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The Demise of Business as Usual
An Apollo Project For Energy Can Succeed, But Not In A Market Economy
Thomas L. Wayburn, PhD in Chemical Engineering
© Copyright 2005, From The Wilderness Publications, www.fromthewilderness.com. All Rights Reserved. May be reprinted, distributed or posted on an Internet web site for non-profit purposes only.
It is impossible to replace fossil fuels with non-nuclear renewable energy within a market economy. Capitalism can be saved for a few years but only with a large investment in nuclear power, which must overcome market forces that continue to favor fossil-fuel technology even in the immediate aftermath of Peak Oil. Eventually, capitalism, which depends upon unlimited growth, must fail in a finite world. A natural economy is the best hope for a sustainable future in which humans might live in harmony with Nature and with each other.
The Apollo Alliance Ten-Point Plan proposes to provide energy independence for the United States and robust economic growth into the foreseeable future by promoting renewable energy, improving energy efficiency, and repatriating imports. A new generation of energy efficient technology is to be introduced in an Apollo-like national program. However, nothing is to be done to stabilize population and the market system is to be retained.
But in a market system, economic growth is measured by growth in sales. Old technology is to be replaced by new technology. To maximize profits, the efforts to market new technology will increase until improvements in energy efficiency are overwhelmed by the energy required to provide them. Even if population were stable, economic growth would increase energy use due to purchases of new (energy-saving) technology for our workplaces, homes, and cars. Prosperity cannot be maintained in a society based upon buying and selling without continuous growth in energy consumption, which, in a finite world, is impossible.
This article provides a brief and bracing summary of a lengthy technical paper, “On the Conservation-within-Capitalism Scenario.” The paper explains in detail the spreadsheet calculations for five increasingly progressive scenarios for the remainder of the Twenty-First Century: the Reference Case assumes a steady growth in per capita energy consumption due primarily to activities advocated by the Apollo Alliance. The results for the Reference Case are followed by results for the One-Percent Growth Scenario, the No-Growth Scenario, the No-Growth and No-Sales Scenario, and, finally, the case of the Natural Economy advocated by this author in numerous essays and a book, On the Preservation of Species. The technical paper is precisely what one needs in order to determine whether the results reported here are correct.
In this study, I have satisfied energy deficits with nuclear energy because nuclear power installations (NPIs) require less of the surface area of the Earth than does any other energy technology – assuming that fissionable material can be created faster than it is consumed. What cannot be created is additional surface area of Earth on which to place them.
Although much of the mission of the first seven points of the Apollo Alliance Ten-Point Plan (copied verbatim from the AA website) is laudable, there is not a single point that does not represent some misconception as to the nature of the problem. We are not against conserving energy, nor would we wish to prevent working people from improving their lot; but, since money and energy are inextricably linked, it is impossible to increase the flow of money without increasing the flow of energy even if the activities toward which the flow of money is directed are aimed at reducing the quantity of energy associated with each unit of such activity. To understand how cash flow affects energy consumption, see “Cash Flow in a Mark II Economy.” Unfortunately, conservation is limited by technological developments and the political will of the nation, whereas economic activity is limited only by catastrophe. The drawbacks of points 8, 9, and 10 are even more obvious.
Point 1. Promote Advanced Technology and Hybrid Cars: Begin today to provide incentives for converting domestic assembly lines to manufacture highly efficient cars, transitioning the fleet to American made advanced technology vehicles, increasing consumer choice and strengthening the US auto industry.
Comment 1. The automobile culture, more than anything else in American life, is indicative of our inordinate use of energy. That which strengthens the auto industry —despite reduction in the energetic cost per unit of transport — will lead to more activity, not less. The same can be said for increasing consumer choice. Many people think that economic activity is necessarily a good thing. It is the purpose of this study to examine that preference.
Point 2. Invest in More Efficient Factories: Make innovative use of the tax code and economic development systems to promote more efficient and profitable manufacturing while saving energy through environmental retrofits, improved boiler operations, and industrial cogeneration of electricity, retaining jobs by investing in plants and workers.
Comment 2. Conservation within capitalism is impossible without investment of some sort, but financial investment means economic activity, which, in turn, means additional flow of energy.
Point 3. Encourage High Performance Building: Increase investment in construction of “green buildings” and energy efficient homes and offices through innovative financing and incentives, improved building operations, and updated codes and standards, helping working families, businesses, and government realize substantial cost savings.
Comment 3. Commercial building implies economic growth, which is harmful no matter how great the mitigation of that harm by the incorporation of energy efficient technologies. Residential building implies population growth. Indeed, the AA makes no mention of any attempt to reduce population growth. It is true that increased affluence, which clearly is one of the goals of the Ten-Point Program, is likely to be accompanied by a reduction in the Total Fertility Rate. It is also true that increased affluence attracts immigrants and fuels growth.
Point 4. Increase Use of Energy Efficient Appliances: Drive a new generation of highly efficient manufactured goods into widespread use, without driving jobs overseas, by linking higher energy standards to consumer and manufacturing incentives that increase demand for new durable goods and increase investment in US factories.
Comment 4. Certainly, a great quantity of energy would be saved if the appliances in our homes and offices, including computers, used less electricity. On the other hand, a policy that purports to “increase demand for new durable goods” cannot be all good. Consumerism has led us to Peak Oil. The fact that, at best, investment cuts both ways has been mentioned.
Point 5. Modernize Electrical Infrastructure: Deploy the best available technology like scrubbers to existing plants, protecting jobs and the environment; research new technology to capture and sequester carbon and improve transmission for distributed renewable generation.
Comment 5. All of this isgoodexcept that it represents economic growth. The AA has said nothing to discourage or disparage economic growth which, no matter how energy efficient, will result eventually in the consumption of even more high-grade energy. The Alliance does not seem to contemplate an end to the increase in the standards of living of workers, some of whom will expect prosperity to lead to more prosperity ad infinitum.
Point 6. Expand Renewable Energy Development: Diversify energy sources by promoting existing technologies in solar, biomass and wind while setting ambitious but achievable goals for increasing renewable generation, and promoting state and local policy innovations that link clean energy and jobs.
Comment 6. Good. But why does the Apollo Alliance emphasize the creation of more jobs as though jobs were not part of the problem? We need people to work less – not more. See On the Work Ethic.
Point 7. Improve Transportation Options: Increase mobility, job access, and transportation choice by investing in effective multimodal networks including bicycle, local bus and rail transit, regional high-speed rail and magnetic levitation rail projects.
Comment 7. Whatever can be done should be done to reduce the energy consumed to get people and goods from one place to another—when such journeys are necessary and useful. Certainly, the movements of raw materials, products, and people that benefit society collectively as well as individually should be made on energy-efficient trains rather than in gas-guzzling SUVs whenever possible. Nevertheless, the improvement of transportation options is not the same as less transportation.
Point 8. Reinvest In Smart Urban Growth: Revitalize urban centers to promote strong cities and good jobs, by rebuilding and upgrading local infrastructure including road maintenance, bridge repair, and water and waste water systems, and by expanding redevelopment of idled urban “brownfield” lands, and by improving metropolitan planning and governance.
Comment 8. According toProf. Albert Bartlett, smart growth is like buying a first-class ticket on the Titanic. The growth of our cities and the migration of their populations from the countryside in our country and, indeed, from other countries has been one of the greatest evils of the industrial revolution. This evil has not been mitigated by flight to the suburbs. The impact on our energy budget of the energetic costs of commuting and other suburban excesses has been discussed thoroughly elsewhere . To re-establish a sustainable society it will be necessary—not to re-vitalize the cities—but to dismantle them. This will be energy intensive enough without wasting energy on highways and bridges.
Point 9. Plan for a Hydrogen Future: Invest in long term research & development of hydrogen fuel cell technology, and deploy the infrastructure to support hydrogen powered cars and distributed electricity generation using stationary fuel cells, to create jobs in the industries of the future.
Comment 9. What is meant by a “hydrogen future”? If it does not mean hydrogen from nuclear power — directly or through electricity — AA should say so. If it does, AA should admit that it does. No matter how one computes the maximum energy available from renewable energy (other than nuclear) it can never be sufficient to support a capitalist-style economy, i.e., an economy that requires economic growth to perpetuate political stability. Therefore, capitalism — with or without conservation — implies a nuclear economy. Nuclear power is discussed in the next section.
Point 10. Preserve Regulatory Protections: Encourage balanced growth and investment through regulation that ensures energy diversity and system reliability, that protects workers and the environment, that rewards consumers, and that establishes a fair framework for emerging technologies.
Comment 10. Wiser heads among capitalists know that one can increase next quarter’s profits at the expense of the environment in nearly every industry, almost always. Thus, to comply with a policy that is not quite suicidal, they need someone to force their competitors to comply. The AA does not suggest abandoning the Profit Motive; nevertheless, the reforms they recommend require central planning nearly to the degree that was practiced in the Soviet Union.
Regardless of the finiteness of uranium resources, nuclear energy must be considered renewable because of the existence of fast breeder reactors and the likelihood that their technological limitations will disappear over the coming decades. Therefore, nuclear power should be admitted to the competition with wind, solar, biomass, and other sustainable technologies. If there is some reason why nuclear energy is not sustainable, it has yet to be demonstrated. (What is unsustainable is growth itself – not nuclear energy).
Suppose we agree that the hydrogen economy means hydrogen from nuclear power installations (NPIs). K.R. Schultz et al. suggest that hydrogen can be produced with a 50% efficiency by thermal splitting of water. The efficiency of thermal splitting by-passes the objections to using electricity as an intermediate step discussed by Ulf Bossel et al. However, the huge changes in our technological and industrial infrastructure associated with the use of hydrogen for fuel will involve energetically costly re-tooling that must be charged to the energy invested in nuclear energy.
If the Energy Returned by NPIs is less than the Energy Invested, nuclear energy is infeasible. Therefore, the frequently-discussed ER/EI analysis is crucial to this discussion. Probably, the ER/EI ratio for nuclear power is less than comparable ratios for fossil fuels, which is a drawback insofar as market penetration is concerned; however, so long as it exceeds 1.0 the introduction of nuclear energy is feasible.
The identification and quantification of every component, both direct and indirect, of the energy invested in nuclear power is not a simple thing to do. In particular, if any such study of Energy Invested includes the ancillary business expenses I have not seen it. But in the American economy, for example, the energy consumed by commerce is 22% of the total energy budget. This is corroborated by employment statistics.
Computation of Energy Invested by multiplying the sum of capital and operating costs by the ratio of Total National Energy Budget over Gross National Product (E/GDP) tabulated by the DOE provides an approximation to the correct value that does not omit the energy consumed by commerce. (See “Cash Flow in a Mark II Economy”) Using cost data from the Shultz et al. study, the University of Chicago Study, and the MIT study, I computed an ER/EI ratio of 4.63.
However, it is not clear that all ancillary costs have been included, e.g., desalination of sea water, remediation of environmental change, etc. A pro-rata share of the costs of providing and maintaining railways to carry heavy equipment, fuel, and waste, highways to transport workers, conduits to transmit electric current, pipelines to transport hydrogen, and easements through which electrical power lines and hydrogen pipelines can be run must be charged to the plant.
Capital costs of NPIs are high enough to hinder market penetration and to increase possible budget deficits alarmingly, but they are a small fraction of the projected GDP. Therefore, NPIs can be built by a society with the political will to by-pass market and fiscal constraints.
Unfortunately, nuclear facilities are operated sometimes for the personal profit of their owners, managers, and other stakeholders who might be inclined to place their personal interests ahead of other considerations such as good engineering practice and safety. Mere prudence dictates that we be suspicious of enterprises run for profit.
If fresh water is used as cooling water, it should be returned to the environment at the original temperature with all contaminants removed and all nutrients restored. Part of the cooling water and the water split to produce hydrogen will end up as atmospheric water, only a part of which will return to Earth as fresh water, in which case the losses in our fresh water supply will have to be replaced somehow. If NPIs are used to desalinate sea water, the energy expended must be added to the Energy Invested in computing ER/EI.
If every NPI in the year 2100 used water at the rate Plant Hatch in Georgia did in 2000, we would need more than a million billion (quadrillion) kilograms of water per year to satisfy the robust economic growth assumed in our Reference Case. Thus, power plants would use more than one-third of all of our renewable fresh water.
Alternatively, the energy required for the desalination of seawater increases the Energy Invested from a low of 1.6% to a high of 9% (resp.) of the Energy Returned. If the ER/EI were 5.0, it would be reduced by 7.4% or 31% (resp.). In addition, the costs of pre-treatment, brine disposal, and transport would have to be borne.
The final limitation upon economic growth is the area of the surface of Earth. NPIs require a smaller fraction of Earth’s surface per unit of power generated than any of the competing technologies, namely, wind, solar, and biomass. Even if every other obstacle to growth were removed, ultimately we would run out of space. The land needed for NPIs includes not just the plant sites and infrastructure for transportation and power transmission but also the space occupied by facilities for mining and enrichment, fabrication, maintenance, recycle, hydrogen compression and liquefaction, waste management, sea water desalination, fresh water remediation, and the ubiquitous office buildings that seem to be a necessary part of every enterprise engaged in the pursuit of profit. Engineers and scientists will need workplaces; and, if I am not mistaken, the greater the complexity of our energy economy the greater the superstructure of command and control, which, in the case of nuclear, must be multiply redundant. Moreover, many areas on the face of the Earth are not suitable for NPIs; namely, the tops of mountains, earthquake zones, city centers, and — if we wish to observe the ethical treatment of animals — wildernesses, wet lands, prairies, etc. Finally, it must be decided whether the space occupied by outmoded and obsolete facilities can be reused for new facilities or if it must be restored to the pristine condition in which Nature bequeathed it to us.
Quite obviously, while operating as designed, nuclear power plants do not contribute directly to Global Climate Change nor air and water pollution regardless of the effect of their ancillary facilities, e.g., mining, etc. When NPIs are operated properly, the dangers are rather minimal; nevertheless, nuclear radiation is extremely hazardous. In addition to radiation hazards, they have a small but non-zero probability of seriously leaking or even exploding, which increases with number of NPIs. Admittedly, there is no physical reason why the problems associated with pollution, radiation, explosions, waste, and decommissioning cannot be solved, however they must be solved; and, to the extent that they have not yet been solved, they represent impediments to the introduction of nuclear power and the hydrogen economy, which brings us to the next topic.
Nuclear power is the key to a much larger and more complicated economy with much greater risk of unanticipated environmental catastrophes. The economy is sufficiently complicated in 2005 that the average person must necessarily depend upon the opinions of experts to determine which public policies are in his best interests and which are not. Moreover, experts disagree. The average man or woman is held hostage to the complexity of the economy, and this situation is not conducive to democracy.