Dr. H.T. Odum and his wife Betty spent much of their careers developing thoughts on what became the book, A Prosperous Way Down (PWD). Others, like Richard Heinberg, have been successful at bringing the seriousness and reality of a PWD to a larger audience. There is a small and growing amount of thinking and talking about doomsday or armageddon scenarios that many think will prevail as fossil fuels become scarce.
National Geographic has given us the TV reality program Doomsday Preppers. Its presence and popularity reflects the public’s perception that change is on its way. I think the success and impetus for Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games is a response to the reality of a PWD. Rather than cover what the way down will be like in this post, I wanted to share my thoughts on what one important aspect of life might be like once we reach “down”. That is, the time after decline is finished, when the fossil fuels are gone and society is running almost completely on renewably sourced energies. I explore how peoples’ behaviors may change once they are driven by flow-limited energy sources rather than storage-driven sources in the post carbon world? Flow-limited sources cannot be controlled and stored easily so society will be more effective if it adapts to the rhythm and availability of energy.
The flow-limited energies that will be available will come mainly from wind, rivers, biomass and a little from solar voltaic. Life during the storage-driven era of fossil-fuels lead society to be able to control the availability of energy. People could consume energy by flipping switches and turning ignition keys. Energy was available when people wanted it. This convenience lead society away from the temporal constraints that were present before the industrial, fossil-fueled age. In the pre-industrial period, most work would need to be accomplished during daylight because that was when light was
available to see. A farmer’s life was tied intimately to the rhythms of the day and seasons. The industrial period’s electric lights allowed factories to operate at night and cars to be driven in the dark. Today, homes equipped with electricity in the developed world rarely experience the inconvenience of no electric power, except during the occasional storm. There was little rhythm to the use of energy in the industrial age that was driven by the availability of energy. Certainly there were cycles to the consumption of power that were tied to large scale phenomena like world wars and global depressions. Also, there were global politics that affected the short term (i.e., a few years) availability of oil, but never were natural forces at work to drive the rhythm of the consumption of energy.
In the post-PWD, when energy is derived almost exclusively from wind, rivers, and biomass, humanity’s consumption of energy will be tied to the natural, global cycles of the Earth’s planetary, energy-transforming systems. The availability of wind is intermittent with periods of high, medium and low intensity. Rain and snowfall that feeds rivers and reservoirs, and drives the productivity of crops is cyclical. El Nino/La Nina is one of the better-known global cycles whereby Pacific Ocean sea surface temperatures drive rainfall and temperatures across continents. How will the rhythms of major flow-limited energy sources work together to determine how society organizes its major functions like food production, building construction, information processing, socializing, and travelling?
The record of electricity production from hydro-dams in the North Carolina during the end of the 20th Century shows that power availability was directly tied to the amount of rainfall, which varied slightly (at right). During dry years, the amount of electricity available was lower than wet years. Monthly variability was likely present too, but suppressed by the large storage of the reservoirs. Thus the scale of the cycle was annual. Geographical locations appropriate for generating electricity from wind often experience seasonality in wind speeds, which directly affects electricity production. In North America wind speeds tend to be greater during the Winter than during the Summer. Also there are often periods of strong winds followed by periods of weak winds. The rhythm of wind has intra-annual, weekly and daily cycles. Power from biomass will be tied to rainfall patterns.
Electricity will remain to be available in the post-PWD, but its availability will have decadal, annual, monthly, weekly, daily and hourly rhythms. Large scale storage of electricity is difficult today and will likely be difficult in the post-PWD. The portion of society that continues to use electricity will need to adapt to these rhythms. When power is highly available, economic and social activities that rely upon electricity will ramp up quickly to dissipate the generosity of the planet and make needed goods and services. Conversely, when power is scarce, those same activities will be suppressed or shut-down.
I can imagine computing-based industries like banking, data-processing, and software programming, will need to arrange work schedules to coincide with the availability of power. Work will be fierce during excess power, but maybe non-existent when it is scant. Socializing that is computer based can also occur when extra power is temporarily available. Long-distance travel will be tied to those periods when extra biomass is produced to make liquid fuels.
Maybe the rhythm of the various energy sources will be asynchronous so that when wind-powered electricity is low, hydropower is plentiful. However, its more likely they may be synchronous, which means that peoples’ down time will need to be fulfilled with non-electric activities like listening to acoustic music or playing games and sports. If winds are highest during the winter, then biomass production and wind-power will be asynchronous, which would allow people to work in agriculture during the summer, but work in information-processing during the winter. The extra heat generated by the electrical devices would come in handy to keep indoor temperatures comfortable.
Solar photovoltaic technology will likely not play a large role in energy availability in the post-PWD due to its low energy return on energy invested. However, it will find highly specialized uses in space satellites and military actions.
Will major religions be able to adapt their teachings to reflect the need for society to adapt to the rhythms of flow-limited energies? Capitalist-Democracy has proven some ability to self-organize to adapt to energy availability during the last few centuries. Will they continue to adapt? How will government adapt to flow-limited, intermittent energies?
This post is only the beginning of a conversation on the adaptability of humanity to the rhythm’s of flow-limited, intermittent energies in the post-PWD world. I hope to see others respond to the idea. It is virgin intellectual territory. The future will not be like the past because we will have electricity. How will electricity be connected to human activities in the future, when it is rare and highly prized?
David Tilley is associate professor at the University of Maryland.