Guest Post: It’s Not Just Alternative Energy Versus Fossil Fuels or Nuclear – Energy Has to Become DECENTRALIZED

Washington’s Blog

Proponents for oil, gas, nuclear and coal claim that we must expand these risky and oftentimes deadly types of energy production, or we will shiver in the dark like cavemen.

Proponents of alternative forms of energy say we should switch over to cleaner fuels to avoid a parade of horribles … and point to the Gulf oil spill, the Japanese nuclear crisis and the destruction of aquifers with natural gas fracking as examples. Defenders of fossil fuels and nuclear rebut this by saying that alternative energy isn’t ready for prime time yet.

Who’s right?

As I’ll show below, the question is not as simple as it may sound.

Return on Investment

As Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Trudeau Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto, notes:

A better measure of the cost of oil, or any energy source, is the amount of energy required to produce it. Just as we evaluate a financial investment by comparing the size of the return with the size of the original expenditure, we can evaluate any project that generates energy by dividing the amount of energy the project produces by the amount it consumes.

Economists and physicists call this quantity the “energy return on investment” or E.R.O.I. For a modern coal mine, for instance, we divide the useful energy in the coal that the mine produces by the total of all the energy needed to dig the coal from the ground and prepare it for burning – including the energy in the diesel fuel that powers the jackhammers, shovels and off-road dump trucks, the energy in the electricity that runs the machines that crush and sort the coal, as well as all the energy needed to build and maintain these machines.

As the average E.R.O.I. of an economy’s energy sources drops toward 1 to 1, an ever-larger fraction of the economy’s wealth must go to finding and producing energy. This means less wealth is left over for everything else that needs to be done, from building houses to moving around information to educating children. The energy return on investment for conventional oil, which provides about 40 percent of the world’s commercial energy and more than 95 percent of America’s transportation energy, has been falling for decades. The trend is most advanced in United States production, where petroleum resources have been exploited the longest and drillers have been forced to look for ever-smaller and ever-deeper pools of oil.

Cutler Cleveland, an energy scientist at Boston University who helped developed the concept of E.R.O.I. two decades ago, calculates that from the early 1970s to today the return on investment of oil and natural gas extraction in the United States fell from about 25 to 1 to about 15 to 1.

This basic trend can be seen around the globe with many energy sources. We’ve most likely already found and tapped the biggest, most accessible and highest-E.R.O.I. oil and gas fields, just as we’ve already exploited the best rivers for hydropower. Now, as we’re extracting new oil and gas in more extreme environments – in deep water far offshore, for example – and as we’re turning to energy alternatives like nuclear power and converting tar sands to gasoline, we’re spending steadily more energy to get energy.

For example, the tar sands of Alberta, likely to be a prime energy source for the United States in the future, have an E.R.O.I. of around 4 to 1, because a huge amount of energy (mainly from natural gas) is needed to convert the sands’ raw bitumen into useable oil.

Professor Charles Hall of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry provides the following graphic to illustrate the point:

“Balloon graph” representing quality (y graph) and quantity (x graph) of the United States economy for various fuels at various times. Arrows connect fuels from various times (i.e. domestic oil in 1930, 1970, 2005), and the size of the “balloon” represents part
of the uncertainty associated with EROI estimates.

(Source: US EIA, Cutler Cleveland and C. Hall’s own EROI work in preparation)Click to Enlarge.

(click for larger image.)

The take away message from the graph is that the energy return on investment was very high for oil in 1930, but it is very low today, since the cheap, easy-to-get-to (and less dangerous) oil is gone.

But what about alternative energies? Professor Hall writes:

The EROI for wind turbines compares favorably with other power generation systems (Figure 3). Baseload coal-fired power generation has an EROI between 5 and 10:1. Nuclear power is probably no greater than 5:1, although there is considerable debate regarding how to calculate its EROI. The EROI for hydropower probably exceed 10, but in most places in the world the most favorable sites have been developed.

Figure 3: EROI of various electric power generators.

(“PV” stands for photovoltaic – i.e. direct solar power.) Solar thermal has a much lower EROI, although Hall notes elsewhere:

Because passive solar design is incredibly site specific it is very difficult to determine just what the EROI might be. Rarely does an architect get quantitative feedback on the system, finding a numerical Energy Return on Investment (EROI) is nearly impossible.(Lyng 2006, Spanos 2005). Nevertheless if various passive solar designs are built into the house from the beginning then fairly large energy gains can be obtained with little or no investments. In other words it may cost little to put most of the windows on the south side, although that may greatly increase the gain.

An EROI could be calculated for a case specific location by dividing the energy saved each year over the energy inputted to make that house passive solar. The EROI for a passive solar would be very high because building passive solar is a one time expense and houses last half a century or more. Studies have shown that the energy savings can range anywhere from 30-70%, this would cause the EROI to change vastly from case to case. If the payback period is five years and the house lasts for 50 then the EROI would be, apparently, 10:1.

So what does this mean? Comparing Professor Hall’s two graphs, we can see that virtually all forms of alternative energy – wind, geothermal, photovoltaic, and hydro – have greater or equal EROI than fossil fuels and nuclear. Passive solar might be lower, unless it is incorporated into original building construction.

However, Professor Hall’s figures were generated in 2006. All forms of alternative energy have become more efficient since 2006.

But – as we’ll see below – it’s not just a question of fossil fuels and nuclear versus alternative energy. It’s also a question of centralization versus decentralization.

The U.S. Wastes More Energy Than it Uses – Partly Because of the Centralization of Power

As shown by the following graphic from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the U.S. wastes a lot more energy than it uses:

(click for giant graphic.)

America uses 39.97 quads of energy, while it wastes 54.64 quads (i.e. “rejected energy”).

As CNET noted in 2007:

Sixty-two percent of the energy consumed in America today is lost through transmission and general inefficiency. In other words, it doesn’t go toward running your car or keeping your lights on.

Put another way:

  • We waste 650% more energy than all of our nuclear power plants produce
  • We waste 280% more energy than we produce by coal
  • We waste 235% more energy than we produce by natural gas (using deadly fracking)
  • We waste 150% more energy than we generate with other petroleum products

The Department of Energy notes:

Only about 15% of the energy from the fuel you put in your tank gets used to move your car down the road or run useful accessories, such as air conditioning. The rest of the energy is lost to engine and driveline inefficiencies and idling. Therefore, the potential to improve fuel efficiency with advanced technologies is enormous.

According to the DOE, California lost 6.8% of the total amount of electricity used in the state in 2008 through transmission line inefficiencies and losses.

The National Academies Press notes:

By the time energy is delivered to us in a usable form, it has typically undergone several conversions. Every time energy changes forms, some portion is “lost.” It doesn’t disappear, of course. In nature, energy is always conserved. That is, there is exactly as much of it around after something happens as there was before. But with each change, some amount of the original energy turns into forms we don’t want or can’t use, typically as so-called waste heat that is so diffuse it can’t be captured.

Reducing the amount lost – also known as increasing efficiency – is as important to our energy future as finding new sources because gigantic amounts of energy are lost every minute of every day in conversions. Electricity is a good example. By the time the energy content of electric power reaches the end user, it has taken many forms. Most commonly, the process begins when coal is burned in a power station. The chemical energy stored in the coal is liberated in combustion, generating heat that is used to produce steam. The steam turns a turbine, and that mechanical energy is used to turn a generator to produce the electricity.

In the process, the original energy has taken on a series of four different identities and experienced four conversion losses. A typical coal-fired electrical plant might be 38% efficient, so a little more than one-third of the chemical energy content of the fuel is ultimately converted to usable electricity. In other words, as much as 62% of the original energy fails to find its way to the electrical grid. Once electricity leaves the plant, further losses occur during delivery. Finally, it reaches an incandescent lightbulb where it heats a thin wire filament until the metal glows, wasting still more energy as heat. The resulting light contains only about 2% of the energy content of the coal used to produce it. Swap that bulb for a compact fluorescent and the efficiency rises to around 5% – better, but still a small fraction of the original.

Example of energy lost during conversion and transmission.

Example of energy lost during conversion and transmission. Imagine that the coal needed to illuminate an incandescent light bulb contains 100 units of energy when it enters the power plant. Only two units of that energy eventually light the bulb. The remaining 98 units are lost along the way, primarily as heat.

Moreover, many appliances use energy even when they are turned off. As Cornell University noted in 2002:

The typical American home has 20 electrical appliances that bleed consumers of money. That’s because the appliances continue to suck electricity even when they’re off, says a Cornell University energy expert. His studies estimate that these so-called “vampire” appliances cost consumers $3 billion a year — or about $200 per household.


“As a result, we’re using the equivalent of seven electrical generating plants just to supply the amount of electricity needed to support the standby power of our vampire appliances when they’re off.”


Worldwide, standby power consumes an average of 7 percent of a home’s total electricity bill, although that figure is as much as 25 percent in some homes. In Australia, standby power accounts for 13 percent of total energy use; in Japan it accounts for 12 percent; and in the United States, 5 percent.

Increasing the efficiency of appliances would cut standby power consumption by about 72 percent, according to a recent study by the International Energy Agency in France.

(Lawrence Berkeley National Lab provides data on the standby power drawn by different appliances.)

We can’t prevent all of the loss of energy from energy production, transmission or usage. As the National Academies Press puts it:

Efficiencies of heat engines can be improved further, but only to a degree. Principles of physics place upper limits on how efficient they can be.

But we can prevent a lot of energy loss. For example, the Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that we could reduce energy use by a third:

Massive inefficiencies across the US’s energy network can be eliminated relatively easily, cutting about a third off the nation’s energy use, according to a major new analysis of power consumption.

The study from environmental think tank the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), entitled Assessing the Electric Productivity Gap and the US Efficiency Opportunity, argues that wholescale efficiency improvements could be in place by 2020 ….


If the rest of the country achieved the electric productivity already attained by the top-performing states, the country would save a total of 1.2m gigawatt-hours annually – equivalent to 30 per cent of the nation’s annual electricity use or 62 per cent of US coal-fired electrical power.


“In 2020, if the US can, on average, achieve the electric productivity of the top-performing states today, we can anticipate a 34 per cent reduction in projected electricity demand,” he said.

How do we increase energy efficiency and reduce loss?

Sure, we could talk about energy efficient appliances and cars, and providing smarter systems – such as using power controlling devices which make sure that only the amount of power each device requires each moment is delivered.

But the bigger picture is decentralizing power generation and transmission.

As the Rocky Mountain Institute writes:

Often the cheapest, and most reliable, distributed power is the power produced at or near the customer. Distributed energy — often called micropower — refers to a variety of small, self-contained energy sources located near the final point of energy consumption.

This is in contrast to a more traditional system, where power is generated by a remotely-located, large-scale plant and electricity is sent down power lines to the consumer — often over vast distances.

RMI’s extensive research (culminating in “Small is Profitable,” the Economist’s 2002 Book of Year) on distributed energy resources found that properly considering the economic benefits of ‘distributed’ (decentralized) electrical resources typically raises their value by improving system planning, construction, operation and service quality.

Centralized electricity systems with giant power plants are becoming obsolete. In their place are emerging “distributed resources” — smaller, decentralized electricity supply sources (including efficiency) that are cheaper, cleaner, less risky, more flexible, and quicker to deploy.


Electricity production at or near the point of use can greatly improve efficiency and reduce the costs and energy losses associated with the national grid while increasing security and reliability.

Micro or distributed power (also called “micro generation”) can take the form of local solar, wind power, hydro, geothermal … or even making alcohol out of stale donuts to run your car. See this, this and this.

Indeed, even nuclear power can be generated and then used locally at the neighborhood scale – and a lot safer than Tepco or GE can do it in a giant nuclear plant.

Power can also be captured from excess heat energy. As I’ve previously noted:

Heat can be used to generate electricity. This is true not only on the industrial scale, but even on the level of your home faucet. Indeed, inventors have already built home faucet kits which turn the unused heat from your hot water into electricity.

In hot climates, black thermal-electric mats could be installed on roofs to generate electricity.

Heat is a byproduct of other processes, and so nothing special needs to be done to create it. Just about every human activity and many natural processes create heat, so we just have to utilize it.

A dramatic example of wasted heat energy is the Oak Creek coal-fired power plant in Wisconsin. The two units at Oak Creek suck up two billion gallons of water from Lake Michigan each day, and pipe it back into lake 10-15 degrees warmer. All of that heat energy is wasted.

I’ve also noted that there might be a lot of untapped “stomp” energy:

Another use of a free, wasted byproduct to generate electricity is piezo-electric energy. “Piezo” means pressure. Anything that produces pressure can produce energy.

For example, a train station in Japan installed piezo-electric equipment in the ground, so that the foot traffic of those walking through the train station generates electricity (turnstiles at train, subway and ferry stations, ballparks and amusement parks can also generate electricity).

Similarly, all exercise machines at the gym or at home can be hooked up to produce electricity.

But perhaps the greatest untapped sources of piezo-electric energy are freeways and busy roads. If piezo-electric mats were installed under the busiest sections [a little ways under the surface], the thousands of tons of vehicles passing over each day would generate massive amounts of electricity for the city’s use.

As Ken Alex – director of California Governor’s Office of Planning and Researchnotes:

One possible way to reduce the need for transmission lines has received little attention until lately. “Distributed solar” is the term for solar PV projects in and around population areas that feed directly into existing transmission…. Rooftop solar is part of that mix, potentially providing more than 40,000 MW to the system (from commercial and residential roofs). That’s about 2/3 of California’s power needs, although it’s not likely we will get close to 100% of what is available. Ground mounted solar PV projects of up to 20 MW each could provide much more, by some estimates many tens of thousands of MW. Modest-sized systems could be sited at utility right of ways, along highways, on the outskirts of some urban areas, even along the California aqueduct.


Distributed solar is not a panacea, but it could provide a much more significant percentage of renewable power for the state than currently contemplated, and it could happen quickly.

Alex also points out:

“Distributed storage” could become a significant contributor. Many sources of renewable power, such as wind and solar, are intermittent; they are not necessarily available when customers need power. And electricity is notoriously difficult to store. That’s a big reason why California has a lot of “peakers” – expensive, often highly polluting, high CO2 generating power plants that run only during peak demand, usually in the late afternoon on hot summer days. If we can’t efficiently store power for peak demand periods, we need extra power plants just for those high usage times.

Something like 50% of peak demand in the summer in CA results from use of air conditioners, pushing peak power requirements to about 65,000 MW. Cutting peak demand reduces the need for peakers, and makes it easier to achieve the 33% renewable goal. So, peak load can be shed through action like “cycling”,” where the utility cycles down individual air conditioners for a few minutes each hour, and by storing power generated off-peak for use on-peak.

Power storage takes many forms. It can be as simple (conceptually, anyway) as moving water uphill, and sending it back downhill across turbines to generate power when needed, or it can involve exotic technologies. It has tended to be expensive and inefficient. But that may be changing. As battery technology improves for hybrid and electric cars, it also has applications for localized electricity storage. For example, an air conditioning unit might be paired with a modest battery storage system that runs the unit during peak demand. Other approaches include using off-peak power to make ice and then using the ice for air conditioning on-peak.

Indeed, huge breakthroughs in local energy storage are taking place. For example, as I noted last year:

A scientist has figured out how to make and store energy by splitting water with sunlight. He says: “You’ve made your house into a fuel station [and we can get] rid of all the … grids” [he’s recently discovered an even cheaper way to do this]

So alternative energy versus fossil fuel and nuclear is only part of the question. At least as important, power must become distributed through micro power at the local level closer to the end user.

Indeed, given all of the mischief that the energy giants are causing, there is an argument that decentralizing power would help restore our democracy and our freedoms:

Wars are being fought in our name over oil.


Huge energy companies — some with earnings bigger than many countries — are calling the shots. As long as we rely on them to provide our power to us, we are buying into the imperial wars, injustice and destruction of our liberties.

If we install solar, wind, or whatever other micro equipment we can in our homes and offices, then we could decentralize power-generation — and thus — decentralize power away from the energy giants and their imperial political allies.

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About George Washington

George Washington is the head writer at Washington’s Blog. A busy professional and former adjunct professor, George’s insatiable curiousity causes him to write on a wide variety of topics, including economics, finance, the environment and politics. For further details, ask Keith Alexander…


  1. FatCat

    Yeah, right… Let me make this clear: I will drill, I will refine, I will pollute, and I will sell you MY gasoline for those stupid 8 cylinder SUVs I brainwashed you into buying for as long as I please. You do not tell me what to do in MY country. This is MY country, I am your master now. This is MY Feudal States of America, and I am your nobility, I am top primate here.

    You are my peasants, and if I say you eat oil, you eat oil. Got that?!


    1. FatCockRoach

      ho! he heard the word ‘decentralized’ and it’s got his back up. We must be on to something

  2. Glenn Condell

    A big beast of a post George. Leaving work, so will have to print out and read later, but the headline grabbed me.

    John Robb at Global Guerillas has for some time been beating the drum for decentralised everything for a sound future in what he calls ‘resilient communities’, where not just energy but money, security, food production, education, tech innovation – all of the political goods that centralised politico-economic structures have thus far provided but may not be able to continue to provide into the future – are shared responsibilities in a community of participatory problem-solving.

    Part of the impetus here are the obvious breakdowns we are seeing in the public utility of traditional structures for the provision or protection of energy, environment, food production, privacy, money creation, capital formation and credit, etc, and of course the rapacity of many of the authorities charged with governance of these functions. There is fear that we may be left to wither if these continue to decay, but also this decentralising impulse is a recognition of the truths people like Joseph Tainter and Nassim Taleb have made clear in recent years.

    Tainter believes there is eventually a diminishing return on increased complexity. Complexity has increased exponentially lately as globalisation has meshed together every region and community and market, generally justified on the altars of ‘efficiency’ and ‘choice’ and it is true in most areas we have never been so spoiled for choice and corporations and govts have never had access to the sort of economies of scale they now enjoy (this is supposed to translate into cheaper goods but that is one promise I’ve not seen kept)

    But all this centralised efficiency also has a hidden cost and that is that if the centre goes down (natural disaster or ‘systempunkt’ attack) then all nodes, the entire network is severely affected. In the same way that before markets were fully meshed a disaster in one region or other did not bring the rest of the network to its knees (and indeed the unaffected regions could co-ordinate to get the sick one back on deck) but now a Lehamn or Bear can signal global chaos, the same principle applies to things like energy production. Make it (or keep it) centralised and you might as well paint a big target on it.

    Taleb, the Black Swan man, argues that risk is vastly under-estimated in most models and any major centralising effort will make use of predictive models, which will in one way or another avoid worst-case scenarios, which unfortunately do occur. Decentralising power generation would reduce the chances of an energy Black Swan.

  3. Alessandro Machi

    Hybrids will make no impact on our energy situation. What might help is selling a person TWO PLASTIC SOLAR POWER EMBEDDED CARS. This would be two lightweight cars that can actually be charged the entire time they are in sunlight by solar embedded capacity right on the surface of the entire car.

    Because the owner has two of these lightweight but very solid cars (with the batteries low to the ground to prevent the cars from being swept away during high winds), they use one car on Monday….

    While they are using one car, the other one is sitting at home charging off of the suns rays or wind…all day Monday. So when the owner goes to work on Tuesday, its in the second car. Meanwhile the first car is free charging back at home.

    Because the car is lightweight, less batteries are needed, which in turn gives a better return on the batteries. Maybe the lightweight car can only charge 25 miles in a day. But for someone who lives near work, this scenario can literally take them entirely off of the gas and electricity grid.

  4. attempter

    I’ll add to this that as in all other things decentralization is an economic and political imperative, if we’re to maintain any level of prosperity and redeem democracy.

    By “we” of course I mean the human citizens of communities, not consumerist sheep or the cogs of some bogus, malignant entity like the empire.

  5. Toby

    Important post, thank you for it George Washington.

    I just want to echo that decentralization is indeed vital for survival of the species, as is transition from ossified hierarchies to more flexible anarchic arrangements enabling democracy. However, centralizing processes will remain vital too. The ‘think global, act local’ maxim, which makes so much sense to me, requires of us that we can think globally. To do this we need a communication infrastructure in place that keeps humanity connected, and this infrastructure requires uniform and globally agreed protocols. If we cannot ‘stay in touch’ with one another we cannot stay aware of each other as members of one species deeply enough, and, over time, dehumanization would emerge again. All sorts of horrors have been committed because the Other isn’t ‘one of us.’ I think it makes sense to avoid repeating this.

    Also, to manage our (humanity’s) potent and restless ingenuity sustainably will require global management of all planetary resources in the sense I outline above. In the end there is but one planet of interdependent and interconnected ecosystems that must be understood as well as possible, if we are to operate within their remit and ability to cope with our enterprises and appetites. Living sustainably on a planet surely requires global appreciation of our effects on it, which requires global communication. So small, local communities coordinated to some relevant depth by democratic and scientific methods. Not a walk in the park by any stretch of the imagination, but necessary nonetheless.

    1. Externality

      Once we have “global management” of resources (or anything else) we will have the same problems we see now with both DC and corrupt multinational institutions such as the IMF.

      1. As national, and realistically, global, power centralized in DC, it became easier for a small elite to exercise disproportionate control over national and planetary affairs. Any global authority will reflect the desires of an elite few, just as bankers, the Israeli lobby, Big Oil, defense contractors, etc. have more clout in DC than the American people. The people in power neither care, nor need to care, what their constituents thousands of miles away think. If power is centralized even more than it is today, it will become even harder for average people to have meaningful input; large energy companies, for example, would find it even easier to game to regulatory process while average people would be relegated to submitting comments no one ever reads.

      2. Any global management authority will inevitably acquire the ability to enforce, by force of arms, its diktats. Just as a unipolar world led to the American government becoming increasingly authoritarian at home and abroad, a centralized global authority will quickly yield to the temptation to impose its will by force if necessary. Barring extraterrestrial intervention, there would be no one to protect groups that get in the way of what the global elites want. Small, powerless, groups will be “removed” to make way for “progress,” just as Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, and Palestinians were “removed” to make way for “progress.” Less crudely perhaps, but it will happen.

      3. So-called “cognitive capture” would also be exacerbated. The group of “serious” experts would become so narrow, the skills so specialized, and the list of “serious” schools so short, that it would be harder for new ideas to be heard. Some of the excerpts from the recent INET conference discuss cognitive capture among banking regulators.

      1. Toby

        What you say does not address the spirit of what I wrote. “Global management” need not mean, must not mean, what you deduce from my usage of that expression. The only way a globally aware system can work sustainably is if it is democratic from bottom to top. If humanity somehow returns to ‘isolated’ tribalism with no effective exposure to other tribes, then the entire process will start all over again, with no lasting gain in wisdom. Perhaps that’s not so bad–cycles of life and death and all that–but I believe we can go global while remaining focused on local, and that the advantages of pulling that off would make the effort worth while, so to speak. I’m thinking of C. S. Holling’s leaps of wisdom here, which apply equally to ecosystems as to human institutions.

        What I sought to address in my comment is the dehumanization caused by isolated cultural development that, over time, turns The Other in to The Enemy just because they’re ‘weird.’ If we can avoid repeating that process we should, and some sort of global system seems essential to me in achieving that.

        The element I did not mention, which is key to the direction that most interests me–resource-based economics–is having abundance and sharing built in systemically. If humanity remains locked into the current scarcity/competition paradigm then yes, global management ends up as the monolith you describe. That monolith is not at all what I want. If wiser heads than mine can show how a globally aware system is incompatible with democracy I’m all ears. My priority is sustainability, which requires all sorts of changes to the current system, including (but not only) the end of ossified hierarchies. So, no monoliths please!

        One challenge democracy must meet is a relevant education for all citizens. When you have democracy, its quality is not related to some voted-in ‘elite,’ but to everyone’s ability and willingness to contribute. The better educated every citizen, the more functional the democracy. Here too global awareness can only be beneficial. For our knowledge of the planet to be accurate and helpful over the long term, we need access to relevant information, hence a global system. In the end we live on a planet, not in nations or tribes. A modern democratic system should reflect that.

        1. Externality

          Centralization of power leads to people outside the circles of power being seen as ‘Other’ by those within.

          This problem is intrinsic to any type of centralized authority. Sociologists often refer to Dunbar’s Number, tbe idea that that the human brain is only capable of recognizing approximately 150 people as members of their ‘tribe,’ the rest of the population is seen as seen as outsiders.'s_number The human brain, in other words, is designed to maintain stable relationships with a population the size of a small village, i.e., those they come into contact with most frequently. Humans are prepared, to varying degees, to sacrifice the well-being of those outside the ciricle for to preserve their relationships with those within.

          Politicians who spend their time in “the village,” as DC is sometimes called, quickly come to see their fellow politicians, regulators, lobbyists, etc., as their ‘tribe.’ The people they went to represent are soon seen as getting in the way of ‘serious’ decisions, career and social advancement, and as making ‘populist’ arguments that the politicians privately apologize to their fellow elites for. Preserving social relationships with friends and colleagues wanting to cut Social Security becomes, at least subconsciously, more important to Congressmen than the well-being of their elderly constituents concerned about cuts in Social Security. It is easier for politicians to cut benefits for poor Americans they will never meet than to anger their ‘tribe.’

          1. Toby

            All true, but not the end of the story by any means. Indeed, there is no end.

            When I hear the Dunbar number I think of two counter arguments that I experienced directly and that I’m sure are quite universal in their tone. One is my emotional reaction to seeing photographs of people I’ve never known or met destroyed by war, and my charitable donations as a consequence of that generally. Empathy extends way beyond the small group of people I might know well, to include other species and all of life actually, as the term biophilia suggests. The other is an experience I had in Hong Kong visiting a physiotherapist there. At one point he applied pressure to my calf with his elbow and the pain caused me to scream out loudly. When I left his ‘office’ (it was in his flat) and rejoined my family in the man’s living room, the man’s son, about 10 years old, walked up to me and put his hand sympathetically on my arm, having heard my scream of pain. I’ll never forget the look of compassion on his face, how genuine it was. He had never met me, and we didn’t even share the same language.

            It comes down, I believe, to the degree to which we are forced to compete with one another. The Dunbar number becomes irrelevant in a famine, and even the bonds of family can be broken if the scarcity is bad enough. We can do terrible things to people we ‘love’ and be very generous to people we’ve never met. People in a theater are peaceful and cooperative until fire breaks out, when men will trample women and children in their panic, neither behaviour represents ‘true’ human nature, they are both understandable reactions to the corresponding environment. Human empathy is powerful and the circle of reciprocity can expand out to all life, but conditions must allow it to bloom in that way. Abundance is key, but not in the setting of Perpetual Growth and consumerism. What you call power is really leverage in the context of competition and fear-based control of The Other taken to its maximum extent. If we want to avoid war and poverty over the long term we need a globally aware system that combines the best of what ‘centralization’ yields in terms of knowledge and cooperation and the infrastructure of sharing, with the best of what democracy can offer in terms of emotional maturity and intellectual and geographic ‘freedom’ or ‘independence.’

  6. J Whitland

    The Lawrence Livermore graph is great in many ways, but complaining that we’re wasting 62% of power based on it is a little misleading. Perhaps 6% of all electric power is lost during transmission; the rest is almost unusable, because it is in the form of low-value heat. Through cleverness, we might be able to make use of some of that heat, for greenhouses or drying ethanol leftovers, but it’s not like the power companies haven’t considered using it; its just inconvenient and not universally useful.

    True, power is wasted–similarly 81% to 95% of solar power is wasted in typical solar cells, even before conversion. But this is meaningless.

    1. David Hewitt

      Waste heat can be put to work, but our current infrastructure is based on an era of perceived abundance, when we didn’t care about what was discarded. The process of boiling water to generate steam, used in generating plants fueled by coal, natural gas, and nuclear, all discard two thirds of the heat generated (according to the Department of Energy). For example, the new coal-fired power plants in Oak Creek, Wisconsin pump two billion gallons of water daily (yes, Billion) from Lake Michigan into the cooling system and return it to the lake about ten degrees warmer. Imagine how much work that heat could do if it were captured.

      According to Sean Casten, one of the principals at a company in Westmont, Illinois that specializes in harnessing waste industrial heat, the heat discarded by these utility-scale plants is too hot to handle by normal heat-recycling equipment.

      The electric utilities don’t discard the heat because it’s “low value” and therefore they can’t use it — they discard it because it’s cheaper to discard it than to use it. Adding equipment in the cooling stream to harness lower-temperature cooling water to generate more electricity, or to use in industrial processes or space heating, would add significantly to their costs, thus adversely affecting the bottom line. And they are mostly publicly-traded corporations with a profit motive.

      Even if we don’t shift away from burning coal, it would surely be advantageous from an energy perspective to build smaller generating stations, located in industrial parks, or cities,where co-generation could be employed to utilize most of the heat. Our new furnace in our house is so efficient that the exhaust gases are vented at the sill plate via a plastic pipe that barely feels warm. That level of heat extraction is possible on an industrial scale. But there would be costs to build out the infrastructure. There may be trade-offs in combustion efficiency, but even if only one third of the heat is lost instead of two thirds, we could burn less net coal in the national aggregate. The EROI on equipment would be another factor, but I don’t have a handle on that part. There is off-the-shelf equipment to generate electricity from waste heat on an industrial scale.

      I am a proponent of conversion to renewable energy, so I’m not arguing for a better way to burn coal. If, a century ago, we had cared about the things we care about now, our energy landscape would look quite different. I want to refute the assertion that waste heat is of low value. Waste heat could have a very high value. To find an example of a successful company that harnesses waste heat, search for “waste energy recovery company”.

      1. RDE

        Excellent post, George, although I find your EROI calculations and interpretations a bit questionable. Unfortunately I see little likelihood that decentralization of energy production can take place in the presence of centralized economic and financial power. Collapse and/or revolution will be its handmaiden.
        David, one more easily waste heat capture opportunity exists in the approximately 10% of total energy content of NG used to pump it through the continental piping system. Every 75 miles or so there are gas turbine engines the size of 747 aircraft engines driving compressors to boost pressure in the pipeline system. This is high grade heat energy easily recoverable to drive steam turbines, but so far it has been cheaper to throw it away and burn more NG in the compressors.

  7. Deja-Vu

    But WHY is nuclear power only 5 to 1 ROI? You didn’t say. And while you mention all the positive developments you can think of related to alternative energies, you do not mention any of the positive developments related to nuclear power, such as the development of thorium-based reactors, or even the development of small, modular nuclear power plants that fit very handily into your “global, versus local”, decentralizing idea about energy. So you do have a bias even though you pretend not to be biased.

    Also, you wrote:

    “So what does this mean? Comparing Professor Hall’s two graphs, we can see that virtually all forms of alternative energy – wind, geothermal, photovoltaic, and hydro – have greater or equal EROI than fossil fuels and nuclear.”

    But this dodges the reality, in my opinion, which is shared by many, that alternative fuels are NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME, something you half-admit then half-dismiss in the beginning of your article.

    Also, you wrote:

    “Wars are being fought in our name over oil.”
    How do you know this? What do you mean by this? Have American oil companies taken over Iraqi oil companies? Perhaps I’m mistaken, but as far as I know, they haven’t.
    I don’t think America invaded Iraq because of oil. You can write sentences like, “Wars are being fought in our name over oil…” but just because you write them, that doesn’t make them true, you do need to demonstrate that they’re true.

    Why did America invade Mexico in 1849? Was it for oil? I don’t think so. Did we enter World War I because of energy? I don’t know of anyone who’s said that, but then again maybe someone has. But it seems doubtful to me.
    So…economic decentralization is not the solution in the way you’re thinking about it. These are political problems from beginning to end, the organization of the economy is a “side effect”.


    1. Anon

      Robert Newman, A History of Oil,

      in which he says WW1 should be taught as an invasion of Iraq.

      (The automobile sprang fully to life in the 1880s. Benz got his first engine patent in 1879. Large-scale production took off in 1902, at Oldsmobile. The pioneer period for aviation was 1900-14, including the flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903.)

      WW2 was also an oil war – all that black, bubbly goodness in the hands of the Commies? Only Stalin and the Soviet republics fought back, and millions died to keep it out of German hands!

      1. DV

        You’re missing the point. Was the Spanish-American War about oil? Not that I know of. And America’s invasion of Mexico, (you ignored that example). And WW II about oil? Here you’re seriously mistaken, in my opinion. Certainly it was part of the strategic plans of the Nazis, but since their invasion of the Soviet Union was completely insane from a strategic point of view…then I don’t really see what you’re getting at.
        I’ve given examples of where America invaded or got into wars that were not about oil. This, in my opinon, weakens GW’s argument that energy localization would have prevented the Iraq war of 2003, for example.

    2. charles 2

      Three things lead to the estimated EROEI of 5 :
      1) the use of an now obsolete enrichment technology (gaseous diffusion) that is very energy intensive. Most operators are turning now to centrifugation, which is an order of magnitude more efficient, and GE finally mastered laser isotope separation, which is again an order of magnitude more efficient.
      2) the assumption that we will have to tap Uranium sources that are less and less concentrated : Uranium exploration has in fact barely started as Uranium demand is still weak. We are very far from peak discoveries.
      3) the refusal to consider any recycling or breeding technology (that blows EROEI to the roof), now, and in the future. Already today, we can recycle a batch of fuel at least once with Mox.

    3. David Hewitt

      In what sense are renewables “not ready for prime time”? Technical? Financiall?

      My belief is that renewables work fine, and if deployed extensively, renewables could supply nearly all of what we need. Economies of scale should lead to lower costs. The various renewable industries are growing, and prices have been dropping.

      The big barrier at a personal level is the high initial cost, which could be solved with financial instruments that work like mortgages. The repayment of the loan supplants the payment to the utility companies. After paying for the equipment, there is no further cost for fuel. ROI for the equipment takes a few years, more-or-less for different areas of the country. Seems like prime time to me.

      1. Chick In Lit

        Technical is a big issue. First, the energy has to be stored. Large-scale storage is one of the holy grails of energy research.

        Secondly, wind really only works (from my understanding) because it is not being used as base load. For base load, you need a much more consistent supply. This is for reasons of system stability (we do not want cascading outages as a daily occurence, and the alternative, which is to ensure that the system doesn’t operate nearly as close to its theoretical capacity, would drive up costs and reduce supplies, all else being equal). Going above 20% wind on a grid really complicates things from an operational standpoint

        As for replacing all the existing coal and nuclear with anything else–that’s flat out not going to happen for a long, long time. Nuclear and coal produces about 1/3 of production (which is 4,500 TWh I think–I may have misremembered the numbers). There is no way that wind will provide that–and I doubt there’s enough manufacturing capacity or raw material capacity to do something like that anytime soon.

        In any case, increasing alternative energy will virtually neccessitate the increase of transmission lines for stability reasons (also for supply reasons). I don’t think enoguh people are taking those effects (or costs) into account when they consider this issue.

        1. David Hewitt

          I like molten salt as a heat transfer medium in utility-scale solar thermal generation. It retains enough heat to generate power into the evening hours when people are at home in their air-conditioning.

          But base load generation will be a central issue. Widely distributed generation, consisting of the various renewable technologies, will gradually reduce the need for the incumbent base load providers, until we figure out how to not need them anymore.

    4. Paul Chamberlain

      The eroi for nuclear is low mostly because of the enrichment of the uranium. This is a very energy intensive process. In a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR) no such enrichment is required. The eroi for a lfter is absurdly high (easily in the hundreds).

  8. Anon

    Excellent piece from AP in today’s Wapo on the uninsurability of nuclear, viz.

    From the U.S. to Japan, it’s illegal to drive a car without sufficient insurance, yet governments around the world choose to run over 440 nuclear power plants with hardly any coverage whatsoever.

    Japan’s Fukushima disaster, which will leave taxpayers there with a massive bill, brings to the fore one of the industry’s key weaknesses — that nuclear power is a viable source for cheap energy only if it goes uninsured…

    …A 1992 study for the German economy ministry — the latest official report available — found the total cost of health damage to the population and other economic losses by a nuclear disaster could amount to €5.5 trillion — or about €7.6 trillion in today’s money.

    Nuclear power plant operators could insure a larger, more realistic part of the potential damage, but experts note that that would lead to rising electricity prices.

    The insurance in Germany costs utilities €0.008 cents ($0.015 cents) per kilowatt hour of electricity, a tiny part of the final cost for customers of about €22 cents, according to Bettina Meyer of think tank Green Budget Germany in Berlin. But insuring the full risk would amount to a prohibitive extra cost of about €2 per kilowatt hour.

    Nuclear wouldn’t exist without state. Which is why it’s obvious that the industry has never had any intention of:

    1) insuring the full risk of nuclear meltdown; or

    2) dealing with the waste (hell, they’ve had 60 years to sort that one out, and we’re still waiting).

    US nuke utilities have even sued – and won compensation from – the DoE over clean-up (see

    The lawsuits follow requests for suspension of the payments made to the DoE by both NEI and NARUC in July 2009. Under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, DoE was supposed to begin taking used fuel from nuclear energy facilities from 1998. As a result of its failure to meet this obligation, the federal government has been sued by a number of utilities, which have been awarded compensation totalling some $1 billion by US courts.

    It’s a shame there’s no private insurance industry, though, because given that major meltdowns are now occurring once every 20 yrs or so, Goldman or someone could easily be on the the other side of that – and just imagine the bonanza to be had, shorting Tepco, NINA and nuclear catastrophe.

  9. pmr9

    This post is seriously confused. I hardly know where to start in explaining what GW has got wrong.

    1. I’m not sure if GW understands that the low efficiency of combustion engines is a consequence of thermodynamic laws, not “waste”.

    2. Renewable energy needs vast land areas: about 500 sq km per gigawatt for wind, and about 70 sq km per gigawatt for solar thermal in deserts. Densely-populated regions can’t live on their own renewables.

    3. High-voltage DC makes it possible to transmit electricity efficiently over long distances: losses are about 3% per 1000 km with 800 kV lines. Europe and north America could easily lay down continent-wide HVDC grids.

    4. Combined heat and power in urban areas would lock us in to gas as energy source. Heat pumps are a more efficient way to supply space and water heating, and don’t rely on fossil fuels as ultimate energy source.

    1. alex

      “I’m not sure if GW understands that the low efficiency of combustion engines is a consequence of thermodynamic laws”

      Maybe he thinks Carnot was wrong.

      And to anyone who doesn’t understand that reference, please read up on this very basic point before commenting on energy efficiency (hint: equation 1 is the most important thing):

      Your points 2 and 3 are also excellent, though I have somewhat mixed feelings about 4.

      People, including GW, often conflate increased reliance on renewables like wind and solar with “going off the grid”, when just the opposite is true. Maybe they mix them together because they both seem like nice hippy-dippy concepts that should fit well together.

      Increased reliance on wind and solar, of which I’m a big fan, actually means increased reliance on the grid. The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. Therefore to get a reliable electricity source you have to ship power from wherever it’s being generated at the moment to wherever it’s needed. That means increased reliance on the grid. It’s a downside but unavoidable unless you’re willing to live without electricity half the time. Considering that people are outraged over a few hours long blackout, that doesn’t seem likely.

      Fortunately as you (and ironically GW) mention, electric power transmission is not subject to Mssr. Carnot’s limits and is quite efficient. 93% is pretty damned good.

      1. Dave

        I think you are missing the point due to a poor choice of words.

        Yes the low efficiency of combustion engines is a result of fundamental thermodynamics. We can still call this wasted energy and look for more efficient ways to convert the potential energy into a more useful kinetic energy such as bigger temperature differences in combustion engines or, more importantly, non-combustion methods of conversion that do not run into Carnot limits.

        1. alex

          No, I’m not missing the point. It’s that someone like GW who writes “we waste 650% more energy than all of our nuclear power plants produce” makes it sound as though the “waste” is like someone leaving the lights on, and it makes me suspect that he doesn’t understand basic thermodynamics.

          I’ll be the first to say that even our heat engines generally don’t come anywhere near meeting Mssr. Carnot’s standards, and there’s plenty of room for improvement. Combined cycle power plants approach 60% efficiency. The lousy 15% average efficiency of the ICE’s in cars is mostly due to the high ratio of peak to average output power (hence the value of hybrids). But GW makes it sound as though we don’t have more of those things because we forget to turn off the lights. Not to mention that his decentralized meme makes it sound like we’re all going to go “off the grid”.

      2. George Washington

        I do understand. That’s why I wrote:

        We can’t prevent all of the loss of energy from energy production, transmission or usage. As the National Academies Press puts it:

        Efficiencies of heat engines can be improved further, but only to a degree. Principles of physics place upper limits on how efficient they can be.

    2. charles 2

      Anyone who writes, or quotes :

      “But perhaps the greatest untapped sources of piezo-electric energy are freeways and busy roads. If piezo-electric mats were installed under the busiest sections, the thousands of tons of vehicles passing over each day would generate massive amounts of electricity for the city’s use.”

      doesn’t understand the second principle of thermodynamics.

      If piezo-electric mats were installed, it would necessarily add to the rolling resistance of the road, so vehicles would consume more fuel to reach the same speed. Probably the least efficient way to convert diesel fuel into electricity…
      The same applies to brilliant schemes which aims to install windmills on the side of motorways to use the airflow carried away by vehicles : it just adds more wind drag and therefore requires more fuel from the vehicles.

      1. George Washington

        Would it necessarily add to the rolling resistance of the road if the piezo mats were placed a little (say 1 inch) UNDERNEATH the surface of the asphalt? I am asking humbly, since – I assume – you have the relevant engineering background.

    3. Chick In Lit

      I agree with much of what you wrote, but one quibble: Last time I checked, tapping off of HVDC is *very* difficult. FACTS and other such devices are also expensive.

    4. David Hewitt

      On point 1, if heat is generated but does no work, it is wasted.

      On point 2, the kind of generation you describe is centralized utility-scale facilities, but in the title of the article, notice the all caps “DECENTRALIZED”. Renewable energy does not require vast tracts of land, it can be tiny, like in the face of your watch, or on the roof of your house.

      On point 3, there are advantages and disadvantages of HVDC.

  10. Martin

    Your arguments are quite unconvincing and little focused.

    Transmission losses are a few percent and electricity production in large facilities is more efficient than in small decentralized facilities. Decentralized generation may increase losses from transmission, if the power production doesn’t happen at the time when needed or have additional losses from storing and multiple conversion. This at least is the experience with local solar and wind power. Solar thermal may have lower EROEI, but you can control the time of production much better than with photovoltaic.
    In the end, the EROEI isn’t that important at all, as long as it stays away significantly from 1. Proper energy pricing is the only issue, that might stand in its way, so it maybe an issue for energy from agricultural products, but almost any other case if EROEI is a real issue, it will as well not be economical viable.

    1. David Hewitt

      To minimize transmission losses, generate the power as close as possible to where it will be used. That is the essence of decentralized power generation.

      I believed the industry line that huge central power plants are more efficient than smaller distributed generation plants, until I began to think about it. Smaller power plants co-located with other consumers of heat could provide co-generation facilities which would result in discarding less heat, thus making them in aggregate more efficient than centralized generating plants that discard two thirds of the heat they produce.

  11. Dean Sayers

    Why is it that so many self-avowed “communists” support centralization, yet I have to find this blog for someone else who understands that the exact opposite needs to occur to free us from oligarchy? I’m becoming more impressed with you guys all the time…

    1. alex

      You’re conflating social/political issues with engineering issues. You may like decentralization and independence (as do I) but unfortunately it doesn’t always fit well with technological reality. Increased use of renewables means increased interdependence and use of a grid. An electrical power grid, like a road network, is not something where everybody can go their own way. See the above thread started by pmr9 @ 8:51.

      1. Dean Sayers

        “Everybody going their own way” is different than the concept of decentralization in general. To put it simply – a group of individuals who have to collectively determine something can be a decentralized system if the individual interests and concerns are addressed/respected/met. The fact that accumulation of capital cannot be un-done in our present social structure does not mean that we cannot decentralize the processes that go into its usage.

        1. David Hewitt

          Modern inverters can perfectly synchronize their 60 Hz output waveform with the grid’s waveform. My neighbors on my city block could build a “back alley grid” by isolating certain circuits in our houses, and connecting our inverters together. The resulting mini-grid would be independent of the utility grid, but would carry the same high-quality 60 Hz AC power that we find on the IOU’s grid — and ours would probably be even cleaner, with fewer sources of distortion.

          The point is that economic democracy seems to be a vital part of political democracy. Disconnecting from the utility’s grid, partially or completely, may be a small step, but anything I can do to free myself from the power of the oligarchy makes me feel more free.

  12. Max424

    Surprise, surprise; looks like wind is the easy winner in the EROI horse race.

    It’s high time humans wrapped their enfeebled brains around one simple concept; wind, is the Secretariat of energy sources.

    1. Chick In Lit

      1. Wind is *not* practical for base load for system stability reasons.

      2. Go look at how they measure EROEI, and you will likely find that once you include the manufacturing and servicing of windmills (and the T-lines required for them), that number will drop substantially.

      Incidentally, if you close the nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear’s EROEI might increase–again, it depends on how you calculate EROEI.

      I don’t understand why so many people think that there’s a free lunch here. If wind were easy and cheap, it would have been ubiquitus a long time ago. As it is, there are many, many, many extremely bright people working like hell in this area, and the headway they’re making (at least from what I’ve been reading and seeing) is pretty discouraging, esp given the brainpower and money involved.

      Believe me, large-scale wind adoption is not that easy–the electric grid is already probably far too fragile and overstressed as it is in many places.

      1. Max424

        “I don’t understand why so many people think that there’s a free lunch here.”

        Never said it would be free. It would cost roughly $2 trillion to meet all our electricity needs through wind power; or, the same amount of cash we gave to Morgan Stanley in 2009 to go on a gambling spree.

        In other words, $2 trillion, hell, if you’re the Fed, we’re talking chump change; but, if you’re the United States of America, the most richest and most powerful nation in the history of the Milky Way, we’re talking…well, I don’t know what we’re talking about in this country, other than, WE ARE BROKE!!!

  13. Graveltongue

    An excellent piece Mr Washington, thank you for taking my head and spinning it near clean off!

    One thing crucial in all this is surly if you decentralize power generation you decimate you revenue stream, hence the battle of incentives. No drug dealer in their right mind is going to actively help wean their dependent independent. Something somewhere has got to give.

  14. Max424

    A perfectly efficient Smart Grid, would be, by definition, highly decentralized.

    But, in order to achieve this, you would have to carefully coordinate the decentralization process via — oh no, I’m about to utter the terrible, evil, Commie words! — CENTRAL PLANNING.

    1. readerOfTeaLeaves

      Not necessarily. I was recently in a conversation with someone who has spent the past year focused on SmartGrids, and I came away with the impression that you could apply some of the principles of Wiki’s to this general problem of distribution. Granted, there are limits to the amount of power, but the system will tell you how much, when, you can get.

      So I’m not convinced there is any law of nature that requires this be centralized; however, there are a lot of potential jobs to be created in a decentralized system.

      Instead of hiring gardeners, people might also hire home services that include monthly or quarterly assessments of how to improve or adapt their energy uses.

      1. Max424

        “So I’m not convinced there is any law of nature that requires this be centralized…”

        I believe I wrote that a perfectly efficient SmartGrid would be, by definition, decentralized.

        But I could be mistaken.

  15. charles 2

    I am always puzzled to see some environmentalists preaching the virtues of decentralized power productions ; and then, practically in the same breath, explain that we can cope with wind and solar variability using a continentally sized super-grid linking windmills, solar panels, dams, electric cars and all the appliances in our homes.
    The most gigantically coupled system ever. That’ll make the task easy for Skynet…

    1. gordon

      I don’t see what’s puzzling about it. It’s an engineering challenge, no doubt, but I would think possible, unless somebody has a good reason why not.

      I do suspect that the revamped grid that can accept and distribute power from lots and lots of decentralised sources will have to be publicly owned.

  16. Johannes Yo Highness

    piezo-electric mats were installed under the busiest sections, the thousands of tons of vehicles passing over each day would generate massive amounts of electricity for the city’s use.

    Fugget peizo-electric mats, Mat! Remember that! And remember this :
    Simplicity in motion is better than poetry on a mat, Brat. Alls you really got to do is put the-traffic-light-intersections at the top of hill but the Stop-Sign-Intersections at the bottom of the hill, Shill, Clover-leaf-intersection at the bottom of the hill is more energy efficient and cheaper to build and maintain than a-traffic-light-traffic-jam at the slam-on-brakes-bottom-of-the-hill, Jill.

    And it will get you there a lot faster than a 12-cylinder-hot-rod-engine-reved-up-under-a-red-light

  17. ep3

    Yves, I participated in a focus group for natural gas last nite. i was more surprised at how everyone in the focus group thought that, with enough information, they could disseminate the information enough to say whether something like natural gas was a good product.
    Basically half the focus group was talking about energy in general and the other hour was specifically natural gas. So they would hand us various papers that had basically commercials on them trying to sell natural gas and the lady would ask what we thought about the paper.
    What got me is how everyone was for different forms of energy, especially renewables, but then when presented with natural gas, they were all for it as long as it didn’t change anything fundamentally. for example, still drive cars, all the things we do now. I was looked down upon for suggesting that there were no ideas presented that would move to a system that wasn’t so CONSUMING. A system that kept a balance between inputs and outputs. It was all about continuing this mass absorption of energy, regardless of where it came from. It was accepted that as long as people were given information about the NG well in their backyard, it was an acceptable item.
    I changed my attitude towards the end of the group as I could see everyone thought that they were so highly educated that they would know whether NG was bad. I started saying “yes, this is a good paper” or “that’s a good commercial” because everyone thought they were so smart about everything. They all took this attitude and would heavily critique anything that was given to them to see/read.
    Finally, I wasn’t interested in being part of the group. I thought it would be more about politics that we discuss here. So once it got in to energy, it lost my interest.

    1. Toby

      I’m for renewables for the simple reason that they’re renewable and hence sustainable–you don’t burn them to useless ash. They have to be our focus.

      Your point about consumption is key. We of the West cannot sustain our current lifestyle, so any discussion about energy supply must take demand into account as a problem to be urgently addressed. Revolutions in housing, city design, transportation and anything else that requires energy to run is an essential part of the energy challenge. The comments above saying renewables don’t produce enough energy are missing a fundamental point. The rate at which we currently consume energy is unsustainable. Why strive to meet ever growing demand?

      Can everyone on the planet live like an average American? Impossible. Either we change the way we consume and organize ourselves socioeconomically, or we kiss goodbye to anything resembling civilization. The choice is ours.

  18. Dave of Maryland

    Still waiting for the God of Science to save us, are we?

    So we can go on living in splendid suburbs driving our private cars to get jugs of milk & loaves of bread?

    Doing NOTHING to save ourselves?

    Pardon my disgust.

    BAD ZONING is what creates energy waste. Energy use in America is the direct result of zoning laws that were passed 50, 70 years ago. Change those laws, rebuild the country (the country rebuilds itself every 20-30 years anyway) and oil consumption will drop.

    And it would be so easy. The Spanish plaza/courtyard system (examples can be seen in Santa Fe) packages people effectively, in attractive, desirable neighborhoods that are inherently energy efficient. We used to be able to do this. We need to relearn what we once knew.

    But instead we are addicted to “technology”. A properly designed city virtually eliminates casual inter-city automobile traffic (the vast bulk of America’s wasted energy), but if you tried build such a city, my heavens how many people would howl. We are horribly, vitally, cruelly dependent upon our vast amounts of wasted energy.

    1. Toby

      Well said.

      I just cannot understand the resistance to the eminently sensible idea of living intelligently and efficiently in well built houses and well-planned cities. It boggles my mind. As if all that driving and gridlock and the endless expanse of characterless malls makes us remotely happy. As if addiction to perpetual growth is a good thing. As if gasping for the latest gadget is anything other than dumb susceptibility to advertising.

      It. Boggles. My. Mind.

      1. Externality

        I just cannot understand the resistance to the eminently sensible idea of living intelligently and efficiently in well built houses and well-planned cities.

        “Well-planned cities” are associated in the American consciousness with disasters such as urban renewal, raised urban highways, and massive housing projects such as Cabrini Green and Pruitt Igoe.

        The urban renewal efforts of the 1950s and 1960s destroyed “blighted” Black and ‘ethnic’ White neighborhoods, allowing real estate developers to get rich building sterile, homogenized planned communities. Urban planners also favored zoning rules that created separate residential, business, and shopping districts. Once thriving neighborhoods such as San Francisco’s Fillmore and Japantown have never recovered from the urban renewal projects of that time.

        Another popular idea that is still being (literally) deconstructed were raised highways and interstates that allowed traffic to ‘efficiently’ bypass urban centers. In reality, they divided cities, made it harder to travel between neighborhoods, and forced previously prosperous neighborhoods to live under the shadows and pollution they created. San Francisco’s urban renaissance stems, in part, from removing most of its raised highways.

        A third idea once popular among urban planners were large complexes of fifteen to thirty story public housing projects. Elite urban planners dismissed as ignorant, racist, and reactionary warnings against and complaints about buildings of this type. Housing projects such as Cabrini Green and Pruitt Igoe soon became synonymous with concentrated poverty, crime, and drugs. Social engineering efforts, such as the so-called man in the house rule, drove out families and those with jobs.

        1. Toby

          Good points. The question is, can we learn from this, or do we throw up our hands and do nothing? If we do something (doing nothing is impossible anyway), should we do it chaotically or should we plan it? And anyway, there is no such thing as perfection, so we shouldn’t expect it.

          New information is continually being thrown up. We can learn from it, wise up, and so on, or we can refuse to adjust until something explodes. I guess the bigger the change required by the new information, the more likely it is an explosion of some kind is necessary to get people to look at the world differently. Not that thereafter consensus emerges as if by magic, effortlessly uniting people in some shared and understood vision, but planning will happen one way or the other. Even if we argue for atomized society down to family-unit level with zero coordination between units, the family would have to plan their lives to some degree. And how do you keep the units small, prevent families from cooperating or forming tribes? How would it be possible to prevent the tribes expanding beyond the Dunbar number without planning? And how do you prevent some tribes being more ‘successful’ than others, dominating others, subsuming others? How did we get where we are, cities, nations, internationally coordinated wars and more benign efforts, if the Dunbar number is ‘hard-wired’ in our brains?

          Of course planning can go wrong, but that does not mean all planning is wrong, or even that ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ stay so for all time.

          What are you for, Externality?

          1. Externality

            I would suggest an exercise in radical democracy: allowing the people impacted by urban redevelopment to vote on the changes recommended by urban planners. If the project is too complicated for an up-or-down vote, ranked-choice voting could be used to allow voters to choose from a menu of options. If “none-of-the above” is the preferred option, the urban planners have to start over.

            If this seems impractical, it is infinitely preferable to the process that led to the fiascoes, imposed largely by federal diktat, mentioned above. In each case, the government ignored or overruled the concerns and objections of the people who had to live in and near the projects. The Ivy League experts and other elites who conceived the projects were unwilling to listen to objections from commoners, no matter how valid they turned out to be.

            Gaining popular consent would also help to reduce legal challenges by disgruntled communities. As things stand now, communities often resort to using environmental, zoning, and other laws to stop or delay a project until it is canceled or modified.

          2. Externality

            Re: The Fillmore which I mentioned earlier:

            As a result of the urban decay, in 1948 the Fillmore was designated a redevelopment area. The city’s Redevelopment Agency, led by Justin Herman, demolished most of the neighborhood’s existing homes and businesses over the course of the next decade. In their place, developers built large, mostly low-rise housing developments, along with some mixed-use buildings concentrated around Fillmore Street. Many of these developments included subsidized units for low-income residents. The project took longer than expected, however, with some plots remaining vacant until well into the 21st century. While the residents of the original homes were, in theory, entitled to return to the neighborhood, many did not do so.

            As a result of the project’s displacement of residents and businesses, its mixed and arguably discriminatory economic impact, and its design (featuring mid-century renewal concepts such as superblocks and strict separation of uses), the redevelopment of the Fillmore is considered by most to have been unsuccessful and regrettable. Post-redevelopment, encroaching gentrification and the physical decay of cheaply-constructed housing complexes have led to a neighborhood of stark contrasts between rich and poor.

            In the 1990s-2000s, the neighborhood underwent another wave of urban renewal and gentrification in the form of a new “Jazz District” along Fillmore Street with mostly upscale Jazz-themed restaurants, and proposed condominium construction.

            (emphasis added)

          3. Toby

            I think we are in agreement. Projects such as city design, indeed any large-scale, high-impact planning, should be as democratic as possible. Only then can we be sure we are working for the benefit of others rather than for our own egos or monetary profit.

            I’ve read recently a little about swarm intelligence and how the majority view, averaged out, is almost always ‘wiser’ or more accurate than the opinion or prediction of lone experts. I have yet to look into this deeply, hence the very generic definition, but it is something I will be exploring in due course.

    2. NOTaREALmerican

      Re: We are horribly, vitally, cruelly dependent upon our vast amounts of wasted energy.

      So, the problem isn’t zoning laws, but the cost of energy. Why try to fix a “design problem” by attempting to fix (modify) an already politically gamed zoning system.

      (Yes, I know, all human systems are “gamed” by the smartest humans to benefit the smartest human. So, we have the only system possible).

      1. readerOfTeaLeaves

        Dave of Maryland is correct.

        Indeed, partly because the results of zoning were so horrendous, some really smart urban planners and architects started working with people trained in anthropology, sociology, and psychology to think about how humans respond to built environments.

        Dave of MD is also correct that rebuilding a lot of outdated shopping centers (acres of asphalt unused, blight, big box leftovers) would be a terrific jobs program.

        There are also direct effects of zoning on human health: more walking and less driving is good for a number of health parameters. However, in many areas of the US, you are risking your life to walk by a busy street. Redesigns to enhance ‘walkability’ makes it more likely that people will interact, that there are ‘eyes on the street’, and that in turn enhances public safety.

        In my region, “walkable” is a marketing term for ‘walkable live-work-shop’. People are willing to pay extra for a smaller townhouse and be able to walk to work, than have to sit for an hour each way in traffic on a freeway.

        Zoning laws may not seem that linked to energy usage, but the linkages are many. Bad zoning impacts city budgets, translates to absurdly high public infrastructure costs, and translate to a lot of wasted energy.

        New, revitalized urban regions would promote job creation, and over the long term they hold the promise for increased human health.

        The larger energy cost savings are an added bonus.

        But at present, the political savvy and the political will are still building momentum.

  19. David Hewitt

    Another point that isn’t made often is that distributed energy has a national security aspect. Arpanet, or packet-switched networking, was devised with national security in mind. The idea was that if analog communication lines were knocked out by natural disaster or attack, packet switching would route around the damaged areas to find their way to the destination address. We have come to depend on electricity for survival, for refrigeration, heating and cooling, and communications. Central generating stations, and the spiderweb grid, can be relatively easily knocked out, causing societal chaos. But if we have electricity generated on our houses and public buildings and businesses, we would be able to survive and much longer, even if the grid goes down.

    I don’t have enough roof space to supply all of our typical monthly electricity usage with PV modules. But I know I can reduce my usage. Every watt generated cleanly is a watt that won’t be produced with finite fuel. I’m increasing my clean generating capability, while reducing my usage of non-clean finite fuels. If the whole nation would do that, we would be more secure, and we would reduce our impact on Nature.

  20. NOTaREALmerican

    Good idea. We’ll “decentralize” energy right after we decentralize our crony-capitalist government.

  21. sleeper

    I must take issue with this statement “just as we’ve already exploited the best rivers for hydropower”
    This is a lie. And an often repeated lie.
    There are some 80,000 dams in the US 3% of which are used for generating power. Through repowering existing dams with improved turbines and by developing existing dams presently used for flood control, recreation, and as water reservoirs the hydropower generation in the US can be doubled from 7% to 14%.
    The cost for hydropower generation is about 2.5 cents per kWh.
    As far as wind generation goes the US has the potential to generate 20% of electric power without requiring major changes to the grid. And at a cost of about 6.5 cent per kWh. See DOE’s 20% wind study.
    The real issue the IOUs have with these sources of power is that the IOUs cannot engage in giveback schemes since the resource and the transportation of that resource is free.
    The IOUs use FERC to constraint the market and force the ratepayers into the arms of the large central plant be it nukes, coal, or natural gas.

    1. alex

      “hydropower generation in the US can be doubled from 7% to 14%”

      Do you have a cite for that? That would be great.

      Not only is hydro a good power source by itself, it nicely complements wind and solar since hydro is both a good base load and a good peak load source. The limiting factor w/ most hydro is the amount of water, not the peak generating capacity. So when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining you let the water build up and then let it flow when the wind is calm and the sun is down.

      As for shipping power electricity long distance, from

      The Pacific DC Intertie (also called Path 65) is an electric power transmission line that transmits electricity from the Pacific Northwest to the Los Angeles area using high voltage direct current (HVDC). The line capacity is 3,100 megawatts, which is enough to serve two to three million Los Angeles households and is 48.7% of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) electrical system’s peak capacity.

      And that was built 40-50 years ago!

  22. ScottS

    When are we going to switch to household DC? Almost everything I plug into the wall has an AC->DC converter. One AC->DC converter per house would be much more efficient.

    Seriously, other than vacuum cleaners and light bulbs, what is still AC? And with LED light bulbs, you can make those DC too. And with electric cars coming up, why not go DC?

  23. just me

    Two words: Sunrise Powerlink. In Southern California. Horrible project being crammed through right now even though there are still lawsuits going. It’s greenwashed in the media but Sempra refuses to commit to ANY renewable energy being carried on it.

    Opponents say much better idea is locally produced energy — like rooftop solar — think of the acres and acres of commericial roofs in San Diego alone. Being able to sell back your excess power to the utility company could mean you could watch a million entrepreneurs bloom. The idea of piping solar energy to San Diego is like…bringing coal to Newcastle. Remember in Who Killed the Electric Car? how California’s zero-emission mandate got killed by the California Air Resources Board? The public turned out to speak in favor of keeping the mandate but the board voted it killed? What just happened? Same thing with the Powerlink now and the CPUC and BLM:


    “The Bureau of Land Management totally disregarded laws to protect people and nature when it approved the Sunrise Powerlink. Even the judge presiding over this project with the California Public Utilities Commission agreed with opponents that there’s no need for the project to be built anywhere let alone through communities and the Cleveland National Forest.” – attorney Stephan Volker

    From press release (PDF):

    SDG&E’s $2-3 billion Sunrise Powerlink is a major new fossil-fueled electrical transmission line that would be constructed from the Imperial Valley to central San Diego County near Poway. SDG&E successfully opposed any conditions by regulators requiring that the powerlink carry renewable energy. California ratepayers would pay for the 123-mile transmission line consisting of a 500kV main line starting from near El Centro and Mexico to a huge new substation in the Japatul area east of Alpine. Two smaller 230kV spur lines would connect to San Diego with future plans by SDG&E to extend the 500kV main line north to Riverside through wilderness and communities. The powerlink would provide a highly profitable connection between SDG&E parent company Sempra Energy’s enormous natural gas and export power plant infrastructure in northern Baja California and the southern California electricity market.

    1. just me

      Here’s the route — PDF:

      High fire risk — see map being held up by Donna Tisdale (scroll down) at

      Looks like the whole point is to get Sempra providing imported LNG via Mexico to LA. Per link, Cheney intervened on its behalf.

      Here’s a reference to same thing happening in Arizona:

  24. Septeus7

    Goods points and some general confusion.

    I’ve been saying that stimulus money should have been used to update the transmission line to low loss line however all the energy efficiency won’t make Jovon’s paradox go away. Efficiency means reducing the cost of using something and therefore folks will use more not less of it. Even if Jovon’s paradox is wrong increased efficiency won’t mean we could decrease the current consumption because all of the efficiency gains would be cancelled by population gains.

    The only way to decrease consumption is to kill people via energy austerity and seeing as our elites are mist of of orgy of austerity getting the left on board makes the oligarchy very happy. They will cut jobs, cut wages, cut benefits, cut medicare, cut food stamps, and energy consumption as well. They will probably come out with some kind of two tier rationing system where the poor get one washing machine and refrigerator per neighborhood and if the poor don’t die from the fact they are eating unsafe food due to lack food inspections they will die from eating spoiled food. The poor will then be lectured about how good little surfs they are because being poor and dying young is good for the environment and the planet and folks from the left will eat it up.

    I’ve been supportive SMR for nuclear because that is the only way to get the costs down and safety increased but alas such systems don’t yet exist and most likely will never be developed. I’ve been quite taken a back by the current Nuclear industry’s less the stellar response to Fukushima but I’m wondering how much of the problems where caused by the fact that Fukushima was a giant above ground centralized complex whereas the Hyperion’s modules would be underground and ready for entombment. Today’s nuclear companies probably want nothing to with newer technology because it would screw up their current business models.

    Unless something like Focus Fusion’s DPF (see or EEStor-like ultracapacitors are invented then decentralization won’t happen. If you want renewables then you should be pushing hard for cheap recyclable electricity storage technology funding in the tens or hundreds of billions of dollars because we have a long way to go.

    Even if superior ultra cheap recyclable ultracapacitors or batteries are invented along with super cheap efficient solar panels (current solar panels according to GW’s logic “waste about 80-90%”) of the energy that don’t need cleaning (you have to use a lot of water to clean them regularly)and are super cheap you still couldn’t decentralized everything.

    You can’t decentralize water and yes I know about Atmospheric Water Generators and if you think they can produce enough water to even reproduce the water requirements that go into build them and deliver them to market then you clearly missing something along with the effects of billions of such generators on humidity and therefore climate. Water brings us to the other problem.

    The article unfortunately seems to buy the line that hydropower doesn’t have much of a future. While the politics may make that true I believe that upgrade to existing plants could add up to 80 gigs of capacity and folks seem to forget about the NAWPA project from the 1960’s see A great project like this would solve both power, water, and soil erosion problems not to mention provide millions of jobs. A project even of this size would cost less than our current military adventures.

    Both Hydro and Geothermal in the United States are nowhere near fully developed with 200-500 gigs of hydro capacity and 1-2 TW Geothermal capacity left. The problem is that Coal and Fossil Gas generate at 8-10c/kwh while everything else is 11.5-36.9c/kwh. Changing subsidy support structure will help only a National policy will create a real shift.

    However, due to the lack of a functional national government that understands modern money and physical economics these projects will never be built. Instead, we will continue to deplete our fossil water reserve and turn North America into desert because we are concerned about money deficit lie instead of natural deficits.

    But Mammon is God here and desertification is small price to pay compared to sacrilege against Monetarism’s holy doctrines of low wages, austerity and balanced budgets.

    1. Curious and uninformed

      The story and comments are overwhelming in the scope and breadth. Whenever this happens, and because I’m naturally curious and uninformed, I try to bring to mind some basic principles. On this issue, I have three. First, any legal, regulatory, and societal framework that exists today is unsatisfactory, and requires change that can only be provided by massive government intervention and debt-fueled subsidies. Second, all costs must be socialized at the lower of cost or market. Third, all benefits must be privitized at the higher of cost or market.

      Testing this against other complex network types of systems, I think the global money and banking complex offers a strong analog. If the world can just bring to the energy sector what has been brought with money and banking, we have a clear winner. Of course, we will need several professors with theories to study this carefully with years-long multi-million dollar research grants (it’s so complex), and only when California codifies this in law will we know that we’re on the right track.

  25. Paul Chamberlain

    Wind power’s dirty little secret is that because the wind is not reliable, a utility has to keep generating power from reliable sources (gas,coal,hydro) in case the wind stops blowing. IF the wind is blowing, this electricity is wasted. Gas and hydro may help a little (they can be throttled up and down) though it is still a giant waste.

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