Improvident province: Saskatchewan government debt

Total Saskatchewan provincial government debt, 1977 to 2017

   ‘Improvident’: Lacking foresight; spendthrift; failing to provide for the future.  

This week’s graph shows total Saskatchewan government debt, adjusted for inflation, for the period 1977 to 2017.  The coloured shading indicates the political party in power at the time: orange for New Democratic Party, blue for the Conservative Party, and green for the Saskatchewan Party.

From 2007 to 2015, Saskatchewan experienced an economic boom.  In 2007 and ’08, commodity values spiked and pushed up the prices of potash, uranium, oil, natural gas, lumber, and grains and oilseeds.  Provincial gross domestic product (GDP) rose sharply.  Even after the financial problems of 2008, a revival in energy prices and energy-sector expansion in this province and neighboring Alberta kept demand for employees strong and wages high (for many workers, though not all).  Since the boom began, housing prices in Saskatchewan have nearly doubled.  Saskatchewan went from being a have-not province to a prosperous and swaggering economic leader.

As resource royalties rose and taxable incomes and sales increased, provincial tax inflows initially swelled.  One could imagine that the provincial government would take advantage of these windfalls to pay down Saskatchewan’s debt.  The government did not.  Instead, it cut taxes and embarked on several ill-conceived spending projects.  Corporate income taxes in Saskatchewan are now, according to the government, the lowest in the country (source here).  As the graph shows, after 16 years of paying down the debt (1992-2008), that pay-down ended in 2009, just as the Saskatchewan economy was heating up.

Initially, provincial debt levels stayed relatively constant as the boom proceeded, but debt began increasing in 2012.  Since then, Saskatchewan’s provincial government debt has doubled, with much of the increase racked up before the economic good times ended. Even as the economy was prospering the government was borrowing money.

Having squandered its chance to pay down debt, save for a rainy day, or build up a financial cushion, the Saskatchewan government came to the end of the economic upturn only to find itself in an increasingly dire financial situation.  In its most recent budget, the province took several draconian steps to try to control its self-inflicted deficits and restrain its ballooning debt.  The government:
– shut down the province’s bus company;
– cut transfers to cities;
– reduced funding to libraries;
– eliminated funding for home repairs for people on social assistance;
– reduced wages for civil servants;
– cut subsidized podiatry services (creating a risk of increased foot amputations for diabetics and others);
– cut subsidies for hearing aids for children; and
– eliminated funding to pay for funerals for its poorest citizens.

Projections by the provincial government show that by 2020 the province’s debt will return to levels not seen since 1992.  In that year, provincial government cabinet ministers were forced to fly to New York City to meet with bond-rating agencies to prevent those agencies from downgrading provincial debt to “junk” status.  The specter of a return to those levels of debt shows that the government of Saskatchewan truly bungled the boom.

Graph sources: data obtained by request from the Economic & Fiscal Policy Branch of Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Finance

Earning negative returns: Energy use in modern food systems

Graph of energy use in the U.S. food system
Energy use in the U.S. food system, 2010, 2011, and 2012

Humans eat food and food gives us energy.  Some humans use some of that energy to move their bodies and limbs to produce more food.  Our great-grandparents ate hearty breakfasts and used some of that food energy to power their work in fields or gardens.  Here’s the important part: until the fossil fuel age, our food production work had to produce more energy than it required.  We had to achieve positive returns on our energy investments.  If we expended 1 Calorie of energy working in the field, the resulting food had to yield 3, 4, 5, or more Calories, or else we and those who depended upon us would starve.

Pioneering research by David and Marcia Pimentel and others show that traditional food systems yielded positive returns.  The Pimentels’ book, Food, Energy, and Society, documents that for every unit of energy that a traditional farmer (i.e., no fossil fuels) put into cultivating and harvesting corn or other crops, that farmer received back 5 to 10 units.  For almost the entire 10,000-year history of agriculture, food systems were net energy producers.  Food powered  societies and civilizations.

In the 20th century we did something unprecedented: we turned human food systems from energy sources into energy sinks.  Today, for every Calorie consumed in North America, 13.3 Calories (mostly in the form of fossil fuels) have been expended.  This calculation includes all energy use in the food system: farm production, transport, processing, packaging, retailing, in-home food preservation and cooking, energy use in restaurants, etc.  It also takes into account the fact that 30 to 40 percent of all food produced is thrown away.

Traditional food systems generated an energy return on investment (EROI) of between 5:1 and 10:1.  Because our modern food system returns one unit of energy for every 13.3 invested, the EROI works out to just 0.08:1.*

The graph above shows energy use in the US food system in the years 2010, 2011, and 2012.  The data is from a recent report published by the USDA.  It shows very high levels of energy use throughout the entire food system.  Perhaps surprising, aggregate food-related energy use in US homes—running refrigerators, powering ovens, washing dishes—far exceeds aggregate energy use on US farms.  Similarly, energy use in food services (food served in restaurants, hospitals, prisons, care homes, etc.) also exceeds energy use on farms.  This data shows that the entire food system is very energy costly.  As we’re forced to curtail fossil fuel use we will be forced to dramatically transform all parts of our food systems.

* This comparison does not take into account the firewood used to cook meals in traditional systems.  But even taking that into account we still find that traditional systems have EROI values that were (and are) large multiples of the EROI values for fossil-fueled systems.

Graph source: Canning, Rehkamp, Waters, and Etemadnia, The Role of Fossil Fuels in the U.S. Food System and the American Diet (USDA, 2017)

Full-world economics and the destructive power of capital: Codfish catch data 1850 to 2000

Graph of North Atlantic cod fishery, fish landing in tonnes, 1850 to 2000
Codfish catch, North Atlantic, tonnes per year

Increasingly, the ideas of economists guide the actions of our elected leaders and shape the societies and communities in which we live.  This means that incorrect or outdated economic theories can result in damaging policy errors.  So we should be concerned to learn that economics has failed to take into account a key transition: from a world relatively empty of humans and their capital equipment to one now relatively full.

A small minority of economists do understand that we have made an important shift.  In the 1990s, Herman Daly and others developed the idea that we have shifted to “full-world economies.”  (See pages 29-40 here.)  The North Atlantic cod fishery illustrates this transition.  This week’s graph shows tonnes of codfish landed per year, from 1850 to 2000.

Fifty years ago, when empty-world economics still held, the fishery was constrained by a lack of human capital: boats, motors, and nets.  At that time, adding more human capital could have caused the catch to increase.  Indeed, that is exactly what happened in the 1960s when new and bigger boats with advanced radar and sonar systems were deployed to the Grand Banks and elsewhere.  The catch tripled.  The spike in fish landings is clearly visible in the graph above.

But in the 1970s and ’80s, a shift occurred: human capital stocks—those fleets of powerful, sonar-equipped trawlers—expanded so much that the limiting factor became natural capital: the supply of fish.  The fishery began to collapse and no amount of added human capital could reverse the decline.  The system had transitioned from one constrained by human capital to one constrained by natural capital—from empty-world to full-world economics.  A similar transition is now evident almost everywhere.

An important change has occurred.  Unfortunately, economics has not internalized or adapted to this change.  Economists, governments, and business-people still act as if the shortage is in human-made capital.  Thus, we continue our drive to amass capital—we expand our factories, technologies, fuel flows, pools of finance capital, and the size of our corporations, in order to further expand the quantity and potency of human-made capital stocks.  Indeed, this is a defining feature of our economies: the endless drive to expand and accumulate supplies of capital.  That is why our system is called “capitalism.”  And a focus on human-made capital was rational when it was in short supply.  But now, in most parts of the world, human capital is too plentiful and powerful and and, thus, destructive.  It is nature and natural capital that is now scarce and limiting.  This requires an economic and civilizational shift: away from a focus on amassing human capital and toward a focus on protecting and maximizing natural capital: forests, soils, water, fish, biodiversity, wild animal populations, a stable climate, and intact ecosystems.  Failure to make that shift will push more and more of the systems upon which humans depend toward a collapse that mirrors that of the cod stock.

Graph source:  United Nations GRID-Arendal, “Collapse of Atlantic cod stocks off the East Coast of Newfoundland in 1992


Taking nearly the whole loaf: US and Canadian wheat and bread prices, 1975 to present

Graph of Canadian retail store bread price and country elevator wheat price, 1975-2016
Canadian retail store bread price and farm-gate wheat price, 1975-2016

Graph of United States retail store bread price and farm-gate wheat price, 1975-2016

United States retail store bread price and farm-gate wheat price, 1975-2016

It’s been said before but it bears repeating: farmers are making too little because others are taking too much.  For instance, food retailers, processors, grain companies, and railways are taking far too large a share of the retail price of bread.  And the share taken by these companies is increasing—choking off the flow of dollars to our family farms.  At the same time, these same corporations are profiteering by driving up the prices of the staple foods we all need to feed ourselves and our families.

This week’s two graph show data for the US and Canada.  Both graphs show the price of a bushel of wheat (the relatively flat line across the bottom of each graph) and the retail value of the approximately 60 loaves of bread that can be produced from a bushel of wheat (the upward-trending line in each graph).  The wheat prices are farm-gate or country elevator values.  The units are Canadian or US dollars, as appropriate, not adjusted for inflation.

The units are not important, however.  What is important is the widening gap between what consumers pay for bread and the amount of money that makes it back to the farm.  This growing gap represents the ever-larger share taken by food retailers, flour millers and other processors, railways, and elevator companies and grain traders.

Very little of the money spent in grocery stores makes it back to American or Canadian farms.  Compounding this problem is the fact that most of the money that does make it back to these farms is quickly captured by powerful farm-input companies. (See details here.)  Corporations upstream and downstream from farmers use their market power to capture huge profits for themselves while reducing net farm income to zero in many years.  To keep farms solvent, governments and citizens must step in with taxpayer-funded farm support payments.  In Canada, these payments have totaled $100 billion dollars over the past three decades, and more than $400 billion in the US.  From some perspectives, the primary beneficiaries of these payments are the executives and shareholders of the dominant agribusiness/food corporations.

Finally, there is the issue of efficiency.  Farmers are relentlessly urged to become more efficient.  Indeed, they are forced to increase efficiency simply to remain solvent in the face of declining farm-gate prices and rising input costs.  Farmers are so efficient today that they can produce grains and other products for 1970s’ prices.  But what of efficiency elsewhere in the system?  What does it indicate about the efficiency of huge corporate flour millers and food retailers if they must constantly take more and more money for themselves?  Are they becoming less efficient as they get larger?  Or are they simply using their increasing size and power to capture more profit for themselves?  And if citizens are going to be made to pay more for food anyway, then why badger farmers to become ever more efficient?

Farmers are the primary victims of the abuses of power within the food system.  But everyone is hurt as we are made to pay increased taxes to fund farm-support programs and to pay increased retail prices to support the outsized profit needs of the dominant food-system transnationals and their shareholders.

Graph sources:
Canadian bread: Statistics Canada, Consumer Prices and Price Indexes (Catalog number 62-010); CANSIM Table 326-0012.
US bread: Bureau of Labour Statistics, “Bread prices 1980-2015“.
Canadian wheat: Government of Saskatchewan, Saskatchewan Agriculture and Agri-food, “StatFacts-Canadian Wheat Board Payments for No. 1 CWRS”; CANSIM Table  002-0043.
US Wheat: United States Department of Agriculture, “Wheat Yearbook”   

China will save us?  50+ years of data on Chinese energy consumption

Graph of Chinese energy consumption by source or fuel, 1965 to 2016
Chinese energy consumption, by source or fuel, 1965 to 2016

There’s a lot being written about China’s rapid push to install solar panels and wind turbines (e.g., see here).  And as the US withdraws from the Paris Agreement, pundits have suggested that this opens the door for Chinese leadership on renewable energy and climate change mitigation (see here).  And China certainly has taken over global production of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels.  But is this talk of China’s low-carbon, renewable-energy future premature and overoptimistic?  Are we just pretending, because so little positive is happening where we live, that something good is happening somewhere?  Chinese energy consumption data provides a corrective to the flood of uncritical news stories that imply that China will save us.

This week’s graph shows how various energy sources are being combined to power China’s rapidly growing and industrializing economy.  The units are “billions of barrels of oil equivalent”: all energy sources have been recorded based on their energy content relative to the energy contained in a barrel of oil.  Similar data for Canada can be found here.  US data is coming soon.

Is the Chinese energy system being rapidly decarbonized?  Is China powered by wind turbines?  Or by coal?  The data can support some optimism for the future, but at present, most of the news is bad.  China remains the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels and largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs).  Let’s look at the good-news-bad-news story that is China’s energy system.

First, the good news: As is visible in the graph, China’s fossil fuel consumption has been flat-lined since 2013, and coal consumption is falling.  Further, CO2 emissions have been declining since 2014.  China has ceased, or at least paused, its rapid increase in its consumption of fossil fuels.

China is also leading the world in the installation of renewable energy systems, especially wind and solar generation systems (see here).  Chinese wind power production and consumption is growing exponentially—doubling approximately every two years.  Solar power production and consumption is growing even more rapidly and has increased 25-fold in just the past 5 years.  China has also invested massively in hydro dams, which can produce electricity with far fewer GHG emissions than coal-fired power plants.

But it would be naive or premature to simple project Chinese solar and wind power growth rates into the future and conclude that the nation will soon slash its emissions.  China’s coal-fired powerplants are relatively new and unlikely to be decommissioned prematurely.  No matter how cheap solar panels become, installing new solar arrays will never be cheaper than simply continuing to produce electricity with already-built coal plants.

Moreover, the graph makes clear that the current contribution of solar and wind to China’s energy system is small—about 2 percent of total consumption.  And while this portion will undoubtedly grow, there will be huge challenges for China as renewables make up a larger and larger percentage of its electricity generation capacity.  With a less-than-state-of-the-art power grid, China will face difficulties dealing with the fluctuations and uncertainty created by intermittent power sources such as wind and solar power.

Is China the leader we’re looking for?  If so, it is a very odd choice.  China has doubled its fossil fuel use and emissions since 2003.  It is the world’s largest fossil fuel consumer and GHG emitter, and these two facts will almost certainly remain true for decades to come.  The idea that China will pick up the slack as American and European commitments to decarbonization falter is dangerous wishful thinking.  Moreover, it should not be the case that we should expect China to lead.  It was us—the UK, US, EU, Canada and similar early-adopters of fossil fuels, cars, and consumerism—that overfilled the atmosphere with GHGs over the past century.  China has come late to the fossil fuel party.  Asking it to lead the way out the door—asking it to take the lead in decarbonization—is as inappropriate as it is naive.

Here’s one last reason why it’s wrong to look for China to lead the way to a zero-carbon future: Per person, China’s emissions are about half of those in Canada and the US (source here).  Is it right for those of us neck deep in high-emission consumerist car-culture to look to relatively poor people with relatively low emissions and urge them to “go first” down the road of carbon reduction?


Powering Canada: 51 years of Canadian energy use data

Graph of Canadian energy use, by fuel or energy source, 1965 to 2016.
Canadian energy use (primary energy consumption), by fuel or energy source, 1965 to 2016.

New reports in highly-respected journals Science and Nature (links here and here) tell us that the world’s economies and societies need to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions to zero before mid-century.  This has huge implications for the ways in which we power our cities, homes, food systems, transportation networks, and manufacturing plants.  Our civilization must undergo a rapid energy-system transformation, similar in magnitude and effects to previous energy transitions, such as the replacement of wood by fossil fuels in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.  Enormous changes are on the way.

To understand our possible futures it is useful to know something of the past.  The graph above shows Canadian primary energy consumption from 1965 to 2016.  The units are “millions of barrels of oil equivalent”—that is, all energy sources have been quantified based on their energy content relative to the energy contained in a barrel of oil.  (“Primary energy” is energy in the form in which it is first produced: oil from a well, coal from a mine, hydroelectricity from a dam, or photovoltaic electricity from a solar panel.  Much of the coal and some of the natural gas listed in the graph above is turned into electricity in power generating stations.)

This multi-decade look at Canadian energy use reveals both good and bad news.  Most obvious, it shows that Canada has nearly tripled its overall energy consumption since 1965.  Today, on a per-capita basis, Canadians consume more energy than citizens of most other nations.  Our very high per-capita energy use will make our energy transition more difficult and costly.

On the positive side, our rate of increase in energy use is slowing—the top line of the graph is flattening out.  Partly, this indicates that Canadians are using energy more wisely and efficiently.  But another factor may be the transfer of heavy industry and manufacturing to other nations; Canadian energy use may be growing more slowly because more of our industrial and consumer goods are made overseas.  Also, the graph may not include the full extent of energy consumed in international shipping and aviation.  If Canada’s full share of global water and air transport were added, our energy use may appear higher still.

The graph has some good news in that fossil fuel use in Canada is declining.  Coal, oil, and natural gas provide less energy to our economy today than they did 20 years ago.  Coal use, especially, has been cut.  On the negative side, any downward trendline in fossil fuel use is not nearly steep enough to intersect zero by 2050.

Good news is that Canada already has a large number of low-emission energy sources in place.  We are the world’s third-largest producer of hydro-electricity.  We also produce significant amounts of electricity from nuclear powerplants.  Starting in the 1980s and continuing today, Canada has produced about a third of its primary energy from low-emission sources: including nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar electricity generation.

This brings us to perhaps the most important fact revealed by the graph: the very slow rate of installation of new low-emission energy sources—especially solar and wind.  Today, solar and wind provide just 2 percent of our primary energy.  Indeed, the contribution of solar power is barely visible in the graph.

An energy transformation is critical.  Global greenhouse gas emissions must peak before 2020 and ramp down sharply, reaching zero three decades later.  This will be, by far, the most rapid energy transition in human history.  Canadian action so far falls far short of the scale and rate required.

P.S. A new book on the history of Canadian energy systems has recently been published.  Powering up Canada: A History of Power, Fuel, and Energy from 1600 contains chapters on the energy sources for the fur trade, early horse-powered agriculture, the rise in the importance of coal in Canada, and chapter on the development of the oil and gas sectors.

Graph sources: BP Statistical Review of World Energy.


2016: record high fossil fuel use (!) and stagnating solar power installations (?)

Graph of Primary energy consumption, by fuel or source, global, 2013-2016.
Primary energy consumption, by fuel or source, global, 2013-2016.

There are many kinds of climate change denial.  A minority of people deny that climate change is occurring or serious.  This is classic denial.  But a much more common and insidious form is all around us: accepting that the problem is real, but pretending that solutions are at hand, underway, or not very difficult.  By pretending that Elon Musk’s solar shingles or whiz-bang batteries can provide easy solutions, these people essentially deny the need for rapid, aggressive action.  They are wrong.  We are not solving the climate change problem.  At worst, record high rates of fossil fuel use are locking us into civilization-threatening levels of warming.  At best, we are proceeding toward solutions, but far too slowly.   What we must stop denying is the need for rapid, aggressive, transformative action.

Each year British Petroleum (BP) releases a report and dataset detailing global energy supply and demand.  The data includes each nation’s production and consumption of coal, oil, natural gas, hydroelectricity, and other energy sources.  Some data extends back to 1965.  BP provides one of the most important sources of energy information.  The company’s newest dataset—updated to include 2016—was released June 13th.  BP’s data shows that 2016 was another record-setting year for fossil fuel use: 11.4 billion tonnes of oil equivalent.  See graph above.  That same data shows that the rate of solar panel installation is slowing in nearly every nation.

The three graphs below are also produced from recently-updated BP data.  They show the amount of annual increase in the production and use of solar PV electricity in various countries.  This is approximately equal to the annual amount of new capacity added, but it further takes into account how much of any new capacity is actually being utilized.  The North American, Asian, and European nations featured in the graphs together host 92 percent of the world’s installed solar generation capacity.

The first of the three graphs shows how much solar PV production/ consumption increased each year in selected EU countries over the past 17 years.  It’s bad news: the rate of additions to solar power consumption peaked in 2012 and has fallen dramatically since then.  The graph shows that the rate at which EU countries are installing solar panel arrays has collapsed since 2012.  Progress toward renewables is decelerating.

Annual PV production and consumption additions, 2000 to 2013, EU countries

Further, note how each individual country accelerated its installation then slowed.  Spain, represented by the green bars, ramped up installation of solar panel arrays in 2008 and ’09.  After that, solar PV additions to Spain’s grid fell sharply, and rallied in only one year: 2012.  Germany’s solar installations followed a similar trajectory.  In that country, annual increases in solar power production and consumption grew until 2011, then began falling.  Additions to solar power production and consumption in Italy peaked in 2011 and have been falling ever since.  Nearly every EU nation is slowing the rate at which they add solar power.

The next graph shows production/consumption additions in the US and Canada.  The rates of new additions in those countries also appears to be sputtering.


The final graph shows the rate of production/consumption increases in China, India, Japan, and South Korea.  Clearly, capacity and consumption are rising rapidly in Asia.  But note that rates of installation are increasing only in China and perhaps in India.  One EU-based analyst told me that in recent years China ramped up solar-panel production to serve markets in the EU and elsewhere.  But when demand in those markets contracted, faced with a glut of panels coming out of Chinese factories, the government there pushed to install those panels in China.  Perhaps that isn’t the entire story.  It may be that China’s world-leading solar install rates are partly caused by a visionary concern for the environment and the climate, and partly by the need to absorb the output of Chinese PV panel factories left with surpluses after other nations failed to maintain installation rates.


Together, these four graphs tell a disturbing story.  Instead of accelerating rates of solar panel installations, we see stagnation or decline in nearly every nation other than China.  This comes along-side record-high fossil fuel use and record-setting CO2 emissions.  We’re failing to act aggressively enough to decarbonize global electricity systems and we are largely ignoring the project of decarbonizing our overall energy systems.  Rather, we’re increasing carbon emissions.  And as we do so, we risk slamming shut any window we may have had to keep global temperature increases under 2 degrees C.

Graph sources: BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

Happy motoring: Global automobile production 1900 to 2016

Graph of global automobile production numbers, various nations, historic, 1900 to 2016
Global automobile production (cars, trucks, and buses), 1900-2016

This week’s graph shows global automobile production over the past 116 years—since the industry’s inception.  The numbers include car, trucks, and buses.  The graph speaks for itself.  Nonetheless, a few observations may clarify our situation.

1.  Global automobile production is at a record high, increasing rapidly, and almost certain to rise far higher.

2. Annual production has nearly doubled since 1997—the year the world’s governments signed the Kyoto climate change agreement.

3. China is now the world’s largest automobile producer.  In terms of units made, Chinese production is double that of the United States.  This graph tells us something about the ascendancy of China.

4.  Most of the growth in the auto manufacturing sector is in Asia, especially Thailand, India, and China.  In 2000, those three nations together manufactured 3 million cars.  Last year their output totaled 34 million.  After 67 years of production, Australia is about to shut down its last automobile plant.  Most of its cars will be imported from Thailand, and perhaps a growing number  from China.

5. Auto production in “high-wage countries” is declining.  As noted, the Australian industry has been shuttered.  US production is down 5 percent since 2000, and Canadian production is down 20 percent.  Over that same period, production fell in France, Italy, and Japan, though not in Germany.  Since 2000, auto production increases in Mexico (+1.7 million) are roughly equal to decreases in Canada and the US (-1.2 million).

6. There are some surprises in the data:  Turkey, Slovakia, and Iran all make the  top-20 in terms of production numbers.

Graph sources: Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association of the United States, World Motor Vehicle Data, 1981 Edition; Ward’s Communications, Ward’s World Motor Vehicle Data 2002; United States Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, National Transportation Statistics, Table 1-23

Electric cars are coming…  Fast!

Graph of the number of electric vehicles worldwide and selected nations
Increase in the stock of electric vehicles: global and selected nations

When- and wherever it occurs, exponential growth is transformative.  After a long period of stagnation or slow increase, some important quantity begins doubling and redoubling.  The exponential growth in cloth, coal, and iron production transformed the world during the Industrial Revolution.  The exponential growth in the power and production volumes of transistors (see previous blog post)—a phenomenon codified as “Moore’s Law”—made possible the information revolution, the internet, and smartphones.  Electric cars and their battery systems have now entered a phase of exponential growth.

There are two categories of electric vehicles (EVs).  The first is plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).  These cars have batteries and can be driven a limited distance (usually tens of kilometres) using electrical power only, after which a conventional piston engine engages to charge the batteries or assist in propulsion.  Well-known PHEVs include the Chevrolet Volt and the Toyota Prius Plug-in.

The second category is the battery electric vehicle (BEV).  Compared to PHEVs, BEVs have larger batteries, longer all-electric range (150 to 400 kms), and no internal combustion engines.  Well-known BEVs include the Nissan Leaf, Chevrolet Bolt, and several models from Tesla.  The term electric vehicle (EV) encompasses both PHEVs and BEVs.

The graph above is reproduced from a very recent report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) entitled Global EV Outlook 2017.  It shows that the total number of electric vehicles in the world is increasing exponentially—doubling and redoubling every year or two.  In 2012, there we nearly a quarter-million EVs on streets and roads worldwide.  A year or two later, there were half-a-million.  By 2015 the number had surpassed one million.  And it is now well over two million.  Annual production of EVs is similarly increasing exponentially.  This kind of exponential growth promises to transform the global vehicle fleet.

But if it was just vehicle numbers and production volumes that were increasing exponentially this trend would not be very interesting or, in the end, very powerful.  More important, quantitative measures of EV technology and capacity are doubling and redoubling.  This second graph, below, taken from the same IEA report, shows the dramatic decrease in the cost of a unit of battery storage (the downward trending line) and the dramatic increase in the energy storage density of EV batteries (upward trending line).  If we compare 2016 to 2009, we find that today an EV battery of a given capacity costs one-third as much and is potentially one-quarter the size.  Stated another way, for about the same money, and packaged into about the same space, a current battery can drive an electric car three or four times as far.

Graph of electric vehicle battery cost and power density 2009 to 2016

Looking to the future, GM, Tesla, and the US Department of Energy all project that battery costs will decrease by half in the coming five years.  Though these energy density increases and cost decreases will undoubtedly plateau in coming decades, improvements underway now are rapidly moving EVs from the periphery to the mainstream.  EVs may soon eclipse internal-combustion-engine cars in all measures: emissions, purchase affordability, operating costs, performance, comfort, and even sales.

Source for graphs: International Energy Agency, Global EV Outlook 2017: Two Million and Counting

Complexity, energy, and the fate of our civilization

Tainter Collapse of Complex Societies book cover

Some concepts stay with you your whole life and shape the way you see the world.  For me, one such concept is complexity.  Thinking about the increasing complexity of our human-made systems gives a window into future energy needs, the rise and fall of economies, the structures of cities, and possibly even the fate of our global mega-civilization.

In 1988, Joseph Tainter wrote a groundbreaking book on complexity and civilizations: The Collapse of Complex Societies.  The book is a detailed historical and anthropological examination of the Roman, Mayan, Chacoan, and other civilizations.  As a whole, the book can be challenging.  But most of the important big-picture concepts are contained in chapters 4 and 6.

Regarding complexity, energy, and collapse, Tainter argues that:

1.  Human societies are problem-solving entities;
2.  Problem solving creates complexity: new hierarchies and control structures; increased reporting and information processing; more managers, accountants, and consultants;
3.  All human systems require energy, and increased complexity must be supported by increased energy use;
4.  Investment in problem-solving complexity reaches a point of declining marginal returns: (energy) costs rise faster than (social or economic) benefits; and
5.  Complexity rises to a point where available energy supplies become inadequate to support it and, in that state, an otherwise withstandable shock can cause a society to collapse.  For example, the western Roman Empire, unable to access enough bullion, grain, and other resources to support the complexity of its cities, armies, and far-flung holdings, succumbed to a series of otherwise unremarkable attacks by barbarians.

Societies certainly are problem-solving entities.  Our communities and nations encounter problems: external enemies, environmental threats, resource availability, disease, crime.  For these problems we create solutions: standing armies and advanced weaponry, environmental protection agencies, transnational energy and mining corporations, healthcare companies, police forces.

Problem-solving, however, entails costs in the form of complexity.  To solve problems we create ever-larger bureaucracies, new financial products, larger data processing networks, and a vast range of regulations, institutions, interconnections, structures, programs, products, and technologies.  We often solve problems by creating new managerial or bureaucratic roles (e.g., ombudsmen, human resources managers, or cyber-security specialist); creating new institutions (the UN or EU); or developing new technologies (smartphones, smart bombs, geoengineering, in vitro fertilization).  We accept or even demand this added complexity because we believe that there are benefits to solving problems.  And there certainly are, at least if we evaluate benefits on a case-by-case basis.  Taken as whole, however, the unrelenting accretion of complexity weighs on the system, bogs it down, increases energy requirements, and, as Tainter argues, eventually outstrips available energy supplies and sets the stage for collapse.  We should keep this in mind as we push to further increase the complexity of our civilization even as energy availability may be contracting.  Tainter is telling us that complexity has costs—costs that civilizations sometimes cannot bear.  This warning should ring in our ears as we consider the internet of things, smart-grids, globe-circling production chains, and satellite-controlled autonomous cars.  The costs of complexity must be paid in the currency of energy.

Complexity remains a powerful concept for understanding our civilization and its future even if we don’t share Tainter’s conclusion that increasing complexity sets the stage for collapse.  Because embedded in Tainter’s theory is an indisputable idea: greater complexity must be supported by larger energy inflows.  Because of their complexity, there simply cannot be low-energy versions of London, Japan, the EU, or the global trading system.  As economies grow and consumer choices proliferate and as we increase the complexity of societies here and around the world we necessarily increase energy requirements.

It is no longer possible to understand the world by watching money flows.  There are simply too many trillions of notional dollars, euros, and yen flitting through the global economy.  These torrents of e-money obscure what is really happening.  If we want to understand our civilization and its future, we must think about energy and material flows—about the physical structure and organization of our societies.  Complexity is a powerful analytical concept that enables us to do this.