Why new ideas take time to have impact

As an opening warning, today I am going to write a piece of fiction. Not that it suggests that I am trying to emulate James Kunstler, nor is it going to have the drama of the Science fiction/Fantasy by authors such as David Weber, Lois McMaster Bujold, or Jim Butcher that, to pick but three I avidly devour. No what I want to do is to try and explain is why it takes new ideas about 20-years to go from idea to significant market impact. I thought it might be amusing to do this by following a totally fictitious idea *cough* from concept to impact level to show some of the barriers to progress. Dixie Lee Ray once tried to do this in explaining why, even if cold temperature fusion worked, it could not be an instant contributor to the national energy supply. Unfortunately I have lost that reference and so you are stuck with this, should you choose to read it.

Let’s begin by saying that our protagonists are three faculty members: you, a young female electrical engineer called Angela, me, a somewhat old plant biologist called Burt, and Charlie, a medium career nuclear engineer. We are having a beer after classes end and I comment that in some work I was doing in Russia on birch trees I had noticed that one of the ponds on site had a thin oily scum on it. I’d brought samples back for testing and it seems as though the cause was algae, in the water, that was weeping a lipid. We all troop back to the lab for a look, and on top of the little reactor that I have built there is this thin film, but the water below is quite muddy and turbid, and this has been sitting there for quite a while. You suggest cleaning up the layers with a little applied electrical potential, and Charlie suggests a little radiation might weaken the algal cell wall and increase yield.

You have a little start-up funding left from your admin faculty appointment and hire a grad student to work on this, and within a few months the tank now contains an almost clear liquid in which, about half-way down, there is a thick band of the green, irradiated algae slightly disturbed by the flow of air and CO2 coming from spargers at the bottom of the tank. At the top of the tank there is now a relatively thick band of oil, which is happily growing under the stimulation of the normal lighting in the lab. The grad student writes up a dissertation, and in a moment of caution you decide to patent what has been done, which makes the defense closed, and the report, for a short time unavailable to the public. The student was able to achieve a yield of lipids from the algae that calculates into 12,000 gallons/acre/year of biodiesel. So now, about eighteen months from the initial meeting in the bar we have some experimental data, but money has now all run out, and we need to start to get external support, since among other things you would like to get tenure.

(Working through a colleague you get some funding from a mining company to use the electrical potential idea as a means of settling out fines in mining operations, that also works and leads on to you becoming a recognized expert in that field, which gets you tenure, and brings in money – but we will forgo that part of the story for now).

So where to get the money for the new idea (which you call IPEA – for Instant Production of Energy from Algae)? Well the nation is aware that there is a problem with gas prices and so we presume that it shouldn’t be that hard to get some funding from one of the government agencies, and so we write off proposals to the usual suspects. Surprising to us, they are all rejected – to summarize those rejections we find that they range from just poor odds with some (acceptance rate about 1 in 15), through one agency where the reviewers comments dealt only with noting that none of the three of us had peer-reviewed publications in the area, to a suggestion that we find an international energy distributor (petroleum based suggested) to work with. (We try that, but though we talk to more than one corporate vice=president and they promise to call back . . . .they never do, not even the ones running the adverts on TV).

Now, while we had been writing these proposals the campus had been trying to show how up-to-date on research in areas of national need they are, and so they had been publicizing the work that we have been carrying out, and between us we have given a number of local presentations to small groups and state organizations. At this point Derek enters the picture. Derek works in the venture capital field, and after visiting the lab, and seeing the results negotiates an agreement with us and the University to form a company to exploit IPEA. By the time that all the agreements, and funding is in place it is four years since that initial meeting in the bar. (This isn’t MIT, folks).

With funding now available it takes only another year of accelerating the lab-work and tweaking current levels (very low) and species modification and irradiation to the point that the yield in the lab has reached 15,000 gal/acre/yr and it is time for the first field test.

We negotiate a small site on University property where we dig a small pond, and line it with clay. One of the mechanical engineering grad students comes up with an ingenious device that harvests the oil layer and feeds it into a vertical column, where it is trans-esterified and converted into biodiesel and glycerin by the time that it gets to the bottom. It took a year to get the permits to carry out these tests, and it takes a year of running the pond to show that it will produce oil consistently in all seasons (hey, they survived Russian winters), and to acquire data on production yields with time. A simple ground source heat system laid with the pond keeps the temperature in the water warm enough for sustained growth, and the data confirms that the lab predicted yields are achievable. The small amount of biodiesel generated is used in university vehicles, bringing publicity to the campus, and expressed interest and support from the Governor of the State.

As we enter the eighth year since the creation of the idea, we are now ready to move to the first prototype of a full-scale farm. Over the year that the trials have been going on we have talked with one of the mining companies that support your other work, and they will make one of their abandoned quarry areas available, since this will give a pond that is already carved in shape, and just needs sealing. It is five acres in size. However, at this scale it is now necessary to get the necessary permits for air and water, and since this interferes with normal land reclamation plans, additional inputs must be made to the state to allow modification of the mine’s earlier approved reclamation plans. To get these permits, and to install the equipment for the farm takes two years, even with the head start of the year of pre-planning that we did while the first pond was being tested. Again we run the system for a year in order to validate the seasonal and diurnal production rates. Half-way through the year a contractor, who has been bringing in the pasteurized sewage that is used as the algal nutrient, draws the supply from the wrong tank, and feeds the pond raw sewage instead. Production doubles, but the tests are continued for another year to ensure that there are no additional health issues generated from the change. We find that the site works best when we break the pond into modules that are about a quarter of an acre each.

It is now at the end of year eleven, and over the course of the two years of field testing approval has been obtained to use a mine tailings site as the location for the first full production farm. The site is two square miles in size. The farm site is near a power station that will provide the CO2, and a small town that will provide the sewage and labor. (This fosters the new Governor’s stated goal of re-building rural communities). However issues of air quality (there is a faint smell of oil given off by the lipid as it floats over the pond) and risks to wild life, and other areas of concern from national environmental groups extend the time needed for permitting by another year, and mean that it will take a full three years of testing and validation of this farm before the Government will approve the process for franchising and full scale development.

At this point, although successful at every point it was tested, IPEA is still only producing 30,000 (gal per acre) x 640 (acres per sq mile) x 2 x .75 (efficiency factor)/(42 x 365) = 1,880 barrels/day. With biodiesel by this point getting $25 per gallon on the market, it is however, not unprofitable, and Derek is able to franchise the concept to some 200 sites over the course of the next two years, with each requiring their own permits and engineering. At the same time the modular concept becomes popular with farmers, who set up small ponds on their own to produce enough for local needs. It takes a further three years to get the larger sites into full production, and thus it is a full twenty years after that meeting in the bar that you sit in your office and contemplate the impact that your idea is finally starting to have on international supply. (By this time I am in a rest home, and Charlie has long ago moved into the nuclear industry, from which he recently retired).

Derek comes to visit and brings a handsome present (though not from a top jeweler you note). He wants you to have it as a remembrance of the work you helped found. “But what about our basic patent?” you ask, thinking that this would now fund your retirement.

“Oh, that ran out three years ago,” he commented, as he closed the door behind him.

Well that’s the story, and obviously I shouldn’t quit my day job. But hopefully you can see that there is no “quick fix” that will allow a new idea to solve market demand in the short term. Depending on the solution, and the permits needed for large construction (Nuclear times are much longer than those I have cited) this process could be extended considerably beyond the times given. One cannot circumvent the steps upward in scale that must each be judged and evaluated before the next step is taken. Thus each step takes pre-planning, permitting, and operational time before one can move on to the next.

There have been some ideas that I have seen that, being simple, have been adoptable by industry in a relatively short time, but they have been based on the use of a tool developed by one industry into another. Where a new concept is introduced, particularly where it needs a supporting infrastructure, a twenty-year time frame is much more likely to be the case for the time needed for significant impact.

(Note - it is the Editor, not the author, who currently has a cold - grin)

The student was able to achieve a yield of lipids from the algae that calculates into 12,000 gallons/acre/year of biodiesel.

The issue I would raise here is that this seems to be above the theoretical limit. You are aware of Krassen Dimitrov's work in which he calculated a maximum possible yield - based on solar insolation hitting an area - of 1.24 gal/m2/yr. What you have translates into just under 3 gal/m2/yr.

I am curious to understand the disconnect. Is Dimitrov in error? If so, what is the error? I really want to understand this.

12,000 gallons/acre/year of biodiesel.

The issue I would raise here is that this seems to be above the theoretical limit.

Notice also the part about the idea being totally fictitious, and the algae "happily growing under the stimulation of the normal lighting in the lab". The algae have mutated under irradiation and acquired the ability to tap energy from the basic zero-point energy structure of SPACETIME ITSELF.

How shall motoring gain nuclear cachet?

What Dimitrov??

How many galons of diesel worth shines per year on an acre (Or square meter)?

Let's see:
1350 J/m^2/s Specific Solar power
* 60 s/min
* 60 min/h
* 24 h/day
* 0.5 ligh/day Minus night
* 0.5 IntegralCos(incident angle)/light (Consider some rays at an angle)
* 365 days/year
* 80% SunnyDays/year Discount for bad weather and solar eclipse
* 4047 m^2/acre
/ 39.8 MJ/L Compare to Heat energy of Diesel
/ 3.78 L/gal
= 229,049 Gallons/acre/year of diesel at 100% efficiency
/ 4047 m^2/acre
= 56.6 gal/m^2/year .

What would the ??? Dimitrxx assume only 2% solar convesion efficiency?

I get a better yield %% growing potatoes, that actually taste well!
And I haven't even saturated them with CO2, optimized water, or fine-tuned nutrients!

Okay... dude, all that incident solar calculation has been done with real numbers at nrel.


using a flat recieving surface like water would have to be and neglecting albedo differences, that gives us a maximum of 5 kwh/day/m^2 (arizona)
= 18 mj/day/m2 = 6570 mj/year/m2 = 43 gallons/m2/yr. that's at 100% efficiency.

Now, photosynthetic efficiency for algae is from 3% to 6%.


Now, bear in mind that the best algaes produce 50% of their mass in lipids. The rest is nonuseful biomass. That's the show.

The reason that I want to go back and re-read Dimitrov is that he broke the efficiency down into several steps as I recall, and I think he made an incorrect assumption in one of them. Until I have gone back through his numbers, and then compared them with some experimental results, I would prefer not to conjecture on where the error might be.

Well, that is current best case.

But we had for a sake of an argument a hypothetical case, where more efficient algae could be (imagine) invented.
Dimitrov writes While the lipid content of microalgae, on a dry cellular weight basis varies between 20 and 40 %, lipid contents as high as 85 % have been reported for certain microalgal strains.

So all we have to improve efficiency of that strain. It is said that 80% of each quantum of visible light is used in photosynthesis. So all our hypothetical group could do is to engineer it, so that more of the light enters photosynthesis and less is converted to heat.

Do you know of any provend fundamental physical barier for such an improvement of efficiency, other than experience from past algeae performance?
OK. One: As long as the biomass is composed of many cell, it needs overhead such as cellular wall and nucleus. Let's take 10% off our estimate. Still pretty high. What's your next argument against possibility of increasing chances for more photosynthetic 'hits' ?

Well, my next suggested probable limit would be that only 50% of the spectrum is photosynthetically active in chlorophyll based systems. I HAVE heard that there are filters that can be put in place that absorb non-usable frequencies and re-emit them at usable frequencies, but those have inefficiencies of their own and are a leeetle pricey.

Next is that not 100% of the surface of the pond will have an algae cell in the correct position to absorb the photon. There will always be debris, turbulent blank spots, dirt, etcetera (or in this case, oil scum) that tends to block or deflect incoming photons.

After that, there is the 3-6% current best case for total energy conversion. Not that that can't be improved upon, but can the energy conversion efficiency AND the lipid fraction both be improved upon in the same species?

This is not necessarily the way that algae are going to be optimally grown. I used the idea of a weeping algae to overcome one of the harvesting problems - there are ways of harvesting, but I wanted to write a story that was relatively short and uncomplicated, and so invented this method to make the lipid separation easier. There are however validated ways of increasing algal yield, I just need to go through the conversion process to see where the gain is achieved, there are at least two different possibilities and so either I or that mythical student will have to do a little more homework.

It's okay, I understand that for the purposes of the story it doesn't matter, you were going for "major breakthrough" and you got it. I am really not trying to make your life difficult with excessive critiquing of what was an excellent summary of the path from conception to meaningful impact, this is just a side-thread about the nature of the "theoretical" limit.

BTW, I just looked into the albedo issue. It is a major one.


At a rough guess water will accept *maybe* 1 kwh/day/m^2 in the arizona sun. The sun crosses the sky at 15 degrees per hour and a mere 5 degree incident angle drops the absorbed light to 50%. So you'd get 40 minutes at above 50%, then another 40 minutes at 35-50%, 80 minutes at 13-35%...

I recall that if you do not chlorinate pools and hot tubs in Arizona, they will soon become filled with yellow-green algae. Am not sure if you could keep a pure algae strain in a pond as other species might quickly infiltrate and compete against higher lipid algae.

In some Florida offshore areas nitrogen from onshore was entering shallow water via rivers and streams. This caused algae bloom. The algae shaded out the sea grass that was the habitat of shrimp and numerous species of fish. It also depleted oxygen from the water. The growth rate of algae might be limited by nutrients and available oxygen.

These early algae models were not very efficient in their predictions of labor, energy, harvesting & processing costs, plant and equipment prices, land rent or mortgage costs, other borrowing costs, taxes etc.

With subsidies the California solar industry is growing quickly. One may need to compare the amount of energy provided per dollar between all types of renewable energies including wind, solar, hydroelectric, tidal, geothermal, and biomass. Some wind and hydroelectric projects were advancing without subsidies. A few geothermal projects were profitable without subsidies. Solar preheating of water before it entered water heater tanks has proved to be economical in areas not too far north.

With ethanol there has been some success in Brazil, yet it is causing the loss of forest habitat and creating greenhouse gas that was not properly considered by those promoting ethanol. In the United States it was calculated that to meet govt. ethanol standards forty percent of the grain (corn + wheat) might be required. Such a rapid increase in acreage of corn planted is not happening in 2008. Other nations' biofuels programs might also lead to grain deficits and spiking food prices. Grain prices tripled since 2005 when ethanol use became mandatory.

Food price increases cannot all be attributed to rising energy costs, else the price of homes, cars, clothes, electricity, etc. might have tripled.

Here is one system which would seem to minimise problems of contamination as the algae is kept in contained units:
Algae: 'The ultimate in renewable energy' - CNN.com

They also claim far higher rates of production per acre, due to growing the algae in vertical containers.

With ethanol there has been some success in Brazil, yet it is causing the loss of forest habitat and creating greenhouse gas that was not properly considered by those promoting ethanol.

There are many reasons that forest habitat is being lost in Brazil, ethanol production from sugarcane is NOT a major contributing factor to this particular problem.
Massive monoculture of any sort does indeed have major effects on other ecosystems in Brazil and is most certainly not a completely benign influence. However it would give your otherwise excellent points a lot more credibility of you and others checked your facts and stopped propagating this myth. You can get a good overview of where and what kind of habitat is suitable for sugarcane production in Brazil by looking at the maps in this pdf file.

As for

creating greenhouse gas that was not properly considered by those promoting ethanol.

Neither were any of consequences of using fossil fuel and building a global economy based on a single non renewable energy source, which sort of makes the consequences of using ethanol in Brazil pale in comparison.

Ride a Bike or take a Hike!

Well, my next suggested probable limit would be that only 50% of the spectrum is photosynthetically active in chlorophyll based systems. I HAVE heard that there are filters that can be put in place that absorb non-usable frequencies and re-emit them at usable frequencies, but those have inefficiencies of their own and are a leeetle pricey.

Is that 50% by wavelenght bandwidth or 50% of radiated power?

Obviously, chlorophyl does not use green light and reflects it as a waste.
If we managed to develop black chlorophyl, that would be great.

Also, I see great solar energy loses in evaporation. If the oil film itself cannot contain it, we'll need to build a greenhoise for the algae or keep it in glass pipes.

The next problem is thermal management. Warmer environment likely increases photosynthesis rates. However, cooked algae probably refuese to work. If we cannot manage heating or cooling by some simple means, such as mass of the water or controlled evaporation, there will be large energy loses on HVAC.

I see 2 natural means of thermal management:
1. Thermal capacity of large amount of water
2. Photosynthesis itself should have cooling effect, since it is energy taken. So at hight temperatues the increased rate of photosynthesis should sel-regulate temperature. But we need to keep the system at or below peak photosynthesis rate. If we blow past it, lots of added cooling woud be needed just to keep algae alive.

The answer comes in several parts - the easy one is to say that this is a work of fiction and the numbers could be considered that way, however there is a real, and more complicated, answer.

In the Redhawk tests they were able to considerably improve on the base NREL target of 50 gm/sq m/day, which gives the 3,500 gal/acre/day which is the commonly cited yield for algae over things such as rape or soybeans.

The growth rate—an average productivity of 98 grams/m2/day (ash free, dry weight basis) and reaching a high peak value of 174 grams/m2/day—surpassed previous lab growth rates and exceeded all expectations going into the project.

This is roughly 3.5 times the baseline and translates to 12,100 gal/acre/year. However, even at Redhawk they were only just starting to tweak the process in the right direction.

The reason this differs from Dimitrev's theory can perhaps be explained by analogy (albeit imperfect). If I sit by a river and drink a cup of water whenever I want to it is a little inaccurate to assume the relative efficiency of the process is the total power of the water as the input, and the cup of water that I drink as the output. But that is the way that the equation is being presented. There are controlling parameters on the way in which algae handle light that can be adjusted, in the same way as, to work the analogy again, I could now put a cup in both hands and drink twice as fast - without changing the input.

Kudos for using the word "sparge."

Years later I still dream about going into work and streaking out my C. reinhardti stocks.

This is roughly 3.5 times the baseline and translates to 12,100 gal/acre/year.

But that appears to be the growth rate of the algae, and not oil production. NREL indicated that the high oil % happened when they starved the algae. That bumps the % oil up, but growth ceases.

But that is the way that the equation is being presented.

It would be more helpful for me if you can point out which parameter/equation that Dimitrev used is wrong. I have long hoped that he was wrong, but I feared that he was right. If you can convince me that he was wrong, I will be grateful. And I am not being facetious.

If you will forgive me I believe you are generalizing from the particular. It really depends on the species that you are growing in regard to growth rate, and lipid content, and there are a number of other factors that also come into play, that Dimitrev did not factor in.

Since the experiments with which I am familiar come at the issue from a different approach I will have to revisit Dimitrev's work in more detail ( I have it, I just have to find it) to pin down exactly where he made the error.

Incidentally, if this were more than a fictional enterprise, you might recognize the name of one of the corporate vice-presidents.

And in this hypothetical, purely fictional world, at what stage in the 20 year enterprise would 2008 be?

About year 3.

Something is really wrong with this calculations:

In the Redhawk tests they were able to considerably improve on the base NREL target of 50 gm/sq m/day, which gives the 3,500 gal/acre/day which is the commonly cited yield for algae over things such as rape or soybeans.

50 g/m^2/day ----- NREL target
* 4047 m^2/acre
/ 850 g/l ----------- Diesel density (even if all dry contents were oil)
* 3.78 gal/l
= 900 gal/acre/day
3,500 gal/acre/day is 4 times overestimated.

The growth rate—an average productivity of 98 grams/m2/day (ash free, dry weight basis) and reaching a high peak value of 174 grams/m2/day—surpassed previous lab growth rates and exceeded all expectations going into the project.
This is roughly 3.5 times the baseline and translates to 12,100 gal/acre/year. However, even at Redhawk they were only just starting to tweak the process in the right direction.

No. 3.5 times baseline translates to 3150 gal/acre/day .

However, notice that 174 grams/m^2/day is already 35% photosynthesis efficiency over theorethical 493gm/m^2/day average solar output !

[ 493gm/m^2/day = 56gal/m^2/year / (365 day/year) * 3.78 (gal/l) * 850 g/l ]

So there goes Dimitrov's limit of 2% maximum efficiency - 17x overcome.

My apologies but i got one of the units wrong. Inadvertently I typed 3,500 gl/acre/day when it should have been 3,500 gal/acre/year - which it is in most of the other discussion.

With apologies to Al Bartlett:

Once upon a time, there lived a little bacterium in a bottle...blah blah blah, you know the story - the bacteria have a doubling time of 1 minute. They start growing at 11 am in the morning, at 11:58 the bottle is 1/4 full. Some mathematically minded members of the bacteria community realize that the bottle will be filled by 12:00. So they send out their best and brightest scouts to search for new bottles to live in. One of these brave bacteria, who goes by the name of "Heading Out," accompanied by his crack team, discover an entirely new empty bottle, the size of the one they were just living in. "We're saved," he cries, "saved!" Other search teams manage to discover another two entirely empty bottles (bringing the total discovery to three), while physicist bacteria in the home bottle design quantum teleportation devices that will be able to handle the overflow by rapidly teleporting large numbers of bacteria to the new bottles. Then the clock struck 12:02...

Yes but this time we are using the exponential function to grow energy, not to use it.

You can deflect the point of my allegory by choosing to misinterpret it, if you like, but I suspect you understand what I'm driving at even if you don't want to really accept it.

definitely, we are still not attacking the root problem of growth, which is not sustainable. Perhaps this peak oil crisis will help people to realize this before it is to late and humanity ins thrown back into an era of war, famine and complete ignorance.

Couldn't have put it better myself. Unfortunately I'm not sure if the peak oil crisis is helping at all. It seems to me like many people on TOD understand the exponential function when applied to production and consumption of oil, but don't seem to be able to transfer this basic piece of mathematics to other obviously finite resources such as water, air, land etc...

Now it's my turn to promise I'm not being facetious... I'm really not and I'd like to understand. Why does a technology like this inherently support a growth economy?

I think it's an excellent question. I think the evolutionary geneticists on TOD would say to you: "It's in our genes to grow and grab as many resources as we can. We're only doing what we are programmed to do." However, IMO, this is a rather self-fulfilling "just so" story. Because certain people behave a certain way in their lives, grab everything they can and run the world, they turn it into a self-fulfilling scientific theory.

So indeed, why does technology have to support a growth economy? I believe our brains are powerful enough to remake our world as we choose. I can make up "just so" stories, just like others do on TOD. However, I think that when technologists shy away from the root of the problem (growth), their work is likely to be in vain.

Why do people refuse to see the obvious? I suspect that the prospect of a steady state or slightly declining economy and world population (since we're in overshoot already) is very frightening to the people who sit on top of the pile. (Basically people like us who drive cars, have jobs, eat three square meals a day and have access to the internet and time to waste writing stuff on it like this.) Because, while we grab the most and grow our consumption exponentially, there is just enough "trickle down" to stop the peasants from ransacking the citadel. A transition to a steady-state/slight decline without redistribution of wealth and resources to the poor will probably result in one outcome: revolution, and it will probably be messy.

Guess I haven't answered your question, but I think it's a good one all the same.

I think the evolutionary geneticists on TOD would say to you: "It's in our genes to grow and grab as many resources as we can. We're only doing what we are programmed to do."

Why would they say anything so ill-informed?

That is quite definitely not in our genes ... over the first 99% of our time on earth, it is clear that we did not work under a uniform locust model.

Since we have our genes in common with the people in the first 99% of our time on earth, then if we have a society built on a foundation of institutional rules that mandate "grab as many resources as you can" for large, self-reproducing organizations, we certainly cannot blame that on our genes.

Well, that's rather understandable! When you consume oil, you no longer have oil, you now have water, co2, and some heat. When you consume water however, 99 uses out of 100 you still have water (sometimes it's yellow is all). Same with land, you really can't "consume" land, you can only change around the uses, strip malls may be some work to turn back into forest, but it can be done.

Of course, nothing works well at all for any length of time under exponential growth curves, so eventually we are going to have a stable or declining human population on earth (my bet is on a declining one...soon). Whether the limiting nutrient is oil, water or spotted flurgles is kind or irrelevant, there will be one and most likely soon.

I always cringe a little however when I hear talk of "sustainable" because I do not think it at all likely that the genie will go back into the bottle gracefully, "using less" is a profoundly difficult proposition in a world as intertwined as this one. I have serious doubts that we can return to an idealized 19th century subsistence farming lifestyle and still retain any of the trappings of modern life, including medicine, computers, electrical grids, or effectively anything else. Globally, 80% (give or take) of primary energy is fossil fuel based, there is a reason for that. It has nothing to do with corporate greed, it has to do with energy density and EROEI.

The much touted numbers, for example, the US is 5% of the population uses 25% of the oil are also highly misleading. For example, the EU is 7% of the population and uses 18% of the oil. Not as bad as the US, but still very very not good. Were the US to drop itself to European oil consumption, that would offset Chinese demand growth by *4 years*. So we're looking for a change that is all-together larger, and I just don't see it happening.

I always cringe a little however when I hear talk of "sustainable" because I do not think it at all likely that the genie will go back into the bottle gracefully, "using less" is a profoundly difficult proposition in a world as intertwined as this one.

Cringing at hearing talk of sustainability is like cringing at hearing talk about the second law thermodynamics. The world is finite and we are going to have to come to terms with this fact sooner or later. Using less is not a profoundly difficult proposition. It is a profoundly simple one. Humanity will collectively use less whether we like it or not. The question is whether we will do so in the stupidest way possible thus maximizing chaos and suffering, or whether we will use less in an intelligent manner which will minimize chaos and suffering. I must admit that, at present, the evidence that stupidity will triumph is strong, particularly when the world is filled with people who cringe at the idea that two plus two equals four.

It isn't the word, it's the common usage. Thermodynamics is set in stone and the ultimate goal is either a steady state or an energy budget that produces only excesses sufficient for colonization of other planets/moons or whatnot. My issue is that so often when I hear talk of "susainable", the speaker is thinking of going back to amish style methodologies, the road from here to there is bloody in the extreme.

Wind power for what it's worth, solar power when it attains feasibility, nuclear power, biomass energy FWIW, population control, PHEVs, and so many other aspects of the situation can if deployed rapidly enough (already probably too late for that) allow a road from here to sustainable (for a given population) that isn't bloody, but it is going to be *hard* and it needs support on the positive side, not just opposition to the nonsustainable alternatives. I do not like the idea of returning to sustainability by returning the first world to african standards of living. There has got to be a better way.

There truly are many many people that talk of sustainability that envisage some hippie utopia, which works at current in very small pockets only because they are very small pockets within a fully fleshed wealthy society. Subsistence level farming is a viable method in todays economy only because there are enough people willing to pay a large premium for organic produce that the organic farmers themselves make a living. Take that away and the problems begin in earnest.

For an example of "using less is profoundly difficult", exports to the US make up over 30% of the chinese econoy, stop that revenue flow and china will most probably have a civil war quite rapidly. Unintended consequences indeed.

Thanks for the clarification, but you should be more careful in your use of language. The use of the world "always" in the statement: I always cringe a little however when I hear talk of "sustainable" seems to imply that you believe that all people who are promoting sustainability are unrealistic morons. There are certainly plenty of unrealistic people on both sides of the sustainability debate. You have those who believe that advancing technology will allow the stock market to go on rising for centuries into the future even in the face of a steep decline of fossil fuel supplies, and you have those who believe that we can create a "green" version of suburbia and consumer culture merely by doing more recycling and extracting biogas from cow manure. However, as far as I am concerned any person who is not actively promoting rapid movement towards real sustainability as a major goal of our economic activity is, by definition, a clueless moron.

The difficulty of moving towards a sustainable economy that you refer to is the difficulty which results from trying to pursue two contradictory goals at the same time. If you are constantly scarfing down ice cream and cake, and then trying to lose weight by excessive exercise you are going to have difficulties. If the primary goal of individual economic actors is to gain security by accumulating as much private wealth as they can by whatever method is most convenient, then attaining sustainability is not merely difficult; It is impossible. We cannot create a system of sustainable economic production unless it is our primary goal to so. Instead sustainability is at best a secondary goal and in many cases a tertiary or non-existent goal. All new investments in economic infrastructure should be directed towards obtaining sustainability. We do not need brilliant workaholics spending seventy hours a week figuring out how to pack more features into our cell phones. Our current economic system is structurally insane. I guess you can argue that curing insanity is a difficult task, but the direction we need to travel towards survival once the insanity has come to an end is pretty easy to understand. It will be time enough to bemoan the difficulty of the path when we have started moving in the right direction.

Well... Suggesting the necessity that TPTB completely overturn the entire set of incentives and societal structure is .... Well, unrealistic is putting it very mildly. Frankly, my biggest problem is that people like you that have the correct long term goal in mind seem to tend to oppose short term improvements (thus the cringing). It is as though you have the impression that we CAN go from our massively consumptive society to sustainability in one step, there is no path from here to there other than death. For the case of PO, drilling ANWR would do nothing to improve our sustainability, but it *would* buy us a little time time that we desperately need and time that will be well spent if my read on the consternation I am seeing in the masses is correct. Opposing interim solutions is just as insane as opposing long term goals. Frankly it won't do us much good to be trending toward long term sustainability if we do so in the midst of famine and war.

What I would actually like to see is a multi-pronged approach incorporating everything that works for as long as it works. We're going to need all the oil we can lay hand to and the time to start drilling is...3 years ago. We're going to need all the CTL we can make and the time to start displacing the coal with wind and nuclear is 8 years ago. We're going to need all the wind, nuclear and biomass energy we can lay hand to and any time would be fine to start earnestly building those. Nuclear fuel is admittedly finite but the thing that we most need is TIME. If nuclear can buy us 50 or 100 years then it's suicidal not to take that time.

Incidentally, I see absolutely no contradiction in trying to get individually rich while advancing sustainability. A fabulously wealthy but still sustainable person might own several hundred acres, an ethanol still, a wide variety of PHEVs, acres of PV cells, and all the rights to a small hydro plant. In fact, best odds of solving this problem in my opinion come from people trying to get rich off of PO by marketing better alternatives.

Rather than trying to make there be no "next big thing" that gets everyone rich, why not make sustainable technologies the next big thing and make a bunch of brilliant innovators rich on the proceeds?

I wholeheartedly agree with your comments on buying time - we desperately need it to mature our energy technologies and allow more sensible insulation standards and so on to take effect.
I would also like to comment on the idea of sustainability and zero growth that is current here.
Even if we were in such a state overall, then no new paradigm would be started in business.
That is because even if the overall output is stable, the constituents of it are in flux, and to survive businesses need to put themselves in the growth part of it.
For instance, in a high energy cost world then the airline industry would be contracting, but the manufacture of buses might be expanding.
No business would aim at stability, and to do so would be a death wish.

A look at the history of zero-growth societies also shows pretty conclusively that they are very conflictual.
In the middle ages, for instance, since productivity was hardly moving then the best way to improve your lot was to grab someone else's land and peasants to farm it.

Opposing interim solutions is just as insane as opposing long term goals. Frankly it won't do us much good to be trending toward long term sustainability if we do so in the midst of famine and war.

Since when does manufacturing jet skis, SUVs, muscle cars, 100 watt per channel stereo systems, 60 inch plasma screen televisions etc. have anything to do with preventing famine? Since when does using nitrogen fertilizer, potable water, gasoline powered tools etc. to grow neatly manicured laws have anything to do with preventing famine? There are a whole host of actions that could be taken with very great speed which would free up production resources which could be dedicated toward creating sustainable infrastructure. Yes, many people would experience career turmoil as they transitioned from doing useless destructive work to doing truly useful work, but that turmoil could be handled if we had the social will to do so. I am not opposed to any specific energy technology, not to nuclear energy and not even to the extraction of non-conventional fossil fuels. But I am opposed to continuing an incredibly wasteful economic system whose primary goal is to increase the total volume of economic transactions as quickly as possible.

The only justification for using all possible means to keep the current economic system "healthy" (i.e. to keep the stock market growing) for as long as possible is the claim that such a strategy will allow time for alternate energy technology to advance so that when the wheels finally fall off of the growth machine and we really have to get serious about sustainability we will have a better set of technological tools available. I am skeptical that this is truly a better strategy than eliminating wasteful forms of economic production and dedicating the saved resources towards creating sustainable infrastructure. Furthermore the strategy you suggest carries the risk of creating disastrous ecological debts for which our advanced technology may not be able to pay.

Your comments about brilliant innovators getting rich in a sustainable economy shows that either you do not believe that economic growth will come to an end or that you do not understand what the end of economic growth means. Not all investments increase our wealth. Repairing roads, highway bridges, railroad bridges etc. does not make us rich. Such investments prevent our wealth from decaying away. If we have to replace our coal and natural gas fired power plants by technology that is more expensive then such replacement is not going to make us richer, it will merely prevent our wealth from decaying away as it would if we had no replacements. If our collective productivity becomes stagnant or declines it is impossible to have a class of people consistently increasing their wealth without making the rest of society poorer. This is a matter of simple arithmetic. Maybe you have an Ayn Rand like belief that human ingenuity will increase our productivity forever no matter what resource limitations we run into. I don't have such a belief. A fundamental change of orientation is needed and I do not really see an evolutionary way of getting from here to there. Either you think you can get richer forever or you don't, and your fundamental economic strategy will change significantly depending on which belief you hold.

Who said anything about maintaining production of all the "waste" activities? Not me for sure!! However, they similarly cannot just...end, they need to taper out at least a little. All those activities do create economic activity and a large population segment depends on that economic activity, if it were to simply end without a "next big thing" then you have the economic collapse we are all so worried about. What I would hope to see happen would be for oil production to increase to whatever levels are needed to maintain the price at $150-$200/barrel for 4 or 5 years. That'd be enough time for that price point to percolate through the economy, for next gen cars to hit the roads, for suburbia to wither slowly instead of turning into an unemployment wasteland, for world economic growth to level off, and breathing room all around. That little bit of breathing room is worth almost any price, because if the death spiral continues for much longer, the world economy will simply stop.

It isn't going to happen because everything that would stabilize the price is too little too late with too much opposition.

I am of the opinion that if we can surmount this crisis, there's no particular reason why total productivity couldn't increase another few orders of magnitude, insolation is a very very large number of kwh/year and that is the only theoretical limit to "sustainable" world energy usage. We do need to clear this set of hurdles though and I am having enough trouble seeing how that can be managed from an engineering standpoint. Throw politics into the equation and the difficult engineering/industrial challenge becomes an utterly hopeless social engineering project stacked on top of an insanely difficult engineering/industrial project.

First thing we all need to do is stop opposing *anything* that is even sort of in the right direction. In fact support things that are demonstrably bad ideas, just make your support contingent on getting concessions that ARE int he right direction. Exxon wants to drill ANWR? Fine, BUT 25% of their gross revenue from ANWR goes to new windfarms.

Incidentally, brilliant innovators can get rich by making purveyors of old technology no longer rich. Te acquisition of wealth by one individual does not necessarily need to be taken from society as a whole, it can come from many sources.

On that note, there's no particular reason why things couldn't continue to improve. New technologies can coninue to cause economic fluctuations and benefits to everyone without mandating increased overall energy flux.

Who said anything about maintaining production of all the "waste" activities? Not me for sure!!

I am of the opinion that if we can surmount this crisis, there's no particular reason why total productivity couldn't increase another few orders of magnitude

The strategy you have outline above will do nothing to eliminate waste. Waste will be moderated only insofar as an economic recession forces consumers to change their consumption patterns. Once the solar revolution which will allow order of magnitude improvement productivity is in full force all this waste many other extravagant varieties will appear. Up to this point I thought you might be semi-rational. It is now clear that you are completely insane. Enjoy your delusion. I am sure you sleep better at night than I do.

I doubt it. The "if" in "if we can surmount this crisis" is a very very big one. I for one am intensely skeptical that we can. You are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem that's clear from your insistence that we must have equality and hippie paradise.

The crisis we are facing is a crisis of finitude. My solution of reducing consumption and fairly sharing economic output while we develop new infracture will physically work. In may not work practically because there are more people in the world like you than like me.

Your solution of using any and all means to keep the economy growing as fast as possible (If there is a single line in anything that you wrote that indicates that you have some other goal please point it out to me.) will not physically work. If I have to choose between a strategy which, if followed (however unlikely its adoption might be), would in fact solve our problems, and a strategy which leads inevitably to disaster I will take the former. Maybe no solution exists whatsoever, but people like you are definitely not part of any possible solution.

A) I stated that "sustainability" was an absolute requirement for long-term (just can't get there from here in 1 step).

B) I said that the wasteful activities would have to "taper out".

C) My "possible order of magnitude growth" was for *after* the present depletion curves had been halted and *after* solar power became the primary source of energy on earth.

D) An order of magnitude of total economic/energetic growth is *still* a finite amount.

E) I *never* said anything about "keeping the economy growing as fast as possible". I said that somewhere in here would be a good time to pause and take stock and allow the conservation of resources to have some time to work through the worlds economies without crushing them and creating a mad max scenario.

F) It has been implicit all along in everything I wrote that the current consumptive patterns could not possibly continue. Even my "making brilliant innovators rich" comment has nothing to do with "growing the economy". Even in a status where an absolutely fixed number of KWHs are produced annually, any efficiency tweak to an existing process would have the effect of freeing up resources that were formerly consumed on that process. That would make those resources available for previously unperformed/expensive processes and bring down the price of the improved process. That allows room for 2 industries to gain wealth without consuming 1 additional "new" kwh or making society generally poorer. In fact, it would make society materially wealthier as product A is cheaper and product B is available. This probably sounds to you like economic growth, and it is. However, since it is resource consumption/utilization that is finite, not the exchange of units of "currency" or even goods, that isn't really an issue. Spaceship economies can still grow. In fact any new resource added to a specaship economy translates directly to growth if the recycling % is high enough.

Equal distribution most probably means everyone starves. It provides no incentive whatsoever to innovate. It provides no incentive whatsoever to produce. It provides no incentive whatsoever to conserve below your quota. It provides no realistic basis by which any economy may function or has ever functioned above the 20 person "commune" level. I am not a fan of that as a large-scale policy.

I approve of trying to keep oil prices under $200 if this effort includes radical demand reduction efforts in addition to production side efforts. Trying to stand still or decline slowly when external factors leave you no other choice is still trying to grow as fast as possible. The only "elimnation of waste" pointed to by anything you have written is that enforced by physical necessity (e.g. if Detroit cannot make money by selling SUVs they will turn to PHEVs).

I have worked in Silicon Valley for 22 years. Every company here is trying to increase its volume of sales as fast as possible. In an economic system in which the security of your family depends on how much money you have socked away in stock funds and savings accounts no other economic goal makes sense. Unless social action is taken fix this structural problem the economy will always try to grow as fast as circumstances allow. You may hope that this growth willl take place by efficiency increases only so that the net consumptin of energy and other resources will not increase, but this is just an idle dream. The current economic system has proven over and over that it does not give a rat's ass about resource conservation or long term stability. All it cares about is making next year's bottom line as big as possible. It will confine itself to efficiency improvements only if grim hard necessity forces it do so.

Of course I am very much in favor of efficiency improvements. But I have a different idea about what use we should make of such improvements. At present if we figure out how to manufacture product A with less energy, less materials consumption, etc. we then say: "Great. Now let us start manufacturing product B and let's manufacture and sell as much of it as short term resource constraints will allow." Instead we should say: "Great. Now we can take life easier (What a concept. The purpose of technology improvement is to liberate us, not to us chain to the wheel of ever increasing consumption. Yes I know it's a 'hippy' idea. The hippies were not entirely fools). Or: "Let use the savings to help improve the manufacturing efficiency of some other existing product." Or: "Let's use the savings to manufacture some other existing product in more environmentally friendly manner." And so forth. The fact that such a common sense idea is regarded by so many people as brain dead 'hippy' idiocy is evidence of the deeply pathological nature of growth addiction.

If it is indeed true that voluntary simplicity (I do not mean 19'th century pastoralism. I mean committment to a very slowly changing, adequate level of wealth.) and mutual support is an impossible dream of liberal morons, then I fear that our future will be a nightmare.

I think that $150-$200/bbl oil will "naturally" cause a fair amount of demand destruction. The all out production effort to keep it at that price for a few years is to allow that demand reduction to happen. After a few years, slacking of the production efforts and allowing the price to go up again (probably to $350/bbl) and holding that level for a few years to allow THAT hit to settle in.

For myself, I am unambitious enough that I am far more interested in living calmly and having free time to read and to post to TOD or whatever I feel like doing than I am in accumulating physical items, but that's just me, I really can't begrudge others desire to have more unless they try to take mine (and that's what the 12 gauge is for). The desire to accumulate accolades of whatever type (respect, money, power, whatever) seems to have been the impetus behind almost all of the accomplishments of mankind, both the great and the terrible. Where the accolades were withheld, for whatever reason, the accomplishments ceased. So, given that "simple" country guys like me are background for the actions of the "great" accumulators, my best bet is to see to it that the best way for the accumulators to accumulate is to benefit me by so doing. Seems to me that the more rigidly the game is defined, the greater the incentive to "cheat", the greater the ability of those with friends or influence to use the rules themselves to strip me of what is mine. OTOH, the more loosely the game is defined (and I really think that game is the best term) the less incentive exists to work around the rules, the more the accumulators must ask me politely and deal with my desires in order to get me to give them what is mine.

Incidentally, if you think that a relatively fixed total energy pool apportioned according to which activity provides the greatest economic is "an idle dream" but, a "voluntary simplicity" system in which the bulk of people give up the "selfish" accumulation of accolades in favor of..... I think that you have a very very serious misread on human nature. The fact is, humans are highly unpleasant, territorial, violent, monstrous creatures. Get used to it. That fact is what we have to work with, and we have come an awfully long ways by acknowledging that and channeling our monstrosity.

I have no problem with people competing to accumulate accolades. The ancient olympic games were about public honor and not about multi-million dollar advertising contracts. The Greek mathematicians had no idea that the theory of conic sections or of irrational numbers would ever have practical applications. They were pursuing pure intellectual beauty as they conceived it. However, I do not doubt that most of them lusted after priority of discovery and the praise of their intellectual peers. I do not object to competition per se. I object to competition for the specific purpose of gaining as large a piece of the economic pie as possible. If the size of the pie is fixed then such competition leads to social chaos (At least my intuition tells me that it does.), and if the size of the pie is not fixed then such competition leads to a desire to increase the size of the pie as rapidly as possible and thus to resource depletion.

From the point of view of personal self-interest I have every reason for wanting the BAU economy to hold together for a number of decades longer. I am 52 years old and in relatively good financial condition. The men in my family tend to stay reasonably healthy until they are in their late seventies or early eighties and then keel over and die from massive heart failure. Another two and a half to three decades would probably see me safely to the end of the game. However, my best engineering judgment tells me that a comfortable middle class retirement is not in the cards, and thus my impractical dream of hippie salvation. Believe me, I understand the relatively low probability of its realization.

I would be more inclined to compare the greek mathematicians (specifically those) to the modern day university environment. In the modern university environment (publish or perish), tenure is granted to professors, then they more or less do as they please. They have no particular forward career path in terms of money, but can gain enormous social prestige from the results of their research.

The Ancient greeks have a tendency to be quite idealized, primarily because history is written by the victors. Those whose writings we are basing our knowledge of the civilization on were the rich. In fact, the very rich. Greece was a slaveholding nation with a very low population density, difficult terrain, poor soil, and very small landmasses. Those factors tend toward isolationist subsistence lifestyles, it is therefore no particular surprise that that was adopted. The ability of the individual to "claw his way up" was extremely limited, and we will note that there were several uprisings of the slaves and poor citizens. In addition, there were a multitude of wars between the city-states for acquisition of the farmland of their neighbors.

I am far more interested in ways in which it is possible to muddle through than in ways we could reach idealized Utopian societies that never existed and run contrary to human nature. The first is an economic/engineering issue, the second is a total social reallignment. The one is possible in the near to moderate term, the other will take centuries. In the meantime, I do not begrudge the president of solar one his big freakin' yacht, or the president of exxon his mansions, they both gave value for money.

All of this is why we need to have a radically different approach to solving our problems.
1) An accelerated development process, like we had in WWII for airplanes and ships, would speed things along tremendously.
2) A progressive tax, a decent social safety net, and a commitment to income equality would make it easier to develop projects like these publicly, without the Dereks of the world trying to reap all of financial benefits, while imperilling the rest of the planet.
3) How could you let your patent run out? Jeepers. You really needed a fifth character, called "Esquire" to assist you in all of this.

"a commitment to income equality would make it easier to develop projects like these publicly"

Since this idea has been around for 100's of years, I guess that you could point to case histories that would prove this point.

What do case histories have to do with it? The Greeks experimented with democracy 2000 years before the emergence of modern republican forms of goverment. The question is what is the physical reality that we are facing and will our current economic system have the flexibility to deal with it?

In a resource limited world maintaining social cohesion will either require rough income equity or a hierarchy of privilege justified by some system of theological myths. One can argue that such a myth system already exists: The Bill Gates's and Larry Ellison's of the world are men of god-like powers, and the United States has special moral virtues which entitle it to consume a fraction of the world's resouces far above the size of its population and so forth. Unfortunately for those who benefit most from the current system the poor people of the world are not buying into the myth with great enthusiasm.

Well, the Manhattan Project and the technical advancements at NASA are two that leap to mind, where the benefits were made available to the public, rather than wholly or mostly captured for private gain. We are looking at a situation where we need hundreds or thousands of silver bb's, and the need to experiment on a broad scale. Which situation is more likely to lead to a rapid transformation of the world: (1) You the developers going that this is a crap shoot, and there will be some phenomenal winners and the rest are likely to go bankrupt, and that the planet may (or may not) be saved in time or (2) You tell everyone that nobody goes bankrupt, nobody gets rich, and the planet survives. Under scenario 1, the smart people spend their resources hoarding and building fortresses and moats; under 2, everyone pitches in together.

Western Civilization tried scenario 1 at the end of the western Roman Empire, and we see what the consequences were: civil war in Spain and Italy among the fueding Roman generals, while the barbarians poured over the frontier at the Rhine and the Danube, all ending in feudalism and the dark ages for Europe.

We tried scenario 2 during WWII, and we managed to survive, along with a prosperous middle class.

I don't know when else Western Civilization faced existential threats, and I dont know enough about other histories.

But in times of severe crisis, such as now, cooperation has almost always led to better results than dog-eat-dog.

The benefit of the Manhattan project that was made available was avoiding the need to invade Japan. The advances were kept secret though spies were able to notch up the arms race leading to larger public expense.


The problem with the "WWII/Manhattan project" model is they were both "damn the expense" efforts. In creating a new energy systems the expense is everything.

Another problem is that the net result only had to be one of thing we wanted. We only needed to build one bomb (we got two which was helpful) for the project to be a success. We only needed one trip to the moon for the space program to be a success.

WWII was a bit different, but that was more of an industrial miracle than a technical one. Yes, there were some great technical strides made, but there weren't a lot of true break throughs that actually made it onto the battlefield. Mostly, we saw a lot of refinements of existing technology.

Heading Out is right that it takes a good amount of time to bring ideas from concept to fruition. However, I wonder if we shouldn't be taking a longer time to ponder the ramifications what it is that's being created. Yes, we need to find solutions to problems, but grabbing at the first one that comes along is almost guaranteed to result in a bad choice. For example, one factor that wasn't considered in the story is what happen to lakes where the modified algae escapes to. Do the fish die due to the oil covering the surface and preventing O2 turnover? Patience is a virtue. Perhaps, it needs to be practiced on a grander scale than a mere 20 years.

A great part of our success during the Manhattan project/WWII was the combination of us being the largest petroleum producer in the world coupled with a fairly free market driven economy supported in achieving these goals by the government. We don't have that combination any more. We don't have the energy. The economy has evolved to support the interests of large, lethargic, and self-interested corporations. And gov't has become dysfunctional and corrupted by the aforementioned corporate influence. It's not that everything was wine and roses in the 1940s, but things are much worse today.

All of this is why we need to have a radically different approach to solving our problems.

The options you provide are probably not radical enough. To me they all seem "in the box" - within constraints of current system and therefore not radical enough. Because it is the system and the beliefs and values it actualizes that is the problem. Faster and more isn't going to work. Society hits the wall - maybe a little later but also a little faster.

Note that around year 10 or 12 the farmers were building small scale modules for their own local use. So were small groups of suburbanites converting their pools. The small scale made it far easier to increase production with reflective surface. Beet juice changed the albedo. The grad student who first developed the separation tower published a much improved version online on the peer-to-peer network.

Monsanto revealed that it had patented not only the algae but the business process of making oil. It retained Blackwater to enforce its intellectual property. To pay off the settlements, everyone with a pool had to turn over half their production to the Monsanto Blackwater consortium (MoB). To make sure that was fair, the government conducted a strict census of all the pools and assigned strict production quotas. So that it stayed fair and so that no one could develop an edge over anyone else, the government built in a annual 10% increase in the quota - to account for improved production.

At 10%, the government expected it would be only a few years before energy shortages would be a thing of the past.

cfm in Gray, ME

One comment I have heard is that if a commercial company is going to fund a new type of product, bringing the product to commercial level of production will require 20+ years because of the number of separate steps involved:

1. Initial idea.
2. Laboratory level tests.
3. Small prototype production.
4. Initial commercial level production test.
5. Full commercial level production.

A commercial organization is not willing to risk billions of dollars on an untested idea. Instead, they test the idea at increasing levels of scale, and learn more about the process and how to do it economically at each level of scale. It would not make sense to take a barely-tested idea, and scale up production dramatically, because of the many refinements that occur during this long process.

Thanks Gail:
That was what I was trying to illustrate and though I used algae as an example, since it is, among other things, one of the less well developed of the options - allowing the inclusion of some lab time - the basic structure is as you define, and will hold true to a significant extent with any new source.

I agree. The lab where I work focuses on development of a wide range of energy and energy efficiency technology (including mutant algae and termite guts), and I did an informal survey of scientists of various fields involved in these areas over the years, and asked them the average time between benchtop demonstration and full commercialization. The numbers ranged from 15 to 25 but clustered around 20 years.

Shell spoke with us last year and I asked them about GTL technology--their first lab demonstration was 1974!

You forgot to talk about the part where you irradiate and then electrify a five acre pond. I'd like to see that myself. And what you do with all the non-lipid algae mass you're producing.

I'd guess the permit time would be the least of your problems.

farm site is near a power station that will provide the CO2,

does that equate to an energy input?

if you scale up to mass commercial level are you pumping in CO2 at prestigious rates?


One of the attractions to the use of algae is that some species can take flue gas as an input, and remove the carbon dioxide from it, replacing it with an oxygen off-gas. Thus algae have some potential as a means of transiently dealing with carbon. Similarly there are varieties that can be grown on sewage, rather than a more expensive prepared nutrient. And finally most algae have temperature ranges, and light ranges, over which they are most comfortable. All of these can be considered as energy inputs to the process, although there can be debates about how much energy cost you should charge say for the CO2 from the flue gas, if that had come about as the result of burning a fuel in a power station.

You did not answer Boris's question: Where is the CO2 going to come from in the long term? If the answer is coal then the developing world will have a double motive to go on building new coal fired power plants like crazy. If Jean Lahererre is right, peak coal may be only decades away. Algae fed by coal emmissions are not a path to another century of BAU capitalism.

I think, as time goes on, there will be a lot more coal powered stations. When you need fuel, and this is the cheapest, most available resource that is left, that is what will be used. I disagree, and have posted why, with Jean and Dave Rutledge's analysis of how much coal will end up being used as a reserve, instead of being considered, as it now is, just as a resource.

I think HO gave a decent answer. though the scaling up growth of the algae does appear constrained by its attachment to other anthropogenic (sp?) processes.


Great strategy. We have been burning through finites stores of fossilized liquid hydrocarbons like there is no tommorow in an effort to get richer as fast as we possibly can. Now that the finite nature of the reservoir is getting us into trouble you reccommend massively increasing our dependence on another finite reservoir of fossilized carbon. I realize that you will claim that you are only being 'practical'. We need to maintain and heat our homes, produce food and clothing and so forth, and coal is the cheapest means at hand which can provide the energy we need to accomplish these tasks. I would not disagree with you if the goal were to provide the basic necessities of life, but, in fact, our system of economic production passed beyond the realm of 'practicality' long ago into a regime of absurd excess and wastefulness.

Any person who promotes continued reliance on coal (I am such a person) who does not at the same promote substantially reduced consumption (I am not merely referring to increased efficiency, but to the dreadful and horrifying 'doing without') is acting in a shortsighted and irresponsible manner. These comments are not a specific criticism of research into algal biofuels of which I appprove, but a criticism of responses to the problem of peak oil which focus soley on technology and negect the larger social and political issue of growth addiction and fundamental resource limits on human productivity.

CO2 is not an energy source (for the growing algae). Sunshine is the energy source. The question (in real-world algae-growing) is: what is the limiting factor (Leibig minimum) on the rate of growth: sunshine or the low concentration of CO2 in the air? Although some plants grow a bit faster if provided an elevated concentration of CO2, in the case of a thick soup of algae I suspect that the (lack of) penetration of sunshine into the soup would be the main limiting factor.

As for using this sort of scheme as an excuse for the burning of coal, note that:
(1) the carbon from the coal still enters the atmosphere, just a little later (when the biodiesel is burnt), and
(2) there is no difference in the final outcome whether the specific carbon atoms from the coal are taken up by the algae, or if the algae absorb different carbon atoms from the CO2 in the general air.
Thus the only possible remaining benefit is if it really enhances the algae growth rate despite limited sunshine - does it?

(BTW, at best, the algae will absorb some of the CO2 only during the day.)

What if we just pumped local atmosphere into the alge being it now has a higher part of carbon?(co2 ) levels highest ,

Oil content tends to increase as you increase carbon dioxide, depending on species, up to a varying limit, which is generally less than 5%.

That process could be done a lot faster if you move the pilot project and first commercial to china. Pollution and permitting are not issues there so much.

Only to a degree, As Gail noted, and an underlying point I was trying to make, you will only be able to get so much financial support at any one time, until you have proven, through a lengthy trial, that the data justifies moving up to the next scale. For the purpose of illustration I broke that into lab, first field, prototype, pilot and then first full scale test, and it could be argued that, depending on process, this would require more or less steps - but in each case, wherever it is, you have to get site approval, funding and then build the facility before you can begin each phase, and that takes finite amounts of time - since, equally well in China as well as everywhere else, you have to find the right people to give the permissions, etc, etc.

No debate there, it still takes time.... a lot of it. I was just pointing out that shaving 5 or 10 years off that 25 is possible if you can implement in a less stupid regulatory environment. In addition, at some point, the sovereign wealth funds may start to play in the alt energy game, and those are pretty likely to make the standard venture capitalists look absolutely insanely cautious with their money.

While there are some regulations that un-necessarily extend the process time that it takes to get a facility in place, there is a good case that can be made for that can be made for being sure that a process is safe before it is allowed to go forward. (In this case one could argue the issue of birds landing on oily water is one that would have to be overcome - though this particular concept arose as a way of simplifying the harvesting issue in order to make the path a little cleaner to describe as the illustration that it was meant to be.

From what I have heard from colleagues that have worked in China, there are equivalent other issues that arise that tend to slow the process in the same way that regulation does over here.

Fiction or not, your post put the last nail in the lid for me. I'll be 60 this year and waiting 20 years for a 'Tec Fix' or maybe longer for action/direction from self interested government isn't an option. So, I'll continue to run my little diesel Smart at 80 mpg, continue to convert my park-like garden, of some 15 years in the making,(sob), into veggie patches and chicken runs, go ahead with plans to install solar panels and solar water heating and keep topping up the survival store of food-stuffs. The 'big change' is just about on us and this time, instead of waiting on the inaction of our so-called leaders, individuals should take up the lead by example and show what can be done.
Best to all at TOD.


Yes. To adapt a quote from a certain notorious former SecDef: "When TSHTF, you don't cope with the gear you would like to have, you cope with the gear you actually do have." At this point, those of us with what Gail's actuarial tables would indicate are remaining lifespans of only two or three decades at most pretty much know at this point what technologies we can count upon.

Heading Out's little parable about the algae technology quite accurately illustrates the tortuous path typically experienced in bringing a totally new and unproven technology from concept stage to actually full-scale commercial production. There are exceptions, of course, but it is usually a long and winding road fraught with serious obstacles at almost every step of the way. The percentage of inventors who ever realize even a small a return on all the time, effort, and money they've invested is very tiny indeed.

There is a vast amount of technology parked on the shelves of industry and academia that for one reason or another never made it to 'prime time'. This is why one should always take with a very large grain of salt any and all claims in the popular media about this incredible breakthrough or that incredible breakthrough. It is not only because most journalists are technically illiterate, but also just due to the simple fact that the odds are strongly stacked against almost anything new ever becoming commercially sucessful. For every, Steve Jobs, Chester Carlson, etc, there are many thousands of disappointed failures. However, on a positive note, someone somewhere has to have the better mousetrap just through the law of averages.

There is (unfortunately) one thing that will definitely accelerate the development and adoption of new technology : war. The difference between aircraft, tanks, warships, munitions, electronics, etc. at the start of World War II and its end roughly five short years later is truly amazing. It shows what can be achieved when the collective will is there.

Alternative ending...

The Grad Student saw the potential of the algal process and began working on it at home. He began to post his experiments on a blog where others also began to contribute in their spare time and supplied what little resources they could spare.

And so in the Post-Oil New-Permaculture era many transition towns have a liquid fuel project providing enough energy for their basic needs.

Or here is another alternative ending. About 10 years into the project the venture capitalist ran the numbers again, and came to the conclusion that the idea would never be profitable and pulled the plug.

No, 2 months into the project, the VC get the scientists fired and embezzle the money.

Actually you are both wrong. Just about the time that the negotiations with Derek were taking place several faculty from Angela's Department left to take up better positions elsewhere. (There are not enough warm bodies available to meet all the needs for engineering faculty) Thus her teaching load doubled, and she had to cut back on the research program, and so this died.

As someone noted about WW2, in a couple years we rolled out modern subs, ICBMs, nuclear bombs, sonar, radar, computers, electronic navigation, early helicopters, and jet planes. That's because we were desperate, and more than a few people were willing to risk their personal safety to make breakthroughs. This is what people are capable of when their survival is at stake. If a bureaucrat falls down a stairwell (twice), well that's what it takes some times.

The flip side of that is electricity, telephones, and television, which took decades to become commonplace in peacetime.

Heck even the personal computer took 20 years to go from Heathkit novelty in 1977 to household necessity.

One of the most hopeful developments is the proliferation of home tinkerers that bring to mind the near mythic farmyard inventors and blacksmiths that helped launch the industrial revolution. If you had an invention that showed promise like the one in your story, people all over the country would be on it if the information went out on the internet. Today we see hundreds of nerds create communities to hack the iPhone - let's see what they can do for self-sufficiency once they realize they won't have electricity to play Halo.

You are absolutley right.
The slow speed of development is because of the risk reward tradeoff. Investors want the reward but dont like the risk. Until they feel threatened they stick with the low risk/low reward curve (its all relative - Venture capitalists think of themselves as high risk high reward!)

During times of crisis, that trade-off changes. Its an investment still, but one where the risks are higher and the rewards are higher.

Those decisions still get made during war, although some of the permitting etc.. gets short cuts. Remember Barnes Wallis and his "bouncing bomb", Or Frank Whittle and his jet engine. Barnes Wallis had a hard time getting support for his project, eventually it culminated in some testing (at the coast), some failed tests, and finally success on a real mission. Success that in hindsight had only limited impact on the already failing German war Machine. In hindsight it could easily be argued that it was a big waste of resources, and the Allied war effort would have been better off without it. But it sure makes a great movie huh?

You could argue that peak oil alone - and the ensuing chaos could create such an acceleration.

The fact is $130/bbl is still cheap. We are not in a crisis just yet. Were still in the Chamberlain phase of appeasment, the tension is mounting as we watch the Berlin Olympics... Frank Whittle had his ideas on paper when he was just an Air Cadet well before the war.

It would be nice if we could force that risk/reward threshold to change earlier, but that doesnt seem to be the nature of the beast.

The message here is that we would need urgent government support to remove permitting hurdles, but also investors willing to make more risks and skip mid scale testing and go full scale faster.

In the algae example its a bit frightening what might happen if it somehow got into nature and started choking off lakes, rivers or oceans... I know little about it - hence my fears. That fear multiplies if folks skip permits, and go full scale with only limited experince in a lab environment.

Great thread everyone.

The biggest risk to investors seems to be the risk of the "better technology". A good and relatively ahead of the curve technology does not receive attention, because there seems to be more promising, but still unproven technology on the horizon.

For example electrical vehicles are not built because hydrogen is around the corner, nukes are not built, because "clean coal" seems to be coming, CSP does not receive enough attention because ultra-thin film solar is "just about" to deliver, etc.etc. I think the proper approach to resolve this is the government to address the issue and support the proven technology by providing certain guarantees for a reasonable payoff. At the same time the promising alternatives can be encouraged with research funding etc. Until something like this happens the free market will be painfully slow to adapt to the changing conditions and deliver new solutions.

I know I'm way late to the game here, Levin, but that is an awesome analysis in a few sentences.

I think that you are being a bit pessimistic. There are some interesting technical innovations that are being actively pursued - unfortunately I have to say that the present Administration has not been very supportive of efforts outside of the selected few, such as ethanol.

the present Administration has not been very supportive of ...

That's an insightful but damning understanding of "free markets". Many of what we consider to be great inventions: the transistor, integrated circuit, internet; got off their feet because of support by the Department of War (a.k.a. Defense) or Ma Bell --neither of them being a free market.

Yes, but the the WWII crisis did not start on 7 December 1941, it started way back in 1933 when Hitler came to power. Every rational observer would have seen the writing on the wall for years prior to 1941. Likewise, we are now rationally observing we have a problem but actions and a "war footage" won't be taken until we are very very deep inside it.

I think it comes down to that Peak Oil is a very slowly unfolding crisis with many ups and downs along the way. It won't be until the problem becomes impossible to avoid, before it is recognized at all; the inertia of the econo-political establishment will prevent us from doing it any time earlier. In the meantime every worsening will be attributed to temporary factors; every temporary relief will be used as justification to continue BAU for a while more, and we are going to live with that for a very long time.

has no work been done on mitigation or social engineering?

I take you point about 1933 but would add people have been thinking about this problem just as some saw WW2 comming..

if push came to shove they would get on the case.. I think. come WW2 the told you so's got there hands on the steering wheel.

If TSHTF in a overt way the response may be inappropriate at first but I think given enough damage we will "get it"

how far down the road to destruction we go attributting to tempoary factors before wising up is a measure of the stupid factor I guess.


A bit nit-picking but I think the war started a long time before 7 December 1941 Pearl Harbour. The US naval historical center says the US "...was abruptly brought into the Second World War...". One might argue that when Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 putting other countries at war was the commencement.

I picked 7 Dec 1941, because only after this date the crisis was recognized within the US and adequate measures were taken. Prior to that the public wouldn't support all the sacrifices that redirecting a whole country to a war footage required.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

Seems we can achieve things when it comes to killing people, but in order develop technologies to avoid machete moshpits and climate damage is too expensive.

I think there will be some awesome homebrew applications of electric transport, composting and sustainable housing. There are already many good examples if you hunt around.

This is a good example.

As someone noted about WW2, in a couple years we rolled out modern subs, ICBMs, nuclear bombs, sonar, radar, computers, electronic navigation, early helicopters, and jet planes. That's because we were desperate, and more than a few people were willing to risk their personal safety to make breakthroughs. This is what people are capable of when their survival is at stake. If a bureaucrat falls down a stairwell (twice), well that's what it takes some times.

You might want to check your timing for the items you listed.

  • Submarines were around in WWI. Nuclear subs didn't arrive until after WWII.
  • ICBMs were not around in WWII.
  • Nuclear bombs...yes.
  • Sonar was around during WWI.
  • Radar was around before WWII.
  • Computers...sort of.
  • Rudimentary electronic navigation was used, but only as an extension of radio which already existed.
  • There were no helicoptors. We did, however, have them for the Korean War.
  • Jet planes may be correct. I think they might have been started before the actual war declaration though. Even so, they only saw limited use and only for the losing side.

Technology changes during a war are usually at the level of refinements rather than really new stuff. If new items come into decisive play it's almost always at the end. For example tanks and nuclear bombs. Both were used in the last year of WWI and WWII respectively. Soldiers and generals do not like trying out new gadgets. New things break at the most inoportune moments (when you're using them) and tend to do so in the most spectacular of ways. Besides, in a war there isn't a lot of time to train people on new gear or retool factories to make it. It's almost always better to use old ideas in better ways and save the new developments for when people aren't trying to kill you.

Subs - not really practical until ww2, flush toilets in 1945 or so :-)
ICBMs - I'm stretching to include the V-2, but it worked
Radar was a British secret well into ww2, so it was pretty new
The Nazis had a copter that looked remarkably like the Osprey with the rotors vertical

I take the lesson of your fiction to be, forget about
pie-in-the-sky 'solutions' like algae biodiesel because it will take a generation to help us with anything.

Great! Let's clear away the deadwood.

What can we do today to make up for declining oil?

Hybrid cars--have you all bought yours?

Ethanol--it's replacing about .5 mbpd of oil.

Canadian tar sands---it's pushing out 1 mbpd to maybe 4 by 2035.

What else?

ANWR might push .5 mbpd down the aging Alyeska pipeline.

The 2005 government plan has projected for 2035 the following;

CTL-2.6 mbpd --currently almost zero
Oil Shale-2.5 mbpd--currently zero
US tar sands-.53 mbpd--currently zero
CO2EOR-1.3 mbpd--currently .25 mbpd
Heavy Oil-.75mbpd--currently .8 mbpd(california/thermal and declining)
Total 7.68 mbpd of unconventional oil in 2035.


Well, it seems increasing CO2-EOR and heavy oil is fairly well along, probably good for another 1 mbpd with strong government backing. Ethanol will produce 1 mbpd within the next decade.

The rest of this stuff is idle speculation at best.

The lesson that you read from the post was not the one intended, nor is it the lesson that is realized by those who do work in developing alternate fuels. The point is not that there are not possible alternatives, it is rather to point out the error in anticipating that any of the "breakthroughs", that get touted in the press, will be able to have a significant impact by the time that an alternate supply is needed. However that depends on when you think it is going to be needed. Some of us are more pessimistic than others in that regard.

I thought Boone Pickens displacement of NG for power generation by Solar/wind/nuke combo makes a lot of sense to me..

if you get on the case you could shift a sizable chunk into GTL couldn't you? the technical challenges are not that great for these technologies.. though the scale of build is pretty fantastic.

however once your on the Solar road you have a path to Solar to liquid technologies to replace the GTL you no doubt will burn through in next to no time

the caveat is I see no future that doesn't involve conservation.. which appears to be a major psychological hurdle for retards

ultimately we have to go Solar.


Use microturbines or rotary engines with plugin hybrids, electrolysis to act as a dump load to stabilise wind in the grid, and add a small amount of hydrogen in with the natural gas. Use digestion to make biogas and fertilizer.

Use CCGT/CHP and vent the CO2 into a greenhouse or algae. Scale up wind, solar, nukes with a bit of IGCC and a massive wedge on conservation.

the caveat is I see no future that doesn't involve conservation.. which appears to be a major psychological hurdle for retards

ultimately we have to go Solar.

Its that simple

Excellent story and excellent comments defending the story today.

I am working in the real world of industry attempting to push the science along a bit in the Biofuels arena which is new for the organization I work in. Everything you have said is absolutely true and the lessons learned are not for the faint hearted. Nothing is ever as easy or as short term as predicted.

There are science hurdles, there are market hurdles and there are regulatory hurdles. All need to be worked through and sometimes simultaneously. The only approach that is consistently successful is a lot of hard work over a long period of time. And even that is not enough most of the time, most projects never make any money and have to be canceled. There are no easy solutions. No magic bullets. The two big successes I have been involved with were like this and they each took 10 years to start returning money. Sometimes there is as much luck as smarts in being a commercial success because you need a team that stays together for years - not easy in todays work environment.

I am not as pessimistic about the future because I think there is a ground swell of change in the works. Not that we can replace fossil fuel supply with other sources. Mostly I think we will replace a tiny fraction of the supply but make larger gain on not using energy and still holding society together. The combination of reducing energy demand and replacing some fossil energy might get us through the crisis. At least I think this on a good day, like today. :-)

There is a alternative path to development and spread of an innovation. The Daguerre photographic process was developed in France during the 1830s and announced in 1839. The French Academy of Science pronounced the invention to be of monumental importance to civilization, and the Government of France was persuaded to purchase the rights to the invention, which was done, and the Government then released the invention, royalty free to the world at large.

For most inventions this method of dispersal wouldn't work because they are too trivial an innovation for anyone to be interested even if they are free. But part of HO's fantasy is that the algae from Siberia is *a_really_good_idea*. Instead of a business as usual method of introduction, why not a fantasy in which the algae is grown by USDA at federal Ag Experiment stations and given away (in small quantities) to anyone who wants to try their hand at growing their own diesel fuel?

It is true that this fantasy doesn't have anyone getting filthy rich from the idea, but HO fantasy doesn't have the inventors getting rich either.

geek7 -

You touch upon two very important aspects in the promotion of new technology: i) technology transfer, and ii) technology 'incubation'. Often a new technology has to be carefully nurtured and not just thrown to the wolves of the marketplace.

The story of Daguerre and photography is an interesting one in that it illustrates how rapidly new applications can spring up. The first practical and stable photograph was made in 1939, and the first pornographic photograph was also made in the exact same year. (If you build it, they will come?)

Once again, the dream is that there is some technological fix for the unfolding apocalypse. And without doubt it is worth exploring all avenues to ease the descent (and see what's possible when we hit bottom). But without reversing course, without radical retrenchment toward sustainability, there is no hope.

The good news, maybe the only good news, is that there is SOOO much waste in our way of life that there is far more savings to be had by restructuring than any conceivable techno fix could hope to offer. Job or house swaps, carpooling, trains, public trans, fans instead of AC, heating one room, etc.

And none of even this approaches where we need to end up: small walkable dense (up 3 or 4 floors) towns surrounded by agriculture and parks. JHK has this stuff right IMO (even though he has his head in the sand on some of the geopolitical stuff).

What I don't doubt is that sustainability involves biology -- and in that sense the algae farming is interesting. But I also believe that the root issue is the soil and changing our relationship to it, reversing our relationship to it, becoming its friend. Nothing done in test tubes can replace what we require from the soil. And of course, you can't make friends with the soil without making friends with its friends: air, water and forests. That's where science needs to focus.

But without reversing course, without radical retrenchment toward sustainability, there is no hope.

Yes, I think this is the nub of the problem. Whilst most posters here appear to concentrate on the subject of powering our growing societies, they ignore the larger area of the finite nature of our planet and how to reach some kind of sustainable society.

I realise that this is a fictitious story but it misses a whole raft of potential problems along the way. It mentions $15 per gallon fuel, but not whether that is destabilising societies or making further progress on this wild idea even harder (or possibly easier). In a depression, would normal institutions continue as hoped? In a depression with little hope of recovery, would societal order allow business and government as usual? Would we see declines in other esential resources, either for society as a whole or for the development and operation of this particular idea?

The story is a great demonstration of why actions should have been taken 20 years ago and, therefore, why we are in big trouble (sorry, optimists) now. However, it is a story of almost continuous success (obviously with some hold-ups) and no major set-backs with developing the technology. For example, what would have happened if the accidental switch to raw sewage had resulted in much lower yields or even the cessation of all lipid production? And what would be the effect of some environmental disaster like the algae becoming subject so some detrimental bacteria, drastically reducing yield over a period of years, or global warming and droughts reducing yields?

As Kunstler would say, we need to make different living arrangements, not trying to keep the current arrangements going, since they are unsustainable.

The grad student writes up a dissertation, and in a moment of caution you decide to patent what has been done, which makes the defense closed, and the report, for a short time unavailable to the public. The student was able to achieve a yield of lipids from the algae that calculates into 12,000 gallons/acre/year of biodiesel. So now, about eighteen months from the initial meeting in the bar we have some experimental data, but money has now all run out, and we need to start to get external support, since among other things you would like to get tenure.

18 months from start of experiment to defending the PhD dissertation ... oh, you are writing fiction indeed :)

bawahahahahaha. Indeed. I completely missed that the first time...

I am sure Professor Hagens will have a comment on this idea after he finishes his comps this week.

Well I could go change the dissertation to a thesis (i.e. Masters degree rather than PhD) but actually (since there is the odd element of reality in this) the student I was thinking of, and who I "hooded" last week, was given, about eighteen months before he graduated, a topic of about this nature (though actually in a different field). True it actually took him closer to 6 years to get his degree, but most of his work was relevant to the final topic with which he ended up (and which did have a closed defense). So I did not add the time to find a student, to get them through classes, qualifiers etc. to the time-line.

Of course, once you start to become viable you are going to run into Enormous Pushback from the industries whose vested interests you are threatening.


Ah, Bob Dineen. Chief ethanol lobbyist. Now there's a credible, unbiased source for you. I know how much you value objectivity.

At some point ($5.00/gal?) we're just going to go back to our "moonshiner" roots and start brewing alcohol on every farm and shire.

We're NOT going to give ALL of our money to Shell, and the Saudis. Sorry about that.

"Objectively" speaking, of course

Owning a still is a federal felony.

No it's not.

In fact, the gov will pay, I think, 50% of the cost, and give you a $0.45 tax credit on every gallon you sell (or use) for transportation.

HO - my main take away from this is the time involved to get things done born out of lack of urgency which itself is born out of ignorance and complacency.

As you know I was at The All Energy conference in Aberdeen these last two days. I'm still angered by the pig ignorant opinions that were on show and by the lack of any recourse. Its only possible to push a point so far in the ensuing debate.

I'm increasingly resigned to the notion that a true catastrophe will have to occur before the obstacles of time get washed away. But with oil doubled this last year its getting hard to imagine what magnitude of catastrophe is needed.


When I am feeling conspiratorial I sometimes wonder if tucked inside the labs of some of the major corporations and secret government organisations there are not working algae liquid fuel set-ups, much more powerful batteries and thorium molten salt reactors - all of which just have not been released as they wanted to squeeze every cent out of the old models and not make their present capital base obsolete.

Certainly it is difficult to see a utility being very keen on high-altitude wind, for instance, as it would reduce the size of the industry in capital terms several fold as it would be so cheap.
Weight reductions in cars which involve the use of composites would also make a lot of the metal-bashing equipment the car companies are invested in obsolete, and might hand the advantage to smaller, more flexible companies.

Actually, unfortunately it seems unlikely that there are ready to go technologies being sat on which could instantly take over, but surely there are a lot of products which have been sat on as it would not help the bottom line, which may be taken out and dusted down in the event of high energy costs.

In my experience there is no need to feel conspiratorial, as a review of the patent literature and Pentagon Energy and Power Production Reports will reveal all the things you mention, and no attempt to conceal them.

I am a researcher myself, and have discovered that most of my "original ideas" have already been studied, some almost a century ago. The IP has long since lapsed into the public domain.

The problem has always been that fossil fuels are too cheap and inventors, especially military contractors, were paid to investigate - not deploy. There is probably no reason why the inventions won't work now that the incentives are there to use them. HOWEVER, the venture capital startup model that we rely on needs exclusivity and secrecy to safeguard the investment, and that slows development.

I think that extreme tax/grant policies can solve this. At this point I don't need the get-rich incentive to find solutions. I am sure others feel the same way (and did during the war) so that a modest guaranteed return on investment would be enough.

Let's hope there are the goodies readily available.
I found the link to the radio talk you gave on hyperinflation depressingly convincing.
Hyperinflation in the US by 2010 - very plausible.
I'll reproduce it here for those who missed your link:
fsn2008-0412-2.asx (video/x-ms-asf Object)

I'm just wondering if the political edit is going to try to be to blame everything on speculation if they can get away with it, or peak oil if not.
That way they don't have to admit their total fiscal irresponsibility, or lining their pockets, and literally having bankrupted the economy, oil shortages to one side.
So in a way peak oil has come along just in time to cover their tracks - everything is due to circumstances outside their control.

I ran across this article on the history of London flooding shortly after reading one of Nate's articles on our lack of foresight. What was really compelling to me was the photograph at the very end of the article. It shows a flood wall, built slowly higher and higher by flood prevention acts, each act passed AFTER a major new flood.


I just don't think humans can do prevention.

I just followed your link and saw a story highlighted I missed in the media.
Energy boss foretells future scarred by oil wars

THE world's dwindling oil and gas reserves will become the main cause of global political tension if consumers continue to "run on empty", the head of one of Scotland's leading energy companies warned yesterday.
Ian Marchant, chief executive of Scottish and Southern Energy, told delegates at a renewable energy conference that world oil and gas production was rapidly reaching a plateau where demand would outstrip supply.

He said: "If we carry on, oil and gas reserves will be the biggest source by far of global political tension and potential conflicts.

"If we don't sort this out, there will be wars fought over oil. You can argue there already have been."

His warning came in a keynote speech on the opening day of All-Energy 08, an annual showcase for Britain's renewable energy industry in Aberdeen.

Wow! That's a pretty clear statement from the head of one of the UK's biggest energy supply companies.


Another doubling in oil prices will wash away most of the obstacles. This latest run-up has attracted everyone's attention. Their minds will focus mightily and demand real action once gasoline in America hits $6 per gallon. At $8 per gallon it'll be like Pearl Harbor.

So I'm thinking $250 to $300 per barrel to make the rate of progress shift into the fast lane.

And one then that has not been brought up is those nasty patent maintenance fees. So if you have 5 patents say on your process at-the last time I checked-$2000 every two years or loose your patent to the public. So what inventor can afford to keep his patents current at those prices. In effect they have stolen your Constitutional right for a patent.

Sadly the comments made about patent life relative to technology implementation were based on experience. There are very few patents that bring their inventors significant return, and there are many costs and pitfalls on the way to securing those.

If your patent isn't worth 400$ then you aren't going to worry about it being stolen.

How likely is it for a pathogen to evolve or adapt to prey on either the algae in the ponds or on the lipids that are secreted? With such a huge homogeneous concentration of a single species and plenty of nutrients, the conditions do seems ripe for an epidemic.

Given that this part of the story was fictional (and I could dream up lots of other problems that I ended up stripping out of the story as detracting from the main issue) one of the advantages of the lipid cover is protection of the pond, and bear in mind that it is being harvested every day, so that unless the pathogens are rather quick (and some are) they will be gone from the pond and processed before they can do much harm.

Looking at Gordon Brown's problems in the UK points to the way that democracy can actually undermine progress.
Here we have a guy who's spent 10 years managing the economy. It doesn't matter what anyone thinks of the job he's done, the point is he's had the best advice available coupled with the ability to actually implement national programs on the back of 'insiders insight'.
The result very sadly is that he's made a couple of 'tough' choices. The abolition of the 10p rate of tax has basically been his undoing. It doesn't matter how logical a step it may or may not have been.
The headlines read '10p rate of tax abolished' .. and no-one in the free press wants to spend column inches explaining why or how that decision was reached and why it was fiscally responsible.
The mass knee jerk reaction is not driven by solid fundamentals, it's driven by headlines.
Thus, even though Gordon Brown is probably best placed to steer an economy through 'tough times' .. (cough) .. it doesn't matter to general public. You put one foot wrong, and everything else is discounted. 'Baby + Bathwater + Window on the 23rd floor of an office block' ! .

Solutions require continuity.

That judgement sounds distinctly odd.
Highlights of Brown's 'competence' include selling gold reserves with immaculate timing at it's very lowest point, loss around £4bn.
Or how about destroying what was the best funded pension scheme in Europe, by the imposition of £5bn in taxes - just try getting a final salary scheme now, outside of the government.
Present budgets are based on a wholly unrealistic prospectus, and by the fall or early next year expect an emergency budget as the deficit in both the budget and balance of payments will be unmistakably unsustainable.
At this stage peak oil, or better yet speculators, will suddenly become fashionable - anything to say it is not their fault, but out of their control.
We have moved from a sound financial position to the worst figures since the 1970's, and that is before peak oil hits.
Expect hyper-inflation, as that is the only way out of the unfunded and unfundable government debts.

Under Brown's stewardship the economy has been guided by monumental incompetence - and you trust him to carry on?

Not that I expect any rational actions from the opposition once they take over, but I find it difficult to see how they could manage worse.

Perhaps I missed it, or should have known without the related eyestrain, but where does the development of algae for fuel stand at this point in time? And, what are the prospects for the short term, if any?

BTW, great summary which was though provoking. I think that we are weeks-to-months away from PO and the attendant prices we are now seeing becoming a crisis for all importing nations, not just the poor ones which are well into a crisis mode but can't finance the development of alternatives.

I wasn't intending to give Brown a ringing endorsement however no matter, afterall, who else is likely to do better ?

The price of gold has almost trebled and the loss to the taxpayer has been calculated by one leading firm of accountants at more than £2 billion.

The decision to sell 400 tons of gold is seen in City circles as a financial bungle on the scale of the Tories’ “Black Wednesday” that cost the taxpayer £3.3 billion, according to Treasury estimates.

April 15, 2007

Do you think anything would change in this story if they didn't attempt IP protection and published everything as they went along?

When you look at most of the major innovations in agriculture, mining, automobiles through the earlier years of the industrial revolution there was a lot more sharing of ideas and a lot less paranoid hoarding of IP and a broken patent system. This led to parallel development of farm tractors and harvesting equipment for example and the "best-of-breed" eventually wins out.

Patents only work if one or two entities steal your idea. If no one does or everyone does they are useless. Xerox had several patents for putting pixels on a CRT to display information. How would they have gone about enforcing that?

I thought very much through this concept of long-term implementation of new ideas through traditional routes when I decided to put the SHPEGS project out there in a Open Source model. It has worked very well as a rapid design methodology (as it does in software), but now the detailed design is going to require venture capital and paid engineering to get implemented. This will happen (if the idea is good), because another entity attempting a patent is basically spoiled by the information being on the Internet (essentially in Public Domain) since August 2006. This whole Open Source development model only works if building the system and running it is profitable. With oil at $130/bbl just about anything is profitable and if it's completely renewable it will get built and developed in parallel. I believe this can cut the whole development cycle time in half or even less.

The only negative part of doing this type of Open Development is that like Linus Torvalds and Linux, the original inventor doesn't make any direct profit. That probably wouldn't happen anyway (as in your story), because without a large corporation backing an idea from the get-go, it's impossible to bring it to profitability before the patent runs out.

Dear Bob,

Here is some free share space:


Please type in your name and address of your real property (a.k.a. home sweet home) that you wish to donate for non-hoard sharing with me and my friends and post the same all over the internet. We want to move in ASAP. Please keep the refrigerator well stocked as we sometimes get hungry and our wants know no bounds.

And why after all would you refuse to share your real property (RP)? After all, you are such a strong believer in sharing IP (Intellectual Property):

[Back in the good ole days] ... there was a lot more sharing of ideas and a lot less paranoid hoarding of IP and a broken patent system

May I respectfully suggest that you are living in a fantasy world? There was no free for all sharing of ideas and IP in the fictitious good ole' days. If we are to believe Seth Shulman, even the venerable Alexander G. Bell ripped off Mr. Gray and then refused to "share" the idea he had stolen. Mother Bell was not a property sharing enterprise. It was and still is a take-from-the-poor and keep-it-for-yourself operation.

Back in the good old days, companies fought tooth and nail to keep as proprietary the ideas they had in fashioning barbed wire, the plow, the telegraph, the electric light bulb, the air flying machine, ... should we go on listing?

While your personal willingness to share your SHPEGS ideas is noble, it is not the standard model. People are greedy and ungrateful. They'll take what they can grab for free and never look back with any modicum of gratitude. Unfortunately, that's the way most of us sapiens sapiate.
click on image for more info

People are greedy and ungrateful. They'll take what they can grab for free and never look back with any modicum of gratitude. Unfortunately, that's the way most of us sapiens sapiate.

The reason that we sapiens sapiate this way is because our social system by its structural nature and by its explicit and extensive propaganda encourages us to do so. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago wrote about how in a system in which the best path to survival was to become a trusty and to suck up to the guards and rat on your fellow prisoners such behavior became widely prevalent. In particular young children who ended up in the Gulag were rapidly corrupted into the ways of the system. In our society we have it dinned into us from our early childhood onwards that our mission in life is to gain status and security through the competitive accumulation of wealth. Furthermore, even if we are not really in love with this competitive game (I am such a person), in practical terms we have to play the game or starve. Thus selfishness prevails.

I think you are right that looking back to a less selfish form of capitalism is daydreaming. Private finance capitalism by its very nature must be rapacious and competitive. However, that all human social systems from now until the day when humanity has perished must partake of these characteristics is unproven. Any person with an IQ in the double digits should be praying that such is not the case. If you really believe that greed and competitiveness will continue to propel our economic system even when our real productivity starts to decline substantially due to resource limitations, then you should stop wasting your time posting on TOD and start stocking up on guns and ammunition.

Heading Out
An excellent post, most people missed the heading " Why new Ideas Take Time to Impact " and have looked too closely at what was meant to be a work of fiction with some "truth / facts " thrown in.

Gail and one or 2 others have commented likewise.

this post really illustrates a number of major problems :
- it is exceptionally difficult to get a project going when one has all levels of protocol which one has to comply with, and the protocol is enforced by beaurocracy, I am not suggesting rules must be flouted but the decisions can be speedily taken- it helps;
- this is the reason companies get bigger as all the hard yards have been done and it is easier to get a "section" to reasearch something new and they will have avenues of income they can tap,
- lastly this also illustrates the importance of having a network where one can tap into help which can be given by like minded people / organisation who can see the potential and are not necessarily looking for an instant reward but will be patient to make it a success then reap the reward.

Starting something from scratch is not easy and those that say it is have never done it!

HeadingOut thank you for a very interesting essay.

Here are a few "thought experiments" with real-world companies that illustrate your point.

I confess part of the motivation for these "thought experiments" is to reinforce my natural optimism. I think it unlikely that there will be any killer technology that will beat all others but I find it fun to speculate.

1. Nanosolar: http://nanosolar.com

Thin film, volume PV. Founded in 2000 with Angel Venture capitalists. $100 million additional injection in 2006 for their first plant - apparently ~450 MW Peak worth of production per year. First panels shipped in late 2007.

I'll project they ramp up to full production by the end of 2008.

Build a duplicate plant in 2009, get that to full production by 2011. Next 10 plants built in parallel starting in 2011, production by 2013, 100 plants started in 2013 full production in 2015. By 2015 45 GW of peak solar per year, growing exponentially growing forward..

15 years to major impact.

2. Hyperion modular nuclear reactors . (Output 75 MW thermal, 25 MW electrical, a fail-safe design, 5-10 years between refuels, can be buried onsite, waste returned to manufacturer for recycling, $30 million each). Patent filed in 2003. Major venture capital financed in 2008. Projected first delivery, 2013. Manufactured at the rate of 100 per year 2015, growing exponentially as more plants are built. That's 2.5 GW electrical, 7.5 GW thermal per year by 2015, growing exponentially until market is satisfied.

Time to major impact 12 years.

3. Linc Energy Underground Coal Gasification and Coal to Liquids production. Formation of company, 2000. Pilot plant to produce syngas 2003. Pilot plant to produce liquids demonstrated in June 2008. Commercial Production at 20 kBD 2011. Estimated levelised production cost less than $30 per barrel of diesel. New sites developed over the next 4 years, commercial production of 400 KBD by 2015.
Further factor of 10 expansion over the next 4 years, commercial production of 4 Million BPD by 2020. There is an estimated 10 trillion tonnes of coal accessible to Underground Coal Gasification which could produce 20 trillion barrels of usable hydrocarbons so the upper bound on the production rate will be limited by Global warming concerns, whatever they may be.

Time to major impact 15 years.

All the above are subject to major doses of optimism....

Here is what TOD posted about algal biodiesel, sometimes called oilgae: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2541
AND, when ALL energy inputs are considered, this technology would waste precious fossil fuels even if it appeared to provide net energy. Cliff Wirth, Peak Oil Associates.