Wednesday, June 29, 2005

the revenge of chicken little

Prophets of doom have been pushing disaster snake oil for millennia. It’s terrible, I tell you. These shameless hucksters of terriblisma! The only thing worse would be an actual disaster.

At present, the baseline scenario for peak oil is a negative one. The smoothest transition we can hope for given current global inaction is one where conservation and renewables make up the depletion gap, if we are lucky enough to have a nice, gradual down slope.

The idea that during the decline of oil and natural gas we will continue business and progress as usual is highly questionable. Entertain optimistic scenarios, but necessarily hold them to a higher burden of proof than the negative ones.

This is opposite the experience of all of us living in western culture, where every year has brought energy fueled progress. Our gut tricks us, tells us it ain’t so – that IRA will be there for us when we retire, and if we’re real lucky Janet Jackson will flash her other boob during the 2015 Super Bowl.

Peak Energy will flip progress on its head.

Is this a fair contention? I think so. There are numerous positive and promising ideas out there for alternative modes of living, but they are not actually reflected in current culture. There is a large gap between the idea of something –- and even a working a prototype -- and the ability to start producing it on a large scale.

Would you know how to grow and produce algae based bio-diesel in a pinch? Or build a vertical garden that gets enough sun and water? What happens to our manufacturing base in general when electricity and liquid fuels become sporadic? Will western nations suffer a malaise, or will strong leadership carry us through?

These are open questions, and they are endless.


At 12:13 AM, June 29, 2005, Blogger bookman said...

Peak Energy will flip progress on its head.

I think this idea itself will cause a very quick return of 'social capital,' a topic TOD's Prof. Goose discussed in a recent post.

The inevitable daily hardships caused by peak oil will hopefully return the social aspect to neighborhoods quickly. If anything will save us, it will start there.

At 7:02 PM, June 29, 2005, Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

Oil prices are already flipping the idea of "good vehicle" on its head.  I expect the gas-only SUV segment to be dead as a doornail by 2010.

On the other hand, there are some surprising developments in solar thermochemical energy storage.  The implications are wide-ranging.

At 7:43 PM, June 29, 2005, Blogger WHT said...

Yum, zinc.

At 10:43 PM, June 29, 2005, Blogger Matt said...

It is odd how one just forgets that things (way more likely than not) will not be as good in the future and that the future will not be an extension of our progress oriented present. You just kind of get into the fast paced flow of life and forget. I do this a lot at the hospital, a lot. We do research projects and such that have ten year time tables. Personally, I plan (had planned?) to be a neurosurgeon. I would have finished training in 2017! The world will look so very different by that time if we are even half right. I guess my point is that I think the most psychologically painful thing for people will be the destruction of that assumption of progress and that things will get better and brighter.

At 4:38 AM, June 30, 2005, Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

The first automobiles were nowhere near as nice as the best horse-drawn conveyances (being noisy, rough and unreliable) yet it would be very hard to argue they did not represent a very large improvement after a fairly short period of development.

Same thing with oil.  The Prius and hybrid Accord are better cars than their standard cousins in most respects; they are not only more economical, they are quieter, cleaner and more powerful.  Versions with bigger batteries to allow stretches of gas-optional driving would just improve those attributes.

The future is going to be different in ways you can't predict.  That doesn't mean we won't need neurosurgeons.

At 5:20 AM, June 30, 2005, Blogger Big Gav said...

Zinc is cool - very good for preventing sunburn to the end of your nose.

I'm not so sure that Zinc process is going to be the solution to many problems though - even WorldChanging sounded a bit cautious on that one...

At 6:41 AM, June 30, 2005, Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

I'd say that, except that zinc is looking to be a better-proven motor "fuel" than hydrogen.  For instance, look at the zinc bus tests.

There are now two proven methods for making metallic zinc from oxide:

1.  Dissolve into ionic solution and recover electrolytically.
2.  Add carbon and recover thermochemically, with chemical and electrical energy as by-products.

The first lets you capture and store energy from sources like wind, the second from solar.

Unless there is some fly in the ointment, this is looking extremely attractive due to its flexibility.  Now all we need is a way to re-fill a car's Zn-air batteries from a hose, and we'll be all set.  (I know that's a non-trivial engineering problem... but it's an engineering problem, not fundamental to the scheme in the way that energetics is.)

At 6:49 AM, June 30, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are a myriad of things we can do technologically to deal with less oil. But, ultimately, we need to radically restructure our towns and cities and transportation system to do away with the need to use the automobile. The automobile should end up like Ice Cream for those with weight problems, only to be used or consumed on very special occassions.

As a child, I used to take the train on vacations when I went from Oklahoma to Colorado. I would love to see that resurgence. The train was a truly wonderful way to see the country.

The main problem, of course, is our population too large to return to a less energy intensive society. Can we feed all these billions without oil? It could be that our world is essentially on life support. Once you pull the plug, it may be over for most of us.

At 5:30 PM, June 30, 2005, Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

Can we feed all these billions without oil?

In a word: Yes.

At 9:35 PM, June 30, 2005, Blogger monkeygrinder said...

I appreciate everyone's comments.

WHT -- yeah, I got my zinc in my tummy.

E-P -- In a sense we are talking past each other on some of these topics. (Which I don't mind at all.) My world view is wider than certain "greens" in that I do believe that technological fixes can get us out of our predicament. At the same time, I am concerned that we are going to roll right through the peak, possibly this year, and there will still be an SUV in every other garage.

It is kind of sad. And I truly believe that the techno fixes - representing additional complexity - will be exponentially harder to design, produce, field test, refine, produce again, after the peak.

So I'm nervous. It comes out a little bit in my posting.

At 10:23 PM, June 30, 2005, Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

I don't blame you.

This is one of the reasons I'm trying to document various inventions, pilot technologies and the like on my blog and show how they can be put together to make solutions.  Start thinking and publicizing now; when people are finally motivated to do something (regardless of how late it is), we can "I told you so!", point to the various options, and ask them which ones they want to buckle down and work on first.

Of course, you get triple points if you already have a hobbyist-scale implementation of the system to show everybody.  The GO-HEV that's recharged by your home-heating cogenerator which gets its fuel from waste cooking grease and gasified scrap wood is gonna score major points on both the geek and eco scales.

At 9:59 AM, July 02, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

we can "I told you so!"

Yea, that is a productive way of getting people to come around to ones POV.

And while I'm interested in Zinc-based power:
1) I can't buy a Zinc battery from Evercel today (thus I'm getting sub $5 NiMH D cells for my project)
This is a working 'chargeable' chemical system.


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