Tags: collapse* + peak oil*

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  1. Earlier studies on this issue, Brandt points out, have highlighted the risk of a “net energy cliff”, which refers to how “declining EROI results in rapid increases in the fraction of energy dedicated to simply supporting the energy system.”

    Axiom: So the more EROI declines, a greater proportion of the energy being produced must be used simply to extract more energy. This means that EROI decline leads to less real-world economic growth.

    It also creates a complicated situation for oil prices. While at first, declining EROI can be expected to lead to higher prices reflecting higher production costs, the relationship between EROI and prices begins to breakdown as EROI becomes smaller.

    This could be because, under a significantly reduced EROI, consumers in a less prosperous economy can no longer afford, energetically or economically, the cost of producing more energy — thus triggering a dramatic drop in market prices, despite higher costs of production. At this point, in the new era of shrinking EROI, swinging oil prices become less and less indicative of ‘scarcity’ in supply and demand.

    Brandt’s new economic model looks at how EROI impacts four key sectors — food, energy, materials and labor. Exploring what a decline in net energy would therefore mean for these sectors, he concludes:

    “The reduction in the fraction of a resource free and the energy system productivity extends from the energy system to all aspects of the economy, which gives an indication of the mechanisms by which energy productivity declines would affect general prosperity.

    A clear implication of this work is that decreases in energy resource productivity, modeled here as the requirement for more materials, labor, and energy, can have a significant effect on the flows required to support all sectors of the economy. Such declines can reduce the effective discretionary output from the economy by consuming a larger and larger fraction of gross output for the meeting of inter-industry requirements.”
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  2. Lord’s thesis is that the kind of art a society makes and values is joined at the hip with the kind of energy that society depends on to keep itself going. He traces the various forms of energy we have known as a species throughout our pre-history — our millennia spent in the Pleistocene — and in our recorded history — sexual energy, without which societies can’t continue; the energy of the body while hunting and foraging; wood for fire; slaves; wind and water; coal; oil; and “renewables” — and makes some cogent observations about their relationship to art and culture. In his Prologue, he says:

    Everyone knows that all life requires energy. But we rarely consider how dependent art and culture are on the energy that is needed to produce, practice and sustain them. What we fail to see are the usually invisible sources of energy that make our art and culture(s) possible and bring with them fundamental values that we are all constrained to live with (whether we approve of them or not). Coal brought one set of values to all industrialized countries; oil brought a very different set… I may not approve of the culture of consumption that comes with oil… but I must use it » if I want to do anything at all.

    (Photo via gettystation.com)

    Those living within an energy system, says Lord, may disapprove of certain features, but they can’t question the system itself. Within the culture of slavery, which lasted at least 5,000 years, nobody wanted to be a slave, but nobody said slavery should be abolished, because what else could keep things going?
    (Sébastien Bonaimé/Getty Images; Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images)

    Coal, says Lord, produced a culture of production: think about those giant steel mills. Oil and gas, once they were up and running, fostered a culture of consumption. Lord cites “the widespread belief of the 1950s and early ’60s in the possibility of continuing indefinitely with unlimited abundance and economic growth, contrasted with the widespread agreement today that both that assumption and the world it predicts are unsustainable.” We’re in a transition phase, he says: the next culture will be a culture of “stewardship,” the energy driving it will be renewables, and the art it produces will be quite different from the art favored by production and consumption cultures.

    What are the implications for the way we view both ourselves and the way we live? In brief: in the coal energy culture — a culture of workers and production — you are your job. “I am what I make.” In an oil and gas energy culture — a culture of consumption — you are your possessions. “I am what I buy.” But in a renewable energy culture, you are what you conserve. “I am what I save and protect.” We aren’t used to thinking like this, because we can’t see where the money will come from. But in a culture of renewables, money will not be the only measure of wealth. Well-being will factor as an economic positive, too.

    Like Barry Lord, Morris is interested in the link between energy-capture systems and the cultural values associated with them, though in his case it’s the moral values, not only the aesthetic ones — supposing these can be separated — that concern him. Roughly, his argument runs that each form of energy capture favors values that maximize the chance of survival for those using both that energy system and that package of moral values. Hunter-gatherers show more social egalitarianism, wealth-sharing, and more gender equality than do farmer societies, which subordinate women — men are favored, as they must do the upper-body-strength heavy lifting — tend to practice some form of slavery, and support social hierarchies, with peasants at the low end and kings, religious leaders, and army commanders at the high end. Fossil fuel societies start leveling out gender inequalities — you don’t need upper body strength to operate keyboards or push machine buttons — and also social distinctions, though they retain differences in wealth.

    The second part of his argument is more pertinent to our subject, for he postulates that each form of energy capture must hit a “hard ceiling,” past which expansion is impossible; people must either die out or convert to a new system and a new set of values, often after a “great collapse” that has involved the same five factors: uncontrolled migration, state failure, food shortages, epidemic disease, and “always in the mix, though contributing in unpredictable ways–- climate change.” Thus, for hunting societies, their way of life is over once there are no longer enough large animals to sustain their numbers. For farmers, arable land is a limiting factor. The five factors of doom combine and augment one another, and people in those periods have a thoroughly miserable time of it, until new societies arise that utilize some not yet exhausted form of energy capture.
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  3. Although the analysis above has much room for refinement and development in context and household specific ways, it has been demonstrated that what we have called low-tech options have the potential to significantly reduce the energy intensity (and water intensity) of our ways of living. Our personal experience practising all of these low-tech options at times, many of them often, and some of them always, also gives us confidence that the results above are broadly correct. Indeed, when low-tech ‘demand side’ strategies are applied in conjunction with hi-tech ‘supply side’ strategies (e.g. solar PV), our personal experience confirms that people can be net-producers of renewable electricity, provided ordinary consumption of electricity is significantly reduced. Moreover, we know that this can be done without diminishing quality of life, although low-tech practices do often demand a greater time investment than their conventional alternatives, which can call for broader lifestyle changes to accommodate this increased time commitment.
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  4. For decades, the country’s leadership pursued a consistent political-economic business plan: sell as much oil as possible and use the proceeds to enrich the numerous princes and princesses of the realm; provide lavish social benefits to the rest of the population, thereby averting popular unrest of the “Arab Spring” variety; finance the ultra-conservative Wahhabi clergy so as to ensure its loyalty to the regime; finance like-minded states in the region; and put aside money for those rainy-day periods of low oil prices.

    Saudi leaders have recently come to recognize that this plan is no longer sustainable. In 2016, the Saudi budget has, for the first time in recent memory, moved into deficit territory and the monarchy has had to cut back on both its usual subsidies to and social programs for its people. Unlike the Venezuelans or the Nigerians, the Saudi royals socked away enough money in the country’s sovereign wealth fund to cover deficit spending for at least a couple of years. It is now, however, burning through those funds at a prodigious rate, in part to finance a brutal and futile war in Yemen. At some point, it will have to sharply curtail government spending. Given the youthfulness of the Saudi population -- 70% of its citizens are under 30 -- and its long dependence on government handouts, such moves could, in the view of many analysts, lead to widespread civil unrest.

    Historically, Saudi leaders have been slow to initiate change. But recently, the royal family has defied expectations, taking radical steps to prepare the country for a transition to what’s being termed a post-petroleum economy.
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  5. Debt is a key factor in creating an economy that operates using energy.

    A generally overlooked problem of our current system is the fact that we do not receive the benefit of energy products until well after they are used. This is especially the case for energy used to make capital investments, such as buildings, roads, machines, and vehicles. Even education and health care represent energy investments that have benefits long after the investment is made.

    The reason debt (and close substitutes) are needed is because it is necessary to bring forward hoped-for future benefits of energy products to the current period if workers are to be paid. In addition, the use of debt makes it possible to pay for consumer products such as automobiles and houses over a period of years. It also allows factories and other capital goods to be financed over the period they provide their benefits. (See my post Debt: The Key Factor Connecting Energy and the Economy.)

    When debt is used to move forward hoped-for future benefits to the present, oil prices can be higher, as can be the prices of other commodities. In fact, the price of assets in general can be higher. With the higher price of oil, it is possible for businesses to use the hoped-for future benefits of oil to pay current workers. This system works, as long as the price set by this system doesn’t exceed the actual benefit to the economy of the added energy.

    The amount of benefits that oil products provide to the economy is determined by their physical characteristics–for example, how far oil can make a truck move. These benefits can increase a bit over time, with rising efficiency, but in general, physics sets an upper bound to this increase. Thus, the value of oil and other energy products cannot rise without limit.

    Research involving Energy Returned on Energy Investment (EROEI) ratios for fossil fuels is a frequently used approach for evaluating prospective energy substitutes, such as wind turbines and solar panels. Unfortunately, this ratio only tells part of the story. The real problem is declining return on human labor for the system as a whole–that is, falling inflation adjusted wages of non-elite workers. This could also be described as falling EROEI–falling return on human labor. Declining human labor EROEI represents the same problem that fish swimming upstream have, when pursuit of food starts requiring so much energy that further upstream trips are no longer worthwhile.

    If our problem is a shortage of fossil fuels, fossil fuel EROEI analysis is ideal for determining how to best leverage our small remaining fossil fuel supply. For each type of fossil fuel evaluated, the fossil fuel EROEI calculation determines the amount of energy output from a given quantity of fossil fuel inputs. If a decision is made to focus primarily on the energy products with the highest EROEI ratios, then our existing fossil fuel supply can be used as sparingly as possible.

    If our problem isn’t really a shortage of fossil fuels, EROEI is much less helpful. In fact, the EROEI calculation strips out the timing over which the energy return is made, even though this may vary greatly. The delay (and thus needed amount of debt) is likely to be greatest for those energy products where large front-end capital expenditures are r
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  6. The system acts as if whenever one pump dispenses the energy products we want, another pump disperses other products we don’t want. Let’s look at three of the big unwanted “co-products.”

    1. Rising debt is an issue because fossil fuels give us things that would never have been possible, in the absence of fossil fuels. For example, thanks to fossil fuels, farmers can have such things as metal plows instead of wooden ones and barbed wire to separate their property from the property of others. Fossil fuels provide many more advanced capabilities as well, including tractors, fertilizer, pesticides, GPS systems to guide tractors, trucks to take food to market, modern roads, and refrigeration.

    The benefits of fossil fuels are immense, but can only be experienced once fossil fuels are in use. Because of this, we have adapted our debt system to be a much greater part of the economy than it ever needed to be, prior to the use of fossil fuels. As the cost of fossil fuel extraction rises, ever more debt is required to place these fossil fuels in use. The Bank for International Settlements tells us that worldwide, between 2006 and 2014, the amount of oil and gas company bonds outstanding increased by an average of 15% per year, while syndicated bank loans to oil and gas companies increased by an average of 13% per year. Taken together, about $3 trillion of these types of loans to the oil and gas companies were outstanding at the end of 2014.

    As the cost of fossil fuels rises, the cost of everything made using fossil fuels tends to rise as well.

    3. A more complex economy is a less obvious co-product of the increasing use of fossil fuels. In a very simple economy, there is little need for big government and big business. If there are businesses, they can be run by a small number of individuals, with little investment in capital goods. A king, together with a handful of appointees, can operate the government if it does not provide much in the way of services such as paved roads, armies, and schools. International trade is not a huge necessity because workers can provide nearly all necessary goods and services with local materials.

    The use of increasing amounts of fossil fuels changes the situation materially. Fossil fuels are what allow us to have metals in quantity–without fossil fuels, we need to cut down forests, use the trees to make charcoal, and use the charcoal to make small quantities of metals.

    Once fossil fuels are available in quantity, they allow the economy to make modern capital goods, such as machines, oil drilling equipment, hydraulic dump trucks, farming equipment, and airplanes. Businesses need to be much larger to produce and own such equipment. International trade becomes much more important, because a much broader array of materials is needed to make and operate these devices. Education becomes ever more important, as devices become increasingly complex. Governments become larger, to deal with the additional services they now need to provide.

    f an increasing share of the output of the economy is funneled into management pay, expenditures for capital goods, and other expenditures associated with an increasingly complex economy (including higher taxes, and more dividend and interest payments), less of the output of the economy is available for “ordinary” laborers–including those without advanced training or supervisory responsibilities.

    As a result, pay for these workers is likely to fall relative to the rising cost of living. Some would-be workers may drop out of the labor force, because the benefits of working are too low compared to other costs, such as childcare and transportation costs. Ultimately, the low wages of these workers can be expected to start causing problems for the economic system as a whole, because these workers can no longer afford the output of the system. These workers reduce their purchases of houses and cars, both of which are produced using fossil fuels and other commodities.

    Ultimately, the prices of commodities fall below their cost of production. This happens because there are so many of these ordinary laborers, and the lack of good wages for these workers tends to slow the “demand” side of the economic growth loop. This is the problem that we are now experiencing.

    The Two Pumps Are Really Energy and Entropy

    Unlike the markings on the pump (gasoline and ethanol), the two pumps of our system are energy consumption and entropy. When we think we are getting energy consumption, we really get various forms of entropy as well.

    The first pump, rising energy consumption, seems to be what makes the world economy grow.

    The second pump in Figure 3 is Entropy Production. Entropy is a measure of the disorder associated with the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels and other energy products. Entropy can be thought of as a loss of information. Once energy products are burned, we have a portion of GDP in the place of the energy products that have been consumed. This is why there is a high correlation between energy consumption and GDP. As energy products are burned, we also have an increasing pile of debt, increasing pollution (that our sinks become less and less able to handle), and increasing wealth disparity.
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  7. Everywhere the opposition is forced by statute to make its stand not on climate change arguments, but on old grounds. This pipeline will hurt water quality. That coal port will increase local pollution. The dust that flies off those coal trains will cause asthma. All the arguments are perfectly correct and accurate and by themselves enough to justify stopping many of these plans, but a far more important argument always lurks in the background: each of these new infrastructure projects is a way to extend the life of the fossil fuel era a few more disastrous decades.

    The money, however, is only part of it. There’s also a sense in which the whole process is simply on autopilot. For many decades the economic health of the nation and access to fossil fuels were more or less synonymous. So it’s no wonder that the laws, statutes, and regulations favor business-as-usual. The advent of the environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s introduced a few new rules, but they were only designed to keep that business-as-usual from going disastrously, visibly wrong. You could drill and mine and pump, but you were supposed to prevent the really obvious pollution. No Deepwater Horizons. And so fossil fuel projects still get approved almost automatically, because there’s no legal reason not to do so.

    in a few places you can see more than just the opposition; you can see the next steps unfolding. Last fall, for instance, Portland, Oregon -- the scene of a memorable “kayaktivist” blockade to keep Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs bottled up in port -- passed a remarkable resolution. No new fossil fuel infrastructure would be built in the city, its council and mayor declared. The law will almost certainly block a huge proposed propane export terminal, but far more important, it opens much wider the door to the future. If you can’t do fossil fuel, after all, you have to do something else -- sun, wind, conservation. This has to be our response to the living-dead future that the fossil fuel industry and its allied politicians imagine for our beleaguered world: no new fossil fuel infrastructure. None. The climate math is just too obvious.
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  8. My own pick might be a story that passed largely unnoticed in our American world. Sitting atop some of the planet's great oil reserves and getting 73% of their revenues from oil sales (income that dropped by 23% last year), the Saudi royals just hiked the domestic price of gas at the pump by 40%. Though it still remains dirt cheap by global standards, that act -- which is like charging for salt water in the middle of the ocean -- is an indication that something startling is going on. And note that, in the years to come, that kingdom's rulers are planning to cut back on similar subsidies for “electricity, water, diesel, and kerosene.” In other words, the world’s largest oil producer and a country of striking wealth (and foreign reserves) no longer feels comfortable giving away gas to its own population, even though this is part of a bargain it struck long ago for peace in the kingdom.

    And the reason for this has little to do with Iran or Syria or Yemen or Iraq or the Islamic State. The problem is far more basic, as TomDispatch’s resident energy expert Michael Klare points out today. It’s the price of oil, which in the last 18 months has dropped through the floor. In a sense, the oil business -- with its constellation of giant energy firms, until recently among the most profitable companies in history, and its energy-producing states, until recently riding high -- may prove to be the natural-resource equivalent of a failed state, and, as Klare makes clear, the changing economics of oil will transform the political face of the planet. So keep your eye on Saudi Arabia. Things there could get ugly indeed.

    As of this moment, however, Brent crude is selling at $33 per barrel, one-third of its price 18 months ago and way below the break-even price for most unconventional “tough oil” endeavors. Worse yet, in one scenario recently offered by the International Energy Agency (IEA), prices might not again reach the $50 to $60 range until the 2020s, or make it back to $85 until 2040. Think of this as the energy equivalent of a monster earthquake -- a pricequake -- that will doom not just many “tough oil” projects now underway but some of the over-extended companies (and governments) that own them.

    Brent prices rose to stratospheric levels, reaching a record $143 per barrel in July 2008. With the failure of Lehman Brothers on September 15th of that year and the ensuing global economic meltdown, demand for oil evaporated, driving prices down to $34 that December.

    With factories idle and millions unemployed, most analysts assumed that prices would remain low for some time to come. So imagine the surprise in the oil business when, in October 2009, Brent crude rose to $77 per barrel. Barely more than two years later, in February 2011, it again crossed the $100 threshold, where it generally remained until June 2014.

    Several factors account for this price recovery, none more important than what was happening in China, where the authorities decided to stimulate the economy by investing heavily in infrastructure, especially roads, bridges, and highways. Add in soaring automobile ownership among that country’s urban middle class and the result was a sharp increase in energy demand.

    in early 2014, when the price pendulum suddenly began swinging in the other direction, as production from unconventional fields in the U.S. and Canada began to make its presence felt in a big way. Domestic U.S. crude production, which had dropped from 7.5 million barrels per day in January 1990 to a mere 5.5 million barrels in January 2010, suddenly headed upwards, reaching a stunning 9.6 million barrels in July 2015. Virtually all the added oil came from newly exploited shale formations in North Dakota and Texas.

    In mid-2014, these and other factors came together to produce a perfect storm of price suppression. At that time, many analysts believed that the Saudis and their allies in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would, as in the past, respond by reining in production to bolster prices. However, on November 27, 2014 -- Thanksgiving Day -- OPEC confounded those expectations, voting to maintain the output quotas of its member states. The next day, the price of crude plunged by $4 and the rest is history.

    Aside from the continuing economic slowdown in China and the surge of output in North America, the most significant factor in the unpromising oil outlook, which now extends bleakly into 2016 and beyond, is the steadfast Saudi resistance to any proposals to curtail their production or OPEC’s.

    Many reasons have been given for the Saudis’ resistance to production cutbacks, including a desire to punish Iran and Russia for their support of the Assad regime in Syria.

    In the view of many industry analysts, the Saudis see themselves as better positioned than their rivals for weathering a long-term price decline because of their lower costs of production and their large cushion of foreign reserves. The most likely explanation, though, and the one advanced by the Saudis themselves is that they are seeking to maintain a price environment in which U.S. shale producers and other tough-oil operators will be driven out of the market.

    Only three developments could conceivably alter the present low-price environment for oil: a Middle Eastern war that took out one or more of the major energy suppliers; a Saudi decision to constrain production in order to boost prices; or an unexpected global surge in demand.
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  9. In a long article, Charlie Stross breaks down the way that climate change, human reactions to climate change, and economics are turning the world into a place overrun by heavily armed racist kooks with the power and willingness to destroy everything in their race to get rich enough to buy a mountaintop retreat before the seas rise.

    A good parallel read is Bruce Sterling's "general health-check for our world's many regions and peoples," which includes such nuggets as "Iraq remains a catastrophic mess. Since they're so visibly keen on sectarian ethnic-cleansing, they ought to abandon the shell of the national order and form balkanized mini-states. It makes sense, but I don't think even that would help them."

    Oh, and "Russia is so lastingly humiliated by their failure to globalize that they've become a 'troll state... Americans used to have all kinds of practical "reform" advice for Russia, but that's worse than useless now. If you show up in Russia and tell 'em to follow the American Dream, it's like showing up with whooping cough at a house party for tuberculosis."

    Restricting transnational mobility for the proles/serfs/99.9% is part of the program and plays well to the nativist strand in climate change politics, which is why unless you've got a few million burning a hole in your back pocket you'll find it really difficult to legally immigrate into the UK or USA or other top-tier countries from outside the developed world. And why all our corporate-owned media (that is, 95% of them: Reddit is owned by Conde Nast, The Times and Fox News and 90% of the newspapers in Australia are owned by Rupert Murdoch, and so on) are banging the drum against immigration, at the behest of their (investor visa equipped) owners.

    But anyway, here's my summary of the next decade:

    1. The weather's going to get worse.

    2. We're going to see more and more unscrupulous huckster types leading revanchist, nativist right wing political movements and banging the anti-immigrant drum, world-wide. Civil rights include the right to free movement; this makes civil rights an easy scapegoat and target for the angry populist nativists. Sensible media capitalists (those with a sense of self-preservation) will pander to these assclowns. Courageous media capitalists (those with the odd ethical bone in their body) will stand up to them and get themselves assassinated or imprisoned. Luckily we have the internet except, oops, Facebook owns it and FB will do whatever they're told. (And if not Facebook, Google. The internet is infrastructure, and if annoying dissidents are drinking from the pure tapwater of honest news and you own the pumping station ...)

    3. This is going to happen both in nominally/formerly Christian countries and in the Muslim world. Both sides will see each other in a mirror and hiss like cats, but it doesn't really signify anything. Fear of terrorism is a rallying point, so expect unscrupulous politicians to use crack-downs on their local minorities to bolster their popularity. This will of course include crack-downs on civil rights because nothing annoys a political entrepreneur trying to posture as a strong leader like a civil rights lawyer with a good case.

    4. The ongoing 1300-year Sunni/Shi'ite cold war will continue, sometimes hotter, thanks to climate-induced disruption in the Middle East and the eventual collapse of the Saudi petrochemical economy. The ongoing Saudi succession crisis isn't going to help (as we just saw).

    6 None of this political posturing is going to do jack shit to roll back the already-in-train effects of climate change so the immigration pressure will continue, driving trends (2) and (3).

    7. Don't buy long term coal or oil futures.
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  10. my core prediction for 2016 is that all the things that got worse in 2015 will keep on getting worse over the year to come. The ongoing depletion of fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources will keep squeezing the global economy, as the real (i.e., nonfinancial) costs of resource extraction eat up more and more of the world’s total economic output, and this will drive drastic swings in the price of energy and commodities—currently those are still headed down, but they’ll soar again in a few years as demand destruction completes its work. The empty words in Paris a few weeks ago will do nothing to slow the rate at which greenhouse gases are dumped into the atmosphere, raising the economic and human cost of climate-related disasters above 2015’s ghastly totals—and once again, the hard fact that leaving carbon in the ground means giving up the lifestyles that depend on digging it up and burning it is not something that more than a few people will be willing to face.

    Healthy companies in a normal economy usually have P/E ratios between 10 and 20; that is, their total stock value is between ten and twenty times their annual earnings. Care to guess what the P/E ratio is for Amazon as of last Friday’s close? A jawdropping 985.

    At that, Amazon is in better shape than some other big-name tech firms these days, as it actually has earnings. Twitter, for example, has never gotten around to making a profit at all, and so its P/E ratio is its current absurd stock value divided by zero. Valuations this detached from reality haven’t been seen since immediately before the “Tech Wreck” of 2000, and the reason is exactly the same: vast amounts of easy money have flooded into the tech sector, and that torrent of cash has propped up an assortment of schemes and scams that make no economic sense at all. Sooner or later, as a function of the same hard math that brings every bubble to an end, Tech Wreck II is going to hit, vast amounts of money are going to evaporate, and a lot of currently famous tech companies are going to go the way of Pets.com.

    my best guess at this point is that photovoltaic (PV) solar energy is going to be the next big energy bubble.

    Solar PV is a good deal less environmentally benign than its promoters like to claim—like so many so-called “green” technologies, the environmental damage it causes happens mostly in the trajectory from mining the raw materials to manufacture and deployment, not in day-to-day operation—and the economics of grid-tied solar power are so dubious that in practice, grid-tied PV is a subsidy dumpster rather than a serious energy source. Nonetheless, I expect to see such points brushed aside, airily or angrily as the case may be, as the solar lobby and its wholly-owned subsidiaries in the green movement make an all-out push to sell solar PV as the next big thing.
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