Back to: No rest for the wicked | Forward to: I get book covers

Last Orders

James Howard Kunstler's calling Time on the American dream today. Personally, I think he's over-egging the pudding; when I hear his wild effusions about $10/gallon gas I laugh, bitterly — over here we're at $11 and rising, and have been north of $8/gallon for years — it's not the end of the world. But on the other hand, this isn't good news: about 50% of the US mortgage market is now on life support, circling the drain, just as the rest of the US economy is sliding into recession. (And there's no room for schadenfreude over here, either.)

For a perfect storm, all it'll take is for the fruitcake-in-chief to decide that two wars isn't enough, and order an attack on Iran before he leaves office. Or for another hurricane to make landfall on the Gulf coast. Or a coup in Saudi Arabia. Or, or. Too many ors.

I think I'm going back to bed, now.



Kunstler's been over-egging the pudding for years now. He wrote one good book and he's been gloating every since. And the problems of the big federal mortgage agencies don't seem to be that bad--see Krugman today, column and blog. But we're in trouble, no mistake about that.


You forgot "losing" between "that" and "two".


I'm thinking's now the time to join Cory's Outquisition. And also start stocking up on tinned food and shotgun shells.

It's going to be a nasty one, and no doubt. I'm not financially/world finance aware enough to even fantasize about what could come.

The little optimist in my head keeps saying "But the banks wouldn't kick us all out...would they?"


Of course the impending bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is backwards -- the lending co's will get money to pay their bonds, and still end up with the forclosed properties which will turn into huge profits (in the longer run admittedly).

The populist solution is to make sure that the homeowners can pay their mortgages. The same money ends up at the lenders, and houses stay out of foreclosure.

But in terms of gas prices? Driving Edinburgh to London is still loads cheaper than NY to LA.


There's a sense in all Kunstler's work of a sort of graveside gloat, liberally seasoned with condescending sarcasm. Though I continue to dislike his tone, his prognosis is, alas, substantially correct and we are all in for an ugly few years.


Or an influenza epidemic :)


Greg @6: Maybe, but it's hard to blame George W. Bush for a mutant chicken parasite going rogue. (Yeah, yeah, I know what he's been doing to the NIH; but H5N1 is an international problem, and lots of other folk have been slacking ...)

I am reminded of a wonderful novel, Earthdoom! by Dave Langford and John Grant -- the disaster novel to end all disaster novels. The ice caps have destablized and are sweeping across Europe, a comet made of anti-matter is on a collision course with Washington DC, the rabid lemmings unleashed by the ice caps are swarming across the UK and have formed an alliance with the sapient superglue from the sewers, the Hitler clones are advancing on London, and ... it turns out to be a whole lot less fun to live through! Who knew?


it's not the end of the world.

Hits them harder than it does us as they're so spread out and suburbanised, gotta drive quite some distance to get to work, buy pies, take kids to school etc, often in some sort of monster truck with rapidly-dwindling resale value.

Kunstler's an entertaining speaker, saw him in Vermont a couple of years ago.


Well, the only reason your gas is so expensive is you tax it so much. You're the guy hitting yourself in the head with a hammer, and telling the U.S. "hey, you'll get used to it!"

The U.S. at least has lots of slack to take in. We can make our cars half-sized. Can you?

Of course, we do drive a lot farther. There are people in the SF bay region where I am who do 60 mile commutes each way. 100km.


Michael: (a) the tax on gas can go down as well as up -- it means we're used to paying steep prices, and we've got a discretionary buffer (if the government chooses to use it). (b) the average USAn apparently used to drive 16,000 miles a year, but is now down by about 5%; meanwhile, in the UK the average annual milage is around 12,000. That's not a huge difference, is it? (I used to drive 40-60 miles a day to/from work, in my youth. Made a conscious effort to Stop Doing That when I realized how much of my time I was wasting staring at some other guy's tail lights.)


his prognosis is, alas, substantially correct and we are all in for an ugly few years

If he's right about the oil it'll be more than a few. Some say if we just handwave some huge number of breeder reactors past the nimbys at very short notice on an either-we-build-these-or-the-lights-go-out basis then all will be well, I've a few doubts myself...


Personally, I have a nagging paranoid suspicion that the reason for all the draconian anti-terrorism laws of late is that TPTB have been expecting the shit to hit the fan, energy-wise, and were using terrorism as an excuse to tool up first. Circa 2001-2007 it was a hell of a lot easier to ram through repressive legislation than to get planning permission for a brace of PWRs; and circa 2008-2016 they're going to need the repressive legislation as a club to deal with the subset of protestors who're too stupid to figure out which way the (hopefully fallout-free) wind is blowing.


Er, Michael, my UK commute is 55 miles each way every day (mid-Bedfordshire -> London and back). It costs a few thousand quid a year in train fares, which is painful but survivable. It would be much less so in a car, but we don't all need to drive for our commutes. (The way the fares keep shooting up at well above the rate of fuel inflation may make this less true in time, but that's stupid government transport policies for you.)


I keep having this urge to dig up and reread Heinlein's old story "The Year Of The Jackpot". But I keep myself from it, because I know I'd just end up in the hills surrounded by canned food and guns; and I'm no more an RAH Competent Man than Bob Howard is James Bond.


Er, Michael, my UK commute is 55 miles each way every day (mid-Bedfordshire -> London and back). It costs a few thousand quid a year in train fares, which is painful but survivable. It would be much less so in a car, but we don't all need to drive for our commutes. (The way the fares keep shooting up at well above the rate of fuel inflation may make this less true in time, but that's stupid government transport policies for you.)



Your nagging suspicion would be more tenable (at least as applied to the US) if the administration that insisted on the laws and promulgated the regulations weren't so relentlessly pro-oil-industry, and so insistently anti-conservation. Now if you'd said they wanted the laws to enforce a minimum gasoline usage per citizen it would be very believable.


Jens Alfke @ 14

Your post reminded me that I have a large nest of what used to be called Survivalists about 150 miles south of me. I wonder how they're taking all this end-of-days rhetoric. Last I heard, they were digging in and stockpiling ammunition to shoot down the black helicopters of the New World Order. I guess by now their fantasies are running more towards Mad Max and the war of all against all for a jerrican of gasoline.


Bruce, my paranoia should be interpreted in a UK-specific context. (Our authoritarian fuckwits are clearly more fuckwitted than yours. So there.)


Personally, I think I detect a certain weakening on his part. Back in 2005-2006 it was all total end of everything right soon now. Now the signal for TEOTWAWKI is a fucking house price crash?

Now that's what I call mundane SF! (As a potential buyer, I declare an interest, apologise for my excessive schadenfreude, and thank god I spent so much time in 2005-2007 dodging the topic every time my partner brought up the subject of property:-))

But then, ISTR he launched some terrible jeremiad about baggy trousers being a sign of the ineluctable, Spenglerian softening of the youth, which prompted me to call Peak Kunstler and ignore him from then on.

One of the interesting things about the soaring oil price is just how well things have gone so far. Somewhere around the Web the other day I saw a chart of oil consumption in major industrialised nations; most of us are actually going down, and we Europeans have been for 10+ years.


Regarding teh coming war with Iran, has anyone else spotted that the aircraft carrier currently in the Gulf has been diverted to the Arabian Sea, there to match an increased demand for close air support in Afghanistan?


Alex: I bought a new flat just 18 months ago. (On the other hand, I had a 50% deposit, using the spoils from my previous dwelling, which had unaccountably risen 300% in the preceding decade. I'm not going to start chewing my beard until house prices hereabouts have fallen by more than 50%. I just pity the poor fool first-time buyers who picked this end of the decade to learn a very expensive lesson.)

I gather the inflation-adjusted real cost of motoring in the UK is lower than it was in 1988. Huh.


Charlie (#12) and Bruce (#16), you may both be right. See Naomi Klein about disaster capitalism...


I'm familiar with disaster capitalism. (The sequel to HALTING STATE is going to be about its successor, kinda-sorta.)


For what it's worth, Bruce Sterling, no starry-eyed optimist, appears to think Kunstler is an idiot. (And why don't HTML links show up as a separate color hereabouts, hmm?)


In 12 above, Charlie, you start off bemoaning the anti-civil liberties moves taken in the UK, then imply that they should be used against anti-nuclear protesters, in whose number I will be. Have I got the wrong end of your stick, as it were?


James: Just slightly.

Authoritarianism: bad. Probability of some protesters going nonlinear when they realize that it's not simply a matter of replacing the current generation of nuclear reactors: high. Probability of a messy intersection of the two trends: unity.


Open your copy of Snowcrash to page 2:

This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them. As a result, this country has one of the worst economies in the world. [...]
One problem I worry about (hopefully without grounds) is whether nuclear power and weapons multiply the consequences of societal breakdown. Anybody know the science? If any of you folks on the other side of the pond are thinking of the end of The Sheep Look Up, just a little reminder that you can't smell radioactivity in smoke.


Charlie @ 18,

Well, my fuckwits want to beat up your fuckwits. In fact, they want to beat everybody up. Can't get more fuckwitted than that.


Any institution named either "Fannie Mae" or "Freddy Mac", unless it's a doily knitting conglomerate or a Kriss Kross cover band, is fscking asking for it. Just saying.

We should rejoice over unaffordable gas: we all know humans don't change until they feel the pinch. Let it hit $20 a gallon! The current model of large-radius suburban development is an impossibility under these conditions. And these are precisely the defaulting suburban mortgages underpinning the Structured Investment Vehicles that are going so Epically Pear Shaped (thanks Charlie) ... Notice the bizarre synchronicity? All the necrotic tissue overlaps. It will be painful for us all for a while, but so it goes when chicken roosting commences.

And then there's the fact that Warren Buffet has been investing heavily in railroads for the last couple years. I trust that dude's oracular cred.


Excuse me posting before I go to bed, but havn't the USA'ians been here already with Fannie and Freddy? Didn't they deregulate everything back in the early 80's, which meant they crashed horribly in the late 80's, requiring bail out by gvt money?


Yes, Charlie; the brilliance of "climate protestors" trying to shut down the Kellingley-Ferrybridge loop line on one of the highest power demand days of the year didn't evade my miners' strike/Yorkshire influenced mind. The next stop from there ("Well, we'll show'em! No electricity! Howzatgrabya?") is of course "They don't agree with us? Well....exterminate all the brutes." Sorry. They need to be Forced To Be Free. Whatever. It's always damn annoying when one's ideological allies make themselves the problem. See the social democrat/communist split...


Charlie -

Firstly, nice cover on THE JENNIFER MORGUE.

Then, you wrote: 'the tax on gas can go down as well as up -- it means we're used to paying steep prices, and we've got a discretionary buffer (if the government chooses to use it).' Um. You perhaps don't have as much of a discretionary buffer as anybody would wish. Three points --

[1] Take a look at these pretty, thoughtful graphs from The Oil Drum. (Not all that site's contributors are so considered and, as w. Kunstler, the reek of apocalypse-lust comes off some stuff there. But these, from a Norway-based energy expert, seem sound.)

Basically, except for France, which has had the foresight to put itself in the position of having nearly 80 percent nuclear-based grid supply, Europe has much less slack in terms of energy supplies & access -- something like half as much -- than does the US. The charts are the main thing, but the Norwegian expert comments: 'One thing that caught my attention some time back was the perceived lack of interest for energy questions, usage and supplies within the European Union (EU) compared to the USA ... the likelihood that the EU’s fossil fuel consumption peaked, back in 1979, is now very real....

'The EU has to a much larger extent (presently approximately twice that of USA) allowed its energy mixture and fossil fuel consumption to be based upon imports. EU energy independence is not a realistic choice or goal (unless living standards are swiftly and dramatically lowered)... something Putin (Russia is presently EU’s biggest supplier of fossil fuels) seems to have been aware of ...while the EU occupied itself with defining goals for greenhouse gas emissions it sleepwalked into increased reliance on Russian fossil fuel imports....

'On the bright side ... the EU will reach its agreed goals for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, but for totally different reasons than set out in its lengthy, costly and wasted political programs.'

But, as I say, look at the charts

(2) Additionally, my old dad still runs a small factory and business in the North of England, so I've always been aware that on average 70 percent of prices at Europe's gas pumps go to support those wonderful social models and superior public transport infrastructures. But that in turn now means that European governments probably have far less slack to lower gas taxes than you suggest.

(3) And finally it's not as if the US system hasn't for a long time depended more on welfare state approaches than most folks appreciate or care to admit --- The Camouflaged Safety Net: The U.S. Armed Forces as Welfare State

Arguably, this US workfare system approach -- alongside subsidizing much technological R&D -- permits certain strategic options in an international context that the European approach does not. As you probably know, of course, in 1999 Dick Cheney predicted that global oil demand would meet and exceed global supply -- peak oil, in other words -- around 2008-2010.

All the above said, I don't think any society in the world is going to get away with not being fairly mercilessly disabused of some of its most cherished assumptions in the years ahead.



And why don't HTML links show up as a separate color hereabouts, hmm?

If you mean this, well, Great Refutations it ain't IMO.


I have a 22-year-old minivan and it's getting to where major systems are about to fail. I expect I'll buy a two-year-old SUV (aka Monster Truck) because they're selling for peanuts now, they meet my disability requirements, and they almost certainly get better mileage than the van.

Now, you want a book full of real disaster, you want Aftermath by LeVar Burton. Ellen interviewed him for five nights on Event Horizon and I was typing for him. The book has an awful earthquake where half the US falls apart at the very same time as the first black president is assassinated. Something (I've forgotten) makes global warming hit us immediately -- everybody's baking. And then the real disaster happens -- white people kill and flay black people so they can wear their skins to keep from dying of skin cancer. I asked him at one point if he thought this would really happen and he said yes. I told him there were plenty of other ways to keep from getting the sun on you, even after the US breaks in pieces, and he said he still thought white people would kill black people for their skin. Oh, and Canada and the UK and Mexico? They don't help us. Truly weird book.


Hey, cheer up everyone, we're making history!


The scary thing is, Fannie and Freddie do not hold sub prime stuff, they are being hit by a mixture of low capitalization requirements and a collapse in home values, values have fallen far enough that too many traditional 80% of the home value mortgages are under water.


High gas prices are probably good for us in the long run, it's just hitting at a bad time. As long as it doesn't creep up too fast we'll be able to adjust production.

Keep in mind that the average fuel efficiency of US cars is probably half that of cars in Europe. So the cost per mile traveled is probably about the same for both of us.

Luckily Europe has already pioneered the fuel efficient car for us, it's just a matter of adjusting them for the US and producing them.


On the bright side (for you guys in the UK or those of us in the US who are solvent) America is pretty much on sale for now and the foreseeable future.


Regarding teh coming war with Iran

Weren't you saying on your blog that There Will Be No Such Thing a while back? Or perhaps this is irony flying past me unacknowledged, it's been known to happen. I know the Israelis have been muttering menacingly lately, and a putative President Obama might not greenlight such adventures with the necessary alacrity despite the sucking up he's been doing.


I still am. Note that whatever their words say, their deeds speak differently, and that aircraft carrier is sailing away from Iran.


Andrew G @37: the problem is, there are (waves a finger in the air) on the order of 200 million cars in the USA. If half of them require early replacement with something more efficient, and the something-more-efficient costs only $10,000, then that's $1Tn in assets that are being written off. This is good news for the economy if the domestic auto industry does the writing-off, but alas, Ford, GM, Chrysler et al are in the shit because their domestic US production has focused on monster trucks and SUVs for the past two decades because they are unable to produce compact cars and turn a profit. So a large chunk of that $1Tn is going to go on imports, and ...

Well, maybe if they import the European Ford and GM model lines and retool and retrain their production facilities in 18 months flat the domestic manufacturers can fight back. But that doesn't sound likely. Even in Europe Ford and GM have taken a battering -- Ford have ceded the high end of their range in the UK to BMW, for example. They once sold 30% of all the cars in the UK; now they're way down.

Adrian @38: it's irony. (I hope.) I think they'd love to put the boot in, but even the neocons are finding it hard to avoid the harsh light of reality these days.

42: 41: Remember that the "Big Three" are essentially pension funds with car companies attached. The expectation is that Chrysler will have to declare bankruptcy to get out from under its pension obligations, meaning that GM and Ford will have to follow suit to stay competitive. This is even ignoring that GM's finance operation GMAC is likely to go to the wall due to the American housing market going down the drain. This is not academic to me seeing as my father is a Ford Motor pensioner.

Well, look at it like this.

So far we are only at the beginnings of our oil problems. Supply has been essentially static for a few years and demand has continued to go - hitting the equality point and pushing price to climb swiftly.

What do you think happens when supply starts failing (within 5 years is best guess)? Currently we still have it easy, but from that point onwards there are lots of difficult decisions to make and our colonial friends will get hit by most of them - given their society's almost total dependence on the car.

In the UK we don't have totally the same problem. Instead we have been 'blessed' by a government will no long term vision and as such we are losing our oil and gas supply at just the wrong time with no plan to fix it. Gas supply tightness and supposed reliance on russia are coming to a head.

There is a good chance that we will see brown outs this winter if we hit a cold spell, and its the scots who will get hit hardest. The good point is that this might get things really moving in the UK earlier than other countries.

Kunstler is an obstreperous old man, with a fixation on suburbia. However he's probably not overegging the effect of decline on society. Wasn't it MI5 that said the UK was 4 meals from revolution? What will really happen if the lights go out and there is no food on the shelves?


small snippet of information: the third (?) largest oil field in the world is the cantarell field in mexico (IIRC). recent reports suggest that over the past year output has declined by 34%.


Ian @43: I got a lot of stick from some American readers who didn't like the throwaway in HALTING STATE about the USA being out of world affairs for a generation, focussing instead on replacing non-viable infrastructure. (In a novel set in 2018 with petrol at 5 Euros a litre, i.e. about 2.5 times the current price.)



Adrian #39:

I would guess irony flying past you. Moving an aircraft carrier from the Persian Gulf to the Arabian sea puts it farther away from Iran's oil fields and the nuclear facilities in Esfahan. If an attack on Iran was planned for the near future, I would expect U.S. aircraft to be moved into of the Gulf, not out.

OTOH, maybe the U.S. is trying to get its carrier out of harms way in case Israel does something rash.


Charlie @45: I'm thinking the south will rise again, well as a distinct entity that is. I think the US will split apart as their red/blue differences and distance overwhelm the jingoistic spirit. Add to that the very great benefits to much of the rest of the world of the US crumbling and I think their current devaluation suicide will be added to by others to make their fall a swift one.

I'm thinking the world of "Distraction", crossed with the lack of society of "Snowcrash".

Mind you, I don't think we will be in any better state.


OTOH, maybe the U.S. is trying to get its carrier out of harms way in case Israel does something rash.

A shame, I was wanting to see if those rolling-airframe thingies worked or not.

49: 32: The government transferring wealth to corporations via tax incentives, etc. was derided by the leader of Canada's (very left wing) New Democratic Party in 1972. He described corporations receiving these monies as "corporate welfare bums".

A good phrase, and so true. Have things changed in Canada or elsewhere on that issue since 1972? Nope.


"I think he's over-egging the pudding; when I hear his wild effusions about $10/gallon gas I laugh, bitterly"

You have to understand how cheap gasoline/heating oil/natural gas are intrinsic to the running of this country. Everyone else, through higher fuel taxes, have had time to put in place alternatives. Here, everything will start to break down mighty quickly.

We're not a country of cities but one of suburbs. Most without any viable public transportation. We're fucked and we brought it on ourselves.


Ian @47:

The geographic ideological split in the US is, IMO, exaggerated. I live in the South, in Texas no less, but also in one of the most progressive cities in the country. I get the feeling that most states are probably like Texas: a swiss cheese of liberal,centrist, and conservative areas. After decades of migration in both directions, "The South" is hardly the monolithic culture it used to be.

If anything, I would see any (extremely unlikely) split playing out much more like Richard K. Morgan's vision in "Thirteen": Rim States (coastal areas) and Jesusland (the midwest). As far into the land of satire as that is, it's closer to the borderlands of reality than I'd care to admit.


Talking of fuckwits, and oil/energy prices .... A group a seriously brain-short protestors recently stopped trains from entering our largest COAL-FIRED power station (Drax) and started shovelling coal off ... After they'd all been arrested for rail trespass, they were subsequently charged under a wonderful 19th Cent offence: "Conspiracy to obstruct a Railway" - which can carry a VERY long sentence.

The "protestors" are, frankly, handing it to our fuckwit-authoritarian masters on a plate, if they really are that stupid - and they are, unfortunately.

Here in Britain we need: 1. A sane transport policy, NOT based on oil at $35 a barrel (no that figure IS correct) - which means serious railway electrification and re-openings. (and not just in Scotland) 2. A temporary fix (50 years) of CLEAN coal-fired + Nuclear power-stations. 3. Long-term cushioning in the form of changing the TAX rules allowing distributed microgeneration. The current rules (SUPRISE!) favour the big boys, and penalise everyone else. I'm especially in favour of re-opening every water-mill in Britain with turbines. Solid-stae controls and convertors can handle the power/shychronisation etc easily, now. 4. GET OUT OF THE C.A.P. - yesterday. Start encouraging more food to be grown here.


Ian @47 and Eric @51: I think you're both on it. We can be sure, at least for the foreseeable future, that the era of the hour-long commute is very over. This is huge, because it was the model that fuelled the housing bubble, that fuelled massive exurban retail ghettos, that fuelled car-per-commuter auto sales. It made us fat (there aren't any goddam sidewalks in half these developments!); And it's womb-like discocia made us afraid of everything. We'll probably see a massive reconsolidation around population centres. The franchise ghettos will whither and die. The exurbs will whither and die. It will be a truly beautiful thing to watch nature devour these McDrywall disposables. Witness the Detroit suburbs for an early taste. It's difficult to say whether or not the urban repatriation will serve to filter the population into like-minded chunks more likely to fracture the union. On the one hand, if people have to move anyway, they may just decide to move further away than their local Austin or Chicago or whatever, to a place where they're positive they'll fit in, like to a coast. On the other hand, geography is less and less a barrier to the connection of like-minded people, what with this series of tubes people keep talking about. In the end, people will go where they're most happily employable, so the job market could catalyse the filtration. The union may survive, and it may not.

I absolutely agree that the US will be sitting this round out while we pay our debts (of money and blood and face) and renovate the place. Sweet Jesus mother of baby Mary, I'd love to see a neo-rail revolution! But I think there's one area where the US will still be very much in play, and that's internet start-ups. It's got the universities, the VC, the entrepreneur-friendly legal environment. It's got the crazed workaholic dreamers. I'm with Paul Graham on this one - no place else on earth currently has the secret sauce. India, China, SE Asia you say -- I know, I know. I'm just not buying it yet. And that's one massive, slavering, unpredictable ace in the hole.


insect_hooves at 53: Is the hour-long commute really over, or will people just switch their Ford Leviathans for a new prius or next generation smartcar?

It is much easier to replace and redesign a car than to abandon thirty years worth of house building, and people moved away from the cities for a variety of reasons, not just because gas was cheap.

To the extent that the series of tubes makes geography less important (by allowing telecommuting and making some of the benefits of cities available everywhere), perhaps we will actually see less retrenchment in the old urban settings.


RE: Kunstler, the types dug up a good word for people like him "Apocaphilia". (a fascination with the end of the world that goes well beyond terriblisma, which is the "strange, gratified awe one feels when beholding dreadful disasters and acts of God from afar".)

I found him interesting for a while, until I realized that he, like a bunch of the other "environmentalists" who are obsessed with peak oil, want a vast global collapse to force the world back in time to some morally superior past.

Kunstler seems to be obsessed with life in the agricultural small town, however I've seen others who want to turn back all the way back before agriculture.

@51 The "red/blue" split in the US looks most like urban vs rural. See for instance


Nick @54: I dunno. American suburbia is a whole worldview, a complete set of metaphors built around cheap gas. Monster truck drivin', credit spending, panphobic ignorance. Gas-guzzling is built into its fabric - its very identity. It's consequence-free consumption. Can you honestly imagine suburbia as it currently stands, just with all the Hummers replaced by wee smart cars? The cognitive dissonance would be overwhelming. "I'm heating a cardboard house and buying bulk Doritos as Costco, but I'm driving this thing?" It'd be a constant splinter under their thumbnail.

Besides I suspect the rate of gas price increase will far outstrip our ability to adapt, anyway, so it's a moot point.


Nick @ 53 wrote: 'It is much easier to replace and redesign a car than to abandon thirty years worth of house building...'

You're not fully 'getting' (some of) the peakers' claims here. Imagine NO oil/liquid fuel available or so little that rationing reserves it for the transport of the most essential supplies, transporting the military for riot suppression, etc. Once you start appreciating cascade effects from peak oil, this isn't an impossible scenario -- though highly improbable, in my opinion.

Ignoring whatever's going on with the market for the purposes of debate, we're already seeing some worrisome cascade effects from global demand exceeding supply, which is the effective definition of peak oil. For instance: -

[a] Tankers sailing from Saudi Arabia are being run at substantially lower speeds to save on fuel costs, and taking 10-15 days longer to make it to the US. That delay in turn further decreases the little slack that existed in oil supply.

[b] Gen-3 nuclear reactor designs were conceived with the aim of their being 30-40 percent cheaper than existing reactors, thanks to their radically simpler and somewhat prefab construction needs. Now the bids have started coming in. Those reactors will be as expensive as Gen-2 reactors because fuel costs have driven up material costs that much.

[c] Resource nationalism. This is a big one: oil is increasingly not available via the free global market to the big global oil companies (and to us). Think of Russia, Saudi Aramco (where last month King Abdullah promised/claimed that part of a new field would be left untouched for the benefit of future Saudi generations), Venezuela, Bolivia, etcetera.

When fuel supply starts seeming so obviously finite that it will only increase in value and it makes more sense to use it as an instrument of geopolitical strategy, that's what governments -- particularly non-Western democratic ones -- are going to do.

For that matter, simply consider what happened in Venezuela, which found that it made much more by producing 2.5MM barrels per day at a price of $110 than 3.5MM barrels at $6 -- even with the cost of inefficiencies due to nationalization factored in. And not only did Venezuela make more, but it got to keep 1MM barrels underground. The US may not like that but you can't blame the Venezuelan government for having done this math.

58: 54 and 56

I have a Prius, and I'm limiting my driving. Fortunately, I live only a mile from a train station, so I can commute without a car. It's still an hour each way, but it's a much more pleasant hour.


This is interesting.... Multiple Birds – One Silver BB: A synergistic set of solutions to multiple issues focused on Electrified Railroads

• Electrify 36,000 miles of mainline railroads • In many, but not all cases, use the railroad ROW as new electrical transmission line corridors • Promote the use of rail lines, usually spur lines, as wind turbine sites with rail transported cranes and materials • Expand Railroad capacity and speed by adding double tracks, better signals and more grade separation • New 110 mph tracks for passengers and freight added to existing rail ROWs as a second step • Take advantage of the lower marginal economic costs of railroads, where the more we use it, the less it costs per unit. A diffuse economic benefit for many sectors of the economy.


Mark @59: Oh wow - I love it! What a hack!


You could get the benefits of decentralised generation and nuclear power by filling the country with these '-)


For those of you concerned about the environment, there's a potentially bad outcome of high fuel prices in the US -- we turn to our coal resources. We could run our country for a couple centuries on our coal reserves with current technology.

It just takes awhile to build the conversion plants and businesses want to be sure that prices will stay high enough for coal-to-oil to be profitable, and that the government won't heavily subsidize alternative energy at the expense of coal.


& from @59: I love the fact that in the immediate short term it provides non-oil-based shipping backbones in the event of an emergency. And it evolves incrementally from there, with useful functionality at every stage.

I can't believe the essay was just posted today - It's fscking brilliant.


insect-hooves, here in the DC Metro area, people drive to DC from West Virginia because their jobs aren't paying them enough to live closer. It has nothing to do with gas, it's because of the vastly higher housing prices (even with the slump) closer to DC.


Andrew @ 62 wrote; 'We could run our country for a couple centuries on our coal reserves with current technology... conversion plants and businesses want to be sure that prices will stay high enough for coal-to-oil to be profitable, and that the government won't heavily subsidize alternative energy at the expense of coal.'

Yup, absolutely correct. Contra the peak oil doomsters like Kunstler and also the Greens, in principle a future is perfectly imaginable in which we continue exactly as we are going now -- that is, maintain our current energy consumption status quo -- by:-

[a] not implementing any novel technologies whatsoever;

[b] relying instead on energy technologies that are tried, proven, and many decades old;

[c] such as, specifically, the Fischer-Tropsch coal-to-oil process -- S. Africa ran for decades despite sanctions thanks to CTL and we didn't beat the Nazis because they simply ran out of gas -- which would produce liquid fuel at approx. $45-55 a barrel for our transport fleet;

[d] while, of course, nuclear plants could power our electrical grid;

[e] and then, beyond that, I basically subscribe to Freeman Dyson's position on AGW (apologies, Charlie) -- The Question of Global Warming which is, essentially, that it's truly unclear how bad AGW effects will be and in large measure most of the mantra-like repetition that it'll be the worst thing that ever happened has become based on religious/ideological/aesthetic dogma, without adequate scientific basis (to begin with, after all, basic common sense tells you that, besides the losers to AGW, some regions will be definite winners, like Siberia);

[f] however, if AGW effects from continuing to run our transport fleet off CTL liquid fuel should prove as bad as some predict -- because we really DON'T KNOW, for all the reasons Dyson states -- we can then implement cheap and localized geoengineering to mitigate that, along the lines that Greg Benford and Ken Caldeira describe on pgs. 2 and 3 on this article --

Is all the above -- CTL + nuclear fusion + geoengineering -- the ideal scenario? Hell, no. But it's perfectly imaginable. That said, peak oil cascade effects such as I cited in an earlier post could easily kill it. Our technological civilization is, to an absolutely unclear extent, racing the clock against those effects. Just to begin, there is absolutely no transparency about how much oil we have left.

Beyond that, on the equation's other side, to assume that no novel technologies will be implemented is a fairly unrealistic assumption. The railroad proposal is very pretty. And there are some real game-changing novel technologies could emerge. For instance, the researchers implementing the next iteration of Robert Bussard's Polywell fusion reactor are making encouraging noises --

I wouldn't hold my breath, but that would really be a game-changer, along the lines of the surprise ending to Ken Macleod's THE EXECUTION CHANNEL (except that America would have it, which some of you wouldn't like).

Overall, however, as Charlie said: "Or, or. Too many ors." We seem to have entered a historical period of maximum instability.


But I think there's one area where the US will still be very much in play, and that's internet start-ups.

A lot of interweb stuff only makes sense in a expanding economy. In a contracting one other questions, such as "where are the pies going to come from", may take precedence over adding new social networking functions to arsebook or whatever. Moore's Law is also pretty much finished in a world without large surplus energy supplies, I suspect.

There's a strange myopia to some of Paul Graham's stuff, though he's obviously a bright lad. Seems to think his own experience (learn Lisp, work 23-hour days for a few years, profit!) is really generalisable.


Thanks for the quick comeback, Charlie. Personally I always feel like going non-linear when the line clearly ends up in Screwed-ville.


except that America would have it, which some of you wouldn't like

Counting yer technochickens before they're hatched is for Heinloonies and people who think economics is a science, hth.


Marilee @64: I think that's precisely it: people settle for hours-long commutes because it's cheaper. But will it still be cheaper at $10/gallon? $15? And when you factor in the implicit cost of lost time - sometimes a full 24 hour day per week of our precious lives ... At some point the balance shifts.

Adrian @66: Yes, pie supply weighs heavily on my mind as well, although I think (certain) internet companies will be some of the last hold-outs of profitability in a bad economy. For one, they're automatically international. Also, unfair as it is, the internet is still very much a province of the affluent, so is shielded to some extent from economic realities. And Google, as the obvious example, seems virtually immune to the economic climate. As far as Graham mass producing profitable startups, I haven't seen many hard numbers, but I think it's working.


64: Marilee, isn't it also because of the DC school system? Though you'd think with all that money and ideology floating around there would be plenty of private school alternatives.


I predict a decade of malaise, economic stagnation and slow growth. Both Europe (including Britain) and the US will have a rough time changing their energy consumption patterns from less hydrocarbon dependent to more sustainable technologies, but the US has a lot of other problems on top of this.

The US has driven its growth for the last 50 years on increases in consumer spending. During the 50's and 60's this was driven by rising real wages for the working & middle classes. In the seventies wages stagnated but household income kept growing because wives went out to work. In the 80's households responded to wage stagnation by working longer hours. In the early nineties the stopped saving and started running up their credit cards. In the late nineties refinancing your house to take advantage of the housing bubble drove the rise in consumer spending. Now there is nothing left.

What the bursting of the housing bubble will do aside from ploughing under a few dozen banks and causing a recession is to wipe out trillions of dollars of "wealth." Even a mild further decrease in property values will reset the average level of household wealth back to 1989 (in inflation adjusted terms). And 1989 wasn't a vintage year as far as household wealth is concerned. (Incidentally, the effect on the lower quartile of the population will be a lot worse than this.)

(See report from:

America paid for the deficit military spending and savings & loan fiasco from the Reagan years by raising taxes during the nineties. This policy is deflationary and a drag on economic growth but the rises in consumer spending more than compensated for it. This time around if there any rises in consumer spending it will be a lot weaker (particularly if Americans smarten up and learn to save).

Oil and raw material prices fell rapidly during the 1980's, allowing for rapid growth without inflation, but those of us around in the seventies remember just how hard it was in an era of rising raw material prices to get any sort of economic growth without triggering inflation, particularly if you had a balance of payments problem and a weakening currency.

Add to that the depressing effect of spending the trillions necessary to retool your energy usage, and the rising costs of an aging population (Medicare and social security) and it doesn't look good.

Any growth America has will be driven by rising exports as its trade balance gradually adjusts. (The era of printing dollars to pay for imports is over.)

If Europe is smart and takes steps to support wages, by doing things like holding down unskilled immigration and encouraging skilled immigration, we could finish up in the 2020's with a situation the reverse of the 1950's where it is Europe that has the huge, broad middle-class base driving consumer patterns and America has a much narrower base feeding into it.

China, I suspect, will continue to grow, even without big increases in goods exported to the US. There are other countries in the world and its economy is now big enough so that internal growth can drive it.


Freeman Dyson would appear to fit in the category of scientific silverbacks allergic to big ideas they didn't come up with themselves...


Chris @ 72:-'Freeman Dyson would appear to fit in the category of scientific silverbacks allergic to big ideas they didn't come up with themselves...'

That's it, of course. Thus, no need to read what he's written.


RE: Kunstler, the types dug up a good word for people like him "Apocaphilia".

Bad word IMO - "apocalypse" just means uncovering/revelation, can't go chopping bits off it willy-nilly like that. "Eschatophilia" might work, but my Greek is nearly non-existent.

(a fascination with the end of the world that goes well beyond terriblisma, which is the "strange, gratified awe one feels when beholding dreadful disasters and acts of God from afar".)

I think of it as "anticipatory schadenfreude", looking forward to observing the inevitable meeting of hubris and nemesis from a distance which is at least survivable, if not necessarily comfortable. I prefer it to that of those Christians whose image of Heaven seems to include tiers of seats around and above the Inferno, all equipped with really good binoculars.

I found him interesting for a while, until I realized that he, like a bunch of the other "environmentalists" who are obsessed with peak oil, want a vast global collapse to force the world back in time to some morally superior past.

I think it's more that he reckons the West, and particularly America, have constructed a morally inferior present based on the ideas that you can get something for nothing and that you don't have to care much about your physical environment (he's more about architecture and urban planning than about the natural environment per se).

He's well aware that he sounds like one of the old fire-and-brimstone preachers, he plays it up.

Kunstler seems to be obsessed with life in the agricultural small town, however I've seen others who want to turn back all the way back before agriculture.

Quite some dieoff you'd need to get back that far.


Mark Pontin@73: actually, I have read some of it. Funnily enough, you don't need to read very many global warming skeptics before they get a bit repetitive. They tend to be fairly badly out of date on their own reading.

The RealClimate people did a number on Dyson not so long ago. Those guys know far more about the issues than I'm ever likely to. Not that knowing anything about the issue is compulsory for an internet argument ;)


Dude, indeed not --

However, Freeman Dyson isn't necessarily a global warming sceptic. Rather, agnostic about the AGW consequences as portrayed by the likes of Stern and RealClimate,et al.

Think ye, in the bowels of Christ, that ye yourself may be mistaken?

No? Oh, well. But you might take a look at Dyson's concluding paragraphs -- they seem reasonable and accurate to me.


Mark Pontin: you're doing a classic thing that self-proclaimed climate change skeptics do, which is to couch the arguments in terms of individuals (Stern says, Gore says) rather than on the facts. I myself may be mistaken... about what, exactly? That the work of thousands of people points towards some pretty nasty things looming on the horizon? No, I don't think I'm mistaken about the things a large number of credible people have said. Dyson is not a researcher in this field, he does his own credibility no good by dismissing those who are.

I happen to have personally just done some work on real ecological/biological impacts of anthropogenic CO2 emissions, so I do think Dyson's concluding paragraphs are full of the proverbial. Heaven forbid I should know more about it than someone who writes for the New York times, of course...


Dave @71: Excellent post.

Chris & Mark: There is no doubt that the earth is warming. The argument is over whether we're causing it. I think the evidence points to Yes. But since there's no way for us to know absolutely positively scientifically for real for real, we have to operate as if we are. Think of it like Pascal's Climate Wager. If we're right, we narrowly avert a catastrophe of own making. If we're wrong, well, we got some cool tech and adaptability practice out of the deal. (Don't get me wrong -- Pascal's Wager itself is a crock. :)


insect_hooves: Zactly.


Chris @ 77: No. I'm not a sceptic about AGW. It's real: CO2 percentages in the atmosphere, etcetera. I do various things for a living, but make part of my money as a humble science/technology journalist and in that context I argued for it years back. I do my homework, unlike many journalists.

That said, short of a forcing event like the methane gas release from under the polar ice sheets described here -- Methane Release Could Cause Abrupt, Far-Reaching Climate Change -- then many currently popular accounts of AGW's effects as inarguably apocalyptic unless checked do seem excessive, overall. Over-egged, as somebody said regarding Kunstler up top.

Could we, though, be headed towards the forcing event that the study I've linked to describes? Quite possibly. The study's authors write: "(From)635 million years ago ... the outcome is preserved in the geologic record. We see that strong forcing on the climate, not unlike the current carbon dioxide forcing, results in ... change (of)climate to a completely different state."

If the above forcing event were to repeat in our near future, though, how profound would the effects be in the modern context? The study's authors say: "The (previous)shift triggered events that resulted in global warming and an ending of the last 'snowball' ice age." In the context of today's warmed, non-snowball Earth, however, what would the results be? They -- we -- don't seem to know. Furthermore, those results would depend on how much methane remains in the clathrates beneath the polar sheets. So, how much methane is there? Again, we don't seem to know.

Obviously, however, it would be much less methane than would have been there before the global transition from the "snowball" Earth 635 million years ago. Would it be enough to trigger another such transition? We don't know. And even if were enough methane, what would it take to reach the threshold to trigger its release from where we are today? Perhaps very little -- or maybe quite a lot. Because again the study's authors write: ""What we now need to know is the sensitivity of the trigger ... How much forcing does it take to move from one stable state to the other -- and are we approaching something like that today with current carbon dioxide warming?" In short, again, they -- we -- don't know.

I've brought up the methane release possibility because I didn't want to cheat. It's the scariest theoretical possibility out there AGW-wise that I know of, especially when you start working out the cascade effects. But notice the long strings of "we don't know ... we don't know ... we don't know ... we don't know" attached to the scenario, which the researchers will have to work around so as to produce computer models whose resemblance to reality that they -- and we -- will have very little means to judge.

So: such a long string of repetitions of "we don't know". Yet such certainty from "global warming activists" about what the consequences of AGW are going to be.


I have a big problem with the whole of the public AGW discourse.

The back-and-forth seems to mostly be over whether the climate change we're experiencing is anthropogenic or not.

Speaking as a pragmatic individual, I don't care whether it's anthropogenic or not, I care about how we're going to respond to it.

If your house is on fire, does in matter whether it is on fire due to a lightning strike/wildfire or because of the neighbourhood arsonist? No it does not! (At least, not in the short term.) What matters is dealing with the fire. Granted, understanding the underlying cause of climate change is an important step in formulating strategies for dealing with the consequences; but even if it turns out to be a 'natural' process we still have to figure out how to live with it.

The triple whammy I'm most afraid of is that we're going to find ourselves facing a major environmental threat just at the moment when energy gets expensive, the biggest economy on the planet hits the buffers due to a housing bubble/currency collapse and poor infrastructure choices in the 1950s, and the ideology most closely associated with doing something about the crisis is a vehicle for puritannical authoritarians.


charlie@81 - yes (though I am somewhat sceptical of the guardian, given their past record on objective reporting).

as for the energy crisis - someone mentioned above coal to liquids, and the fischer tropsch process. This is a plan to make diesel from coal, and it works. the main problem is, it puts out 8 times as much CO2 compared to how we do it now. yes, 8 times. and that is for our transport needs, which makes up roughly 1/3 of our energy demand (in the UK). So moving to coal to liquids will only exacerbate global warming, rather significantly, unless we find some way to capture the carbon (no-one really knows how to do it properly yet, though I have heard some interesting ideas about algae farms bolted onto coal-to-liquid plants).

a rather more whimsical/silly idea - not sure if this would work, and it would probably have many unforeseen consequences. set up an orbital lift along the lines of bifrost. make it out of carbon nanotubes (assuming this is possible). carbon nanotubes conduct heat rather well. one end of it is in space (cold) the other end is at the equator (hot). heat flows up, out of the atmosphere and into space at the top end. any takers? :)


Hmm I still think the vegetable/biol fuel option would be a better start than liquid coal. Granted it's apparently going to cause a food crises; but seeing as I can't buy a brittish apple or sprout in this country for love nor freaking money - I can think of a good place to grow the crop needed.

accelerationista @ 82: The Guardian's past objective reporting? Admittedly it's more of a left bent to their reporting and reporters. But the Guarduan is one of the few British papers I'd put any faith in, simply because their reporting is - in general - quite objective! (not saying they get everything 100%, but they are still staffed by Homo Sapiens...)


@83 how about coal to liquid, then pump the co2 into an algae farm, use the algae to generate oil (as per a previous post on this blog) or biofuels? that would still have the high co2 output, but with a greater amount of useful energy output. the problem with biofuels (as has been said before) is the food problem. so use the next generation of biofuels, cellulosic ethanol, direct algae to oil etc - this doesn't use food crops or land, but should result in useful fuels. personally I think we will need each and pretty much every option to get through it.

as to the guardian - I could rant about this for a while, but I shall exercise restraint. I used to read it, until they smeared noam chomsky in a particularly crude manner. they are not left leaning - they just have the appearance of that, because that's the market they are aimed at. incidentally, they get 70% of their revenue from adverts. this makes it hard for them to maintain objectivity.

you can find out more at


accelerationista @82: I love it! A heat sink for the world. They would bristle with fins at the top. Probably fanciful, but lateral thought is always good.

Serraphin: Corn-based bioethanol is madness. The yield is abominable. When we starve nations to feed our cars our priorities are well and truly fuxn0red. Hemp for biodiesel has my vote, but the US government at least would choke and die on its pride before that happened. Algae is another good option.


accelerationista @84: Heh, I need to remember to refresh the page once before I post so I don't end up repeating people. ^_^


I much prefer the idea of (a) lots of nukes, and (b) using the electricity from said nukes to power Fischer-Tropsch synthesis of methane from atmospheric CO2 plus water. That's actually carbon neutral, and we're already geared up to ship methane around in pipelines. You can run automobiles off it too, with a conversion kit. Or throw more energy at it to polymerize it all the way into long-chain alkanes and burn them like diesel. As the carbon this fuel emits is stuff that came out of the atmospheric carbon cycle rather than the fossil carbon reserves, it's a big win over using coal or tar sands. And it leaves the farmland free for growing food for humans.


Charlie wrote: 'I have a big problem with the whole of the public AGW discourse...Speaking as a pragmatic individual, I don't care whether it's anthropogenic or not, I care about how we're going to respond....'

Sure. Pragmatically speaking, nonetheless, we need to understand more about causal mechanisms in order to respond and to understand likely effects, and then we also need to do economic cost-benefit analyses of our options re. mitigation policies. Yet it's very striking that many AGW activists refuse to accept:-

[1] Any nuances or distinctions between full-bore sceptics about AGW and those -- like Dyson and myself -- who might be sceptical about whether AGW would necessarily have all the catastrophic effects they currently claim, and therefore believe that economic cost-benefit analyses are appropriate.

[2] Because Freeman Dyson's article is primarily about such analyses re. global warming. That's mostly it -- and yet even this is a heretical concept. See, for instance, how on the RealClimate thread where Chris says "they did a number on Dyson", that those who suggest that such analyses or "discounting might be appropriate get shouted at.

[3] Nevertheless, however much anybody shouts, the world's reality is such that if cost-benefit analysis suggests that, specifically, the "Stern" policy to fight AGW will ultimately mean a loss of $15 trillion dollars of global development and the "Gore" policy will mean a $21 trillion loss -- and that's what Dyson reports that economist William Nordhaus concludes -- then nobody is going to get to impose those policies upon countries like China and India -- or, indeed, anywhere else -- on the basis that "since there's no way for us to know absolutely positively scientifically for real, we have to operate as if we (know)." There are simply too long a string of "we don't knows" in the models.

[4] Better, frankly, to trust not in policy but in peak oil to curtail fossil fuel use, as Hansen is now proposing -- “Implications of “peak oil��? for atmospheric CO2 and climate" Although I wouldn't rely on peak oil either.

[6] Finally, what are we going to do?

Truthfully, we face only a menu of options for mitigation regarding AGW. Any halfway-sensible person knows all those hydrocarbons have been released over the decades: it's already too late for "prevention". In their hearts most climate scientists accept this already. I'll play the mug's game of trying to be a futurist and suggest that two very general AGW scenarios exist in front of us.

On the one hand, if a catastrophic forcing event (like methane release from beneath melting polar sheets) actually starts to look like it's triggering, we'll need to try to rush to the geoengineering option as proposed by climate scientist Ken Caldeira (see post #65 above). If implemented in time, such strategies can lower temperatures 2 degrees over large planetary zones, like the polar caps. If those strategies don't work, there'll still be winners, as well as losers, from global warming: human beings in places like Siberia will still be fine.

Conversely, if AGW effects fall short of a forcing event, we face only what we can consider as management problems. The approach then would become something like the kind of continuous, relatively low-grade geoengineering -- or weather modification -- the Chinese are already de facto doing in North China, and that you'll see at the Olympics next month.

But, as we know, futurism is mostly a mug's game. Time will tell and we will see.


Charlie, Brendan O'Neill (who wrote the Guardian piece) is RCP/Living Marxism/Spiked/Institute of Ideas, etc. You can't trust a word that man says, and he has a long and disreputable history of denialism on a range of topics. They're a bonkers bunch - used to be completely insane, and rather cultlike, leftwingers, managed very successful media entryism and now are completely insane rightwing, pseudo-marxist, libertarians.


accelerationista @ 82

It's a cute idea, but I'm afraid that carbon nanotubes (CNT) aren't up to the job. So far, we don't know how to make them within about 2 orders of magnitude of the strength required for a Space Elevator. I'm an optimist, so I like to assume we'll figure out how to do that, and be able to make something like a tape made of CNT / epoxy composite. But it would take at least 4 years IIRC, even if we were ready to start tomorrow, to get something like a 10 cm tape run up to the counterweight (and that's ignoring building the delivery spacecraft for the initial 1 cm tape and launching it).

So here's the real problem: CNT is not a bad heat conductor, but it's not a heat superconductor. How many terawatts of heat do we have to get rid of to make a dent?* And how many megawatts could a tape that size carry before melting?**

  • Current world energy use is around 15-20 terawatts (per Wikipedia); I think we'd need to export at least 5% of that to have any effect at all. Call it 1 terawatt.

** CNT has a heat conductivity of roughly 3000 to 3500 W/m•K. Assume the composite tape is the same, and is 5 mm thick, 10 cm wide, and 100,000 km long (that may be too thick; we need to watch our weight in this application). Assume the radiator at the far end is perfect, and we heat the earth end up to 1,000°K to increase power transmission, so the ΔT is about 1400°K. Unless I've slipped a decimal somewhere, that's something like 2 microwatts. You'd have to make the cross-section of the tape a whole lot bigger, and/or put the radiator a lot lower, but the best you can get out of the radiator is about 3 orders of magnitude, by hanging it off the tape at 100 km (and then the tape has to support it).


Mark@88: It's possible to go back and forth for ages weighing up models versus reality, tipping points, etc. The key issue is the one set out by insect_hooves@78: the consequences of doing nothing versus the consequences of acting, given a certain chance of the predictions being right.

Even if there's, say, a 10% chance of the mid-range IPCC predictions being correct (and they're pretty conservative), how daft would we have to be not to do something? If I said to you "if you walk out the door today to go to work, there's a 10% chance you'll die, but if you stay at home you won't get paid", what would you choose to do?


insect_hooves @69, no, it's not cheap, it's that jobs don't pay enough to live closer. Were you planning to subsidize jobs?

ScentOfViolets @70, there are private schools, but again, they're very expensive. The school systems in the urbanized counties around DC are very good, but the median price for houses in that area is $550K. The median for houses in the county around my city (which is about an hour out), is $275K.

I'm currently watching "Click and Clack's As the Wrench Turns" which is the public TV animated version of NPR's Car Talk. This ep has them inventing a car that runs on pasta. Lots of people buy the car, we start running out of pasta, Italy starts refusing to send it, and we have to negotiate prices. Plus, the cars leave sticky macaroni emissions on the road. It gets to where gas is cheaper and we go back to gas. This is a great show.


Cian @89: I don't know anything about Brendan O'Neill, or much about the Guardian's politics, but the points made in that particular article are spot on. The authoritarian environmentalism he speaks of is not at all hyperbole.

In fact, I think we can lump these guys in with the other "strange authoritarians" who've come up around here recently. To my mind, their common feature is a sort of indirect power grab: rather than a bald faced bid for power, they prefer to work through a layer of obfuscation, like clothing their power delusions in environmentalism, or ruling through a proxy (Cheney), or defining the discourse by owning the media-pipes (here's the lizard king being almost candid about it), or casting a wide, selectively enforceable legal net (three strikes rules, ISP traffic monitoring etc.), or fabricating Terror to grease the wheels of the surveillance state, or playing to the old school staples of religious fundamentalism and nationalism. After all, as Adam Curtis' documentaries love to point out, it's much easier to control people when they don't know they're being controlled, when they actually think they're exercising their own free will. There's nothing particularly new here. The "strange authoritarians" are like their 20th century counterparts, only with a slick marketing department, CG, and an accountability abstraction layer. It's Authoritarianism 2.0


Marilee @92: That's a very good point. The fact that much city employment doesn't pay enough to live in the city is itself a disease of the urban exodus to suburbia, particularly in the service and retail sectors. Suburban commercial centers lower the bar of what employers can get away with. It's sick, sick, sick.


charlie@87 - electrically driven fischer tropsch using atmospheric CO2 sounds fascinating - can you point me towards any more information?

bruce@90 good job for running the figures - and I am sad to see that they don't add up. the strength and build time of an appropriate cable is an issue - nanotubes seem to be the best for now - but what about instead of sending it up there, find a rock (in space) and send it to earth orbit, with some nanotube factories built on/in to it (stephen baxter suggested this a while back). then you only have to send up the mass of the space craft and factory assemblies (tho we still have a long way to go on that front too). so, assuming the mass of the thing is less of a problem, what about a massive thing, with superconducting material in the middle? really not sure now - too many don't knows (and possibly more likely that we'll see pigs carrying that cable into orbit :)....

insect_hooves@93 that seems fairly bang on - but is cheney the proxy or the ruler? (that's a scary thought :/)


Charlie @81

Doesn't it matter whether or not global warming is man-made, because if it isn't man-made, we can't fight it by reducing CO2 emissions?


Since you need hydrogen and carbon monoxide to run Fischer-Tropsch in the first place, why not burn these directly (wasn't the old coal gas dominated by these two molecules) instead of incurring the energy penalty of converting them to methane? It would save the Fischer-Tropsch gear for where it's really needed - motor fuels.

Also, on the subject of nuclear power you've suggested PBMRs fuelled by plutonium - wouldn't this be too dangerous proliferation-wise? I've seen a lot of people on the nuclear blogs arguing that thorium is the fuel of the future.


Another question - if you were supporting the establishment of Fischer-Tropsch plants to produce synthetic motor fuels, how would you stop the oil producers using predatory pricing to strangle them in their cradle? It's not as if they don't have the cash to do so.

My biggest worry though is that the end of oil revenue (either from exhaustion, from anti-global-warming restrictions on oil use, or due to something better coming along) would trigger a Malthusian catastrophe in the Middle East. The only thing worse than 250 million pissed-off Arabs is 250 million pissed-off Arabs with nothing to lose...


George, apropos 96: the problem with thorium is simply that nobody's built a prototype thorium reactor yet; we don't know what the maintenance/operational pitfalls are. We ought to be building at least one test reactor right now, with the long-term view of it being the next generation of fission reactor we go to. But it's not something we can roll out at ten years' notice. The PBMRs, in contrast, have already been through the prototype phase and are most of the way to maturity; China's planning on rolling out a whole bunch of them in the next decade or two.

Plutonium is a sore point. Yes, you can make bombs out of it if it gets into the wrong hands. But that's more easily said than done, and discussions of it might get into the wrong hands usually assume that somebody will steal it while it's being moved from site to site. There's a simple answer to that: mega-sites where it's produced and consumed (under heavy guard). Yes, we get grid transmission losses then -- but I think the security objections are overstated.

Apropos @97: yes, a middle-eastern Malthusian crisis is indeed a major worry. The predatory pricing scenario is another matter: (a) use primary legislation to create an artificial market (i.e. by taxing the hell out of fossil motor oil and providing subsidies for synthetic stuff) and (b) kick the oil producers -- the corporations, not necessarily the states -- into servicing the market you've created.

There's just one problem with step (a): doing so within the framework of current international trade treaties is probably going to be impossible. I wonder how long WTO will survive if it is seen to stand in the way of our ability to survive peak oil?


George @97: "The only thing worse than 250 million pissed-off Arabs is 250 million pissed-off Arabs with nothing to lose...". I think you'll find its going to be less a problem of oil running out and more them not exporting any of it to us. What's worse than 250m pissed-off arabs? 300m pissed-off americans with nuke, that's what.

Charlie @98: WTO is an interesting one. My guess is 5 years tops and self interest will kill globalisation and the WTO with it. The game on the way down has different rules to the game on the way up.


Naively, the steps for plutonium would seem to be:

  • Settle on a nuclear fuel recycling system we can live with.
  • Define ISO standards for every fuel element, every tool, every moving part.
  • Stamp each part with an RFID tag, and define lifetime limitations on where it ought to be.
  • Program an inventory system of which we can ask whether anything is in its zone or not.
  • It's what we'd do if we were quixotically designing a near-automatic factory - or a self-replicating one (see Robert Freitas,

    None of it would be easy, but milspec is something militaries do, and the programming complexity would seem to be, though I hesitate at the simile, sort of like implementing Vista in SAP.


    Insect Hooves @93, well having just broken my rule on Brendan O'Neill (ignore the bastard) and read the piece, its largely bullshit. Are there authoritarian environmentalists? Sure - though they're largely on the margins. Are the people he links to? Hell no, some of them aren't even environmentalists. The people he criticises range from a fairly milquetoast liberal who thinks we should enforce good environmental behaviour just as we enforce other social goods (driving, health, etc) to scientists pissed off by the extreme campaign of disinformation, propoganda, front groups, political corruption, etc run by oil companies. Now maybe war crime trials is a bit extreme for what the propoganda departments of oil companies, etc, have been up to - but its hardly an obvious case of defending free speech. The case at least needs to be made. Brendan O'Neill has a vested interest here, he's been a willing (and paid) part of that process.

    Stuff like this: "We are continually told – by government, by commentators, by radical activists – that everything we do, from wearing disposable nappies to using deodorant to allowing ourselves to be cremated, is harmful to our surroundings."

    is very hyperbolic (continually, by all of the above? Really?).

    or "indeed, it represents a dangerous historic shift, from the Enlightenment era of free citizenship to a new dark age where individuals are depicted as meek in the face of more powerful, unpredictable forces: the gods of the sea, sky and ozone layer."

    Yeah, because the Ozone layer doesn't really have a hole in it, or something. Yeah, he's that much of a denialist. Or god forbid that we should prevent people from using CFCs, even if it greatly increases skin cancer/cataracts. Its about FREEDOM, baby. And its pretty rich for a man who constantly attacks science he finds politically inconvenient to lecture anyone about the enlightenment.

    Sure there are a couple of ok points in there, but for the mast part he's pulling the disreputable trick of trying to pretend that the extremists (who certainly exist) represent the mainstream environmental movement. They don't. Or better still, why not pretend that they're fascists because the BNP is jumping on the environmental waggon. I mean Hitler was a vegetarian you know - wink, wink, nudge, nudge.

    Anyway, rant over. His larger argument is essentially that anything other than a libertarian society is authoritarian. We have laws to promote social goods in the UK, and I'm pretty okay with that.


    Charlie@87: Yes, I think the big reactor/gas synthesis is what a lot of people are figuring is the baseline scenario. Absent political stupidity of course. And absent the Unforseen Breakthrough: from anything as mundane a perfected thermal depolymerization process (George Herbert, a guy who seems to know what he's talking about was rather enthusiastic about this a few years ago) to some sort of 'battery' (yes, I know, chemical batteries are up against some hard limits) to cheap synthesis of N60 to sucking up energy from another universe. I'm ranking them in order of general plausibility, of course.

    Marilee@92: Yes, I know that, I was just wondering if living away from the city might also be a school issue as well, since I've heard several people say that's why they moved to the suburbs - an admittedly nonrepresentative sample, by the way. I suspect this is a boutique issue, but you seem to know something about this.

    C & C are awesome! Besides the radio show they also have a column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I wish there were more radio shows like them, sigh. But this seems to be an issue only with old farts.

    Ian@99: This is something that has a Cassandra-ish nightmare quality. The oil will run low one day, and the region needs to come to some sort of consensus about future sustainable enterprises. "Who Took The Money Away?", why, the US, of course, and it's running-dog lackeys. That's why I'm baffled as to the resistance to Iran's nuclear program.


    accelerationista @ 95

    Yeah, the numbers were a bit of a surprise for me; I was expecting something like "It won't work, but it's not so far off" instead of "Not hell no, but Hel, Eblis, Shayol, and Dis no."

    I used that design for the beanstalk as a start because it's the only one anyone's done detailed engineering design on. And its design is deliberately minimalist, so that there's only one part that isn't a direct extrapolation of what we do now: the tape. But that particular design has a very low capacity for supporting parasitic weight, which a separate superconductor would be. Since we'd have to go to other designs, I can't really say whether it's feasible or not, but I can say it will be a lot longer before we can do something like that, assuming the CNT cable is possible at all.

    One advantage of not using the tape design is that you're not restricted to a taper factor of 1*, which means the tape doesn't have to be as strong for a given load.

    But it was fun to do the calculations; I haven't done anything like that Democrat's years. Thanks for the excuse.

    • The ratio of width of the cable at GEO to width at the base. Tha cable will also taper towards the counterweight, but the taper there is dependent on the size of the counterweight and its distance from GEO. The higher the taper factor, the less cable strength you need for a given load, but it's an exponential function; you get a factor of 2 improvement in load for 2 orders of magnitude change in taper factor.

    George Carty at 96 asked: Doesn't it matter whether or not global warming is man-made, because if it isn't man-made, we can't fight it by reducing CO2 emissions?

    So, you grant that global climate change is really really probable. Even if you think it's really, really, unlikely to be fixable, doesn't it make more sense to try now, rather than wait to be certain? If you assume that a natural process is pushing CO2 levels outside the historical bounds of the last 60,000-100,000 years but mysteriously isn't having an effect, adding to those CO2 levels on the off chance that it won't make a difference is a really poor bet.

    The problem with Dyson's silliness, above, is that he's assuming a high likelihood that there is a problem, and then assuming that a low-probability solution will fix it, where "low-probability solution" = pray that it doesn't cause problems and/or magic trees. (Any sufficiently advanced technology that doesn't yet exist is indistinguishable from magic.*)

    Let's resort to using math to prove my point. Let's be generous and assume even chances. Probability that waiting won't make things worse, (W=.5). Probability that as-yet untried/not invented/cutting-edge technology will solve the problem (T=.5). So WxT=.25 or 25%, suggesting that this is not a good bet. Perhaps some of the people here who actually work with cutting edge technology could share their experiences with the likelihood of any one particular outcome actually happening...?

    *corollary to Clarke's First Law.


    Charlie said, "I much prefer the idea of (a) lots of nukes, and (b) using the electricity from said nukes to power Fischer-Tropsch synthesis of methane from atmospheric CO2 plus water. That's actually carbon neutral, and we're already geared up to ship methane around in pipelines. You can run automobiles off it too, with a conversion kit. Or throw more energy at it to polymerize it all the way into long-chain alkanes and burn them like diesel. As the carbon this fuel emits is stuff that came out of the atmospheric carbon cycle rather than the fossil carbon reserves, it's a big win over using coal or tar sands. And it leaves the farmland free for growing food for humans."

    Actually, this looks like a really good idea for a number of reasons, although I wouldn't place quite so much emphasis on the nukes when wind already makes economic sense and solar (both PV and thermal) appears to be at least coming close, to the point where if oil tops $200/bl for an extended period of time, both will be completely viable. In part, this is because I don't think the real costs of nukes are quite as low as claimed; besides direct subsidies and cost breaks, there's indirect things like government limitation of liability. For the rest, nukes make very handy targets for terrorism, and even passively safe designs aren't immune to spewing lots of nasty stuff if breached by a big enough explosion.

    But the wonderful thing about using electricity for fuel synthesis is that it doesn't much matter what energy sources you plug into the grid, except that coal-burning plants probably need to be phased out eventually. We're probably going to need nukes, wind, both distributed (PV) and concentrated solar, hydro, geothermal, etc., etc. in order to replace fossil fuels in any large amount - but it doesn't matter what the final mix is to your central point.

    Anyway, I really like the idea of synthesizing methane, at least as an interim step until pure electrics have a proven range and reliability for flexible use. It has the advantages over the currently pie-in-the-sky hydrogen economy that we already know how to store and transport CNG; that the technology for converting vehicles to run on it is well-developed; and that your feedstock can come from different places. We could easily start out with something like the Pickens plan to free up natural gas reserves for transport (good at least from a USian balance of trade perspective, if merely about neutral for AGW since otherwise the stuff gets burned in power plants anyway), move to synthesizing the stuff as either the fields get depleted and/or we get serious about reducing carbon emissions, do workarounds with CNG/plug-in electric hybrids to stretch even our synthesized fuels further, and wait to move to an all-electric energy economy until the battery technology is truly mature enough, if it ever is.

    Anybody have actual numbers on the comparative energy and dollar costs of getting hydrogen via electrolysis and synthesizing methane through either Fischer-Tropsch or Sabatier? Also, of course, the comparative costs of storage, transport, and building automotive engines that run on each...


    Why do you think converting solar energy to fuel using electrical generation + Fischer-Tropsch would be any more efficient than using biofuels (which we already know are far too land-hungry to replace fossil oil)?


    I have friends in the corporate green energy sector, and i've had the opportunity to look at various statistics and government reports that don't get that much publicity.

    ...Including the one that says how many nuclear engineers the UK produces.

    My pro-nuke stance got blown out of the water by that number, practically in single figures. The UK can't have nuke plants on any large scale because we don't have anyone to maintain them.

    That said, we don't really need them either. Most of the UK's woodland could easily be coppiced on the North European model and put to tree ethanol, with very large scale generators already in construction. Would help the agricultural sector too, by giving farmers alternate sources of income. There are big waste-energy reactors going up across the country as well.

    The other option is the more transeuropean windfarm plan. Theres a triangle around Regensburg-Passau where wind comes off the mountains and fuels hundreds of wind turbines. At night it in fact produces far, far too much, so some of it is actually getting used to pump water back up into resevoirs in Norway, in turn creating more power through the massive hydroelectric infrastructure. The UK could be linked into that.

    The nuclear plan is screwed in this country, but thank whoever-you-feel-is-appropriate we don't really need it anyway, given a thousand other options all reaching their potential.


    Richard: ISTR there's just one course in civil nuclear engineering at a British university. It produced something like 40-50 graduates during the whole of the 1990s. There are currently 48 students enrolled on it and due to graduate next year, and the same again due to come out of the pipeline on an annual basis.

    Human capital isn't something we're short of -- given enough time.

    Yes, the idea of using wind farms for hydrogen or methane production is good; wind is crap at providing base load electricity for the grid (too unpredictable) but if you can store the energy it produces (via electrolysis to hydrogen, and then possibly reaction to produce methane) it's a whole different matter.


    "Why do you think converting solar energy to fuel using electrical generation + Fischer-Tropsch would be any more efficient than using biofuels (which we already know are far too land-hungry to replace fossil oil)?"

    I don't know that it's any more efficient, per se, but it has the advantages that it doesn't require displacement of agricultural land usage to energy, triggering huge rises in food prices. Windmills can be sited wherever, including in the middle of fields and pastures without much disruption of their primary use. Solar is probably more efficient in deserts and in the form of PV distributed across rooftops, parking lots, etc.; neither places where we need the area for growing crops. Nukes can be put anywhere with an appropriate infrastructure.

    Which is not to say that biofuels of some description may not be part of the answer as well - just probably not corn-based ethanol, based on any reasonable calculation of EROI. Might have to reduce corn subsidies and sugar tariffs in order to import Brazilian ethanol instead, or switch to sweet sorghum, or just wait for cellulosic ethanol to be perfected, since the last can actually get usable fuel not only from agricultural waste that currently pollutes our water, but even from much of what goes into landfill - e.g., any paper or cardboard, which is plenty.

    As for wind (or solar) being unpredictable or intermittent, that may be ameliorated by things like the area covered, how far the juice may be efficiently transmitted via a better grid, and existing storage options both electrical and fuel-based. Seems to me if the wind isn't blowing one place, it's likely to be still going in another, so if you have enough windmills the average power output can be statistically managed just fine. For solar, one of the appealing things about solar thermal is that you may be able to store heat quite efficiently with molten salt or other means and thereby spread your contribution to the base over 24 hours, while PV solutions almost certainly need to include integrated storage batteries for best use.


    George Carty , 106: Why do you think converting solar energy to fuel using electrical generation + Fischer-Tropsch would be any more efficient than using biofuels (which we already know are far too land-hungry to replace fossil oil)?

    Biofuels also use lots of fossil oil as inputs because fertilizer is derived from oil. (Basically fixed nitrogen is naturally scarce, but easier to extract from oil than anything else.)

    Quoting Charlie: Yes, the idea of using wind farms for hydrogen or methane production is good; wind is crap at providing base load electricity for the grid (too unpredictable) but if you can store the energy it produces (via electrolysis to hydrogen, and then possibly reaction to produce methane) it's a whole different matter.

    Shorter Charlie: You need steady rate inputs to the grid to keep it from melting down. This means Hydro, Nuke, or Coal. Longer: The base load problem is a hard problem: electric grids are made of very large spinning masses (large M) that are synchronized with EM across long distances, (50 or 60Hz, depending). The grid is made of interdependent parts: imagine one of those large masses getting slightly out of synch, past the point it can be nudged back on by the rest of the pack. (The network is self correcting and self healing with small breaks.) You get really bad effects, like alternating slowing and speeding up, like a bent driveshaft, and huge stresses on the grid proper, usually leading to a cascading meltdown. A literal meltdown, like you have to go back and re-string the wires after you put out the scattered fires. If enough of the grid goes critical, rebooting it is not a trivial matter; you still have to restart a whole bunch of large spinning masses and get them to interact stably with one another. Frex, the Northeast Blackout of 2003 (US), where one small failure at a power plant/set of lines shut down hundreds of others.


    Well actually, ammonia for fertilizers is made from natural gas currently, and it doesn't need fossil fuel at all, just hydrogen and energy...


    Granted, but hydrogen needs to be broken off of some molecule which

    So let me rephrase what we have so far: Biofuels are great, except they require fossil fuel inputs for (among other things) fertilizers, but that's okay because we get ammonia for fertilizers from natural gas (also a fossil fuel), but that's okay because we don't have to use that, we can just use hydrogen and energy, and that's okay because we can use energy to produce the hydrogen.

    There, fixed it for you.


    ScentOfViolets @102, when my family transferred to the Pentagon in 1967, my folks had a long argument about where we would live. If we lived out in McLean, we could have two cars and Dad could drive to the Pentagon. If we lived in Arlington, I could start going to school (there was a high school with lots of AP classes), but Dad would have to take a bus to the Pentagon. Mother won and I started school. The houses cost enough more a county further in, that we couldn't afford a second car while we lived there, and that worked out okay. Then again, my brother and I walked or took buses to after-school activities and parents are afraid of that these days.

    Currently, the DC schools have a new administrator and she is taking very drastic steps - firing people who wouldn't have been fired before, closing schools and moving students to nearby schools, drastically renovating schools, etc. If Rhee turns out to be right, the DC schools will become much better. But I do read in the WashPost every so often of people who moved out of DC to get the better schools in the suburbs.


    Charlie @108: How much time would you say we have? Human capital buildup + long lead-in times on major engineering projects = enough time? History suggests that anything other than a long lead-in time on major engineering projects is asking for it.

    don denly@110: Most of the hydro plants I'm familiar with can't be run as a steady-state input, or they'll empty their lakes. The Snowy Mountains Project in Australia, for instance, gets wound up for rapid peak-load response when everyone in Sydney turns their toasters and kettles on in the morning. I wonder how your synchronisation problem is affected by windmills being relatively small spinning masses? The synchronistation impulse might completely outweight the inertia of the individual generators. My understanding of the Northeast Blackout is that it was a long-term cock-up on a grand scale, btw.

    Does anyone else notice that the Americans seem to mostly be talking to themselves on this thread? "Might have to reduce corn subsidies and sugar tariffs in order to import Brazilian ethanol instead". My ethanol doesn't come from Brazil, or from corn!

    Energy return on sugar-cane ethanol is about 8:1, corn ethanol is about 1.5:1. It's likely that sugar-cane production could be entirely self-supporting, energy wise, but it's a fairly high-impact crop. I'm not sure how well mass cropping of sugar cane would work out in most places.


    Note to self: don't copy and past from an 80-column emacs window into Charlie's blog.


    Chris: it takes about 7-8 years to commission a new nuclear reactor. A lot of the early stages (after the planning process) is basically generic civil engineering -- building a new power station, turbine hall, switchgear, and related buildings. The nuclear stuff is indeed different and requires specialists, but most of their work comes in later on, when it's time to fuel up the machine and start it running. The shortage of nuclear engineers hits us in two ways: lack of design and construction folks, and lack of operators. Operators are where we're acutely short, but I'd be willing to bet that we can have operators educated and trained within the 7-8 year period it takes to build the reactors on a peacetime basis, if we provide incentives to convince bright kids that it is sensible to become a nuclear engineer, rather than, say, a merchant banker or an MBA.

    ... You spotted the big howling issue, I hope. ("Peacetime basis.") This assumes we've got 7-8 years to build a bunch of reactors. If we try to build them in 2-3 years, we'll fall flat on our face; and the lack of already-trained nuclear engineers would be a major factor in that.

    Americans talking to themselves is a common problem on blogs in general. I just tend to screen it out after a while. (I put it down to the execrable state of their media.)


    @106, 110 the solar efficiency of a general plant is about 1%, plus or minus. the efficiency of the FT process is less than 30% (i think, but it's a reasonable guess). so for an input of 100kWh solar energy, 1kWh gets turned into useful biomass. take that 1kWh worth of biomass, run it through a gasifier, and use the resulting gas in the FT process. that will reduce your output to 0.1kWh, which is fairly small (all figures are very rough - but it gives you an idea).

    modern PV panels can have efficiencies of up to 20%, generally. assume 15%, so for 100kWh input you get 15kWh electricity output. use that to generate hydrogen, at (approximately) 30% efficiency, gives you 5kWh worth of hydrogen. pump that into the FT process, along with some CO you magic up from somewhere, and you get 1-2kwh useful fuel out the end.

    so from these very rough sums, i would say PV would be a better option compared to biomass. then of course, you have the cost of the panel, manufacturing energy, infrastructure costs etc etc etc.

    charlie@116 I did an engineering degree a number of years ago - of a class of 40 odd, i don't think anyone went into nuclear engineering, but at least 3 went into renewable energy, probably more like 5 or 6. I know one person who is a nuclear engineer and is younger than 40. I think it suffers from bad publicity - it's simply not a cool field to work in (when you are a student). renewable energy has a much greater attraction for most, because it is seen as saving the world, and nuclear is seen as the opposite of that (in general). Now I'm not saying these perceptions are correct, but from my experience that seems to be the way it is.


    Americans talking to themselves is a common problem on blogs in general. I just tend to screen it out after a while. (I put it down to the execrable state of their media.) sorry Charlie. I'll try to do better next time.


    Don, it's more a case of talking back to the pervasive media climate ... which treats the rest of the world as if it's another planet, and irrelevant to domestic issues (and vice versa).

    We're interdependent here; if someone in another country pollutes the air we're breathing we all get asthma, and vice versa.


    How the hell you get any work done, Charlie, will always elude me.


    117: Fifteen to twenty percent? That seems rather optimistic. As far as I know, the most relevant unit is W/$. There seems to often be an apples and oranges comparison in solar cells, where high efficiencies are quote d when deemed desirable, and low costs when those are the figures being used to coax money out of investors. Unfortunately, the most efficient cells are not the cheapest and vice versa, and I think that the going commercial efficiency is somewhere in the range of twelve percent. It's been several years since I looked into this (read: several years since the last announced 'breakthrough' that was going to give us cheap electricity from solar Real Soon Now), so it's possible that those are the current relevant efficiencies.

    I'm guessing that the biggest driver for making solar cells affordable is going to be the old-fashioned volume, volume, volume approach.


    Charlie, 119, I understand. (I think.) Particularly about the treating the rest of the world as an appendix to reality. When you attribute it to the media, do you mean our media's myopic focus, it's pretending to be neutral narration style (as you know Bob...), or the yell at each other and not listen pundits? (I'll claim all of the above, actually.) I doing it again? Agh!


    No, Don, you're not doing it again -- the topic's drifted.

    When I visit the US, I'm always gobsmacked by how damned parochial the notional serious newspaper of record (the New York Times) is. The Boston Globe is a little bit better, but mostly they've got the level of foreign news coverage you'd expect of a British local tabloid fishwrap. And the TV news is even worse.

    Against this background it probably shouldn't be surprising that treatments of macroeconomic or global environmental issues tend to leave out the rest of the world -- although it's annoying, because the USA has less than 30% of the planetary GDP, and 5% of the planetary population and surface area. Y'all could switch to a carbon neutral green or nuclear economy tomorrow and it would barely make a dent in the problems we face. Although if the Federal Reserve allows the dollar to collapse the resulting mess is not going to stop at the border ...


    @121 the 20% figure would be at the higher end of the range, but they exist (although they are expensive). you are right on the volume side of things, and I hear a company called nanosolar has just about got their first factory on the go. they print the stuff instead of making panels. this should allow larger volume manufacturing, and so a reduction in cost. when you can print a pv panel to lots of things at a low cost, it should lead to a bit of an increase in their use.


    If the Fed allows the dollar to collapse it would force the hands of Russia, China and the Gulf states, who collectively own $1 trillion of the US deficit, and perhaps another couple trillion in treasury bond reserves. They'd prefer to keep things stable, because the threat of dumping the dollar is powerful leverage for their own agendas, but they probably wouldn't hesitate if it looked like the US was going to pull them under. Then again, the panic and fallout from a massive glut of worthless bucks on the market would likely leave them in an even worse position.

    Going meta, just as with the environment, the world financial markets' dependency tree is now so vast and so diffuse, that no nation either acts in isolation from the system or remains unaffected by its repercussions. There are hard limits on the effectiveness at resource allocation of free markets in a closed system like this. It's like the world's biggest Prisoner's Dilemma: By operating as individual, competitive, national entities we're screwing ourselves out of the bigger prize. And it might just turn out that the Grand Prize is survival, and anything less is game over - one of those ruthless evolutionary bifurcations. Somehow, some way, we need sane, rational resource allocation decisions being made by a powerful international body. Oh, and it can't be authoritarian, because that would be teh suck! There's a riddle to drive us all mad.

    "Listen, kid, we're all in it together." - Harry Tuttle


    Ahem, "so vast and so diffuse", /em ;)


    If you want to train nuclear engineers, the US Naval Nuclear Power School might be a model to consider. They train enlisted men in 18 months or less. There are some colleges that will grant a degree based on completion of than course plus a few extra classes. They graduate a couple thousand people a year.

    Of course, for that model to work you'd need to be using a standardized reactor design like the Navy does.


    From Stephen Den Beste:

    In order for "alternate energy" to become feasible, it has to satisfy all of the following criteria:

  • It has to be huge (in terms of both energy and power)
  • It has to be reliable (not intermittent or unschedulable)
  • It has to be concentrated (not diffuse)
  • It has to be possible to utilize it efficiently
  • The capital investment and operating cost to utilize it has to be comparable to existing energy sources (per gigawatt, and per terajoule).
  • If it fails to satisfy any of those, then it can't scale enough to make any difference. Solar power fails #3, and currently it also fails #5. (It also partially fails #2, but there are ways to work around that.)

    The only sources of energy available to us now that satisfy all five are petroleum, coal, hydro, and nuclear.

    My rule of thumb is that I'm not interested in any "alternate energy" until someone shows me how to scale it to produce at least 1% of our current energy usage. America right now uses about 3.6 terawatts average, so 1% of that is about 36 gigawatts average.

    Show me a plan to produce 36 gigawatts (average, not peak) using solar power, at a price no more than 30% greater than coal generation of comparable capacity, which can be implemented at that scale in 10-15 years. Then I'll pay attention.

    Since solar power installations can only produce power for about 10 hours per day on average, that means that peak power production would need to be in the range of about 85 gigawatts to reach that 1%.

    Without that, it's just religion, like all the people fascinated with wind and with biomass. And even if it did reach 1%, that still leaves the other 99% of our energy production to petroleum, coal, hydro, and nuclear.


    @128 Germany currently gets about 20% of their electricity demand from renewables, much of that from solar, wind and biomass. The benefits of renewable energy generation allow distributed generation - you generate the power where you need it, in a decentralised fashion. this reduces transmission losses lots, and means you can run a local power "mini-grid". to say that wind power and biomass is "just a religion" is to ignore too many examples to mention (and to mention just one more - have a look into what is being done in Scandanavia with biomass, localised generation and the intelligent use of heat).


    andyet: also, you're ignoring the scope for saving energy through conservation and insulation. The EU uses about half as much energy per capita as the US, and that's not just down to shorter travel distances. Building codes in the US seem to just about ignore energy conservation and insulation, there are entire cities in places which are basically uninhabitable without serious energy inputs (Las Vegas and Phoenix, for example), and so on. Only local commuter rail and a couple of coastal corridors are electrified; rail freight runs on diesel (an inherently more costly power supply, and one that's being phased out just about everywhere in Europe these days).

    It should be possible to sustain the current American standard of living on two-thirds the energy budget, without making huge lifestyle concessions -- just by taking sensible conservation measures.


    Wouldn't replacing coal with nuclear for electrical generation also result in a significant reduction in rail traffic, because a 1GW nuclear power station needs one truckload of fuel every six months, while a 1GW coal power station needs one 100-car trainload of fuel every single day?


    Charlie @ 130: I wouldn't say Phoenix and Las Vegas were uninhabitable without large energy inputs. Water yes, but that's a different problem. Millions lived in similar if not worse climates prior to the arrival of Europeans.

    In contrast, how long would people last in northern Europe or northern America if we couldn't use the energy we use for heating? I'm betting my friends in Pheonix would have a better chance of surviving the summers there than I would the winters here in Connecticut.

    And when you get down to it, it takes more energy to heat something than to cool it. Energy-wise, we'd be better off abandoning New York and Chicago and moving to Phoenix, LA, Houston...



    German renewables are heavily subsidized and would be uncompettive in a true free market when up against coal. oil and nuclear (which have subsidies of their own of course - but strip both of subsidies and solar remains very uncompetitive)

    Given its inherently diffuse nature, solar derived renewables require (to quote Monty Python) "huge tracts of ... land". To generate the same amount of electicity as a coal burning plant that covers a dozen acres (including the employee parking lot) would require a wind farm or solar array covering dozens to hundreds of square miles (depending on location).

    This makes solar derived renewables impractical to power industry or major urban areas. Factor in the capital cost of the land they need (which proponents of solar renewables never seem to do) and it becomes outrageously expensive.

    Solar derived renewables are also highly variable with changes in power outputs that make it impossible for them to be used as anything but auxiliaries to the main, steadily producing power grid derived from nuclear or fossil fuels. The sun works less than half the time and can very greatly with weather, climate, etc. Wind power varies with the CUBE of the wind speed.

    And don't get me started on biomass and America's wasteful ethanol boondogle. If biomass was the solution, then Irish peat bogs would be the new Persian Gulf. While you are at it, be sure to factor in the transportation costs of hauling biomass feedstock to a central location for processing. You'll find that it it's not so attractive.

    All that solar dervied renewables can ever due (with the possible exception of algaic biodesiels that can utilize marginal desert lands and polluted water) is nibble around the edges of the problem.

    Charlie Stross:

    I love trains as much as the next guy but they only make economic sense in high density population areas such as Western Europe, Japan, and the NE Corridor of the US. In "fly over country", Americans have to rely on the automobile for efficient and cost effective transportations. We lack the population density needed to make commuter trains anything but a white elephant. And diesel trains are still required for long haul heavy freight across continental distances.

    As for efficiency, I heartily agree. Let the price signals genrated by the free market (instead of government officials) tell the consumer to give up their stupid SUVs.

    In summary: solar derived renewables are nice auxilliary sources for rural areas and non industrial uses. They can be of marginal help, and are to be used where ever they are economically applicable, but they will never be the solution.

    Suggested Solution:

  • Do like the French and build hundreds of nuclear power plants (preferably based on the inherently safe pebble bed reactor design). Use the off peak KwHs to create as much hydrogen as you wil need for fuel cells to power autimobiles.

  • Adopt Zubrin's proposal to make every American car a flex fuel vehicle. Who knows, maybe a solar derived liquid biofuel will actually prove to be practical and economical.

  • Research deep drilling technology (as an adjunct to looking for new oil fields) to allow the creation of true "core taps" which would make extensive geothermal energy practical.

  • 134:

    Do the Pacific states of the US have lower-than-average energy consumption, because they have a maritime climate similar to Western Europe?


    Another statistic - California has spent over 2 billion dollars on solar power, and all it has to show for it is power equivalent to the engines of a single Boeing 767.


    andyet@128 and 133: New Zealand gets more than 1% of its energy from windfarms, which violate your rule #3. That's not getting much of a subsidy, either.

    You're leaving geothermal/hot-rock energy out of your list of established power sources that meet your rules, too.

    Nothing else will ever be "within 30% of the cost of coal", because coal is cheap, cheap, cheap. That's the only reason anyone ever uses it, because it's also dirty, dirty, dirty. Add even a moderate carbon tax onto coal power (like most of the world is about to do, I assume from your lack of knowledge about the rest of the world that you're an American as per earlier comments) and it'll probably cost at least 50% more. Maybe twice as much.


    Andyet @133: Low population density is an effect of the US's post WWII auto-based infrastructure choices, not its cause, so your comparison isn't quite fair. Had the US gone with rails from the beginning we'd see a much different population distribution. "Fly over country" would be predominantly farms and national parks (be still, my heart! :). There's nothing inherently intractable about rail coverage of North America. And over the next couple decades I think the US will be clawing its way back to that alternate history.

    And diesel isn't necessary for long haul heavy freight. You either piggyback electrical substations off the local grid every few dozen miles, or run your own high voltage lines in less populous areas. It's been done before. See this link from above.


    andyet@133 german renewables have been subsidized, this is true. one of the aims of this subsidization was to increase demand for eg pv panels, leading to reduced manufacturing costs as well as widespread use. both of these aims appear sensible, and indeed are being met. you mentioned competition in a truly free market, as if this is the be all and end all - but a truly free capitalistic market externalises the costs we cannot afford to internalise - like the cost of CO2. and we can no longer afford to externalise that cost.

    you noted that solar power needs huge tracts of land - but this is only for centralised power plants. there is a hell of a lot of unused roofspace kicking around! as technology improves the ability to work solar power into flat, curved and flexible materials is getting there, and all of these things are available now in prototype form, or at some stage of manufacture. And when it's cheap enough to simply paint/bolt/stick on, then it will be rather useful.

    wind power works,and in an industrial setting - I know a man who can get you a second hand wind turbine (only one owner...) and cheaply. you can then install it next to a factory, use the power in the factory when it's generating, use the grid when it's not. a massive nissan factory near sunderland has 6 turbines, all over 1MW output. they obviously think it makes economic sense (and I've seen the numbers - it does).

    Biomass can be a great solution, even in a factory setting. best when you need heat and electricity - CHP using wood fuel for example. local forests provide the timber - this is happening now, in the uk, in europe and scandanavia. chicken shit is burned at a number of biomass power stations in the south of england, the waste is then used as fertiliser.

    One of the benefits of renewable energy is that it does not have to be centralised. you don't need a massive centralised power plant, you don't need a massive processing station. you have a few smaller ones, lowering transportation distances and costs. that lowers transmission losses, and also (and this is important) means you can use the heat generated for some purpose, instead of just warming up the atmosphere with it. that alone can double your system efficiency.

    on the geothermal side of things - deep drilling would be good - but at what price? generally pretty expensive, where I live you are talking about drilling through about 1kM of rock. a better option in most areas would be a ground source heat pump - an efficiency of 320%, a much much much smaller investment cost and it can be set up pretty much anywhere there's a bit of water.


    Nuclear power doesn't have to be centralized either...


    accelerationista: geothermal is obviously location-dependent, but there are places where substantial layers of hot rock lie quite close to the surface. South Australia is one of them (and meanwhile everyone is bleating about how all the coal power stations will be affected by the proposed emissions trading laws; tough titties, says I).


    Charlie: Nukes sound good, but the cost numbers simply don't make them competitive. Nuclear power plants also have a long history of cost overruns and shorter-than-planned life expectancy. From what i hear, there is nearly zero venture capital interest in nuclear power--the only current large scale nuclear programs are in nations where the plants are heavily subsidized by the government.

    Conflating this and oil leads to a bit of confusion. Oil is no longer economical for electricity production; the price has put it to the point where it is really only economical for transportation.

    Kunstler is a bit of a nut. I read him for a couple months while he had a series of hilarious photos on bad architecture. He knows a lot about architecture and urban planning, but is really a paranoid alarmist with little scientific knowledge when it comes to anything regarding oil or money. I seem to remember him claiming that the world was going to end when oil hit $3/gallon in the US.

    The US economy has actually handled $4/gal gas reasonably well. It's a much smaller drain on the economy than the mortgage crisis, and a smaller hit than the Iraq war.


    George@135: "California has spent over 2 billion dollars on solar power, and all it has to show for it is power equivalent to the engines of a single Boeing 767."

    Those numbers are correct within an order of magnitude IF you are only counting photovoltaics. However, for large solar plants, PVs are not a cost-efficient means of generating power; thermal solar (mirrors that concentrate light and boil water) is more cost efficient.

    There's a thermal solar plant in CA that generates 350 MW, far more than a 767 engine.


    Is that 350 MW "nameplate" rating though, rather than an average power of 350 MW?


    George @143: Is that a hair split sideways, or on an angle?



    About this Entry

    This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on July 14, 2008 3:02 PM.

    No rest for the wicked was the previous entry in this blog.

    I get book covers is the next entry in this blog.

    Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

    Search this blog