June 12, 2008

Maybe If We Ignore It, It’ll Go Away

Filed under: Uncategorized — numist @ 7:16 am
Tags: ,

I wonder when ‘people’ (a statistically significant part of the population) are going to start changing their lifestyles in order to reduce their reliance on gas. It’s not going to get any cheaper.

At least people are starting to talk about it in more interesting ways than simply complaining about it now. When it costs $100 to fill your tank (and for California that means every big car and every truck and SUV, which is most of the vehicles on the road), you start thinking about how trapped you are. We’ve been treating it like air for a really long time and no one marvels at the ability to just hop into a car and go 65 mph anymore.

Clear your head and think about it for a second, it’s actually amazing, and it’s going to get harder to do in the future. Not because we’ll run out of oil (I think the Peak Oil guys are wrong, but are looking in the right direction, a topic for another time), but because it will be prohibitively expensive. We’ll only be able to afford (as much as we cal) to use oil for freight, since without it we lose economies of scale. Eventually we’ll probably come up with energy alternatives for freight as well to make it more affordable, but the point is freight is probably the last thing requiring oil that we will give up.

Energy is a 0-sum system (what goes in is equal to what you can get out), says physics. In the case of fossil fuels, the cost was paid for over billions of years, so it appears like we get it for free. Aside from fossil fuels and atomic energy, the only inputs into the energy system that come immediately to mind are the sun (which we won’t have to worry about for a good long while) and geothermal (which is so subtle we really haven’t figured out a good way to use it). Hydrogen, biofuels, all our alternative energy solutions, they all rely on solar energy either by panel or leafy plant.

But where are we going to put the panels and/or leafy plants? Panels can go out in the desert, where no one wants to live (and where they’re most effective — didn’t that work out well!), but in the case of mobile fuel, solar energy needs to be stored (at a huge loss) into some sort of high-density storage system that is mobile. Most people think this is Hydrogen. Whether or not this is viable is outside of the scope of this article, but everyone seems to agree that biofuels are much easier than storing electrical energy into a mobile unit, being faster to produce and refill (how fast can you pour?). Unfortunately crops for biofuels are much more difficult than solar electricity generation, because these crops are also needed for food, and there is a painfully limited amount of fertile soil.

Given human population growth, we’re going to want to use as much of the fertile land for eating as we can (since no one wants to be thought of as anti-people — once population hits the top of that exponential growth curve we’re going to see crazy things. I want to think about that even less than I want to think about our energy situation), and using crops for fuel (which is in infinite demand) has horrible secondary effects on other things that need them, like feed for animals (milk, eggs, meat).

Once (actually, hopefully before) oil becomes economically unfeasible, we’re going to have to think hard about how we’re going to get our energy, because there’s no magic bullet. We need energy to live now (with so many people relying on medications and the health business to live or function, it boggles the mind), and we don’t have a long-term plan to meet even the minimum demand for survival. We don’t need people to think of solutions, because we already know the existing inputs into the energy system. What’s not known is the best way to harness the energy, how to scale to meet demand, how to implement, and then actually implementing using technology of today instead of waiting for tomorrow. This is going to cost more energy to implement than it’s going to generate for an appreciable amount of time, which means we’re going to be using oil for it, so we should be doing it sooner than later while we can afford to use oil, instead of waiting until it’s too late to use oil already. Just like the cliché about money, it takes energy to make more energy.

Well, the industrial revolution was fun while it lasted. Wonder how we’re going to transition into the next period in history. There’s a lot of different directions this could go, and I think we’ll have a pretty good idea of where we’re headed within the next decade. We shouldn’t all wait for the results, checking to see if we need to take action. Changes need to start happening now.

The energy problem is not actually hard. We don’t need huge advances in technology to do this. It becomes hard because there’s no invested interest in it (more than a magnet on your bumper and a glance at this post), and as long as people are ignoring it in hopes that it’ll blow over, it becomes harder to implement a solution, requiring more effort from them when the time comes to actually make a change.

A lot of problems are like this. At a smaller scale, this is why social drama is such a problem — it’s not a problem if it’s dealt with early, but left to grow it destroys relationships. Unfortunately, the energy problem is something we can’t put off and then live with the consequences. I mean, I suppose we’re capable of ignoring it, but the consequences are more than just losing a friendship.

Hopefully we’ll stop just talking about it and start doing things about it soon at a societal level, not just an individual level. It doesn’t matter if you’re vegan or drive a hybrid (wretched things), your house and your office still uses/wastes more than you save, and you’re kidding yourself if you think you’re saving Enough. We’re going to have to work together on this one, and make even bigger changes.



  1. You’re back to writing. Sweet.

    So much of our culture has to be restructured to accommodate this. Think of where you lived for the summer. The nearest grocery store is Ralph’s on Via La Jolla, 5 miles away. You can’t even get there without taking either the freeway, or an extra 5 mile detour. This can only happen in a world where everyone has cars. We’re lucky here at Playmor that we can walk to Vons and bike to the various other stores at Village Square, but that’s not true for most of suburban America. This same Vons serves everyone north of campus, east halfway to I-15, and south along Gilman and Palmilla to the end. None of our cities are built to accommodate walking and bike traffic. Big changes, to be sure…

    Comment by Joe Auricchio — June 17, 2008 @ 5:59 pm | Reply

  2. Have you heard how they’re putting up solar panels on the roof of Gilman?

    Comment by Jess — June 22, 2008 @ 2:56 am | Reply

  3. it looks like UCSD put solar panels all over the place. a huge amount of cogeneration capacity going on. good on them.

    Comment by numist — October 27, 2008 @ 6:44 am | Reply

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