Category Archives: Technology

The EIA Sees Our Energy Future – Which Doesn’t Look That Much Different from Today

Exams finished (I’ve been exercising my brain cells by doing some data analysis and computer courses with the UK’s Open University), so I have at last had a chance to blog.

Let’s kick off with a report I usually try to catch each year: the US government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA)‘s “Annual Energy Outlook 2015“, which looks out to 2040.

If you keep up with media reports, the backdrop to the 2015 Outlook would be something like this:

US oil production has pushed up toward 10 million barrels per day (bpd) and is a whisker away from overtaking Saudi Arabia; five LNG export terminals have been approved and are under construction because the US is so awash with natural gas (due to the fracking boom) that it needs to export it; solar PV panel price falls coupled with efficiency gains have brought the levelised cost of solar PV down so substantially that solar energy is now making a major contribution to electricity generation in an ever-growing number of American states; Texas has become a wind-energy king second only to Denmark; and Elon Musk is bringing power to the people (literally) in the form of a new generation of home super batteries.

Wow, sexy stuff! So I guess we are going to see the EIA predicting radical changes to the energy mix in 2040, especially as many of the trends I just highlighted are only getting started. Right? Let’s look at EIA’s flagship chart (page 17 of the report, click for larger image on all charts):

US Primary Energy Consumption jpeg

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Utopia, Dystopia, Uncertainty and Our Psychological Selves

I have just finished reading Dylan Evans’ book “The Utopia Experiment“, which chronicles the author’s doomed attempt to found a self-sufficient community in rural Scotland as a post-collapse prototype for others to learn from.

It is always interesting to find a hidden back story about one of the authors who sit on my book shelf–and boy does Evans have a bizarre back story. Evans is an LSE-trained philosopher and scholar of risk, robotics, artificial intelligence and evolutionary psychology (after many a wayward turn).  I already own his book “Risk Intelligence”, which deals with many of the issues I confront in this blog, particularly ‘decision-making under uncertainty’. Unknown to me, Evans’ interest in risk, combined with his own personal demons, had previously led to a decision to opt out of conventional society, which in turn led to a complete nervous breakdown.

Evans displays a compulsive personality: he pours himself into a particular endeavour for a year or two, then recoils from any further long-term commitment. To launch ‘Utopia’, he sacrifices everything: his house, his job, his relationships. To justify this, ‘Utopia’ becomes more than a mere experiment but rather a lifeboat being made ready for the collapse of civilisation. In a conversation with Oxford academic and scholar of existential risk Nick Bostrom, he is asked this question:

How likely do you think it is that something like the imaginary scenario you are acting out in Scotland might really come to pass in the next ten years?

Evans replies:

I thought a bit longer, and finally declared that I thought that the chance of such a thing happening within the next ten years was about 50 per cent. Nick looked shocked. Not even the most pessimistic scientists thought things were that bad….

….the precision that Nick had demanded of me forced me to own up to my error in a way that vagueness never would. It betrayed the extent to which what had started out in my mind as an exercise in collaborative fiction had already become an insurance policy against a global disaster that I was increasingly convinced was imminent.

Later he frames this decision as more psychological rather than intellectual. A predisposition toward depression coupled with a generalized angst at living within large corporate structures results in a rejection of his existing social and institutional ties. The irony here, as he later admits, is that for one so psychologically fragile discarding structure is about the worst thing he could have done mental health-wise.

Moreover, ever the contrarian, Evans comes to question his own beliefs more rigorously the more advanced the experiment becomes. Intellectually, his certainty is lost and without that comforting narrative ‘Utopia’ become less a personal lifeboat but more of a rip tide dragging him below the waves.

So are there any wider lessons here? I think there are many. First, as behavioural economics teaches us so well, humans and not what the economist Richard Thaler calls ‘Econs’; that is, emotionless calculating machines as opposed to humans. We can only perceive risk and uncertainty within an emotional framework. Humans have an optimism bias partly as an evolutionary means to advertise positive traits that allow us to mate and flourish but partly just to keep us sane. Examining the downside is painful and can lead to isolation, rejection and depression.

Yet perhaps there are those of us who can maintain contrarianism without falling apart. Evans documents how the participants in ‘Utopia’ rapidly progress from viewing the commune as an experiment to one of preparation for real collapse. They need a narrative to inoculate themselves from the outside world. Yet after a time, Evans starts to question all the collapse narratives that the commune volunteers espouse, falls into depression and is eventually replaced as leader by an early volunteer called Agric.

What Agric offers to the remaining volunteers is a narrative of certainty, which Evans could no longer offer. Further, this is a narrative that is immune to any counter-argument since it rests upon an irrefutable theory.

Part of the reason why Agric was so dismissive of any suggestion that civilisation might not be about to collapse was the fact that he had a powerful theory. He was in the grip of Malthus, like many before him. Malthus had shown that population growth must always outstrip food supply, right? He had proved it.

And earlier:

The idea that our civilisation might not only survive global warming but also continue to grow richer had appalled me, and this was perhaps why I had believed so ardently that it would collapse. I had wanted it to. Agric still did.

At this point it would be easy to laugh at the ‘Utopia’ pioneers, painting them as New Age fools. But not so fast. Evans’ story shows how hard it is to disentangle the dispassionate from the emotional when it comes to risk and uncertainty, particularly when it comes to tail risk. But this cuts both ways.

Let’s assign a 1% probability to collapse rather than Evans’ 50% and let’s push out the horizon to five decades rather than one. We are now entering the territory of intellectual respectability. The kind of probabilities that former Astronomer Royal Martin Rees sets out in his book “Our Final Century“.

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Yet the vast majority of us are repelled at discussing such negative scenarios. Nick Bostrom points out that the academic literature is many times richer when it comes to publishing papers on dung beetles or Star Trek than it is to considering existential threats to humanity (here).

Academic Prioritisation jpeg

I propose that to seriously consider those dark-side scenarios you need either 1) immense psychological detachment and resilience or 2) no psychological detachment at all (a joyful embrace of the collapse narrative). In short, psychology-wise you need to be built differently from the vast majority.

Nonetheless, some true contrarians do exist in a variety of fields, for example, finance, and walk a fine line between delusion and perception. It is such people who populate Gregory Zuckerman’s book “The Greatest Trade Ever” which retells the story of five individuals who made their fortunes from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the Great Recession. These are not Thaler’s dispassionate, calculating ‘Econs’ devoid of emotion. These are five individuals with their own rather peculiar character quirks who are naturally uncomfortable with both the status quo and the institutions that support the status quo. In this particular case, they emerge from Zuckerman’s book as prescient heroes. Of course, we never hear of the thousands of similar individuals whose backs are broken on the wheel of markets that go the wrong way.

Perhaps our differing reactions to upside and downside risk is nature’s way of hedging its bets. A few of us are comfortable operating in the super optimistic probability tail of upside risk and fewer still like Agric like to wallow in the pessimistic tail of downside risk. From an evolutionary perspective, most of the tail risk jockeys end up as road kill. But things do change, and perhaps a maladaptive mutation will suddenly becomes a vital survival trait. Those Agric-like fellows who believe they know the future will be the equivalent of bacteria on a petri dish that survive a dose of penicillin. A mutation that may previously have been an impediment becomes a life-saver as circumstances change.

We each have our own view of rationality, but it is our emotional state that keeps us sane when seeing the world. Don’t get me wrong: I am no post-modern relativist. For example, I think there does exist an objective assessment of the likelihood that the globe will experience extreme climate change leading to economic collapse by end century (and a non-negligible one at that). This is certainly not enough risk to make me run off to the wilds of Scotland, but it is a risk nevertheless. But I think that only some people can psychologically live with such a fact. Most can’t. The dominant narrative is: let’s pretend that climate change doesn’t exist as a factor in our or our children’s lives and carry on regardless.

Dylan Evans’ story may perhaps be one of the delusion of a few, but humanity’s inability to tackle climate change is a story of the delusion of the many. So let’s not laugh too long at ‘Utopia’.

GMO and Plant Modification

Apologies for my poor blog post productivity: I am in the midst of Open University exams, which are occupying a lot of my time. Further, I have a number of draft long blog posts on the go that I am having difficulty completing; sometimes blog posts write themselves, sometimes they have to be extracted like an impacted wisdom tooth.

In the meantime, here are a few fabulous infographics. I don’t dare stray into the GMO debate at this time as I haven’t researched it enough. I think, however, that these graphics vividly demonstrate that we have been pretty adept at modifying plant organisms irrespective of GMO technology. We could open a philosophical debate here about what are “natural” plants (but I won’t).

All I will say is that these modern plants are very different from their descendants. They have also been developed to meet human needs.

Hat tip to James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher in Australia, who put these graphics together (here).

Watermelon Development  jpg

Corn  Development jpg

Peach Development jpeg

Charts du Jour, 6 April 2015: US Natural Gas Production

The US government agency The Energy Information Administration reported natural gas production numbers for January 2015 on 31 March (numbers are reported with a two month lag).

US dry gas production was up 8.9% year on year in January, and the 12-month moving average was 6.1% higher year on year, the highest growth since October 2012 (click for large image; source: here).

US Dry Gas Production Jan 2015 jpeg

Meanwhile, natural gas prices have continued to trend down and are now reaching around $2.5 per million British thermal units (Btu). This is not far off their 2012 lows (source: here).

Henry Hub Prices Mar 15 jpeg

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Wantability, Well-Being and Risk

I’ve been mulling a name change for the blog for some time. The name the “The Rational Pessimist” was a riposte to Matt Ridley’s book “The Rational Optimist“. Ridley’s book is a paean to global free markets and human innovation–and in parts is correct. Since the industrial revolution commenced, technology coupled with capitalism has lifted the bulk of the world’s population out of a Hobbesian life that was “nasty, brutish and short”. But where I differ from Ridley is in believing that a 200-year data set of economic growth can fully capture all future risk.

Ridley’s book is Panglossian. He believes that every problem we face–from climate change to resource depletion–is relatively minor, just waiting to be solved by a technological fix. For him, price always trumps scarcity. Whenever something looks like it is running out, the magic of markets will  always lead to new discoveries or acceptable substitutes.

As an economist by training, I accept that the everlasting dance between supply, demand and price is something of beauty. But I also believe that it has its limitations. A backward-looking empirical observation that things haven’t run out is different from a forward-looking theoretical prediction that things won’t ever run out. North Sea oil is running out regardless of price, and a global supply of oil is not qualitatively different from a local one.

Of course, technology may provide a perfect, or dare I say it better, substitute for fossil fuels. But then again it may not. That is uncertainty, and the consequences of that uncertainty is the concept of risk.

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Battery Banter 5: The Relevance (or Not) of Moore’s Law

Concurrently with writing this series of blog posts, I have been reading Steve Levine’s newly published book “The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World“.  The book is a bit of a mess, full of random jumps, wrong turns and dead ends. Perhaps that is appropriate, since it describes a battery development process that is full of random jumps, wrong turns and dead ends.

While the back cover blurb tells me that the book reads like a thriller, it is more like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tale “The Dog That Didn’t Bark”. We have two questing groups of heroes: the public-sector Argonne National Laboratory battery guys and the plucky private-sector upstarts at Envia Systems. Yet the book peters out at the end, with both teams abjectly failing in their respective quests to find the super battery Holy Grail. Argonne’s new version of nickel manganese cobalt batteries (NMC 2.0) suffers from chronic voltage fade (meaning that the performance of the battery slumps after repeated recharging cycles). Meanwhile, Envia’s super battery is spectacularly flawed, based on a collapsing anode and dodgy intellectual property.

Despite the book being in need of a good edit, it is still full of interesting insights into the battery development process. In a chapter recounting conversations with Don Hillebrand, an old school auto expert working at Argonne, Levine makes this observation:

Unlike microchips, batteries don’t adhere to a principle akin to Moore’s law, the rule of thumb that the number of switches on a chip–semiconductor efficiency–doubles every eighteen months. Batteries were comparatively slow to advance. But that did not make electronics superior to electric cars.

Consumer electronics typically wear out and require replacement every two or three years. They lock up, go on the fritz, and generally degrade. They are fragile when jostled or dropped and are often cheaper to replace than repair. If battery manufacturers and carmakers produced such mediocrity, they would be run out of business, sued for billions and perhaps even go to prison if anything catastrophic occurred. Automobiles have to last at least a decade and start every time. Their performance had to remain roughly the same throughout. They had to be safe while moving–or crashing–at high speed.

At this point, I want to refer you back to the original 1965 article by Gordon Moore that ushered in Moore’s Law entitled  “Cramming more components onto integrated circuits.” From this, we have the quintessential exponential chart, which delivers a straight line if you put the y-axis onto a logarithmic scale (click for larger image):

Moore's Law Paper jpeg

This is the world of Ray Kurzweil‘s singularity which I blogged on in a post a couple of years back called “Singularity or Collapse: Part 1 (For Ever Exponential?“. As knowledge increases by powers of 10, virtually every challenge faced by mankind dissolves. Continue reading

Battery Banter 4: Could the Grid Cope with a Next Generation EV?

In my last series of posts, I focussed on the war of attribution between electric vehicles (EVs) and traditional internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEs).  Due to the recent slump in oil prices, EVs are on the defensive. They need increased volume to get down their cost curves and punch out of their current redoubt of super cars (Tesla) and green credential statement cars (Nissan Leaf). Low gasoline prices has made such an offensive a lot more tricky to pull off.

But let us suppose that a commercial super battery were to emerge that had high energy density and was cheap. What would happen next? Let’s run this thought experiment in a UK context.

First, let’s look a the UK’s existing fleet. Great Britain has a population of 64 million people, who between them drive around 29 million registered cars (source: here, click for larger image).

Registered Cars UK

And annually each car is driven for an average of 8,000 miles, which translates into 22 miles per day (click for larger image; also remember we are smoothing out weekends and holidays).

Annual Average Miles Travelled jpeg

From a previous blog post, I republish the following chart, which shows the kind of mileage per kilowatt-hour (kWh) a battery achieves at present. Continue reading