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2022-01-03 10:00 by Karl Denninger
in Energy , 1267 references Ignore this thread
Reality vis-a-vis Energy And The Economy *
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If you have read Leverage one of the key points made fairly early on, and one I've made repeatedly in this column, is this:

Behind every unit of GDP there is a unit of energy.

It has always been thus and always will be thus.  It is akin to the laws of thermodynamics, which you cannot do anything about and it does not matter if you like them or not.  Attempting to go "beyond them" will not only always fail it will hurt in some regard since it will at best be a less-than-optimal experience and at worst will be a death-causing one.

Fracking was considered a "miracle."  It was no such thing.  I noted many years ago during its "heyday" that it was nothing more than a parlor trick: Yes, you get hydrocarbons out of the ground in places where they were formerly uneconomic to attack, but the problem with doing so is that you haven't changed the amount in the ground -- only the speed of extraction.  Therefore if you double the speed of extraction you also double the rate of depletion!

One of the common chestnuts is that we're "running out of oil."  We are not.  There is a crap-ton of oil.  The problem is the cost of extracting it.  We've run out of cheap to get to oil.

Indeed, we have more than 500 years of reasonably-recoverable and consumable fuel that can be used as liquid hydrocarbons and, if you do not care about cost, we actually have an infinite amount!

What, you say?  That's impossible!

My riposte is that you failed high school chemistry class.

Hydrocarbons are simply chains of hydrogen and carbon, when you get down to it.  Natural gas is a simple one; CH4, or one carbon and four hydrogen atoms.  It has much more energy than coal (which is basically just Carbon) because hydrogen has much more electronegative potential, and thus when burned you get much more energy released for each unit of fuel you use.  This has been the primary reason the United States has in fact dropped its per-BTU CO2 emissions dramatically over the last 30 or so years; natural gas has been cheaper than coal.

We don't use hydrocarbons for energy because we're pigs that hate the Earth, in short.  We do so because they are the only reasonable means to get the energy required for modern life in a package form that works.  All the screaming about EVs and similar is nothing more than a bunch of ignorant jackasses who think they can violate the laws of thermodynamics..

You can't.

The person who figures out how to do it, if it can be done, creates a world that is wildly beyond the dreams of Lucas and Roddenberry.  Even in the Star Wars and Star Trek fictional universes they follow the laws of thermodynamics -- in Star Trek they use dilithium as an energy medium, and in Star Wars it is Kyber crystals -- both of which have to be mined, in other words, both of which were created as a result of the formation of planets and stars and both of which are finite resources.

Let's take a simple example: An electric car.  It's "more efficient" than burning gasoline, right?

Uh, nope.

A modern gasoline engine is about 35% efficient in terms of taking the BTUs in the gasoline and turning it into movement.  That's horrible, you'd think -- electric motors can reach 90% efficiency with modern controls (and the motors in electric cars typically are near that range.)

Electric wins, right?

WRONG.

Every transfer or transformation of energy involves loss.

The best combined-cycle natural gas generating plant has roughly 60% energy efficiency.  These are the most-modern; everything else is worse.  Nuclear is a lot worse, typically, about half that (that is, for every watt that comes out of a nuclear plant as electricity about two more wind up dumped, typically into a body of water.)  So we'll use the best.

The natural gas plant is 60% efficient making the electricity.

The transmission of the power from the generating plant to your house is 95% efficient (5% is lost, roughly.)

The charging of the EV battery is about 75% efficient during normal (slow) charging but this drops wildly when "superchargers" or similar are used.  Such charging is unlikely to exceed 50% efficient due to the requirement to keep the batteries cool.  In short charging at more than "1C" for a lithium cell results in much lower charge efficiency because you are attempting to "overdrive" the chemical process that charges the cell, and doing so radically increases loss.  We'll use 75%.

Assuming you do not let the EV sit (all batteries self-discharge over time) and drive it the next day the loss from self-discharge is very small.  We'll ignore it, and give you the entire 90% "best of breed" efficiency between the battery and the wheels (the withdrawal of said energy, control electronics and motor turning the stored battery power into movement.)

So where are we thus far?

0.6 * 0.95 * 0.75 * 0.9 = 38.5% efficient for the EV assuming the best case, which of course is bullshit, but even if you assume such it is still nearly identical to that of the gas-powered car that cost far less money to buy!  Never mind that there is no economically-viable means to recycle a lithium battery pack in an EV; it is toxic waste when it wears out and inevitably, as with all such things, it does.  Nearly every part of a traditional car is recyclable; the metal the vehicle, including its engine and transmission all is, much of the plastic is, and the starting battery is almost 100% recyclable into a new starting battery.

But while you can't violate the laws of thermodynamics you can deliberately cripple yourself.  We can, for example, make all the liquid hydrocarbon we want out of atmospheric (or sea-sequestered carbonate) sources of carbon.  Indeed the CO2 bottle that is refilled at your local brewery or fast-food store that dispenses fountain drinks was almost-certainly condensed out of the air; that is the most-common means by which industrial CO2 is produced.  The reason we don't do this to make fuel is that you must put the energy back in you wish to liberate, plus something for the inevitable losses which you cannot eliminate.  In short what we're doing is using that which the sun put in via energy rather than doing it ourselves and the reason we do it is that it is cheaper.  That's all.

It does not matter if you like these facts or not; they are nonetheless facts.  No amount of braying at the moon nor complaining by the "green wokesters" will change it.  What you can do, however, is foolishly jack up the price to the point that nobody can afford it, at which point modern society as we know it ceases to exist.

Consider that while you may think it would be great to not have all those vehicles running around spewing CO2 into the air where the CO2 goes into the air doesn't change that it does so, and the "more refined" form energy takes the more loss and less efficient it is.  Electricity is a very highly-refined form of energy particularly when compared to, for example, a gallon of diesel fuel.

The premise that we can shift all our energy needs to "renewables" is pure folly.  We cannot at a price that can be paid by the common person, and whether we like it or not renewables are largely unreliable as well so you must add massive storage costs which makes them even more uneconomic.  While the ultra-rich do not care if their power bill at their mansion goes from $2,000 a month to $5,000, since they make north of a million a month anyway, the common person cannot pay a $500 electric bill that used to be $200.  That's roughly $3,500 a year of additional expense they do not have.  To cut that $500 bill back to something they can afford they cannot have either heat or air conditioning, and might not be able to have hot water!

Years ago I penned a column that was an expansion of part of what I wrote about on energy in Leverage called "Let's Talk About An ACTUAL Energy Policy" that, unlike the woke dreams and fairy tales does not violate the Laws of Thermodynamics nor does it require that we conquer something (e.g. fusion) we do not know how to do.  It does require engineering progress, but engineering is something that humans have always been good at, given the will.  Our landing on the moon is but one example; there were no actual breakthroughs required in terms of what we knew how to do, but engineering, the application and refinement of what we know, was required.  The same holds true here.

It is indeed easier to scream at people about them being pigs than to put your nose down and solve engineering problems, especially if you lack the intellectual firepower required to do the latter.  Those who fly all over the world yet scream about fossil fuel use are in that group -- to an individual.  So are those who live in mansions rather than 1,000 sq/ft hyper-insulated homes, have swimming pools and other personal accoutrements.  Fenestration (windows) are energy pigs; the person who claims to be a "green woke individual", if they're not lying, has no business living in a structure with floor-to-ceiling "natural light" that both gains energy in the summer and loses it in the winter, both of which must be reversed by artificial (and earth-damning, by their claims) means.

Perhaps as the self-imposed stupidity begins to bite we will force some of these people to live by their own standards.

I might also grow six heads, but somehow I suspect both are equally likely, and given the public's unwillingness to take the time to understand even the most-basic principles of both chemistry and physics I hold out little hope on a forward basis.