Thursday 31, May 2007, Jim Bacon posted on
energy conservation at the Bacon’s
Rebellion Blog: “Conservation
Could Save 10 Percent.” Jim’s summary
and the WaPo story he cites spell out the
basics of a study by Summit Blue, Inc. that
outlines straightforward strategies to conserve
a modest amount of energy.
are a number of useful comments responding to
Jim’s post and one that is so unfounded and
dangerous that it demands a rebuttal: At 12:18
PM on 1 June “Anonymous” said:
cares! Energy is everywhere, abundant, and
freely streaming down on us from the Sun. Soon
it will be virtually free for everyone.
Conservation will be irrelevant. More energy,
more prosperity. Cheaper energy, cheaper
concrete, cheaper high rise housing. Whining
about conservation is a waste of time.
marvels that anyone skilled enough to access the
Internet and use a keyboard would bother to post
such a statement. (NB: He/she was smart enough
not to post a name because that could be used to
trace the real agenda of the poster – most
likely to obscure reality in the hopes of
reaping an unearned profit.) The greater problem
is that many citizens hunger to believe there is
a basis for this sort of preposterous
the “Who cares!” post another blogger made
the elegant observation that while
“abundant,” solar energy also is “thin.”
Due to the capital cost of converting it to
human use, solar energy will never be
“virtually free.” The response also pointed
out that a few billion years later, when the sun
has gone super-nova and solar energy is
intensively “streaming down,” the Earth will
be a pathetic black cinder.
some, that response to “Anon 12:18 / Who
cares!” is sufficient. There are, however,
several points that need to be added.
noted in the response to “Who cares!”, solar
energy is indeed “thin.” The same is true
for all the contemporary (aka, “renewable”)
carbon-based energy sources that directly result
from solar energy via photosynthesis. (See End
same thin / thick relationship exists for all
the direct and indirect strategies for
converting solar-system derived energy including
wind and tide based sources. (See End
put a sharp point on the “thin / thick”
reality: Energy sources derived from
contemporary (aka, “renewable”) solar
system energy are all “thin.”
consider where energy is needed to support
contemporary human activity.
Over 95 percent of
the citizens in First World nation-states such
as the US of A, are engaged in urban activities.
The most functional, and by far the most energy
efficient, settlement patterns to support these
urban activities from economic, social and
physical perspectives result in a “thick” /
focused demand pattern. Even at very low
densities the entire urban population of the US
of A functions well on a maximum of 5 percent of
the land area.
Collecting energy from “thin”
sources and delivering it to efficient but
“thick” human demand patterns is a
fundamental, overarching problem for all
renewable energy resources.
the thick / thin spectrum it is “natural
capital” – the stored energy sources
accumulated over billions of years – that are
“thick” / focused or rich. Most of those
resources – coal fields, oil fields, tar
sands, etc. are in locations remote from the
foci of demand and thus require transport. Using
the focused (“thick”) resources is not a
walk in the park even with efficient pipeline,
barge or rail transport.
definition, the focused (aka, thick, stored,
nonrenewable) resources are finite. Relative to
a demand curve that is growing geometrically,
they are in limited supply.
addition, the large-scale use of hydrocarbons /
petrochemicals and other thick resources to
produce energy have inconvenient byproducts.
These include direct and indirect pollution and
natural system imbalance – unless expensive
and energy consumptive scrubbers and filters are
(fission) energy sources may be in greater
supply theoretically, but the conversion to
useful energy is costly and the byproducts are
even more problematic. Fusion sources have their
own set of limitations, geothermal sources are
expensive to access in most locations, marine
sources are remote and so are the best hydro
sources. (See End
hydro-to-electric energy paradigm spelled out in
End Note Three demonstrates the illogic and
economic bankruptcy of an energy strategy that
strings high voltage transmission lines around
eastern United States. It is not a matter of
aesthetics, culture or history. It is a matter
of a self-defeating energy strategy.
on any “thin” (renewable) energy strategy
to create a resource to replace the profligate
waste of “thick” sources such as stored
hydrocarbons will always be costly and will,
sooner rather than later, fail to satisfy a
growing demand profile.
energy sources and almost all of the
“alternative” energy sources have beneficial
(but not “virtually free”) applications.
There are a range of new energy sources being
researched (e.g. controlled fusion) but none are
low tech and none will be cheap compared to
burning natural capital.
support functional and sustainable human
settlement patterns of urban activity, the real
energy “solutions” are strategies such as
co-generation, recycling waste heat and modular
integrated utility systems using emerging
Bringing these sources on line will
require intelligent policy, innovative design
and a fair allocation of costs. Most important
they will require enlightened self interest to
drastically reduce demand. We call these changes
in the trajectory of “Business As Usual” and
“Politics As Usual” energy consumption
approaching the existing per capita consumption
– much less demand generated by increased
population and compounded by expansion of per
capita consumption in “developing” economies
– will create high energy costs.
Scenarios for extracting energy from new
sources, including fuel cells, controlled fusion
and improved fission technology will be costly.
For example, isolating hydrogen to use in fuel
cells requires energy from other sources.
strategy for energy generation, conversion,
storage and transport is expensive and / or has
detrimental and unsustainable outcomes. Mythical
“cold fusion” and hallucinogenic drugs are
the alternative to intelligent strategies of
primary need for energy conservation (and other
aspects of “true conservatism”) is not the
prospect of an immediate resource collapse.
Unless there is a cataclysmic solar-system-scale
or intra-galactic-scale event, humans will not
suddenly “run out of” sunlight, oxygen,
hydrogen, carbon, minerals and other basic
resources – at least not “soon.” Of
course, consumption patterns will have to change.
One the current trajectory, resources will, at
some point, be exhausted.
overarching problem is that consumption of
energy resources – at accelerating rates,
using current processes and in scattered
locations – combine to thwart the evolution of
sustainable economic, social and physical
patterns and systems – in particular
functional and sustainable human settlement
patterns. Only these functional and sustainable
patterns and densities of land use have the
potential to make humans happy and safe in the
is a given that energy will grow more expensive
as the rich reserves of natural capital are
burned up and cheap energy must be replaced by
other resources and strategies. The trajectory
of consumption must be adjusted so that the
Wealth Gap does not make energy a luxury for
those at the top of the economic food chain.
democratic governance and market economics are
to be maintained, the majority of humans must
be happy and safe, not just the ones at the
top of the heap. There is no faster way to
home-grow terrorist than blatant economic
discrimination and resource depravation.
First Order of Business
pressing, immediate need is for places to
clearly demonstrate the feasibility of
conservation and alternative energy source
applications. Citizens must come to understand
the parameters of a sustainable future. The best
place to do this is in small urban enclaves with
high Institutional Capacity. (See End
"solutions" that may work to conserve
energy and capitalize on alternative energy
sources are small-scale solutions that must be
developed, tested and demonstrated at the scale
of application. This means they must be Alpha
Neighborhood scale, Alpha Village scale and
Alpha Community scale programs. In larger urban
agglomerations there are three problems with
intelligently addressing energy conservation and
demonstrating intelligent strategies:
important of all, no one makes a profit from
conservation. Fat, immediate cash flows are
derived from expanding consumption, not from
solution to the Energy Conservation Crisis will
require addressing each of these conditions in a
context where viable alternatives to Business As
Usual can be demonstrated. There is not a single
program in the current U.S. Senate package, the
current U.S. House package or in the widely
promoted “solutions” of the current federal
administration that address any of these issues.
It is all about alternative fuels (not
alternative systems), more drilling (not less
demand) and a lot of pandering rhetoric.
Milbank does a superb job of capturing the
idiocy of the current conditions at the federal
level in his column “A Wind-Powered Town, an
Energy Bill and a Lot of Hot Air” (Washington
Post, 15 June, 2007, page A-2.) No single
three or four line quote will do it justice.
Read it all.
solutions do not appear in the image ads paid
for by energy companies nor can they be found in
the programs of any of the 37 “leaders” who
have expressed interest in becoming the next
President of the United States.
warming,” “greenhouse gas” and “climate
change are important issues but they have become
political footballs. It is important to
understand that excess energy consumption will
be a economic, social and physical disaster if
not addressed soon. This is not a threat of four
vs. eight inches of sea level rise in a decade,
it is a matter of household, enterprise and
addressing energy conservation will solve the
climate change / global warming problem to the
extent that human activity can impact
overarching natural processes that are, at this
point, poorly understood.
path to bring energy consumption into balance
with sustainable energy sources will involve:
of these goals requires effort at the
multi-national, nation-state, state, regional
and Alpha (Balanced) Community scales. That
includes effort at each of the scales of the
organic components that make up Balanced
has happened with the modest Kyoto accords
provides a glimpse at how hard this will be and
why demonstration of the feasibility and
functionality of solutions at the Neighborhood,
Village and Community scales are so important.
first two categories -- reversing
population growth and per capita energy
consumption -- are obvious and simple to
understand. They are also treated as whales on
the beach and political third rails. That is
because of citizen ignorance of the potential
consequences and the hope that there is a silver
bullet. Silver bullets range from more ethanol,
more drilling and more transmission lines
promised by pandering politicians to cheap solar
energy, Autonomobiles running on fuel cells,
cold fusion and fantasies tossed out by
anonymous bloggers and sellers of snake oil.
last two categories -- evolving alternative
sources of energy that match the scale and
distribution of contemporary human needs, and
evolving human settlement patterns that minimize
energy consumption -- are the most difficult to
grasp. Sustainable energy sources must match the
demands of an urban society.
Over the past 200
years the daily activities of humans in the
First World have morphed from 95 percent non-urban
to 95 percent urban. The rest of the world’s
population is in hot pursuit.
50 percent of the Earth’s population is now
living in urban environments. It is not enough
for energy sources to be “near” urban
agglomerations, they must be in those
agglomerations and scaled to serve the organic
components of human settlement patterns where a
direct relationship between conservation and
cost can be demonstrated.
and sustainable settlement patterns require the
evolution of Balanced components of human
activity. In the US of A around 70 percent of
the imported energy is consumed by transport and
about 70 percent of the greenhouse gases are
generated by transport activities.
transport energy demand is the direct result of
the dysfunctional distribution of the origins
and destinations of travel. This dysfunctional
distribution of human activity is due in large
part to a failure to evolve Balanced components
of human settlement. We have noted in the past
and will repeat in an upcoming Backgrounder
“The Problem with Cars,” that free,
non-polluting energy for Autonomobiles will not
solve the Mobility and Access Crisis.
overarching cause of the Mobility and Access
Crisis and the excessive energy consumed by the
transport of people and goods and the provision
of goods and services is the settlement pattern
that results from gross over-reliance on
Autonomobiles for Mobility and Access. Reliance
on Autonomobiles has had the effect of atomizing
of society, which has proven to be expensive,
destabilizing and unsustainable – especially
from the perspective of energy consumption.
repeat: Alternative strategies for both
conservation and generation must be tested and
be functional at small scale in ways that
illustrate the futility of trying to serve a
random and dysfunctional distribution of
origins and destinations of travel.
to "Who Cares!"
comments of the anonymous author of "Who
cares!” suggest the need to carefully consider
of the proposition that speech that
reality-distorting speech, like yelling
“Fire!” in a crowded theater, is not
protected by any constitutional right.
words also raise the question: Why do so many
otherwise sane citizens make statements like
Anoymous 12:18? Even more important, why are
there so many citizens who want so badly to
believe this silliness?
have asked many thoughtful citizens this
question: One frequent answer: “Perhaps they
despair at the scope of the Fundamental Change
necessary to avoid the consequences of the end
of cheap energy.”
answer: “Advocates of Business As Usual
apparently have no children or grandchildren and
do not care what happens to society when the
energy- and resource-constrained future
June 19, 2007
This is one reason why producing ethanol in
large quantities in a central plant is such an
inefficient source of energy even if the
facility uses waste feedstock and does compete
for food or useful fiber – e.g. corn.
Any big plant has to collect the feedstock from
a large territory and then transport the ethanol
to places to use it. That is why the
current method of subsidizing oil companies for
using ethanol is such a stupendously, wrong-headed
This limitation does not apply to small-scale,
dispersed, direct and indirect solar
agglomerating strategies. More on that
below. About 70 percent of the Earth’s
surface is salt-water oceans. This means
that marine systems and marine resources have
more potential for renewable energy than
terrestrial sources. Capitalizing on this
renewable energy source requires global
coordination, cooperation and management of the
resources far beyond anything yet implemented.
Hydro sources provide a useful demonstration
of the importance of location and scale.
Hydro sources are very useful for mechanical
applications at the source, e.g. water wheels.
However, when hydro energy is converted to
electricity the end use of the electricity needs
to be near the source. If not, an
energy-consumptive result such as the following
During the later half of
the 20th century Anaconda and later Alcoa made a
lot of money shipping bauxite from Africa and
Jamaica to Seattle, Washington, and then hauling
it in rail cars to Columbia Falls, Montana, to
be smelted into aluminum a few miles from the
Bonneville Power Authority dam at Hungry Horse.
The aluminum ingots were then loaded back on
rail cars and shipped back to Seattle to be made
The reason for all this wasted
motion and energy? The economic impact of line
loss in electricity transport. The rising
controversy over the new 500 KW transmission
lines in the Countryside is another aspect of
the physics of energy transfer.
Jim Bacon has written about the Greater
Warrenton-Fauquier, VA initiative by the Town of
Warrenton’s mayor George Fitch in “One
Man's Trash,” 5 March 2007. A recent CNN
story noted a similar an interest in energy
self-sufficiency expressed in Greater
Woodstock-Ulster, New York.