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Energy the nexus of everything: March 2010 Archives

For a 30-minute interview with myself and two others on the energy-water nexus topic, with particular focus upon renewable energy, visit Renewable Energy World.

A few weeks ago on This Week (ABC, http://abcnews.go.com/ThisWeek/video/exclusive-sen-alexander-9969974) US Senator Lamar Alexander (R) of the said the United States is now too complex for there to be very large sweeping bills to pass that will be good for the country. The reasoning is that the bills are now so long that there are too many unintended consequences and surprises embedded in them. He thus pushed for more incremental bills to make continuous progress. On the other hand, President Obama says the health care system is so complex that you can't overhaul it in a piecemeal fashion. So which is it?

What does these conflicting statements from the US elected officials say about the state of governing the United States, or perhaps generally the industrialized world, regarding the reaching a point of diminished marginal returns on the complexity of how we are organized? And in the reasoning of Joseph Tainter (http://www.cnr.usu.edu/htm/facstaff/memberID=837) are energy resources, or the lack of the abundance per capita of the past, have something to do with our inability to solve new problems? I'll quote from an article in Slate's website (http://www.slate.com/id/2225820/):

"Over the last several decades, the number of bills passed by Congress has declined: In 1948, Congress passed 906 bills. In 2006, it passed only 482. At the same time, the total number of pages of legislation has gone up from slightly more than 2,000 pages in 1948 to more than 7,000 pages in 2006. (The average bill length increased over the same period from 2.5 pages to 15.2 pages.)

Bills are getting longer because they're getting harder to pass. Increased partisanship over the years has meant that the minority party is willing to do anything it can to block legislation--adding amendments, filibustering, or otherwise stalling the lawmaking process. As a result, the majority party feels the need to pack as much meat into a bill as it can--otherwise, the provisions might never get through. ... And as new legislation is introduced, past laws need to be updated. The result: more pages."

So governing the country is becoming more and more difficult to increasing size and complexity. Theoretically, this requires more and more money and energy to operate the government and distribute services among the citizens. Given that US energy consumption has been effectively flat at between 99 and 101 quadrillion (1 quad = 1 x 10^15) BTUs since 2004, perhaps this has finally caught up to us in the form of the mortgage and financial crisis causing the current recession. The economists are stating that they don't see jobs recovering much at all this year even if the overall economy does grow by any percentage.

It is disappointing to hear, or rather not hear, more of a discussion among politicians of how energy resource quality (measured by energy return on energy invested (EROI), net energy, etc.) is not brought more into the general discussion as an indicator of the future path of our society. I hosted a panel session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual Meeting on "The Consequences of Changes on Energy Return on Energy Invested" (see: http://aaas.confex.com/aaas/2010/webprogram/Session1710.html). During this session we discussed how the quality of energy resources (being primarily fossil fuels) as measured by EROI are getting lower. Thus, the same amount of energy production (in total Btus/yr) at a low EROI is not able to sustain the same level of complexity and growth as when that same quantity of energy has a higher EROI. More fuel and parts of the economy are literally needed to support the functioning of society, and society must rearrange itself. Many people believe this rearrangement is happening by switching to alternative energy resources such as renewables for liquid fuels and electricity, but these resources are inherently inferior (when thinking only from an EROI standpoint) that the fossil fuels we have used in the past and are still consuming today. Thus, energy systems must inherently get simpler not more complex. It is not clear whether the "smart grid" is more simple or more complex. In some instances, it allows decisions to be made more locally and that sounds simpler. On the other hand, there are more decision-making nodes or locations, and that sounds more complex. I'm inclined at the moment to think that the smart grid is an increase in complexity, but this is a ripe area for future research.

I send out a call to the energy community to call for a more integrated approach to thinking about how critical energy quality is to economic production and societal organization. Instead of blaming the current politician in office for running up the budget or spending too many tax dollars, we need to show that our future options for private and public services are fundamentally limited by the quantity and quality of the energy resources we consume. Thus, we should not be surprised when our politicians are having extreme difficulty in solving the current challenges. The lesser amount of excess energy floating in the economy simply demands that actions be performed much more precisely with less and less room for error. When there is excess energy available, you can simply more easily afford to mess up, and for that matter, clean up your mess.