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Why Moore’s Law doesn’t hold for energy

Various posters, The Oil Drum
PeakOil Tarzan on January 23, 2007 – 8:30am

A friend recently sent an article that he had clipped from Wired magazine in which Khosla [Vinod Khosla, Silicon Valley entrepeneur and ethanol advocate] claimed that “Moore’s Law” would govern bio-fuels development just as surely as it had tracked the development of integrated circuits.

[EB: “Moore’s Law is the empirical observation made in 1965 that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit for minimum component cost doubles every 24 months.” (Wikipedia) – a symbol of the rapid pace of innovation in the high tech industry.]

Khosla might be proven correct but I think it’s more likely that he ends up being the victim of his own narrow experiences. I work in the tech industry and it was only after being there for a while that I began to sense the feeling of omnipotence that some gain by herding electrons around a circuit board all day long. When you create your own reality, you are, by definition, master of it.

Robert Rapier on January 23, 2007 – 8:44am

…That is it in a nutshell. People whose experiences are colored by orders of magnitude improvements in computer processor performance believe that they just have to apply their (often snobbish) “can do” attitude to the problem to show the rest of us peasants how it is done. I have lost track of how often a Silicon Valley type has told me that that rest of the country just doesn’t understand what they are capable of achieving. To that I say “Go forth and achieve, and stop trying to get mandates passed into law.” If you can produce cellulosic ethanol for $1.25 a gallon, the public will buy it.

Valuethinker on January 23, 2007 – 9:45am

It’s typical of the high tech sector.

They forget oil and petrochemicals have just as smart people, who have been working on the problems for 50+ years longer.

Energy just isn’t an area where change happens that rapidly. It’s technologically much more mature, and the capital life of the assets is decades, not 3 years for a PC or 18 months for a phone.

Technology is an industry that also tolerates a hugely high failure rate in terms of bugs and design flaws– it’s a normal cost of doing business. This is unacceptable when the consequence might be that your oil refinery explodes.

Although I have hopes for some sustained effort on the energy storage side: my intuition is that there must be some real progress possible there (eg in stationary fuel cells, nano membranes etc.). The other area where we might see some breakthroughs is in photo voltaics.

InfinitePossibilities on January 23, 2007 – 11:47am

The problem isn’t the innovation cycle. The problem is physics. With energy we are at the physical limits within a factor of a few. With information we aren’t.

Information is an utterly physical thing. It requires energy to be stored, transmitted and to be processed. But the unit of physical energy required to represent a bit happens to be extremely small. It is governed by the Shannon-Hartley and Johnson-Nyquist theorems, which link information to the physical properties of a noisy channel and physical representations of information storing/transmitting devices. In first year physics terms this can be back-of-the-enveloped like this: …

(23 Jan 2007)
Part of a discussion on TOD’s daily DrumBeat. The comments might be a good basis for a longer essay.

Vinod Khosla had an article yesterday on Huffington Post: President Bush, Please Declare a War on Oil!. -BA

Power & Energy

Jason Godesky, Anthropik

There is an assumption made here that we have never fully defended, but simply taken for granted, and I have noted it in some of the criticism we’ve recently recieved, so it’s high time to address the topic in a straight-forward fashion. The assumption is: Political power is a type of complexity, and thus it is a function of energy.

Ran Prieur recently pointed to a graphic illustration of this, provided above:

Someone made a global map of GDP per square kilometer, and pointed out that it’s almost identical to that “Earth at night” satellite image! I’ve never seen such a good illustration of the connection between the modern economy and energy consumption. And I’m wondering what kinds of economic activity are happening in the “dark” areas and not being calculated into GDP, and what kind of economy we would have, or could have, without so much cheap energy.

This brings us back to notions like White’s Law. Benjamin Shender approached this directly, and with a full mathematical model, in “Energy in Society. Jeff Vail powerfully pointed to the connection between energy and power in “Energy, Society & Hierarchy,” where he puts it quite succinctly:

Control over economic activity translates directly into political power (politics being generally defined as the decision process of how to distribute finite resources within a context of infinite desires). Similarly, control of certain energy resources needed to engage in economic activity translates directly into control over economic activity, which translates into political power.

An individual or group has social or political power when they are able to extract obedience from others. How is this made possible? While a respected elder or skilled rhetorician might be able to exert substantial influence, obedience is always the result of a monopoly on some essential of existence. Such essentials—food, shelter, water, etc.—all come down, in the end, to a question of energy. Ultimately, the root of all social or political power is the control of energy.

Why, then, should we be in the least bit surprised that a map of GDP density—the closest proxy of political power we have—aligns so perfectly with the electric lights that illuminate the earth at night?
(18 Jan 2007)

Ten fundamental principles of net energy

Cutler J. Cleveland, The Encyclopedia of Earth
Energy return on investment (EROI) is the ratio of the energy extracted or delivered by a process to the energy used directly and indirectly in that process. A common related term is energy surplus, which is the gross amount of energy extracted or delivered, minus the energy used directly and indirectly in that process. EROI is a dimensionless number, while energy surplus refers to an actual physical quantity of energy. Suppose an energy delivery system delivers 10 joules of energy, but in the processes consumes 2 joules. The EROI for that process is 5 (10 divided by 2), while the energy surplus delivered is 8 joules (10 minus 2).

EROI is a tool of net energy analysis, a methodology that seeks to compare the amount of energy delivered to society by a technology to the total energy required to find, extract, process, deliver, and otherwise upgrade that energy to a socially useful form. Net energy analysis was developed in response to the emergence of energy as an important economic, technological and geopolitical force following the energy price increases of 1973-74 and 1980-81. Interest in net energy analysis was rekindled in recent years following another round of energy price increases, growing concern about energy’s role in climate change, and the debate surrounding the remaining lifetime of conventional fossil fuels, especially crude oil.
(8 Jan 2007)