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The only thing worse than an energy collapse

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We learned recently that one of the last coal power stations in the UK is bidding to become the first commercial nuclear fusion plant on Earth.  The news should be taken with a large pinch of salt… nuclear fusion has been 25 years in the future since before I was born and it will likely still be 25 years in the future the day after I die.  Nevertheless, nuclear fusion reactions have been generated; albeit for just a few seconds and at a massive energy cost.  And the physicists and engineers working on the multinational (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) ITER project in the south of France have something of a spring in their step just now; claiming that:

“ITER will be the first fusion device to produce net energy. ITER will be the first fusion device to maintain fusion for long periods of time. And ITER will be the first fusion device to test the integrated technologies, materials, and physics regimes necessary for the commercial production of fusion-based electricity.”

It is worth noting that ITER is an experiment rather than a working power plant.   And just as well; because even its proponents point to an energy return on investment (EROI) of just 10:1 – about half of the return from a wind turbine.  Even this may be a slight of hand, according to Steven Krivit at New Energy Times:

“Widespread false and exaggerated claims made by leaders in the fusion community have caused many people and institutions to convey the incorrect claims to a wide cross-section of the general public. Below, I’ve listed four of several hundred examples I’ve located. Each of these statements, through no fault of the authors, is fundamentally wrong:

  • New York Times: “ITER will benefit from its larger size and will produce about 10 times more power than it consumes.”
  • Science magazine: “ITER aims to produce 500 megawatts of power, 10 times the amount needed to keep it running.”
  • Nature magazine: “ITER is predicted to produce about 500 megawatts of electricity.”
  • Columbia University: “Overall, ITER aims to produce 500 MW of power from a 50 MW investment.”

In fact, the overall ITER reactor is designed to produce 500 megawatts of thermal power from an investment of 300 megawatts of electrical power. With conversion efficiencies, the net output of ITER should be around zero. From a practical perspective, that’s bad news…”

In the event that ITER even broke even in energy, that would be something of a triumph for the scientists and engineers, since to date, fusion has been a massive energy sink.  Moreover, technologies tend to be highly inefficient to begin with but are improved over time.  Nevertheless, in both climate and fossil fuel depletion terms, it is doubtful that industrial civilisation has enough time left to wait while clever people somewhere else figure out how to do nuclear fusion effectively.

China – to name just one country – is apparently going down an alternative – and almost as implausible – route.  Ever since the molten salt reactor experiments at the US Oak Ridge laboratory in the early 1960s, thorium reactors have been proposed as a more effective and far less dangerous alternative to today’s pressurised water reactors.  Thorium is ubiquitous and easily recoverable from mining spoils.  Exposed to neutrons in a breeder reactor, Thorium breaks down eventually into an isotope of uranium which can theoretically sustain a fission reaction; producing enough neutrons to continue breaking down the thorium.

The engineering difficulties with molten salt reactors have proved almost as intractable as the containment of plasma in a fusion reactor.  However, if reports from China last month are to be believed, this problem has been overcome.  According to David Rogers at Global Construction Review:

“A 2MW prototype is set to be completed in August, with tests to begin in September… The first commercial version, with a power of about 100MW, is due to enter service in 2030.

“The Thorium Molten Salt Reactor (TMSR) project, which was begun in 2011, has been underway in Wuwei city, Gansu province in China’s remote northwest. The prototype was to have been completed in 2024, but work was accelerated.

“The reactor is cooled with molten salt, which gives a much higher operating temperature than a conventional reactor. This can be as high as 1,000°C, which has hampered previous attempts to design a molten salt reactor since a material has to be found that could contain the fuel.

“In 2017, the Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics, which has been leading work on the reactor, announced the creation of a NiMo-SiC alloy – that is, one made from nickel and molybdenum and silicon carbide.”

Of course, China might be making this announcement to divert attention from growing criticism of its use of coal which, in the absence of some new low-carbon power source makes a mockery of the country’s claim to be on track to reach net zero by 2060.  But China is not the only country to be actively developing molten salt reactors.  The UK’s Moltex Energy has developed a molten salt reactor which can be powered with existing nuclear waste.  In addition to its experimental reactor in the UK, the company is also working with the Canadian and Estonian governments to deliver molten salt reactors.  Similarly, US-based ThorCon is working with the Indonesian government to deliver molten salt reactors, and is looking to develop thorium reactors in future.

Because of the additional heat produced in a molten salt reactor, the potential energy return is far greater than that anticipated from fusion.  Moreover, since uranium-powered molten salt reactors have already been demonstrated, these reactors might be scaled up far faster than fusion or even thorium reactors.  And that’s a problem because while campaigners may hope for some form of managed de-growth and de-population, the governing classes in this world will never accept anything that doesn’t involve continued growth.  And since the bright green vision of a technologically advanced economy run on wind, solar and hydrogen is already falling apart on net energy and material depletion grounds, the only option on the table which promises continued economic growth is some combination of nuclear and geoengineering.  Like it or not, that is the direction the people with the power of decision will most likely take us in.

It will probably be too little too late.  Simply producing more electricity from nuclear would not solve our energy crisis.  Sufficient surplus energy would have to be created to produce enough synthetic diesel (or an equivalent) to replace the essential diesel applications that cannot be electrified.  That would mean building thousands of reactors around the planet while we still have access to the energy from fossil fuels.  And even then, to restart genuine (as opposed to financial) economic growth would likely require reactors to have an EROI of several hundred to one rather than the ten to one being touted for fusion.

The most probable future is that we mess up on all fronts.  Rather than reining in our consumption and saving what remains of our fossil fuels for essential purposes, we will continue to squander them.  Non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies will continue to prove wholly inadequate for preventing a significant simplification of our civilisation.  And any new nuclear reactors which might have saved the day had they been pursued half a century ago will prove to be too little too late.

My own betting remains 99:1 on an economic collapse followed by an energetic collapse followed by an ecological collapse starting in the 2020s.  But suppose for a moment the various nuclear projects were to save the day for industrial civilisation.  Would that necessarily be a good thing?  Or would it simply open up more and more intractable crises than the ones we are failing to address today?

A sudden influx of surplus energy would immediately end our current economic woes.  Just as the conversion of economies from coal to oil in the decades after the Second World War led to huge gains in standards of living for ordinary people in the developed states, so a massive influx of surplus energy today might reverse the decline in living standards experienced since the 1970s and, if the surplus was great enough, might overcome much of the poverty in the global south.  At the same time, many of the benefits of industrial civilisation such as public healthcare, clean drinking water and sanitation would be retained and expanded into parts of the planet where these are currently a matter of life and death.

On the downside though, the same exploitative system run by the same godzillionaire class would be given a new lease of life.  And a culture which views the planet and everything that lives on it as a mere commodity to be torn up to meet our passing desires would go from strength to strength.  Our false understanding of the world – the religion of progress – would appear to most people to be vindicated.  And current critiques of the mainstream understanding of money and economics would be drowned out by charlatan economists falsely claiming that their models and prescriptions – rather than the additional surplus energy – were responsible for the new era of prosperity.

And the crisis wouldn’t be resolved; it would merely morph into its next phase.  The same monetary system which fell apart in 1929 and again in 2008 would be given a new lease of life as the additional surplus energy allowed new real wealth to be developed to soak up the over-inflated currency stock of today.  Today’s unrepayable debt would gradually become payable and zombie firms and households would get a new lease of life.  Mineral deposits which are currently uneconomic – i.e., too energy expensive – would become viable allowing even more of planet Earth to be despoiled.  And even if we managed to reach the holy grail of net zero, global warming would continue in a different way simply because of the inevitable energy gradients required for us to use energy at all:

“Earth has only one mechanism for releasing heat to space, and that’s via (infrared) radiation. We understand the phenomenon perfectly well, and can predict the surface temperature of the planet as a function of how much energy the human race produces. The upshot is that at a 2.3% growth rate (conveniently chosen to represent a 10× increase every century), we would reach boiling temperature in about 400 years… And this statement is independent of technology. Even if we don’t have a name for the energy source yet, as long as it obeys thermodynamics, we cook ourselves with perpetual energy increase.”

In other words, the arrival of some new, hi-tech influx of surplus energy would allow us to continue all of the bad habits which brought us to our current predicament.  And we have been here before.  The First World War was partially due to the economic uncertainties flowing from peak coal-based coal in Britain.  Rather like today, the old imperial powers were increasingly aware of their internal weakness even as rising powers looked set to take their place.  It was British economic – and thus military – weakness by the beginning of the twentieth century which pushed it into closer alliance with Russia – which was expanding toward India and Persia – and France.  It was German concerns with the growing economic – and thus military – strength of Russia which led its generals to push for an early war while Germany was still the leading European power.  Events, railway timetables, naval arms races, mentally ill Russian ministers and many other proposed cause of the outbreak of war each played a part of course, but the end of the coal age underpinned the geopolitics of the age.

The brief, oil-based “roaring twenties” in the USA were not replicated elsewhere.  Britain and France were bankrupted by the war.  Germany was bankrupted by reparations.  Russia had collapsed into revolution and civil war.  And American ebullience was soon dashed by the Wall Street Crash and the ensuing decade of depression.

It was out of the post-war malaise and eventual crash that the prevailing economic orthodoxy was subjected to contrarian criticism.  And while few of the critics understood the central role of energy in the economy, a few did.  Most notably, English Nobel Prize-winning chemist Frederick Soddy; who synthesised and expanded on the work of others to develop a more comprehensive alternative economics:

“Genuine wealth, Soddy argued, is that which provides us with a high standard of living. It is an ability to do real physical work, over and above that which we can achieve with our hands. And the source of this is any form of “embodied useful energy”. It is no coincidence that the rapid increase in living standards that commenced about 250 years ago was accompanied by a plethora of mechanical innovations, the majority of which require energy inputs to function. Economists and lay people alike admire the spark of human invention, but conveniently overlook the actual fuel that powers them…

“To Soddy, real wealth has to obey the laws of physics whereas money and debts are merely important social constructs. Paradoxically, neoclassical economics seems to inhabit a parallel universe where wealth can be created at will, money is irrelevant, yet debts are a tangible reality!

Just for a moment, the orthodox economists who had failed to predict the crisis an whose remedies only seemed to make matters worse, looked set to be overtaken by something akin to an older “political economy” which threatened to ground economics in the realities of energy and material resources… and then came the Second World War.  There was no time for esoteric debates about the nature of the economy while the enemy was at the gates.  And so the USA bent to the task of extracting enough oil to power a war economy greater than any before.  And in the aftermath, that oil was used to rebuild the economies of Europe and Japan.  With the oil-based post-war boom in full-flow, we could conveniently forget about the grounded political economy of thinkers like Soddy, who died in obscurity in 1956.  Nevertheless, his analysis of the 1929 crash and the ensuing depression can be equally applied to the period from the peak of conventional oil production in 2005 through the 2008 crash and the ensuing depression:

“Soddy’s message delivers some uncomfortable truths about who we are (we are subservient to nature, not omnipotent), and what we can aspire to (we can’t build an economy on get rich quick schemes, so forget about flipping that house, winning the National Lottery, or trying your luck on TV Talent shows). He had clearly pointed out the absurdity of everyone trying to live off the interest from savings. Certainly one group could achieve this, but it would be foolish to think that a whole society can expand its purchasing power in aggregate by the same method. Perhaps most of us are hardwired to believe in the fairytale of perpetual profit and infinite growth. Not only were Soddy’s views deeply unpalatable to the existing power structure of society, but they probably cut against the grain of human instinct, too.”

With the peak of all oil production in 2018 and following the disintegration resulting from the pandemic, we might soon want to revisit Soddy’s writing for an explanation of economic woes which are already visible.  And perhaps we might at least begin to learn lessons which until now we have been putting off.  Because we have left it to Mother Earth to put an end to our pursuit of infinite growth on a finite planet rather than take the unpalatable route of self-discipline to limit our impact on the only life-sustaining planet we know of.

The energetic collapse which awaits us is going to be unpleasant.  As global supply chains fall apart, we are all going to be materially poorer.  Things which we take for granted today – like the ability to travel more than a few miles or the availability of medicines and surgical techniques for even common ailments – are going away.  Even the abundant food supply that those fortunate enough to live in developed states is likely to shrink back to that which can be produced locally – with some regional rather than global trade occurring.  And when the fossil fuels deplete, then all of the things which depend upon them – including trucks, ships, wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars – will not be far behind them.

One way or another, the human population will have to shrink back to its pre-industrial size. If we are unlucky, this will be brought about rapidly by our old friends war, famine and pestilence.  If we are fortunate, it will happen slowly through a combination of falling birth rates and declining life-expectancy.  Most likely it will be some combination of the two.  And even then, the survivors are going to have to live with the damage that 300 years of industrialisation has done to the human habitat – life on Earth will continue at three or four degrees of global warming; but human life may become impossible.

For energy density reasons alone, hydrogen and nuclear energy have the potential to provide a different version of the future.  Hydrogen is roughly three times as energy-dense as diesel fuel.  Unfortunately, hydrogen doesn’t exist as an element on Earth.  And even when it is separated, it comes in the form of a very light gas.  As a result, the additional potential energy from hydrogen is lost in the processes of separating it – either from fossil gas or from water – and concentrating it into a pressurised liquid.  Uranium and thorium are tens of thousands of times more energy-dense than diesel, with the potential to provide so much surplus energy that the world as we know it today would be transformed beyond recognition.  This is why humanity’s decision makers have been – quietly until now – experimenting with reactor technologies vastly different to the pressurised water reactors of the Cold War.

But if humanity were to get its hands on such enormous volumes of surplus energy without first understanding and correcting the ways in which we generated our current problems to begin with, it is not clear that we are evolved enough to be trusted to use that energy sustainably.  Perhaps the only thing worse than our near future economic, energetic and environmental collapse would be another, even more powerful influx of surplus energy; leading to an even worse economic, energetic and ecological collapse in the future…

As you made it to the end…

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