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May 30, 2023Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Tomas, thanks for looking at this topic. Over the last few years I've come to admire you as one of the Great Explainers of our time. Please keep up the good work!

Since your piece looks back to ~1700 AD via data (and to ~10,000 BC via logic) I'm curious for your thoughts on first principles explored here by Tom Murphy at UCSD:

https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2012/04/economist-meets-physicist/

He makes the point the continued acceleration of generation of waste *heat* during each step along even your idealized energy value chain (eg "transform [energy], store it, and transport it, in a way that is as easy, cheap, and clean as possible") is incompatible with continued life-as-we-know-it on Earth. So in your section 2 when we think about Requirements for energy revolution etc, let's take a step back and include, predicates or ELI5 goals we can explain to our kids, like: we want this planet to be inhabitable by mammals.

And I don't mean million of years into the future. Rather, if Murphy is correct then we should be solutioneering more urgently, and over forward-looking timeframes only as long as your essay looks backwards. Perhaps 100,000 days is a useful/actionable planning window?

For reference, ~1749 is approx 100k days ago; and 100k days from now is approx 2297 AD.

Per Murphy:

"[T]he Earth has only one mechanism for releasing heat to space, and that’s via (infrared) radiation. We understand the phenomenon perfectly well, and can predict the surface temperature of the planet as a function of how much energy the human race produces. The upshot is that at a 2.3% growth rate (conveniently chosen to represent a 10× increase every century), we would reach boiling temperature in about 400 years."

"At that 2.3% growth rate, we would be using energy at a rate corresponding to the total solar input striking Earth in a little over 400 years. We would consume something comparable to the entire sun in 1400 years from now. By 2500 years, we would use energy at the rate of the entire Milky Way galaxy—100 billion stars! I think you can see the absurdity of continued energy growth. 2500 years is not that long, from a historical perspective."

https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/tom-murphy-profile/

Thoughts?

Assuming we don't want to (be forced to attempt to impossibly) inhabit the surface of *any* planet that's at boiling temperature; and that per Murphy the surface of *this* planet will reach boiling temperature in only 400 years, if the rate of growth of our energy usage continues into near-future centuries at rates similar to recent history ; then, it may be reasonable to think differently about energy, climate, econ and even national security requirements. It may also be helpful not to abstract these "macro" issues into Gordian Knots that feel remote, unsolvable, un-addressable etc... irrelevant to us, as individuals.

Rather, it may be helpful to look at these multi-century trends and first-principles through the lens of something much closer to home: our families.

Circling back on 100k days mentioned above: this is roughly 9-10 human generations, assuming ~30 year reproductive cycles which is accurate enough to illustrate the point that institutions and incentives persist that long. Another way to think about ~100k days or 9-10 generations, if we mentally locate ourselves in the middle of that period... generally speaking, most of us know our grandparents. By extension, we will know our grandchildren. Thus, each of us spans ~5 generations of lineal family relationships. This is easy to get our heads around. Double that.

~100k days is "only" the span between our grandparents' grandparents to our grandchildrens' grandchildren.

We've inherited systems, incentives and expectations about growth from our grandparents' grandparents, which we in our own generation will need to reform (or abandon entirely) before bequeathing to our grandchildren's grandchildren. In this context it doesn't matter when we invent and benefit from breakthru cleantech, green electrification, fusion etc. If the waste heat generated by our consumption cannot be radiated off the planet, the Future Energy Revolution is a pyrrhic victory.

Else, per Dr. Murphy:

"[A]t a 2.3% growth rate (conveniently chosen to represent a 10× increase every century), we would reach boiling temperature in about 400 years. [T]his statement is independent of technology. Even if we don’t have a name for the energy source yet, as long as it obeys thermodynamics, we cook ourselves with perpetual energy increase."

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author

Thank you so much! I was looking for this type of math somewhere, glad we found it!

I have read your link, thanks. Reactions:

1. I broadly agree with its conclusions.

2. With the current path of human growth, this is a non-issue, since fertility is plummeting across the world

3. AI is a wild card that changes everything. We can't see past the singularity, so we shouldn't try.

4. And we shouldn't worry about problems in 200 years. Should early 19th century people ponder what to do about fusion power or AI? No

5. When an element stops being a limiting factor, consumption might not grow at all. Limits can be regulation, intelligence, wars...

6. At some point, maybe we might be able to stabilize energy consumption while growing the economy because of *replacement*: a new, better action might cost energy, but it costs less than what a person would have spent otherwise.

7. Space is a huge element here. I love that they calculated the time by which we would consume all the galaxy's energy, that's pretty neat. The point though is that it pushes even further the horizon of energy limit,

8. My internal rule of thumb for thermodynamics concerns was a 100x increase in energy on Earth, so I'm glad to see I was broadly on the right track.

9. We could actually generate energy in space and beam it back to Earth, leaving a big chunk of entropy out

10. I assume the Earth itself could be a sink of heat

I'm sure I'm wrong on some of these. Interesting exercise!

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May 30, 2023·edited May 30, 2023Liked by Tomas Pueyo

About ramping nuclear up and down: this is not really the case. It can be ramped up and down from 10 to 100% and back in a rather limited timeframe (hours) compatible with the daily variations.

See e.g. this https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306261918303180#bi005 and cited references

Claims up to 5%/minute (90% in less than 20min) is possible. And 0.5%/minute rutinely employed (30%/hour).

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OMG if this is true, it's a true game-changer. I didn't realize! I see the paper is recent. I assume most nuclear reactors were not designed with this in mind, but maybe the new ones / new generations are?

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I cannot answer in detail but I can try to put you in touch with someone who knows more than me on the subject.

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I realized I knew such an expert and asked. You’re right! French NPPs are doing this already

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May 31, 2023·edited May 31, 2023Liked by Tomas Pueyo

I was told here you can indeed monitor real-time their output:

http://nuclear-monitor.fr

(from @AvvocatoAtomico on twitter...)

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Love the link, thanks!

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May 30, 2023Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Wind has one advantage over solar: it works during winter. The problem is that your battery now needs to store energy for a few weeks instead of days, because long stretches of no wind are more common than multiple days of heavy overcast.

In addition to ramping production up and down, we also need more flexible consumption. Many industrial processes are optimized towards continuous operation, which is fine when there's continuous energy supply – but a heavy liability when there isn't.

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Wind --> true. Doesn't solve the problem, but it's a fair addition to the argument.

I disagree on the flexibility of consumption. We should make sure the supply does everything we need it to do! Why should we curtail demand, just because we can't figure out the supply? It's just a technology issue

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May 31, 2023Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Of course it's "just" tech, but it's not free either. Building tech requires money and adds more CO2.

Thus if we can convert whichever-process-we-need to running intermittently but need to spend $10k every time it's restarted, that's still cheaper than spending $1M on a battery that's going to earn its keep maybe ten times a year. Plus, we now have an incentive to spend research $$ on lowering that startup cost. If better tech can get that down to $1000 you can profitably run the process entirely off solar, which saves another $100k worth of battery, not to mention your power bill.

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Let me rephrase: in the transition period, we should certainly work on flexibility of demand, especially industrial. And the best way to do it is to incentivize that behavior. But isn't that what real-time pricing of energy does?

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May 30, 2023Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Thank you Thomas for putting together a lot of useful information. Great source for most of the people who do not have much exposure to the technical details. I was waiting for you to tackle this subject for a while.

About the article textual correctness:

- Figure about TFP - the x-axis shows an incorrect succession of years: ... 1960, 1970, 1980, 1900, 2000, 2010. That might be an error in the source itself.

- Note 4: "increase its tension" should read: "increase its voltage"

Now about the core contents:

- I share similar concerns expressed here by Isaac and Tim (thank you both for pointing out the important aspects, as they are missing from the article and may somewhat mislead the unaware reader). Thank you Thomas for your answers as well!

I would dare go one step further, expressing my own concerns about the path humanity is taking.

I will make one bold statement:

Keeping business as usual could drive humankind into overshoot and subsequent societal collapse (in terms of ecosystem sustainability) before we perform a "natural transition" (in economical terms) from our current energy consumption sourcing / profiles to whatever would be "sustainable" and "green" (whichever will be the updated definitions for these terms, since everything we produce now is far from being actually green and sustainable in terms of planetary recyclability).

Here are some of the possible reasons:

- The economy is driven by profitability (growth is the paradigm, but the entire system has enormous inertia, making infrastructure changes more difficult as our societal trends accelerate).

- The currently accepted economy "laws" are limited to society (ignoring environment as "externality")

- Everything on this planet (society, earth, and the ecosystems on it) form a tightly interconnected complex system with multiple thresholds with a deeply non-linear behavior (read: no-return points).

- Once the system transitions (after crossing each threshold) to a new quasi-equilibrium point (which may be substantially different from the previous one), all its living sub-systems must adapt or die. There will be minor and major transitions (e.g., sea level rise would be a rather minor transition by itself, but could, in turn, trigger another major transition as the ocean temperature increases and plankton may go mostly extinct).

- There are always positive and negative feedback loops at play that act with variable strength, most of the time depending on each other (this is what makes it a complex system that cannot be simulated).

- Human nature evolves much slower than technology (exposing society to the greed and egotistic behavior of those in power, let alone the possibility of self-destructive behavior or tendency for authoritarian regimes in times of crisis). Psychology and sociology is not my main strength, but my wife has a master on the subject, so I often get into the weeds here as well.

- We are on the brink of the sixth mass extinction event (triggered by our own "evolution"). I see ample data on insects dangerously decreasing in populations (entomology is my hobby, even though I am an EE by formation).

Possible outcomes in just a few decades (for sure before 2100):

- Climate becomes more erratic, driving millions of people into forced migration (drought, floods, sea level rising, increased volcanic and seismic activity, war).

- Possible negative feedback from volcanic activity: temporary drop in global temperatures, followed by sustained increase once the aerosols and dust settles.

- Several nation-states collapse due to the above events, forcing global economy to restructure itself (e.g., Pakistan could trigger major economic waves at international level in case of collapse).

- The race for satisfying increasing energy needs in developed nations may also hit a wall as their aging infrastructure is crumbling and investments are difficult due to several factors (incoming migratory waves in Europe, lack of strong local industry in the U.S., de-dollarization due to BRIC initiative followed by many other nations that literally break the world economy into two systems).

- Sharp decrease in natality (several factors from infertility to deliberate couple choice) may shrink the population in developed nations, resulting in "aging" nations' economic difficulties.

- War over dwindling cheap resources, as the expected transition to sustainable energy is not achieved in time (we tend to fight each other instead of cooperating, since we already have a poor track record of choosing profit over nature / sustainability).

- All of the above and possibly many more factors could literally block our path to new resources (even here, on our planet, letting alone space exploration dreams).

All these are possible events and do not exclude either a more favorable path (mild climate evolution with gradual population reduction until a new societal "homeostasis" is reached) or a worse scenario driven by war and famine, in a catabolic collapse path (rough landing). I could even envision a two-world path: a majority of people choosing to live a truly sustainable life (minimal technology, basic agriculture and farming), while a few would pursue a high-tech career (in closed technology centers that are only maintained for scientific research, providing guidance and medical support to the general population in need). No space dreams here. At least not until we guarantee that our planet can sustain us for a long time. Separating high-tech from the masses may be anyway necessary, as cheap resources will be drained over time and maintaining a large human population would be unthinkable at high energy expenses for long. Recycling will be also necessary, but it will incur higher energy input (it is now prohibitive from an economic standpoint, but it will become mandatory in the future, as digging asteroids may not be a realistic option). My pointy here is that we need to calculate the actual energy required to fully close the circle on all materials we use. No exceptions and no externalities. No further ecosystem impact (actually some restoration required at this point). Since nobody bets that this will happen anytime soon, I would assume we'll take the BAU path until we are primed for the hard-landing scenario...

Fast, reliable, cheap...

pick any two and leave the environmental problems for the future generations

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Ah, thank you so much!

Reactions:

1. You're right. It's from the source. I'll make sure to correct the next time I use it.

2. "Tension" is the French and Spanish term. This error betrays my language of engineering training!

On your more substantive point, thank you for putting it this way. I've been struggling to craft a reasonable picture of the fear of the future, and yours is quite valid and well put. I might quote this in the future, if you don't mind.

Based on what I know so far, I believe your fears are valid, but data suggests they won't become real. It takes a lot of time and work to gather the data and make the case, so I haven't done it yet. As I do, maybe I will end up seeing it the same way as you do. In any case, I will write about this in the coming months

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Correct! I linked it there :)

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May 30, 2023Liked by Tomas Pueyo

You did not speak about energy reuse and efficiency. In the USA energy efficiency is about 14% so there are huge opportunities to cavpture and reuse waste heat from commercial and industrial processes especially for building heat and water heating . In the industry where I worked it was considered an energy sin to use electricity or steam to heat water or the building. We used recovered heat from the process. Even so there were millions of Btus of energy in our water effluent and air effluent to heat all buildings and hot water in our small city.

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Hi James!

I'm not sure I follow. Are you talking about energy efficiency of production? Consumption? Transmission? Storage? Which types? My understanding is that each one of these things has different efficiencies. Eg a CCGP will have an efficiency of 60% in electricity generation, while natgas heat will have something like 97% efficiency.

But yes, you're right that efficiency is important. The reason why I didn't consider it is because optimizing for efficiency means we're still limited on supply, which I'm making the case we should aim for eliminating.

That said, for the time being, you're right that I should include it. Thanks!

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Excellente. Come on dirt cheap, light, energy dense batteries!

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Energy density in batteries, and cost per kw, has been improving at a steady pace. I will do a write up on this at some point. It's indeed very exciting.

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LMK when you do!

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Will do!

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Great article Thomas. I'm unclear about "Nuclear energy can be stored, but it’s hard to ramp its generation up and down. Meanwhile, solar and wind can’t"

How do you store Nuclear but not solar and wind?

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I think he means that the fuel rods themselves are stored energy. There is no equivalent with solar or wind.

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I see, I like your newsletter. Just subscribed. Have a great day!

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May 30, 2023Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Very well documented and reasoned. My added thought: improvement in transmission capabilities (rather than storage) may shift the odds in favor of tidal and geothermal sources.

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Tell me more!

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Just this... the energy grid needs major updating anyway due to age and undercapacity for present (let alone future) needs. Why not take that opportunity to extend it to where those sources are practical? I think both of those sources are viable today, barring NIMBY concerns.

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Oh I see.

But you tal about transmission improvements. I’m assuming you talk about electricity transmission improvements. What improvements are needed to make this a reality?

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I'm not an electrical engineer, so no specifics from me. But I know materials and methods are available to be applied by those that do have the expertise. Priorities should include capacity and resistance to interruptions from nature, EMP, and attacks.

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May 30, 2023Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Thanks for another thoughtful article. Would be interested in your opinion on Thorium tech as a safer alternative to Uranium fission for electricity generation.

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Noted!

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Apr 12Liked by Tomas Pueyo

All of the above.

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Jun 28, 2023Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Hi Tomas, thanks for the great read as always. I recently came across a paper looking at the amount of raw materials required to make an energy transition happen similar to what you described (solar, wind, nuclear, hydro) + change in transport tech and industry. The bottom line is that with current tech and consumption levels there is nowhere near enough materials for a transition to happen.

Would love your take on this:

https://smi.uq.edu.au/event/session/11743

Thank you

Gabriel

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Just looking at the abstract, I'm not very concern.

Yes, of course, new manufacturing-intensive industries need more materials. Some of these materials might not be sufficiently mined today, and the resources not known. But that's because there was not the demand to incentivize them! Once there's a market, we figure out how to get the materials. A good example is lithium. We're starting to find a lot of it in many places. Historically, this has always been the case.

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Jun 1, 2023Liked by Tomas Pueyo

A promising technology for large scale energy storage for utilities is iron-air batteries, or "rust" batteries. The manufacturer claims it is 1/10th the cost of Li-ion batteries, and last 17 times longer, as it can deliver energy for 100+ hrs (multiple days)! Check out the link:

https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/energy/a42532492/iron-air-battery-energy-storage

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The issue with battery news is that there's so much money at stake, and so many people eagerly hoping for breakthroughs, that the media overpublicize them. The result is that 9/10 they are overhyped.

Your link is an interesting example: if NASA has been behind such a tech for over 60 years, how come is this not yet viable?

But the links you mention have 2 interesting data points:

- Some interesting investors

- A good reason why this was not viable before (slow energy release, which is less relevant I assume for intraday battery use)

Unfortunately my redox reactions chemistry knowledge is rusty, so I can't independently assess this.

I will look into it when I cover batteries

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May 31, 2023Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Plenty of opinions on Li based battery technology but it is better than Cd. As with all technology improvements there is a background cost that isn't discussed very much. It isn't so much which metal is used as the processes to get that metal to be useful. I experienced the same thing while working in the Semiconductor manufacturing arena. That was more my point.

If we need storage for electricity to make some of the generating mechanisms useful it needs to be factored in. That goes for any manufactured product. If the components to make a product are toxic or, like plastics, non sustainable we haven't really made the improvements we think we have. But there is a cost to all so we need to weigh the best of the solutions for the purpose. Wrapping the conversation back to your article I am not opposed to Nuclear energy. It scares people but it has incredible energy density. The waste products are a whole science to themselves and seem to occupy the publics minds more than the chemical waste products of other manufacturing.

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May 31, 2023Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Thank you Thomas for your response. Please feel free to quote whenever you need. Out of the many legitimate concerns, for me it stands out a potentially deadly triangle:

Biodiversity loss -- Climate disaster -- Human violent nature. They seem closely interconnected.

These three elements are enough to trigger a positive feedback loop that results in a death spiral. The more we affect climate, the deeper we get into the 6th mass extinction.The more biodiversity we lose, the less we'll be able to produce food (from oceans and land alike). The less resources we have, the more we'll fight over the remaining ones. The more we fight each other, the more resources we burn uselessly, adversely affecting the environment in the process. It all depends on the strengths of these loops and the sensitivity of the (already too complex and optimized for just-in-time functionality) human society to abrupt changes. Waiting for your next article.

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May 30, 2023Liked by Tomas Pueyo

Back in the 80s we were making Nickel-cadmium batteries. So the plating solutions were contaminated with the metals. These solutions needed to be changed out and the liquid was stored in barrels to send to refineries or stored in warehouses which after years would corrode. Early on there were old settling ponds to let the water evaporate off. Pretty primitive techniques. Pretty sure there are old papers on the subject of NiCd disposal around still.

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I assume this is less the case for lithium?

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