Human Ecology and Renewable Energy
Humanity’s wellbeing depends on the energy available to it. The Industrial Revolution added abundant cheap hydrocarbon energy to the meagre store of sunlight energy captured by our agrarian ancestors. Zero carbon policies put humanity at risk.
There is a fabulous classic book on ecology by Paul Colinvaux called ‘Why Big Fierce Animals are Rare’ which should be much more widely known than it is. Its chapters cover many topics. One does indeed explain why big fierce animals like Great White Sharks and Tigers are rare. Others explain why the oceans are mostly so lifeless that they are blue, and why nature is not red in tooth and claw for big animals, but really is for very small ones.
However, today’s musings concern another chapter, on the efficiency of life. Fundamentally, efficiency in ecology means the efficiency of energy conversion – of converting fuel into energy that plants, animals and people can use to maintain and reproduce themselves. The chapter’s subject is the energy efficiency of growing corn, maize in English terms, in the US Midwest. This is the key crop of the Western world. Until so much was turned into ethanol, it was the world’s main guard against starvation.
Maize gets planted and harvested in about three months. At every stage, scientists can measure the crop’s biomass. They note the relationship between the energy in the sun’s light falling on the field and the energy captured by the plants and turned into more plant. At the beginning of the process, you have tiny seedlings. The sunlight falls uselessly on bare soil. At the end of the process there is a field of nearly dead, senescent corn plants whose fading leaves cover the ground but do not work anymore to capture the sun’s energy.
But in the middle of the growing season these plants are vigorous organisms whose leaves blanket the soil and capture the sun’s energy as efficiently as any plant can. So how efficiently is that? It turns out that plants have evolved to use only half of the spectrum of visible light. That takes the maximum possible conversion efficiency down to 50%. Further, every living thing uses up some energy to operate and maintain its being. Not all the Sun’s energy can go into making more leaves, seed or fruit.
It turns out that in the full flush of youthful enthusiasm and vigour a maize plant can convert a maximum of 8% of the energy in the sun’s light into more maize plant. However, since at the beginning and the end of the growing period a lot less is possible, the overall efficiency over the plants’ lives is 3%. This rather disappointing performance, by the way, is in large part caused by the shortage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. There is worse. In wild eco-systems and indeed in the permanently impoverished agrarian societies of history (see www.awah.uk post ‘Misery and Stagnation in the Agrarian State’) the average conversion ratio has been rather less than 1%.
The total biomass of animal species is determined by their share of the 1% (at best) of the sun’s energy captured naturally in the bodies of plants. At every level up through the food chain the joint biomass of all animals, including numerous parasites, at each level can only be around 10% of the biomass of the level below it. So plant-eating insects and animals might weigh in altogether at no more than 10% of the mass of the plants they feed on.
All predators in positions further up food chains will have a progressively diminishing collective weight (‘biomass’) of 1%, then 0.1 and then 0.01%. So it is easy to see why the huge individual size and tiny collective biomass of, say, Great White Sharks as top level ‘apex’ predators means they must indeed be rare.
ANIMALS AND PEOPLE DEPEND WHOLLY ON AVAILABLE ENERGY
Wild animals are almost always living right on the edge of subsistence. If the total amount of energy available in their ecological niche falls, animals die in proportion. In the pre-industrial world humanity was like any other animal, ecologically speaking. The total energy ‘budget’ available to maintain and reproduce men and women was fixed in agricultural societies at no more than 1% of the sun’s radiant energy falling on their fields. That had to ‘pay for’ humanity’s investments in clothes, tools, buildings, offspring, farming – including animals used for food, fibres, traction and freight transport. Any fall in the amount of energy captured by humanity lowered living standards. A significant fall meant famine.
There was indeed some use of wind and watermills in the preindustrial world. They were additional means of capturing the sunlight’s energy at one remove. But it was generally marginal. Power from mills, especially windmills, was not reliably available. They needed a lot of capital investment relative to their output. Capital was always scarce. Interest rates were incredibly high in unfree pre-industrial societies, partly because capital was liable to be confiscated by the powers that be. Accumulating capital was difficult when people would often spend everything just to survive. It was dirty and precarious work, often delegated in the West to the Jews.
Looking back, it is really amazing how much our ancestors managed to do with such fundamentally scarce energy resources. It is all the more remarkable when one remembers the odds they struggled against. Firstly, everything depended on the weather. An average energy conversion efficiency of 1% or less was consistent with below-average years when production went down a lot. Success in medieval agriculture was if each grain planted yielded five or more grains at the harvest. Getting back two grains or fewer per grain sown was not uncommon.
A bad harvest would quickly lead to high food prices and hunger, especially amongst the landless poor. All resources were rerouted to just buying food. In towns, demand for manufactured goods would collapse, just as food prices doubled or tripled (which is, for example, what made Paris so volatile in 1789 at the beginning of the French Revolution).
Making this mess worse by far was the interaction between ‘macro’ and ‘micro’ parasites. As William McNeil, in his wonderful book ‘Plagues and Peoples’ explained, history could be largely told in terms of the impact of macro-parasites (states and other raiders) and micro-parasites (germs and internal parasites) on settled subsistence societies. Both grimly harvested their share of humanity’s scarce energy budget, especially at times of societal stress when neither energy drain could well be afforded.
LIBERTY AND THE HYDROCARBON ENERGY REVOLUTION
This is the miserable world that we in the West could still be living in, were it not for Britain’s Glorious Revolution in 1688 and the worldwide Industrial Revolution which it launched. The Industrial Revolution (see www.awah.uk post Liberty’s Triumph – The Industrial Revolution’) has been first and foremost about vastly expanding the energy budget available to humanity by including ‘inorganic’ energy sources in the form of successively richer (more ‘energy dense’) hydrocarbon fuels.
The mainstream theory of history pointedly ignores the correlation between prosperity and liberty. The story is supposedly one of steady technological advance stemming from ‘inventions’ which raised living standards consistently and regardless of entrepreneurial activity. In fact, humanity stagnated until the last few centuries. Then Britain achieved secure property rights and low (and predictable) taxation, or as Adam Smith described it, ‘easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice’.
Secure property rights are the indispensable basis of liberty. Only with protected property rights was it possible to undertake sustained innovation. Only with secure property rights was it possible to accumulate the massive amounts of capital needed to completely re-equip society and increase employment tenfold. 18th and early 19th century inventions were driven by the opportunity to harness abundant hydrocarbon energy. Some of these inventions had been made before. A Greek called Hero invented a steam engine in classical Alexandria. But it had no real application without abundant fuel to burn in it.
So what does this mean in practice? Was medieval agriculture more or less efficient than our much more productive modern agriculture? Certainly, it took much less than a calorie of human and animal effort to produce one calorie of usable energy in the Middle Ages. If it had been otherwise everybody would have starved to death. Humanity’s ecological niche then almost entirely comprised the net calories contained in the plants it grew after deducting the energy used to tend them.
Now in the modern world, farmers produce far more grains per grain sown. They are incredibly productive. That’s because they have machines made and powered with cheap hydrocarbon fuel. Their mineral fertiliser is mined and transported by more machines powered by, and created with, still more inorganic energy. The energy available to each human being is much greater. We burn tens of calories of energy to grow each extra calorie of food. It works – makes commercial sense – because the extra calories burnt are cheap hydrocarbon calories. It is not ’sustainable’ in the way that poor medieval harvests were.
We don’t need sun derived food energy to support draught animals, or to produce or extract fertilizer. We do not need to grow wood for fuel or (necessarily) to grow fibres. We can make everything much more cheaply with abundant hydrocarbon fuel. The point I am trying to make is that the number and prosperity of human beings around the world is the result of the expansion of our species’ ecological envelope of available energy. We escaped the cruel constraints every other animal species faces. They still must depend on the miserly ability of plants to capture a tiny fraction of the energy in sunlight. We don’t.
So what? Well in ecology energy is not just some aspect of life which may or may not be more important than some other thing. Energy is the fundamental thing. The way it flows through the chains of life is ecology. Everything we do and even can do involves using energy to transform resources into value. Its cost matters profoundly. Not just the standard of living but the actual number of human beings is wholly dependent on maintaining access to hydrocarbons until such time as other even more energy-dense fuels, probably in various kinds of nuclear reactors, can be introduced.
THE ZERO CARBON HUSTLE
But state sponsored vested interests are trying to make us abandon hydrocarbons. This is supposed to be because of the warming properties of carbon dioxide which is released when hydrocarbons are burned. The global warming story is arguably the biggest fake narrative – in other words the biggest lie – in the world. For more on this, please see the www.awah.uk post ‘Some Perspective on Climate Change’.
Suffice it to say that global warming is without merit as a scientific hypothesis. It is based on just looking at the tiny period from 1850 or so onwards when the world was recovering from an unusually cold period in the 17th and 18th Centuries. This so called Maunder Minimum, a few centuries ago, correlated with lower solar output, in terms of electro-magnetic activity (see www.awah.uk post ‘The Electric Universe and State Academia’). It is likely that the recovery in global temperatures peaked in the early 1900s before global industrialisation.
For what it is worth, another marked downturn in solar activity, not necessarily as serious as the Maunder Minimum, may be happening now. We seem to have had colder temperatures globally in the last couple of years. Recent hundred-year temperature lows in many places, icy winter conditions in Texas and Europe, and the possible loss of a third or more of the French wine harvest may all point in this direction.
It is likely that colder weather, crop failures, and above all the scientific evidence that climate is actually mainly determined by the sun, will discredit the man-made global warming religion. But not before trillions of dollars of capital have been malinvested in an ill-conceived attempt to shift to dependence on ‘zero-carbon’ renewable energy.
Political and commercial spivs have raked in enormous sums taken by governments from you and me. This is on a par with Big Pharma and its plans to make billions by injecting you forever with an annual jab against a common cold virus to which nearly everyone is now naturally immune. There is just too much money in the climate and covid lies for the parasites and their mainstream media shills ever to let the truth in.
But my purpose here is not to repeat arguments about the global warming religion but to ask a question. People seem to take our standard of living for granted while proposing changes to our institutions and energy arrangements which will lead to impoverishment for most and death for many. But do the billionaires’ political front men who say we must turn our backs on hydrocarbons – so called ‘zero carbon’ - have any idea how badly they would crush humanity’s ecological energy budget? And do they care?
The whole zero-carbon push in the West is an example of the unconstrained thinking that big government societies like ours are sadly prey to (see www.awah.uk post ‘The Two Camps - Constrained and Unconstrained Visions’). Regardless of cost, we are told that zero-carbon reliance on renewable energy is a vital crusade for Britain as an alleged world leader.
Britain is a little country which can’t afford to make its remaining industry uncompetitive. If it sank into the North Sea tomorrow it would make no real difference to global carbon dioxide emissions (which have benefited food crops the world over). Bigger societies like India and China, and many others, intend to raise living standards by ramping up hydrocarbon reliance. Our proposed sacrifice will be ignored. It seems rather pointless.
Renewable energy is a loss-making proposition. If it were a real commercial proposition nobody would be more pleased than me. It would be a new, cheaper (that’s what ‘commercially viable’ means) energy source. It would expand our overall ecological niche - our energy budget - enabling more prosperity, and/or less human suffering.
FUEL IS FREE, ENERGY IS NOT
Zero carbon enthusiasts cast aside complaints that renewable energy is not viable. ‘But Alan’ they say ‘wind and sunlight is free (if intermittently available) so it must be cheaper than buying and burning coal, gas or oil’. The problem is the conceptual confusion between energy and fuel. Fuel is the raw, unusable form of energy. Energy is fuel captured and processed to make it usable for heating, transport or electricity generation (the latter still accounting for well under half of energy use).
Fuel is always free. You don’t pay anyone for any of it – as such. The cost of energy is the capital investment needed to capture or extract the free fuel – from coal seams, sunlight, winds, oil and gas domes etc. - and then process and distribute it to where it can be used.
ENERGY PRODUCTION IS CAPITAL INTENSIVE
Capital requirements are typically massive throughout the energy extraction and processing industries. That’s true for renewable energy too. Sure, solar panels have become cheaper – and a good thing too – but the costs of other elements of renewable energy systems have not really done so. Renewable energy is still unviable. It costs more than it is worth. You know that is the case because otherwise governments would not have to ‘subsidise’ it (‘subsidy’ means taking resources by force from productive people and wasting them).
Renewable energy is currently unviable because of the enormous capital cost entailed in building all those windmills and solar farms and – crucially – revamping the linking electricity grid. As readers will understand (see www.awah.uk post ‘Society Really does not Need the State’), ‘unviable’ means that the price mechanism, the result of people freely bargaining with each other over the use of resources, is reporting back negatively on Renewables.
In other words, ‘society’ is saying that the value of inputs - labour, land, capital and, crucially, energy – consumed by wind and solar is greater than the value of their output. Behind the costs of inputs is a lot of direct and indirect energy consumption. Running an activity which consumes more than it produces is on a par with a medieval peasant using more than one calorie of stored sunlight energy (‘food’) per calorie harvested.
Most people don’t realise this, but ‘unviable’ activity always shrinks the total ecological budget of humanity. Do enough of it and the energy envelope shrinks to nothing and there is no ecological niche for humanity, and so no people. I am assuming that, for most people at least, poverty and population die-offs would be seen as a bad thing.
There is a separate question as to why states promote fragile, overcentralised electricity grids where a third of the generated power goes into the ground and is lost. That waste is something that the supporters of electrifying everything don’t always talk about. Energy loss in transmission is a hundred times greater than the energy cost of mining bitcoin, or indeed the more considerable energy cost of mining gold. (The energy cost of maintaining today’s fiat currency banking systems, and cities like New York and London which largely exist because of them, is comparatively astronomical.)
In any case, energy production is always capital intensive, regardless of the ‘fuel’ used. One reason the energy production sector demands so much of society’s scarce stock of savings (its pool of investible capital as Austrian Economists say) is that it uses huge amounts of – you’ve guessed it – energy. Which gets us back to the start of this post and to the relationship between energy-in and energy-out. It is basic to all animal and human activity.
RENEWABLE ENERGY IS A STEP BACK TO LOWER ENERGY DENSITY
Renewable Energy faces two serious handicaps. The first is the problem of energy density. As humanity moved from burning wood and dung for fuel to coal, and then to oil and natural gas, it moved to using fuels which intrinsically contain a lot more energy. Both cattle dung and jet fuel contain calories but only one is energy dense enough for powered flight. The equivalent energy in the form of dung or even coal would be too heavy to put on a plane, and it would burn too slowly.
Every technological advance enabling us to use more energy-dense hydrocarbons brought us an automatic bonus in terms of releasing disproportionately more energy. More, cheaper energy made more activities feasible. The next step up the energy density slope would probably be further development of various forms of nuclear energy.
Going back down the energy density slope to rely on lower energy-density wind and sun is unsurprisingly destructive of social value. This is the case even though we can use still energy-dense hydrocarbons to manufacture solar panels and windmills. If we abandon hydrocarbons to manufacture replacement windmills and panels using expensive renewable energy then the economics become still worse.
RENEWABLE ENERGY REQUIRES DUPLICATION OF INVESTMENT
The other problem is that, unless and until we develop much cheaper battery technologies to store electricity on a large scale, renewables are inherently unreliable and variable. Sometimes the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Recently in a very cold period in Europe there was little wind in Germany and there was snow on the solar panels. Suddenly there was no renewable energy. Fortunately, they have some surviving coal powered stations which were pressed into service and prevented disaster last winter.
In Texas the state governor allowed the politically antipathetic Biden administration to obstruct use of their coal fired stations. The result was disaster, made worse by the failure, due to extreme cold, of the natural gas infrastructure in Texas. Across the West, vested interests have wasted our money altering energy systems to head off an imaginary manmade global warming. As Texas shows, we make ourselves vulnerable to climate variability, even more so if predictions of a global cooling phase should prove valid.
The key point is that unreliable renewables require parallel duplicate capital investment in conventional hydrocarbon electricity generation capacity. The capital cost of such duplicate capacity is enormous. Since this capacity is meant to be used infrequently and unpredictably – i.e. as inefficiently as possible - it produces phenomenally expensive power. In other words, providing renewable energy plus conventional capacity back-up is radically unviable. Just running back-up capacity all the time and not bothering with renewables would be much better value.
THE CRIPPLING COST OF ZERO CARBON
A huge annual capital expenditure in the order of many tens of billions of pounds annually could be needed to rebuild Britain as a zero-carbon economy. It would be like building an HS2 high speed railway every other year, and just as wasteful. Britain’s productive economy (i.e. Gross Domestic Product less the largely unproductive state sector) is only around £1,000 billion annually so these are no small sums. How can this be so expensive? Well, for example, if all UK land transport had to be powered by electricity rather than petrol or diesel the UK’s electricity generating capacity would have to be increased by 50%.
The UK Government is also requiring everybody to scrap their natural gas heating or be unable to sell their houses. A further huge increase in electricity generation capacity would be required to make this possible. In practice the new capacity would have to be mostly hydrocarbon based – so not zero-carbon really. If it were all generated from renewables, it would still be necessary to build duplicate parallel conventional (hydrocarbon) capacity too, at still vaster expense. And then there are thousands of pounds of mandatory cost in tens of millions of homes. And there is the requirement to scrap petrol and diesel cars. People must buy more expensive, less convenient, electric cars, if they can afford it.
The British establishment has shown itself incapable of managing large scale energy investment. Its attempts to get a new nuclear power station going represent just another costly fiasco. So quite obviously the zero-carbon fantasy is not going to happen. But a lot of people will get hurt. But then, as I say, we are all victims of our governments.
Long story short. This whole move to so called zero-carbon is yet another example of irresponsible politicians working with predatory corporates to scam the population. The whole enterprise is made possible by an electorate dominated by so-called unconstrained thinkers. These are people who do not get the concept of trade-offs. They may even believe that trade-offs should not be considered. It is the same poisonous alliance of venal elites and a deliberately misinformed public which brought us the lockdown mess.
Zero-carbon is another timebomb waiting to detonate under Big Government systems throughout the West in the near future. It will show itself to be unworkable, unpopular, disruptive and damaging. It will also be profoundly embarrassing for political and big corporate elites which are already becoming discredited.
We will almost certainly be seeing the collapse of the global warming narrative just as the costs of the zero-carbon crusade mount inexorably. Meanwhile the rest of the world will grow past the West on the basis of reliance on hydrocarbons and on a sensible development of nuclear power. The whole save-the-planet zero-carbon narrative is a non-starter at every level and always was. Like Don Quixote, we were only ever tilting at windmills.
Rather than discuss the detail of the sheer cost and impossibility of a worldwide move towards zero carbon by 2050, I attach a link below to an article setting out the expense and impracticality of achieving a global 2050 zero-carbon economy:
ENERGY IN A FREE SOCIETY
The global warming narrative is yet another sickness of our unfree systems. It inflicts rising costs on our populations just to benefit politically connected insiders. That is arguably all the state does. Every population is the victim of its government, and of the state’s partners in the crony corporate, media and banking elites.
In a free society there is no ‘victimhood’. None of the waste discussed here would happen. There would not be a corrupted university sector. Scientists would not be mainly dependent on state pay-offs, and so would not perpetuate profitable falsehoods.
There would be few incentives to push false narratives. They could not be used, as they are now, to justify state robbery and bullying. The tremendous expense of perpetuating alarmist myths would have no pay-off for the hucksters. Plus lying is very bad for one’s reputation for honesty. Reputation will be everything in free societies, even if it does not have so much value in our regulated, politicised systems.
People could not be made to pay above the odds for their energy. There could be no state requirements to scrap cars, heating systems or other cost-effective energy systems. Because there would be no state. Costs would all be lower. Productive people (and nearly everyone would necessarily be productive in a free society) would be much better off.
There would be the normal commercial incentives and drive to research cost-effective, safe technologies. There would be no bought-and-paid-for statist mainstream media to mislead people. There would be effective courts and insurance companies making sure that technologies were not pursued in an unsafe way.
One cannot know what innovation would occur without state intervention. Only that it would be greater and better focussed. One would strongly suspect that there would be a move away from fragile over-centralised electricity generating systems. One would expect a sensible development of nuclear power, including possibly the use of Thorium as a fuel. Rolls Royce’s current development of simpler, smaller, modular nuclear plants could be the sort of thing one would see more of in a free society. We might also get a sensible rethink about the right approach to fusion power.
Governments are to blame for making such a pig’s ear of developing nuclear power. It was at least partly due to their desire to build pressurised nuclear power stations which made horrible things like plutonium to put into bombs. Not surprisingly people worried about the safety and wisdom of this approach. The result, as usual, has been the mish-mash of expensive and unreliable output which is characteristic of government activity.