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« Humanity's Impending Impasse? | Main | Over abstraction redux »

November 09, 2009


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Greg Studen

I travelled by car from Ohio to Evanston, Illinois, a couple of weeks ago, including a beautiful drive on a sunny Sunday along the length of I-94 as it traversed the Çhicago megalopolis from south to north. I was struck by a thought that resonates with your analysis: how are we going to find the energy to replace all this massive built environment as it wears out? It is hard to conceive of how we are going to run enough wind and solar farms to mine, manufacture, and erect the replacements for the countless buildings, bridges, roads, etc., of our thousands of large cities worldwide--in addition to maintaining and replacing the energy sources themselves. How many joules over the years did it take to build present-day Chicago? How many will it take to maintain it indefinitely, along with the 2.9 million people who live there--food, waste, cars, gadgets? I thought as a drove by the massive skyscrapers and soaring bridges that I was watching a civilization as it hurtled toward a cliff.


Over here in the UK, today's papers are full of the story that Spain generated 50% of its electricity from wind yesterday. You had to read to the end to find out that Spain's medium term target for sustained wind generation is 13%.

Even at 13%, Spain will be light years ahead of the UK on renewables. Like the US, we appear to be in a kind of net energy trap. We're broke. The only thing preventing us sinking deeper into the quicksand is a sky hook of humongous debt, borrowed against growth that will never occur.

The more the UK struggles to get off fossil fuel dependency, the more of its meagre ration of future fossil fuel it burns up.

Everything Robert Hirsch said about needing decades of advance preparation for Peak Energy is coming true.

Kevin Bressette

Nothing will be accomplished until the current "leadership" is replaced with, as you say, sapient, technically minded people that understand the problem and it's very dire nature.
We need to make an immediate change in the education system and the media needs to use it's power to shape the ethos toward this essential awareness.
Good Luck.
No one out here is going to change anything until they are forced to so a collapse of the current archaic monetary system is inevitable.
Like you and many others I am convinced that this line of thinking is without a doubt the correct direction and will ultimately result in humans seeing themselves as part of the larger ecosystem and not the "boss" life form.
I just hope it is not too late.
I wish the field was sufficiently advanced to allow me to get involved on a professional level.

Porge from TOD

George Mobus


I came out east via 94 through Chicago going the other way. Good observation.

Good points. Any preparation we do now, assuming TPTB ever recognize a need to prepare, will come at great sacrifices to the general public in order to marshal resources for the work of building sustainable social systems.

(Hi Porge!) Have you read The Upside of Down, by Homer-Dixon? Sometimes the best thing that can happen to an overly complex and energy intensive civilization is to crash so that something new and (generally) better can be built in its place. Like you, I hope we're not to late to even get ready to rebuild.


George Mobus

qe-0002 sent this comment in via e-mail:

EROI: I have read (don't recall where, sorry) a comparison of the EROI of solar panels, counting only "raw" energy costs, as 6mo-1y in Phoenix and 1y-2y in Seattle. So there's hope, but you are right total energy is the key. I look forward to more analysis!

Collecting all the component sources: You have to be one of just thousands/millions who want that data. Lots of folks have some of the data and would be happy to share. It suggests a separate and useful project is a "library" of component costs. This is beyond your project,
but I hope as you talk with economists, etc., you will suggest it.

Energy cost: I understand the graph is just a model, in reality does the historical energy cost keep increasing like that? I note the price of solar and wind has been falling due in part to less embedded energy. I'd guess that now the embedded energy per kWh of generating capacity is at or below fossil fuels.

Energy costs 2: I've seen some off-topic remarks in RMI's hypercar paper that suggest nuclear's embedded energy cost and global warming footprint are higher per kWh than everything but coal, and other sources saying it is barely competitive with just burning natural gas.

Thanks for posting, great stuff!

Richard Leckinger

In New Zealand we are blessed with about 65% renewable electricity on average, and enough fossil resources to keep our stationary energy systems going for some time. What do we do with this largess? We build more roads, to expand the one area of our economy that is hopelessly dependent on imported energy!

We are expanding assets that are essentially redundant and can serve no purpose in the future that is hurtling towards us.

Keep up the good work George, and do give us updates as your model progresses. There are more people listening than you may suspect - some of us are even politicians...

George Mobus

Hi Richard.

Thanks for the comment and vote of confidence. I guess I should be careful to not paint politicians with too broad a brush!



Dan Olner

This is great stuff. The lack of model-work on these subjects is pretty shocking. I'm in the process of trying to build one myself - concentrating on energy cost changes in an abstract spatial economy. I'm wondering how much space can substitute for energy; you can get "positive localisation externalities" that effect costs, but no-one seems very sure the extent to which these rely on a specific amount of energy input. In fact, Krugman's work suggests agglomeration relies on low transport costs - if this is true, increasing them may well be a de-localising force. Interesting when one compares the push for localisation as a solution to energy crisis. (Though the importance of e.g. Transition initiatives may lie in their getting people active, perhaps, rather than actual local economic outcomes.) Again, it's something we know woefully little about - perhaps there's some vital studies I've yet to come across, but I doubt it.

I'm particularly interested in your 'abstraction' choices; all models have to make them. You're allowed to build what Krugman calls 'silly models' in certain parts of economics, but mostly elsewhere, everyone seems to think more data = better model. This often leads to the most ridulously bloated, GIS-based, data-crammed works of fiction that can say nothing about key dynamics. It's difficult, though, and it's a problem I have yet to crack convincingly.

Do you have any more technical details on your model? A working paper or anything? In my own, I'm imposing energy cost changes exogenously on agents who then have to make economic and spatial decisions. (I've linked to my blog; in case you're worried I might steal anything from your model, you can go over there and tell people! Oh - I'm from the University of Leeds in the UK.)

Bye for now.

George Mobus


Thanks. I will check your web site.

The paper that Charlie Hall and I are working on will take a bit more work. We decided to modify the model to break out different asset types (long-term ((fixed)), intermediate-term, and consumables, along with human biomass!) and try to apply some realistic depreciation/decay/consumption rate constants. Then with those results we think we'll have less of a 'silly' model (love that term).


Dan Olner

Having just checked, Krugman actually talks about 'silly assumptions' -

"To get this system or aggregate level description required, of course, accepting the basically silly assumptions of symmetry that underlay the Dixit-Stiglitz and related models. Yet these silly assumptions seemed to let me tell stories that were persuasive, and that could not be told using the hallowed assumptions of the standard competitive model. What I began to realize was that in economics we are always making silly assumptions; it's just that some of them have been made so often that they come to seem natural. And so one should not reject a model as silly until one sees where its assumptions lead."

Which leads to one of his recommendations: dare to be silly! Well worth reading -


What type of vehicle are you driving Prof. Mobus?

George Mobus


Thanks for the link.


Except in extreme weather (like snow around here) I ride a Honda 250cc (Rebel) motorcycle that gets between 75 and 78 MPG. This is my commuting vehicle or for trips to the store. At other times I drive a Toyota Corolla which gets about 35 MPG city.


Term papers

I would like to say that it is very interesting to read your blog.Alternative energy system is vital for any country.

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