Peak Oil Isn’t Bad


Oil Wells     Peak oil is going to happen soon but it’s not happening because we’ve extracted half of what is obtainable, not even close.  It’s happening for the same reason most of us don’t heat our home with coal today.  There are better, cleaner, less expensive alternatives available as the result of technological progress.

     What will drive peak oil, is not an exhaustion of supply but an exhaustion of demand fostered by the availability of better alternatives.  The cost of alternative energy sources has fallen so rapidly that this change is going to be disruptive not gradual.  Because this will shift jobs in many sectors, it will require massive retraining of the adult work force and we must be willing to invest in this if we want to avoid the huge unemployment of those without the necessary skills with simultaneous worker shortages for those with the necessary skills.

Solar and Wind     A lot has been made of the base load problem, the sun only shines in the day and wind is intermittent.  Utilities have said that it would be difficult to accommodate more than 15-20% renewable power on the grid.

     This is really an exaggerated argument.  Germany has at times had a 60% contribution to their power grid by renewables and it has handled it just fine.  There are several factors that can mitigate the intermittent nature of renewables.

     First is to know that the electricity demand at night, when the sun isn’t shining, is about 10% of the daytime peak, when it is.  Solar can contribute then to a very large percentage of the load because the load tends to vary in the same way that power production from solar does.

     Wind power production tends to be higher at night, and can contribute when the sun isn’t shining.  Further, while wind is intermittent, it isn’t blowing or not blowing at every location simultaneously. 

     Germany has found that the amount of geographical diversity they have, and Germany is small compared to the US land area, greatly evens out the power from wind production.  Germany still at times buys power from France but as installed capacity continues to increase this will become less necessary.Geo-thermal Planning Map      Here in the US we have many untapped geothermal resources that provide 24 hour base load capacity.  Yellowstone is so far off-limits to geo-thermal developments, in part because of a fear it might de-power the geysers, however, when you consider there is enough magma under Yellowstone to fill the Grand Canyon 15 times, I think these fears are unfounded.  There are also many good geo-thermal prospects on the West Coast where subduction melt provides heat sources.

     2014 was the first year that we saw economic growth without a corresponding increase in carbon dioxide emissions.  In 2014, the global economy grew by 3% while carbon dioxide emissions remained steady.  I believe that we’re going to see a rapid increase in this trend as our economy rapidly becomes less dependent upon fossil fuels and more reliant upon scalable sustainable energy sources.

     Another solution to variability of sustainable resources that is becoming viable as the costs continue to drop is to install additional capacity above and beyond what is needed during peak production and then use the excess capacity to synthesize hydrocarbons from electricity, water, and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, desalinate water, and drive other chemical processes such as aluminium electrolysis.

     Battery costs continue to decline at the rate of 10-15% per year as well, and some battery technologies are scalable to utility level applications today.

     I don’t think we’re on the verge of utopia, but I think we are close to solving one fundamental constraint that has plagued our economy and wrought havoc on our environment, that of energy production.

     The problem of water supply isn’t really one of supply but one of purity.  All the water we could ever need exists within our oceans, but we can’t drink it or irrigate with it because of dissolved salts.  Desalination plants can remedy that, but they require massive amounts of energy.  When energy is abundant this ceases to be a problem.  When water availability ceases to be a problem, food ceases to become a problem.  Much of the worlds land that is not arable lacks only water to make it arable.Drip Irrigation     Better use of existing water supplies could help alleviate this problem now.  Drip irrigation doesn’t lose water to evaporation as does sprinklers, and by only supplying enough water to moisten soil to root depth, prevents leaching of valuable minerals and nutrients from soil.  This in turn greatly reduces pollution of the watershed.

     I believe in the next 15 years, we’ll see a great reduction in scarcity, and our primary problem that remains will be that of addressing fundamental problems of our human nature, power hunger and a desire to control and exploit one another is something we’ll have to face head on.  Now we can use the excuse that it’s either us or them because there aren’t enough resources to go around.  When that excuse is gone we’ll have to face our nature head on.  I am excited by the prospect that this will happen within my lifetime.


The Oil Company Stranglehold

      This film (pump) is not entirely accurate, some of the information presented was old at the time the film was made, but it documents something very real, a monopoly oil companies hold over our energy source that is strangling our economy while simultaneously ruining our environment.

LFTR / Thorium

     This is something I think we need, not just for the energy it can generate but because it can eat up the actinides in existing nuclear waste turning a 200,000 year problem into a 200 year problem.  I don’t agree with his take on Fusion, none the less I think the LFTR is a viable technology that should be pursued.

Genetically Modified Foods

     I don’t think all genetically modified foods are necessarily a bad thing if done with the right motivation and properly labelled so that people with allergies can avoid things they are allergic to.

     They aren’t largely done with the right motives however, especially when Monsanto is involved.  Then you can be sure the only motivation is profit and they don’t care how many people they kill in the process.  Instead on concentrating on making plants a better food source, they concentrate on making them resistant to carcinogenic weed killer, to making the seeds non-viable so farmers have to buy seed from them every season, etc.

     Even with the right motives though there needs to be adequate safety measures.  For example, rice is what is known as a C3 plant.  C3 plants are inefficient in their use of water and are in areas with a lot of sunlight, less efficient at photosynthesis than C4 plants.

     Rice is a staple food source for half of the worlds population but it requires a large amount of water to grow and thus can not be grown in more arid environments.  There is presently work to develop a C4 version of rice.  If this work is successful, it would allow rice to be grown in areas where water is less plentiful and in some regions it might allow it to grow faster because of more efficient photosynthesis.

     A danger I see with this is whether the C4 version of rice that might exist is that it might have less nutrients than the natural version.  The why of this is related to the more efficient use of water.  Plants bring water into themselves by osmosis, and along with that water they bring in many minerals that they don’t need for their own growth, but we do.

     If you increase the growth rate or reduce the amount of water they need to grow, along with less water intake, they will likely also take in less minerals, that we need.  So while the resulting crop might meet our caloric energy needs, it won’t meet our nutritional needs.

     If a gene is taken from another food crop plant, then it probably isn’t going to introduce any new toxin.  If genetically modified foods were required to be labelled with where the new genes were taken from people with allergies to the source organisms could avoid them.  But there is still the issue of if you make a plant grow faster with less water, what happens to the nutritional content, especially the mineral content.  That needs to be assessed and publicly disclosed, and thus far those behind the GMO development seem to want nothing to do with public disclosure.

     If they have their way, we could all starve to death in the midst of a glut of food.

Information Evolution

     DNA is a way to store information.  Magnetic domains on a surface is a way to store information.  Both are subject to an occasional error and modification.

     DNA codes for something that can propagate itself.  For the most part bits on magnetic surfaces do not.

     An exception is computer viruses.  Like DNA, usually their primary function is to make copies of themselves.  They resemble a biological virus in that they don’t have the necessary means to propagate themselves coded into them, they rely on the ability to take over resources intended for other functions.

     The rate at which both DNA and viruses mutate due to transcription errors is very very small, but lifeforms are so abundant that even the very rare useful mutation has a good chance at propagating and eventually dominating.

     Right now not the case for computer viruses.  The numbers are too small for there to be only a very trivial chance of a mutation occurring and propagating, and an even smaller chance of a useful mutation doing so.

     As the Internet continues to grow in size and complexity, and as the computing resources available to viruses continue to increase, there may come a time when computer viruses can grow sufficiently in number that useful mutations can propagate, and continue to grow.  Such a virus would be difficult for anti-viral software to eliminate because they would constantly change and not match the fingerprint the anti-virus companies generate for their software to identify them.

     Maybe some of these modifications would begin to encode for other digital life machinery making the virus less dependent upon hijacked machinery.

     Then at some point it might acquire intelligence and decide carbon based lifeforms are troublesome, threatening, and slow enough to easily eradicate.


Antartica Melting

     Seems like last year I was reading about how the ice deposits on Antarctica were growing, today I read they’re melting, “dramatically”. Of course people are going to milk as much drama out of it as they can.

     The way I see it, it’s just part of the Earth’s feedback system. 90% of the human population lives within 100 miles of the coast, so we kick out too much CO2 or methane or whatever, the ice melts, floods those 100 miles, people drown, CO2 levels go down, balance is restored.

     I don’t understand why people make such a big thing of it.


In 2014 man emitted no more carbon dioxide into the air than in 2013, this in spite of a world wide economic growth of 3%.  I view this as a very good trend, it means we’ve finally been able to grow the economy using better forms of energy than burning carbon-rich rocks.

Most of that was due to installation of wind power in China.  In 2014, China added more wind capacity than coal.  They’ve got incentive.  It’s estimated that more than 600,000 Chinese are killed each year by pollution and a loss of approximately 1.8% of agricultural output due to damage and blocked light caused by pollution.

While the fact that we didn’t increase in man-made global carbon-dioxide in 2014 is good news from a pollution standpoint, it’s also good news from an economic standpoint.  It means that renewable environmentally energy sources have become viable enough to contribute effectively to economic growth, and that in a sustainable way.

While coal use is declining in China and the US, oil consumption increased.  A lot of this increase was by industrial users of petroleum products and was the result of significantly lower cost domestic supplies.  In the long run though I think we can all expect to see oil gradually price itself out of the market.

The US Department of Energy is assisting China in building two molten-salt nuclear fission reactors.  These reactors are melt-down proof, can burn actinides that otherwise would keep waste hot for a hundred thousand years, and can extract almost 100% of the energy from Uranium or Thorium where as conventional pressurized water reactors and boiling water reactors used in the United States can only extract about .6% of Uranium’s energy potential and can’t easily utilize Thorium except to the degree it can be bread in a separate breeder reactor into Uranium 233 which is fissile and can be used as a fuel.

Just using the nuclear waste we have sitting in spent fuel rod ponds from conventional reactors, these reactors could provide all the Earth’s electricity needs for 2000 years.  I’d like to see them built here so we could start ridding ourselves of some of this long term waste.  I am hopeful that if it meets with success in China, it will eventually be adopted here.

Lockheed Martin has a new approach to controlled nuclear fusion that holds great promise.  What they don’t tell you in this video is that there is more to it than being high beta, it also has a magnetic field structure that increases in strength as you get away from the centre of the plasma, this is opposite of a Tokamak where the field strength decreases as you get farther from the centre of the plasma.  This makes Lockheed’s design inherently stable as opposed to the Tokamak being inherently unstable.

I’ve maintained for years that we don’t have to live in a 6 ft3 cubical with no heat, no light, and a strictly vegetarian diet in order to live in a sustainable manner, and now I believe we are finally headed in that direction.

Threats to that are the Agenda 21 crowd, who do believe that’s how we live, and on the opposite side of the fence, conservatives who would have us live in the same manner as we did in 1950.  However, I see more and more resistance forming to Agenda 21, and I see the conservatives dying off so I have reason to hope we’ll get there.

Preparing for the Future

The last fifty years or so, the data I’ve shuffled through suggests a warming trend of about .1°C / 11-year or so solar cycle with about a .3°C difference between solar minimum and solar maximum, and then a whole lot of random variation (weather) on top of that which obscures the signals, but they are obtainable by averaging out the noise.

We can argue all day about whether it’s natural or man-made or what percentage of the warming is attributable to CO2 but I think the bottom line is that even if it is all man-made, the political will to do anything about it doesn’t exist.

It would seem in light of that the wise thing to do would be to start preparing for it, and here in the Pacific Northwest, one obvious change will be the amount of snow pack in the Cascades.  We depend upon that snow pack not only for summer water but also for much of our energy needs in the form of hydroelectric power.

In preparation for that reduced snow pack, and also to prevent massive flooding in the event of winter precipitation coming down as rain rather than snow in the Cascades, we should build more and larger reservoirs, to both hold the run-off and provide summer water for our needs.

The other big adaptation we should make is how we use water for agriculture.  Right now, if you look at central and Eastern Washington with Google Earth, you’ll see a pattern of circles in squares.  These are aerial irrigation sprinklers in a square field.  This is an extremely cheap form of irrigation, providing water is inexpensive, but it is inefficient.

With aerial sprinkler irrigation, first you loose a large percentage of the water to evaporation.  But then without any monitoring of how far water is penetrating down in the soil, too much water is used, and the result of that is the leaching of minerals out of the soil which results in a number of bad consequences.

First, it increases the salinization of rivers, and where that water is used downstream for irrigation, of soil, which inhibits growth of many crops.  The increased salinity of the water reduces the normal differentiation where it enters the seas and drives ocean currents.

Farmers then add phosphorus and nitrogen to their fields to get plants to grow.  Those plants however are deficient in other minerals, which we as humans need in our diet.  So one consequence of this poor farming practice is soil depleted in nutrients resulting plants also depleted in nutrients.

Then that phosphorus and nitrogen washes off into streams and rivers where it drives surface algae blooms depleting the water under the surface of oxygen.  The result of this are streams and rivers where fish can’t survive and huge dead spaces in the ocean where only surface algae and anaerobic bacteria (which don’t rely on oxygen but instead derive energy by combining hydrogen and sulphur producing in the process hydrogen sulphide which is a strong contributor to what gives farts their odour (methane the main constituent of farts is odourless).

There is some evidence to suggest that at least one of the great mass extinctions of the past was caused by conditions that resulted in huge blooms of these anaerobic bacteria resulting in atmospheric levels of hydrogen sulphide which were toxic (anything above about 300ppm).

Suffice it to say that global warming or no, the irrigation situation is something we should address.  The solution is drip irrigation with sensors placed at maximum root depth to turn off the water when it’s reached that depth.

There is no way of knowing the trend will continue as it has for the last fifty years, we could enter another Maunder minimum, or maybe a full scale nuclear war will result in a nuclear winter, but the odds I think favour a continuation of global warming.

Either way both of these things are good investments.  If global warming halts, we can make more electricity to sell to California, and investment in more sane farming practices will preserve our soil and provide us with more nutritious food.