Sunday, November 16, 2014

Towards a Sustainable Energy Future

My presentation for the ERM Alumni Conference on Energy and Natural Resources Policy, Brandenburg Technical University of Cottbus, Germany, 6-10.10.2008
Abstract: The world of fossil fuel – based economy is eventually coming into crisis as these fuels go exhausted. Moreover, the problem is not only the depletion of these fuels, but also many environmental and social issues related such as environmental pollution, climate change, oil wars… Nuclear power cannot be a favourable alternative because of safety and security challenges of the unsolved nuclear waste problem and the nightmare of nuclear weapon proliferation. For a sustainable energy future, we have abundance of renewable energy potential and we should improve more our energy efficiency in all aspects from technology, manufacturing, building to daily life consuming.  
 1. Introduction

Every living-thing needs energy to maintain their lives on Earth. Everything needs energy to do their works. Every society needs energy to power their social and economic activities. In anytime and anywhere, energy is always essential as a heart of matter. However, most present trends in energy indicate a deteriorating picture.

To some extent, the history of human development has intimately related to the inventions of energy sources. For a long time in human history, people had relied mainly on natural energy sources like sunshine, windmill, water-flow, firewood and animal work. Up until just two recent centuries, along with industrial revolution, fossil fuels have been exploited and have quickly become dominant, accounting for approximately 80% of world primary energy consumption [1]. Pressure of industrialization and population on energy demand has increased dramatically. Within a rather short time of two hundreds years, we human have already burnt out an amount of fossil fuels that nature processes had taken millions of years to form! Obviously, these non-renewable energy sources will run out someday, and according to some estimate, that day will not be so far from now for oil. Actually, we are in the time of Peak Oil, the point when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline [2]. The time of cheap oil will end soon [3]. Many experts have been warning about the end of our civilization as we know it is today [4], the end of oil age with its catastrophic consequences [5]. The world of fossil fuel – based economy is eventually coming into crisis as these fuels go exhausted. In searching for more energy resources, people even have fought each other in oil wars. The energy matter then has turned into serious political matter. Moreover, the problem is not only the depletion of these fuels, but also many environmental and social issues related to this type of our fossil fuel-based economy, such as too much external-dependent, unsustainable agriculture systems, coal mining risk, offshore oil spillage, pollution from coal-power plants, from transportation and industrial activities…and the most serious one perhaps is the green house effect that leads to global climate change with numerous unpredictable sub-consequences.

Then, recently, the challenge of climate change has brought up again the interest in nuclear energy. But ‘Is nuclear the answer?’ [6], the Sustainable Development Commission in UK conducted eight detailed studies covering safety, waste, economics and climate change and concluded that the advantages of nuclear power as a low-carbon technology are outweighed by disadvantages such as uncertain costs, long-lived radioactive waste and an increased risk that nuclear weapons will proliferate. Also, even when considering nuclear power as an option to meet future energy needs, report from MIT finds: ‘the prospects for nuclear energy as an option are limited by four unresolved problems: high relative costs; perceived adverse safety, environmental, and health effects; potential security risks stemming from proliferation; and unresolved challenges in long-term management of nuclear wastes’ [7]. Another report from Oxford Research Group [8] has raised two main questions ‘How dangerous is nuclear power?’ and ‘Can it help reduce CO2 emissions?’ In the report, the short answer to the first questions is ‘very’ - nuclear power is uniquely dangerous when compared to other energy sources; and for the second question the answer is ‘not enough and not in time’. Therefore, nuclear power is more a problem than a solution. On the other hand, uranium is finite resource; that means ultimately, they will be exhausted someday and thus, like fossil fuels, it can not be a good answer in the long run.

Then, what are the strategies to tackle this global energy crisis, and further, to achieve a sustainable energy future?

2. Saving energy and improving energy efficiency

The first and foremost available solution is energy conservation, through reducing energy waste and increasing energy efficiency. We should recognize the fact that in the mean time alternative energies can not replace fossil fuels at the scale, rate and manner at which the world currently consumes them. Moreover, Fritjof Capra [9] pointed out that the deepest roots of our current energy crisis lie on the patterns of wasteful production and consumption. Therefore, to solve the crisis, what truly matters is not getting more energy, which would only aggravate our problems, but profound changes in our values, attitudes and lifestyle. Energy conservation is our short-term key energy source and will always be a good answer in the long run.

Though Peak Oil can conceive quite catastrophic potential, it also opens some hopeful possibilities, a chance to address many underlying social problems, and the opportunity to return to simpler, healthier and more community oriented lifestyle [3]. The example of Cuba can serve as a positive and instructive model for a world facing Peak Oil on a global scale [10]. Cuba is the only country that has faced such a crisis – the massive reduction of fossil fuels, after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. Cuba's transition to a low-energy society has taken place by creating cycling culture, sharing public transportation and turning from a mechanized, industrial agricultural system to one using organic methods of farming and local, urban gardens. Lesson from Cuba’s survival gives us hope in the power of community, and the effectiveness of their strategies, which can be summarize in three words: curtailment, conservation and cooperation [11].

Energy conservation brings many benefits. It is low cost and available at all levels. Using less energy resource also means reducing pollution and environmental degradation, while prolong fossil fuel supplies and buying time to phase in renewable energy. Efficiency improvements efforts include more efficient utilization of both quantity and quality of energy, as well as broader measures such as improved energy management, fuel substitution, and better matching of energy carriers and energy demands [12]. Saving energy can start just right at each individual’s lifestyle. For examples:

- Buy and use energy-efficient devices
- Look for electronics that are rechargeable
- Turn off and unplug lights, TV sets, computers, and other electronic equipment when they are not in use
- Walk or cycle for short trips, consider car-pooling or take public transport for longer ones
- Live as close to work as possible
- Eat lower on the food chains, buy regionally and seasonally produced organic food whenever possible
The list goes on… and every bit can help.

Many measures can also be done on the technical sphere, where there is a lot of space expected for creative innovations. In housing, remarkable energy-saving can be achieved by improved heat insulation or building design which takes advantages of natural elements like sun, wind, plants, trees, green-roofs… instead of using air conditioning. Many intelligent lighting systems with energy-saving sensors have become widely used for hotels, official buildings. In transportation, energy-saving techniques can be attained through increasing fuel efficiency and making vehicles from lighter and stronger materials. Besides, idea of co-generation, producing both heat and electricity from one energy source can be well applied in industry.

In addition, a thoughtful vision is needed for energy policy. Governments should accept a target of phasing out oil and gas use within 50 years, discontinuing all direct and indirect subsidies to the oil and gas industry, at the same time increasing investment in public transport, changing tariff policies to support local consumption of goods produced locally, and encouraging sustainable agriculture [13]. Many policies available to alleviate energy insecurity can also help to mitigate local pollution and climate change, as a “triple-win” outcome [14]. For examples, development in public transportation does not only conserve energy, but also relieve congestion, improve air quality, provide access for all ages, offer mobility for rural areas [15]. On the other hand, organic farming does not only reduce petroleum-based inputs but also improve soil quality, help building healthy land, provide healthy food for community.

3. Developing renewable energies

Eventually, we will use up non-renewable energy resources. From a long-term point of view, renewable ones are what we should rely on. According to the estimation of WBGU (German Advisory Council on Global Change), we have huge potential of renewable energy sources. All together, renewable energy sources can provide 3078 times the current global energy needs, in which solar-power 2850 times, wind-power 200 times, biomass 20 times, geothermal-power 5 times, wave-tidal-power 2 times and hydropower 1 time [16]. Renewable resources, the natural powers that maintain our lives throughout human history, will not run out. The Sun shines for all of us, and the wind blows, free of charge. Although the equipments to collect solar and wind energy, such as solar panels and wind turbines cost money, when considering that the resource is taking for free, the overall cost of using solar and wind energy can make them smart choices. Renewable technology cost trends typically show a steep decline during last decades [17] and that trends will continue to reach reasonable levels in the future as their market’s expansion. Moreover, renewable energy are often clean, such as wind and sunshine, they do not emit smoke or create pollution. Others, such as biomass, almost always cause less pollution than fossil or nuclear alternatives.

Renewable energies would bring a number of benefits to the economy. First, they help increase the diversity of energy supplies, and thus lower the dependency on imported fossil fuels and improve the security of energy supplies. Second, they help make use of local resources to provide a cost-effective energy supply (characterized by mobility, modularity and low operating costs; renewable energies are very flexible in case of upgrade and competitive technologies as decentralized systems) while reducing regional and global greenhouse gas emissions. Since they are often flexible, small-scale designs, which take the advantages of local conditions, they can be located close to the demand. Then, transmission and distribution costs are reduced, as well as losses. Finally, from the social point of view, renewable energies can create more domestic employment. Such benefits have created a strong motivation for pursuing renewable energies in both developed and developing countries. The investment costs of renewable technologies have been reduced remarkably today and this makes renewable energies more attractive, quickly developed and expanded [18].


The Sun has produced energy for billions of years. On average, the energy from the Sun reaches the Earth is about one kilowatt per square meter worldwide. Then, in one day, the sunlight which reaches the Earth produces enough energy to satisfy the world’s current power demands for eight years. Even though only a percentage of that potential is technically accessible, this is still enough to provide just under six times more power than the world currently requires [16]. Unlike other energy technologies, solar energy technologies cause neither noise, nor pollution; hence they are often installed near consumers to reduce construction costs. Solar energy is used for heating water, space, drying agricultural products, and generating electrical energy.

Besides using design features to maximize use of the Sun (passive solar systems), some buildings have active systems to gather and store solar energy as concentrating solar systems (Solar thermal collecting). Solar collectors sit on the rooftops of buildings to collect solar energy for space heating, water heating, and space cooling. Most solar collectors are large flat boxes, painted black on the inside, with glass covers. In the most common design, pipes in the box carry liquids that take the heat from the box and bring it into the building. This heated liquid, usually a water-alcohol mixture to prevent winter freezing, is used to heat water in a tank or is put through radiators to heat the air. Interestingly, because of the cooling effect moist air has when it evaporates, solar heat can also drive a cooling system. By using mirrors and lenses to concentrate the rays of the Sun, solar thermal systems produce high temperatures that can be used to heat water for producing steam to drive an electric turbine or for industrial applications. Additionally, solar power can contribute to domestic water heating, which already requires a lot of electricity.  Hotels, schools and hospitals could be equipped with solar water-heating systems.

Photovoltaic (PV, solar cell) systems convert sunlight directly into electricity. To achieve the desired voltage and current, modules are wired in series and parallel into PV array. The flexibility of modular PV system allows designers to create solar power systems that can meet a wide variety of electrical needs, no matter how large or small. Most of the market for solar electric today is concentrated in off-grid homes. Solar cell system is considered as a way to avoid building long and expensive power lines to remote areas. As the cost of photovoltaic systems continues to decline, they will find increasingly larger niches. No other electrical generator is as easy to install or maintain. As PV prices continue to fall, solar power will become a significant source of electricity in the 21st century.

On the other hand, just very recently, solar-power has turned to a new dawn in history as the nanosolar’s thin film technology has been awarded for “Top Innovation of the Year 2007” by Popular Science magazine [19] and “Best Invention of the Year 2008” by Time magazine [20]. This innovation has marked a revolution in solar energy since it utilizes thin sheets of nonsilicon components that reduce the production costs by over 90% and decrease the thickness by 99%. The nanosolar powersheet is thin enough to be rolled and is printable in many versatile forms. Nanosolar is on track to make solar electricity cost-efficient for ubiquitous deployment and mass produced on a global scale [21].


Wind is air in motion. It is produced by the uneven heating of the Sun on the Earth’s surface. Since the Earth’s surface is made of various land and water formations, it absorbs the Sun’s radiation unevenly. Wind power turns the kinetic energy of the wind into mechanical or electrical power which can be used for a variety of tasks. Windmills have been used for pumping water or grinding grain for hundreds of years. Today, the windmill's modern equivalent, a wind turbine, can use the wind's energy to generate electricity. Whether the task is creating electricity or pumping water, the wind offers an inexpensive, clean and reliable form of power. Wind energy does not produce any air pollution. It is completely renewable, and very efficient. It requires minimal maintenance and has low operating expenses.    

Wind turbines can be used as stand-alone applications, or they can be connected to a utility power grid or even combined with a photovoltaic (solar cell) system. For utility-scale sources of wind energy, a large number of wind turbines are usually built close together to form a wind plant. Small turbines are sometimes connected to diesel/electric generators or sometimes have a battery to store the extra energy they collect when the wind is blowing hard. As wind speed doubles, power generation capability increases eightfold. Wind speed increases with altitude and over open areas with no windbreaks. Good sites for wind plants are the tops of smooth, rounded hills, open plains or shorelines, and mountain gaps that produce wind funneling. Wind energy is growing fast. It has been the world's fastest growing renewable energy source for more than a decade with an average annual growth rate of about 25% along with rapid decline in turbine manufacturing costs. Wind energy is estimated to grow from 60 GW today (0.5% of global power) to 1000 GW (12-18% of global power) by 2020 [22]. Wind is free so wind energy can provide a stable long-term price for power production.


People have used biomass energy or bio-energy for thousands of years, ever since people started burning wood to cook food or to keep warm. In fact, biomass continues to be a major source of energy in much of the developing world. Biomass is organic material which has stored sunlight in the form of chemical energy thanks to photosynthetic process of plants. When burned, the chemical energy is released as heat. Biomass burning generates about the same amount of carbon dioxide as fossil fuels, but every time a new plant grows, carbon dioxide is actually removed from the atmosphere. The net emission of carbon dioxide will be zero as long as plants continue to be replenished for biomass energy purposes. These energy crops, such as fast-growing trees and grasses, are called biomass feedstocks.

In addition to firewood, biomass can be fermentated into liquid form or extracted from vegetable oils and used in transportation such as ethanol or biodiesels. Brazil is the leader country in production and utilization of ethanol from sugarcane. These biofuels produce fewer emissions than petroleum. However, land use for those energy crops over food crop planting is still a hard issue, particularly for developing countries, where the need for food, as the basic need in fighting poverty, is more predominant.

Biomass fuels include not only wood, straw, plants, residues from agriculture or forestry, but also the organic component of solid wastes. Even the fumes from landfills, a byproduct of the decay process of organic matter in municipal solid waste, comprised of approximately 50% methane, can be used as a biomass energy source. In fact, landfill gas has emerged as an easily available, economically competitive and proven energy source [23]. Reducing landfill methane emission by utilizing it as a fuel helps capturing a major greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Obviously, this is a very beneficial approach which produces energy without competing with food production while simultaneously solves the problems of waste and protects the environment. Similarly, biogas is considered one of the cheapest renewable energies in rural areas in developing countries. Like landfill gas, it is produced by the action of bacteria on vegetable/organic material in anaerobic conditions. The bacteria slowly digest the material (usually animal dung, human wastes and crop residues) and produce a gas which is roughly 60% methane and 40% carbon dioxide. This gas is combustible and thus can replace other fuels like wood, agricultural residues, and kerosene for use in simple gas stoves and lamps. Biogas is used for cooking, lighting, generating electricity…etc. Production of biogas would not only save firewood but also be beneficial for integrated farming systems by converting manure to fertilizer for crops or ponds for fish and water plants. Other benefits of biodigestion include the reduction of manure smell, elimination of smoke when cooking and the alleviation of pathogens and thereby improving hygiene on farms.

Recently, researchers have brought up a very interesting and good news for future of biofuel. It is algae, a promising oil alternative, a big idea for future energy because of its high potential and efficiency [24]. Since they have simple cellular structure, a lipid-rich composition and a rapid reproduction rate, these tiny aquatic organisms can yield 30 times more energy per acre than land crops such as soybeans, according to the US Department of Energy [25]. Many algae species also can grow in salt water or other harsh conditions. In addition, microscopic green algae (pond scum) can split water into hydrogen and oxygen under controlled conditions [26]. Thus, these green algae have hopeful potential to become microscopic power plants for hydrogen, which is considered one of the energy in the future.


Of the renewable energy sources that generate electricity, hydropower is the most often used. Mechanical energy is derived by directing, harnessing, or channelling moving water. The amount of available energy in moving water is determined by its flow or fall. The most common type of hydroelectric power plant uses a dam on a river to store water in a reservoir. Water released from the reservoir flows through a turbine, spinning it, which in turn activates a generator to produce electricity. But hydroelectric power doesn't necessarily require a large dam. Some hydroelectric power plants just use a small canal to channel the river water through a turbine.

Hydropower is almost free, there are no waste products, and hydropower does not pollute the water or the air. However, it is criticized because it does change the environment by affecting natural habitats, especially the ecosystem behind large-scale hydropower dam. So, small-scale micro-hydro system (pico-hydro system), is more favourable. Household-scale micro-hydropower systems have proven particularly important in isolated rural communities that are located far from the national grid but close to suitable water resources. These pico-hydro, with a maximum electrical output of 5 kilowatts (kW), sufficient to power light bulbs, radios, televisions, refrigerators and food processors [27]. Hydro power systems of this size benefit over the larger systems in terms of cost and simplicity of design. Only small water flows are required for pico-hydro systems, meaning that many suitable sites are likely to exist. A small stream or spring often provides enough water. Recent innovations in pico-hydro technology have made it an economic and versatile source of power even in some of the world's most resource-poor and inaccessible places. Well-designed pico-hydro systems have a lower cost per kW than solar or wind power. Pico-hydro equipment is small and compact. The component parts can be easily transported into remote and inaccessible regions. Local manufacture is possible, and the design principles and fabrication processes can be easily learned. The number of houses connected to each scheme is small, usually under 100 households. This eases maintenance and reduces capital requirements. Standard AC electricity can be produced and distributed throughout a village to power electrical appliances, or it can charge large batteries for households.

4. Future Energy Vision

Several years ago, there was a growing interest in developing a hydrogen economy [28], which proposed to solve the problems of our current fossil-fuel-based (hydrocarbon) economy. Hydrogen has been predicted as a clean energy of the future for stationary, mobile and transport applications, especially with the use of fuelcells. The main advantage of hydrogen economy is the elimination of pollution, since the only byproduct from burning hydrogen or combining hydrogen and oxygen gases in fuelcell to produce electricity is water vapor, no harmful gases to environment. In addition, fuelcell-powered vehicles are about twice as efficient as those with internal combustion engine. During last decade, fuelcell-vehicles [29] have been developed by many big players in the world such as Honda, BMW, Huyndai, Toyota, Ford, GM… However, the development of a hydrogen economy has to face up to major barriers [30] of producing, transporting and storing hydrogen. The key fact is that hydrogen is not a source of energy. Like electricity, hydrogen is only an energy carrier. That means, hydrogen is only a way of storing and distributing energy, but hydrogen itself has to be generated from somewhere else. Hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis of water, but we need electricity to do the work. Moreover, hydrogen is not a convenient carrier of energy. Because of its lightness and explosive characteristic, hydrogen containers should be tight enough and quite bulky. Then, for mobile applicants, hydrogen must be liquefied or compressed to increase energy density. Therefore, there are still many difficulties to realize the vision of a hydrogen economy.

On the other hand, since more than fifty years, scientists all over the world have been working to realize the dream of a fusion vision. There are now two remarkable fusion projects, both have been developed under international cooperation: the Joint European Torus (JET) [31] and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) [32]. Fusion, which is expected to be abundant, clean and safe, could become the dominant source of electricity on Earth in a century or so. Although it may be a possible source of energy in the distant future, there is still a long way to go.

So, what would be the more realistic and feasible prospect for a sustainable energy future? Lester Brown [33] believes that “the new energy economy will be based much less on energy from combustion and more on the direct harnessing of energy from wind, the Sun and the Earth itself”. Thus, future would belong to the age of Renewable Sources. It is also the scenario described in the Energy [R]evolution report, by the European Renewable Energy Council and Greenpeace [16]. The vision would be made by optimized integration of renewable energy, developing smart consumption, generation and distribution systems and maximizing the efficiency of building through better insulation. Solar façade would be a decorative element on office and apartment buildings. Rooftop wind and solar would be placed so that energy is generated close to the consumer. Clean electricity would also come from offshore wind parks or solar power station in deserts. Electricity would be much more prominent and become the principal source of energy for transportation, replacing gasoline and diesel fuels. Hydrogen can become a way of back-up to store solar, wind energy to use at night or during cloudy days…

Shifting to renewable energy means shifting to more decentralized and diversified systems which maximize the use of locally available, environmental friendly energy sources. “It is encouraging to know that we now have the technologies to build a new energy economy, one that is not climate-disruptive, that does not pollute air and that can last as long as the sun itself” – Lester Brown.


[1] International Energy Agency (2006) World Energy Outlook 2006 Accessed October 2008
[2] Wikipedia, Definition of Peak Oil.
Accessed October 2008
[3] Kuhlman A (2007) Peak Oil – The End of Oil Age. Accessed October 2008
[4] Savinar M Peak Oil - Life After the Oil Crash.
Accessed September 2008
[5] Leigh J (2008) The Olduvai Theory and Catastrophic Consequences. Accessed August 2008
[6] Sustainable Development Commission U.K. (2006) Is Nuclear the Answer? Accessed October 2008
[7] MIT report, (2003) The Future of Nuclear Power.
Accessed October 2008
[8] Oxford Research Group (2007) Secure Energy, Civil Nuclear Power, Security and Global Warming.
Accessed October 2008
[9] Capra F (1983) The Turning Point. Bantam Books, Toronto
[10] Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions (2006) The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil (Documentary). More information see:
[11] Peak Moment TV program (2006) Learning from Cuba response to Peak Oil, interviewing Megan Quinn. Accessed September 2008
[12] Rosen MA (2008) Key Energy-Related Steps in Addressing Climate Change, World’s Climate Conference 2008: Accessed 4 November 2008
[13] The Ecologist (2008) 30 Steps to an oil free world.
Accessed November 2008
[14] International Energy Agency (2007) World Energy Outlook 2007 Executive Summary Accessed November 2008
[15] American Public Transportation Association (2008) Public transportation – Benefits for the 21st century.
Accessed November 2008
[16] European Renewable Energy Council (EREC), Greenpeace International (2007) Energy [R]evolution – A Sustainable World Energy Outlook
Accessed October 2008
[17] National Renewable Energy Laboratory USA (2002) Energy Analysis Office report Accessed October 2008
[18] Nguyen QK (2005) Ph.D thesis: Long term optimization of energy supply and demand in Vietnam with special reference to the potential of renewable energy, Oldenburg University
[19] PopSci’s Best of What’s New 2007 (2007) Nanosolar Powersheet Accessed November 2008
[20] TIME’s Best Invention of 2008 (2008) Thin-Film Solar Panels,28804,1852747_1854195_1854153,00.html. Accessed November 2008
[21] Nanosolar Inc. Accessed November 2008
[22] WWF (2007) Climate Solutions – The WWF Vision for 2050. Accessed November 2008
[23] Energy Business Reports (2006) Landfill gas as an energy source. Accessed November 2008
[24] Biello D (2008) Biofuel of the Future: Oil from Algae, Scientific American Earth 3.0 Accessed October 2008
[25] Hartman E (2008) A Promising Oil Alternative: Algae Energy. Washingtonpost. Accessed November 2008
[26] Gartner J (2008) Algae: Power Plant of the Future? Wired. Accessed November 2008
[27] Quyen NH, Khoi PH, Dan NQ and Minh LT (2003) Renewable Energy for the Developing World – The Power of Water. TWAS Newsletter.
Accessed 2005
[28] Wikipedia (2008) Hydrogen Economy. Accessed November 2008
[29] Wikipedia (2008) List of Fuelcell Vehicles. Accessed November 2008
[30] Muller RA (2003) Technology Review Online: A Pollution-Free Hydrogen Economy? Not So Soon. Accessed November 2008
[31] Joint European Torus project (JET). Accessed November 2008
[32] International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project (ITER). Accessed November 2008
[33] Brown L (2008) Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Earth Policy Institute.
Ebook: Accessed November 2008


Friday, November 14, 2014

Our Finite World - Exploring how oil limits affect the economy

A PDF version of Gail Tverberg's presentation at the UNED Conference in Barbastro, Spain on October 10, 2014. It was called, "Energy and the Economy: Twelve Basic Principles in a Finite World."

By Gail Tverberg

"We live in a world that is finite. While there are huge amounts of oil, gas, coal, and minerals (such as uranium, gold, silver, copper, and lithium), we tend to extract the easiest to obtain, highest quality resources first. Eventually, we find it is more and more expensive to extract additional quantities of these items. Aquifers that are slow to replenish become more and more depleted. Top soil tends to erode faster than it is replaced. Pollution tends to be a problem too, with the most obvious example being carbon dioxide added to air and water.

Economists have set up their economic models as if we would never reach limits. In fact, we seem to be reaching limits now, especially in the area of oil supply. World oil production has been approximately flat for six years now (since the beginning of 2005), even as producers have strained to raise production. OPEC claims to have a huge amount of spare capacity, but there is little evidence that this is really the case. They also claim to have very high oil reserves, but the reserves have never been audited, and are believed by many to be seriously overstated.

There is great confusion regarding what happens when we reach limits in oil supply. People expect that if oil starts hitting limits, the symptoms will be high prices and shortages. In fact, the symptoms as often as not seem to be recession and an inability of would-be purchasers to afford the goods that are being produced with the high priced oil. This at times looks like an over-supply of oil–the opposite of what people expect.

The issue is not a lack of oil, but a lack of cheap, affordable oil. If oil prices could rise high enough (and people’s pay checks could rise to accommodate this increase in price), there would likely not be a problem–we could just extract more higher priced oil. The fact that things seem to work in this manner helps solve the mystery regarding how there could be a huge amount of oil still in the ground, but oil supply still not be growing.

Research suggests that once oil prices reach a high enough level (estimated by Steven Balogh to be $85 barrel in 2009 $), high oil prices start sending the economy into recession. Eventually, recessionary forces overcome the price rise, and oil prices drop. In time, demand rises again, and oil prices rise again, until the higher price once more leads to recession. This up and down pattern leads to an oscillation of oil prices, never raising prices high enough to really increase production. This failure of oil to reach very high prices also means that “renewables” do not become competitive either.

As noted above, world oil production has been approximately level since the beginning of 2005. It seems to me that peak oil problems started about the time that oil supply first stopped rising, and prices started rising instead. Oil prices began rising as early as 2003, and in 2004, the Federal Reserve started raising target interest rates in response to higher oil and food prices. Eventually, higher oil prices and higher interest rates in response to the higher oil prices helped prick the housing bubble. Thus, the debt defaults and recessionary problems we have been experiencing in the past few years seem to be very much related to limits in oil supply.

A chart I made some time ago. It seems to me that our problems started approximately when oil supply stopped increasing, represented by the departure of the blue line from the green line. I am not convinced the decline in oil production will follow the pattern shown in the graph. This is just one idea.

We don’t know precisely when oil supply will start declining, but, in a sense, it doesn’t matter. Having oil supply that doesn’t increase is already a problem, because countries like China and India and oil exporting nations are taking more and more of the available oil supply, leaving less and less for developed nations like the United States.

Going forward, I expect that the we will see significant debt defaults and more recession. Liebig’s Law of the Minimum (saying in effect, that if we lose an essential input, then a whole process will stop) is likely to mean that oil supply shortfalls are likely to have much wider influences than their magnitude would suggest. One area that is vulnerable is our financial system. It operates much better during periods of economic growth (because it is easier to repay debt with interest), and a reduction in oil supply is likely to result in economic decline. If there are serious financial problems, international trade is likely also to be adversely affected.

Eventually, I expect that collapse is likely. The timing is not certain, but because of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum and the very connected nature of our systems today (oil, electricity, food, financial, international trade, Internet, medicine, etc.), it seems to me that this collapse could take place in as little as 20 years. We cannot of course know with certainty, but it seems to me that we should be at least looking at this possibility, and planning accordingly.

Suggested Posts

I have tagged a number of posts as Introductory Posts. These can be found by clicking the “Introductory Post” tag at the top of the right sidebar, or by clicking Introductory Post here.

I might point out Our Finite World: Is this a Problem. I wrote this back in early 2007, outlining some of my basic views. My views have changed very little. You will note that even back then, I was talking about the likely outcome of peak oil being recession and problems with the financial system.

With respect to oil, one post giving some background with respect to our supply problem is Peak Oil Overview – June 2007. Another related post is Oil Production is Reaching its Limit: The Basics of What This Means.

A very popular post with respect to alternatives has been What are our alternatives, if fossil fuels are a problem? A post showing the relative energy supply from different types of fuels over time is Our Energy Supply: Some Basics.

I have written quite a few posts related to financial issues associated with peak oil, both at The Oil Drum and at Our Finite World. Several of these are listed in at the Financial Implications link near the top of the right sidebar. Others include

One financial post that is on both blogs that should perhaps be mentioned is Delusions of Finance. I correctly predicted many of the problems that took place in 2008, at the beginning of 2008. This is a post explaining what I saw that others did not.

With respect to planning for the future, Oil and the Economy: Why it is important to figure our approximately where we are headed is a good post to start with.

A post which looks at the connection between oil consumption and employment is Part 1 of  The Oil-Employment Link Part 1 and Part 2. Part 2 looks at how this might play out, and what policies might be appropriate. It is on the scary side, and might not be for new readers.

A post giving an idea which may be a partial solution is What we can Learn from Gift Economies.
Also, check out the posts listed on my listing of some of my posts from The Oil Drum."

Converging Crises – PDF of talk at Age of Limits Conference – May 25, 2014

Eight Energy Myths Explained – April 23, 2014

Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis – In Energy Volume 37 January 2012

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Urban resilience with gardening and sustainable employment hopes

Not until I moved to the South of Vietnam did I hold a strong idea of raising community gardens in cities. But this place is definitely different from Hanoi where I once spent 3 months to ride bicycles around Hanoi to find land for a community garden. One doesnt have to be very critical to realize that the chance for green jobs in Ho Chi Minh city is boundless.

Amazingly, all of reasons for the idea of urban gardening to be advocated and implemented are good. Starting a garden in the school, students can joyfully escape from existing boring environment and science lessons. Young learners even start growing curiosity and desire to explore the beauty of interconnectedness: every ecological element, such as soil, water, seed-plant-root, animals in the garden and so on, is a part of bigger systems and determine the way one another works. Children and youth grow physically and mentally from getting their hands dirty at the practical and interactive learning environment – that can alone solve many urban problems like internet addiction or street violence. At the household and community levels, the idea of growing your own food is far more than effective to protect human health, especially when food safety and chemical food poisons are no longer big concerns of housewives only. Imagine what can be better way to strengthen relationships between neighborhood members who share common spaces, planning, resources, labor works and benefits. Last but not least, there is no doubt that urban gardens are crucial parts in sustainable urban landscape design. 

Using different sustainable materials such as coconut and bamboo, architects find more fun and skillful in designing green spaces for the city
Using different sustainable materials such as coconut and bamboo, architects find more fun and skillful in designing green spaces for the city.

In short, this is a win-win solution: for human and for nature. My question was that once it is this important, in what further term, urban gardening can figure out solutions for other ecological and environmental problems led by unsustainable practices, and at the same time, create new hopes? Systematic collapse such as man-made climate change threatens not only the natural ecosystem but also livelihood of thousands of people. That is the main motivation for me to start a vocational training programme on urban gardening in Ho Chi Minh City, together with Green Youth Collective – a local social enterprise. Through the process of feasibility study, nothing I could use to illustrate personal surprise to see how many local organizations, restaurants and cafeterias, schools had brought gardens into their spaces. (Im growing a journal saving all stories and people I have met working in the area!) That also means there are immense market demands for jobs available in urban gardening. The good news is this trend is nowhere going to stop.

Our plot for the training is located within a system of a big community garden, where youth easily interact with professional farmers and families with parents and kids spending free time to grow, to harvest and to cook right at the garden. The objective is simple: for them to know how to work with ecological elements, but not forget the idea of a system. This illustrates a picture of sustainability in which the output of a certain production process can be used as the input for one another.

Our plot for the training is located within a system of a big community garden, where youth easily interact with professional farmers and families with parents and kids spending free time to grow, to harvest and to cook right at the garden. The objective is simple: for them to know how to work with ecological elements, but not forget the idea of a system. This illustrates a picture of sustainability in which the output of a certain production process can be used as the input for one another.

Our working place! Such a beautiful harmonized space to think and to create.
Our working place! Such a beautiful harmonized space to think and to create. Dont you agree?

The programme offers many different faces of urban gardens: either its on a wall, or a rooftop, or a hydroponic garden like this with recycled plastic bottles.

The programme offers many different faces of urban gardens: either its on a wall, or a rooftop, or a hydroponic garden like this with recycled plastic bottles. Half of bottles are white painted, in order to keep nutrient water from sunlight, and to change the way it should look. Sort of great idea, yeah? We have guest speakers who are gardeners and business owners of places like this to come and to conduct interactive sessions with youth. The design of vocational training programme also serves an objective of equipping youth essential skills, knowledge and attitudes to find their own jobs. There are many entrepreneurs who are our partners have already offered internships and jobs for youth!

Waste management, composting, plant container building..are also the things we are instructing to youth. From my perspective, this is a great way to learn how to live within the limits: when you can not exploit more, you learn how to use available resources in different purposes.

Waste management, composting, plant container building..are also the things we are instructing to youth. From my perspective, this is a great way to learn how to live within the limits: when you can not exploit more, you learn how to use available resources in different purposes. Works can be creative and fun!

This start-up belongs to the range of what I belive and work for sustainability literacy. Urban gardening is a beautiful and powerful example of community empowerment, initiating sustainable practices towards resilience to change.

For all information, please contact My Hanh, Project Manager at


Friday, November 7, 2014

Educating the Heart

Resources for families, educators and all others who care for and about children.

We now know that for children to flourish socially and emotionally, we need to educate both the heart and the mind. 

Heart-Mind Online is for all those who are searching for evidenced-informed resources that educate the hearts of children. The collection of resources builds capacity in individuals and communities to support the Heart-Mind well-being of children, and promotes their positive social and emotional development. This website was developed by the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education.

Established in 2005, the Dalai Lama Center is a secular, non-political, not-for-profit organization. The Center is inspired by the Dalai Lama's belief in the importance of balancing the education of children's minds with that of educating their hearts. The Center educates the hearts of children by informing, inspiring and engaging the communities around them.

By sharing current research, scientific knowledge and best practices related to social and emotional development, the Dalai Lama Center supports the adults who can help children feel secure and calm, approach situations with curiosity and confidence, solve problems peacefully, and get along with others.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Earthlings - Full length documentary (multi-subtitles)


EARTHLINGS is a powerful and informative documentary about society’s treatment of animals, narrated by Joaquin Phoenix with soundtrack by Moby. This multi-award winning film by Nation Earth is a must-see for anyone who cares about animals or wishes to make the world a better place.