Thoughts on Material Flows and Energy Flows

As I have just finished doing some more spring cleaning, including taking about $4000 of now useless electronics to the recycling, I thought I would republish an essay I first wrote 10 years ago.

Some thoughts on Energy, Energy Flows and Material cycles  (written – August 2002)

Presently, there are many debates surrounding the use of fossil fuels, greenhouse gases (GHGs), global warming and other environmental problems. Will fossil fuels run out, do GHGs cause global warming, what are the effects of global warming on the polar ice cap, the tropical forests, species extinction etc. I am sure many of us are confused by all the rhetoric on both sides, and feel powerless or indifferent to these issues (what can I do?).

Part of the problem is that each side in the debate has a particular agenda that it is trying to get across in the hopes of swaying the population to its side. This is part of any debating strategy. However, it may be helpful to take a step back and apply some systems thinking to energy, energy flows and material flows, to frame the debate in a proper perspective.

Energy and Energy Flow

The Earth can be considered a closed system. All materials within the Earth’s system (hereinafter referred to as Earth) stay on Earth and are transformed to various states by energy (this is the first law of Thermodynamics). The only input to this system is energy from the Sun, and a weak gravitational pull from the Moon. Or to put it another way, all Energy that is on Earth (except tidal energy) is based on energy from the Sun. Tidal energy is a result of the moon’s gravity and is inconsequential as a source of usable energy, such that it will be ignored from hereon.

Thus, all Energy on Earth is from the Sun. Let’s look at this energy in more detail.

The primary form of the energy from the Sun is the light and heat falling on the Earth from direct solar energy. A secondary form of solar energy is the wind, ocean currents, hydropower (from rain fed rivers and dams) and biomass. Each secondary energy source involves a conversion of the direct solar energy to another form using a transport medium (air or water or plants). According to the second law of Thermodynamics, energy will be lost during this conversion process. A tertiary form of solar energy is fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are formed from decayed plants and other organic matter. The plants first stored the solar energy in the bond between the molecules that make up the plants (photosynthesis). Then the plant material was subject to pressure and temperature in the Earth’s core to form the fossil fuels (over a period of millions of years). Thus, the conversion from solar energy to fossil fuels is a long inefficient process, but one which results in a high density of energy per kilogram (and per liter). Or to look at fossil fuels another way , the direct solar energy that fell on the earth millions of years ago and took millions of years to be converted to a high density portable form (oil), is being burned today at a much higher rate than it was formed, and by definition will be unsustainable over the long term.

Most people accept that the fossil fuel based economy has a limited lifespan. Most of the people in power are hoping that this economic lifespan will exceed theirs and therefore, nothing needs to change before they die (or at least are not accountable to anyone anymore). This short term thinking has been ingrained into Western society for the past few hundred years thanks to our “democratic” system, and more recently by the “quarterly reporting” requirements of Wall Street. A popular refrain is that my electorate (shareholders) need results now, and cannot sacrifice today in order to make tomorrow better. The rest of the world doesn’t share this view, and in my opinion, are starting to provide some feedback to this short term thinking.

So what can we do about the upcoming shortage of fossil fuel and its affect on the economy?

Most of the alternative energy gurus are telling us to abandon fossil fuels and convert to other forms of energy (solar cells, windmills etc). Unfortunately, these gurus are still stuck in trying maintain the current way of doing things, but using a different energy source. This will work for a few people, but is impractical for everyone. There aren’t enough locations to provide enough reliable wind, and the efficiency of converting light to electricity using current solar cell technology is too low to make it viable for high density living. The biggest stumbling block is finding a high energy density carrier to replace gasoline in cars. Until that is done, alternative energy will be considered marginal by most of the public. Wind power and solar cell technology need to be developed and are vital for future energy sources, but applied to existing uses of energy, they will be woefully inadequate, and will be met with derision by all but the most dedicated users.

The reason for this failure is the lack of systems thinking to solve the problems at hand.

Most of the proponents of alternative energy are simply applying a solution to a part of the problem (using a reductionist strategy). Instead of changing the system that we are now using, they are trying a band aid solution to the present systems, when in fact it is the present systems that need to be overhauled. The systems need to be changed such that we are living “higher up on the energy chain” or using more direct solar energy and less secondary and tertiary energy. This will require a radical redesign of most of our living spaces and other indoor work areas. Secondly, we need to realize that most of the products we have that use energy, are providing a service that we could possibly receive using less or no energy.

I will illustrate these concepts with examples available on the internet and from libraries. One book that had a profound effect on my understanding of this concept is Natural Capitalism, by Paul Hawken, Hunter and Amory Lovins. In this book, they highlight different alternatives to our standard way of doing things. My favourite example of their systems thinking is the standard automobile. Why are we using a 3000 pound vehicle to transport a 200 pound person. Automobile transportation is one of the most inefficient uses of energy ever devised by man. Over 95% of the energy is used to transport the vehicle, with less than 5 % used to transport the person inside the vehicle. Their HyperCar uses composite materials to produce a car that is significantly lighter than the standard car driven today and therefore much more efficient at moving the person (which is the end goal). Similarly, public transportation systems that are running at their proper carrying capacity are much more efficient than SOV automobiles.

Other examples in this book include the use of passive lighting and heating technologies to dramatically reduce the amount of supplemental lighting and heating used in buildings etc. Further reading on this can be found here.

Unfortunately for us in the western democracies, we lack the leadership required to get us from a fossil fuel based economy to a more sustainable one built on new technologies and redesigned systems of living. George Bush and Jean Chrétien are not the answer!

Material flows

Before I examine fossil fuels and their effects on greenhouse gases, I would like to go back to the Earth as a closed system model.

The First Law of Thermodynamics states that matter cannot be created nor destroyed, but is transformed from one state to another by energy. Therefore, if you accept this premise, all the atoms of Carbon on Earth are finite and constant, but are changed from one form to another by energy. Carbon is the basis of all organic matter, and is also found in graphite, diamond and various COx gases as a result of combustion of organic matter. Carbon will exist as trees, oil, carbon dioxide and other carbon based forms, and will move from one form to another by photosynthesis, combustion, pressure and energy. This is the basis of the Carbon Cycle.

Similarly, the Hydrogen Cycle shows the flow of hydrogen atoms from water to ice to hydrogen as well as other hydrogen carrying compounds (hydrocarbons, hydrides etc).

Fossil Fuels, GHGs, and global warming

Most people accept that the burning of Fossil fuels results in the production of carbon dioxide and other gases. The unknown is whether this GHG will lead to global warming and what effect this will have on the Earth and living systems in general. The important point to be made here is that the storage of carbon in Fossil fuels occurred over a period of millions of years. In the steady state system of the carbon cycle, carbon exists as fossil fuels, COx, trees, diamond etc. Before the Oil age, the fossil fuel component of the carbon cycle took millions of years to reach its equilibrium state. Within the space of a few hundred years, man has combusted these Fossil fuels and by doing so has upset the equilibrium point of the Carbon Cycle as it existed before the Oil age, by causing the formation of a large amount of COx gases. In other words we have undone in the space of a few hundred years what nature did in a few million years. There will be consequences to this change in the equilibrium of the Carbon Cycle. I personally do not know what the outcome will be. We could have global warming or global cooling or some other change, but one thing is for sure, there will be a change somewhere in the equilibrium balance of life on Earth.

Before you ridicule this notion that there will be change, look outside. Does the sky appear pale blue or white? Is your patio covered in black dust? These are the subtle feedback signals in your local environment from the combustion of fossil fuels. While many debate whether global warming is happening or will happen, and what the consequences may be, there are many signs that your local environment is already out of balance, and this should be a wake up call to do something right now. Most systems provide early warnings about possible breakdowns, and if acted upon, the breakdowns can be prevented or mitigated. However, ignoring the early warning signals will not make them go away, but will make the outcome of the system breakdown a lot worse.

Some other musings on this issue and the Middle East

Humans like to think that they are intelligent innovative beings, and that technology will solve all of our problems, but yet at the same time we keep on doing the same things in the same destructive manner, and even after we are shown the error in our ways, we keep sticking to the course. The arguments that adherence to the Kyoto Protocol will destroy our way of life and therefore should not be ratified only keeps us going on the same path towards an unsustainable way of living. Now is the time for leadership. If we in the west are so great, what are we afraid of by adopting restrictions in GHG emissions? It is possible to live very comfortable on less energy usage as demonstrated in Japan and Europe. (I have lived in Japan for 5 years, and have travelled to Europe many times)

Unfortunately, George Bush just doesn’t get it. Think of how few terrorists we would have to fight if we didn’t need Middle East Oil. How much money would Saddam have to build missiles if no one was buying Oil from him? It is the insatiable appetite for Oil that then results in us having to defend the supply lines from the despots and cause us to do deals with unsavory people like the House of Saud in order to “maintain our lifestyle”. Without Oil money, the Saudis would return to their Bedouin ways and cause us no harm. In fact the entire Middle East quagmire would be inconsequential to us, since stability in the region would not be a requisite for our energy security.

What can be done to reduce our dependence on Oil

Unfortunately for most people in the west, not a lot. However, with radical shifts in the design of the systems that we use, coupled with changes in lifestyle, redesign of cities and a change in the way we pay for the use of the automobile, we could start down the road to a more sustainable way of living. I don’t have all the answers or very many for that matter. It will take a shift in the collective consciousness and a change in the way we live to bring this about. Some ideas to get started include:

Reduce dependence on the automobile, use public transport, and other environmentally friendly methods of transportation;

Reexamine how much space you need to live in. The less space you need, the fewer resources you will use and generally the lower the cost of the space. This will allow you to need less money and so you could work less, change your job so you don’t need to commute etc. (think about your entire system of living – all are interdependent).

Buy locally – this will reduce dependence on goods that are transported a long distance, and keep your money in the local economy.

Only buy what is absolutely necessary. This will reduce the amount of resources that are used in manufacturing products.

Think of the services that the products you use provide, and see if there is a more efficient way of getting these services delivered to you.

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About petergsimmons

Global citizenship is conferred on those who have lived in a variety of countries, and who don’t identify with any one culture. I am such a person. Having lived in Jamaica, Canada and Japan, I have been exposed to First World/Third World, East and West, North and South. This has lead to a rich living experience, open-mindedness and curiosity about the world around me. This variety of living conditions in human landscapes is coupled with equally diverse travels in natural landscapes from the jungles of South East Asia and South America to the Arctic tundra; tropical beaches to the Himalayas, resulting in an incredible journey through life itself.
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