Monday 21 December 2015

Coal: Notes Towards a Gloomy Thesis

No more UK deep-mine underground coal production, then.  Momentous, in its own way.  Yonks ago I advocated moving to the new coal-burning technologies ("ultra supercritical" sounds suitably 21st C) but they don't seem to be gaining any traction in Europe or the USA, so maybe China? - but I'd be surprised to see them around these parts anytime soon.  No, it looks like gas for us which ain't so bad actually; the timing is good and there are things we can do as an accomplished trading nation to mitigate the geopolitical risks of import dependency.

But let me sketch out a gloomier thesis ...

Lovelock's great dictum, Civilisation is energy-intensive, should be written above every door in Westminster and Whitehall.  Remember how we got here.  In the 18thC, British engineers were moving ahead with the developments that would underpin the industrial revolution.  To fuel this, notably, there was a massive switch from biofuels / charcoal to coal, which marks a gigantic advance in efficiency - without it, the IR would have been dead in its tracks as almost every suitable forest in England had been cut down for burning.

In the relevant jargon, coal has excellent energy density (if not as good or flexible as oil) and an absolutely superb ERoEI (we ran a thread on this a couple of years back).  The ERoEI perspective is important, and if you don't know it, you should take the time.  (You'll find that it's not without controversy ...)  Tracking back downhill from using coal and there will be progressively less energy, and hence less wealth, to be spending on civilisation or the defence thereof, until someone figures out something really clever with boron or thorium or whatever.

So - civilisation: what sustains it?  Let's allow that ancient Greece was recognisably a civilisation; and Rome; and several others besides in the ancient world (we needn't be eurocentric about this).  Slave labour ... pillage ... and of course total military superiority over a relevant part of the globe.  No-one ever thrived freely to reach their civilisation-potential when an immediate neighbour had a clear and sustained advantage in weaponry.

Which brings us to the gloom.  What happens when one civilisation deprives itself of an economic 'weapon' of the first magnitude, while others (in this case China and India) have every intention of retaining it ?  We may shortly find out.

This isn't one-dimensional.  Gas really is pretty cheap just now, and plenty of the costs are sunk. China will slowly kill its population if it continues emitting outright pollution (as opposed to CO2) on the current scale: this alone will cause them to clean up their act  (& yes, that can satisfactorily be read both ways).  The west may, paradoxically, somehow, gain a mighty strategic benefit from forcing itself 'needlessly' into a more costly energy paradigm - though it's most unlikely to be the one the greens imagine ("it creates lots of jobs!" - yeah, and destroys plenty, too); far more likely to be a variant of the 'phoenix phenomenon' that I wrote about here.  It's hard to see chaotic India as a threat to the west: any gains they make in ERoEI will be frittered away rather than parlayed into Chinese-style slow-burning expansionist aggression.

And I well know that at this point many will chorus "go nuke!"  Well, maybe - but can we afford the decade-long development schedules, not to mention the grotesque costs?  If there's one 'authority' who enjoys the respect - often grudging - of most, it's Prof David Mackay, and he (if I've understood correctly) reckons nuke is the way to go.

Thanks to Scargill, King Coal has fewer friends in the UK than he might.  Guardian readers mourn his passing in the same way Telegraph readers lament the disbanding of a great infantry regiment or the scrapping of an aircraft carrier: but even most of the reds (well, the reds that read) have learned some green instincts.   By the end of March another substantial tranche of our coal-fired power plants will have closed forever.  The remainder will run for a few years on open-cast & imported coal.  Gas it is, for better or worse.  There's no going back.



Sackerson said...

Bang on. It's very worrying. England's population was only 7.1 million in the early 18th C; for GDP-expanding reasons, we seem to have a policy of suicidal population overshoot. If ever the wonderful world-wide goods trading system hiccups we're sunk into the most terrible chaos - WW2 ended just in time for us, as our soil was getting exhausted ("losing heart" was the phrase used, I understand) - and that was with a population considerably smaller than now, and much more growing land.

And I've been thinking recently that our quasi-democracy and civil rights are luxury by-products of the new energy sources and technological development and empire-building of the Industrial Revolution, else we might easily have gone the way of the French Terror. Funny how we suddenly stopped burning women at the stake in 1789.

We've had Illich's "energy slaves" for two or three centuries and that's going to change. US/Mexican billlonaire Hugo Salinas Price reckons we'll see the return of domestic service. And maybe the servants will lose the franchise.

A Non said...

Only the hard left is advocating cutting our energy *use*.

The global population is seven times the size of that which caused Malthus to get into a spin. The energy intensity per unit GDP has steadily fallen since Watt adapted the steam engine. I don't have the figures to hand, but I strongly suspect that the UK's output of motor cars is higher today than at Peak Coal. If I scroll back to the 1952 edition of this blog, presumably I will find an article warning of the imminent death of London as a metropolis on account of the Clean Air Act.

No, I don't subscribe to the Whig interpretation of history, but quite often things turn out just fine.

andrew said...

I think Civilisation is proportional to the informational complexity it can sustain.

Not necessarially the same as energy

Consider the power consumption of mobile phones - dropping and the modern ones can just about replace a desktop.

The counter is consider a satellite launch, or building a nuke from scratch
(iirc about 5-10% of the USA electric supply was diverted into enrichment in WW2)

Nick Drew said...

interestingly Andrew, in physics, information is (sort of) the opposite of entropy which is (kinda) linked to energy ...

Nick Drew said...

should have added:

entropy & needless expenditure of energy (& anything else) = waste

capitalism = freedom for person identifying (/ obtaining information on) waste to do something about it = opposite-of-waste!

Sackerson said...

@ A Non: GDP/energy - reference please, if you have it.

A Non said...

Does your telephone not have Google on it? Whilst the steam engine reference was obviously blog-comment-thread licence, it is well-known that over time each unit of additional wealth requires less energy input. Try The Economist's 2011 article, for example.

Sackerson said...

@ The answer to your somewhat discourteously phrased question is no. But on my computer I will look up the reference which you seem to have had in mind.

dearieme said...

"as almost every suitable forest in England had been cut down for burning": must you recycle this sort of bullshit history? It''s complete bollocks.

Sackerson said...


Perhaps unintentionally, A Non's comments and the Economist article to which he refers ( open a can of worms. I haven't time to write a short reply so I've had to write a long one, and it's not in the best order.

GDP is thought by many to be a misleading and simplistic indicator, and I suppose we would also need to adjust the figures in some way to take account of the enormous increases in the broad money supply, especially in the effort to mitigate the effects of the global financial disaster of 2008 onwards.

Besides, the article notes that one reason for the increase in GDP/energy in "most countries" is the move past heavy industrial production and on to lighter industry and service industries. Yet coal will continue to be mined and steel smelted; it's just that it will happen further away. We may assemble cars in the UK, but in another sense we do not make them, as we used to.

True, technological progress means that we can make things and grow food more efficiently. That, and squandering the wealth accumulated through the efforts of our ancestors on buying what we need from abroad are what has saved our bacon so far, and doubtless it will see us all out. "Something will turn up" for A Non and me and most readers here; but the prospects for posterity may not be so encouraging. Macmillan warned that Thatcher's economic liberalism was "selling the family silver". We are squaring the accounts with debt which seems to be ineradicable; and growing our population even as our real economic base is rotting. Everyone expects to be fed, housed in warm dwellings, have access to transport and lots of cheap food (we now import half of what we eat) - but who will pay?

Fossil fuels are finite, even if nobody knows exactly how much of them is left, and it makes sense to use them efficiently, not to "save the planet" but to get the best use out of them and extend the period in which modern commoners can live like kings and queens of old.

Like some others, I suspect that "global warming" is used as a cover for a certain class of people to enrich themselves by transferring productive capacity to places like China. The pollution there is currently like that described in Dickens' "Hard Times", though the Chinese may also use the wealth they are accumulating to buy the clean-burn technologies to which Nick refers; and doubtless they are also leaping past telephone wires to mobile phones, and of course information technology has contributed to money velocity, which is one reason why stockmarkets have soared in recent decades.

Sackerson said...

(2) (comment continued, becuase if characetr limits):

It's not the Chinese that worry me (unless the Western elite pull the plug on them to re-outsource to e.g. Vietnam, where average wages are even lower); it's the implications for the UK where I live.

A Non says he does not subscribe to the Whig interpretation of history, which Wikipedia summarises as "presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy." Nor do I, because we made that progression for reasons which gradually will cease to apply here. JS Mill noted that we could afford a degree of personal liberty in Britain that was not feasible in less developed countries. I think the erosion of civil liberties in the UK is somehow related to the growing systemic crisis in the British economy.

Pollution and death in London is not a twentieth century connection, by the way. Richard Price wrote about the death rate in the late eighteenth century and noted that the population level was only sustained by continual replacement from other parts of the country. We have Bazalgette's civil engineering to thank for much of our increase in longevity.

And ND, I read some while back (sorry, can't remember where) about information and entropy. The growth in order e.g. in mental understanding is more than counterbalanced by the heat energy used in forming that order. Entropy is inexorable.

Nick Drew said...

inexorable, oh yes ...

but we're fighters - we try to delay it as long as possible, yes? (+:

Anonymous said...

Mr Sackerson,
regarding the degree of personal liberty enjoyed, there are two aspects to this to my mind. Clearly if most are employed and prosperous we have a happier population and in theory less discord and conflict with less need to regulate. In the same circumstances but with a non-homogenous society which do not have a shared historical experience of 2/3 hundred years and more,does the same apply? When things become a little frayed economically and society has lost many of the things that historically bound it together and furthermore has a mix of oil and water then I submit that a loss of freedom and increased repression are inevitable.

Sackerson said...

@Anonymous - yes, I agree. Peter Hitchens continually makes the point that we have had a Gramscian revolution under Blair which has continued under Cameron. It takes more than money to hold a country together, but when even that fails we head for chaos, demagogues and dictators.

Sackerson said...

@ND: fighting involves energy, which accelerates entropy. The best resistance is to do as little as possible - think of Wally in the Dilbert comic strip. Sounds like a plan.

Laban Tall said...

I never could make any sense out of Tim's EROEI criticisms. When he says about the pathetic EROEI on a tonne of wheat, he's missing the point. It's not OUR energy investment that produces 1,000 tonnes of water - Nature does that gratis. All we do is live and plant crops where that water falls.

AS I wrote way back

"Tim's just describing the Agricultural Revolution of 6,000 years or so ago. But we no longer just want "energy in a form that can be used by our bodies" (and even that energy is now dependent on large secondary fossil fuel inputs - via the fertiliser, the tractor, the harvester, the grain dryer, the bakery, the supermarket). We want lumpy, if not liquid, energy - energy we can cart around as fuel for our cars and aircraft, energy to create electricity to power everything from tablet computers to ski lifts, energy to warm our homes - transportable energy. Apart from nuclear and (in some parts of the world) hydro electricity, our main sources are fossil fuels - a finite resource, that once was cheap to extract, but no longer. The low-hanging energy fruit has gone.

* of course the thorium cavalry may gallop over the hill, but we still can't go on increasing energy use indefinitely. How would we get rid of all the extra heat? I guess the fate of the Martian atmosphere is ever in my mind."

Sackerson said...

@Laban: I think EREOI is used to measure the best ways to get net gains in energy sourcing. In principle it makes better sense to me than money measures which can be skewed in so many ways.

Electro-Kevin said...

Had the Tories not done a half-hearted job on taming unions and facilitating such as pit closures, then we might have had a managed reduction in population and less need for energy. We could have become a white dwarf rather than a black hole.

Instead they increased the welfare budget.

This, in turn, caused welfarism to mutate into a State - you know... the welfare state that half the world is stampeding to get here for.

To me - because industrial subsidies remained but went instead to support sink estates - hindsight seems to indicate that these things were done with at least a little relish and spite.

I see it regularly on other Tory blogs. The relish there seems to be in displacing British workers - most recently black taxi drivers replaced by Uber drivers (is anyone scrutinising the accident rates ?)

In a welfare state such as ours it nearly always is done with some sort of government subsidy.

I am no friend of leftists and certainly not Scargil. But if he was the bogeyman that he's made out to be then our country should be in far better shape than it is now.

We should never have been in a position where Blair had broad appeal.

Nick Drew said...

industrial subsidies remained but went instead to support sink estates - hindsight seems to indicate that these things were done with at least a little relish and spite. I see it regularly on other Tory blogs. The relish there seems to be in displacing British workers - most recently black taxi drivers replaced by Uber drivers (is anyone scrutinising the accident rates ?)

agreed, Kev - the trouble is a massive failure to analyse holistically, exacerbated by (some) 'right-wingers' failing to think that way at all, or even acknowledge the social mechanisms and connections: [true conservatives are appropriately realistic (a.k.a pessemistic) about human nature ...]

so the true full costs are silently 'socialised', in cash terms onto health / police / local authority / welfare / education budgets, and the non-cash costs (well, non-immediate) dumped on the next generation in any number of baleful ways

(stupid, because although the nationalised industries wasted staggering quantities of £££ you could make intelligent 'holistic' provision when axeing them, and still come out ahead)

Spite? It's worth remembering that some 'right-wingers' are in fact a nasty, well-dressed kind of anarchist / nihilist

Sackerson said...

@ND: your last particularly well put. The Goetterdaemmerung Tendency.

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