Colin's Cornucopia

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There have been several articles in the PE magazine recently that have caused me reflection and concern. They initially appear to be quite unrelated but have come together in my plans. I beg leave to reflect within the pages of your magazine with the purpose of clearing my thoughts and hopefully attracting some hard information and, perhaps, some useful views on the subjects that now concern me most.

The three key articles that started my train of thought were:-

A report that electric cars were three times as energy efficient as conventional cars.

A book review “Sustainable Energy - without hot air” by Prof. David MacKay. The ongoing discussions regarding the input of Engineers into government policy considerations.

I spent a lifetime in the Coventry and Canadian car and aerospace industries trying to wrest a miserable few percent improvement in efficiency from prime movers, gears and drive trains. I have yet to find any combustor that will exceed around 40% efficiency and most types now have very similar efficiency performance. In most cases of combustion something around 40% is the theoretical maximum efficiency obtainable.

In my opinion the electric car is probably slightly less efficient than the equivalent fuel powered car. The combustor efficiency is similar in each case. In the case of electricity the unused heat is usually wasted. In a car it can at least be used for passenger heating which would otherwise impose a considerable oncost.

The electric car then suffers the losses of transmission and battery charging that between them take somewhere around ten percent. The mechanical transmission efficiency of each type of car is not significantly different. The one advantage that the electric car should enjoy is regenerative braking. This should be able to recover around fifty percent of kinetic energy input but in any other than intensive town or mountain driving this is usually quite small.

My overall conclusion is that the electric car offers little advantage. The only one that has cut the mustard so far is the Tessla and at £100,000 a shot it is hardly transport for the masses.

One thing the electric car can do, of course, is to relieve the demand for rapidly depleting oil if it can be run on electricity produced by other means. That single reason alone is sufficient to guarantee the future of the electric car but the production of electricity by any means is quite another story. The one clear advantage of the electric car is that it removes the waste energy products from the centre of cities to the countryside and helps to hide the waste problem.

I was recently in correspondence with an aid to the Minister of the Environment to question his written claim to me that the electric car was four times as efficient as the petrol fuelled car. He wrote back citing Professor MacKay. By pure chance I saw your review of the professor’s book the next day and promptly downloaded it. I have read every single word and can find nothing to justify the minister’s optimism.

The Professor’s book is excellent. I have been writing on these matters for over a year now and have spent much time trying to unearth reasonable figures of energy use in all forms both in this country and worldwide. There is plenty of information available but the range of units used is wide and while conversion factors are available on-line at the press of a button, there is still a considerable amount of work needed to unify the figures. The Professor has done all this for me and presented it in an excellent fashion. I am so impressed with the book that I may well buy a copy to stand on my bookshelf next to my Kaye and Laby. That’s how good it is.

Prof. MacKay has tried to show potential ways into the oil-poor future that is now clearly fast approaching. My reading of his work, and I stand to be corrected here, is that the only hope, according to him, is in covering huge tracts of desert with photo-electric panels. Such an installation in the Sahara, about the size of France, should provide a significant amount of power to the UK. It is to be hoped that the professor put this idea forward with his tongue in cheek.

The technicalities of laying out this many panels and securing and maintaining them boggle the mind. The collection and transmission network would be 10,000 times bigger than anything yet attempted anywhere. The politics and security issues also boggle the mind. His scheme required ten major high voltage dc lines running across France. Achieving that would be a political triumph substantially greater than the military triumph of Waterloo and maintaining it for any length of time another triumph of world politics. We have not even begun to consider how we convince the natives of the Sahara to cede their land and ensure that all their friends and enemies leave the installation alone. What we do when, and after, there is a three-day dust storm I hesitate to imagine.

The present and looming problems mean that man’s utmost imaginative capacity is to be sorely tried to even keep pace with the rapid decline of cheap energy available to us. It is clear that the governments of all countries are going to need the very best technical advice and expertise that they can get. Technology took us up the energy slope. We shall ensure technology takes us back down it or we shall soon fall off a cliff. A professional engineering adviser to the government should not be a debatable matter. It is utterly vital. If the Minister of the Environment is making decisions on the notion that the electric car is four times as efficient as the petrol car then there really is no argument. Our future cannot be left in such careless hands.

The scientific community has just about persuaded the world community that global warming is a real threat. But it is too late. The damage is already done. The step change has been made and cannot be unmade. Even if we could reduce carbon dioxide emissions to zero today, the damage is still done. Our profligate use of energy simply means that the problem will continue to get worse. We might be able to stop it getting worse but we cannot undo what is already done in anything short of fifty years.

A much more immediate problem is peak oil, coal and gas. From now on we shall live with ever diminishing stocks of fuel left in reserve. This problem is with us now and even as the price of oil escalates and our use diminishes, the reserves will run out in fifty years. Even if we were to find another Saudi Arabia it would only prolong the agony by about five years – and, of course, exacerbate the carbon dioxide problem. The world in which our grandchildren will live in fifty years time will be little like the world we know today.

It takes between fifty and a hundred years to build an infrastructure. Our water and sewage systems took 100 years, the railways 100 and their updating 50 years. The road system fifty years and the motorways fifty years. The electricity generating setup and distribution grid over fifty years. The education system and the Health Service took over 100 years to build. Our productive industry took 200 years to build although it only took about ten years to destroy huge swathes of it.

We need to start building today for the world that our great-grandchildren will inhabit. The problem is we are not quite sure what it will look like. One thing is absolutely certain, it will involve very much less energy.

But even peak oil is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is denial. I have written a great deal on these subjects over the last twelve months and talked with many people. Virtually everybody I talk to exhibits denial. Eyes glaze over and heads shake. Even passionate “Greens” fail to understand the total situation. The most typical response is “They will find something” or “They will not let it happen”. Some are very hostile.

The problem here is that the combination of engineers, entrepreneurs, the Joint Stock Company and financiers has wrought millions of miracles of production for two centuries and no one can conceive that this system might fail. They have failed to observe that it has all been based very firmly on hydro-carbon energy. That energy has now reached at least its half-way point of exploitation.

I have studied, as a hobby, the local river upon which the City of Coventry was built. Medieval Coventry was the fourth richest city in the land and cities then could be built only upon a water supply. This tiny river supported Coventry citizens and fed its weaving and dying industry for several hundred years. It had around 20 mills in total and enough now remains of some mills to calculate heads and flows. I have estimated, using the guerrilla physics advocated by Professor MacKay, that Coventry had around 40 horse power to support 10,000 people. That is about what you use to drive your car at 60 mph. They also had candles and a few dozen horses. The rest was human muscle.

I am not suggesting that we will return to that situation. Our technology has moved on apace and I think that we may well be able to find enough energy to maintain about 30% of our present profligate levels. If we work to use this sensibly it should be sufficient to provide a useful standard of living. But there is a vast amount of work to be done.

But even Denial is not the worst problem. A much worse problem is the continuous development and growth that has become an institutional part of our capitalist system. The system only works if it expands at 3% per annum. Much more than that causes severe problems. Much less is a catastrophe. But three percent per annum doubles in around 23 years. By the time our oil runs out completely our world economy will be four times as big as now – and that assumes no population increase. But four times the economic activity implies four times the rate of energy use unless we can improve energy efficiency at much more than three per cent per annum every year for fifty years. I think it is quite clear that that cannot be done.

The preferred solution is to stop this madcap exponential expansion, a valid description of cancer, into a finite world with finite resources. Mined materials, air, water, soil fertility, pollution recycling capacity and the vastly complicated ecosphere are all examples of finite resources that our economic system treats as infinite. We have to start living within the limits of this tiny fragile spaceship in which we live. One of the things we have to do to stop this madness is to stop living on credit and return to a sensible monetary standard. This has nothing to do with engineering but everything to do with sanity. Monetary reform will be just the first step.

But even the excesses of capitalism is not the worst problem. The fundamental problem, that I have found almost no one will correctly address, is that there are too many people on the planet. The simple fact is that there has to be a limit to world population. Population growth and crash in human societies is well documented. There is no reason to suppose that the world population is immune to such a crash. There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that the world population will follow depleting hydro-carbons down just as it has followed them up.

Over-population with subsequent crashes is a normal part of most animal and insect populations. Bacteria regularly experience massive growth and crash cycles. We call them epidemics. Elephants eat their habitat and thrive until they destroy the trees and the population crashes. Most species exhibit this behaviour.

Population crashes in the natural world are accompanied by a massive death rate. Most of it goes unnoticed by us because nature is very good at recycling. Reducing the human population at a necessary rate whilst the political, psychological, social and economic pressure to growth are still present is likely to lead to a crash involving massive violence and trauma. The world will survive and will do whatever it takes to do so. The world is not in danger. Human beings are.

There are those who claim that feedback mechanisms will cut in and resolve the issues. They certainly will; but even stable feedback systems can exhibit violent roller-coaster output changes that are likely to cause great distress to a human population. An unstable system could lead to a human apocalypse. We just do not know and there is no way we can know. There is not enough brain and computing power on earth to find out. The overall system is far too complex and some of its inputs are out of control.

We need to take the necessary steps now to start building the political, social, economic and physical assets that our grandchildren will need to survive. If we fail in this then there are unlikely to be many great-grandchildren.

In summary we need to start by addressing the following problems and preferably in this priority order. Whether your objective is to save help the human race face the oncoming energy deflation or help the planet deal with increasing pollution, the tasks are similar.

World overpopulation. Stabilise and reduce.

Monetary reform. Introduce a moral system.

Growth capitalism. Change to allow zero growth or reduction.

Denial which supports hedonism, greed and waste. Educate people.

Balanced energy sources. Zero overall pollution.

Balanced chemical and physical existence within the spaceship Earth.

These problems will need the professional input to government of several hundred kinds of physicist, chemist, biologists, mathematicians and engineers and many others. The former group might be able to formulate solutions but only engineers will be able to advise which projects are feasible and to implement them successfully. If the government is worried that advice might be complicated by too many advisers, it had better realise that the problem is at least a million times more complicated than that.

We need to get started now.

Colin Walker.

9 August 2009

Since I wrote this the practice of Fracking has become common. This is where the oilmen pump fluids at relatively high pressure into old or new oil wells and thereby split the underground rocks and then are able to extract some more oil and much more gas. It is claimed that the US will become energy self sufficient for the next 100 years and possibly other countries also. Hooray! When energy supplies were tight, like shipping from Saudi Arabia or unfriendly countries around the globe, the Americans became exceedingly profligate in the use of oil. Imagine how wasteful they, and everybody else, are going to become now that it is on their own doorsteps and almost "free". Apparently the price of fracking gas has already fallen through the floor. This will clearly relieve much of the demand from other countries who will be able to get a bigger share of the oil pie. The whole thing will simply result in more fracking energy use, more fracking carbon dioxide and more fracking pollution and ultimately in more fracking energy shortages. We have simply increased the fracking rate of degeneration of our atmosphere. One of the basic rules of economics is that the cheaper the fracking price is the greater the fracking demand will be.

Colin Walker

6th October 2012

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