Sunday, November 16, 2014

The argument from big numbers

Energy decline adherents often claim it would be impossible for our civilization to transition to renewable energy. They have various arguments for that, all of which are wrong.

One of the more common arguments is what I like to call the “big numbers argument”. The argument consists of throwing out huge-sounding numbers, and thereby making the task of transitioning to renewables sound daunting. Some examples are as follows:

If we wanted to convert the entire world electricity system to wind turbines, it would take 333 gazillion TONNES of steel to make all those wind turbines. That’s FIVE TONNES of steel every SECOND, for the next 30 years. Therefore, it just can’t be done.

If we wanted to convert the entire world electricity system to nuclear reactors, we would need to build a nuclear reactor EVERY SINGLE MONTH for the next 40 years. Therefore, it just can’t be done.

The diesel trucks which are used to carry wind turbines, burn a gallon of gasoline every HOUR. Therefore, we can’t install very many wind turbines.

Usually, the units are CAPITALIZED in this argument to make them sound formidable. The point is that the number sounds so big that it sounds implausible to do anything about it.

The problem is, those huge numbers thrown around by energy decline adherents are usually relative to the entire world economy. Although those numbers are huge, the world economy is also huge. The question is: which is bigger? It may take gazillions of tons of steel to build all those windmills, but we may be capable of producing far more steel than that.

It’s meaningless just to throw around some huge number by itself, because any number by itself (no matter how huge) provides no basis for comparison. In order to compare the scale of some task with the scale of our solutions, we need TWO numbers, not just one.

If we wish to find out if some number is bigger than another number, we need to know both numbers, not just one of them. This is an elementary principle of mathematics. You cannot just say “five billion must be bigger than some other number I don’t know, because five billion is just so big”. The other number might be bigger still.

We’re talking about the entire world economy here. The scale of our problems may be huge, but the scale of our solutions is also huge. The question is: which is bigger? That question is never answered by the doomer authors.

An example

Let’s look at a prominent example of the “big numbers” argument. Let’s take an example from the sunweb website. That website is written by someone who subscribes to energy decline theories and who uses the “big number” argument repeatedly throughout his website.

What follows is an argument from that website. It details the difficulty of transitioning to a renewable energy system:

[Some people] proposed that starting in 2012, 50% of the worlds needs could be supplied by 3,800,000 five megawatt wind capturing devices to be installed by 2030.  Here are the numbers:
3,800,000  5 megawatts each supply 
211,111.11 Machines a year 
578.39 Machines a day for 18 years
24.10 Machines each hour each day for 18 years

[To build each wind turbine would require:]
For the Concrete 
478.8 Barrels of oil in 630 yards of concrete. 
409.5 Tons of CO2 released for 630 yards of concrete.

For the Rebar 
Taking a conservative 3 barrels of oil per ton the rebar would require 135 barrels of oil for the base of the 2.5 MW Turbine.89 tons of C02  released for 45 tons of steel for the base.

All Together 
The concrete and steel together for one base use 613 barrels of oil for each base alone. Each base release 498 tons of CO2(A barrel of oil is 42 gallons)

[To build all the wind turbines would require:]
Each hour we would need 14,773 Barrels of oil for these smaller [wind turbines]. And each hour we would release 12,000 tons of CO2.

Yikes! Just to build all those wind turbines would take 14,773 barrels of oil PER HOUR!! That’s a lot. That's a scary big number.

At the end of the article, the author concludes by saying “YOU DO THE MATH” (capitalization in original).

Okay, let’s do the math. It would take 14,773 barrels of oil per hour to replace 50% of the worldwide electricity grid with renewables. The question is, how big is 14,773 per hour, relative to the world economy?  After all, the world economy is also huge. Which one is bigger?

In fact, the figure of 14,773 barrels of oil per hour is trivial compared to the world economy. At present, the world burns 32 billion barrels of oil per year, which is 3.6 million barrels of oil per hour. Therefore, in order to replace 50% of our worldwide electricity system with wind turbines would require (14773/3652968), or approximately 0.4% of worldwide oil supply. In fact, even this number is exaggerated, because the wind turbines would be built in 15 years but would last for at least 40 years, so no construction would be happening most of the time. If we wish to measure how much oil is required to replace the entire world electricity system with renewables and keep replacing it as we go every 40 years, we’d find that it would take 0.3% of our current global oil supply.

Obviously, it would be possible to produce that additional 0.3% of energy from renewables.

A few side points…

The author of the above-mentioned article also points out, that building windmills requires dump trucks, mining machinery, and so on. Those machines run on OIL, not electricity, but renewables only produce electricity. How would we power those dump trucks and mining machines, if we wanted to transition the entire economy to renewables?

Fortunately, it’s entirely possible to manufacture liquid combustible fuels using renewable electricity. For example, we can manufacture anhydrous ammonia, using air, water, and renewable electricity. Anhydrous ammonia is a liquid, combustible fuel, which will burn inside diesel engines. The technology to make such fuel from renewables is not complicated, and has existed for at least 100 years. And there are dozens of other alternatives for liquid fuels which do not require oil.

Granted, alternative liquid fuels like anhydrous ammonia are much more expensive than diesel fuel at present—approximately twice as expensive. However, we’re talking about 0.3% of present worldwide oil supplies needed to replace the entire electricity system with renewables. Even if we have to pay twice as much for that 0.3%, the result is—0.6%.

Another example

The same article referenced above, contains all kinds of scary-sounding big numbers. It uses the “big number” argument over and over again. For example, it points out that a typical iron mine has front end loaders, which consume:

“19,400,000 Btu/hour”

Yikes! 19,400,000 Btu per HOUR!

Is that a lot? Is that more than ever could be provided by renewable sources of energy? The author provides no clue.

It’s worth pointing out here that he’s using a unit of energy (BTU) which is actually very small. That’s like measuring distance in millimeters. That’s like saying “I could never make it to the supermarket, because it’s FOUR MILLION millimeters away! (which is actually just four kilometers)"

In fact, all mining equipment put together consumes only a very small fraction of worldwide energy production. Now that I mention it, all mining equipment and manufacturing equipment and agricultural equipment and transport of goods put together, still consumes only a small fraction of worldwide oil production. Most oil is used in just driving around on discretionary trips.

The vast majority of the worldwide transportation infrastructure could be electrified. The vast majority of transportation is performed using cars, trucks, and trains. Cars can use batteries, and trains and trucks could use overhead wires. There are isolated pieces of machinery (such as mining equipment, tractors, trucks in very rural areas, and so on) which could not be electrified. Those applications added together consume only a few percent of worldwide oil production. I’m using a percentage here because a percentage is relative to the global economy and is not just some isolated figure. That few percent of worldwide oil production could be provided by the alternative liquid fuels I listed above.

But the current fossil fuel system of energy is MIND-NUMBINGLY COMPLEX

Another related argument which crops up, is to point out how complex the current fossil fuel based economy is. This argument is raised repeatedly in energy decline circles. Usually the argument consists of showing how many steps are required to manufacture a given piece of equipment. Or, showing how complicated are supply chains worldwide. Or, showing how complicated are the many interactions between various industries. Presumably, the point is that it would be impossible to transition a system which is so complex as the world economy.

Once again, the argument provides no context for comparison. It’s meaningless just to say “a renewable energy system for the whole world would be very complex”. The question is: HOW complex? Is a renewable energy system more complex than the global economy could manage? Is it more complex than the current fossil fuel based economy? The doomer authors provide no answer.

Although it’s a very complex task to replace the entire energy system, we are capable of very complex things. The economy consists of millions of economic decision makers who communicate via prices and who can collectively handle complicated procedures. That is how we built the incredibly complex economy we have now, which doomer authors are describing. That is how we got to this point, and how we could build a different economy.

A renewable energy system would be no more complex than our current fossil fuel one. Most complicated devices operate using electricity and would  be the same whether the electricity came from fossil fuels or solar power. Most manufacturing procedures would have the same number of steps whether the source of heat were renewables or fossil fuels. Windmills are not drastically more complicated than combined cycle natural gas turbines.

Apparently it was possible for us to build a global energy system as complex as the current one, because we’ve already done it.  If we are capable of building something as complex as this, isn’t it possible for us to build something else as complex?

For that matter, we replace the entire industrial civilization every 40 years anyway, because machines wear out. If we have already undertaken the very complex procedure of replacing the entire economy, and do so every 40 years, couldn’t we do it again?

The renewable economy is no more complex than the current one. If we can handle this economy, we can handle that one also.


A recurring argument in energy decline circles is just to throw out some huge number (“windmills for the whole world would require BILLION OF TONS of steel”) and then just assume it must be impossible. Or, just to say “it’s VERY complex” and then assume it must be impossible.

Those arguments are totally wrong because they provide no context for comparison. In fact, those arguments are not even really arguments. They are just an attempt to sound scary by throwing around big-sounding numbers without context.

All those HUGE numbers which are thrown around by the energy decline movement, are actually small numbers when compared to the world economy. There is enough energy, materials, and money to transition to a renewable energy system.

We know this because renewable sources of energy are so much more abundant than fossil fuels ever were. Just using solar panels in deserts could deliver more than 10x more energy than the entire world uses at present. Furthermore, solar power can produce liquid fuels, and heat for industrial purposes. What's more, solar power is not dramatically more expensive than fossil sources of energy. Finally, solar panels are made out of SILICON which is approximately 10,000x more abundant than all fossil fuels in the Earth's crust ever were, and silicon is not being "burned" when we use the solar panels. As a result, we can conclude that solar power is vastly more abundant than fossil fuels ever were and could substitute for all the uses of fossil fuels. Even though fossil fuels deliver HUGE AMOUNTS of energy, solar power could deliver many times more.

There is also more than enough time to convert the entire world economy to renewables before fossil fuels are exhausted. Fossil fuels won't be totally gone for centuries, which is a lot of time to transition. The entire industrial economy is replaced approximately every 40 years anyway as machinery wears out, and industrialism is younger than 40 years old in many countries (such as China). If we could build or replace such an energy system in less than 40 years, then we could transition our energy system to renewables over centuries.

Granted, a renewable energy system would be more expensive than a fossil fuel one. That is why we haven’t done it already. However, it’s definitely possible to transition to renewables while retaining an advanced industrial civilization.