Sunday, June 22, 2008

Energy Crisis Action Lobby

Energy Crisis Action Lobby

Political response to the Energy Crisis is misguided. This is a matter that affects everyone. The Energy Crisis Action Lobby (ECAL) is an organization of like minded citizens to press for a recognition of the seriousness of the crisis, and to urge the rapid implementation of valuable policies. ECAL's membership consists of citizens that support 3 specific policies:
  • Continuous vigorous well funded open investigation of all relevant facts, led by mathematically expert scientists and engineers.
  • Actions to address the Energy Crisis will incidentally address climate change, but additional actions to address climate change can not be sustained during the crisis.
  • Nuclear energy is the essential core energy source for a world without fossil fuel.
Many other specific policies and actions are needed, and ECAL will participate in the debate about the possibilities. These need to be subject to vigorous and continuous assessment. We can't afford too many more mistakes (such as using ethanol from agricultural land for transport fuel). A forth principle is implicit in the educational aims of ECAL: Voters need to be fully informed and made aware of the inevitable sacrifices. ECAL has complete confidence in the willingness of the people to work together to solve this crucial national and world wide crisis, as long as they are fully informed and confident that the sacrifices will be shared.

Characterization of the crisis

There is a limited supply of fossil fuel and it is now running out. Currently oil producers are unable to expand supply and supply will decline very soon if not now. Peak natural gas will follow within 10 years and peak coal within 25. Demand would be expanding rapidly now if prices had stayed low. The price has to rise high enough to destroy that incipient demand and more, to make supply and actual demand balance. This demand destruction will reduce the output of the world economy. This is not like previous economic contractions which were part of a cyclic financial process. As such it will continue, and continue to worsen, until we rebuild the economy with new infrastructure based on new energy sources. So the rise in the price of oil is not caused by a bubble, or by speculators. It can't be fixed by government action, other than moving to different energy sources. It isn't likely that there will be a complete collapse of civilization as some predict, but if that were to happen then it is impossible to see how industrial civilization could ever get going again without the surface coal and oil oozing out of the ground that fueled the initial rise to our current industrial state. Our failure to heed many warnings, starting with M. King Hubbert in 1956, means that we have no chance of escaping a serious economic contraction which will likely far exceed that of the Great Depression. Managing that contraction fairly and optimally, so that we can emerge from the other side without collapse, is the business of all governments over the next 40 years. Business as usual (BAU) is over. Keeping the voters uninformed to prevent panic is highly counter-productive. We need debate, we need open investigation and analysis, and we need action, but all action needs to be kept under review so that the inevitable mistakes (such as biofuel from food) are not continued.

Intensive open investigation of technical issues

There are many important technical debates which will shape the way we respond to the energy crisis: How quickly will oil exports disappear? How will that affect the availability of other things like fertilizer? How will the economy respond to shocks? Will algal biodiesel save the day? How long will natural gas last? Should we go through a phase of compressed natural gas vehicles, or go straight to electric? And many more. Currently these debates get carried on in an academic style where people express a detailed opinion, but rarely respond to those with a different point of view. Also a lot of important information is hidden as trade secrets. It is crucial that planning be put on a less haphazard footing. We need mathematically competent experts to conduct open enquiries on these and other important matters. They need to be able to bring opposing parties together to find the core of their disagreement. They need to be able to extract important information where necessary. They need to be able to fund research to shed light on crucial technical questions. These investigations need to be conducted by mathematicians, or by scientists and engineers with strong mathematical skills and insight. As Prof David MacKay, head of the Inference group in the Physics department at the University of Cambridge has said, we need numbers not adjectives, modelling not arm-waving.

Global Warming action is not a short term priority

There are 4 reasons why economic action to address global warming is not appropriate now:
  • The amount of fossil fuel that can be economically extracted and consumed is much less than feared in the IPCC and other reports. Even the lowest option considered by the IPCC is more than will ever be burnt.
  • We have already had the price rises for fossil fuel needed to foster efficiency and alternatives. And indeed even higher rises are coming. There is no need for specific carbon taxes as well.
  • Government action to address the Energy Crisis will also mostly addresses CO2 emissions, and it will do so with much greater universality and urgency than would ever have happened to prevent the less immediate and less desperate issue of climate change
  • This mega oil shock is going to cause immense economic pain throughout the world. Until that is reversed there is no chance that governments will impose extra pain to address global warming.
Of course scientific understanding of the climate still needs to be strongly supported.

Nuclear Energy is a crucial part of the global solution

While we have high hopes for renewable energy, particularly geothermal and solar-thermal, still their scalable effective operation remains to be seen. Corn-based biofuel has been the first major renewable to be brought on stream. With high use of mechanized equipment and fertilizer it doesn't produce significant (or perhaps any) net energy. We can't afford to waste too much effort on such mistakes. There are plenty of potential issues with each of the other renewable energy sources. We mustn't step off the cliff into a world without fossil fuel without initially having substantial nuclear energy up and running. Modern nuclear energy is very reliable and fails safe. By moving to breeder reactors and utilizing Thorium as well as Uranium it is possible to make the existing mineable resources last a long time and not produce long-lived waste. Australia, with lots of sunshine and geothermal potential, might survive on renewables. However we will be a major supplier of nuclear fuel, we need the world to get its nuclear act together, and we have a particular reason to want the world to switch to the safer thorium since we are likely to be the major exporter of that. So we have good reason to get experience building and running modern nuclear reactors. Maybe voters will not allow these near population centres. However if the economy goes as bad as expected, then communities will be pleased to have the work and other industry that comes with them. Prof David MacKay, head of the Inference group in the Physics department at the University of Cambridge, is writing a book on sustainable energy, based on his principle of "numbers not adjectives". When he first started his investigation he was anti-nuclear. However he discovered that Britain can not be supplied with energy without incorporating a significant nuclear component.

Possible Actions

There are a lot of practical actions that can be taken to reduce the impact of the energy crisis, and to try to overcome it. Many have an energy cost and we must choose wisely which to support. The following list is illustrative, not exhaustive:
  • Lower speed limits and run an education campaign on saving petrol when driving.
  • Build infrastructure for Compressed Natural Gas vehicles, and/or electric vehicles.
  • Stop putting money (and energy) into road building.
  • Enhance rail: new routes, new rolling stock, electrification.
  • More CNG buses with more bus lanes and other right of way.
  • Shipping: LNG fuel? Docks integrated with rail as well as trucks.
  • More support of energy and transport research.
  • Build big parking stations near railway stations.
  • Make suburban trains more freight friendly.
  • Forcibly rezone land near railway stations for high density.
  • Stop plans to burn natural gas for electricity, since it can replace petrol/diesel for transport, so we mustn't waste it.
  • Develop, with the help of India and the US, a plan for nuclear energy. Implement it.
  • Help India to get to a nuclear future based mostly on Thorium. Partner with them and with the US to provide this to the world, using our large Thorium deposits as the fuel source.
  • Build large solar thermal and geothermal power stations so that we can evaluate their potential for large scale reliable energy.
  • Keep using low quality coal for power generation (since we can't afford to switch to gas), and exporting the better stuff. We also need to export natural gas to the world, which will be hit much harder by the Energy Crisis than we will. We need to keep enough to complete our transition to a post carbon world.
  • Build gas to liquid and coal to liquid capability, to extend the useful life of the massive infrastructure supporting liquid transport fuel.
  • ...
There is no shortage of things to do. With the money from our net energy exports we should be able to keep employment high through the crisis. We should take advantage of worse conditions in other English speaking countries to bring in people with useful skills and expertise. Because Australia is a net energy exporter our position is far better than most. However we are unprepared for peak oil which is happening now, and we are an oil importer. Also the greater collapse of our trading partners will harm us. Increased international transport costs will also be a problem because of our remoteness.

Additional Notes

Building the nuclear future

Currently nuclear power plants are one-off constructions designed then run by highly qualified staff. This will make it hard to expand nuclear energy rapidly enough to replace declines in fossil fuels. This can be overcome by building smaller nuclear plants which are identical and mass produced to exact specifications and which run automatically in a fail safe way. There are many groups working on this and there are no overwhelming technical issues. The most viable designs use thorium and cannot be subverted for military use without the sort of time consuming effort that would raise alarm bells and be easily circumvented.

Climate Change issues

Here are some things that the people worried about climate change will argue for:
  • No GTL/CTL. Response: The quoted values for CO2 emissions are exagerated. You need energy to do the conversion, but that energy can come from nuclear/renewable sources.
  • Replace coal with gas for electricity. This wastes the fluid advantage of gas which makes it suitable for piping and for transport. We can't afford to do that.

Energy conversion issues

Nuclear and renewable energy will mostly be in the form of electricity and heat. This has to be converted to be useful for transport. Batteries convert electricity to chemical energy. Or we can use energy to create fluid fuels. For example you can use energy to get hydrogen from water, then burn it later to get the energy. There are lots of choices, but the common fact is that you need a lot more energy than at present because a lot of energy is used in the conversions.

Investigation details

The need for nuclear and the lesser importance of climate change action are based on a particular view of the facts. These facts would also be up for investigation by the proposed continuous open investigation. The key characteristic of the investigation teams, in addition to their ability to understand mathematical aspects of scientific work, will be a willingness to change their mind and admit to having been wrong when their are new facts or improved modelling of other analysis of the situation. This will be improved by minimizing the extent to which they reveal their own opinions during the investigation, or identifying themselves in conclusion documents.

Managing economic decline fairly

It is a human characteristic to take risks to avoid a loss, even a small loss. The farmer risks injury to stop people stealing apples from his tree. This might be irrational on a single occasion, but it is necessary on a long term basis. On the other side of the coin people are happy to make sacrifices in a common cause when they feel that others are doing the same. So it is essential that the coming economic decline be managed by tapping into that latter characteristic. Otherwise we'll get violent protest, as we have started to see already. The way to achieve this is with a high level of transparency. Currently remuneration is private. This has allowed the high level managers to capture most of the extra income during the recent boom, and lower ranks have been tolerant as long as they were making some progress, or had the opportunity to do so. This will not work during the coming decline. Resistance to ad hoc wage cuts will make it hard for businesses to survive. What is needed is government managed transparency about incomes, and coordinated cuts in incomes by all, falling more strongly on the higher ranks. These coordinated cuts might be in a single business or industry, but it might also be necessary at times to do it nation wide, to maintain the general level of employment. Higher levels of transparency are also needed to facilitate business planning during economic decline. Parts of the economy are interconnected and there needs to be coordinated planning to change the way the economy works. For example currently trucks take things from pickup to final destination. This may well change to using trains and shipping in the middle for longer movements. This can be achieved by allowing blind economic forces to take their course, but it will be better if there is some government coordination of the change, with involvement of the participants. Truck owners, small farmers and many other people needed to be helped through the crisis, even if in some cases it is just to help them see that their business is not going to continue to be viable.

Document History

v1.0 2008-06-21: initial version.