The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."
Showing posts with label renewable energy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label renewable energy. Show all posts

Sunday, December 25, 2022

A Christmas Post: The Miracle of Renewables

The "Seneca Effect" has been a little gloomy, recently. So, for a change of pace, here is the translation in English of a post that I wrote for the Italian newspaper "Il Fatto Quotidiano," also reproduced in my blog "The Sunflower Society". Because it was published in a newspaper, it is simplified and short, yet it says what's needed to understand the revolution we are going through that will change the world in the coming years. If you are interested in the source of the data,  you can find them on Lazard.comSo, Merry Christmas, and never despair. Sometimes, miracles happen! 

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” (Luke 2:9-10)

Miracles are not so frequent and, if one has serious health problems, it is not probable that a swim in the Lourdes pool will solve them. However, it is also true that sometimes things change quickly, opening up new possibilities. That's what's happening with renewable energy. Talking about a "miracle" is a bit much, I know, but recent technological developments have made available to us a tool that until a few years ago we didn't even dream of having. And this could solve problems that once seemed unsolvable.

For years, I've been lecturing about climate change and other looming worries, such as oil depletion. Usually, the people who came to listen to me were prepared for a message that was not exactly reassuring, but the question was what to do about it. At the end of the conference, a debate normally ensued in which the same things were said: ride a bicycle, turn down the thermostat in the house, install double glazing panes on the windows, use low energy light bulbs, things like that.

It was a little soothing ritual but, in reality, everyone knew that these weren't real solutions. Not that they're useless, but they're just a light layer of green on a system that continues to depend on fossil fuels to function. We have been talking about double glazing and bicycles for at least twenty years, but CO2 emissions continue to increase as before. Actually, faster than before. If we don't go to the heart of the problem, which is to eliminate fossil fuels, we will get nowhere. But how to do it? Until a few years ago, there seemed to be no way except to go back to tilling the fields by hand, as our ancestors did during the Middle Ages.

But today things have changed radically. You probably didn't notice it, caught up in the debate on politics. But it doesn't matter whether the right or the left wins. Change, the real one, is coming with renewable technologies. Wind and photovoltaic plants have been optimized and scaling factors have generated massive savings in production costs. Today, a kilowatt-hour produced by a photovoltaic panel costs perhaps a factor of 5-10 less than a kilowatt-hour from natural gas (and maybe a factor of 5 less than a nuclear kilowatt-hour) (source). We used to call renewables "alternative energy," but today all others are "alternative."

Furthermore, producing energy with modern renewable technologies does not pollute, does not require non-recyclable materials, does not generate greenhouse gases, does not generate local pollution, and nobody can bomb the sun to leave us without energy. Now, don't make me say that renewables have automatically solved all the problems we have. It is true that today they are cheap, but it is also true that they are not free. Then, investments are needed to adapt energy infrastructure throughout the country, to create energy storage systems, and much more. These are not things that can be done in a month, or even in a few years. There is talk of a decade, at least, to arrive at an energy system based mainly on renewables.

But it is also true that every journey begins with the first step. And now we see ahead of us a road ahead. A road that leads us to a cleaner, more prosperous, and hopefully less violent world. I haven't stopped going around giving conferences but, now, I can propose real solutions. And it's not just me who noticed the change. In the debate, today you can feel the enthusiasm of being able to do something concrete. Many people ask if they can install solar panels at home. Others say they've already done it. Some mad (and rightfully so) at the bureaucracy that prevents them from installing panels on their roof or in their garden. You also see the changing trend on social media.

There is always someone who speaks out against renewables by reasoning like the medieval flagellants who went around shouting "remember that you must die". But there are also those who respond in kind, "good riddance, and live happily together with the other cavemen." If you have a south-facing balcony (and if your municipality doesn't sabotage your idea), you can already install photovoltaic panels hanging from the railing that will help you reduce your electricity bill. No paperwork is needed! (another small miracle). One step at a time, we will succeed!

For a general assessment of the performance of renewables compared to fossil fuels, see this recent article by Murphy et al.

Monday, May 9, 2022

"The Limits to Growth" after 50 years: More relevant than ever


50 years after the publication of the first report to the Club of Rome, "The Limits to Growth," it is time to re-assess the validity of its evaluation of the destiny of humankind. Are we really destined to collapse? Or can we still make the right choices and avoid it? It is discussed in a new report to the Club of Rome titled "Limits and Beyond."

Can you think of a book published in the twentieth century that we still remember 50 years later? There is one that has left such an important mark that we are celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. It is the report to the Club of Rome published in 1972 with the title "The Limits to Growth".

"The Limits to Growth" was a study of the future of the global economy. Its basic message was that growth could not continue to go on forever on a finite planet. And not just that. It also said that if we continued to exploit natural resources without worrying about depletion, pollution, and overpopulation, things would start to go pretty bad: the economy would collapse. When? Maybe during the first 1-2 decades of the 21st century. 

The message of "The Limits to Growth" was hard to digest in the 1970s, an age of optimism and enthusiasm for technological progress and economic expansion. So, from the beginning, the study was criticized and demonized in every possible way, so much that many people, still today, are convinced that it was "wrong" for one reason or another. Actually, there was nothing wrong with the study: it was only affected by the unavoidable uncertainties in the parameters of the system. But the very fact that it was demonized so heavily means that it said something fundamental, relevant to our survival as a civilization and perhaps even as a species.

But what was so special about that book? Many things: perhaps the most important one was that it was the first study that addressed the problems of the future of humanity in a "systemic" way, that is, using a model that, for the time, was incredibly sophisticated. Let me explain: today there is a lot of talk about "artificial intelligence," but the concept was born in the 1960s. "The Limits to Growth" was part of the concept of using computers as a tool to help human intelligence

One of the problems we face when we try to manage complex systems, that is systems where many factors interact with each other, is that the human mind heavily relies on "intuition." We tend to focus on single parameters and consider them as the only relevant factor. Did you notice how people tend to interpret the world's problems on the basis of single factors? "Overpopulation!" "Climate change!" "Pollution!" "Peak Oil" "The public debt!" and so on. All these are relevant factors, certainly, but none of them is the only problem. But how can we estimate their effect when every single factor interacts with all the others? If you focus on the wrong parameter, you can make enormous mistakes. 

That's where a computer can be helpful. The computer is not intelligent, but for this very reason, it is not swayed by ideology or other kinds of personal biases. So, in 1972, the authors of the "Limits to Growth" created a computer-based model that analyzed the human economy according to various hypotheses on the availability of resources, pollution, population growth, and other things.

It was not a prophecy, not a political program, and not a religious revelation, either. The "Limits to Growth" model was simply an evaluation designed to answer the question, "what will happen if ……?" The results were stark clear. If the economy remained focused on growth at all costs, the global economic system would reach its physical limits around 2010-2020. And it wasn't just a matter of stopping growth. It was much worse: the model predicted the collapse of the system.

Today, given the current situation, we may legitimately wonder if we are finding ourselves at the beginning of the collapse that some of the scenarios of "The Limits to Growth" had seen in store for humankind. Is that our future? Maybe, but let me repeat that "The Limits to Growth" was not a prophecy: there was nothing unavoidable in the scenarios it proposed. And the authors never saw themselves as prophets of doom. The study was conceived as a roadmap to avoid collapse! 

Unfortunately, we didn't put into practice the solutions that the study proposed, such as reducing the consumption of natural resources, slowing down economic growth, and the like. But it is also true that today many things have changed. The revolution in renewable technologies has changed the rules of the game. With renewable energy, in principle, we can phase out fossil fuels and avoid the main causes of the coming collapse: depletion and climate change. Yes, but this does not mean that renewable energy comes for free: we have to invest in it and not a little. Unfortunately, up to now, we have not invested enough, not to mention the bureaucratic obstacles that hinder the new installations. 

Even if we could move toward renewables fast enough that we could smoothly replace fossil fuels, that would not be sufficient to avoid all problems. Never forget that the origin of collapse is its opposite: growth. Already long ago, the Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca, noted that ruin is rapid after growth: it is called the "Seneca Effect." If we want to avoid the "Seneca Cliff," the rapid decline that arrives after the growth phase is over, we need to recognize the limits of our planet. Growth at all costs is a dream of the 20th century, that we must abandon now.  

So, we are facing difficult times, but we can muddle through if we make the right choices. Meanwhile, there is a new book that re-examines the whole story of "The Limits to Growth" and its relevance for our present and our future. It is titled "Limits and Beyond," a multi-author book that includes contributions from 21 authors, including two of the original authors of the 1972 "The Limits to Growth." It is edited by Ugo Bardi and Carlos Alvarez Pereira. Already available for purchase!