Oil Ain’t What it Used To Be

So there I was, being bemused about why BBC radio has a programme called Archive on 4 and another called the Archive Hour, when I caught an episode called Driven on Archive on 4.

Whichever series it was, wasn’t, isn’t or might be, the episode was about driverless cars. Mainly the sociological aspect of driverless cars. Will we take to them? Will they change us? Can we cope with the idea of not being in control?

Not, you’ll notice, are driverless cars economically feasible? As in, how likely is it that a society that today can barely afford to fill potholes will tomorrow be able to maintain the level of complexity-investment needed to build and operate fleets of autonomous vehicles?

During the programme, a voice from archive-land intoned that there are (or were – it could have been an old voice) 5.5 trillion barrels of oil still out there. One assumes they brought this up to head off any carping from dreary sceptics wishing to know whether the BBC had thought about the laws of thermodynamics before editing-together 58 minutes of speculation about our glorious autonomous future.

Anyway. Oil. Not a problem. Billions of BTUs at our service.

Or not. There’s a school of thought that says that oil ain’t what it used to be. Yes, it’s basically the self-same stuff that comes in styles ranging from too-light-for-vehicles to too-heavy-for-anything. But what today’s oil will do for you just isn’t as good as what yesterday’s did.

Yesterday’s oil – think fields in pre-WWII Texas or the 1950s Middle East – virtually jumped into your lap and rubbed its head under your chin. It was wonderfully eager and absolutely able to turn itself into interstate highways, space programmes, suburbs, the Internet and everything else we’ve come to think of as the foundations of a dazzlingly bright future full of .… oh, I don’t know .… full of self-driving cars.

But today’s oil. Oh dear. Today’s oil is a curmudgeonly stick-in-the-sand. You have to pour so much money into getting it to come out to play that there’s barely enough money/energy left over to keep patching up the systems we’ve got, let alone put a Tesla in everyone’s cooking pot (or was that a chicken?).

The ‘fracking miracle’, for example, is all about it being a fracking miracle that outlets like the BBC never mention how the only folk making money out of tight oil are Wall Street bankers whose loans keep drillers afloat so they in turn can pan-handle for investors’ cash to spend on extracting for $55 dollars a barrel what they can sell for only $50.

Today’s oil is also a bit pants as a transport fuel. Fracked oil is too light. So, to ‘Goldilocks’ it, you have to mix it with stuff from elsewhere. More expense. Still-fewer net BTUs left over to keep the economy from resetting to a lower level of complexity. ‘Lower level of complexity’ being shorthand for most people being unable to afford a lifestyle where self-driving cars had either purpose or meaning.

There’s still a reasonable supply of conventional, Mark 1 civilisation-building goop left but that’s been getting less and less every year since 2005. Also, more and more of it stays in its country of origin. That means less energy for UK PLC and its autonomous dreams. And less income for the producing countries to spend on importing our war machinery – sorry, defence equipment.

What was that, Sooty? We could make the autonomous cars electric? Well we could, Sooty. But do you think the people promoting self-driving cars do much systems thinking?

What do they think about the likelihood that running Bitcoin, for example – an entirely digital phenomenon – already uses as much electricity as the whole of Ecuador?

If simply mining imaginary coins takes the same amount of juice as running the world’s 64th largest economy, how much will it take to run the control systems for tens of thousands of autonomous cars? And that’s merely powering the central software: you’ll still need to power all the roadside hardware, the plethora of cameras, sensors and processors in the cars, and all the rest of it. And we haven’t included building and running the cars yet.

No-one’s asking what the point is of doing all driving this. The best the BBC archive could manage was a bit of wishy washy guff about freedom to travel. The main point of mass motoring was to turn oil – basically a smelly, flammable substance with useful chemical applications – into food, housing, supermarkets, hospitals, universities, containerloads of plastic dreck from China and so on .… aka civilisation …. on a scale never before conceived let alone achieved.

Take away oil and you take away most of the point of having cars. I’ll bet that there are a thousand more-efficient ways of turning sunlight into civilisation than perpetuating the massively energy-hungry automobile system.

Tell you what, Sooty, maybe you could sprinkle some oofle dust on our policymakers to help them think more imaginatively. What’s that? You haven’t got any left because Elon Musk already took it all for his Mars programme?

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EVs and the renewable delusion

I wait for ages to read an article on my pet bugbears and then two come along at once.

Bugbear #1 is governments’ fond belief that the global auto fleet can somehow be entirely replaced with electric vehicles in the next 20 years.

Bugbear #2 is the Magical Thinking / Techno Green delusion that these billions of EVs, along with the rest of civilisation, can be sustained completely with renewable energy.

Kris de Decker dismantles the latter argument in How (Not) to Run a Modern Society on Solar and Wind Power Alone at Low Tech Magazine. Whatever way you look at it, trying to replicate the round-the-clock energy flows available from stored (fossil) sunlight using energy from current account sunlight (solar and wind) is beyond any conceivable future flow of capital.

And a pointed, if uneven, (raison d’etre does not mean ‘article of faith’) post on OilPrice.comElectric Vehicles: The High Cost Of Going Green – looks at the issue of job elimination in motor manufacturing as well as the challenges of upgrading infrastructure.

”two additional natural gas plants near Manchester have stalled because the developer has been unable to raise the dual project’s 800 million pounds required for them to be built.”

Indeed. If firms cannot raise relatively modest amounts of capital to install essential capacity running proven hardware, where will the thousands of billions come from to build EVs and fleets of wind and solar farms?

Both articles veer towards a point I keep making. Liquid fossil-fuelled Happy Motoring was a one-off. High energy-returned-on-energy-invested (EROEI) fossil fuels are starting to diminish in the rear view mirror. What’s left is insufficient to maintain the global autos and transport infrastructure we built over the last century, let alone fund a multi-trillion dollar transition to renewable-powered EVs for everyone in a 30-year timeframe.

Put simply, shrinking the liquid-fossil-fuelled car fleet will shrink people’s ability to afford to make the switch to electric cars. My guess is that after a few more years of accelerating replacement of ICEs by Evs, there will be a Seneca cliff moment when sales of all types of private auto go into a steep decline.

When that happens, trucks, tractors, trains buses and ships will be where the action is. Very Victorian. But it will be a sweet thing – for a while at least – to own an electric bike shop.

Loony Uni

So who benefits from a common or garden university education these days? I don’t mean from a high-end Oxbridge mind-expander or a career-critical science/engineering course but from the bog standard ‘Uni’ experience the system shovels school leavers into by the tipper-bucketload every autumn.

According to today’s Independent, the average student clocks up nearly six grand in loan interest before they graduate. By the time they finish paying all the interest over 30 years, their three years at the University Formerly Known As Nnnnn Technical College will have cost them over £120,000.

Supposedly, this gives graduates an advantage in the jobs market.

It doesn’t.

After a decade of taking on grads who can’t spell, add up or manage critical thinking; and who also require babying through their first two or three years on the job, employers are saying “WTF? We might as well take bright school leavers at 18 and be three years ahead of the game by the time they would have left Uni”.

Moreover, when you consider that these 18-year-olds’ other option is to waste three years of their lives at Uni and come out with a £120k ball and chain of debt round their ankles, it wouldn’t be hard to justify asking them to go to work for virtually nothing if it meant being formally work-certified in some way and largely debt-free after three years.

Employers I know have begun taking apprentices instead of graduates for the first time. They’re getting the pick of the crop of kids who’re too smart to get saddled with a shed load of debt in return for making themselves less useful to those employers three years down the line.

Maybe it will take 20 years for all this to work itself out, at the end of which degrees will be rarer and have regained their value. Until then, my advice to anyone asking whether they should go to Uni is: “Only if you really, really have to.”

Apocalypse Not Yet

I was talking to my independent financial adviser the other day. He’s a patient man. He mentioned that I’ve been predicting the cataclysmic disintegration of the financial system for 10 years now.

Ten years. So it is. Although to be fair, I got past the ‘Armageddon tomorrow’ stage quite a long time back. The point my IFA was wearily making is that I still won’t be convinced that Business As Usual (BAU) is sustainable whereas he can’t see what’s wrong when the markets keep going up and the funds his clients are invested in keep growing nicely.

A courtesy call isn’t the place for a discussion about net energy and turning points, so I agreed to his proposed reallocation of my modest exposure to the markets and left it at that.

The thing is he’s right; there are very few signs on the surface that much is wrong with the economy. The big picture looks, if not rosy, at least reassuringly ‘normal’.

Yet this reassuring picture is made up of details that are consistently unsettling. The financial woes of schools and the NHS, even before the back-loaded Private Finance Initiative interest payments start to kick in. The bursting of the university-places-for-all bubble as more and more school leavers recognise it was only a scam to load them up with debt in return for mostly worthless degrees.

Behind all this is a sense of growing weakness; like a racing cyclist who’s been unable to take enough food on board – their finely-tuned system wants to keep going but the flow of fuel to the muscles is no longer sufficient.

When the flow of high-quality energy from coal faltered a century ago, oil and gas kicked in with the thermal bonanza that took the industrialised world from Kittyhawk to the moon and from the Bell telephone to the Internet.

This time round, there are no more massive seams of cheap BTUs to be mined. It’s manifested in the phenomenon where oil producers can no longer extract oil profitably at the kind of prices consumers are willing or able to pay. Which is another way of saying that net energy is entering the twilight zone.The fires under the boilers are dying down. Renewables will realistically run an economy about 25% the size of today’s.

That’s an article for another time, though. The take-away today is that the solid mass of thermal Jenga blocks that underpins our way of life has been eroding since the Millennium, when net energy turned the corner. What’s happening to the NHS, pensions, the auto industry and almost everywhere else you look are the first small cracks you see in the soil at the top of the slope as the land starts slipping.

Let’s see how they widen over the next 10 years. Easily far enough to swallow a good many of today’s expectations, I’ll bet, even if there’s no full scale avalanche.

Dominoes Fall for Self-Driving Cars

Latest hilarious development in the autonomous car saga is Ford’s breathless announcement that it’ll be providing self-driving cars for pizza deliveries in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Only, as with all autonomous vehicle stories, the whole will be considerably less than the sum of its parts. When tech-savvy Ann Arborians call up a 25-inch Quattro Staglione with extra everything and buckets of soda, it’ll traverse the city to their door in a vehicle laden down with a human driver (yes, really) plus a few Ford technicians, not to mention all the auntonomising gubbins on the car’s roof, sides and ends.

The hungry customers must then liberate their pizza from a ‘hot box’ squeezed into the trunk alongside more car-tech. Obviously, they’ll need to avoid eye contact with the car’s occupants since any acknowledgement of a human presence will ruin the self-driving vibe.

Domino’s Pizzas openly state that they’re only actually interested in the final 50 feet of the pizza’s journey, since the big worry is that customers will prove too lazy to walk out to the road to collect their meal – and let’s be honest, the customer is really only thinking about their pizza’s final five inches.

Mr Pizza must be hugely grateful to Mr Ford for creating a carbon footprint the size of the Tour de France merely to deliver smallish slabs of dough, cheese and toppings around a small city.

I think we can safely bet that Mr Pizza’s ultimate vision is not so much Ford/Tesla as small, self-piloting, heated mobile sideboards handling 25 deliveries at a time. The only catch being that the ruinous societal cost of all the thermodynamic dead-ends represented by autonomous cars will so impoverish Domino’s customer base that the only folk who can afford their product will be the very rich, who’d never dream of subjecting their bodies to the wellbeing downsides of a take-away pizza.

Goal!

There was a piece on the internet yesterday about having a goal in life. I think I found it on the iOS News app. It was one of those aggressively cheerful screeds that swans insouciantly from assumption to panacea via gross generalisation. Apparently the thing that separates the lost sheep of this world from its forward-moving goats is having a purpose to one’s life. Presumably, the kind of goal is important. Wishing to belittle or injure someone every day is, after all a goal. The piece wasn’t very helpful in that respect. It seemed to assume that anyone going for a goal will automatically pick one that is self-improving or outer-directed in a good way.

I don’t have a goal. There is nothing I want to change. At least, nothing that I have the remotest hope of changing. I’d like to change me, perhaps. But into who, or what, I don’t know. A more loving parent. A more reliable supplier. But is wishing to address character ‘defects’, if that is what they are, the same thing as having a goal in life? As a reductio ad absurdum, I could refine my two goals in life to ‘breathe in’ and and ‘breathe out’. As long as I stayed true to both of them and followed them in a strictly alternating sequence, I’d be all right. Hungry, smelly and homeless, but all right.

As humans, we are cursed with a sense of meaning. People talk of seeking a ‘higher meaning’ in life. No, I can’t analyse that in a minute’s thought. Higher than what, exactly? Higher than shopping? Surfing Twitter? Achieving Level Eleven, gold-plated, fur-lined, ocean going enlightenment? Don’t I vaguely remember from Buddhist primers that enlightenment is a process of letting go?

Somehow, clinging tenaciously to a goal doesn’t sound the right way to get there.

Self-driving cars – hope springs eternal

 

Idly listening to KMO on the C-Realm Vault while doing the washing-up, his conversation turned to self-driving cars (SDCs). Like a lot of us, KMO is somewhat on the rebound from what you might call ‘Stage One’ peak oil so he’s inclined to give SDCs a free pass. You know the idea: people won’t own cars – instead they’ll hail an SDC when they need to get somewhere, and it’ll first drive itself to them and then drive them to their destination.

KMO is clearly frustrated with some other members of the Mark One Peak Oil Clan, particularly JHK, who decry SDCs as just another example of grandiose techno-narcissism. He said that if SDCs and/or advanced car sharing helps shift people away from ownership towards ‘usership’ or ‘ridership’, then that’s one way to make people more discerning and sustainable about the travel choices they make. He suggested that rides could be priced lower if you booked in advance. For example, if you book a ride to get to a routine doctor’s appointment several days in advance, it’d be cheaper than deciding to go on a spur-of-the-moment trip to see Auntie Mabel in Hertford or Hartford (you say tomato).

Well, that’s a pricing model you already find in train and airline fares as well as some taxis I dare say. It’s not really an argument for SDCs though. SDCs still boil down to an attempt to perpetuate ‘one-user-at-a-time’ vehicle use (‘one’ in this case meaning a single passenger or a bunch of people making a trip together). You’ll still have cars spending a lot of time empty, only they’ll be moving while empty (to get to the next user). From the oil industry’s perspective (as Dmitry Orlov suggests, cars’ first duty is to burn petroleum), SDCs are a brilliant idea. Unlike human-piloted cars, which waste the oil industry’s time when parked, SDCs can be burning oil round the clock.

There is already a more-efficient model for this version of perpetual motion: the Israeli sherut. These are minibuses or minivans that are a cross between a bus and a taxi. They don’t run on set routes but pick up passengers as they go, setting them down more or less in order depending on how the passengers’ destinations pan out. Doubtless the engineers could come up with a self-driving sherut capable of recognising when someone wanted to get in, and then computing and recomputing routes as passengers got on and off. But you need to weight up the differences between a human driver, who does that in their head and can run on tea and falafels, and the vast, energy-hungry techno-complex of servers, satellites, cell towers, programmers, etc., needed to operate SDCs. Makes SDCs look even more like a 500-tonne press looking for a sparrow’s egg to crush.

But to get back to the real function of cars, which is to turn fossil goo into industrial civilisation, multi-user SDCs run completely counter to purpose. Granted, an SDC will potentially use 85%-95% more fuel than an ICE because it will operate round the clock if the demand is there (in KMO’s variable pricing model, poor people would travel between midnight and 6am when demand was light enough for them to be able to afford to ride). Trouble is, once the imperative to possess personal cars is removed, the scale of the car industry goes with it.

And what’s in that for the oil industry? There are around 30 million passenger cars in the UK. Say each one has 10 litres of fuel on board. That’s about £360 million, including taxes, paid up front to the industry and government just to have petrol and diesel sitting around doing nothing 95% of the time. Ker-ching. Year in, year out. Kill off the need to own cars and you kill off the oil business, which for Western economies will feel like cutting off an arm and a leg and removing the liver.

Eventually, car ownership will disappear anyway because oil is a finite resource but as every good student of history knows, the way to bow to the inevitable is to do so very, very slowly. You certainly don’t want to hand the inevitable your head on a plate. Sigh. But techno narcissism (© James Howard Kunstler) is a fierce fire in the human breast. Look at the investors throwing away billions on Uber year after year.

SDCs are as logical and promising as lead balloons but, as long as the likes of even KMO see them as a twinkly hope for a better future, the saga will keep on running.