Friday, December 2, 2011

Rifkin's new energy riff

Jeremy Rifkin has a new book The Third Industrial Revolution : How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World, Palgrave Macmillan 2011.
I have not read the book, but instead caught (a copy of) his interview on Diane Rehm's NPR radio interview/discussion show. Ms. Rehm being the person who from her bully pulpit has been interviewing famous people, authors, etcetera for years. So of course when she goes to writes a book about her dog, and then some books about herself. She is the epitome of how today's liberals are in their (counterintuitive way) often more conservative than today's conservative: status quo conservatives. So when Mr. Rifken goes into his green energy shtick, she is not going to ask contradict him in the smallest fashion because she completely agrees with him, and doesn't have enough of a clue to ask him the right questions in any case.
Before we get to the interview let us start with an introduction to the ideas that drive his book.
In his book he notes the following (excerpt from here):

In the 19th century, steam-powered print technology became the communication medium to manage the coal-fired rail infrastructure and the incipient national markets of the First Industrial Revolution. In the 20th century, electronic communications--the telephone and later, radio and television--became the communication medium to manage and market the oil-powered auto age and the mass consumer culture of the Second Industrial Revolution...
For the past 30 years I have been searching for a new paradigm that could usher in a post-carbon era. In my explorations, I came to realize that the great economic revolutions in history occur when new communication technologies converge with new energy systems. New energy regimes make possible the creation of more interdependent economic activity and expanded commercial exchange as well as facilitate more dense and inclusive social relationships. The accompanying communication revolutions become the means to organize and manage the new temporal and spatial dynamics that arise from new energy systems.


The solution is based on a European model with very heavy emphasis on the German approach.
His proscription for a way out of our troubles is five-fold:
  1. Parallel Energy
  2. Use Buildings as power plant
  3. Storing with Hydrogen
  4. Software to share energy and control usage
  5. Electric plug in transport
He does not address issues of joblessness associated with the very automation he suggests. I would not normally bring this up as a specific objection except that he wrote a book on this very subject.

Excepting the above point, his proscriptions seem to flow around points of interest he has written about in the past (List of books at Amazon). Since he does not like the animal consumption industry: animal consumption is out.

Since he has not written about finance, finance is not a major discussion point. In fact the problematic role of finance in commodity prices is conveniently oil. I am not somebody likely to be called a “peek oil” denier, but it is fairly clear that much of the mechanics of the commodity future price increases revolved around market manipulation with Goldman Sachs being everyone’s favorite culprit.

He also seems to be completely unaware of the enormous real estate and general loose money bubble that crashed the economy.
Diane Rehm Show, WAMU 88.5 for NPR, 27 September 2011.


11:09:38 & 11:10:04

Prices went through the roof for every other product, pesticides, fertilizers, construction materials, pharmaceutical products, synthetic fiber, power, transport, heat and light, because our whole civilization is either made out of and/or moved by fossil fuel. So when the price of oil starts to go over 80 a barrel, all the other prices go up on the supply chain, and at 147 a barrel in July 2008, people stopped buying....and the whole engine of the global economy shut down. What I'm suggesting, that was the economic earthquake. The collapse of the financial market 60 days later, that was the aftershock.

He times the crash to peak oil Autumn of 2008. But peak housing construction was in August of 2005. Bear Stearns, the first big domino, started having problems the following Spring of 2006. The run up in oil prices certainly was not helpful, but (fortunately?) our main immediate problem is a financial one: everyone is broke. We are the walking dead: a zombie bank apocalypse.
So the second point, the larger one, that he misses is how are we going to pay for all of the work that needs to be done. He notes a “slight” surtax on energy to pay for energy by-back provisions. Maybe that works, but energy usages tends to be down in recessions. It is hard to tax a business if they are not making any money, or person if they are out of a job. You can circle a lot of paper money around, but at some point there needs to be something going on from which you can extract.
A third problem is that his program, in economic if not social terms, is fascist. It is the State control over businesses and enterprises. It does not ban property the way communism would, but it does control it. He is honest enough to come right out with an example:

From the Rehm interview:
11:21:16

And it's interesting, in Germany, they have six test sites that have been set up by the federal government and they are actually testing the most interesting things. They're connecting every appliance -- every appliance to the transmission central grid -- to the distributed grid. So we will know what every washing machine is doing across an entire region, every thermostat, every air conditioner. So if there's too much demand for energy and the price is going up, the software can direct a million washing machines to say, forget the extra rinse. If you, the consumer, bought that particular program you'll get a credit and a check from the utility company.

Oh goodie! A 20 cent savings for cutting out the extra rinse cycle because people are always using their rinse cycle at 3:00pm on a hot August afternoon in Charlotte, NC. Be serious, the big energy hogs are air conditioning and cooking. Note that every greenies favorite complaint about electronic devices that are on 24/7 have a miniscule effect on peak usage.
Will it work:

11:15:00
Right. Big solar parks, big wind parks, geothermal parks. We don't oppose that. They're essential, but not sufficient, and they're a small part of this third industrial revolution. So pillar two leads us to buildings. The number one user of energy in the world is buildings. The number one cause of climate change is buildings. By the way, I should say, Diane, I always feel I need to, the number two cause of climate change is beef production and consumption, and related animal husbandry. Nobody mentions it.

O.K. how exactly does putting solar panels on buildings make them use less energy? Of course there are any number of ways you could make a building more energy efficient, but the people inside are going to use energy. Where you put your solar panels is somewhat immaterial, and the “benefit” of using an existing structure to support your panels is negated by sighting issues, and the cost of increasing the structural support to handle the increased load. The main reason he seems to like this idea is because it “democratizes” energy.
And then there is this problem:
Efficiency of Hydrogen Fuel Cell, Diesel-SOFC-Hybrid and Battery Electric Vehicles
Ulf Bosel, European Fuel Cell Forum, 20 October 2003, page 2.

By multiplying the efficiency numbers one obtains for the maximum possible tank-towheel efficiency of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle 0.50 * 0.9 * 0.9 = 0.40 or 40%. This is significantly less than the 60% used by the promoters of a hydrogen economy and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

I am not bringing up Ulf Bosel because he is the champion of all fuel cell technology, but simply to illustrate that the hydrogen fuel cell technology that is one of the cornerstones of his program has had a lot of issues.

A lot of people think that it will have some usefulness, but they have become discouraged enough with its problems to pull back from thinking it is the all-in cure for hydro-carbon replacement. But Rifkin is having none of this:

11:17:47 & 11:18:08

Eight billion Euro commitment of public/private funds in the next few years, because, you know, hydrogen is the basic element of the universe. It's the stuff of the stars. It carries other energy. It's modular so you can use it for small homes and big factories. So here's how it works. You put photovoltaic solar panels on your roof, you generate electricity.

If you have some electricity you don't need for the moment, you put the electricity in the water. Hydrogen bubbles out of the water into a tank. It's real simple. When the sun isn't shining on your roof, you turn it and the hydrogen goes from the tank back to electricity. A very small thermodynamic loss.

Later on he goes on to tell us that we should forget all about the Hindenburg, hydrogen's storage problems have been eliminated: After all the Europeans use them to power their buses. Of course the Europeans also used them to float the Hindenburg, but he seems to miss that point of irony. Obviously it is not the done-deal he imagines as people are still working hard on the issue.
I am not trying to say that nothing can or should be done. But the Rifkin's breezy tone gives a very misleading picture as to how difficult the task at hand is, and what the likely end results will be. Of course we can always hope for the best, but I would rather be a little more cautios in my assessments.
I would also prefer that my planner work a little harder at understanding the issues involved and addressing them, rather than be a cheerleader. My biggest issue with Al Gore, is not that he is concerned with energy issues, or global warming, but that he simplifies the issues to the point where he cannot be taken as a trustworthy source.
For instance, if you pump a lot of resources into the technology, how is it going to effect other parts of the economy.  Won’t transportation become more difficult at least in the short term?  Won’t this make food prices go up?  Look at how mad people got when food prices up when the ethanol boom was starting up under Bush W.  If you push all your resource into making every single building in the country part of a micro-macro power web, won’t this cost us somewhere else.  Since many of our citizens are planning to retire in the coming years, how exactly will they fit into the scheme?  They won’t have much income, so the magic of tax breaks is not likely to be helpful.  Will we also pay for their new solar panels?  If we are worried about paying for social security benefits going forward, how on earth are we supposed to be paying for energy efficient living for the retired?  What about the working poor?  You know, the people who work for Wal-mart but make so little money they still qualify for food stamps.
I think I will stop here.

2 comments:

Anne said...

He seems to have glossed over the energy required to make these panels, the materials needed, etc.
Solar panels everywhere seems like a good idea, except here's the glitch.. the power needed to make them and the materials.

It still wanders back to the fantasy of accomidating unrestricted population growth on limited resources.

russell1200 said...

Anne, yes their is a math problem.

I don't mind his positive message, and I think we are in agreement that he is being optomistic.

As I mentioned to PP in the previous post, it comes down to testability.

Even if what he proposes is possible, are we doing now what is need to make it happen.

Not that I can see. I see a lot of interesting incrimental changes. The types of changes that may help certain people in a certain place and time, but nothing at the scale he is talking about.