Wednesday, June 29, 2016
Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Cheaper, Denser: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong
Book Review: Smaller, Faster, Lighter, Cheaper, Denser: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong – by Robert Bryce (Public Affairs Books, 2014)
This was a fun read. Bryce has written much about the importance of energy density in his other books. Energy journalism is his specialty. This one is about technological innovation and how it has happened and keeps happening over time. He focuses here on the notion of density in many forms.
He begins with the first chapter titled, ‘Moving Beyond Collapse Anxiety,’ which basically advocates dissing the doom and gloom scenarios and while staying realistic, becoming a bit more optimistic, especially in regards to technology. Violence, terrorism, disasters, resources issues, climate change, etc. all seem to add to the anxiety. He criticizes the focus on “peak everything” by pointing out that in most cases those peak declarations have been premature and technology has set them back quite a ways in some cases. He criticizes “degrowth” and all the categorizing of “this good, that bad” that seems to go with it. These are the mantras of neo-Malthusians, he says. He also makes the important point that innovation towards smaller/faster/lighter/denser/cheaper (S-F-L-D-C) is helping the economy and the environment. He thinks that the big environmental groups have the right intentions but propose inadequate solutions. He also notes that energy is the world’s biggest industry and all parts of the global economy depend directly or indirectly on energy.
He begins with the Panama Canal and how new technological innovations after the first attempt to build it allowed it to be built much faster and much better. It still stands as an amazing engineering feat. He points out that the gravimetric power density of the brain is 100,000 times that of the sun. Power density is a measure of how much energy can be used in a given area, volume, or mass. Energy density is how much energy is ‘contained’ in a given volume or mass.
He notes that Francis Bacon saw the three most important inventions of his time (1561-1620) as the printing press, gunpowder, and the compass. Bryce sees the printing press as most important of the three. Prints got smaller, printing got faster, and books got cheaper. He also lists other revolutionary innovations and how they made things happen: the vacuum tube enabled electronic music and rock-n-roll; the AK-47 enabled effective killing due to being lighter and cheaper so that some 100 million Kalashnikovs have been made. He also hails the Haber-Bosch Process of making fertilizer where natural gas and atmospheric nitrogen are the inputs. The output is ammonia (NH3) fertilizer. This process led to massive gains in grain production. Next he covers diesel engines and jet turbines and how they enabled globalization. Diesel engines move more than 80% of U.S. freight. New jet turbines have gotten more and more efficient with gravimetric power density as much as 15,000 watts per kilogram. These engines made travel faster and cheaper. Other innovations he covers are telescopes, microscopes, electric power, the roller-cone drill bit, digital communications – all of which enabled Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper.
Better technology has increased lifespans since the 1600’s. It has also made raw materials cheaper when predictions were that they would become more expensive. The key, says Bryce, us that we are continually finding ways to do more with less. He also notes the reduction in solar panel costs and great improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency due to cheaper and more efficient technologies. The book is full of number comparisons and graphs to put these changes through time in perspective. In many ways we have all gotten safer as well. The American fatality rate per 100 million vehicle-miles traveled fell from 4.7 in 1970 to 1.1 in 2009. The fatality rate per 100 million aircraft-miles fell from 5.438 in 1970 to just 0.688 in 2009. Air quality has also improved. Annual U.S. emissions of sulfur dioxide have fallen from 23 million tons in 1990 to 14.7 million tons in 2005. VOC (volatile organic compounds) emissions fell from 23 million tons to 15 million tons in the same time period. Agricultural food production has drastically increased. Technology is the key to the chapter title – Never Have So Many Lived So Well.
Next he takes on radical environmentalist calls for “degrowth,” citing Breakthrough Institute founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger and their definition of the worldview of these radicals as “nihilistic ecotheology.” Bryce calls them “eco-nihilists.” Many are catastrophists who claim that we are headed for disaster. Some venerate the idea that in the past people lived in peace and harmony – the “primitive harmony” idea of a world populated by “noble savages.” Greenpeace has been a vocal promoter of the degrowth movement. Bryce explores and criticizes the degrowth ideas of Greenpeace, Naomi Klein, the Worldwatch Institute, the Sierra Club, and grassroots environmentalist Bill McKibben. Bryce refutes McKibben’s idea that the world needs “low density” food and energy production by noting that “density is green,” and increasing the density of our food and energy systems is how we have and will continue to meet the needs of a growing global population. He goes into mathematical detail to refute McKibben’s plan to reduce global per capita energy use by twenty-fold and how nonsensical it is. One big factor is the current poor energy density of renewable energy. Bryce chronicles the degrowth movement from Rousseau, Thoreau, and Malthus in the 19th century and before, to the Club of Rome, Paul Erlich, Klein, McKibben, George Monbiot, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the other “neo-Malthusians,” as he calls them. He argues that degrowth simply means forced poverty.
Next he explores our ability to measure extremely small units of space and time: angstroms and attoseconds. These amazing technologies allow us to study the atomic and subatomic realms in detail. This work with lasers, tomography, and ionization has many potential practical applications.
He explores speed: from faster runners to faster vehicles to faster internet. He explains things in terms of energy density. He does this with biking in the Tour de France, describing changes in riders’ styles, muscle power, bike design, as well as the effects of doping.
He also reminds us that energy is the capacity to do work while power is the rate at which work is done. Energy is typically measured in joules while power is measured in watts.
He covers the giant water wheels of the Hama region in Syria that were built in the Byzantine era. Energy and power needs have been apparent for humans since the beginning. At the time these were state-of-the-art engineering wonders. The work of draft horses gave us the unit of “horsepower.” One horsepower = 746 watts. An average human can produce power of between 60-120 watts – for comparison. He notes the first known use of windmills around 1300 in the Seistan region of eastern Iran. The Romans used water wheels mostly to mill grain. Windmills became popular in northern Europe to mill grain, move water, and for other purposes. Amish people still use teams of draft horses (while not being known for humane treatment of horses – a practice which should be encouraged and harms investigated) to plow fields. Canals and locks and dams in 1800’s America provided transport and places for water wheel power. Some of the biggest works ran for decades and maxed out at 300 horsepower and in terms of gravimetric power density, about 1 watt per kilogram – amazing for 1850 – but tiny today. Watt’s early steam engine only made it to about 24 horsepower but made it up to 9.8 watts per kilogram gravimetric power density. Thus it was a massive improvement over waterwheels in terms of power density. The ages of steam and coal thus began. Steam locomotives in 1865 made it up to about 500 horsepower and 14.2 watts/kg. The giant Corliss steam engine was revealed in 1876 with 1400 horsepower and 20 watts/kg. By 1886, Karl Friedrich Benz patented a one cylinder internal combustion engine that weighed 211 lbs. and produced 500 watts of power. The Age of Steam was soon to give way to the Age of the Automobile. The original Ford Model T had a 300 lb., 121 watts/kg, 22 HP engine and a power density 73 times that of a horse. Yes, oil freed the horses. Now Formula One racing engines can pack power densities of 5900 watts/kg! Engines are now much smaller and much lighter which helps increase power density.
Next is the trend toward faster computing. Free storage on ICloud and other massive cloud storage options were enabled by S-F-L-D-C improvements. The cost of computing has dropped astronomically. He notes that a kid in Africa with a smartphone has about a trillion dollars of computing power in 1970 terms! Data creation and sharing has skyrocketed and continues to do so. He does note that then as now large computing facilities still require lots of cooling and these data centers use a lot of electricity. Bryce has a section that concludes that “green” computing cannot currently power the cloud. While companies like Apple, Google, and Amazon have announced and partially implemented plans to run centers with green energy there are logistical issues. There is simply not enough space to put solar panels or wind turbines to meet the power requirements in the populated areas where the data centers sit. By one estimate data centers consume about 1.3% of global electricity. Other estimates suggest that 7% of global electricity is consumed just to keep us connected and 40% of that is powered by coal. In the U.S. 67% or more is powered by natural gas and coal. Thus, one could say that the internet is frying the planet. And communications-related electricity demand is growing rapidly. Bryce also provides trend graphs of the smaller and smaller (and denser) microprocessor chip configuration as well as trend graphs for the falling costs of computer storage. He also covers music storage from the lp to the Ipod.
Next he explores money: from heavy metal coins to paper to electronic money and phone transfers. Although digital money is not a new idea the revolution of mobile payments by SIM card on phones has made it quite convenient around the world. It costs money to print money so digital cash actually saves money. 40% of all paper money is in China where the yuan currency’s largest note is the 100-renminby which is worth about 16 U.S. dollars. The M-PESA digital money scheme is taking off in East Africa. In the U.S. only some merchants are accepting digital payments. In Kenya there are 19 million M-PESA subscribers, virtually the whole adult population. Although digital money can be used by criminals it is also used to fight corruption, a huge problem throughout the world. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin have a more uncertain future. These are more rebellions against centralized banks and seek more to erode the current financial system.
The density of cities in increasing energy efficiency, maximizing food, and promoting prosperity is now well known. Per capita energy use, materials use, services needed, etc. are much lower in dense cities. Humans all around the world continue to migrate to cities for opportunities. Mass transportation reduces energy use, pollution, and carbon emissions. Cities are centers of business and innovation.
Denser cheaper food production has led to wealthier cities and less hunger. While organic food has surged in popularity and many of us favor it for reduced pesticide use, it is conventional agriculture fed by fossil fuels that has done more to feed the hungry than anything else. Both will be key in feeding the people of the future. Grain production per capita has managed to increase slightly since 1950 while population has increased steeply and steadily. That is an amazing feat considering the doomsday scenarios of Paul Erlich and others that the world would be short on food. For 60 years after 1950 the world tripled the amount of grain per hectare that can be produced. Despite detractors GMOs have several potential advantages as does more efficient use of fertilizer and more efficient and smart farming techniques. Some even think we have passed “peak farmland” as cultivated areas around the world are decreasing rather than increasing due to more efficient production and higher yields.
Next he explores the relationship between faster and freer information flow and wealth, noting that the countries with the most censorship tend to be the least wealthy. Faster info flow aids education and innovation and since we can access it all with our phones it is becoming more and more essential to have access in order to participate in the modern world. Also explored are new online education formats that are comparably inexpensive.
Smaller, faster, cheaper medicine has been able to save and improve lives. Digital technologies can and are improving health care on many levels. Gene sequencing has made leaps and bounds and genetic influences on health are becoming better understood and more predictable. Diabetics may no longer have to prick their fingers in order to monitor blood glucose levels. Heart disease and cancer are becoming better understand, more preventable, and more treatable with new technologies. Patients now routinely swallow tiny cameras to see what is happening in the body. Laser surgeries and 3D printed prosthetic devices and joints are happening.
Part III focuses on energy and begins with the development of faster and better drill bits to drill for oil, gas, lithium brine, salt, and deep geothermal wells. New automated drilling rigs are much safer and more efficient than old ones. They can drill wells faster. In fact, drilling efficiencies, depths, and horizontal length capabilities continue to improve. Shale and tight formation wells have drastically reduced the amount of dry holes and subsequent loss. The U.S. has long been the leader in oil and gas technologies, leading the way in hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling, deepwater drilling, 3D seismic, and other technologies. Technology improvements have allowed us to increase the amount of oil and gas that can be recovered from a given reservoir in a given area. This has pushed peak oil and peak gas into the future as more hydrocarbons can be technically recovered. Polycrystalline diamond compact (PDC) drill bits have enabled faster drilling, particularly in shale. Oil is very energy dense compared to renewable energy sources which assures its continued use.
Next he mentions a rocket technology to generate power that uses natural gas and hydrogen and can generate up to 70 MW from the size of a shipping container. It is a prototype but this may be the future.
Next he covers coal extraction technologies: ways to extract, process, and transport massive amounts of coal in short time periods. He also points out that even though coal is both pollution and carbon intensive there is little doubt that its use will continue to grow in China and especially India, although recently the rate of growth has begun to drop and peak coal for those nations is now projected to be sooner. Coal use in the developed world is mostly dropping except in areas abandoning existing nuclear like Germany and in areas where coal is cheaper than gas and more readily available due to both supply and infrastructure like China and Indonesia and parts of Europe.
Next he delves into battery storage, featuring only one format among many: Aquion Energy’s saltwater batteries that also use cotton, charcoal, and manganese – all inexpensive ingredients. While these batteries have lower energy densities and take up more space than lithium-based batteries they make up for it in their low cost. They are being deployed in test projects now. Early tests with lithium batteries on Boeing airplanes resulted in battery fires so others opted for less energy dense nickel-cadmium batteries. Lead-acid batteries can also explode in large systems. Batteries need to be deployed in ways proper to their natures, operating temperatures, and charge/recharge capabilities but that is all being worked out.
Bryce advocates less use of wind and solar since they have low energy densities. He points out the problems with wind that he covered in his book, Power Hungry, incurably low energy density (although capacity factors have improved in recent years), bird and bat kills, noise problems, and NIMBY issues. The power density of onshore wind energy ranges from 0.5 to 2 watts/square meter with 1.2 being the avg. To replace just current (2014) U.S. coal-fired capacity with wind would require a land area the size of Italy! Dieter Helm and climate scientist Jim Hansen also note the limitations of wind and solar, particularly that there is simply not that much land to host the turbines and panels. Hansen and Bryce both favor nuclear. The total installed wind capacity of the U.S. (the largest wind energy producer in the world) reduced CO2 emissions a mere 0.2 % of just 2012 global emissions, which Bryce termed a “fart in a hurricane.” Quite a lot more wind turbines would have to be deployed simply to keep up with power consumption growth.
He terms biofuels a “crime against humanity” in terms of cost, subsidies, net CO2 emissions loss (or gain), land use, and competition with food production. The main biofuel of concern is ethanol. Such biofuels have an “anemic” power density of about 0.3 watts per square meter. 2nd generation biofuels like cellulosic ethanol fare a little better but are still far below being economic, sensible, and significantly carbon-mitigating. The urge to move away from oil and oil dependence and clean energy technology hype has helped ethanol and other biofuels survive and research is ongoing but hope has been fading for years now that it will be a solution of any significance. Land use dedicated to growing crops for biofuels according to Amory Lovins’ scheme would take a land mass the size of three Italys – land that would be taken away from growing food. Biofuels, particularly corn ethanol, have long been outed as a scam as a possible alternative to fossil fuels.
Bryce advocates N2N, natural gas to nuclear, as the energy solution to climate change. I think Bryce rightly portrays current climate change debates as devolving into “tribalism,” with alarmist and denier camps seeming to dominate. If we agree there is too much CO2 the question becomes – what energy policies should we adopt? Hydrocarbons (coal, oil, and natural gas) are the cheapest and most reliable forms of energy and will continue to meet rising energy demand as the developing countries of the world continue to alleviate energy poverty and increase economic opportunity. Natural gas is the least polluting, least CO2 emitting hydrocarbon and nuclear is nearly carbon zero. Natural gas is cheap. Nuclear is more expensive but has lower emissions. Due to smaller footprints and better energy density Bryce argues that N2N is an S-F-L-D-C solution.
Nuclear is the most energy dense power source. He notes that nuclear has about 2100 times the power density of wind energy. An area about ¾ the size of the state of Rhode Island would be required to replace the Indian Point nuclear plant (240 acres) with wind turbines. Bryce sees nuclear as our best ‘no-regrets’ option but acknowledges it will take decades as there are few plans for new nuclear plants in the near-term. A current nuclear power plant costs about 6 times per MW that a gas plant costs. He thinks the dangers of nuclear are overhyped. While Fukushima changed a lot of minds about the safety of nuclear, it, along with Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island were not as bad as generally depicted, says Bryce and many others. Better containment systems are a feature of new Generation III+ reactors. Small modular reactors (SMRs) can be deployed on a smaller scale and buried which makes them more resistant to natural disasters. They can be manufactured in a central location and moved which lowers costs. Other new designs and prototypes include molten salt reactors which are safer in the event of a meltdown, integral fast reactors which are safer as well as self-sustaining, thorium-fueled reactors which could be safer and eliminate the possibility of weapons proliferation, and traveling wave reactors – another safer reactor that uses depleted uranium (U-238) as fuel. Bryce also notes a growing movement among pragmatic environmentalists to promote safer cheaper nuclear – Stewart Brand and Breakthrough Institute founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhau prominent among them.
Bryce sees the U.S. as continuing to dominate innovation and the move to S-F-L-D-C. However, it would be better if we were to add patent and education reforms to boost innovation, making new products easier to develop and new innovators not bogged down with standardized testing and educational snags. U.S. universities rule on R & D spending and have dominated the history of innovation and entrepreneurialism. The U.S. has the best venture capital networks. The U.S. has a wide variety of energy sources and energy technologies. We have the lowest residential electricity costs in the world by a significant margin. We have the most well-developed oil and gas industry and oil and gas infrastructure in the world and that will continue to give us economic advantages in the years to come.
Bryce concludes by going back to the catastrophists: Paul Erlich, Bill McKibben, Sierra Club head Michael Brune, Amory Lovins, and other neo-Malthusian, degrowth, anti-corporate, anti-capitalist advocates. He advocates for a less pessimistic view that solves problems through innovative cooperation between industry and the public rather than through excessive regulation and austerity measures, or as Shellenberger and Nordhaus stated it:
“Wealth and technology liberated us from hunger, deprivation, and insecurity; now they must be considered essential to overcoming ecological risks.”
Bryce is a good writer, thoughtful, entertaining, politically center, and realistic. His outlook is certainly a breath of fresh air and a move toward sensible policy directions.