Thursday, November 30, 2006
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Who's getting their Malthus on?
In the New York Times yesterday, Thomas F. Homer-Dixon got his Malthus on:
Mr. [Paul] Ehrlich and his colleagues may have the last (grim) laugh. The debate about limits to growth is coming back with a vengeance. The world’s supply of cheap energy is tightening, and humankind’s enormous output of greenhouse gases is disrupting the earth’s climate. Together, these two constraints could eventually hobble global economic growth and cap the size of the global economy.Homer-Dixon has carved out an impressive career detailing the ways in which resource scarcity and ecological catastrophe will spell doom for the global political economy (Robert D. Kaplan's "The Coming Anarchy" was in many ways a popularization of Homer-Dixon's early work). However, methinks that he's only focusing on one side of the energy question -- the rising cost of supply provision. This is certainly an issue, but it doesn't address a compensating phenomenon -- that the energy-to-GDP ratio is rising even faster.
The McKinsey Global Institute just released an interesting paper that takes a look at this very issue. From the executive summary:
To date, the global debate about energy has focused too narrowly on curbing demand. We argue that, rather than seeking to reduce end-user demand, and thereby the choice, comfort, convenience, and economic welfare desired by consumers, the best way to meet the challenge of growing global energy demand is to focus on energy productivity—how to use energy more productively—which reconciles both demand abatement and energy-efficiency.I'm concerned about energy scarcity, but I'm not getting my Mathus on by any stretch of the imagination. posted by Dan on 11.30.06 at 02:28 PM
What's the big scare about? We have nuclear power.posted by: Christian on 11.30.06 at 02:28 PM [permalink]
You know you're in academic crackpot land when they trot out the energy theory of value. I fondly remember this idiocy from the 1970s when it was first bruited by some natural scientists (during the first eco/energy hysteria). The idea of calculating the cost or value of everything (they were always kind of fuzzy on which one) in thermodynamic terms resulted in the colorful "cutting butter with a chainsaw" metaphor, which is fun for its imagery at least. Maybe David Letterman should try it sometime for real.
The labor theory of value is wrong in an interesting way and has some surface plausibility. The energy theory of value, however, is only slightly less stupid than the glucose theory of value and about as appealing as the land theory of value or the water theory of value. (Personally, I would like everything to be judged by the srp-labor theory of value, so I can get good terms of trade on all the things I don't particpate in making.)
I guess if we're going to be tortured by recycled 1970s fashion styles, it's inevitable that we're due for a dose of warmed-over 1970s eco-claptrap.posted by: srp on 11.30.06 at 02:28 PM [permalink]
All that talk about grain alcohol-fueled engines also has me worried about a spike in bread prices as the supply-demand cycle goes around. Or worse yet--a bourbon shortage! Think I'll go stock up.posted by: Useless Sam Grant on 11.30.06 at 02:28 PM [permalink]
"the return on investment of oil and natural gas extraction in the United States fell from about 25 to 1 to about 15 to 1."
Wouldn't an energy theory of value denominate cost in BTUs rather than in dollars? If the return to investment cited above is in dollars, it would seem to be a simple case of diminishing return to investment, not an energy return.
Regarding Dan's larger point about energy supply, the solution ultimately will be the discovery of new kinds of energy, not new sources of known energy. The question is whether we can generate the necessary speculative thinking and then turn it into results. The problems associated with NASA's breakthrough propulsion physics program may be the kind of bottleneck we need to relieve.
posted by: David Billington on 11.30.06 at 02:28 PM [permalink]
The big problem with EROEI as a measure of anything, is that the EI part is not nearly as constant as people would have you believe, and indeed is usually a decreasing function of cost of energy.
In process chemical applications, you have questions like how well will you insulate your steam lines? Will you use regenerative heat exchangers, or straight-through ones? Will you flare off excess natural gas, or use it for cogeneration?
The answer to all of these questions depends on how much energy costs, so treating EROEI as a constant is misleading and wrong.posted by: Jake on 11.30.06 at 02:28 PM [permalink]
I think the statement, "Now, as we’re extracting new oil and gas in more extreme environments — in deep water far offshore, for example — and as we’re turning to energy alternatives like nuclear power and converting tar sands to gasoline, we’re spending steadily more energy to get energy...." overstates the cost of nuclear energy compared to others.
Unless he can make the statement that ALL forms of energy production will grow in cost, or lose efficiency, the argument doesn't have much to stand on.posted by: John on 11.30.06 at 02:28 PM [permalink]
"Unless he can make the statement that ALL forms of energy production will grow in cost, or lose efficiency, the argument doesn't have much to stand on."
I agree but I would note that there are really two different kinds of energy, chemical and electrical. Electrical won't replace oil for transportation unless we can increase battery life. The diminishing return to investment seems to be in chemical sources for combustion power.posted by: David Billington on 11.30.06 at 02:28 PM [permalink]
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