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  • Writer's pictureSol J

The human race to failure

Sometimes the things we think we should be doing are the things we should least be doing


"A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it." - Jean de La Fontaine

Imagine you are driving in a famous rally race, the Paris-Dakar Rally. Somehow, you've drifted off course, away from the other drivers and are now out on your own in the middle of the Moroccan Desert.


You're on a time clock but the key to winning (and now that you are alone, surviving) lies in making it to the next fuel stop to make contact with crew and staying in the race. After several hours hammering across the desert, you start to notice that the car is using a bit more fuel than usual, and a quiet suspicion starts to build in your mind that it's been getting worse for a while. You check the map. Next fuel, 100 miles - Houston, we have a problem.


Based on what you know about the car, the gauge tells you you've got maybe 80 miles of fuel left and that was before you realised things aren't quite right. What are your options?


The naive car owner, knuckles white with trepidation, might consider putting their foot down further, hoping to get to the next fuel stop before they run out. Of course, anyone who has has ever owned a car knows this doesn't work and that a heavier foot means less distance travelled on the same fuel. If you were like me as a kid, paying for fuel in my first car on burger flipping wages, it was at the front of your mind every time you drove. Scratch that idea.


You could also pull over, which although it will conserve fuel, is not going to get you to the next fuel stop either. With the engine idling to keep the air conditioning running, you might survive a bit longer the earlier you stop, but the story's ending doesn't vary a lot. Even static fuel consumption is an issue.


The optimal solution, as we all know, is to drive with as light a foot as possible, reduce wind resistance by lowering speed to something that is still acceptable and if you know the RPM where the engine develops peak torque (i.e. achieves the greatest efficiency), try to stay as close to that as you can. That would at least offer you the best chance without any further intervention. But the outcome is not guaranteed and of course, there's still that pesky declining fuel economy problem that we haven't yet really quantified. What else then?


Because you're a proper rally driver, you've got a pretty good handle on how a car works, so you pull over and give it a tune up. This is a pretty easy job to do, doesn't take too much time and may at least give you some idea of whether fuel economy really is dropping and/or going to continue to do so. This, in conjunction with a more moderate driving style is probably your best bet.


But wait, what's this? You're going through your spares and tools and you find an old turbocharger that you had planned to fit back in the workshop but you never quite got around to it. Bargain - you decide to fit it and see what happens.


Many people would find the idea of fitting a piece of performance equipment in such an emergency to be counter intuitive, however a turbocharger increases performance precisely because it increases the efficiency of the engine. Wasted heat that previously went down the tailpipe is recovered by the turbocharger and that recovered energy is used to force more air into the engine, making it breathe better and allowing more of the heat energy to be converted to mechanical power at the wheels. Just to make things better still, you rip off half the exhaust pipe to get more flow through the turbocharger and now she's spinning better as well. Now you're on your way and with the engine all tuned up you get to the fuel stop with ease.


(In case you think stopping on your own in the middle of the Moroccan desert to fit a turbocharger to your car is far fetched, check out this guy who spent 12 days stranded there converting his broken Citroen into a motorbike to get him back to civilisation. Try doing that with a modern car).


How do these different strategies correlate to our energy supply chains in the real world?


Well, we can liken the car to our globalised industrialised world and the next fuel stop to the next generation of technology we have to build to stay in the race. If we can make it to that point in time before we run out of fuel then we'll win. If not, we'll probably die a hot, lonely death with the buzzards picking out our eyes.


The driver who put his foot down to get to the finish line earlier is the societal equivalent of the mad green scramble to decarbonise the economy by building renewables. We need to remember here that to build renewable infrastructure requires burning more fossil fuel. Not only are we burning fuel at a faster rate because of the increased industrialisation, we are using fuel less efficiently because we get less energy back into the economy from renewables than we do from oil. So we finish the race far short of the finish line and much, much earlier, spending our last days watching the birds of prey circling overhead, wishing we'd remembered the lessons from our childhood.


To give you some idea of how significant the impact of installing renewables is on oil consumption consider the following:

  • It takes about 10 tonnes of materials to make a battery that can store the same amount of energy as a barrel of oil

  • About 100 tonnes have to be mined, moved and processed for every 1 tonne of battery that is produced, so to make a battery to replace just one barrel of oil we will have to move 1,000 tonnes of material, almost all of it using equipment powered by fossil fuels

  • And at the end of this process, all we have built is an empty battery. We haven't even filled it, or built any of the machinery required to do so.

Clearly renewables as the solution are an efficiency fail. Take your foot back off the gas.


What about just pulling over? We know it's not going to work, but some would still do it anyway. Most likely there are some politicians and sustainability advocates who wish we could just stop the machine altogether (or put it in reverse) - but unfortunately we are now completely dependent on technology just for survival. Even if we could get global consensus to bring the race to a halt, once the breeze stopped, we'd soon realise we can't survive in the blazing heat of the desert and would have to idle the engine to stay cool in the aircon until the inevitable came. It would be a long and mentally tortuous finale and we would be fighting over the remaining water, till the bitter end.


How about the guy who eases back on the throttle?


He's hopeful, but unfortunately hope is all he's got. Deep down, he knows he's not going to make it. He actually has no idea how far the car can go because he hasn't really noticed the additional fuel consumption until its too late, but he knows even if the car was running as it should, the needle on that gauge is coming for him. He thinks to himself "Maybe I can get close enough to walk the last bit." It doesn't bring him much comfort.


Had he driven economically from the last stop and watched his fuel carefully all the way, he might have stood a chance. For the globalised industrial world, the last stop was 270 years ago, at the start of the industrial revolution. Had we planned our energy use back then, worked out how to transition off fossil fuels and worked steadily towards that goal, keeping track of our progress, most of the difficulties we are experiencing in the world today would never have materialised. But now the rear view mirror only has sand, stretching all the way back to the horizon. Paris is a long way behind us.


This is what most world leaders are doing. With no other idea of what to do, they can only grip the wheel and pray, hoping for a forgotten fuel oasis to spring up out of the desert.


Now we come to the mechanic. At least he can do something. The mechanic who tunes up the car is the corporate scientist, working to get incremental improvements on existing technology. It helps, but if we're too far down the road before we work out that something isn't right then there's only so much that can be done. Most of the analysts looking at the problem agree we are way too far down the road for any more tuning to make a difference - including Google, Bill Gates and Mark P Mills (see our blog "The need for "Something Else" here.)


Fitting the turbocharger on the other hand is a whole new step in technological thinking. Although counter intuitive to most people, it is the recovery of lost energy that makes all the difference. The increase in engine efficiency means less throttle needed, better fuel economy and more miles per gallon. The eighty miles left on the gauge now stretches out to one hundred.


If we are to make it to the in next fuel stop in the human race we need to start applying technology to the problems of energy efficiency in our entire energy supply chain before it is too late. In this example, if we had left it to say, 40 miles from the finish, then the increase in efficiency would not have been enough to make up the gap and we would have still ended up on the side of the road. When you see something is not right with the car, don't hope and pray - stop, get out, think about it and fix it.


Although this example is illustrative it is actually quite close in principle to how nGeni really works. Turbochargers are not new and neither is the principle of recovering lost energy and recycling it back through a closed loop into the system. nGeni expands and generalises this concept to multiple applications with a simple core device that can be configured in a number of ways. Now we've worked out how to make our existing declining systems more efficient we have more options for transitioning off them. The only thing remaining to do is look at what we are already doing and decide if it's really the wisest course of action.


Before we finish this blog it would be worthwhile to consider what an economist would do in this situation. It appears that entities like the World Economic Forum and the United Nations believe that various forms of carbon taxes and carbon trading schemes can disincentivise fossil fuel consumption, as a means of extending the life of fossil fuels and reducing climate change. The racing car equivalent of such an idea is the same as jamming a potato up the exhaust pipe. Strangling off the exhaust does reduce the flow through the engine, and in a crude sort of way might reduce fuel use, but you'll end up with one of two outcomes:


  1. Your efficiency is going to drop right off, as the engine backs up the car is going to splutter and will eventually conk out, probably full of gunk and unable to be started again. We are getting close to that now, with all sorts of distortions in the global economy taking place, supply chain volatility (bursts of fuel delivery) and pockets of production (burst of power followed by misfires), with random business and industry failures everywhere (the gunk building up in the engine is stranded assets in the economy). This certainly isn't going to improve your prospects of going much further.

  2. The car will blow the potato out the back as the pressure from the economy becomes too great and the carbon scheme collapses as unworkable. All those stranded assets and low-return energy technologies will be jettisoned as scrap.

The solution:


Dump the economist on the side of the road and tell him to shove his potato somewhere else, he was dead weight anyway.


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