Innovation in Hard Times?

Utility Patents granted each year by the US Patent Office, with certain historical events added as annotations.

When thinking about what happens to society during a difficult time of some kind, one of the sharpest delineators between pessimists and optimists is their belief about the role of innovation. The optimists tend to assume that the can-do creative spirit of humanity will, always and everywhere, solve all problems, and thus the future will be ever brighter and brighter, with the possible exception of some brief and localized problems which will only serve to spur further innovation. The pessimists tend to assume that human innovation either a) doesn't occur at all, or b) generally makes things worse if it does.

I'm not quite sure where I fall on this spectrum yet, but it seems to me that, one way or another, as a society we are about to have a hard time here. Between the housing credit implosion, declines in Saudi oil production, the unknown but great damage that the Bush administration has done to the always fragile political arrangements in the economically critical Middle East, and monster hurricanes stomping on our cities, it's hard not to feel that the next decade is going to be one of the less fun ones in the historical record. I'm not going to commit myself on exactly how low the fun quotient is going to get - I really have no idea - but I'm sure not feeling good about the near to middle distance.

So it seems worth exploring further this question of the relationship between innovation and "hard times" of one kind and another. I am by no means an expert on either the history of innovation, or the economics of innovation, and one of the things I am hoping is to get links to the right things to read by those people who are such experts. However, I do have some perspective, as I have spent my working life in one way or another in "the innovation sector"; I have done stints in university research, venture capital funded startups, and also have some experience consulting on patent litigation. So I have a working knowledge of the way the US's formal institutions for innovation operate (and of course you could certainly argue that I have a vested interest in seeing them continue to operate).

Let me try to delineate the opposite ends of the spectrum on this question, starting with the pessimists. One of the people who has been most effective in getting people to at least think about the various crises facing society is Jim Kunstler whose pithy writing I envy every Monday morning. As far as I can tell, Kunstler doesn't think that innovation can play a significant role in solving society's problems, and is generally in favor of not doing further innovation on the technologies most important to society today, and instead wants to more-or-less roll back the various inventions of the 20th century, especially their impact on society, and roughly return to the 19th century:

We have to produce food differently. The ADM / Monsanto / Cargill model of industrial agribusiness is heading toward its Waterloo. As oil and gas deplete, we will be left with sterile soils and farming organized at an unworkable scale. Many lives will depend on our ability to fix this. Farming will soon return much closer to the center of American economic life. It will necessarily have to be done more locally, at a smaller-and-finer scale, and will require more human labor. The value-added activities associated with farming -- e.g. making products like cheese, wine, oils -- will also have to be done much more locally. This situation presents excellent business and vocational opportunities for America's young people (if they can unplug their Ipods long enough to pay attention.) It also presents huge problems in land-use reform. Not to mention the fact that the knowledge and skill for doing these things has to be painstakingly retrieved from the dumpster of history. Get busy.

We have to inhabit the terrain differently. Virtually every place in our nation organized for car dependency is going to fail to some degree. Quite a few places (Phoenix, Las Vegas, Miami....) will support only a fraction of their current populations. We'll have to return to traditional human ecologies at a smaller scale: villages, towns, and cities (along with a productive rural landscape). Our small towns are waiting to be reinhabited. Our cities will have to contract. The cities that are composed proportionately more of suburban fabric (e.g. Atlanta, Houston) will pose especially tough problems. Most of that stuff will not be fixed. The loss of monetary value in suburban property will have far-reaching ramifications. The stuff we build in the decades ahead will have to be made of regional materials found in nature -- as opposed to modular, snap-together, manufactured components -- at a more modest scale. This whole process will entail enormous demographic shifts and is liable to be turbulent. Like farming, it will require the retrieval of skill-sets and methodologies that have been forsaken. The graduate schools of architecture are still tragically preoccupied with teaching Narcissism. The faculties will have to be overthrown. Our attitudes about land-use will have to change dramatically. The building codes and zoning laws will eventually be abandoned and will have to be replaced with vernacular wisdom. Get busy.

We have to move things and people differently. This is the sunset of Happy Motoring (including the entire US trucking system). Get used to it. Don't waste your society's remaining resources trying to prop up car-and-truck dependency. Moving things and people by water and rail is vastly more energy-efficient. Need something to do? Get involved in restoring public transit. Let's start with railroads, and let's make sure we electrify them so they will run on things other than fossil fuel or, if we have to run them partly on coal-fired power plants, at least scrub the emissions and sequester the CO2 at as few source-points as possible. We also have to prepare our society for moving people and things much more by water. This implies the rebuilding of infrastructure for our harbors, and also for our inland river and canal systems -- including the towns associated with them. The great harbor towns, like Baltimore, Boston, and New York, can no longer devote their waterfronts to condo sites and bikeways. We actually have to put the piers and warehouses back in place (not to mention the sleazy accommodations for sailors). Right now, programs are underway to restore maritime shipping based on wind -- yes, sailing ships. It's for real. Lots to do here. Put down your Ipod and get busy.

Another contemporary pessimist is John Michael Greer, who operates under the title of "The Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America". Many of you may wonder how on earth an Archdruid passed my initial credibility filters, but actually I read his blog avidly every week and consider him one of the most stimulating social critics I know of. Even though I often don't agree with him, I think he's worth the weight of ten more conventional religious leaders. And perhaps, like the Lorax, he speaks for an awful lot of trees, if not that many Druids.

Greer thinks that industrial society is pretty much fucked and there's nothing any of us can do. However, he believes we are likely to collapse back into a pre-industrial condition gradually over a period of a couple of centuries. His argument is mainly historical:

Like modern industrial society, the Maya built their civilization on a nonrenewable resource base. In their case it was the fertility of fragile tropical soils, which couldn't support intensive corn farming forever. On that shaky foundation they built an extraordinary civilization with fine art, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and a calendar more accurate than the one we use today. None of that counted when the crops began to fail. Mayan civilization disintegrated, cities were abandoned to the jungle, and the population of the Mayan heartland dropped by 90%.

The parallels go deeper, for the Maya had other options. They could have switched from corn to more sustainable crops such as ramon nuts, or borrowed intensive wetland farming methods from their neighbors to the north. Neither of these happened, because corn farming was central to Maya political ideology. The power of the ahauob or "divine lords" who ruled Maya city-states depended on control of the corn crop, so switching crops or farming systems was unthinkable. Instead, Maya elites responded to crisis by launching wars to seize fields and corn from other city-states, making their decline and fall far more brutal than it had to be.

Even so, the Maya decline wasn't a fast process. Maya cities weren't abandoned overnight, as archeologists of two generations ago mistakenly thought, but went under in a "rolling collapse" spread across a century and a half from 750 to 900. Outside the Maya heartland, the process took even longer. Chichen Itza far to the north still flourished long after cities such as Tikal and Bonampak were overgrown ruins, and Mayan city-states on a small scale survived in corners of the Yucatan right up to the Spanish conquest.

Map the Maya collapse onto human lifespans and the real scale of the process comes through. A Maya woman born around 730 would have seen the crisis dawn, but the ahauob and their cities still flourished when she died of old age seventy years later. Her great-grandson, born around 800, grew up amid a disintegrating society, and the wars and crop failures of his time would have seemed ordinary to him. His great-granddaughter, born around 870, never knew anything but ruins sinking back into the jungle. When she and her family finally set out for a distant village, the last to leave their empty city, it would never have occurred to her that her quiet footsteps on a dirt path marked the end of a civilization.

This same pattern repeats over and over again in history. Gradual disintegration, not sudden catastrophic collapse, is the way civilizations end. It usually takes somewhere between 150 and 350 years for a civilization to decline and fall. This casts a startling light on today's crisis. It took America two centuries of incremental change to transform itself from an agrarian society to its current status as an aging industrial behemoth. Now, with its resource base failing, it faces the common fate of civilizations. Yet if that fate follows its usual timeline, it could easily take two more centuries of incremental change to transform America to an agrarian society again.

And on technology, his view is that our main job now is to figure out which ones we can salvage:

One of the most widely cited apocalyptic writers of my teen years, Roberto Vacca, argued in his book The Coming Dark Age that this extreme interdependence would prove to be the Achilles’ heel of industrial society. His argument that too much interconnection among unstable systems would lead to cascading systems failures and the collapse of industrial civilization impressed the likes of Isaac Asimov, who contributed an introduction to the book. In retrospect, it proved to be embarrassingly wrong. Like so many others at that time, Vacca put the cart before the horse; the rising tide of interdependence and interconnection he saw moving through the industrial world was a reaction to improvements in information processing, not a force in its own right, and further developments along the same lines – especially the explosive growth in computer technology – proved more than adequate to keep the process moving.

Still, Vacca was right to see the web of interconnections that unites today’s industrial technology as a critical vulnerability. It’s just that the vulnerability comes into play further along the arc of catabolic collapse. Many of today’s technologies depend so completely on the support of an intact industrial system that they cannot operate without it. Many more could operate without it, at least in theory, but have been designed in a way that maximizes their dependence on other technologies and will have to be reengineered in a hurry as the fabric of the industrial system comes apart. A final set of technologies are largely or wholly independent of the system and can be expected to carry on without a hitch while industrial society comes apart around them.

These three classes have an uncomfortable similarity to the three categories used by battlefield medics in the process known as triage. Triage — the word comes from French and means “trying” or “testing” – is a care-rationing process used when the number of wounded overwhelms the people and resources available to treat them. Incoming wounded are sorted out into three classes. The first consists of those who will die even if they get care. The second consists of those who will survive even if they receive no care. The third consists of those who will live if they get help but will die without it. In a triage situation, all available resources go to the third category. When the need for care outruns the available time and resources, this harsh but necessary logic maximizes the number of survivors.

The coming of deindustrial society will require us to approach technology in much the same way. Technological triage requires more complex judgments than the battlefield variety, however. Not all technologies are of equal value for human survival; it won’t do us any good to preserve video game technology, let’s say, if by doing so we lose the ability to grow food. Some technologies necessarily depend on other technologies—firearms, for example, presuppose a certain level of metalworking ability. Finally, technological triage involves four categories, not three. Alongside technologies that can’t be saved no matter what we do, technologies that are certain to be saved even if we do nothing, and technologies that will be saved if we act and lost if we do not, there are technologies that have gone out of existence but could be brought back and put into use if action is taken now.

Moving now to the optimists, the quintissential cornucopian was the late Professor Julian Simon, an economist whose book The Ultimate Resource 2 is must reading for anyone wanting to understand both sides of the debate. Essentially, Simon had the view that the condition of humanity had always improved everywhere, taken over any length of time, and that it always would in the future too. (Strangely enough, he didn't look at the Mayan's :-) To get a feeling for his thought, take this Cato institute essay:
People have since antiquity worried about running out of natural resources--flint, game animals, what-have-you. Yet, amazingly, all the historical evidence shows that raw materials--all of them--have become less scarce rather than more. It is beyond any doubt that natural resource scarcity--as measured by the economically meaningful indicator of cost or price--has been decreasing rather than increasing in the long run for all raw materials, with only temporary and local exceptions. And there is no reason why this trend should not continue forever. The trend toward greater availability includes the most counterintuitive case of all--oil.

Food is an especially important resource. The evidence is particularly strong that the trend in nutrition is benign despite rising population. The long-run price of food is down sharply, even relative to consumer products, as a result of increased productivity. And per person food consumption is up over the last 30 years. The increase of height in the West is another mark of improved nutrition.

(Africa's food production per person is down, but in the 1990s, few people any longer claim that Africa's suffering has anything to do with a shortage of land or water or sun. Hunger in Africa clearly stems from civil wars and government interference with agriculture, which periodic droughts have made more murderous.)

Only one important resource has shown a trend of increasing scarcity rather than increasing abundance. It is the most important and valuable resource of all--human beings. Certainly, there are more people on earth now than ever before. But if we measure the scarcity of people the same way that we measure the scarcity of other economic goods--by how much we must pay to obtain their services--we see that wages and salaries have been going up all over the world, in poor countries as well as in rich countries. The amount that one must pay to obtain the services of a barber or a professor has risen in India, just as the price of a barber or professor has risen in the United States over the decades. That increase in the price of people's services is a clear indication that people are becoming more scarce even though there are more of us.

And he viewed innovation as the central fount from which this bounty sprouted:

How can it be that economic welfare grows over time along with population, instead of humanity's being reduced to misery and poverty as population grows and we use more and more resources? We need some theory to explain this controversion of common sense.

The process operates as follows: More people and increased income cause problems in the short run--shortages and pollutions. Short-run scarcity raises prices and pollution causes outcries. Those problems present opportunity and prompt the search for solutions. In a free society solutions are eventually found, though many people seek and fail to find solutions at cost to themselves. In the long run the new developments leave us better off than if the problems had not arisen. This theory fits the facts of history.

Technology exists now to produce in virtually inexhaustible quantities just about all the products made by nature--foodstuffs, oil, even pearls and diamonds--and make them cheaper in most cases than the cost of gathering them in their natural state. And the standard of living of commoners is higher today than that of royalty only two centuries ago--especially their health and life expectancy, and their mobility to all parts of the world.

The extent to which the political-social-economic system provides personal freedom from government coercion is a crucial element in the economics of resources and population. Skilled persons require an appropriate social and economic framework that provides incentives for working hard and taking risks, enabling their talents to flower and come to fruition. The key elements of such a framework are economic liberty, respect for property, and fair and sensible rules of the market that are enforced equally for all.

To prove that not all cornucopians are economists, we can look at the case of Ray Kurzweil, a well-known computer visionary who believes that the rate of technological progress, which he views essentially as an extension of biological evolution by other means, has been accelerating at ever greater rates since the Cambrian. His book The Singularity is Near is also a must read for a well-rounded view of the subject. But he lays out his basic thesis here.

Consider that the price-performance of computation has grown at a superexponential rate for over a century. The doubling time (of computes per dollar) was three years in 1900 and two years in the middle of the 20th century; and price-performance is now doubling each year. This progression has been remarkably smooth and predictable through five paradigms of computing substrate: electromechanical calculators, relay-based computers, vacuum tubes, transistors, and now several decades of Moore’s Law (which is based on shrinking the size of key features on a flat integrated circuit). The sixth paradigm—three-dimensional molecular computing—is already beginning to work and is waiting in the wings. We see similar smooth exponential progressions in every other aspect of information technology, a phenomenon I call the law of accelerating returns.

Where is all this headed? It is leading inexorably to the intelligent universe that Jim Gardner envisions. Consider the following: As with all of the other manifestations of information technology, we are also making exponential gains in reverse-engineering the human brain. The spatial resolution in 3D volume of in-vivo brain scanning is doubling each year, and the latest generation of scanners is capable of imaging individual interneuronal connections and seeing them interact in real time. For the first time, we can see the brain create our thoughts, and also see our thoughts create our brain (that is, we create new spines and synapses as we learn). The amount of data we are gathering about the brain is doubling each year, and we are showing that we can turn this data into working models and simulations.

Already, about 20 regions of the human brain have been modeled and simulated. We can then apply tests to the simulations and compare these results to the performance of the actual human brain regions. These tests have had impressive results, including one of a simulation of the cerebellum, the region responsible for physical skill, and which comprises about half of the neurons in the brain. I make the case in my book (The Singularity is Near) that we will have models and simulations of all several hundred regions, including the cerebral cortex, within 20 years. Already, IBM is building a detailed simulation of a substantial portion of the cerebral cortex. The result of this activity will be greater insight into ourselves, as well as a dramatic expansion of the AI tool kit to incorporate all of the methods of human intelligence.

By 2029, sufficient computation to simulate the entire human brain, which I estimate at about 1016 (10 million billion) calculations per second (cps), will cost about a dollar. By that time, intelligent machines will combine the subtle and supple skills that humans now excel in (essentially our powers of pattern recognition) with ways in which machines are already superior, such as remembering trillions of facts accurately, searching quickly through vast databases, and downloading skills and knowledge.

But this will not be an alien invasion of intelligent machines. It will be an expression of our own civilization, as we have always used our technology to extend our physical and mental reach. We will merge with this technology by sending intelligent nanobots (blood-cell-sized computerized robots) into our brains through the capillaries to intimately interact with our biological neurons. If this scenario sounds very futuristic, I would point out that we already have blood-cell-sized devices that are performing sophisticated therapeutic functions in animals, such as curing Type I diabetes and identifying and destroying cancer cells. We already have a pea-sized device approved for human use that can be placed in patients’ brains to replace the biological neurons destroyed by Parkinson’s disease, the latest generation of which allows you to download new software to your neural implant from outside the patient.

If you consider what machines are already capable of, and apply a billion-fold increase in price-performance and capacity of computational technology over the next quarter century (while at the same time we shrink the key features of both electronic and mechanical technology by a factor of 100,000), you will get some idea of what will be feasible in 25 years.

By the mid-2040s, the nonbiological portion of the intelligence of our humanmachine civilization will be about a billion times greater than the biological portion (we have about 1026 cps among all human brains today; nonbiological intelligence in 2045 will provide about 1035 cps). Keep in mind that, as this happens, our civilization will be become capable of performing more ambitious engineering projects. One of these projects will be to keep this exponential growth of computation going. Another will be to continually redesign the source code of our own intelligence. We cannot easily redesign human intelligence today, given that our biological intelligence is largely hard-wired. But our future—largely nonbiological—intelligence will be able to apply its own intelligence to redesign its own algorithms.

So what are the limits of computation? I show in my book that the ultimate one-kilogram computer (less than the weight of a typical notebook computer today) could perform about 1042 cps if we want to keep the device cool, and about 1050 cps if we allow it to get hot. By hot, I mean the temperature of a hydrogen bomb going off, so we are likely to asymptote to a figure just short of 1050 cps. Consider, however, that by the time we get to 1042 cps per kilogram of matter, our civilization will possess a vast amount of intelligent engineering capability to figure out how to get to 1043 cps, and then 1044 cps, and so on.

So what happens then? Once we saturate the ability of matter and energy to support computation, continuing the ongoing expansion of human intelligence and knowledge (which I see as the overall mission of our human-machine civilization), will require converting more and more matter into this ultimate computing substrate, sometimes referred to as “computronium.”

What is that limit? The overall solar system, which is dominated by the sun, has a mass of about 2 × 1030 kilograms. If we apply our 1050 cps per kilogram limit to this figure, we get a crude estimate of 1080 cps for the computational capacity of our solar system. There are some practical considerations here, in that we won’t want to convert the entire solar system into computronium, and some of it is not suitable for this purpose anyway. If we devoted 1/20th of 1 percent (.0005) of the matter of the solar system to computronium, we get capacities of 1069 cps for “cold” computing and 1077 cps for “hot” computing. I show in my book how we will get to these levels using the resources in our solar system within about a century.

About now, you may be thinking that the Archdruid sounds like a sane and moderate individual. And if I tell you that Kurzweil takes 250 different supplements daily because he's trying to keep his 56 year old body around long enough to become immortal when the technology become available in a couple of decades, you might really start to wonder. But there's no question that he has an enviable track record as an inventor, and is a frequent headline speaker where computer scientists congregate.

So what to think? The truth lies in the middle somewhere? For myself, I try to go where the data lead, and follow them whether they go left, right, or up the center of the garden path.

As a first cut at looking at the question of how much innovation happens in crises, I started by looking at the number of patents on inventions issued by the US patent office. Admittedly, this is a crude metric. Patents vary in quality and significance, and those variations may have trends not captured by the sheer quantity. Also, the things that the patents are about very likely vary over time, and those variations could be highly significant. Still, it's a place to start and reveals some interesting things, I think:

Utility Patents granted each year by the US Patent Office, with certain historical events added as annotations.

I think one could draw some support for both sides of the argument here. On the one hand, it's quite clear that the level of innovation goes down when society comes under stress. I have pointed to a few of the more prominent drops in the curve. So, presumably there is some level of societal stress so great that society's innovative institutions would cease to function. The worst case in the record was the combination of the depression in the 30s and WWII, which between them caused a roughly 60% drop in the rate of patent applications. The seventies oil shocks were around a 35% reduction, and the US civil war about a 25% reduction. So far, the post 2000 tech crash is about a 15% event, but one wonders what a housing crash and peak oil are going to add onto that in coming years (possibly after some intervening rebound - the application rate started shooting up again in 2005, but it often takes 2-4 years for an application to turn into a patent, if it is going to).

On the other hand, nothing in the last 200 years has been nearly enough to cause the patent application rate to drop to zero. And it seems likely that particularly relevant technologies may be invented in those eras of low overall patent productivity - one thinks of radar, jet engines, and nuclear power during WWII. I think there is also some support in the data for Professor Simon's idea that following a crisis, the innovation rate increases.

Indeed, I have to say that the overall rate of patent applications looks somewhat super-exponential, as Kurzweil would argue it should be. If we look just at the periods between crises, the interval from 1865 to 1932 had a combined annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.29%/yr. Then from 1947 to 1974, the CAGR was 5.06%/yr, but it increased further to 5.6% between 1983 and 2003. That seems like evidence for a non-linear positive feedback loop.

But on the third hand, I am a lot less sanguine than Kurzweil that runaway positive feedback processes usually end well. Anyone who's been following the US housing market for the last few years, and especially the last few weeks, knows exactly what I mean.

On the fourth hand, I think those who want to argue that innovation will cease need to explain in far more detail why the institutions for it will stop operating. The Mayans didn't have venture capitalists, or patent offices, or universities, as far as we know. As we speak, those institutions are rapidly reorienting themselves towards our energy and climate problems:

Out of the ashes of the Internet bust, many technology veterans have regrouped and found a new mission in alternative energy: developing wind power, solar panels, ethanol plants and hydrogen-powered cars.

It is no secret that venture capitalists have begun pouring billions into energy-related start-ups with names like SunPower, Nanosolar and Lilliputian Systems.

But that interest is now spilling over to many others in Silicon Valley — lawyers, accountants, recruiters and publicists, all developing energy-oriented practices to cater to the cause.

The best and the brightest from leading business schools are pelting energy start-ups with résumés. And, of course, there are entrepreneurs from all backgrounds — but especially former dot-commers — who express a sense of wonder and purpose at the thought of transforming the $1 trillion domestic energy market while saving the planet.

“It’s like 1996,” said Andrew Beebe, one of the remade Internet entrepreneurs. In the boom, he ran, which helped small businesses sell online. Today, he is president of Energy Innovations, which makes low-cost solar panels. “The Valley has found a new hot spot.”

I think a realistic argument that innovation will not be an enormous factor in our response to the crises we face needs to come to grips with the institutional differences between us and earlier societies.

hit digg, hit reddit, hit your favorite linkfarms!

It's probably impossible to talk about this subject without discussing Jevon's Paradox. The problem with technological innovations that increase our energy efficiency is that, at least in some cases, they tend, in time, to increase our aggregate consumption of energy.

In round numbers worldwide we are consuming--from nuclear + fossil fuel sources--the energy equivalent of a billion barrels of oil every five days.

I assume that I presently have the world record for the most pessimistic estimate of remaining Saudi recoverable reserves (on the order of 40 Gb of oil). In any case, from nuclear + fossil fuel sources, we burn through the energy equivalent of about 40 Gb of oil every 200 days. Ponder that thought for a moment.

IMO, we are looking at a long period of food/energy inflation combined with auto/housing/finance deflation.

I don't think that there are any "solutions," but the most sensible plan I have seen is the following:

(1) Energy consumption tax, to fund Social Security/Medicare, offset by eliminating the Payroll Tax;

(2) Crash wind/nuclear program;

(3) Crash Electrification of Transportation (EOT) program, as outlined by Alan Drake.

As Alan has pointed out, EOT worked in the past.

If we increase our total amount of useful energy collected from solar, wind and geothermal sources (and at least for a while, nuclear fission), I don't think that is intrinsically bad.

I agree with your solutions.

I just finished doing a back-of-the-spreadsheet model of filling the global post-peak oil shortfall with electricity. Of course the uncertainties in such a model are enormous, but I'm satisfied that it shows something approximating reality. The executive summary goes something like this:

"If we want to replace any significant proportion of the oil energy we'll be losing with electricity from sources other than coal, we'd better get innovating in a big way, because the curves from PV and wind aren't going to come anywhere near the probable depletion curve at the rate we're going."

With innovation, as with simple capital projects, we face a timeline problem. Ideas take time to implement and more time for the implementations to have an impact. Even if you take the cornucopian view that we're generating all the good ideas we need right now, it will still take time to put them into practice.

All the post-peak decline models that seem realistic to me say we have until 2020 or so before things get really crunchy. That means we have 15 years to hatch our bright ideas, transform them into technology, cost-engineer them so that people other than Bill Gates will benefit, and diffuse them into the economy. All in an environment of ever-tightening energy supplies and increasing geopolitical disruptions.

Faced with that, I'm inclined to say that what we have right now is all we're going to get in the near term. To paraphrase Disgraced Donald, we will to go to war with the innovations we have, rather than the innovations we want or wish we had...

model of filling the global post-peak oil shortfall with electricity

Does your model also adjust for creating H-C chains to ack as a feedstock for all the stuff 'we' are used to having?

we'd better get innovating in a big way,

One minor problem - any energetic source used to power some form of 'electricity harvest' has the potential of being used as a bomb. So if 'we' create a "Mr. Fusion", such a device strikes me as a tool for destruction. Given how well humans treat other humans, Getting what one wishes for might be bad for habitation on the planet or the planet itself.

The legendary Skeptic and magician James Randi mentioned in some of his lectures available online about the steady flow of nonsense that gets patented regularly in the US (toast, the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, "perpetual motion machines"). Thus as you point out the actual number of truly ingenious, realistic and useful patents may not show up at all in those quantitative graphs - I think what it shows mainly is the greed factor. Here I think of David Cross and his hilarious stand up bits on electric scissors, the "egg wave," and a zillion other truly unnecessary informerical garbage.

"There's got to be a better way!" ;)

And of the very small percentage of patents that are both realistic and useful, how many can be produced sustainably? Energy descent has begun IMO, and the best one can hope is that the truly important innovations will be ones that benefit society in a sustainable fashion, instead of just trying to make corporations and individuals rich.

I'm currently reading the book Shock of the Old by David Edgerton, which has the premise that much of the technology introduced since 1950 was just regurgitated in a slightly different form from what previously existed.

In essence, nothing we have now is really "novel", it's just repackaged and presented that way. I think the term "diminishing returns" is most appropriate.

Tom A-B

In essence, nothing we have now is really "novel"

Taking a quick look at Amazon's behind the cover peek of your book, the book seems to me to be nothing but repackaged horse manure.

To say that nothing (in essence) is "novel" after 1950 is to stretch the meaning of the word "novel" until it has no meaning at all.

1947: invention of the solid state transistor
1955: invention of the laser
19??: invention of the integrated circuit
19??: invention of the microprocessor
19??: invention of the internet
19??: invention of PCR (polymerase chain reaction)
1995: release of the Netscape browser
19??: invention of the fake yellow scrimage line for football fans watching Hi Def Flat Panel TV

It's incredible how many whiny non-creative minds there are out there to pooh pooh the creations of the few who do contribute to society.

One thing that is truly not novel is the existence of the jealous, nonproductive brother: Cain & Abel 2000BC.

Well the solid state transistor didn't come out of the blue.

1883 The Edison effect (U.S. patent 307,031, the first patent for an electronic device)
1904 Fleming Valve later called diode
1915 The first true vacuum triodes
1931 The 845 power triode extensive used in RCA AM radio transmitters
1943 Colossus Mark I was an early binary electronic digital computer. Colossus used state-of-the-art vacuum tubes.

Well that's about the dumbest reply I've seen in years on TOD.
What are you trying to pull, and over whose eyes?
How does high voltage control of electron flow through a vacuum (in, yes, "vacuum" tubes) after having been released from a filament heated cathode have anything to do with formation of defect free single crystal silicon and semiconductor fabrication processes?

Please keep the discussion civil - "dumbest reply" doesn't help that. Thanks.

Sorry that was dumb of me.

Picture me contrite.

Sorry that was dumb of me.

Apologize accepted.

How does high voltage control of electron flow through a vacuum (in, yes, "vacuum" tubes) after having been released from a filament heated cathode have anything to do with formation of defect free single crystal silicon and semiconductor fabrication processes?

Sure tubs aren't made of same materials and operate at much higher voltages. But the principles behind the transistor, controlling & amplifying currents, were already in used in vacuum tubes 50 years before the first solid state transistor. In that sense transistors aren't really novel.

Like biological evolution, technological evolution seems to me to follow a process of selection for successful small variations (mutations) on previous ideas (traits). When viewed in the near term, these micro-scale evolutionary changes don't appear to be very novel. However, I believe that Darwin's finches evolved different beaks (no matter how subtle) because there were ecological niches/food sources (i.e. marketplace opportunities) available for those who evolved ways to tap into them.

When viewed at a macro-scale, a series of seemingly minor evolutionary changes actually creates novel innovations such as single-cellular lifeforms and eventually humans. We share approximately 90% of our genome with rats, 98% with chimpanzees, and 99.9% with other humans. I'd say novelty is in the eye of the beholder (and the spatial and temporal scales at which it is being viewed).

Alternatively I noticed that the number of patents went down drastically during WW2. Yet the atomic bomb was developed, incredible fighting technology was thought up and brought on line as well as management methods to run the war machine and an incredible atmosphere of willing sacrifice to accomplish a shared goal.

Good god I sound like a cornucopian.

Is the number of patents a good measure of innovation? a patent has to be renewed and a good portion of them are not. It would be interesting to get statistics on patent citation and renewal rates. How to measure the technological impact of a patent?

Yes, it would be interesting to see, especially the exponential growth in the last couple decades and why that's the case. If you look at what might be considered the fundamentals to modern life, electricity, transportation, housing, agriculture, and medicine, one could only say innovations in medicine have undergone any sort of really radical change. An add-on would be info/communication evolution, but outside of being able to more effectively mine the world for cheap-labor, fundamental change of these technologies are still in the future.

The general reason no. of patents rises (with dips in periods of lesser activity in science and technology, or just plain starvation) is that society, world wide, becomes more legislated and ruled by bureaucracy.

The Maya did not patent their canoes, they just made them.

I have an acquaintance, a medical researcher, who has ‘invented’ a new screw for welding broken bones together. (His institution has patented it.) He showed me this object. In my ignorance, it looked like most other screws I have ever seen, except that it was white in color. The principle seemed kind of old hat to me. The patent is lodged in view of commercial exploitation, that is all. As are natural elements like plants or plant extracts, see all the quarrels about ‘patenting the living’, etc.

How about how much energy or money in R and D it took for the patents? Or how many patents per person.

So if tech innovation is still going up by it's costing 10x as much money or energy to keep advancing then we are sort of spinning our wheels but tooo entranced by our coal powered CD players to notice.


I'm sure you are aware of the following:

Patents Per $$$ in decline 1942-1958:,1561.msg20389.html#msg...

Patents Per Capita Peaked in 1915:

He has long been struck by the fact that promised advances were not appearing as quickly as predicted. "I wondered if there was a reason for this," he says. "Perhaps there is a limit to what technology can achieve."

In an effort to find out, he plotted major innovations and scientific advances over time compared to world population, using the 7200 key innovations listed in a recently published book, The History of Science and Technology (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). The results surprised him.

Rather than growing exponentially, or even keeping pace with population growth, they peaked in 1873 and have been declining ever since (see Graphs). Next, he examined the number of patents granted in the US from 1790 to the present. When he plotted the number of US patents granted per decade divided by the country's population, he found the graph peaked in 1915.

Transport Speed available to average american Peaked 1950s:


We've been in a plateau at best since then. Consider a theoretical trip from Ohio (my home state) to NYC:

In 1800, on foot or horseback it would have taken weeks (with substantial risk to life and limb).

In 1850, by train, it would have taken days, with minimal risk to life or limb).

By 1900, a day, with minimal risk to life or limb.

By 1960, 10 hours by car, with low risk to life or limb (but about 100x higher than by train).

By 1960 by plane, a few hours, with minimal risk.

Today, still 10 hours by car ( and probaly longer given traffic) with slightly less risk, but still far greater than by train.

Today by plane, well I did this last year, 10.5 hours there, 12.5 hours to get back. Even under the best of circumstances, it takes longer to go this distance by plane after accounting for check-in, security, etc.

Therefore, I conclude, travel speed peaked in the 1960's with the modern jet and with the interstate highway system and we've been in a plateau for 40+ years.

Patents Per Capita Peaked in 1915

Not a problem. We'll just create more and more people, so even though patents per capita are declining, we'll still increase our total patent production. ;-)

Seriously...that is the point. No one is saying innovation will cease. Rather, they are saying that the EROEI of science/technology is declining. That is the Tainterian argument, not that societal collapse will mean no one can innovate any more.

As science/technology is to a large degree dependent on energy input, not only will EROEI decline, but research may also be constrained.

That's true.

Only a couple of generations ago for many of us, our families could not afford to send their children to school. College was for the wealthy elite. Many kids were pulled out of school well before high school, to work on the farm or otherwise help support the family.

If the economy gets really bad, I could see us falling back to this pattern. We would have fewer and fewer scientists and engineers, working on ever more difficult problems, with fewer and fewer resources at their disposal.

But I'm sure innovation will continue. Even if we're back to using stone knives and bearskins, I'm sure we'll still be innovating.

But I'm sure innovation will continue. Even if we're back to using stone knives and bearskins, I'm sure we'll still be innovating.

Very much agreed. Innovation, broadly construed, is always present with our species (and is frequently problematic because it can disturb the balance of power).

But innovation of the high-tech variety......hmmmmmm

But one good thing is that we have long lifespans. People trained pre-peak will be around for a while even if education gets too pricey.

IMO, the question "Will high tech mitigate peak oil?" is the most fascinating question of the day.

Will high tech mitigate peak oil?

Why even ask the question ? We make a lot of assumptions that somehow high tech answers certain questions.

Look at it this way.

Basic human needs are food clothing shelter.
Renewable practices and low population have a lot more to do with protecting these long term than high tech. In a sense we don't need any more technology in the arena. High tech or science helps but its not needed. More important is that trade allows food shipments to balance regional food shortages.

Next up the ladder is luxury goods.
For this higher tech helps create different types of luxury goods and mass production helps make them available to all.
High tech simply changes the nature of the goods. In the past they tended towards custom items made by artists but all high tech seems to do is change the nature of the sought after luxury goods.

Now here is a area where high tech wins hands down or does it ?
If we simply exercised and lived healthy lives overall we are far better off then we are now. Our understanding of germs etc helped a lot. But in general the vast majority of our health care goes into what I call life extension for the elderly that are no longer contributing to the economy.
Innovation such as vaccinations are different since they protect the general population from loss.
So certainly knowledge helps esp when it comes to epidemics that effect a broad spectrum of the population. And I think good child care and lower infant mortality helps since it lessens the pressure to have a lot of children.
But outside of continued work on new vaccines we have solved the major problems that caused pre-high tech societies to fail because of disease.

I think this is important since the flow of information today seems to have helped our societies a lot more than we realize. I am a proponent of protecting the world wide open flow of data esp as we face tougher problems. Yes refining this technology will help and it would be nice if everyone in the world had equal access to the "net".
But we basically have all this technology available now its simply a matter of cost/deployment.

For transportation efficiency is important and in some cases high speed transport is important such as business travel. But on the other hand we have not taken advantage of our information technology to limit travel since its so cheap now. I'd suspect we could be more efficient with a lot less traveling. Also it would be trivial to slow down a bit and allow people make slower more efficient travel arrangements
using ships trains and zeppelins.

To sum everything up overall we pretty much have solved the technical issues they have the greatest impact on our lives.
We don't need any more technology.

For example we know how to build efficient solar cells today they are expensive but this cost can be endured as a long term investment so its more a issue of if people are willing to underwrite a long term investment or not.
Now since solar technology does not seem to be that mature it makes sense to wait a bit but you don't have too.

So can higher tech and innovation help sure..
Do we need it to save us ? I'd say no we have the technology today that has the biggest impact and I question if any new technology can change things dramatically.

The question of whether we "need it to save us" is a bit irrelevant. The existing industrial system is going to try to solve the problem according to the rules it operates under (free enterprise, maximize profits, etc etc). If it succeeds, end of problem and doomers all look like idiots. It's not going to pay any attention at all to people who want to go backwards. If it doesn't succeed....

The problem I have with both doomer logic and cornucopian logic is essentially the same. Doomers are assuming that innovation will necessarily fail to solve the problem. Cornucopians are assuming that innovation will necessarily succeed. In fact, innovation sometimes succceeds (Internet, Moore's Law) and sometimes fails (jetpacks and rocket cars). And it's pretty hard to tell in advance which problem is going to fall into which category. So I don't see how either side is justified in their certainty.

For the most part I agree the only thing I have to add is that it seems to me their is a population density that allows us to live high tech sustainable life styles. And as of right now my opinion is is lower than what we have today.

I'm not saying that the world's population needs to be lowered but it looks to me like a smaller percentage would be eligible for living the good life so to speak.
In utopia this number is 100% of the population.

So the real issue is who gets the good life and will the rest eat the golden goose ?

Even if reality proves their is actually enough for everyone which I doubt because we have not succeeded even with oil the competition once people realize that renewable energy sources are it will be fierce.

The doomer vs high tech are simply the extremes of the real competition. I cannot see the fight being avoided.

I think that was not memmel's point. You are focusing on the "save us", I assume from peak oil and Climate Change. But those are two symptoms of a systemic problem. Only a systemic change to a sustainable society will be enough in the long run. Even if PO and CC could be solved by technology.

I think you really, really need to take "Limits to Growth: The 30 year Update", and carefully read chapters 4 and 6. Specially "Chapter 6: Technology, Markets and Overshoot".

Even the perfect (energy) technology doesn't prevent collapse if population and industrial output continue to grow exponentially.

Can you imagine politicians and economists stop treating GDP growth as the cure to everything and the ultimate goal?
It won't be easy.
On the bright side we have all the technology we need to prevent collapse (going back to memmel's post). We just need to change policies, market rules... and society.

To put it simply I'm not convinced a million dollars will stop a AK47 round.

My point is one of the other achievements that technology has given us is cheap and effective weapons and a military history filled with the subtle nuances of waging war.

Are ability to destroy is far greater today than our ability to build. I think this is what the doomers want/fear and the utopian's since they can't promise the good life for all don't have a realistic answer.

I'm sure in the end neither extreme will occur but I'm just as positive that a lot of blood will be shed on the way to a balanced society simply because we are now very effective at killing lots of people.

Put it this way America is fighting with one arm tied in Iraq if we simply wanted to take the oil and did not try to work with the populace we could easily remove the problem.
At some point in the future the gloves will come off.
I have no idea when this would happen but if history is any guide when your resource constrained the only route to growth is to take from your weaker neighbor it happens.

At some point in the future the gloves will come off.

At what point were "the gloves" ever on?

Hello Mike

As my final post (just a personal note) of a too-much-time-online-w.-tod-day, and after responding at some length to posts by Cid about mass killings...

re: "We just need to change policies, market rules... and society."

Do you think it is possible for us to have a constructive conversation about any of these topics? (I'm being sincere.)


I'm a doomer extraordinare and you have characterized the doomer position completely wrong. Technology is succeeding. It's helping us kill lots of Arabs and take their energy.

It's also helping us build a new generation of hydrogen bombs for when the real day of reckoning comes.


You say you don't see how either side is justified in their certainty. I'll tell you how I feel justified. Just follow the money as I keep saying. Budget for the energy war in Iraq = $300 million a day. Budget for the National Renewable Energy Lab = $200 million a year.

Please indicate how my conclusion that we we will simply fight over what's left is not an accurate reflection of reality.

If you think the current energy wars will abate soon please indicate how/why.

I've said the same thing above. The point that keeps coming around is that we need to change or the chances are we will follow the worst possible solution to peak oil.

In some cases this means countries that could have a higher standard of living because of military might adopt a lower standard so poorer regions don't become desperate.
In general the desperate poor countries do have natural resources of interest to the wealthy countries. So its not possible for the wealthy nations to isolate themselves like japan in the past.

Maybe actions such as not converting food grains to ethanol to fuel SUV's...

Nah not going to happen one day it will be war.

Stuart wrote:

The existing industrial system is going to try to solve the problem according to the rules it operates under (free enterprise, maximize profits, etc etc).

Agreed. The rub being this "existing industrial system" has not *solved* much of anything of late. For all our cornucopia of innovation all I see is an ever dizzying array of mounting dystopian catastrophes. Expecting anything other than more of the same from this industrial system as is presently arranged is not particularly reassuring.

As others have mentioned or suggested, and I agree whole heartedly, the crux of our problem is with our inability to live within limits; in short it is a cultural problem. Our existing industrial system built off of cheap and plentiful oil/energy has, for the most part, only allowed us temporary reprieve from earthly reality and its limits. Unfortunately, this reprieve has not ultimately bettered our lot or properly prepared us for reconnecting with earthly reality now knocking on our door.

Of the necessities essential to our survival, clean water, air, land and food, our existing industrial system and the culture of insanity now addicted to this system has directly and/or indirectly contributed to the accelerated decline, degradation, and loss just when these vital features will be needed most. Worse, our cultural addiction to this industrial system is for all practical intents and purposes unprepared for and lacking the necessary cultural skills to do what is necessary -- innovate back to a solar based energy diet -- without collapsing this industrial system on our heads!

If it succeeds, end of problem and doomers all look like idiots.

What I find more curious than the doomers take, is the plain fact that innovators can not prove their belief with the necessary innovation(s). It's certainly not for lack of trying to come up with the innovation to solve whatever the problem may be. The truth of the matter is for all our oil based industrial innovations we are mostly worse off then ever where it counts in all respects!

Plainly, I expect the cornucopian innovation system assumption as presently rigged will prove much more insanely idiotic than any doomer's assumptions to future historians.

The problem I have with both doomer logic and cornucopian logic is essentially the same. Doomers are assuming that innovation will necessarily fail to solve the problem. Cornucopians are assuming that innovation will necessarily succeed. In fact, innovation sometimes succceeds (Internet, Moore's Law) and sometimes fails (jetpacks and rocket cars). And it's pretty hard to tell in advance which problem is going to fall into which category. So I don't see how either side is justified in their certainty.

I think you've got it wrong here. Doomers have plenty of good and sound reasons to not just assume, but see with their own hearts, eyes and minds what they do and judge it as they do. In fact, I think they have more good reasons to buttress their argument for oil based industrial innovation failing us, especially so for generally complicating matters than actually solving much of anything, than the cornucopians have the means to prove how much better -- and by *better* I mean, survival wise as a species -- life is today with all the cornucopia of innovations at our disposal.

This key question, of survival viability, is the ultimate test. And on this critical test our industrial system and culture of oil based innovation is a disaster for our species and our survivability. Frank admission of this fact does not necessarily mean we are doomed, although some will see it that way.

What I do think is doomed and worth repeating is our present industrial system and culture tangled up in it. The sooner we face this and act accordingly the better off we'll be.

There are decent options still available to us, but wishing upon the falling star of what got us where we are isn't going to cut it. The innovations necessary are in our hearts and minds to discover, not some industrial system that has set us up to die for.

Great post. You say it's a cultural problem, I agree, but I'll raise you one. It's also a evolutionary problem; it's in our genes. Humans are hard-wired for living in very small social groups, and cooperation and human health can be quite high when we are living within our means (read John Robbins "Healthy at 100"). But world population is 6.5 Billion, and the cultural zeitgeist is about to get MORE violent, not more peaceful. Falling resources + overpopulation = devastation.
How can it be any other way? Wishful thinking won't change this, and doomers can look at the FACT that a huge chunk of the world's humans are ALREADY living in squalid misery. Thinking this is going to get BETTER while energy descent slams into us is the height of myopia. Humans are not above the repercussions of exponential growth. The population is in overshoot, the world ecosystem is reeling, energy supplies are shrinking, and global scorching is clicking into positive feedback mode - and meanwhile cornucopians are busy hoping that the sky frog will only make "other countries" suffer the consequences. The future is going to be a dystopian science fiction novel, and all that remains to be seen is: which one. But hey, maybe one of the many "patented" free energy machines will work, huh? ;)

doomers can look at the FACT that a huge chunk of the world's humans are ALREADY living in squalid misery.
Thinking this is going to get BETTER while energy descent slams into us is the height of myopia.

Problem for some folks is if they acknowledge this (and it is clearly an accurate model of reality) . . . there goes their "acceptability" to the establishment/mainstream audiences they hope to curry favor with.

So their brains delete, deny, or distort it out of their awareness. This is very beneficial from a personal political (popularity) point of view as it allows the person to sincerely pretend technology might alter for the better how this all plays out.

You say it's a cultural problem, I agree, but I'll raise you one. It's also a evolutionary problem; it's in our genes. Humans are hard-wired for living in very small social groups, and cooperation and human health can be quite high when we are living within our means.

As far as being hard-wired via evolution & genetics, I don't see that at all as a problem per say.

But world population is 6.5 Billion, and the cultural zeitgeist is about to get MORE violent, not more peaceful. Falling resources + overpopulation = devastation.

Granted, over-population is a doozy of a problem, but this has little to do with evolution or our genetics. One way or another we will return to living within our evolutionary constraints, which is to say the limits imposed on all species living on earth. In short, it wasn't evolution or our genes which brought us to this calamity, it was our cultural imperatives -- i.e. manifest destiny rung up on the flag pole of religious and economic dogmas run amuck (in a broad brush way of outlining what I mean).

One must realize that that not all cultures operate as imperiously and in utter disregard of earthly limitations as ours. Tragically, most of them have been tainted by ours, but among the lucky few still living closer to their evolutionary roots and not as overly populated either, they may likely regroup faster than us.

I do not deny that a huge chunk of humans are living in squalid misery, or that our prospects are quite bleak indeed, but it is as easily conceivable for me to imagine how a run-away viral or bacterial epidemic could mow down our numbers sooner than later such that, should I escape that fate, I might then need not worry entirely about the desperate hordes scavenging the countryside after our PO fall.

Anyway, unlike our genetics as hewn over evolutionary time, tribe or community culture and its imperatives can change/adjust swiftly and favorably if the conditions are right. In that regard, I'm betting on the small community & culture I know than some escape in a foreign land. At least here I am among my own tribe should push come to shove. Can the same be said of some pink skinned yankee holed up in mtns. of whatever country one runs too? Hence, any where else that I am not a well established tribe member strikes me as much as a crap shoot as where I am now.

To each their own and all the best of luck as far as I'm concerned.

"...but it is as easily conceivable for me to imagine how a run-away viral or bacterial epidemic could mow down our numbers sooner than later..."

I agree 100%. We have a friend who manages an infectious disease lab at a large local hospital. When talking about diseases such as bird flu she gets very, very quite, shakes her head and just says "it will be will be very interesting".

The potential for a panadenic is at its peak IMHO. By adding human air travel and global food shipments as fast acting vectors we have set up perfect conditions for a major problem. Current medical facilities are in no way capable to treat mass's of sick people. Contemplate the potential disruptions to our "just in time" delivery of food and the potental weakening of the population from hunger, disease would spread like wildfire.
This could act in lock step with war or start a war as nations try to act or react to mass casualties.
Given that so much of our population is too young to have lived through a serious panademic those that survive might be stunned beyond belief.
We have worshiped technology, food has always been available, diseases have been "conquered" in the minds of so many of todays youth. We have lived in abundant times, the reoccuring themes posted here reflect an understanding that this will change, for one reason or another. We keep looking for technology to save us - I'm starting to have serious doubts.

The problem I have with both doomer logic and cornucopian logic is essentially the same. Doomers are assuming that innovation will necessarily fail to solve the problem. Cornucopians are assuming that innovation will necessarily succeed. In fact, innovation sometimes succceeds (Internet, Moore's Law) and sometimes fails (jetpacks and rocket cars). And it's pretty hard to tell in advance which problem is going to fall into which category. So I don't see how either side is justified in their certainty.

I think I spoke variations of this logic for a year here, and elsewhere. One of my metaphors was to call it "counting chickens before they are hatched." Some, I said, want to count all eggs as chickens, some want to count no eggs as chickens. When the number is actually undetermined.

My only other comment would be to mention that innovation/capita is meaningless. We need one good solar innovation, and one good battery, to get us through. We don't need a custom solar solution invented per capita.

Oh, also on this I read today that "China has more honor students than America has people." That from an interesting article at an interesting blog:

I don't think, as China and India hit their R&D stride, that patents (esp. US patents) are going to be a limiting factor.

Nice post.

A correction on the Health point:

NUTRITION. Hygiene and Vaccines in that order are responsible for most of the fall in mortality. I am of the opinion that medicine gets much too much credit on that. I think that at most it shares 33% responsibility for the betterment of health conditions. A well-fed person lives a hugely healthier live than an undernourished one.

Point taken and I had hotdogs for lunch so I'm doubly ashamed at that omission.

"Will high tech mitigate peak oil?"

Of course it will; it says so in the original post:

Technology exists now to produce in virtually inexhaustible quantities just about all the products made by nature--foodstuffs, oil, even pearls and diamonds--and make them cheaper in most cases than the cost of gathering them in their natural state.

Techology will produce oil for less than it costs to gather in its natural state. Inexhaustible quantities!

cfm in Gray, ME

Try as I might, I can't figure out how to post pictures. These are very striking graphs. They show that, for the years they document, innovation per $$$, was "dropping like it was hot"

Here ya go:

Productivity of U.S. healthcare as judged by life expectancy/% of GNP spent on healthcare:

The solution is obvious. Make more R&D scientists and engineers!

How about a tax on people who major in liberal arts...or go to law school? ;-)

Leanan thanks a ton, you're the woman, the "alpha-female"!

For those curious about the mysterious "Leanan", perhaps this offers a clue. From Wikipedia: "Leanan sídhe are fairy maidens in Celtic folklore....generally depicted as beautiful muses who offer inspiration to artists in exchange for fame and glory; however, this exchange frequently results in the artists premature madness or death...." (ídhe)

A case of "be careful what you wish for"?

Kiss me, I'm Irish. ;-)

(No, not really. Except in the sense that all humans on earth are related, far more closely than most of us realize...)

Leanan. Thanks much for that reference. It was exactly what I wanted to support one of my standard remarks- that we are all related in the recent past and all will share great grandchildren, so, why not act like family instead of warring tribes of pillagers.

So- we should keep in mind that we just have our planet on loan for this moment, and our job is to pass it on to the next bunch of us in as good a shape as we can.

Cramming big box stores full of junk just don't do it. I would way rather have a trout stream like the one I had when I was a kid- and pass it on to the next kid still full of trout instead of trash.

The solution is less liberal arts graduates being accepted into management and thus in a position to use their crashing lack of vision to obstruct potential innovations before they are even created.

The usual metric is only 1 in 3000 ideas result in working products you can buy - but rather than seeing this as a failure in the management process to sheppard and support those ideas, they see it as an excuse to create even higher barriers to going forward with ideas 'to prevent waste'.

I'll bet today there is a good idea for helping with the coming energy crunch that has been destroyed by the short term, technologically moronic actions of a liberal arts manager.

It would be good to construct longer series - I'll go look for some BLS data. I think the decline in patents/million dollars could support Simon's argument that people are getting more expensive even though there's more of them. The decline in patents/worker coming out of WWII may represent an effect that when the number of patents drops during a crises, it is the best and most productive people who stay in the field, and that as you add more and more people, yeah the rate of progress goes up but less than linearly because you are adding people who on average are not as productive.

yeah the rate of progress goes up but less than linearly because you are adding people who on average are not as productive.

Tainter's "declining marginal returns"?

Hi Leanan

I have recently read Tainter's "The Collapse of Complex Societies" Glad you brought him up here. I hadn't really realised that the increase in complexity in we see in society is a sign of stress and reducing EROI. It has seriously spun my head around. Oh boy, It's a bit dry but it's recommeded reading for a peaknik once you get past all of those references he put in.
I thought I had a handle on the peak and it's implications. Oh dear! I have much to learn.

Read Tainter.

Carbon UK

How about a tax on people who major in liberal arts...or go to law school?

What about those of us that are both engineers and attorneys? Do we still have to pay the tax?

Ummm...we'll tax you at a reduced rate. ;-)

You get a pass because your head hasn't exploded yet.

Actually, I know quite a few people who have degrees in both engineering and law. Engineering law was quite the "sexy" career path in the '90s.

Of course, I also know some engineers who tried to pass the LSAT and couldn't do it for love or money. I looked at the questions and thought they were so easy a caveman could figure them out, but some engineers have a lot of difficulty with word problems.

A patent lawyer once told me - I went into law school but the students were too crooked, so I went into engineering but those students were too boring - so I became a patent lawyer.

I'm guessing that most of us have a B.S., not a B.A. (myself included, though mine is in history and engineering... long story). That said, let me defend the liberal arts education for a moment: it's my opinion that people with a liberal arts education are more likely to learn history, anthropology, and to study other cultures in general (e.g. via a year abroad). I think that an understanding of these areas is critical--they regularly question the unspoken assumptions (especially strong in B.S. programs) that we must have perpetual growth, increase in consumption, and increase in total energy use. Working in an organization surrounded by literally thousands of engineers, I would suggest that demographic is no more going to save us than the literature majors. Most people on this forum are the exception to that rule. Just my two cents...

And don't forget, Joseph Tainter is an anthropologist, not an engineer...

I think you are barely touching on an important issue when talking about clueless engineers or clueless other professionals.

don't forget, [I'm] an anthropologist, not an engineer...

That kind of thinking permeates every profession. The correct way to rephrase it is:

Look here mate. I was trained to be a small cog in a big machine. I was trained to think only like a ___ (pick only one from the list below):
1. doctor
2. lawyer
3. engineer (chemical, electrical, CS ...)
4. accountant
5. business manager
6. anthropologist
7. political apologist
8. ... and the list goes on

I was not trained mate, to step back and see the big picture. All I know is I do my thing and the Big System takes care of me. It's not for me to learn about where gasoline comes from or where it will come from in the future. That is some other bloke's problem. I'm a specialist and proud of it. Now leave me alone to do my small cog thing in the big machine.

As a classicist I must comment here:

While I believe the sciences are very much worth pursuing (should you be so inclined), the best way to appreciate human history always requires knowledge of, well, human history! One can be trained to be an excellent engineer or physicist or whatever, but to have any sort of understanding of how we have become what we are, as well as what is to be expected in the future, history is the key. It is strange that engineers and scientists normally feel free to comment upon history but ridicule historians who comment upon science.

Somebody above suggested that Tainter's book (The Collapse of Complex Societies) is heavy; I think it's one of those easy-reading books that you can get through on a train journey. The engineering types make fun of us "liberal arts graduates", but I shan't take any of their condescending words seriously until they have read, and commented upon, the Iliad in the original Greek. For what it's worth, we classicists do learn physics, chemistry etc. as well, just to be able to figure out how the hell we have ended up in the current impasse, starting from 5000 years ago.

I acknowledge there probably are humanities degrees that do not require much of an intellectual effort, but aren't there such in the sciences as well?

I realise I'm one of the few "liberal arts graduates" that take peak oil (and all that it means) seriously, but I don't appreciate being judged as incompetent because my degrees are in something most of us here know nothing about.

I should say that I do not share the perspective that the humanities and social sciences don't have anything to offer here. I've been trying to learn as much anthropology, psychology, and history as I can, because they seem very relevant to me.

Well yes.
That was my point.
1. Engineers need to study history and other liberal arts more vigorously.
2. Lib arts majors need to vise versa study physics, chemistry, BIOLOGY, thermodynamics more vigorously.

It is our individual "specializations" that is killing us.
Stuff falls through ... ... the cracks.
Peak Oil is one concept that falls through the cracks for many a "specialist".

There are probably many other looming problems that society, as a set of specialized individuals, fails to see.

In principle, the humanities and hard science types should be able to collaborate. That they do so little, or not enough, or not well enough, is a pity... One might argue the opposite; all the blah about inter-disciplinarity and epistemological leaps touted from the early 70s to the early 90s (say, from Europe) is so much hogwash, another excuse for wasting money on BS, nutty conferences, empty statements and philosophising!

The problem lies elsewhere; in the gradual State (or military-industrial complex, or power grab of the elites, or...) control of various ‘academic’, ‘research’ or ‘scientific’ bodies, who are gradually isolated one from the other and pushed into corners where they have to 'obey' in their little slots. That sounds a bit paranoid, I don't mean to imply authoritarian take over (though manipulation exists, see Bush science policies, control and distortions); growing specialisation and commercialisation are the prime factors, in line with 'economic development.'

The internet has helped a LOT.

It is impossible to collaborate with people who believe in the "true for me" variety of relativistic, social-construction nonsense.  They have too much to unlearn before they can learn anything.

The institutions which indoctrinate students in this ought to close themselves down out of sheer embarassment.

Indoctrination begins at the youngest of ages and continues for a life time. Remember this?

We're from elementary school 205'er
And no one can be prouder.
If you can't hear us now,
We'll shout a little louder!

We're from ...

And of course it crecendos in March "Madness".

Frankly, regardless of the degree or level of education, most people will NEVER understand much of the big picture (reality). People have no clue what the actual science and logic reveals, whether you are talking about religion or human nutrition or biology/physics. And it's not even really their fault - the propaganda is so thick you can spoon it up and eat it like peanut butter - even supposed "skeptic's" have huge blind spots. For example, I love skeptic and magician James Randi for his intellect. He's quite smart on many issues, yet he recently almost died because of his diet (atherosclerosis). How in the world can supposedly critical thinkers not examine the area of human health? Arteries do not get clogged by accident, it takes 20-40 years of eating animal products combined with low intakes of plant foods. Hell Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. John McDougall, and a shitload of other Drs. teach patients how to reverse heart disease. It's easy as pie, you quit eating the cause, and eat a whole foods vegan diet (You can add a whole bunch of supplements if you want to experiment, but population studies like The China Study, The Framingham Heart Study and a crapload of others show that supplements are the hard way, removing the cause is easy).

The crazy thing about Energy Descent is that it will at first improve the health of those world citizens who are stuffing their faces with meat and dairy and junk food, simply by forcing more people to eat lower on the food chain. Anyway, watch as several people post propaganda about how humans "need" meat and it's part of a "balanced diet." Nevermind that we are biological herbivores with starch-digesting enzymes in our saliva, and that our intestines are much longer than both carnivore's and omnivores, that our teeth can go side-to-side for grinding plant material (carnivore jaws only go up and down), that our stomach acid is very weak compared to carnivores, that we cannot handle excess cholesterol from foods (plants have Zero cholesterol), that human males have seminal vesicles - which NO meat eating animal has, that we drink by sipping and not lapping like carnivores, that both intervention and population studies show that people who eat exlusively plant foods (Tamarahumara Indians, Abkasians, Vilcabambans, Okinowans, etc.) do not get the diseases of the rich (heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc,) UNTIL their children start eating a "modern" diet. 100 year old Okinowans are having to attend the funerals of their grandchildren, who ate a rich diet and paid the price with their lives!

So basically what I am saying is that people are driven by their emotions and not intellect, except for a few genetic mutants like Oil Drummers (I'm sure lots of you are aware of these things, much more so than the average folks.)
It's hard for humans to go against the grain (or With The Grain, as it were, hehe, that's actually a great OOP nutrition book). /End Ranting, go back to your bacon, eggs and coffee, nothing to see here, move along ;)

Frankly, regardless of the degree or level of education, most people will NEVER understand much of the big picture (reality).

I would say that it is impossible for one person to understand "the big picture" these days. Even without the propaganda. It's simply too complex.

This is part of Tainter's argument. With complexity necessarily comes specialization, and then layers of bureaucracy to coordinate among the specialists.

Vegan: Everyone knows that the vegetarian diet is the healthiest one. No one cares. Who the hell wants to be 100 years old? (I know, people who are 99 years old).

I received a BA in biology before going to med school. Studied English Literature, Ancient Greek and got a minor in French. I'm sure this makes me a better physician. A bachelor's degree should in many cases be a general degree. Even those who obtain a very pointed BS engineering degree need to be trained on the job for years to get into their niche.

I have a friend who is a chemical engineer and a very smart guy. He works on a single product. I once asked him where they got their feedstock for the product and were the feedstocks petrochemicals. He had no idea. Didn't even know if it came by train, truck or river transport. All he knew was that his job was to measure the amount of heavy metal contamination and find ways to keep that below the threshold that would harm the quality of the product.

But doesn't it all really depend on the capacity for integration of information in that particular brain, not just the training it happened to pick up? I had the good luck to attend a couple of the most rooty-tooty schools anywhere, and there were lots and lots of really brainy people all over the place. They were in science and engineering, but they could spout out the name of Cleopatra's sister and the number of cubic meters of dirt a Roman GI could throw in a day and the average length of a nematode what it ate and just about anything else- both numbers and words- to boot.

And a lot of them were world class jerks making world-class mistakes in real time. Like, I mean, how did Harvard pick Larry Summers for Pres????

My comment about liberal arts majors was meant ironically.

It's true that I am an engineer, and that I chose this career because I thought technology would save us. But I no longer believe that. Indeed, I fear I have become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

I think Einstein was right. "The problems of today will not be solved by the same thinking that produced the problems in the first place."

Is the first graph adjusted for (a) inflation, and (b) the salary increases to researchers? 'cuz if it ain't, it's useless.

The first graph also begs the question of who's counted in there, and how the distribution of researchers has changed over the years. Friends in academia have no interest in patents - peer-reviewed papers are everything - whereas friends in industry are paid $1000 per patent, no matter how trivial. So the first graph could be important, or it could be nothing more than a distributional shift of researchers.

(The second, of course, just shows the massive boondoggle that is the US healthcare system. For 40% more than the Germans, America buys a healthcare system that's inferior in almost every measurable way.)

Economists have generally believed (since the work of Robert Solow in the late 1950s) that economic growth (over and above population growth) is largely the result of innovation (as opposed to just having more capital per person). So one way to assess the return on patents is to look at how much economic growth follows. I made the following interesting graph. I looked at the increase in GDP over the decade following the patents, and expressed that on a per-patent basis. This is real GDP in $2000, and additionally, I normalized the data to 2000 population (ie as though the economy had steadily had the 2000 population size, instead of growing from about half of that. The results suggest an average of about $3-4m/patent in increased GDP over the following decade. There isn't too much trend up or down:

Usually as a condition of employment what an engineer invents is the property of the employer even if the work wasn't done on the employers time and has nothing to do with the employers business. For instance my brother is an engineer for a large aerospace firm working on classified research. If he invented a better way to slice bread he would have no right to own the patent for that invention. So why should engineers bother to follow their intuition and innovate if they will recieve no benefits from that innovation.

You shouldn't be propagating urban legends.
Yes engineers are usually forced to sign an agreement to hand over to their employer every invention made within the scope of their employment. But no that does not cover "everything" that an engineer might invent. The example that you gave of your aerospace brother being forced to hand over an improved bread slicing method sounds preposterous (unless of course, he is using composite materials obtained from his work to provide this improved bread slicing technique, in which case you could see the clear connection to his scope of employment).

The example that you gave of your aerospace brother being forced to hand over an improved bread slicing method sounds preposterous

It is preposterous. And, yet, there's a good chance it's also true.

Some IP clauses in scitech contracts are remarkably draconian. I've signed contracts - as a 3-month intern - where if I came up with a clever-but-unrelated idea on my own time, I was informally advised to wait until after my internship was over to pursue it, otherwise it would belong to the company.

"Preposterous" does not always mean "false", just as "sensible" does not always mean "true".

Use the HTML image tag for images: For example:

<img src="">

P.S. If you want the angle brackets to show as code, as above, simply use the HTML substitution for that symbol which is a 4 character sequence without the spaces, commas or the quote marks as described below:

The < symbol is "&", "l", "t", ";" and the > symbol is "&", "g", "t", ";".

Note: you can test this with the preview function to be sure it will display as you intend.

Ghawar Is Dying
The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. - Dr. Albert Bartlett

Or more succinctly, the < symbol is '&lt;' and the > symbol is '&gt;'. The escape sequence for ampersand is '&amp;'.

But if you're using them to denote an image tag, don't escape them. :-)

At a guess, innovation is irrelevant, barring some super-genius coming up with some paradigm shift. The name of the game is infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. It took decades for the infrastucture in computers to build up to the point where you could have the 90's tech boom. We have peak oil either now, or in the next few years, and we have diddly for replacement infrastructure. There is no way any innovation is going to make thousands of miles of rail we never built appear. It took a century for the oil infrastructure we have to be built.

Venture capitalists, IMO, will only make things worse. People out for the next big tech boom don't build infrastructure. Not enough money in it. Probably the only thing that could work at this late date is something like the TVA, only a hundred times as big. It would of necessity have to be totally government-directed.

I think I agree. There was an article about this at EB, not long ago. It argued that infrastructure is built by the goverment, not by the free market. So any real change will have to be government-driven.

What has the gov done lately that makes you think the gov will solve the enrgy problem? Consider that the gov has been pouring at least tens of billions into this over decades.

As noted elsewhere, ethanol plants are being built without consideration for eroei, driven by gov subsidy. Nevertheless, an enormous amount of infrastructure is going up, all built by the private sector and all for the profit motive. Is this different from German subisidized roof top solar collectors that are not otherwise economic? Surely if we admire european energy subsidies, they are ok here? Or, is it different because we disaprove of ethanol but admire solar?

Higher prices and the profit motive will bring about an abrupt move to prius type autos, requiring some new infrastructure, probably and sadly more in japanese transplants than detroit factories... However, other new companies, some which already exist and some of which will soon be launched, will imo change our energy availabiltiy/consumption picture such that this will just look more like the seventies revisited than the end of modern society. WInd/solar/nukes are much more likely to be successfully deployed by the privae sector than by gov.

What we need are higher prices, both the mother of invention and the hidden hand, imo coming soon.

What has the gov done lately that makes you think the gov will solve the enrgy problem?

Who says I expect the government to solve the problem?

"I think I agree. There was an article about this at EB, not long ago. It argued that infrastructure is built by the goverment, not by the free market. So any real change will have to be government-driven."

I was responding to your comment that any real change will have to be gov driven... so, it seems to me that your above addition implies that a) not only do you say real change must come from the gov, but also b) the gov won't succeed. A fairly pessimistic view.

For all the negatives and limits, and we may well be there now, ethanol production is so far keeping total liquids from declining, and the infrastructure is privately built albeit with a subsidy. I would say that it will have to be the private sector that solves the problem, and further that they will be successful at least to the point that our society, warts and all, continues much as it is today as we slowly make the transition to conservation/wind/solar/fission.

I was responding to your comment that any real change will have to be gov driven... so, it seems to me that your above addition implies that a) not only do you say real change must come from the gov, but also b) the gov won't succeed. A fairly pessimistic view.

I consider it a fairly realistic view.

I would say that it will have to be the private sector that solves the problem, and further that they will be successful at least to the point that our society, warts and all, continues much as it is today as we slowly make the transition to conservation/wind/solar/fission.

And this is why I think the government will fail to solve the problem. I don't see the above as a solution. At best, it only delays the inevitable.

However, I do think the government will be successful at building infrastructure. They built the highway system, they built the infrastructure that supports commercial aviation, they built the Internets. The private sector could not have built those things without government help.

It's whether the infrastructure they build will be beneficial that I have doubts about.

Whereas on the other hand private enterprise builds pumps for New Orleans that don't work. I'm sure they made a lot of money, though.

Let's consider the fact that 4 out of 5 new businesses fail to ever make profit and are a total loss for the investors. The same tolerance for failed ideas ought to be extended to government. Most business plans are poorly concieved or poorly executed or are running down dead ends. Wall St isn't any better at picking winners than Washington is and may actually be worse. We tend to forget that the Internet is the child of Darpanet which was a highly classified government project at one time. Inspite of what Big Pharma says most new medications are the result of government research. Toyota's and Honda's leadership in hybrids is because they paid attention to the government financed PNGV program of the Clinton administration. The lithium batteries that will be in plug-in hybrids grew out of the taxpayer financed Advanced Battery Concepts project. Government often picks losers but so does Wall St. Also keep in mind that entrepenuers mostly use other people's money for those 4 out of 5 bad ideas they have.

No question. Absolutely.

TJ: You summed it up. IMHO, one of the main problems, post-peak for the USA will be the Republican voting block, the most cohesive and important voting block in the country (as an example, as of the latest poll, Bush gets 76% approval). Almost unanimously, the Republican voter wants both lower taxation and increased military spending. There is no money for dealing with peak oil available under a Republican-led regime. The Dems are weak but at this point they are all the USA has to hopefully deal with the post-peak dilemma.

Probably about half of them. The other half and all of the GOP are the party of "Make sure if somebody's ox has to be gored it's not ours".

The Dems are weak but at this point they are all the USA has to hopefully deal with the post-peak dilemma.

Are they owned by a different group of corporations than the Republicans?

Are they owned by a different group of corporations than the Republicans?

Well sure.

They're less owned by oil and coal extraction companies and more owned by technology and media companies. I think the financials spread their bets equally.

I agree. Infrastructure is key. Ray Kurzweil seems to think that innovation will feed on innovation (positive feedback) without considering anything else. It reminds me a little bit of a perpetual motion machine.

After reading Homer-Dixon, I'm convinced that there are strong requirements (social, political, etc.) in order to ingenuity to grow.

Even if we all become cybernetic super-brains I kind of doubt we're going to figure out a way to repeal the law of conservation of energy.

Heh, but if Kurzweil is right do you reckon the AI computer brain that is developed in 2029 will realise that oil has peaked and become a doomer?

I suspect that it is the VC community that is behind the big buildout of ethanol plants. So here I agree - the VC people are only out for themselves. Whether or not something makes long term sense isn't important to them - all that matters is whether they can get their money out with a nice return.

I wonder if anyone has done a study on the tendency of certain types of infrastructure items to become more and more disposable as time goes on. I have a circa 1960 dial telephone that is built like a tank and would probably last 100 years. How long does the typical cellphone last? My spouse who is an RN tells tales of masses of hospital waste of items that used to be re-used indefinitely.

Part of this one might consider that items that used to be considered infrastructure items are now considered disposable items, and a rationale for this is that technology is moving ahead so rapidly, we have to keep throwing away stuff and building new stuff, leading to an exponential curve of consumption of resources.

As Garrett Hardin said, "There is no 'away' to throw to."

Part of this one might consider that items that used to be considered infrastructure items are now considered disposable items, and a rationale for this is that technology is moving ahead so rapidly, we have to keep throwing away stuff and building new stuff

That's not the reason.

The reason is that we keep coming up with cheaper and cheaper ways to build things, so eventually they become so cheap that it makes more sense to throw them away than to over-engineer them and to repair them. Consider, for example, how there used to be umbrella repair shops back in the day, and now umbrellas can be bought for $2.

That often leads to resource savings. I have a landline, and it's a cheapo plastic phone. When I throw it away is likely to be dictated by external constraints (e.g., long-distance move) rather than "updating" it; accordingly, it will last just as long for me as a tank-like 1960s phone, but almost certainly at much lower resource cost.

Not all "progress" is bad.

TJ -

I completely agree with you regarding infrastructure and on the venture capitalists being counterproductive and I don't think a gov't enterprise would do much better - this is a large source of my pessimism relative to there being any meaningful response to the decline of cheap energy.

In my home county a new county jail could not even be constructed without millions of dollars in cost overruns and delays of several years. The whole enterprise disintegrated into a pissing match between officials, contractors, taxpayers etc etc. The thing that really struck me was that there was little mention of the collective good as far as completing the project - it all boiled down to money - which group (politicians, taxpayers, contractors, subcontractors ?) could work the most angles to maximize THEIR benefit...

I don't see any substantial infrastructure being created in a timely fashion while all these entities continue to subscribe to the "hey - I got mine..." attitude associated with the business of these sorts of endeavours.

I said the same thing in a earlier posting. We have all the technology we need now to live a high-tech sustainable life style. Some improvements are nice but not actually needed.

The problem is in most cases we need to change our lifestyles
so the heart of the problem is not technology its lifestyle.

And by lifestyle I'm talking the whole thing culture government work ethics concepts of wealth etc etc etc. Changes some large some small are needed in every faucet.

After 20+ years in engineering and product development, I come down pretty sqarely in the middle (somewhere near Stuart I think).
I believe the most important adaptations to energy peaks will be changes in behavior, rather than changes in technology. If we look at the societies that already operate at the energy per capita levels where the US/Europe must go, behavior (walking instead of driving, wearing warm clothes instead of heating homes, smaller/colder/closer housing, less consumption of everything,etc.) rather than technology allows these societies to function in a low-energy regime.
Riding a bike to a neighborhood store is much more ecomically efficient than buying a $50K Lexus hybrid or a $1Million fuel cell SUV.
However, there is tremendous technological opportunity in making industrial civilization more efficient. Plenty of people (including me) already make very good money developing efficient technologies and this process can only accelerate.
Having a few patents to my name, I can say that quantity of patents is a meaningless metric. A single patent for a super-cheap efficient organic photovoltaic that could be applied to roofs and walls would have more energy impact than thousands of patents for blenders and tomatoe slicers.

I am a System Analyst with experience in various fields and I have been leading an open design project to develop a system for clean, location independent and renewable electrical power generation that can be built from common materials.

The system is dubbed the "Solar Heat Pump Electrical Generation System" and the information is presented here:

The general concept of the system is to enhance already feasible solar thermal CSP power generation systems by extracting additional heat from the ambient air, using pressurized anhydrous ammonia and thermal storage for reliability and cooling the system at night in a similar fashion to geothermal power generation.


An interesting concept. What is the thermodynamic efficiency? With an apparent small delta-T, I would not expect it to be very high. Then the issue becomes what is the energy input cost for all the equipment and operation versus the long term energy output, i.e. what is the life cycle EROI?

The main component of the system would have the same dynamics and efficiency as SEGS style solar steam CSP plants. The "hot" point of the system is concentrated solar, with the difference being rather than attempting to cool the steam turbine during the day with a conventional wet cooling tower, the heat is stored until the ambient air cools off, and then the system functions like a geothermal system. The night output is past peak usage, so the system would be tuned to cool the thermal storage as much as possible at night, while putting out some power. The idea is to be able to hit maximum efficiency during peak load by having a large suppy of "cold" thermal media.

The enhancement to traditional solar steam is that the gas absorption principle is exothermic and the heat collected from the air is absorbed into the aqueous ammonia solution, effectively causing a temperature upgrade of the heat from the ambient air.

The design of the system has the potential to at least double the output of already feasible solar steam systems and absorption chillers are industry proven to provide have least 1:1 efficiency when moving heat from hot to cold. These enhancements would allow for SEGS type systems to be feasible outside of the Mojave desert and similar arid regions and potentially compete directly with coal.

These are general power and efficiency calculations for various locations and system details.
The convection tower sub-assembly and wind turbine are actually a small percentage of the total system output (~10%), but is still substantial base load clean generation even in a relatively short convection chimney.

I'm looking at a very similar design but using liquid nitrogen
instead of ammonia. Have you considered other refrigerants ?
I know ammonia is the classic one but it seems its impossible to get maintenance free with it.

Are any of the modern refrigerant suitable and if not is their any intrinsic reason we can't replace the ammonia ?

Also dessicate recycling can do a similar cycle.

The problem is I'm not convinced ammonia is the right answer.

Ammonia has a major positive that it is possible to produce it in large quantities from renewable sources. Hydrogen may be "cracked" from bio-methane and then baked in an ammonia oven without fossil fuels. It would also be possible to obtain hydrogen from electrolysis with access to large amounts of renewable electricity.

SHEC Labs has a solar hydrogen from bio-methane system through the pilot plant stage and is scaling up to go commercial.

The European Solar Thermal Industry Foundation (ESTIF) Solar Chiller Document goes into some detail on various absorption and adsorption materials. Cost of materials on a large scale is an issue and chosing a non-proven absorption combination would require a lot of R&D.

I'm not convinced that there really are maintenance issues with ammonia. I have a ammonia absorption refrigerator in my camper that is 30 years old and has never had service and it works as well as it ever did.

If there are system maintenance issues, they are probably surmountable, but anhydrous ammonia is nasty to work with. I personally come from an agricultural background and we handled large quantities of raw NH3 directly applied as nitrogen fertilizer. Safety with NH3 is a serious concern.

As with any disruptive technology, there would be many possible enhancements and different possible materials for the gas absorption system. I chose ammonia for the system design and calculations due to the proven technology, potential for a renewable supply and I believe that the safety and maintenance issues can be dealt with.

A secondary thermal transfer media and secondary heat exchangers can be used to narrow the ammonia usage through the broad system.

A secondary thermal transfer media and secondary heat exchangers can be used to narrow the ammonia usage through the broad system.

I think this is a must. And remember that the conditions under which such a system is deployed can be much harsher than what traditional ammonia refrigeration systems experience I would expect more problems than normal.

Next consider adding support for a steam jet like vacuum system or water like aspirator in your design if you see you have a flow with reasonable velocity thats not being captured.
Its easy to convert this to a vacuum and you can do a lot with even a weak vacuum. Steam jet vacuums are used a lot in industry but I think its overlooked simple technology.

I'm mucking around with liquid nitrogen concepts same idea but we have plenty of nitrogen.

Do you have a flowsheet and H&M balance yet? (chem e here)

I used to be a process engineer for Linde. Cryogenic plants used anhydrous ammonia as a hydrogen supply (catalytic dissasociation) and the only maintenance issue the Production department had was tank filling.

The project really needs technical expertise in both the fluid dynamics engineering of the convection tower/air heat exchangers and the chemical engineering of the absorption system.

I have a lot of general system concept design experience, utility business experience and have had several innovative ideas that have been commercially implemented, but any input is appreciated on the technical details.

Have you had any success in getting someone in the Venture Capital / PowersToBe sector to listen to your ideas and consider funding it?

The idea is relatively new. I started with the basic concept last August and the general design, block diagrams and calculations were done in late January. There is still a lot of work to go in the detailed design.

Just this past week I received a serious inquiry from a well known VC that has a special interest in thermal solar and they are evaluating the information and have requested a business plan. The International Solar Energy Society, European Solar Thermal Industry Foundation, Saskatchewan Environment and many other groups and private organizations are looking at the system, but they all need some time.

I have had several private inquiries from manufacturing and industry looking at implementing parts of the system with bio-mass boilers and waste heat recovery.

There is a solar thermal industry prediction that standard SEGS/CSP style solar thermal plants will be able to compete with coal within a few years. I believe that this idea of extracting additional heat from the air and making the system reliable can at least double the output of a solar thermal system, make it base-load generation and go head-to-head with natural gas plants and possibly coal with very little R&D.

The major difficulty has been that the system design sits between steam power generation, HVAC, solar thermal heat and chillers, geothermal and air fluid dynamics and it has been difficult to find engineers with a broad enough skill set to understand the system as a whole.

Well good for you. At least someone is giving your idea an ear.

Even if the intial idea doesn't work out, there may be something that works out in a different way. We learn from our failed ideas as well as from our successful ones.

He may wind up getting vulture cap money, but it'll be from people who don't know the first thing about thermodynamics and don't do their due dilligence by retaining an analyst who does.

Robert Rohatensky e-mailed me about this concept almost two months ago.  He hasn't changed it significantly since then, and my response to his downward-convection scheme (shown in the parent) is still applicable:

Look at your own heat flow vs. output.  Using your assumption of 200 kW out (from the first example), your thermal input (cooling) is:
3000 m^3/sec * 1.121 kg/m^3 * 1005 J/kg/K * 15 K = 50.7 MW

From this, your thermal efficiency is 0.394%.  And I don't think that your capital costs for ammonia and its tankage (ammonia alone is about $500/ton these days) would make the idea any more attractive to financiers.

If you go back and look at the original concepts of the downdraft convection towers, they were attractive because

  1. They can operate 24 hours/day,
  2. Their byproduct is cooler, humidified air (great in a desert), and
  3. The input of cold seawater is FREE.

You managed to lose features 2 and 3 while adding huge capital and maintenance issues.  Hope you didn't throw that drawing board away....

I see that a month and a half has not persuaded Mr. Rohatensky to perform even the most basic thermodynamic analysis of this concept.  This is literally the sort of thing which would be the topic of a term paper for Introduction to Classical Thermodynamics, if thermo classes had term papers.  Mr. Rohatensky is obviously neither familiar with the analytic methods required to rate the merits of his concept, nor willing to learn them.

Sorry, but don't waste your time with him.  He can make pretty pictures but he's as connected to reality as the average crank.

(Yes, TOD is a meatgrinder.  Any concept not tough enough to stand up to analysis gets shredded!)

Thanks for posting that EP, it accomplished several things.

  1. It elaborates my point above regarding narrow experience and training making it difficult for some people to understand new ideas.
  2. It put my original post on topic with why innovation has dropped off.
  3. It helps explain why I openly published all of the information on the idea. The physics aren't complicated, but there is a lot of misunderstanding around low boiling point fluid steam engines. Refrigerators and AC units are common and because of that some people have difficulty understanding that when you are doing the opposite of AC and moving heat from hot to cold with a low-boiling point fluid it is energy positive.
  4. I answered your rather rude email privately and politely and attempted to explain your misunderstanding outside of a public forum. I will gladly explain why you are mistaken here.

EP, how do you put cooling into something? I told you previously that you have the example backwards. Moving heat from a colder mass to a warmer one requires energy (like your home AC), this system is never doing that, it is moving heat from a warmer mass to a colder one and is always energy positive.
These are the documents Engineer Poet is refering to.

Look at your own heat flow vs. output. Using your assumption of 200 kW out (from the first example), your thermal input (cooling) is:
3000 m^3/sec * 1.121 kg/m^3 * 1005 J/kg/K * 15 K = 50.7 MW

No. That is 50MW of heat moving out of the warm air to a colder mass. Cooling the air causes negative buoyancy which also generates 200kW by convection as a bi-product. A portion of the 50MW of heat that is moved from the warmer air to a colder mass is also converted to electricity in the heat recovery turbine.

As far as thermodynamics, the only difference between a steam engine and an air conditioner is the direction the heat is flowing and whether it requires energy or produces it. You have some sort of misconception that by moving 50MW of heat from hot air to a colder mass that it requires energy.
Regarding the 1975 patent for the water spray down draft convection tower or the attempt to revive the idea it had several reasons why it hasn't been implemented in the last 30 years.

  1. Water vapor is lighter than air, trying to create negative buoyancy by water evaporation is less efficient than other means because humid air is less dense than dry air.
  2. Vast amounts of water in the desert is an oxymoron and is not "free". Major aqueduct infrastructure is required to get the water to the desert and a lot of energy is expended pumping the water up a tower.
  3. Spraying salt water into the air isn't "great" for the desert. Irrigation is "great" for the desert.
  4. One of the major design criteria of the SHPEGS system is base load operation from solar input. It does it with compressed anhydrous ammonia and thermal storage.
  5. The water spray convection down draft convection tower idea and the updraft solar tower have very low efficiency and their recent revivals are more to do with securing IP in attempts to attract investors than feasibility. The convection portion of the SHPEGS system accounts for only 10% of the total system output. It is still substantial clean power, but the main system output is the solar steam turbine enhanced with additional heat from the ambient air. They are not feasible systems on their own, but they do make for a portion of a feasible system. See the Background and Prior Art page.

I refuse to be rude, but I also won't tolerate it. I haven't been trying to attract investment or public funding for personal gain and have put this idea out with the intent of having it rapidly implemented. I already have a good career and published the idea on the broad internet without any real IP security or patent. If there is investment in this idea, there is a very good chance I won't see any profit from the implementation.

You are wrong and don't understand. I attempted to explain this to you privately and you obviously didn't listen.

I attempted to explain this to you privately and you obviously didn't listen.

Deep, deep irony.  It's obvious that you haven't done either a Second Law or First Law analysis of your proposed cycle (even after our correspondence in January), and you have the gall to tell me that I don't listen?

I happen to have some tables of the thermodynamic properties of ammonia (ancient stuff, dated 1950).  If I get the time today I'll do a quickie analysis and show you why your convection scheme is so bad compared to much simpler alternatives.

Water vapor is lighter than air, trying to create negative buoyancy by water evaporation is less efficient than other means because humid air is less dense than dry air.

Evaporating 3 grams of water into 1 kg of air at 30° C will soak up 7.3 kJ of energy, reducing the temperature of the air (1005 J/kg/K) by over 7°C.  The 3 grams of water will add about 0.48% to the number of molecules, while the temperature drop will shrink the volume/molecule by about 2.4%.

This is one of many calculations you didn't do, from the required investment in equipment and working materials down to the simplest issues of physics.  Having failed to do your homework before showing up here despite being warned quite adequately, I can only say that you deserve the humiliation you're about to get.

As for me, I'm off to do work that pays.  Back later.

Evaporating 3 grams of water into 1 kg of air at 30° C will soak up 7.3 kJ of energy, reducing the temperature of the air (1005 J/kg/K) by over 7°C. The 3 grams of water will add about 0.48% to the number of molecules, while the temperature drop will shrink the volume/molecule by about 2.4%.

I said that cooling air to increase it's density by evaporating water into it is less efficient than cooling it by other means. I might have been clearer by adding "the same amount", but I don't think the original statement is ambiguous. I didn't say that cooling it with evaporation won't make it less dense than warmer air, just that dry air is denser than wet air. If you cool air with a heat exchanger and don't add moisture (as in the SHPEGS system) it is denser than if you added moisture to cool the same amount.

Water vapor is ~0.8kg/m3, air is ~1.2kg/m3, humid air is less dense than dry air at the same temperature. This is what your calculation just showed, so I don't get why you would post it.

Again, if you would take the time to read and understand you will get it. A good place to start learning about solar chillers is the European Solar Thermal Industry Foundation document.

In the example, the 50MW of heat that is extracted by the expanded ammonia is transfered to the water when the ammonia vapor is absorbed. This aqueous ammonia solution is pressurized (low volume) and then solar heated until the ammonia boils off, the aqueous ammonia has captured the heat from the air and takes substantially less heat than a regular Rankine cycle as in a SEGS system. The effect of this is that the system should at least double the thermal output from a given area of concentrated solar collectors over a conventional solar steam system. It's not over-unity, the heat comes from the air.

The majority of the SHPEGS system output is from the solar collectors and the additional heat extracted from the air, not the convection tower.

You seem to have missed the second part of the Conservation of Energy, "Energy cannot be created or destroyed." If you take 50MW of heat from the ambient air, where does it go?

Asking as if he doesn't know, Rohatensky poses this to me:

If you take 50MW of heat from the ambient air, where does it go?

It goes into the heat of evaporation of the working fluid, of course.

But he's never so much as taken "Intro to classical thermodynamics", because in posing the question he'd realize that adding heat to the working fluid should be done at the highest possible temperature.  Go back to the Second Law:  ΔS=ΔH/Tabs.  If T is smaller than necessary, ΔS (the change in entropy) is all the greater.  Once you have created entropy, the only thing you can do is dump it to the heat sink; every operation which creates entropy requires an unavoidable rejection of energy as heat, rather than conversion to work.

In the example, the 50MW of heat that is extracted by the expanded ammonia is transfered to the water when the ammonia vapor is absorbed.

What Rohatensky doesn't ask is if the convection tower adds any value.  50.7 MW of heat transfer to generate 200 kW (assuming 100% capture efficiency!) ought to make anyone reconsider.  But let's have a look at it anyway.

The downdraft convection tower works best when air is cooled as much as possible, so let's assume that the evaporator at the top produces saturated ammonia gas at 280°K.  By Davies, the ΔH is 5037 cal/mol or about 1240 J/gram.  Soaking up 50.7 megawatts of heat will require a mass flow of 40.900 kg/sec.  That's no typo; that really is almost 41 kilos per second, 147 metric tons per hour.

This ought to red-flag the idea right there.  The last I checked, anhydrous ammonia for fertilizer cost about $500 per ton (presumably short tons).  The ammonia required to carry this 200 kW system over an 8-hour regeneration outage (like night) would cost $500/short ton * ~160 short tons/hour * 8 hours = $640,000.  Just the working fluid will cost $3200 per average kilowatt!

But it gets worse.  Ammonia absorption refrigeration is in the neighborhood of 50% efficient; 1 calorie of heat into the regenerator yields about 0.5 calories of cooling.  Rohatensky's 50.7 MW of cooling at the convection tower would require in the neighborhood of 100 megawatts of solar heat to produce.  Out of this, he gets 200 kW at the convection tower:  a thermal efficiency of 0.2%.

Suppose instead that I just take the liquid ammonia and heat it with my solar heat.  Let's assume that I use the same collectors he was using, which make heat at perhaps 400 K (about 127°C).  At this temperature, ammonia boils at over 100 atmospheres pressure (compared to 5.45 atm at 280K).  This pressure drives an engine which expands the gas, which is reheated to 400 K and expanded some more.  This process continues until the gas is at 5.45 atmospheres (his starting point).  Instead of evaporating it, I condense it at 280K, which is roughly the temperature of deep groundwater in the north.

The boiler takes liquid at 4036 cal/mol enthalpy (compressed liquid) and produces vapor at 400 K temperature, 8062 cal/mol enthalpy and 101.5 atmospheres, taking up 4026 cal/mol in heat.  The first expansion produces 370 K liquid/vapor mixture (66% vapor, 34% liquid) and produces 133.5 cal/mol in output.  (Already up to 3% efficiency!)  The first reheat to 400 K adds 1663 cal/mol, producing superheated vapor at 58 atmospheres.  The second expansion extracts 419 cal/mol of work and produces saturated vapor at 330K and 23.9 atmospheres.  The second reheat brings the vapor up to 380K and 20 atmospheres (assuming some pressure loss this time), adding 706 cal/mol.  The final expansion brings the vapor down to 280K and extracts 806 cal/mol in work.  The vapor then goes to the condenser, where it turns into liquid with the release of 5037 cal/mol of heat.

Total heat additions: 4026+1663+706 = 6395 cal/mol
Total work extracted: 133.5+419+806 = 1358 cal/mol
Total heat rejected: 5037 cal/mol
Efficiency: 1358/6395 = 21.2%

From 100 MW of solar input, my conventional system achieves 21.2 MW of output — about 106 times as much as Rohatensky's downdraft tower.  Suppose for a minute that these figures are quite optimistic and you can only get 50% of the theoretical numbers in cost-effective machinery.  It is still 53 times as good as Rohatensky's scheme.

While multiplying the efficiency, I could slash the cost.  I eliminate Rohatensky's masses of pressurized tanks (full of toxic materials which can injure or kill if they leak!) and substitute cheap insulated pools full of... water.  I add enough salt to this water that it does not boil at my desired working temperature of 400 K, and I use the water as my energy bank.  Since I do not need to store any more liquid ammonia than is required to fill the system, my cost is much smaller.  If a cycle takes 30 seconds I need less than 2 metric tons of ammonia to keep the 21.2 MW system running, costing a mere 4.7¢/kW.  This is nearly 5 orders of magnitude less than Rohansky's concept.

This points to deeper problems.

Rohatensky should have known this before he posted here.  He probably should have known it before he wrote to me, but he didn't do a thermodynamic analysis.  Even after I gave him some solid indications that he was on the wrong track, he persisted.  Why?  I'd bet a bottle of good scotch that it's because he doesn't know any better.

But he sure thinks that his pretty pictures mean something.  It's as if he got everything he knows about physics, chemistry and thermodynamics by reading the glossy pages of Popular Science — and he thinks that there isn't any more to it.  Worse, he cannot be convinced otherwise, not even to put some effort into learning how to work the numbers properly.  This has crippled him.

What's scary is that Rohatensky probably represents a large fraction of the American public, and could convince more than enough of them to part with their money to buy glossy brochures and posh offices.  He would only fail when it came time to deliver.

Last, Rohatensky should consider himself lucky.  He just got about $1000 of analytic work for free.  I feel justified in doing this, because it's far more likely to save some other poor saps tens of thousands than it is to benefit this sad, ignorant clown.

You don't seem to have any grasp of how Linux, Wikipedia or Open Source in general work or why Linux is Microsoft's largest business concern. I am not trying to rip anyone off and I am trying to develop a new idea because I am interested in the topic. You seem interested in the topic, and I wrote you and asked if you were interested in helping work on it. That's it. You are not saving little old ladies from getting ripped off, give it a rest.

You probably don't want to know what the billable rate for my time as a high availability Oracle DBA/GIS consultant is and if I was interested in financial gain, this is about the last thing I would be doing.

Your whole post was a fine analysis of a SEGS/CSP system, except I don't know why you wouldn't just use water as a working fluid like the existing plants. How well does that work in the dark?

Two of the major problems with existing direct solar steam plants I am trying to solve are the daytime only operation and the fact that unlike hydroelectric and wind, they don't leverage an existing feature of nature and require adding more solar collectors in a linear fashion to increase output.

To simplify this, lets ignore the daytime only problem and just concentrate on the "not leveraging and existing feature of nature" problem and the scalability.

The wind turbine is a small percentage of the total system output, so for this simplified example, let's remove it from the system. To simplify it even more, lets remove the steam turbine and just concentrate on making hot water.

That gives us a system like this:

This would be a solar chiller cooling off the desert and making hot water.

Now.. Stand way back and look at this. Is this system making more hot water than just the output of the solar collectors?

I am trying to develop a new idea because I am interested in the topic.

Is that an excuse for wasting people's time on something that cannot yield enough energy to be worth the investment?  Indeed, that probably can't even pay its maintenance costs from its production?

Not all ideas are worth taking further.  You have to check out the specifics.  The ideas that don't survive scrutiny on their merits must be changed, or dropped.

You have shown yourself unwilling or unable to put in the required scrutiny.  When it comes time to flip switches, you can bet that Nature won't overlook any flaws that you missed.

I wrote you and asked if you were interested in helping work on it.

I gave you a bunch of free scrutiny.  What's funny is the disconnect between your words and your actions; you claim to want help, but when anyone's help comes in the form of an answer you don't like, you ignore it.  The only kind of help you want is pats on the back for your brilliance.

I don't know why you wouldn't just use water as a working fluid like the existing plants. How well does that work in the dark?

I wouldn't use water because I might want to run my condenser well below 0°C.  And it would work just fine in the dark, with huge pools of (extremely cheap) hot saltwater to store energy.  This is a problem with an established solution.

major problems with existing direct solar steam plants ... are ... they don't leverage an existing feature of nature and require adding more solar collectors in a linear fashion to increase output.

People have shown you several times that your math is wrong.

Is this system making more hot water than just the output of the solar collectors?

What do you sacrifice in chiller performance to get the heat-sink temperature hot enough to make hot water?

What do you sacrifice in chiller performance to get the heat-sink temperature hot enough to make hot water?

Cooling the ammonia condenser heats water as in a standard chiller. The water gets heated to the condensation temperature of the ammonia vapor at whatever pressure it is at. This has no negative effect on chiller performance and is exactly how they work. That statement makes no sense at all.

You don't understand how absorption heat pumps work.
DOE Absorption Heat Pump Document
Robur Commercial Absorption Pumps

I don't imagine you will read and try and understand absorption heat pumps anymore than you stopped going on about the wind turbine and endless calculations when I told you that was a small portion of the whole system and you were missing the point entirely.

In the above water heater example, the system doesn't care about cooling the air, it cares about heating the water. The water gets the heat from the air, plus the heat to do the work of the heat pump and the COP is very good as long as the source cold water is colder than the ambient air.

The recovery system (regenerator) is fractional distillation and the exhaust heat is at the condensation temperature of the working media at the pressure obtained by the solution pump.

Absorption heat pumps used as chillers aren't as efficient for cooling as mechanical chillers. The sample water heater system doesn't care about how efficient the cooling is because the inefficiency as a chiller becomes exhaust heat in the output water.

Do you understand Conservation of Energy whatsoever?
If the heat is not in the exhaust air, where is it?

clue: The exhaust water.

What do you sacrifice in chiller performance to get the heat-sink temperature hot enough to make hot water?

Cooling the ammonia condenser heats water as in a standard chiller. The water gets heated to the condensation temperature of the ammonia vapor at whatever pressure it is at.

Right so far, but then you come up with THIS howler:

This has no negative effect on chiller performance and is exactly how they work. That statement makes no sense at all.

What you're saying is the condensation temperature of the ammonia has no effect on chiller performance (or you're too dim to understand the question).

Your assertion is easily proven false:  if it were true, then the condenser temperature would be independent of the other system parameters, and could be raised to any arbitrary value without changing the input or other heat and mass flows.  At some temperature the heat output of the condenser would be sufficient to run a Carnot-cycle heat pump which could generate the entire heat input needed by the system, creating a perpetuüm mobile.  This is impossible, ergo your claim is false.

I have the data required to perform a quantitative analysis of your proposed system.  If you define the system parameters such as the temperature and energy output of the solar collectors, the various heat-sink temperatures and so forth, I'll be happy to put numbers on every stage of your system there.  It'll cost you $2000 US, payable in advance.  It'll save you a lot more than that in wasted time alone.

You don't understand how absorption heat pumps work.
DOE Absorption Heat Pump Document

Deeper irony, using a page where the firmest figure is "0.7 COP" as a reference.  No temperatures for source, sink or evaporator are stated.  Before you decide that it should generate hot water, shouldn't you first know that its output is hot enough?

Do you understand Conservation of Energy whatsoever?

That's the First Law.  I summed the input and output figures above to show that it was obeyed.  I'd ask you if you understand the Second Law (within a closed system, entropy can only remain constant or increase) but I believe the answer can already be shown to be "no".

As I told you above, I have the data to perform a full analysis of your system.  I also have the expertise (this is on the order of a textbook example from an intro course, any undergrad engineer who passed it should be able to do the work).  You've proven that you do not have the ability.  You can proceed in ignorance or knowledge, your choice.

The 0.7 COP refers to cooling. What that means is for every watt of heat put in, it cools the air 0.7 watts. The "waste" hot water has the original 1 watt plus the 0.7 watts for a total of 1.7 watts into the "waste" hot water.

Cut out the senseless arguments, you are smarter than that. Your kept going on about the wind turbine in your calculations, even though I kept telling you that wasn't the important part. Way at the top of this post, I said that one of the problems with developing this system is that the idea sits in the middle of power plants, HVAC, solar, etc. and it's difficult to get engineers with experience in all of these areas.

The output "waste" hot water receives more heat than the input solar collectors. If you attempted the same air source exchanger hot water heater with a mechanical compressor heat pump, you would have a "pool heater" with commercial versions at 6 COP.
Gulf Stream Pool Heater
That is 1 watt of electricity in for 6 watts of heat into your pool, including the power for the forced air fan.
DOE Pool Heaters

Those COP 5-6 claims are based on the air being warmer than the pool most of the time. In the "Second Law" as I stated in the above water heater example, assume the cold water source is colder than the ambient air.

As I said, using an absorption heat pump isn't as efficient as mechanical compressor heat pumps, but the input is heat (which we have) not electricity. It would be possible to design a like system around a mechanical heat pump being driven by a solar thermal turbine, but I think in the end the absorption idea can be built to be more efficient.

Building the large convection tower removes the energy used for forced air fans, and that is a substantial improvement. I believe there are efficiency improvements in absorption heat pumps, but they aren't a developed technology due to all of the positives and popularity of mechanical heat pumps. A good engineer should be able to push an absorption heat pump efficiency past the COP of a mechanical one if it is moving heat from hot to cold.

The ammonia condenser temperature is based on the solution pump pressure, and that pressure is limited by the input heat source temperature being able to boil the ammonia at that pressure. Using a concentrated solar heat source means that the working pressure (developed by the solution pump, low volume) can be high and the ammonia boiling off and condensing at a high temperature under pressure and returning to storage without further compression. Adding a pump between the ammonia condenser and the ammonia storage would lower the condensation pressure and temperature and would allow for tuning the input/output heat of the system.

Once you get past all of that and understand the solar hot water heater sample, we can start putting the rest of the parts back in the system. We can even use your salt water thermal storage if you want to.

Even if we stop right there with the water heater, it's an improvement in the amount of solar collector required in moderate climates over systems like this:
Drake Landing Solar Community
And the minimal NH3 used in this example daytime-summer water heater system has to be way less than the natural gas used to heat 57 houses in Canada for a few days in winter.

How much money did you make off of taking the time to write this?

Hmmm.. It seems to have gotten quiet in here. :)

MIT released a study on geothermal recently, and there are many locations where geothermal power could provide substantial base load electrical generation. Some locations have been in operation for many years and many locations in North America are currently being developed and will be clean and feasible. But, there are also many locations where there isn't access to quality geothermal and there have been existing plants that over-used the geothermal resource and were shut down at The Geysers and they are trying to revive them by pumping treated municipal water back down the wells. It has to be properly managed.

When I worked over at the UofR campus, there was a full feasibility study done of heating the campus with geothermal. The group even built a nice little display on the system that I used to walk by every day. Saskatchewan has medium gradient geothermal in a fractured limestone layer at ~1400m across most of the southern province. The study found that the cost of pumping was going to be higher than heating with natural gas at the time and the project was shelved. This wasn't power generation, just structure heating. There is also the issue of dealing with the high mineral content of deep geothermal.

The problem with lower gradient base load electrical generation ideas like OTEC and low gradient geothermal is the distance the warm source is from the cold sink and the EROEI becomes low because of the distance and the energy required to pump the large volumes of media required.

Most of the idea behind the SHPEGS project was to come up with an efficient way to create a thermal source that wasn't 1500m in the ground and could be used for base load power generation without expending a lot of energy pumping low gradient media a great distance.

There is another separate concept from the SHPEGS idea of using the idea of an industrial heat upgrader to convert the low gradient high volume media to a higher temperature lower volume media and save the pumping cost by moving much less volume of high temperature media the long distance in geothermal or OTEC. This is theoretical and not very practical, because that would mean installing absorption heat upgrader equipment deep underground at the geothermal source and maintaining it, but upgrading the heat at the source and pumping a lower volume of high temperature media to the surface could be very efficient power generation from low gradient geothermal.

The Institute for Energy Research is claiming:

The heat pump system is designed to simultaneously deliver heat at 95 °C and cooling at 5°C using waste heat of 50 °C as heat source, with a COP of 3.4.

The COP they are claiming is a little misleading, because I think they are not counting the input waste heat source at all, just the energy going into the solution pump (compressor), but it still is 3.4 times the power input of the solution pump to generate heat at 95 °C and cooling at 5°C.

The 0.7 COP refers to cooling. What that means is for every watt of heat put in, it cools the air 0.7 watts. The "waste" hot water has the original 1 watt plus the 0.7 watts for a total of 1.7 watts into the "waste" hot water.

But at what temperature?

You should go back to your reference, and note that the heating CoP listed as typical is a mere 1.2.  This means that the output only gains 0.2 watts per input watt.  (I wouldn't belabor this, except that you missed it.)

Why the difference?  It's unstated, but heating requires the heat sink to be warm enough for space heat.  Depending on the heating method (perhaps 90-100°F for radiant floors, 140-160°F for forced air) this is obviously enough to reduce the heat uptake by a typical 60%.  For cooling, the heat sink could easily be much cooler than required for heating; a groundwater heat sink would probably not be much above 70°F even in Texas.

For domestic hot water, you're going to need temperatures in the region of 110-120°F.  What's your CoP going to be?  Probably closer to the 1.2 end.

Your kept going on about the wind turbine in your calculations, even though I kept telling you that wasn't the important part.

That was the only thing with a generator obviously attached to it.  A turbine in your ammonia vapor path will reduce the absorber pressure and the saturation concentration, affecting your loop there too.  You haven't shown any numbers related to that, and it's effectively proven that you have no idea what sort of performance you could expect.

Way at the top of this post, I said that one of the problems with developing this system is that the idea sits in the middle of power plants, HVAC, solar, etc. and it's difficult to get engineers with experience in all of these areas.

And I'm telling you that this is almost literally an example straight out of an introductory thermodynamics textbook.  EE and ME students are required to analyze examples very similar to this just to pass a 200-level thermo course for a BS.  (I can tell you this, because I got all the data needed to do that analysis out of just such a textbook.) [1]

You want a first-cut analysis done?  Pressures, temperatures, heat and mass flows, ammonia concentrations?  $2000 US, all sources documented, all spreadsheets included.  You really ought to have somebody do this analysis, because it's obvious that you are not up to doing it yourself.

Building the large convection tower removes the energy used for forced air fans, and that is a substantial improvement.

How does the expense of the tower compare with the cost of using forced air and making the rest of the system a little bigger?[2]

A good engineer should be able to push an absorption heat pump efficiency past the COP of a mechanical one if it is moving heat from hot to cold.

Moving heat from hot to cold doesn't require a heat pump, it can use a heat pipe.  CoP = infinity.

The ammonia condenser temperature is based on the solution pump pressure, and that pressure is limited by the input heat source temperature being able to boil the ammonia at that pressure.

Holy cow, you actually know some little bit about absorption systems!  Now start quantifying things... if you can.  Hint:  at 300 psia, the equilibrium ammonia concentration of an ammonia-water solution is 0.27 at 280°F, and 0.63 at 160°F.

Adding a pump between the ammonia condenser and the ammonia storage would lower the condensation pressure and temperature and would allow for tuning the input/output heat of the system.

Of course, that would also lower your condensation temperature.  Too low, and you can't get useful hot water out of it; every increment upward also lowers your CoP.  What's your tradeoff?

Once you get past all of that and understand the solar hot water heater sample, we can start putting the rest of the parts back in the system. We can even use your salt water thermal storage if you want to.

I fear you don't get it.  The problem is trying to get you to understand it.

How much money did you make off of taking the time to write this?

Changing the subject?  I'm not criticizing you for making (or failing to make) money; I'm criticizing you for failing to quantify what you expect from your scheme.  I didn't bother posting anything about Sustainability until I had the numbers to describe how much of what products it could make.  You want to prove that you're serious?  Do the same.

[1] I would not be surprised if knowledgable engineers have claimed ignorance in front of you because they don't need a job dealing with a difficult client for no pay.  I've already named my price. [3]

[2] This is a trick question; you can't answer it without knowing how much of the system output power would be used by the fans, and you can't know that until you have some idea of the net thermal efficiency.  Since you're not able to calculate that yourself, you're stuck floundering until you either pay somebody or get a volunteer.

[3] I'm not donating any more services because I already know the exercise is pointless.  The scheme requires an enormous amount of toxic materials stored near people.  You're not going to get your DHW from these things even if they would work.

[*] Yes, it got quiet.  I have a paying job getting a new airliner off the ground, and unlike some clowns across the Atlantic I intend to make sure it does so on time.

The "Heat Recovery Turbine" output was always in the calculations I hacked together.
SHPEGS Arid Calc
In the example 100m tower, I came up with:

  • Day Wind turbine: 4.8 MHh(e)/day
  • Day heat recovery turbine: 44 MHh(e)/day
  • Night Total: 40MWh(e)
  • Total Electrical Output: 40 MWh(e)/day

I used 4% for thermal to electric conversion, the MIT geothermal document uses 10% for a typical binary plant.

In the simplest form, the regenerator portion of the gas absorption heat pump with ammonia is going to be close to the latent heat of ammonia plus the specific heat of the water it is absorbed in. If the ammonia vapor is absorbed into water to saturation, regardless of the pressure it gets put under with the solution pump, the heat required is going to be the heat to boil off the ammonia and heat (but not boil) the water it is dissolved in. While the ammonia is boiling out of the aqueous ammonia solution, the temperature isn't rising and the heat going into the water component is minimal. All of this heat is recoverable if the cold sink is colder than the original ambient air. When it comes down to how much concentrated solar collector the air exchanger heat pump is saving, it is going to depend on the fluid dynamics of the air exchanger and the gradient between the warm air and cold sink. It's a steam engine not an air conditioner.

If this idea was retrofitted to an existing 100MW(t) SEGS plant, the COP could be calculated against the power into the solution pump (as in the IFE heat upgrader spec), not the solar input into the trough solar collectors. The 100MW(t) solar could transfer 100MW(t) of heat from the air and with a COP of ~3 at the solution pump, the heat pump sub-system breaks even and the cooling/power generation of the convection tower is all positive. There is no point in trying to cool the ambient air below the night time temperature, so a fairly large amount of backpressure can be put on the ammonia evaporator (raising the -33C boiling point) to make it work like a steam engine and if the cold water was pressurized slightly prior to absorbing the +30ºC ammonia vapor, the majority of the pressure increase can come from the ammonia expansion and heating the solution, not the solution pump. This should mean the solution pump can be way past a COP of 3.

The Einstein Refrigerator design doesn't have a solution pump at all and work on the combined gas law, so a high very COP at the solution pump should be possible.

In the simplest form, if the pressure of the system is high enough for the condensed ammonia to be liquid at room temperature in storage, the solution pump draws almost no energy and could be replaced with a secondary gas. The ammonia boils off through an expansion valve and the heat required for the system to function is the heat to boil the ammonia back out of the solution.

At Kramer Junction, this would be upgrading the 30ºC ambient air heat with the only energy cost being the solution pump.
With the power recovered in the wind turbine, I don't think that potentially "doubling" the output of the given area of solar collector is an insane claim. Supposedly the existing SEGS systems have a good EROEI and this has to make the whole system competive with traditional power plants.

There are many other possible absorption/adsorption combinations possible, some are listed in the ESTIF chiller document. NH3 is a renewable resource and can be made from bio-methane, distilling animal waste or electrolysis rather than natural gas. I grew up working with NH3 purchased in 1000 gallon tanks and applied directly as nitrogen fertilizer.

We would inject 50-100 pounds of NH3/acre over a few thousand acres. Anhydrous ammonia is awful to work with and if you had to be very careful changing tanks and doing any repairs. A major part of farming in Canada is working with NH3. It's cheaper than dry urea nitrogen fertilizer, but it's going up every day, thanks to the ethanol bender. Don't tell the crystal meth chefs, but there are 100,000 gallon NH3 distribution sites all over Saskatchewan.

At Chena, Alaska they installed 2 Carrier/UTC ORC's with a medium grade geothermal source.

I have talked to the project manager several times, and my major question was why they wouldn't air cool rather than use surface water when they have -10C to -50C ambient air for most of the year. The second unit went in with forced air cooling using a standard forced air condenser:

Gwen, the project manager says that it draws 24kW, but the performance of the second air cooled unit is much better than the first water cooled ORC.

24kW is a fairly substantial constant draw in this size of plant. They cannot use an evaporative cooling tower due to the sub-zero temperatures, but if they built a convection cooling tower, even if they partially forced air, it has to be a performance improvement. In this case, they have diesel generators as the main power source, so any power saving is based on diesel cost.
A large scale natural draft example.

In the Chena case they are fairly small scale, but a galvanized steel or concrete chimney isn't a large expense to save the 24kW constant draw at the fans. A large steel grain bin without the roof would work.

A cheap galvanized metal chimney like this would have added $20-40k to the Chena project, but at $0.25/kW for diesel power, the $6/hour the fans are costing them would recover that in ~200 days.
If they built a much more substantial chimney and a wind turbine, they could recover some of the convection buoyancy energy.

I have no problem with paying an engineer to go through the SHPEGS Calculations documents and validate/correct any errors. The college physics I took was 20 years ago, related to electronic theory and I was pulling a full night shift at NorTel while I was doing a full course load in the day. A BSc Chem. went through the documents and pointed out a few things that I corrected, but I would imagine there are more problems with my calculations. If you are interested in doing that, send me an email.

Thanks for your time and input, have a good day.

Dude, actually look at the damn thing. The process is just a normal solar thermal cycle using an intermediate NH3-H2O solution working fluid. The tower is just a large ammonia atmospheric vaporizer with some additional stuff to recover some of that power. (May or may not work, I don't know myself). As far as the rest of it, a boiling fluid will have higher heat transfer than a single phase, so you might come out ahead even with the intermediate heat exchangers. I myself think that the tricky part is the water-ammonia separation.

I looked at it back in January, and I'll tell you straight:  it hasn't gotten any better.  Look at this howler from his page (emphasis in bold added):

increasing height gives an exponential power output increase (due to gravitational acceleration being exponential)

Gravitational acceleration over the height of his proposed tower is constant (not exponential) for all intents and purposes.  Static pressure head would be Δρgh; there isn't a non-unity exponent to be seen.

If you go through the piece with a magnifying glass you'll find piles of errors like that, both small and gross.  He could correct himself when people point out errors, but he sticks to his jammed guns; that makes him a crank.

Static pressure head would be Δρgh

The little g in your equation stands for gravitational acceleration, which on earth g is ~9.8m/s2.
The little 2 means meters per second per second or meters per second squared.

This isn't a free falling mass in a vacuum, so you are right, it should probably read "increasing tower height gives a non-linear power output increase". The fluid dynamics of the airflow would be much more complicated than gravitational acceleration.

I changed the page to read "non-linear". What the statement was intended to mean was relating tower height to width. A small system would have a tall narrow tower and a large system would have a tall wide tower. Changing the width of the tower would change the airflow in a linear fashion and changing the height would change the airflow in a non-linear fashion. In all cases, the tower would have to have sufficient height for the negative buoyancy to create convection and a very short tower wouldn't work.

The little g in your equation stands for gravitational acceleration, which on earth g is ~9.8m/s2.
The little 2 means meters per second per second or meters per second squared.

You misunderstand what "exponential" means.

s2 is "quadratic".

2s is exponential.

Allow me to illustrate the difference:

s s2 2s
0 0 1
1 1 2
2 4 4
3 9 8
4 16 16
5 25 32
6 36 64
7 49 128
8 64 256
9 81 512
10 100 1,024
11 121 2,048
12 144 4,096
13 169 8,192
14 196 16,384
15 225 32,768
16 256 65,536
17 289 131,072
18 324 262,144
19 361 524,288
20 400 1,048,56

Now do you understand the difference between "nonlinear" - which covers a very wide range of functions - and "exponential"? And why people here are worried about exponential trends, such as growth in oil or energy consumption?

(As an aside, it's worth noting that one "exponential" thing many people are worried about is not exponential - population. The world has been adding fewer and fewer people each year for years now, meaning the growth of population is not only not exponential, it's sub-linear.)

s2 is "quadratic".
2s is exponential.

You are right, I don't have the correct terminology by mathematical terms. Which doesn't mean I don't understand what gravitational acceleration means.
Exponential appears to have a vague definition in general society and a strict one in mathematics.

Would "vector" be the correct term to describe gravitational acceleration?

In context:

These calculations can be scaled up or down rather easily with the exception of tower height. The tower height has to remain relatively high to obtain a useful wind velocity and increasing height gives an non-linear power output increase (due to gravitational acceleration being a vector), but changing the tower diameter would scale the entire system.

Is that the correct way to describe the difference in airflow by changing a chimney width versus changing it's height? That is all I am trying to express with that statement.

If you don't even know what a vector is (in physics terms, a quantity with a magnitude and a direction; in linear algebra, a one-dimensional array of numbers) you are way, way over your head.

But those of us with science or engineering backgrounds knew that already.  If you hadn't already demonstrated it, your claim that Δρgh is greater than linear with respect to h would be proof positive.

Again, the wind turbine is a small part of the system and around 10% of the total output power. You cannot look at it in isolation.

Δρgh only applies to the power of the convection turbine in the tower. The amount of heat moved from the air is the substantial power output of the system and this would have to do with airflow through the tower and the temperature Δ, not the fluid power calculation you are using.

the wind turbine is a small part of the system and around 10% of the total output power.

Which means that your net efficiency might be all of 2%, not 0.2%.

Where's your thermodynamic analysis which shows the energy inputs and outputs of the various pieces, and the summary which adds them all up?  Where's the financial analysis which has elements like the capital cost for all the materials, starting with the immense high-pressure tanks you'll require?  So far as I can tell, you haven't done one.  If you ever do, you'll immediately change course.  Until then, you're just wasting time and effort.

Anyway, to put the whole post back on topic. If you look at the agricultural sector or construction, there is constant innovation.

The Prairie Farm Report is a weekly Canadian show that showcases ingenuity in Canadian agriculture. The show has been on since the mid 1980's and has some new ideas every week. Through history, many of the innovative inventions in agriculture came from a farmer with an idea and an arc welder attempting to solve a real problem.

Innovative recent solutions like the air seeder or Grain Vac were systems developed from basic concepts by a combination of farmers and engineers and fundamentally changed agriculture. If you had a father that would make you shovel the remaining 800 bushels of grain the auger wouldn't take out of 20 steel flat floor dust filled grain bins every spring you would appreciate the grain vac as much as me.

Existing energy solutions that take advantage of a feature of nature like fossil fuels, hydroelectric dams and wind have done well because they don't convert solar energy directly.

Attempts at direct solar conversion like Solar PV and direct solar steam attempt to convert solar energy directly and don't take advantage of an existing feature of nature. There are two major flaws with this:

  1. The sun doesn't shine at night or on cloudy days.
  2. To increase output you have to add solar collectors in a linear fashion.
  3. The past attempts at Solar Thermal have tried various ways of improving reliability, but they haven't looked at the main issue of not leveraging an existing feature of nature like hydroelectric or wind. To increase the output you have to add solar collectors in a linear fashion and this makes it difficult to scale the system past the trivial.

    What I am attempting to design with the SHPEGS system is to use solar energy to take advantage of a feature of nature (daytime heating and natural convection) to improve the reliability and feasibility of existing solar power generation systems.

    At no point did I say the SHPEGS idea wasn't at the concept stage and a work in progress or that I wouldn't appreciate input from engineers an scientists with experience in the field. If you have any constructive criticism on the system, I would appreciate hearing it. That is the reason I put my ideas for the design and explanation out on the Internet. I have had many people point out mistakes in understanding or calculations in a polite manner.

A lot of good points in the original post but if the housing credit situation even makes it on a list of bad things, then life is good.

Count me amongst the optimists; the history of human evolution points to the fact we can find a way to solve our problems. The best years are right now.

Did it occur to you that such a solution might imply a powerdown of some kind?

Yes, but increasing effiency (having our cake and eating it too) is the more likely solution. There is a lot of waste in modern living that can be squeezed out.

How much energy is required to live within the existing infrastructure? In other words, how much can you save while retaining the existing settlement patterns and infrastructure?


Regarding your statement that "I go where the data goes . . ." I beg to differ.

I think your narrative, explicity expressed here and elsewhere, is that "the truth lies in the middle." Politically, this narrative serves you well as it will upset the least number of people. But often, the truth does not lie in the middle of the debate. For instance, leading up to the war in IRaq the debate was between "this will be quick and easy" and "this will be long and messy." The truth was not in the middle of either one of those points. Lots of other examples of this throughout life and history.

But it is a perceptual filter through which you delete out and I mean a lot of information.

So the chart you have in this article seems pretty straightforward but it leaves out the following:

1. how much money in r and d did it take to produce each patent?

The charts I included in my other post show a decline, at least for the years they cover which (interestingly enough) are years which your graph shows great amounts of innovation.

2. how many of these patents have been for the defense (killing) industry?

You say "the Mayans didn't have venture capitalists . . ." Well the Mayans didn't have hydrogen bombs, ICBMS, and shamans working on Ebola-pox either. And that's were a disporportionate amount of the venture capital, patents, etc. are going. That's where our technology innovators and brightest minds are working on: NOT on solutions, but on better ways for us to kill each other as we deplete our resource base.

Compare the budget for the war in Iraq (300 million a day) to the budget for the NREL (200 million a year.)

And #2 is a doozy... I, for one, do not trust those in power one whit, with their fingers on the buttons. I don't believe they have the vision or self-control to do the right things. One only has to look at what they have done so far.

For the optimists: Have you noticed that the Bush administration has basically put all of the laws in place for a totalitarian government??? We are a single declaration of martial law away from the total loss of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. My take on this is that they know about peak oil and they see outright chaos ensuing -- besides the fact that they are a bunch of greedy and power crazed fu___s, just like most politicians everywhere. There has really been little outrage over this loss of rights, considering how central they were to our way of government. The fact that they consider this necessary is truly frightening. They do NOT see us as solving the problem.

For the optimists: Have you noticed that the Bush administration has basically put all of the laws in place for a totalitarian government???

False statement. Bush did not put in place the mechanics for totalitarian government. This has been an ongoing process enhanced and extended by each sitting president via executive order without exception since FDR. Bush has done nothing with regards to eroding the constitution that his predecessors would not have done in his place in the chain. You probably want to believe that Clinton and Carter and JFK were somehow shining lights in this mess but people who believe such nonsense usually are beyond rational argument anyway. Each sitting president has extended and expanded the list of emergency powers that they grant unto themselves (the office of the president). The next president will do likewise, whether Democrat or Republican.

Ghawar Is Dying
The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. - Dr. Albert Bartlett

Yes, it has been going on for a long time--even before FDR.

And no, I do NOT believe any of the democrats are shining stars and I NEVER said any such thing -- you somehow assumed that.

I said nothing about republican versus democrat. In fact, I trust none of them and said pretty much all politicians are corrupt. Did you miss that? It's amazing how much gets read into what wasn't said.

In fact, I've been telling all of my friends and acquaintances that they are deluded if they believe the democrats will be our salvation and turn this ship around. It will be business as usual.

That said, the process has accelerated intensely under Bush and everyone should be alarmed and awake. But they are not.

In addition to what I quoted earlier, you stated:

We are a single declaration of martial law away from the total loss of our Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Your statement is deliberately structured to lend the appearance that this possibility is a distinct artifact of the actions of the Bush administration. But are you aware that the president has granted himself executive power since the Kennedy administration to disband congress at any time in the event of a national emergency (and no one defines what constitutes a national emergency). The "single declaration of martial law away from total loss of our Constitution and Bill of Rights" is precisely what I was arguing was not an artifact of just the Bush administration. This has been the case clearly since the Kennedy administration and arguably since before that.

Thus I stick to my original conclusion - false statement. The ability to suspend the constitution has existed for several decades now and as I stated, each successive president simply refines and extends that concept as necessary. If this bothers you, replace your existing congress critter because it is they who have the authority to negate an executive order. Or at least they have the authority to do so before the EO becomes effective. Once in effect, I am not aware of any means of clearly undoing an EO.

I freely admit I jumped to the conclusion about the Democrats but given the clearly loaded semantics of your original statement, such a conclusion was justifiable. That you are refuting your own loaded semantics could give rise to a long discussion about what you ultimately did mean, but that is not a topic appropriate for The Oil Drum, I suspect.

Ghawar Is Dying
The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. - Dr. Albert Bartlett

You assumed way too much.

I stand by what I said. What has happened since Bush took office puts a whole new light on everything. Even Lincoln effectively suspended the constitution so I don't know why you keep trying to argue that point. Once again, I never said Bush was the only one nor did I say he was the first.

Read the Patriot Act and all of its incarnations. Read the Homeland Security Act. Read the Military Commissions Act. Then tie them all together with all of the executive signing statements and our current situation is unprecedented by leaps and bounds. It's all in place and time will tell what the outcome is.

Instead of focusing on my point (and maybe I didn't make it well), you rose up in defense of Bush. The point was that TPTB are clearly aware of peak oil and all of its ramifications and they are NOT optimistic. Like a lot of other things we argue about on blogs, that is my OPINION and that was the intent of the post. If/when I see signs that they seem truly surprised when we are hit with an energy crisis I will change that OPINION. Until that happens, my opinion will remain that they know about peak oil and have been preparing to deal with the chaos.

FWIW, I think FDR was on a par with the current administration as far as shredding the constitution and he should be reviled for destroying our money. So now, all of the FDR lovers can have a hack at me. I don't like politicians, period. They are all a disappointment.

Last year I remember reading or hearing an account of how pathetic our national commitment to alternative energy is - a comparison was used to illustrate the point:

As a nation we spend $500 million on alternative energy research yet we'll spend $5 billion for Halloween each year...

Oh the humanity.

Actually, I completely agree that going down the middle is not always the right answer.

Often, one of the ways is "the wrong way".

In the 1990's, the USPTO started to issue software patents - a whole new class of things. Previous to this, there was innovation in software - it is just that nobody bothered to patent the stuff. According to:

about 15,000 patents are issued every year for software.

You have something similar in the patents on biotech and all that. An entirely new area that never existed before.

about 15,000 patents are issued every year for software

Which IMNSHO have done more to enrich the lawyer class than to benefit people in general.

if I tell you that Kurzweil takes 250 different supplements daily because he's trying to keep his 56 year old body around long enough to become immortal when the technology become available in a couple of decades, you might really start to wonder.

I'm wondering why he doesn't just go to BALCO and get on the cream and the clear.

I think a realistic argument that innovation will not be an enormous factor in our response to the crises we face needs to come to grips with the institutional differences between us and earlier societies.

I think you need to come to grips with the fact our most well funded and powerful institutions are geared towards finding better and more effective ways for us to blast each other into smitherines as we go down the energy production downslope, not towards finding peaceful solutions to the downslope.

Along with falling prey to the myth that "the truth is in the middle" you have fallen prey to the myth that modern man is somehow exempt from the demographic and physical laws that governed less technologically-dependent and energy-addicted societies.

If our institutions were TRULY so much greater than earlier socities we would not be running into such massive problems and waging global war only 200 years into our existence.

The Vikings on Norse Greenland survived for 400 years before beginning to fall part. Rome, for 500 years. Easter Island, also for 500 plus years. I could go on but I think you get the point.

And please let me know when the venture capitalists figure out a replacement for the humble honeybee. As I'm sure you've read, they're dropping dead like flies. Nobody knows why for sure but the prime suspect seems to be GM pesticides, the same GM pesticides that were no doubt developed with the assistance of modern institutions like "venture capitalists".

Chimp: Kurzy was the guy catching those vials of HGH Stallone was throwing off the balcony.

Agreed. Our vaunted "institutions" are highly-complex, high-maintenance and utterly dependent upon large and reliable inputs of energy. If you pull the plug on them, the whole thing goes down like a house of cards -- witness NOLA post-Katrina.

The truth is that the only institutions that we will be able to rely on in the future will be local institutions into which we have integrated ourselves. Remote institutions may be more powerful but when TSHTF, they will either ignore our plight or they will descend upon us to "employ" us or to strip us of our resources.

Maybe, someday it will be written that there existed once a pampered bunch of white boys who -- having grown up in a society in which fossil energy was cheap, where steaming plates of food awaited on every street corner, where the west coast had the sunshine and the girls all got so tanned, where the biggest challenge in life was deciding between the Porsche or the Viper -- imagined themselves to have created a world in which everything was rational and "progress" was inexorable. In such a time, people might wonder how these white boys could be so silly, how they could convince themselves that they had created the perfect machine, how they could delude themselves into thinking that it "couldn't happen to them."

I'm betting that before it's over, Kurzweil will wish he had partied a bit harder and bagged the "supplements."

Chimp, you're not related to the Trunk Monkey are you?

'The truth lies in the middle'..

Like so much of the convo's here, this amounts to a philosophical question, the truth is a spread, which averages at the middle.. the pure, Euclidean notion that Truth can be found at some point on the line is a greater myth encircling both your premises.

I do like the '..Truth Lies..' part at the heart of it, too. Sort of a natural check and balance for the 'reality based crowd'

'The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao..'

The Honeybee thing is pretty worrying. Anybody know if it's global or just US? I hadn't heard that there was a GM food connection to it. Or was that speculation?


The Honeybee thing is pretty worrying. Anybody know if it's global or just US?

Organic farmers are claiming they have less problems than the non-organic ones.

Stresses to the bees health:
Pesticides, herbicides, use of HFCS for bee-feed, and the unknown effects of GMed pollen (Pollen is how the bees build their bodies)

If you have a garden, look into making bumblebee homes.

Hi Bob,

There was an article in the NYT within the last two weeks. My recall is it might have to do with the way the bees are handled...driven in trucks long distances, from one location where they are needed, to another. This might have affected their immune systems, or something. (The whole bee biz sounds kind of weird, so I got the impression "no wonder!".)

I, for one, do believe, although I cannot prove :), that something fundamental changed in the human condition with the, if not invention, at least widespread acceptance of, the scientific method as the path to knowledge discovery. Allthough this doesn't make us immortal, I don't believe comparing us to Viking-, Roman,- or Easter Island savages is very illuminating either.

I wouldn't be so quick to say the scientific method has achieved "widespread acceptance." MOst people still believe they are favored by some type of Sky God, including the leaders of modern day Rome and modern day Babylon.

Too bad that the experimental method is very much unsuited to figure out which policy will benefit us the most over the centuries. Even if we could agree what actually is good.


Thanks so much for taking on the more social side of peal oil & our other converging problems.

Agreed that Greer is one of the best thinkers of how we will adapt to these problems. In the end nature rules.

As you say in part of your last sentence "our response to the crises we face needs to come to grips with the institutional differences between us and earlier societies." I think this also applies to other measures such as Greer's time lines; that looking at past collapses like the Mayan's argues for periods of a couple of centuries won't apply to us. Oil like electricity is so crucial to the US that a decline of either will bring down our institutions quickly- a matter of decades, not centuries. Greer even points to this in his in his nov. & oct. 06 fictional glimpses at christmases thru 2100.

I think our internal landscapes are also so different than previous humans. We are so spoiled, germ phobic, and cut off from natural processes by the cheap energy we have. Add to this the 2 income household/parenting/child develovement problem( I remember you -Stuart- referencing literature on attachment disorders) and you have the social choas/storm many doomers worry about. Thankfully genetics won't have changed as quickly as our social order in our families has .

And don't forget the parallel with his description of three generations of Mayans: impressive. (

Leave out the deus ex machina of progressive and apocalyptic mythologies, map the results onto a scale of human lifespans, and a likely future emerges. Imagine an American woman born in 1960. She sees the gas lines of the 1970s, the short-term political gimmicks that papered over the crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, and renewed trouble in the following decades. Soaring energy prices, shortages, economic depressions, and resource wars shape the rest of her life. By age 70, she lives in a beleaguered, malfunctioning city where half the population has no reliable access to clean water, electricity, or health care. Shantytowns spread in the shadow of skyscrapers while political and economic leaders keep insisting that things are getting better.

Her great-grandson, born in 2030, manages to avoid the smorgasbord of diseases, the pervasive violence, and the pandemic alcohol and drug abuse that claim half of his generation before age 30. A lucky break gets him into a technical career, safe from military service in endless wars overseas or "pacification actions" against separatist guerrillas at home. His technical knowledge consists mostly of rules of thumb for effective scavenging, cars and refrigerators are luxury items he will never own, his home lacks electricity and central heating, and his health care comes from an old woman whose grandmother was a doctor and who knows something about wound care and herbs. By the time his hair turns gray the squabbling regions that were once the United States have split apart, all remaining fuel and electrical power have been commandeered by the new governments, and coastal cities are being abandoned to the rising oceans.

For his great-granddaughter, born in 2100, the great crises are mostly things of the past. She grows up amid a ring of sparsely populated villages surrounding an abandoned core of rusting skyscrapers visited only by salvage crews who mine them for raw materials. Local wars sputter, the oceans are still rising, and famines and epidemics are a familiar reality, but with global population maybe 15% of what it was in 2000, humanity and nature are moving toward balance. She learns to read and write, a skill most of her neighbors don't have, and a few old books are among her prized possessions, but the days when men walked on the moon are fading into legend. When she and her family finally set out for a village in the countryside, leaving the husk of the old city to the salvage crews, it never occurs to her that her quiet footsteps on a crumbling asphalt road mark the end of a civilization.

I raise this point reluctantly since I'm no doomer. BUT....

Technological innovation and the effective use of its products depends on a strong educated middle class. Certain forms of social organization (ours being one) depend on the existence of this class.

Should the 'logic' for other forms of social organization become compelling, this class could be disposed of very rapidly because of its threat to the new order.

Historical case: communist revolutions.

Recent case: Baghdad where the middle class has been killed or run out of town en mass.

I don't think it's imminent or even likely, but it's definitely possible that technological innovation (in terms of producing more 'advanced' widely used technologies) could cease almost overnight in certain situations. What sustains innovation is a very soft target.

The universities are torched, but society limps along.

Baghdad? What about the emergence of a new middle class in Iraqi Kurdistan? Doesn't that offset your statement? Don't forget to mention a few billion or so people in India, China, Eastern Europe etc. that are moving up the wealth ladder. The middle class seems to be doing alright.

Agreed. The middle class is doing well. Never been bigger, never been better. These are good times.

My point is about high tech innovation in hard times (if and when they come).

In short, the middle class could prove to be pretty emphemeral in those circumstances. And, without the educated middle class, forget high tech innovation.

The Genie rushed out of the bottle with Unix.

Capital now flows with great ease to where there is the best return, no matter what effect it has on the local economies. It serves those who control that flow with little or no regard to town, city, state or country.

I can see no way that brakes can be put on this innovation. To invest locally is almost impossible and we desperately need to be able to put finance into where it is needed locally. Otherwise along with Peak Oil we will also experience what I think of as global heat death where there is uniform degradation not only economically as in a world depression but of the ecology of the world as well.

This message comes to you from the 'Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Luddites'.

"I think a realistic argument that innovation will not be an enormous factor in our response to the crises we face needs to come to grips with the institutional differences between us and earlier societies."

I would have said, 'between us and all other societies.' Europe might be in the lead with gov tax directed green tech, and Japan with auto efficiency, but IMO nobody can outperform us in innovation and change when price moves us to act. No place on earth, or in history, has it been as easy as it is here to form and launch new ventures. Eurosclerosis cannot, apparently, be changed in the smallest degree... with their cradle to grave protectionism, small companies are terrified to hire even when they do get a good idea because they will never be able to fire... and, most innovation comes from small companies.

WWII was a very good case where high stress likely leads to far fewer patent applications for anything not involved with the problem at hand - winning the war - but, as you alluded to, the intense focus on ideas pertinent to the problem resulted in much original thinking. And, while radar, jet engines, and nuclear bombs were both pertinent and applied to the problem at hand, they were true major innovations that profoundly affected our society afterward. A major reason for my optimism is the idea that the US has sufficient innovation and flexibility to apply itself to an energy crisis in spite of the other real financial and other problems of the times, combined with the thought that existing technologies and conservation are sufficient to deal with the problem for what will be, after all, a very long transition phase.

The dotcom crisis was not a real one, merely a financial one that ploughed resources into under/non performing investments, much worse than over investment into housing stock. For example, the current sub prime crisis simply means that some low cost housing will be turned over, investors will quickly buy when the roi goes positive, some banks/institutions that foolishly invested in such loans at the end of an interest rate upturn will lose money/go under, but at the end of the day what is generally low cost housing will be used, quite different from the total loss of most investments in dotcom scams.

Most interesting/applicable is the reduction during the oil crisis in the seventies. I suppose that much research was curtailed as companies did what they could to survive... the question is, did we get a higher proportion of patents in energy research? Certainly cars became much more fuel efficient, but this was mostly just getting the weight down and moving to smaller displacement, not particularly innovative. About all I can say from that era is that our company lost contracts to build neclear power plants because utilities were spending so much money on higher cost fuel that they had to slash capital investments, not encouraging. Our company switched from internally funded fission/fusion research to gov funded, and at about this point switching away away from utility oil burning plus new supplies ended the crisis. I suppose this time will be different... OTOH, we are in the early stage of the crisis, and we are already seeing initial deployment of prius type higher efficient cars, rapid deployment of wind turbines, plus solar is far closer to competing with (higher priced) fossil fuels than ever in the past, and meanwhile we can go to all actinide burning reactors if we choose.

I hold several patents in heat exchanger/pressure vessel technology for nuclear power reactors. Many were applied for at least in part as a defensive strategy... companies are always worried that somebody else will patent something, and you will lose the right to use the idea. Also, this evolved into gov supported research, and govs always want to see that research dollars result in something that can be well documented, so the number of successful patent applications is important. WIth ample fossil fuels available, and in the aftermath of TMI/Chernobyl, none of my patents were ever used. IMO, in a non crisis environment, many patents are for things that are not needed/not really original or both, and therefore the lower patent number in WWII does not properly indicate the high quality and original thinking that occurs in a real crisis. And, in those days the gov anyway often protected the new ideas through 'secret' designations rather than patents.

Stuarts chart shows, UTILITY PATENTS. This type of patent is different than a DESIGN PATENT. Then there are drug patents etc.

I went thru the process a few years back on my own and received a Utility patent. It didn't make me any money, though, I feel if superconductivity had become real then perhaps I might have gotten a few bob, besides the point though. Unless the rules have changed you can't renew a patent (maybe drug, but I think that was changed too) I think Khebab is thinking about "copyright".

You cannot put a device forward as an "over unity" device. Which is the fancy way of saying perpetual motion machine.

Also a Patent will not be issued for devices that can't work. They used to allow patents for anything long ago, that has changed. It is reviewed by someone in the field and they decide if the device is functional.

Design Patents I suspect are more numerous,,and I wonder if Utility patents are going down, are the number of Design patents also going down.

Utility patents generally show a new technique where a design patent is a unique design so to speak of a device (the owner used to be limited to 5 "designs" he could patent, after that the competition could use another "design". Why you see all the different types of belly busting machines.

An up tick in design and a downtick in Utility could show that "CREATIVITY" is down.

Being in the entertainment industry, that I can say is for sure. Anyone ready for Spiderman 3, or the next installment of Raiders with a aging Harrison Ford.

Quid Clarius Astris
Ubi Bene ibi patria

Unless the rules have changed you can't renew a patent (maybe drug, but I think that was changed too) I think Khebab is thinking about "copyright".

you can't renew a patent, but you have to pay a maintenance fee at 4, 8 and 12 years after issuance. If you don't pay, the patent lapses.

Better yet, try to pay your maintenance fees at 3.5, 7.5 and 11.5 years in order to avoid the lateness surcharge. ;-0

Well if you want to be picky about it. You would probably want your application submitted more than one day before the deadline too.

Interesting post Stuart. There is the phrase, "necessity is the mother of invention" that springs to mind. This is of course the attitude of the optimist/cornucopian.

I agree that we really do need a great surge in innovation, however, I'm not sure it's technological innovation we need first and foremost.

I don't think there is a technological fix for either Peak Oil or global warming, two of the greatest challanges we face. I really wish I believed miraculous technological innovation would ride over the horizon like the US cavalry and save us, but I don't.

I believe we don't really have much choice but to choose to cut our consumption substantially in the short term, later when we've "stabilized" perhaps we may be able to increase consumption again under controlled conditions.
Sure this doesn't sound much like the free-wheeling, super-growth Capitalism we've been used to, but that historical paradigme has just about run its course. We need an alternative way to organize society and our economy and change our behaviour. I simply don't believe that China and India, or Brazil or Indonesia, can ever realistically reach levels of energy and material consumption comperable with those enjoyed by Western Europe and the United States. I don't know if this makes me a "pessimist".

Unfortunately I don't see much that leads one to think that we are seriously going to change our collective behaviour patterns and re-organize society, in the time-frame we have available. I keep thinking about the recomendations of the Hirsch report and how we need to start changing and preparing decades in advance, if we're going to mitigate the effect of Peak Oil. It will require a national effort comparable to the second world war in the US in my opinion, if we really are going to start dealing with Peak Oil. I guess this puts me in the "pessimist" camp.

Most politicians I observe believe more or less 100% in the techno-fix solution. Recently I heard an influential politian of the National Socialist variety spouting-off about oil, and he was warning the oil producing countries that they sould watch out because in twenty or thirty years their oil and gas may become worthless to us as our technology progress will sweep oil and gas into the dustbin of history! The guy's an extremist and demagogue, but he accurately expresses the attitude of most mainstream politicians, they just don't believe we have to go through any real pain, technology will save us.

Most people I know have never been richer or more comfortable in their entire lives. Their kids are even worse. They have only ever known luxury and plenty. They believe we're standing on the cusp of a brave new world of even more astounding luxury and ever increasing consumption, the world is literally their oyster. And the higher up the social scale one moves the more glorious and grand life has become for the modern global aristocracy. Those with power and money have standards of living that put Roman emperors to shame, and they are getting richer and richer by the year!

Even those who aren't super-rich are blinded or mezmerized by technology, especially computers, which appear to grant us super-human powers and turn us into giants. I often wonder what the long-term social and psychological effects of computer games have on our culture.

I have a really hard time talking to anyone about Peak Oil. Surrounded by so much wealth and comfort, with so many almost, or what appears to be limitless possibilities, it almost appears churlish to posit an alternative future where scarcity returns with a vengence. I feel like a grumpy guest whose just crashed the party!

I have a really hard time talking to anyone about Peak Oil

I talk about PO for a living and guess what? I NEVER bring it up in "real life" outside of select members of immediate family who have already concluded that "really bad are a comin'"

Everybody else is too concerned with March Madness and American Idol to care.

I have a really hard time talking to anyone about Peak Oil

I talk about PO for a living and guess what? I NEVER bring it up in "real life" outside of select members of immediate family who have already concluded that "really bad times are a comin'"

Everybody else is too concerned with March Madness and American Idol to care.

Everybody else is too concerned with March Madness

Shoot! Can't I have just a little fun?

Just a little tid bit. I tried to send Leanan a news link to a video with a senior Saudi Opec official being interviewed on the street. He was surrounded by English speaking reporters and he was in Business attire.

This video was on Bloomberg this morning. I watched it. He is asked several questions and he responds, its chaotic as its all types of reporters. He at end of this piece was asked by a reporter if OPEC was worried that the United States may be headed into a recesseion.

He responded YES. then the video went on for a couple seconds, you could hear a reporter off mike say outloud "he said, Yes". then it cut off.

Well when I went back to grab the link for the video, its gone now. There is a second page that has things as they fall off as things are added.

Its not there either. It should be as things I didn't see on the front page where this was on Bloomberg were listed to view.

I can't recall the name. First is Al and i think the second name began with an H.

Interesting he did say yes, and of course its gone.

Might be somewhere else on the net, but without the name I wouldn't be able to find it.

Sorry if this out of place, but I think its a piece of info when so little comes from the Kingdom.

Quid Clarius Astris
Ubi Bene ibi patria

Necessity is the mother of invention; capital is the crucible of change...

The more expensive it becomes to produce petroleum-based energy supplies, the more capital will be deployed to developing alternative supplies, and to developing infrastructure and consumer products that are more efficient in their use of petroleum. We are already seeing this dynamic in response to $50/bbl oil prices, and if they persist, the process will continue. Wind power is exploding, solar is continuing a relentless march toward true economic viability, etc.

The problem is one of _time lag_; if the transition to scarce oil supply occurs suddenly, or the drop in supply is sharp, then the capital deployment will not occur soon enough for innovation to occur.

I believe that today's global society has far more capacity for innovation than at any time in history (regardless of the innovation per $$ and innovation per R&D charts). If there is time for innovation to solve the problem, then it will be solved.

Global peak: 2007 - 2010
Global decline rate, Post peak: 2%
Economic response: Severe global recession, ~5 years, then slow recovery

The author starts with the definition of a spectrum.

The major problem here is that both of his defined ends share one point about innovation that is most likely wrong: that innovation is predictable (either good or bad). I would say innovation happens sometimes but not always, and that when it happens it mostly does good. It is just that when large forces are about and people have a reason/excuse not to consider them, these external forces usually win. People might be creative, but the attempt to actually do something might be more like that Japanese guy who promised he had found a way to produce oil from water, and the military were desperate enough to give him a try.

Our present culture has a situation with innovation that I'm not sure has existed before. We have identified innovation and research as an engine for progress (and to see how revolutionary this was one can read H G Wells's A Modern Utopia wherein he gets the point and realises not much of his culture has done so yet). We are conscious about large scale problems and have reams and reams of material about them both present and past. We should be able to identify the problems, limitations on possible solutions, but then apply our talents in a considered way. But we don't. The fact that we don't is so blatant that there must be profound reasons for it. As Jared Diamond likes to point out, cultures like the Mayas could be excused for not having knowledge about the processes of collapse and about the history of other collapsed societies, but we ourselves don't have that excuse.

The thing I think that is new with this is that our culture has taken not only innovation but also public relations "technology" to unprecedented heights. I am in plasma physics reearch and have been around long enough (20+ yrs) to have watched most of the evolution of the invasion of public relations skills into physics. It might have started with the way our leaders discuss with the givers of our resources, but the fact is that the level of such stuff has dramatically affected the way we talk to _each other_ including at scientific meetings and in scientific papers. It is not only a matter of presentation graphics... I rather think that is more symptom than cause.

The problem with PR is its nature: it is fundamentally dishonest. The point is to force the focus on one or more arguments to the exclusion of others. Why should these be excluded? Most often because then cannot be answered. It isn't just money, but also prestige, that people are using this trickery to try to get.

With such sophisticated PR, one can see how (1) most people who need to see the essence of something won't do, and (2) why the leaders of society who benefit from the status quo don't want to change things. If the status quo is harmful, then it is PR techniques with which it is defended.

In such an environment, the next question to ask is, for what type of people do the social boundary conditions select, and whether substantially capable people are likely to rise or will the next generation of leaders be the ones who are best at pulling levers and manipulating the system of steering committees and the like who make judgements about what is and what is not helpful innovation and what are and what are not solutions. Not to mention who they tend to promote.

So I wouldn't say that innovation should be harmful or always present or always absent. It isn't something that you can predict. However, it is something that you can fake, and fakery is what we are best at. Maybe our innovation will continue and we will be even better at fakery in the next generation. So much so that when the dieoff is in full progress most people won't even realise it.


Bruce Scott wrote,

The problem with PR is its nature: it is fundamentally dishonest. The point is to force the focus on one or more arguments to the exclusion of others. Why should these be excluded? Most often because then cannot be answered. [emphasis added]

Agreed. But you can't have a society of any size without substantial consensus. And PR get the job done. It gets people to sign on even when it really is not in their individual best interests.

It's highly likely, in my view, that we have an evolved capacity to get talked into things.

But, I agree with you, our innovations and increasing sophistication in PR may have reached the point where it's nearly impossible to get a clear view of much. To the extent that reality matters, this could really hurt.

I appreciate your posting, but personally I don't always "go where the data goes" because:

1) per Heisenberg, data is not absolute but dependent on observer and context. I'd say this is particularly true in terms of complex dissipative structures like human society.

2) we got into the mess we're in (PO, global warming) with the help of data miners (scientists and engineers). As Einstein said, the significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.

3) even peer reviewed data can simply be misleading or irrelevant.

1) per Heisenberg, data is not absolute but dependent on observer and context.

That is not what Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle says.

What it says is that there are limits on the data we can - even theoretically - hope to obtain; i.e., there will always be measurement error.

It says nothing about subjectivity, which is what you appeared to be implying.

3) even peer reviewed data can simply be misleading or irrelevant.

Or wrong. But it's much better than no data. A faith-based approach to the world leads just as easily to "we have enough oil for 1000 years" as it does to "peak oil is nigh".

Good, I was hoping there wasn't a simple answer. On the one hand, plenty of other advanced civilizations have collapsed from loss of key resources. Granted, none as advanced as ours. However, when people such as Jared Diamond, Deffeyes, and Hatfield say we're in trouble, I have a hard time writing that off. The problem is that it is possible that a reduction in this key resource will set us down the same path that led from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages. War, famine, and disease can bring down any civilization, and loss of key resources without replacements tends to make people fight for the remaining scraps.

On the other hand, the genome is just software. So far we've done nothing more than insert small sections into existing hosts and create hybrids through breeding. It's like replacing small sections of DOS to try to make Linux. Or putting BSD and the old Mac OS together to try to create XP. The real changes to bioengineering will come if or when we really understand genetic algorithms and write whole new sections. Imagine greenhouses of five story plants that drip oils from their leaves, plantations of trees that grow as fast as kudzu and the gasifiers to convert them to fuel, or floating algae beds in the ocean that extrude nanotubes until you chop the tube off. Need a new thousand miles of rail line? The nanotube equivalent will be available in a few weeks for laying. Remember when we all worried about global warming? Making millions of tons of carbon nanotube fibers sure solved that... And that doesn't touch on the possibilities for advances in efficiency or something like cold fusion working out.

The problem with deciding which way things will go is that both extremes are possible. It all depends on how much time we have before things head downhill, how fast things fall apart, how fast we can apply new technologies to solve the problems, how lucky we get with experiments that work without dangerous side-effects, and how people react. Personally, I can't convince myself to be a doomer and I can't write off that possibility either. In the short run things don't look good, but in the long run I have no idea. I'm happy to know that I'm not the only one who's thought about it a lot and still has no idea. I value your opinions, Stuart, I hope you'll write more about this.

While the question Stuart raises is an interesting one, the chart used is a pretty useless one; except in pointing out how much of the alleged innovation shown there is equally dependent upon the discovery of, cheap access to, and use of oil.

Failing that, what happens next to techno-innovation as a whole is the critical question. (For my part, I expect that it will decline along with oil, or at least whatever isn't of utmost use on a practical level and scale of production.) In other words, as PO cascades across our lives it may well outstrip our capacity to fabricate these innovations, never mind all the innovations of necessity yet to come to save us as hoped for, especially as they are dependent upon FF to make.

So, here's another level of triage to consider, whereby of the declining availability and use of oil/energy is concerned, what will we use it for? Choices will have to be made, and as can be readily seen here, and is acknowledged about so many of the choices that are made or not made by both people, our govt., and corporations, most all of them have been poor ones or worse.

If this impending PO crisis spurs us to greater heights of imaginative techno-innovation, barring an absolute miracle device or combination that will fix all the systemic problems we face -- meaning PO, GW, ecological overreach, over-population, economic adjustment, etc. -- it still remains to be seen as to who will be making the decisions about which innovations are worth throwing into these breach's. (IMO, most if not all of these dilemmas are not due to a lack of technological ingenuity and thus not redeemable by such, but rather a lack of human imagination about living within our limits here on earth.)

The cornucopian assumption (and a highly questionable one at that), is that every problem has a sure fire technological and/or market based solution. Well, in my lifetime (now 51) I've seen no evidence to prove such a conceit, nor any in the offing for all the various and mounting problems we've been facing for some time now, despite our public denials of them, or publicly declared wars to solve them.

In any event, when it comes to such a decision making process I'm not at all optimistic that we have anything remotely capable of such a task. The political process in the US at present is incapable of getting anything right. Perhaps the PO crisis will change that, but based upon the evidence at hand with respect to GW, 9/11 & the WoT, Katrina, and GWB (we elected this bozo twice!), you name it, our public policies/politics has conclusively proven otherwise.

We've suckled at the teat of Golden Calf capitalist economics and easy oil too long and hard and all the power based corruption borne of this disease has steadily spread like a malignant cancer through out our culture. AFAIK, there ain't no more voodoo economic or snake oil techno potion that can cure this fix. However, oil withdrawal may well do the trick even if we go screaming and kicking into rehab.

So, when it comes to innovation providing a yellow brick road out of the corner we are painted in, I'm very pessimist. Essentially, I'll believe it when I see it, but I'm not waiting on it, that's for sure.

As to this whole optimist/pessimist argument, I think it is applied way too broadly.

As the above attests, I'm a complete pessimist when it comes to some new techno-innovation solving our problems. Does that make me a "doomer"?

Not in my book. While pessimistic and cynical, or realistic and practical about some things, especially most all our big budget, big solution, big government, or big corporate solutions, I am not so entirely pessimistic about our prospects as this unravels.

I otherwise remain cautiously optimistic about our ability to reinvigorate our human imaginations and decent cooperation as the PO down-slope makes itself more apparent. This is not to say that I think it will be peaches and cream, but I am envisioning (about which I acknowledge I could be wrong) a decline in our life-style and imperial aspirations that may well allow for recognition and adjustment.

As others have argued, this may well depend upon one's location. To that end I am already established in a semi-rural community in the NE that has a well-endowed community ethic (one that isn't perfect, but under the circumstances offers much potential) and the means, if not yet established the wide spread understood wherewithal, to try and weather this decline reasonably intact.

More personally, I've got an off-the-grid PV and wind power and solar hot water system up and running for almost 10 years now (along with many other energy loss ducks of necessity lined up; compost toilet system, wood stove & wood to cut, etc.). It isn't perfect but it will suffice as the PO decline gathers steam, and I believe it will help in trying to reasonable and decently bridge the gap to come.

I fully expect that by the time PO finally pulls the rug out from under our non-negotiable way of life, my electrical solar system will not be functioning all that well if at all, and thus there won't be any real worries about being overrun by energy desperate marauders. Most of those dislocations and resettlements will have already occurred and life will proceed accordingly -- i.e. a much lower level of energy input.

Admittedly, my optimism or my hope in this regard could prove wrong, but my point being is that without knowing this about me I suspect that there are a number here who would readily call me a "doomer" for what I consider to be an otherwise realistic and practical take on this whole innovation infatuation.

As best as I can tell, folks will make whatever decisions they can based upon their inclinations about how PO will unfold and proceed accordingly. If someone wants to believe that a massive die-off due to PO, GW, or a nuclear holocaust is in the cards, so be it. It makes for entertaining and often enlightening reading even. The same holds true for anyone here who wishes upon a falling star.

I guess what I'm suggesting is that folks lighten up with the hole-pegging disparagement. If you don't like someone else's take, and it upsets one's sensibilities, get over it. The complaints that the "doomers" have taken over and are ruining the whole TOD forum is, IMO, a disservice to whole panoply of people and their outlooks goes who frequent this place.

Live and learn. The alleged "doomers" may be right, but its not stopping me from reading and learning what I can from everyone here, while planning and doing what I can and think is right for me.

The future, despite our bleak prospects, has yet to be told. In that regard, I've found that it suits me to expect the best while preparing for the worst!

Hello TODers,

Ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Mayan, Roman, Viking societies existed on daily solar income only--we use FFs + solar income. The slow collapse of these ancient societies was due to the fact that their Overshoot was never very high relative to available, but decreasing resources. We will find it difficult to be so lucky as we go PostPeak.

Ancient societies = wooden ships, Kon-Tiki rafts, canoes--survivors can ride the woodscraps to a sustainable shore.

Our society = Titanic-- how long can you tread water?

Consider Zimbabwe. Pres. Mugabe totally abused his initial political promises and a societal mandate to build a better future. Stupidly, he sought the application of totalitarian powers in the totally wrong direction, thus maximizing blowback decline. It would have been so easy for him to have induced metered change to build lifeboats instead of accentuating strife, violence, and newborn corpses clogging the sewers.

Mugabe initially screwed this up by kicking off highly efficient, but petrol-dependent mechanized farmers without mitigating easily foreseen consequences. Waging Genocide on the non-Shonas [Project Gukurahundi (Shona for "the early rain which washes away the chaff")] setup polarizing political blowback, which made hopes of ethnic cooperation fade. Project Murambatsvina [Shona for 'taking out the rubbish'] eliminated hopes of economic class cooperation.

Mugabe should have much earlier realized that IMF, WTO, World Bank practices of globalized resource extraction would never allow Zim to reach First World levels, but the avenue of the alternative path of Biosolar Prosperity was easily within Zim's reach back then. Too late now.

If he was Peakoil aware: I would argue that he would have made everyone informed through Peakoil Outreach, then setup programs to stockpile fertilizers, bicycles, wheelbarrows, PVs, solar hot-water heaters, etc, etc, and created an Earthmarine Force to protect border infiltration and natural habitat protection. The Outreach effort would convince everyone of the need to prevent diseases such as HIV/Aids, water pollution deaths from diarrhea, typhoid, cholera, etc, and voluntary birth control efforts; to keep the Grim Reaper's blade from gutting the populace so that the general health level could allow widespread relocalized permaculture.

The early movement to food security and continuation of their former exporting status as the 'Breadbasket of Africa' combined with a early drive for energy efficiency/capita would have generated sufficient monetary surpluses to leverage the buying of evermore biosolar goods such as electrified mass-transit & RRs, more hydro, wind, and PV power, modern resource recycling to eliminate waste, and so on.

When early societal surpluses existed: Zim should have forsworn asphalt road building, but instead built innovative elevated biosolar spiderweb riding bicycle/scooter paths and/or aerial monorails to area tourist attractions and through game habitats to increase foreign exchange, yet at the same time protect the biolife. This could have prevented stupid ideas such as sewage treatment plants being built above the input fresh water sources; ox-cart ambulances slowly, jarringly, and breaking down along decaying, pot-holed roads; FF- infrastructure problems such as grid copper thefts and blackouts, useless cars parked in useless gas-stations, massive water problems, decrepit hospitals, and so on.

In short, imagine if, back in the 80s: Mugabe had combined his newly free democracy with the warnings and concepts of Pres. Carter's Sweater Speech:

As a hero of the revolution from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe: He had the chance to lead his people to a Promised Land; they would have gladly accepted the Peakoil Outreach, the needed innovations, and cooperative change to rebuild towards sustainability. The aforementioned banks would be falling over themselves to loan, at very cheap rates, to the further biosolar enhancement and profitability [not senseless growth].

Will North America, by widespread Peakoil Outreach, innovate early to maximize Detritus Powerdown & Biosolar Powerup? Or is our future a continual parade of Mugabe-like politicians to maximize NA Blowback?

What will our future sewage systems reveal?
For he's a Jolly Good Fellow

An estimated 40,000 Zimbabwean women died in childbirth last year. Many of these and other avoidable deaths are the consequence of bad governance. Of late, the press has also begun to report on infanticide on a large scale, as women without hope kill their newborns and discard their corpses in Harare’s sewers. Local authorities have dredged up hundreds of small bodies in recent years.
Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Mugabe has BOTCHED it up big time, i don't know his motivations, but at the end of the day he BOTCHED it up in a bad way.

on a seperate note regarding subprime lending/foreclosures, Senator Dodd (CT) wants to fix the whole fiasco with legislation, imagine that!
If I knew the govt would bail me out, I'd have bought a house in Hollywood, CA.

The sub-prime crisis is of grave concern to millions of Americans. It has immediate and long-term implications for families, the housing industry, and America’s over-all economy. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart of the American Dream itself.

“As Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, I will continue to approach this crisis in a thorough and aggressive manner. The graveness of this situation merits a comprehensive approach. America’s families don’t need rhetoric, they need results.

“On Thursday, March 22, 2007 I will conduct a hearing to ask tough questions and demand answers from state and federal officials and the industry. I intend to use all the powers and tools at my disposal as Chairman to find solutions that will keep families in their homes, ensure that America’s dream of homeownership remains alive, and protect America’s economy.

“Tomorrow, I will further address this issue and how it affects families and our economy in a speech before the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute in Chicago, IL.”

I think our society will be viewed in the year 50,265 as the "crushed rock era" They will find the crushed rock evidence left of our concrete foundations. Also, once all the asphalt roads will have disintigrated there will be more crushed rock. Obviously used for transporatation but with what? Our society will appear to be complex but at the same time they will wonder why so much effort went into crushing rock.
They might also be puzzled by the small piles of non-native rock and sea shells inside or near our dwellings. Perhaps they will think we worship crushed rock because it is so important to our complex society, and that we kept small alters where we placed special sacred rocks.
Rock museums like this might be considered a place where we came to worship the sacred rocks, as they were carried great distances and set on alters where we would offer gifts of money to view them.

We collect things with no practical application to food or shelter, or wealth - I think this will be hard to comprehend...

A very crude metric. For those unfamiliar with the patent process, it is not uncommon for a year to elapse from conception of invention to filing a patent application. After the application is filed, two to five years will often pass before a patent actually issues. As an insider, I have noticed that more patents are filed during economic booms. The reason for this may be as simple as money being available in budgets. During difficult economic times those budgets are thinned, and clients tend to be more inclined to assert the patents acquired during the boom times. It might be more interesting to look at investment in particular market sectors over time. There were tulip bulbs, then railroads, then telecom and dotcom. Next perhaps alternative energy and efficiency innovation. The patents are just an indirect indicator of the money with a large time lag. Better to follow the investment money itself.

Thanks for your comments. I agree that more patents are filed during boom times. However, I don't think it's just a matter of the money being available for the actual patent filing process - the number of engineers employed to be developing patentable technology goes up in boom times too. In Silicon Valley, employment contracted significantly for several years after the crash and that no doubt has much to do with the drop in patents issued.

I think R&D money would be interesting to follow, but much more difficult to track over extended periods of time (at least I don't know how to do it).

I don't think that utility patents correlates all that well with innovation.  A lot of patents are used merely to block competition or even use (e.g. the patents on GIF compression and RSA encryption) while the real innovation may be in clever uses years or decades down the line.  Those innovations which are left to go into the public domain will not show up in patents, but may have far greater impact through wide use.

Well, yeah, but you have to argue that the ratio of useful innovations to patents *changes* over time. Over the short term, it very likely doesn't much. Over the long term, it's hard to tell.


"I follow the data". I don't think this works in
most social arenas. The number of factors, lack of isolation/complexity, etc. rule out the empirical
methods necessary for a data analysis.

I think we social scientists(I have a Masters of Science in Social Work) kid ourselves with the science part most of the time. I think logic , reasoning, studying the numbers available(data) are starting points, but intuitive
-discerning-artform ways of thinking/feeling ;to mention a few terms I use for doing therapy ,are part of my "science" tools.

Peak Oil appears to me often to be a very powerful projective test. That is what I look out for in my attempts to be objective & go where my study leads me.

Regarding innovation in our curent system: I heard
a lecture in '72, Humanitarian Engineering. His idea was just because we can make it, sell it , etc. doesn't
mean we should. Soon afterwards I left engineering.

"Peak Oil appears to me often to be a very powerful projective test." Amen! It's immensely frustrating to me - I observe that the number of people trying to really really understand what will happen and why, is very small, and the number of people projecting their hopes, fears, and fantasies onto it, largely indifferent to any facts that might not fit their projections, is very large. And I agree about the importance of self-examination to try to understand one's own projective lens (both from personal factors and academic/vocational training).

I think we are all taught from early childhood to look up to authoritative figures and to "trust" them. That is part of our projective lens system.

When CERA says there will be undulations for decades to come, the average good citizen trusts them.

When Cheney says "last throes", the average good citizen trusts him.

When a big oil company says we're working on the carbon footprint problem, the average good citizen trusts them.

Mr. Policeman would never steer us wrong.

(But Mommy, what does "pedo-phile" mean?)

Never mind that child, you need to know what an "iron triangle phile" is --one who loves the iron triangle (cars, suburban McMansions, movie stars ... the good life).

I think Stuart sees his comment as applying equally to peak oil folks.


I like the slope of that line.
Very optimistic, but I suppose that the area under the curve is cheap crude. is usually optimistic, so far as transportation.
Stronger more efficient batteries or capacitors, etc., might allow a decentralization of our present utility structure, allowing homeowners to store their own BTU juice, to even develop a relationship with it. But it’s a story of chasing the Lion off the kill. Business as usual has the momentum. There is no going back. In Arizona there’s plenty of people who think that they could head out into the Tonto or Conconino Forest and survive, but within a month all the game would be gone. There is only forward, or suffer the basics of survival, something akin to the Zimbabwe experience. Had we only used our war money for energy R&D…that might have protected our country. We all have to be very careful who we vote for next go-round, preferably someone who can see beyond crude supplies. If Roscoe Bartlett ran for president and won, I’d bet on a continued positive slope on that graph of yours, but he’s not in the running, nor is Kunstler.

Isn't history cyclical like economics? Recession or in this case end of a civilization is inevitable to make place for a new one. I have been reading Nouriel Roubini's blog since last summer and it is like reading LATOC or TOD. Basically his predictions on housing bubble, which were until recently completely ignored as just one extreme possibility are becoming mainstream. He was just following the data of course. Is a "hard landing" or even a great depression "Doom" or TEOTWAWKI?. Of course not. It is a necessary cleansing of a sick system with overcapacity in production, too much debt, etc. This is of course on a shorter time scale than PO (serious recession every decade or so) and civilization decline. Obviously the economy is living off dirt cheap money (yen carry trade) leveraged very heavily by hedge funds mostly in bundled mortgage bonds,etc.

We did the same with oil. We borrowed it from the ground. It leverages human manpower enormously, just like fractional lending does( does work of 100 or 1000 men like 1 USD bank deposit can be lent out 1000 times). So when the oil is gone then overcapacity based on this will have to disappear to. Mostly this is human overcapacity. Obviously in the coming PO "hard landing" human overcapacity will have to be reduced. Same thing happened for example in late middle ages Europe as population growth overtook ability of land to support them. To call such a prospect doomerism is pejorative,suggesting overtones of apocalyptic sects. This should be the realistic average way of looking at things. Value neutral as in a biologist with his petri dish of bacteria in full bloom. There will be famine and war and heavy population reduction with a stabilization period under a different technological regime afterwards which will not include cheap FFs in the way we have come to expect. Why get all emotional about it. We all have to die sometime. Get out your prayer rug or your your rosary or whatever and try to get some deeper insight. There must be a good reason for this somewhere. Perhaps mankind can learn soething in the long run from this misinvestment of resources. Scientific method has its limits. We presume we are external to the observed phenomena but whatever devices we observe with we are making an emotional value judgement on the data in the end. True scientific detachment has to go one step beyond and accept our mortality because it is literally true and it is not "doom" but in point of fact hope. Ask any terminal cancer patient who has finally made their peace with God. To take the seasonal analogy for civilizational decline or recessions I should say that winter is not the end but a necessary rest for the earth to refocus, like a good night's sleep. The morning or the spring time will come and we will see what it brings. Serenity in the face of adversity is now the only way forward. Panic only brings poor decision making.

[Oil] leverages human manpower enormously, just like fractional lending does( does work of 100 or 1000 men like 1 USD bank deposit can be lent out 1000 times). So when the oil is gone then overcapacity based on this will have to disappear to.

You're assuming that there are no other multipliers which are not being fully used now and can be pressed into service.  I can think of several:

  1. Wind and wave power, which need relatively simple collectors and converters and are very under-exploited.
  2. Biomass energy, which can be used at far higher efficiency (via e.g. combinations of fuel cells) than we achieve now.
  3. Creation of biomass energy via algae rather than higher plants, multiplying the productivity.
  4. Solar energy, both thermal and PV.  Perhaps artificial photosynthesis will come to commercial fruition in the next 20 years.

All of this stuff is coming along, and (as Alan likes to point out) the only thing we need to stretch things out long enough to get there is 19th-century technology.  Unless people do something as stupid as fighting wars over who gets to drive Hummers instead of switching to Priuses or Chevy Volts, our prospects look good.

Unless people do something as stupid as fighting wars over who gets to drive Hummers instead of switching to Priuses or Chevy Volts, our prospects look good.

Its a good thing than that any of the wars are not about oil to power hummers and that consumers can go money in hand any buy Chevy Volts!

Haza! The doomers are wrong and the American Way of Life is saved!

Kunstler, and many of us, myself included, turn to the ‘model’ of the 19th or 18th cent because it is a state-of-affairs we are familiar with, and even, for some, directly in touch with thru family stories, memories, writings, etc. It is also a model we tend to admire or like, because the backward view is smoothed out and made rosy. Tradition! Solid values! and oh those beautiful antiques! real ‘bio’ fruit! Happy families! ..etc. Of course, as Kunstler and others point out, there is the little matter of population...

We look backwards and think that what was done can be undone, and our line thru time can be reversed, with a slow ‘disintegration’ or letting go reversing the (actually very rapid) build-up. (1) I don’t think so. (2) I can’t think of a single historical example, but I’m no historian.

This situation is new. a) the interconnectedness mentioned (Vacca), b) globality (those butterfly wings..), c) mobility, d) arms and technology.

1. E.g. See nice animated map of US county formation from 1643.

2. Which does not mean that some ways-of-doing of the 19th, or 10th century, or the Maya, for that matter, are unworthy of consideration or uptake.


I just realized that Stuart's graph of utility patents granted looks very much like a graph of the Dow Industrial Average (inflation adjusted) -- otherwise known as the Real Dow.

Even some of the minor wiggles and wobbles seem to match up well.

Plot of Real DJIA, 1924-present, ca. 25 KB

Not bad!

Looks like the stock market leads and the lag time is 5-10 years. That's longer than typical application->patent issue lag, so it may be project initiation -> patent issue.

The most interesting graph, of course, would be to find the one that leads the market...I can keep a secret.

Maybe the best early indicator (such as it is) of how technology is faring re peak oil etc is the inflation adjusted nasdaq composite index.

But, re patents, a couple of biz types that I have known over the years have often drilled it into me that the stock market is a leading indication (though unreliable) of the economy.

ADDENDUM: Just an observation that during the Dirty 30's/ Fightin' 40's, the market ticked up before patents bottomed, but during the oil crisis years, patents recovered before the market.

Actually, the stock market is a poor predictor of recessions - usually topping out right at the beginning of the recession, or even a little into it.

True, but when researchers such as Dr. Hamilton of Econbrowser develop and publish indicators designed to 'predict' months after the fact whether a recession occurred, it seems even noisy concurrent indicators have their place!