions left as to replicability of past growth. Solar still looks pretty good that way, but wind maybe not so much.

In any case I intend to discuss the "nuclear option" which is the obvious counter to the variability of renewables.
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Harry Marks wrote: Thu Feb 09, 2023 8:18 pm government has the task of meeting crises with mobilized action. You tend to dismiss that as an option, but eventually as a crisis worsens, the need becomes clear. I have no problem with ingenuity, but Smil makes the point that endless faith in it is probably a response of ignorance.
Smil has been widely quoted by right wingers for his observation of the impossibility of combining emission reduction and ongoing prosperity. These observations are sound, but fail to engage with the implication of unchecked warming, namely that ecological and economic collapse due to warming induced tipping points can only be prevented by ingenuity. That means institutional and governmental ingenuity as much as innovation in technology. The mobilised action required from governments is to coordinate on practical priorities such as refreezing the North Pole, an idea that seems outlandish to those who do not follow the science but is central to climate stability. Recent extreme weather has been driven in large part by polar amplification. Mobilised action by government that is not fit for purpose is a major danger, losing crucial time and money needed to enable effective responses to looming tipping points.

The implication of Smil’s analysis, which he himself completely fails to notice or mention, is that brightening the planet through enhanced albedo is the only thing that could mitigate climate catastrophe in the short term. Carbon-based methods are also needed, but have a much slower mobilisation and impact speed.
Harry Marks wrote: Thu Feb 09, 2023 8:18 pm Thanks for the link and graphs [Great Acceleration]. The overall impression is striking. I tend to think the truth is somewhere in between the two views. Emergence from poverty has led to population stability, for example. Yet it's clear that humanity is far from learning to manage the challenges posed by its industrialization. Collapse is a distinct possibility.
Sadly, Will Steffen the main author of these graphs died last week. I agree with you that The Great Acceleration, his term for these rapid changes since 1950, does not necessarily imply looming collapse, but it does clearly imply that a much more scientific and rigorous and deliberate approach to planetary stability is needed, through an evolution of political systems. Collapse can be averted by honest discussion of the world situation, something that unfortunately is not occurring in mainstream media and politics. The exclusion of albedo from polite conversation is a primary indicator of this unwillingness to face the risk of sudden planetary tipping points. This is my main current focus. As an example of how far current politics is from climate realism, see https://medium.com/@JacksonDamian/faste ... 75203cf8ac FASTER THAN EXPECTED…why most climate scientists can’t tell the truth (in public)
Harry Marks wrote: Thu Feb 09, 2023 8:18 pm The evidence in favor of inertia [of energy systems] is strong.
This is a main theme of Smil’s book, for which he presents abundant support. There is simply no prospect that changing energy systems could prevent dangerous warming. His discussion of economic inertia does not even enter the realm of political inertia, which thoroughly amplifies his point that emission reduction cannot mitigate climate change.
Harry Marks wrote: Thu Feb 09, 2023 8:18 pm substitution of information movement for movement of bodies has a powerful momentum of its own, and the Covid reaction was merely the most dramatic illustration. Smil has made a very strong claim, by claiming "How the world works" in his title. So I feel called on to set up a counter analysis.
Covid barely caused a blip in the relentless increase of the carbon emission rate. The shift to online communication is certainly powerful and dramatic in terms of cultural impact, but it has only marginal real climate impact.
Harry Marks wrote: Thu Feb 09, 2023 8:18 pm The book does a pretty good job of looking at the implications of unevenness of power generation by renewables. Another serious flaw is the "low-hanging fruit" problem that the best opportunities tend to be taken first, so that there are questions left as to replicability of past growth. Solar still looks pretty good that way, but wind maybe not so much.
I think Smil fails to notice the main implication of unevenness, and of renewables more generally, that a focus on the energy transition is marginal to climate stability, and that other forms of ingenuity are needed to mitigate dangerous warming.
Harry Marks wrote: Thu Feb 09, 2023 8:18 pm In any case I intend to discuss the "nuclear option" which is the obvious counter to the variability of renewables.
Nuclear energy has major potential to decarbonise electricity supply, but this is very much a medium term agenda, not relevant to climate policy.
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Robert Tulip wrote: Fri Feb 10, 2023 12:41 am Smil has been widely quoted by right wingers for his observation of the impossibility of combining emission reduction and ongoing prosperity.
As a base case, his point is valid. But, in my opinion, he lacks the insight into economic processes necessary to make his case convincing. Rather I am here to see what the dragon looks like, that must be slain.
Robert Tulip wrote: Fri Feb 10, 2023 12:41 am Sadly, Will Steffen the main author of these graphs died last week.
Sorry to hear it. We need all the insightful analysts and communicators we can get.
Robert Tulip wrote: Fri Feb 10, 2023 12:41 am There is simply no prospect that changing energy systems could prevent dangerous warming. His discussion of economic inertia does not even enter the realm of political inertia, which thoroughly amplifies his point that emission reduction cannot mitigate climate change.
Political inertia is the entire problem. Dangerous warming has already happened, and will continue to happen, and the only sustainable solution is changing energy systems.
Robert Tulip wrote: Fri Feb 10, 2023 12:41 amNuclear energy has major potential to decarbonise electricity supply, but this is very much a medium term agenda, not relevant to climate policy.
I sincerely wish you luck with your geoengineering ideas. But the medium term is what we mainly need to aim for at this point. Tipping points will happen, but there is some chance the catastrophe can be limited if we make the transition.
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Decarbonisation

In addition to Smil's major ideas of energy density (relevant to air travel) and intermittency of renewable electric supply, he takes on the issue of decarbonisation directly. His analysis of the problem of scale in Germany's failed transition, by contrast with Denmark's 45 % wind sources for electric power, is illuminating. Denmark "solves" intermittency by buying electric power from outside, which is not an option for an economy as large as Germany's. Further details follow, and it is worthwhile reading about them, but not, I think, repeating them here.

He follows with a more careful analysis of the nuclear option, which Germany foolishly rejected in the wake of Chernobyl and then Fukushima. Despite its obvious potential, he blithely sweeps on to simply argue that countries have made determined efforts to decarbonise with very limited results. The IEA's "Stated Policies" scenarios (pre-Biden, I note) has fossil fuel share of global energy use declining from 80% in 2019 to 72% in 2040. With aggressive sustainability policies this still only falls to 56%. From this he correctly notes that net zero by 2050 is unlikely. But a fall to 56%? That's a prize worth trying for.

Finally he argues that rich countries can afford a lot of change, but poor countries need the cheap fossil fuel energy to sustain growth. There is a lot of truth to that, but it is also true that with political will the rich countries can easily afford to buy off the poor ones with subsidies for sustainable energy in the Third World.
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