Wednesday


Storage has always been a problem for electricity, as batteries are large and heavy, expensive to manufacture, and limited in the quantity of electricity they can store and for how long they can store it. As a result of the limits of batteries, electricity production, distribution, and supply on an industrial scale has not involved any storage mechanism at all. The vast bulk of electricity is produced and simultaneously consumed, so that the electrical generation infrastructure has been constructed around the awkward requirements of having the start up and shut down entire generating facilities as demand waxes and wanes. This is an unhappy compromise, but it has been made to work for more than a century as the industrialized economy has expanded both quantitatively and qualitatively, and the use of electricity has expanded into sectors previously entirely reliant upon fossil fuels.

Electrical motors were already being developed in the 1820s, and before the first workable prototype diesel engine was operational in 1897, electrical motors had progressed to the level of sophistication of Mikhail Dolivo-Dobrovolsky’s three phase current and asynchronous motor with squirrel-cage rotor. But the twentieth century was to belong to fossil fuels and the internal combustion engine, and it was with these technologies that industrialized civilization grew to the planetary scale we know today.

The father of all diesel engines.

The early and rapid convergence of industrialized civilization on the use of fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas — was, at least in part, a function of the ease of storage of fossil fuels. The ease of storage also meant ease of transportation, which made fossil fuels ideal for the transportation industry, and they still are. Coal and oil in particular are easily stored for significant periods of time without loss of energy value and without elaborate technological methods. Natural gas isn’t much more difficult to store, but when liquefied the technology becomes a bit more complex and safety becomes more of an issue.

Fossil fuel storage also meant the possibility of continuous operation. Here we see the origin of the 24/7 always-on world that we know today. This is historically very recent, and the exception rather than the rule. As long as the machinery could be built to tolerances that allowed for continuous operation, a sufficient supply of fuel could power an engine non-stop. Ships and trains could operate for days or weeks if necessary. Nothing needed to be turned off. Industries could operate without regard to the any of the natural circadian and seasonal rhythms that had ruled human life since before we were human. And they did so. Shift work was born, and the dark Satanic mills that offended William Blake and Robert Southey ran night and day.

One of Blake’s dark Satanic mills?

Prior to the industrial revolution, energy infrastructure intermittancy was a fact of life, and the industrial processes of pre-industrial society (paradoxical, yes, but not a contradiction) were constructed around the fact of intermittancy. Everyone accepted (because they had to accept) that the stream that turned the waterwheel at the mill was reduced to a trickle in the summer. The solution was to build a mill pond that would store an amount of water, so that the mill could be put into service, at least on a “surge” basis, even when water flow was at a minimum. Even with a mill pond, the use of a water mill was limited in the summer months in comparison to other seasons. Hence mill production was often seasonal. This has been the case for thousands of years. Recent research into the ruins of the Roman water mill at Barbegal has suggested that this mill operated seasonally (cf. The second century CE Roman watermills of Barbegal: Unraveling the enigma of one of the oldest industrial complexes by Gül Sürmelihindi, Philippe Leveau, Christoph Spötl, Vincent Bernard, and Cees W. Passchier).

Everyone accepted, and accepted with equanimity, that windmills worked only when the wind blew. As a consequence, windmills were constructed at locations with the steadiest winds, but even then there would be becalmed days when the windmill wouldn’t be grinding any grain or pumping any water, and there would be days when the wind was dangerously strong and the vanes of the windmill had to be secured so that it wouldn’t be destroyed.

La Bretagne at Brest harbor, 19th century.

Everyone also accepted that international commerce was dependent upon the wind. The intermittancy of the wind did not prevent a planetary-scale economy emerging after the Columbian Exchange. Much shipping in the Age of Sail was seasonal, but when it absolutely, positively had to be there at the earliest possible time, sailors could beat to windward and make progress whatever the season. On the other hand, when sailing conditions were poor and no particular urgency was felt, sea voyages that usually took weeks could drag on for months at a time. Commerce had to accept a certain flexibility in delivery times, as some shipments would come in a few days earlier than expected, and some would be delayed for days, weeks, or months.

With a planetary-scale communications network, we no longer rely upon shipping for news and information; shipping, like railroads, is about freight, and freight can wait. Just as the electrical grid will incrementally transform from fossil fuels to renewable fuels, our transportation infrastructure could be transitioned from fossil fueled container ships to a larger number of smaller sailing ships, perhaps robotically piloted, that take longer to get to their destination, but which would take more efficient routes around the globe, reserving powered movement for specific circumstances like getting stuck in the doldrums or getting into port. Our planetary-scale communications network also allows for communication with ships at sea, so that production schedules can be continuously updated on the basis of the known location of materials in transport. We don’t have to wait at the harbor’s edge with a spyglass and then rush to make a deal after a sail has been spotted on the horizon, as was once the case.

The Cousteau Society’s Alcyon employed turbosails — a sailing technology that could be employed in shipping.

It is lazy thinking to raise the problem of intermittancy to a major barrier to the adoption of renewable resources. Energy infrastructure is tightly-coupled with social structures, and social structures are tightly-coupled to energy infrastructures. This coupling of social and energy structures throughout the history of civilization has not been as tight as the coupling between agriculture and civilization. However, if we rightly understand agriculture as a form of energy (food literally being fuel for human beings and for their beasts of burden), then we can see that tightly-coupled energy and social infrastructures have been definitive of civilization since its inception. And both structures admit of flexibility when flexibility is necessary to continue the ordinary business of life; there is some “give” in both society and energy use.

These two structures — energy infrastructure and social structure — roughly coincide with the institutional structure I have used to define civilization: namely, an economic infrastructure joined to an intellectual superstructure by a central project (cf. my previous post, Five Ways to Think about Civilization, for more on this). In the foregoing, what I called “energy infrastructure” roughly corresponds to economic infrastructure, as it also roughly corresponds to what Robert Redfield called the “technical order,” while what I called the “social structure” roughly corresponds to intellectual superstructure, as it also roughly corresponds to what Robert Redfield called the “moral order” (more on this in a future post). While all of these orders and structures can be distinguished in a fine-grained account, our account is undertaken at the scale of civilization, and so we are looking at the big picture, at which scale these different concepts coincide sufficiently closely that we can disregard their differences.

In the same way that individuals who live in very large cities like Tokyo or New York or Paris understand that it is impracticable for all but the wealthiest to drive a car, so that most individuals must use mass transit, on a planet with more than seven billion individuals using the energy infrastructure, individuals will need to adjust their expectations for instantaneous gratification. Industries, too, will need to adjust their expectations in the convergence of the global economy on sustainable practices. And, make no mistake, these adjustments will happen in the fullness of time. How it happens will be a matter of historical process, and many distinct scenarios for the transition of the terrestrial electrical grid to sustainable and renewable fuels are still possible; we are not yet locked in to any particular compromise.

Germany has come in for much criticism for its de-nuclearization program, which has meant that they have had to re-start some coal-fired power plants in order to maintain contemporaneous energy supply expectations. A number of energy experts regard the Germans as deluded, and believe that renewable resources can never meet the demands of an industrialized economy. I cannot wave away the problems of scaling and intermittency with a magic wand, but with adjustments to the industrial infrastructure and improved renewable technologies coming online, the two will eventually meet in the middle. However, those who ridicule renewables as impractical also cannot wave away the problems with their solutions with a magic wand. The most common answer to carbon-free electric generation is to ramp up nuclear power production. This comes with problems of its own. While I strongly support the development of advanced nuclear technologies, I do not delude myself that the public is going to suddenly embrace nuclear power and forget about the dangers. The Germans proved to be overly-optimistic over what can be done today with renewables, but this does not call the transition to renewables into question in the long term.

It is not at all clear that the public would prefer the dangers of nuclear power to the dangers of climate change, and both issues are so emotionally charged that it would be nearly impossible to take an honest poll on the question.

A continental-scale energy grid could greatly mitigate intermittency. If it’s not sunny somewhere on a continent, it is likely to be windy somewhere. However, even at a continental scale there will be becalmed nights when there is neither sunshine nor wind. The larger the surface area of the planet that is covered by an interconnected electricity grid, the more that these low points of intermittency can be minimized, but they cannot be entirely eliminated. For these minimized intermittancy low points, existing hydropower infrastructure could be used with a minimum of modification to store power. During peak periods of intermittent electricity supply, water could be pumped from lower elevations to fill a dam, which can then later be used to generate hydropower during times of peak demand.

A planetary-scale energy grid could eliminate intermittency, since the sun is always shining somewhere in the world. I made this point previously in a blog post from a few years back, A Thought Experiment on Collective Energy Security. As I said in that post, we do not have the technology and the engineering expertise for a planetary-scale electricity grid, and with a planetary electrical grid, the political challenges would probably be greater than the technological problems. However, we also do not have, at present, the technology and engineering expertise for advanced nuclear, and we don’t have the technology and engineering expertise to run an industrial economy on renewables. All of these technologies, however, are on the cusp of fulfilling their intended function, and significant capital investments in any one energy future could accelerate its practical availability.

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How to Live on a Planet

27 September 2017

Wednesday


Humanity is learning, slowly, how to live on a planet. What does it mean to live on a planet? Why is this significant? How has our way of living on a planet changed over time? How exactly does an intelligent species capable of niche-construction on a planetary scale go about revising its approach to niche construction to make this process consistent with the natural history and biospheric evolution of its homeworld?

Once upon a time the Earth was unlimited and inexhaustible for human beings for all practical purposes. Obviously, Earth was was not actually unlimited and inexhaustible, but for a few tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of hunter-gatherers distributed across the planet in small bands, this was an ecosystem that they could not have exhausted even if they had sought to do so. Human influence over the planet at this time was imperceptible; our ancestors were simply one species among many species in the terrestrial biosphere. Even before civilization this began to change, as our ancestors have been implicated in the extinction of ice age megafauna. The evidence for this is still debated, but human populations had become sufficiently large and sufficiently organized by the upper Paleolithic that their hunting could plausibly have driven anthropogenic extinctions.

In this earliest (and longest) period of human history, we did not know that we lived on a planet. We did not know what a planet was, the relation of a planet to a star, and the place of stars in the galaxy. The Earth for us at this time was not a planet, but a world, and the world was effectively endless. Only with the advent of civilization and written language were we able to accumulate knowledge trans-generationally, slowly working out that we lived on a planet orbiting a star. This process required several thousand years, and for most of these thousands of years the size of our homeworld was so great that human efforts seemed to not even make a dent in the biosphere. It seemed the the forests could not be exhausted of trees or the oceans exhausted of fish. But all that has changed.

In the past few hundred years, the scope and scale of human activity, together with the size of the human population, has grown until we have found ourselves at the limits of Earth’s resources. We actively manage and limit the use of resources, because if we did not, the seven billion and growing human population would strip the planet clean and leave nothing. This process had already started in the Middle Ages, when many economies were forced to manage strategic resources like timber for shipbuilding, but the process has come to maturity in our time, as we are able to describe and explain scientifically the impact of the human population on our homeworld. We have, today, the conceptual framework necessary to understand that we live on a planet, so that we understand the limitations on our use of resources theoretically as well as practically. When earlier human activities resulted in localized extinctions and shortages, we could not put this in the context of the big picture; now we can.

Today we know what a planet is; we know what we are; we know the limitations dictated by a planet for the organisms constituting its ecosystems. This knowledge changes our relationship to our homeworld. Many definitions have been given for the Anthropocene. One way in which we could define the anthropocene in this context is that it is that period in terrestrial history when human beings learn to live on Earth as a planet. Generalized beyond this anthropocentric formulation, this becomes the period in the history of a life-bearing planet in which the dominant intelligent species (if there is one) learns to live on its planet as a planet.

In several posts I have written about the transition of the terrestrial energy grid from fossil fuels to renewable resources (cf. The Human Future in Space, The Conversion of the Terrestrial Power Grid, and Planetary Constraints 9). This process has already started, and it can be expected to play out over a period of time at least equal to the period of time we have been exploiting fossil fuels.

I recently happened upon the article How to Run the Economy on the Weather by Kris De Decker, which discusses in detail how economies and technologies prior to the industrial revolution were adapted to the intermittency of wind and water, and the adaptability of such habits to contemporary technologies. And I recall some years ago when I was in Greece, specially the island of Rhodes, every house had solar water heaters on the roof (and, of course, sunshine is plentiful in Greece), and everyone seemed to accept as a matter of course that you must shower while the sun is out. A combination of very basic behavioral changes supplemented by contemporary technology could facilitate the transition of the terrestrial power grid with little or no decline in standards of living. This is part of what it means to learn to live on a planet.

As we come to better understand biology, astrobiology, ecology, geology, and cosmology, and we thus come to better understand our homeworld and ourselves, we will learn more about how to live on a planet. But the expansion of our knowledge of exoplanets and astrobiology will be predicated upon our ability to travel to other worlds in order to study them, and if we are fortunate enough to endure for such a time and to achieve such things, then we will have to learn how to live in a universe.

The visible universe is finite. Though the visible universe may be part of an infinitistic cosmology (or even an infinitistic multiverse), the expansion of the universe has created a cosmological horizon beyond which we cannot see. I have previously quoted a passage from Leonard Susskind to this effect:

“In every direction that we look, galaxies are passing the point at which they are moving away from us faster than light can travel. Each of us is surrounded by a cosmic horizon — a sphere where things are receding with the speed of light — and no signal can reach us from beyond that horizon. When a star passes the point of no return, it is gone forever. Far out, at about fifteen billion light years, our cosmic horizon is swallowing galaxies, stars, and probably even life. It is as if we all live in our own private inside-out black hole.”

Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics, New York, Boston, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2008, pp. 437-438

We know, then, scientifically, that the universe is effectively finite as our homeworld is finite, but the universe is so large in comparison to the scale of human activity, indeed, so large even in comparison to the aspirational scale of human activity, that the universe is endless for all practical purposes. Though we are already learning how to live on a planet, in relation to the universe at large we are like our hunter-gather ancestors dwarfed by a world that was, for them, effectively endless.

Only at the greatest reach of the scale of supercivilizations will we — if we last that long and achieve that scale of development — run into the limits of our home galaxy, and then into the limits of the universe, at which time we will have to learn how to live in a universe. I implied as much in an illustration that I created for my Centauri Dreams post, Stagnant Supercivilizations and Interstellar Travel (reproduced below), in which I showed a schematic representation of the carrying capacity of the universe. At this scale of activity we would be engaging in cosmological niche construction in order to make a home for ourselves in the universe, as we are now engaging in planetary-scale niche construction as we learn how to live on a planet.

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