Wind EROI range and payback time (also solar, NG, geothermal, hydro, coal)

[Clearly Energy Returned on Invested (EROI) research needs to have common standards because results vary by orders of magnitude. Taking the “average” is not going to produce the best guess because outliers skew the average up  substantially.  The EROI of onshore wind ranges from 5 to 92, Solar PV from 1 to almost 50, and hydropower from 6 to nearly 300. The energy payback times in Figure A, which come from the IPCC (in orange) are far too short. In general the IPCC greatly exaggerates how much coal, oil, and natural gas remain because the IPCC does not invite systems ecologists and the petroleum geologists who correctly predicted peak oil production based on Hubbert and other mathematical algorithms, decades of field work, and the world’s best database of oil production around the globe.

Alice Friedemann]

DOE. 2014. Wind vision a new era for wind power in the United States. Department of Energy.

Figure A. Review of energy payback and energy ratios of electricity generating technologies

Figure A. Review of energy payback and energy ratios of electricity generating technologies.

Energy ratio is the ratio of energy produced by a technology over its lifetime to the input energy required to build the power generating technology. Energy payback time is the amount of time required to pay back the technology’s input energy requirements given the amount of yearly energy produced.  Source: Non-wind estimates from [Edenhofer]; wind estimates based on literature review detailed in Appendix J.

Similar in concept to the assessment of life-cycle GHG emissions is the aim of a large body of literature to estimate on a life-cycle basis the amount of energy required to manufacture and operate energy conversion technologies or fuels (i.e., “input” energy). This concept helps inform decision makers on the degree to which various energy technologies provide a “net” increase in energy supply, and is often expressed in the form of either:

  • Energy ratio: a ratio of the amount of energy produced by a technology over its lifetime to its input energy; or
  • Energy payback time: the amount of time required to pay back the input energy given the amount of yearly energy produced.

Figure A summarizes published estimates of these two metrics for wind technologies, in comparison to estimates for other electric generation technologies as presented in a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Edenhofer]. With regard to wind energy, 55 references reporting more than 130 net energy estimates were reviewed, using the same literature screening approach as for the review of life-cycle GHG emissions (see Appendix J).

Figure A presents a summary of the review. To be clear, these results are reported from studies that exhibit considerable methodological variability. Although previous work has identified several key issues that can influence results (e.g., [Kubiszewski, Brandt 2011, Brandt 2013]), the literature remains diverse and unconsolidated. Variability in the results for wind, for example, may in part be due to difference in the treatment of end-of-life modeling (e.g., recycling); assumed system lifetime and capacity factor; technology evaluated (turbine size, height); and whether turbine replacement is considered.

Notwithstanding these caveats, the results suggest that both land-based and offshore wind power have similar, if not somewhat lower, energy payback times as other technologies, with higher (especially at the high end) energy ratios. That is, wind energy performs relatively well in comparison to other electric generation technologies on these metrics, requiring roughly the same or even lower amounts of input energy relative to energy produced.

Brandt, A.R.; Dale, M. 2011. A General Mathematical Framework for Calculating Systems-Scale Efficiency of Energy Extraction and Conversion: Energy Return on Investment (EROI) and Other Energy Return Ratios. Energies (4:8):1211–1245.

Brandt, A.R.; et al. 2013. Calculating Systems-Scale Energy Efficiency and Net Energy Returns: A Bottom-Up Matrix-Based Approach. Energy (62):235–247.

Edenhofer, O.; et al., eds. 2011. IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kubiszewski, I.; et al. 2010. Meta-Analysis of Net Energy Return for Wind Power Systems. Renewable Energy (35:1), 2010; pp. 218–225. doi:10.1016/j.renene.2009.01.012. 222703134_Meta-analysis_of_net_energy_return_for_wind_power_systems


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Pedro Prieto – what life used to be like decades ago in small Spanish villages

 [I’m reading James Howard Kunstler’s excellent trilogy “A World Made By Hand” now to get an idea of what life might be like post-peak when the worst of the crisis is over. Prieto’s vivid descriptions are wonderful, I wish he’d write a book!  Alice Friedemann]

August 16, 2015. Pedro Prieto post on village life in Spain decades ago

Something similar to the endangered “tall grass prairie” mentioned in Ugo Bardi article “Gleaning: an ancient custom that may return in the future” is happening worldwide in the cultivation of cereals, at least in Spain.
Now I believe I was privileged for living in a country that started to develop much later than other European countries. So I could live in my childhood and visiting frequently my relatives in a small village living and working basically like in the Middle Age. In 1960, in that village, there was no a single internal combustion engine. All the works were made by draft animal force or human muscular force.
My vivid memories when a child there do not remember these people suffering more than their sons and grandsons living today in the cities or few of them still in the village where I have returned , but today highly mechanized, without a single draft animal now. Much on the contrary, people today sing and dance much less, smile much less, hug much less, talk much less to others, share much less. Very humble farmers were, seen now in retrospective, much more resilient than their today descendants, which despite being perhaps architects or executives, have food in the refrigerator for three days.
They all had the habit and the tradition in that village to produce food for themselves (survivability) and for their animals for a whole year (what today we could call the Mormon backpack) in stables and barns for their animals and in the granary for cereals or hanging from the roofs or in the cellar, by drying fruits or salting or stuffing meat, or muddling or bottling preserves. They were basically living on self sufficiency basis, with minimum crops devoted to barter them for the necessary tools or few clothes, which were not made locally. They used to store always a little bit more than what was required for themselves or to help a relative, friend or neighbor if or when required.
Of course, my relatives still alive, keep remembering me that this life was far from romantic and comfortable. From the physical point of view, it was much harder, life expectancy shorter, risk of dying from an animal kick as high as today in an automobile crash, heating much more poorer and tougher than today; callus in the hands (I remember the caress of my uncle on my face, for both his kindness and roughness) or chilbain in the ears in winter. No epidural for women in labor, no implants for tooth decays or cavities, etc. etc….but also with people not only being frightened for physical inconveniences and apparently assuming their fate. On the other hand, they all had much higher pain thresholds and understanding and accepting with more much naturalness life and death concepts than today. Psychologists and psychiatrists did not exist, or were rather their own relatives, friends and neighbors.
Coming back to gleaning, I remember them reaping and gleaning by hand with both sickles and scythes. What it calls my attention these days, when I travel through some wheat fields where the tall wheat stalks of about 1 m high. Now I realize that what our agro-industry has made is to select cereal varieties (always the short term income, efficiency and productivity in mind) of much shorter stalk to have more grain in the ears per plant. As harvesting is today absolutely mechanized, and they do not need any straw to complement animal draft food, it is obviously a more efficient system.
Now, let’s imagine for a minute that we could not use harvesting machines and had only the present varieties of wheat to plant them and to reap and gleaning them by hand, with jut sickles and scythes and our much softer kidneys and backs than those of our ancestors and without draft animals in our garages nor with enough straw and barley to feed them.
Perfect storms everywhere, if the liquid fuels flows fail one day, prepare your kidneys and your backs, but in exchange please, smile, sing and dance like in the past and do not fear or be frightened in front of the difficulties.
[and later on, within this exchange of ideas on an energy forum, the following]:

In my trips to Southern Spain, I have observed a dramatic change in the last years, with the alibi that drip irrigation saves water.

The last three decades have seen a dramatic increase of these irrigation systems. Spain had the biggest production of olive oil (I believe still has). Many of the olive trees were centenary and few even millenary.

They were usually grown and cultivated with three trunks from one base, so that manual harvesting could be easier. The method was to gently and carefully beat with sticks and pick the olives from the ground. About one century ago, they extended blankets on the ground and collected them at once.

The olive trees were usually planted in dry areas, without irrigation and keeping a 12*12 m, distance frame among them (called marco real), so that the roots could both develop in surface without jeopardizing neighboring trees and get nutrients, but also could grow downwards, in search for humidity.

These trees wee very much adapted to climate and became very resistant to droughts, with the only known limitation that in years of drought, the crops will be lower, something that was admitted.

Today, with the advent of new technologies, I have seen a dramatic and sad change: the centenary trees are uprooted and replaced by new olive trees, which have only one straight trunk. They are planted in much smaller frames (4*4 m. or even less) and are pruned in trellis. They are receiving drip irrigation (water+fertilizer) through the plastic pipes. And of course, the crops are much higher and independent of the droughts (while there is water in reservoirs) than the old ones.

This makes a lot of economic sense and gives the farmers the regular income, as if they ere also a public officer or an executive in a company in the city, to copy their level of living (car+tv+gadgets,+leisure time+tourism, etc.) Harvesting is made now by means of machines hugging the single trunk and vibrating it, with a tool as a deployed inverted umbrella below or by means of a harvesting machine taller than the trees (which are not allowed to grow more than a limit) going along the furrow and doing that tree after tree.

The new olive trees have now lazy roots, that do not grow, not horizontally (have no place) and not vertically downwards, because they have water and nutrients just on the base of the trunk.

If one day, the societal system collapses for lack of imported energy to power the pumps, to replace filters or valves or digital programmers or plastic pipes (every two or three years need replacement), the whole olive trees will not resist the minimum drought.

What I have mentioned for olive trees, can be extended to all type of fruit trees in most of Spain. At the end, we are not saving water, because this is taken as a business as usual that provides very good income by exporting fruits and olive oil to the rest of Europe and the world.

Poor civilization.

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Dmitry Orlov: How Russians survived the collapse of the Soviet Union

This is one of the best articles I’ve read about what collapse may be like, the best strategies to survive, and why the Russian way of life and culture prepared them far better for hard times than America. 

Related posts on countries who have suddenly made a “peak oil” transition:

  1. Lessons learned from how Cuba survived peak oil, especially the Oxfam account if you want the details
  2. Who Lives, Who dies in a never-ending energy crisis. Book review of Nothing to Envy. Ordinary Lives in North Korea
  3. How different nations might cope with oil shortages after Peak Oil

Dmitry Orlov. Part I.  June 1, 2005.  Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century.

A decade and a half ago the world went from bipolar to unipolar, because one of the poles fell apart: The Soviet Union (S.U.) is no more. The other pole – symmetrically named the U.S. – has not fallen apart – yet, but there are ominous rumblings on the horizon. The collapse of the United States seems about as unlikely now as the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed in 1985. The experience of the first collapse may be instructive to those who wish to survive the second.

Reasonable people would never argue that that the two poles were exactly symmetrical; along with significant similarities, there were equally significant differences, both of which are valuable in predicting how the second half of the clay-footed superpower giant that once bestrode the planet will fare once it too falls apart.

I have wanted to write this article for almost a decade now. Until recently, however, few people would have taken it seriously. After all, who could have doubted that the world economic powerhouse that is the United States, having recently won the Cold War and the Gulf War, would continue, triumphantly, into the bright future of superhighways, supersonic jets, and interplanetary colonies?

But more recently the number of doubters has started to climb steadily. The U.S. is desperately dependent on the availability of cheap, plentiful oil and natural gas, and addicted to economic growth. Once oil and gas become expensive (as they already have) and in ever-shorter supply, economic growth will stop, and the U.S. economy will collapse.

In October 2004, when I started working on it, an Internet search for “peak oil” and “economic collapse” yielded about 16,300 documents; by April of 2005 that number climbed to 4,220,000. This is a dramatic change in public opinion only, because what is known on the subject now is more or less what was known a decade or so ago, when there was exactly one Web site devoted to the subject: Jay Hanson’s This sea change in public opinion is not restricted to the Internet, but is visible in the mainstream and the specialist press as well. Thus, the lack of attention paid to the subject over the decades resulted not from ignorance, but from denial: although the basic theory that is used to model and predict resource depletion has been well understood since the 1960s, most people prefer to remain in denial.


Although this is a bit off the subject of Soviet collapse and what it may teach us about our own, I can’t resist saying a few words about denial, for it is such an interesting subject. I also hope that it will help some of you to go beyond denial, this being a helpful step towards understanding what I am going to say here.

Now that a lot of the predictions are coming true more or less on schedule, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the steady climb of energy prices and the dire warnings from energy experts of every stripe, outright denial is being gradually replaced with subtler forms of denial, which center around avoiding any serious, down-to-earth discussion of the likely actual consequences of peak oil, and of the ways one might cope with them.

Instead, there is much discussion of policy: what “we” should do. The “we” in question is presumably some embodiment of the great American Can-Do Spirit: a brilliantly organized consortium of government agencies, leading universities and research centers, and major corporations, all working together toward the goal of providing plentiful, clean, environmentally safe energy, to fuel another century of economic expansion. Welcome to the sideshow at the end of the universe!

One often hears that “We could get this done, if only we wanted to.” Most often one hears this from non-specialists, sometimes from economists, and hardly ever from scientists or engineers. A few back-of-the-envelope calculations are generally enough to suggest otherwise, but here logic runs up against faith in the Goddess of Technology: that she will provide. On her altar are assembled various ritualistic objects used to summon the Can-Do Spirit: a photovoltaic cell, a fuel cell, a vial of ethanol, and a vial of bio-diesel. Off to the side of the altar is a Pandora’s box packed with coal, tar sand, oceanic hydrates, and plutonium: if the Goddess gets angry, it’s curtains for life on Earth.

But let us look beyond mere faith, and focus on something slightly more rational instead. This “we,” this highly organized, high-powered problem-solving entity, is quickly running out of energy, and once it does, it will not be so high-powered any more. I would like to humbly suggest that any long-term plan it attempts to undertake is doomed, simply because crisis conditions will make long-term planning, along with large, ambitious projects, impossible. Thus, I would suggest against waiting around for some miracle device to put under the hood of every SUV and in the basement of every McMansion, so that all can live happily ever after in this suburban dream, which is looking more and more like a nightmare in any case.

The next circle of denial revolves around what must inevitably come to pass if the Goddess of Technology were to fail us: a series of wars over ever more scarce resources. Paul Roberts, who is very well informed on the subject of peak oil, has this to say: “what desperate states have always done when resources turn scarce… [is] fight for them.”  [, 11/12 2004] Let us not argue that this has never happened, but did it ever amount to anything more than a futile gesture of desperation? Wars take resources, and, when resources are already scarce, fighting wars over resources becomes a lethal exercise in futility. Those with more resources would be expected to win. I am not arguing that wars over resources will not occur. I am suggesting that they will be futile, and that victory in these conflicts will be barely distinguishable from defeat. I would also like to suggest that these conflicts would be self-limiting: modern warfare uses up prodigious amounts of energy, and if the conflicts are over oil and gas installations, then they will get blown up, as has happened repeatedly in Iraq. This will result in less energy being available and, consequently, less warfare.

Take, for example, the last two US involvements in Iraq. In each case, as a result of US actions, Iraqi oil production decreased. It now appears that the whole strategy is a failure. Supporting Saddam, then fighting Saddam, then imposing sanctions on Saddam, then finally overthrowing him, has left Iraqi oil fields so badly damaged that the “ultimate recoverable” estimate for Iraqi oil is now down to 10-12% of what was once thought to be underground (according to the New York Times).

Some people are even suggesting a war over resources with a nuclear endgame. On this point, I am optimistic. As Robert McNamara once thought, nuclear weapons are too difficult to use. And although he has done a great deal of work to make them easier to use, with the introduction of small, tactical, battlefield nukes and the like, and despite recently renewed interest in nuclear “bunker busters,” they still make a bit of a mess, and are hard to work into any sort of a sensible strategy that would reliably lead to an increased supply of energy. Noting that conventional weapons have not been effective in this area, it is unclear why nuclear weapons would produce better results.

But these are all details; the point I really want to make is that proposing resource wars, even as a worst-case scenario, is still a form of denial. The implicit assumption is this: if all else fails, we will go to war; we will win; the oil will flow again, and we will be back to business as usual in no time. Again, I would suggest against waiting around for the success of a global police action to redirect the lion’s share of the dwindling world oil supplies toward the United States.

Outside this last circle of denial lies a vast wilderness called the Collapse of Western Civilization, roamed by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, or so some people will have you believe. Here we find not denial but escapism: a hankering for a grand finale, a heroic final chapter. Civilizations do collapse – this is one of the best-known facts about them – but as anyone who has read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire will tell you, the process can take many centuries.

What tends to collapse rather suddenly is the economy. Economies, too, are known to collapse, and do so with far greater regularity than civilizations. An economy does not collapse into a black hole from which no light can escape. Instead, something else happens: society begins to spontaneously reconfigure itself, establish new relationships, and evolve new rules, in order to find a point of equilibrium at a lower rate of resource expenditure.

Note that the exercise carries a high human cost: without an economy, many people suddenly find themselves as helpless as newborn babes. Many of them die, sooner than they would otherwise: some would call this a “die-off.” There is a part of the population that is most vulnerable: the young, the old, and the infirm; the foolish and the suicidal. There is also another part of the population that can survive indefinitely on insects and tree bark. Most people fall somewhere in between.

Economic collapse gives rise to new, smaller and poorer economies. That pattern has been repeated many times, so we can reason inductively about similarities and differences between a collapse that has already occurred and one that is about to occur. Unlike astrophysicists, who can confidently predict whether a given star will collapse into a neutron star or a black hole based on measurements and calculations, we have to work with general observations and anecdotal evidence. However, I hope that my thought experiment will allow me to guess correctly at the general shape of the new economy, and arrive at survival strategies that may be of use to individuals and small communities.

The Collapse of the Soviet Union – an Overview

What happens when a modern economy collapses, and the complex society it supports disintegrates? A look at a country that has recently undergone such an experience can be most educational. We are lucky enough to have such an example in the Soviet Union. I spent about six months living, traveling, and doing business in Russia during the perestroika period and immediately afterward, and was fascinated by the transformation I witnessed.

The specifics are different, of course. The Soviet problems seem to have been largely organizational rather than physical in nature, although the fact that the Soviet Union collapsed just 3 years after reaching peak oil production is hardly a coincidence. The ultimate cause of Soviet Union’s spontaneous collapse remains shrouded in mystery. Was it Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars? Or was it Raisa Gorbachev’s American Express card? It is possible to fake a missile defense shield; but it is not so easy to fake a Herod’s department store. The arguments go back and forth. One contemporary theory would have it that the Soviet elite scuttled the whole program when they decided that Soviet Socialism was not going to make them rich. (It remains unclear why it should have taken the Soviet elite 70 years to come to this startlingly obvious conclusion).

A slightly more commonsense explanation is this: during the pre-perestroika “stagnation” period, due to the chronic under-performance of the economy, coupled with record levels of military expenditure, trade deficit, and foreign debt, it became increasingly difficult for the average Russian middle-class family of three, with both parents working, to make ends meet. (Now, isn’t that beginning to sound familiar?) Of course, the government bureaucrats were not too concerned about the plight of the people. But the people found ways to survive by circumventing government controls in a myriad of ways, preventing the government from getting the results it needed to keep the system going. Therefore, the system had to be reformed. When this became the consensus view, reformers lined up to try and reform the system. Alas, the system could not be reformed. Instead of adapting, it fell apart.

Russia was able to bounce back economically because it remains fairly rich in oil and very rich in natural gas, and will probably continue in relative prosperity for at least a few more decades. In North America, on the other hand, oil production peaked in the early 1970s and has been in decline ever since, while natural gas production is now set to fall off a production cliff. Yet energy demand continues to rise far above what the continent can supply, making such a spontaneous recovery unlikely. When I say that Russia bounced back, I am not trying to understate the human cost of the Soviet collapse, or the lopsidedness and the economic disparities of the re-born Russian economy. But I am suggesting that where Russia bounced back because it was not fully spent, the United States will be more fully spent, and less capable of bouncing back.

But such “big picture” differences are not so interesting. It is the micro-scale similarities that offer interesting practical lessons on how small groups of individuals can successfully cope with economic and social collapse. And that is where the post-Soviet experience offers a multitude of useful lessons.

Returning to Russia

I first flew back to Leningrad, which was soon to be rechristened St. Petersburg, in the summer of 1989, about a year after Gorbachev freed the last batch of political prisoners, my uncle among them, who had been locked up by General Secretary Andropov’s final, senile attempt at clenching an iron fist. For the first time it became possible for Soviet escapees to go back and visit. More than a decade had passed since I left, but the place was much as I remembered it: bustling streets full of Volgas and Ladas, Communist slogans on the roofs of towering buildings lit up in neon, long lines in shops.

About the only thing new was a bustle of activity around a newly organized Cooperative movement. A newly hatched entrepreneurial class was busy complaining that their cooperatives were only allowed to sell to the government, at government prices, while hatching ingenuous schemes to skim something off the top through barter arrangements. Most were going bankrupt. It did not turn out to be a successful business model for them or for the government, which was, as it turned out, also on its last legs.

I went back a year later, and found a place I did not quite recognize. First of all, it smelled different: the smog was gone. The factories had largely shut down, there was very little traffic, and the fresh air smelled wonderful! The stores were largely empty and often closed. There were very few gas stations open, and the ones that were open had lines that stretched for many blocks. There was a ten-liter limit on gasoline purchases.

Since there was nothing better for us to do, my friends and I decided to take a road trip, to visit the ancient Russian cities of Pskov and Novgorod, taking in the surrounding countryside along the way. For this, we had to obtain fuel. It was hard to come by. It was available on the black market, but no one felt particularly inclined to let go of something so valuable in exchange for something so useless as money. Soviet money ceased to have value, since there was so little that could be bought with it, and people still felt skittish around foreign currency.

Luckily, there was a limited supply of another sort of currency available to us. It was close to the end of Gorbachev’s ill-fated anti-alcoholism campaign, during which vodka was rationed. There was a death in my family, for which we received a funeral’s worth of vodka coupons, which we of course redeemed right away. What was left of the vodka was placed in the trunk of the trusty old Lada, and off we went. Each half-liter bottle of vodka was exchanged for ten liters of gasoline, giving vodka far greater effective energy density than rocket fuel.

There is a lesson here: when faced with a collapsing economy, one should stop thinking of wealth in terms of money. Access to actual physical resources and assets, as well as intangibles such as connections and relationships, quickly becomes much more valuable than mere cash.

Two years later, I was back again, this time in the dead of winter. I was traveling on business through Minsk, St. Petersburg and Moscow. My mission was to see whether any of the former Soviet defense industry could be converted to civilian use. The business part of the trip was a total fiasco and a complete waste of time, just as one would expect. In other ways, it was quite educational.

Minsk seemed like a city rudely awakened from hibernation. During the short daylight hours, the streets were full of people, who just stood around, as if wondering what to do next. The same feeling pervaded the executive offices, where people I used to think of as the representatives of the “evil empire” sat around under dusty portraits of Lenin bemoaning their fate. No one had any answers.

The only beam of sunshine came from a smarmy New York lawyer who hung around the place trying to organize a state lottery. He was almost the only man with a plan. (The director of a research institute which was formerly charged with explosion-welding parts for nuclear fusion reactor vessels, or some such thing, also had a plan: he wanted to build summer cottages.) I wrapped up my business early and caught a night train to St. Petersburg. On the train, a comfortable old sleeper car, I shared a compartment with a young, newly retired army doctor, who showed me his fat roll of hundred-dollar bills and told me all about the local diamond trade. We split a bottle of cognac and snoozed off. It was a pleasant trip.

St. Petersburg was a shock. There was a sense of despair that hung in the winter air. There were old women standing around in spontaneous open-air flea markets trying to sell toys that probably belonged to their grandchildren, to buy something to eat. Middle-class people could be seen digging around in the trash. Everyone’s savings were wiped out by hyperinflation. I arrived with a large stack of one-dollar bills. Everything was one dollar, or a thousand rubles, which was about five times the average monthly salary. I handed out lots of these silly thousand-ruble notes: “Here, I just want to make sure you have enough.” People would recoil in shock: “That’s a lot of money!” “No, it isn’t. Be sure to spend it right away.” However, all the lights were on, there was heat in many of the homes, and the trains ran on time.

My business itinerary involved a trip to the countryside to tour and to have meetings at some scientific facility. The phone lines to the place were down, and so I decided to just jump on a train and go there. The only train left at 7 am. I showed up around 6, thinking I could find breakfast at the station. The station was dark and locked. Across the street, there was a store selling coffee, with a line that wrapped around the block. There was also an old woman in front of the store, selling buns from a tray. I offered her a thousand-ruble note. “Don’t throw your money around!” she said. I offered to buy her entire tray. “What are the other people going to eat?” she asked. I went and stood in line for the cashier, presented my thousand-ruble note, got a pile of useless change and a receipt, presented the receipt at the counter, collected a glass of warm brown liquid, drank it, returned the glass, paid the old woman, got my sweet bun, and thanked her very much. It was a lesson in civility.

Three years later, I was back again, and the economy had clearly started to recover, at least to the extent that goods were available to those who had money, but enterprises were continuing to shut down, and most people were still clearly suffering. There were new, private stores, which had tight security, and which sold imported goods for foreign currency. Very few people could afford to shop at these stores. There were also open air markets in many city squares, at which most of the shopping was done. Many kinds of goods were dispensed from locked metal booths, quite a few of which belonged to the Chechen mafia: one shoved a large pile of paper money through a hole and was handed back the item.

There were sporadic difficulties with the money supply. I recall standing around waiting for banks to open in order to cash my traveler’s checks. The banks were closed because they were fresh out of money; they were all waiting for cash to be delivered. Once in a while, a bank manager would come out and make an announcement: the money is on its way, no need to worry.

There was a great divide between those who were unemployed, underemployed, or working in the old economy, and the new merchant class. For those working for the old state-owned enterprises – schools, hospitals, the railways, the telephone exchanges, and what remained of the rest of the Soviet economy – it was lean times. Salaries were paid sporadically, or not at all. Even when people got their money, it was barely enough to subsist on.

But the worst of it was clearly over. A new economic reality had taken hold. A large segment of the population saw its standard of living reduced, sometimes permanently. It took the economy ten years to get back to its pre-collapse level, and the recovery was uneven. Alongside the nouveau riche, there were many whose income would never recover. Those who could not become part of the new economy, especially the pensioners, but also many others, who had benefited from the now defunct socialist state, could barely eke out a living.

This thumbnail sketch of my experiences in Russia is intended to convey a general sense of what I had witnessed. But it is the details of what I have observed that I hope will be of value to those who see an economic collapse looming ahead, and want to plan, in order to survive it.

Similarities between the Superpowers

Some would find a direct comparison between the United States and the Soviet Union incongruous, if not downright insulting. After all, what grounds are there to compare a failed Communist empire to the world’s largest economy? Others might find it humorous that the loser might have advice for the winner in what they might see as an ideological conflict. Since the differences between the two appear glaring to most, let me just indicate some similarities, which I hope you will find are no less obvious.

The Soviet Union and the United States are each either the winner or the first runner-up in the following categories: the space race, the arms race, the jails race, the hated evil empire race, the squandering of natural resources race, and the bankruptcy race. In some of these categories, the United States is, shall we say, a late bloomer, setting new records even after its rival was forced to forfeit. Both believed, with giddy zeal, in science, technology, and progress, right up until the Chernobyl disaster occurred. After that, there was only one true believer left.

They are the two post-World War II industrial empires that attempted to impose their ideologies on the rest of the world: democracy and capitalism versus socialism and central planning. Both had some successes: while the United States reveled in growth and prosperity, the Soviet Union achieved universal literacy, universal health care, far less social inequality, and a guaranteed – albeit lower – standard of living for all citizens. The state-controlled media took pains to make sure that most people didn’t realize just how much lower it was: “Those happy Russians don’t know how badly they live,” Simone Signoret said after a visit.

Both empires made a big mess of quite a few other countries, each one financing and directly taking part in bloody conflicts around the world in order to impose its ideology, and to thwart the other. Both made quite a big mess of their own country, setting world records for the percentage of population held in jails ( South Africa was a contender at one point). In this last category, the U.S. is now a runaway success, supporting a burgeoning, partially privatized prison-industrial complex (a great source of near-slave wage labor).

While the United States used to have far more goodwill around the world than the Soviet Union, the “evil empire” gap has narrowed since the Soviet Union disappeared from the scene. Now, in many countries around the world, including Western countries like Sweden, the United States ranks as a bigger threat to peace than Iran or North Korea. In the hated-empire race, the United States is now beginning to look like the champion. Nobody likes a loser, but especially if the loser is a failed superpower. Nobody had any pity for the poor defunct Soviet Union; and nobody will have any pity for poor defunct America either.

The bankruptcy race is particularly interesting. Prior to its collapse, the Soviet Union was taking on foreign debt at a rate that could not be sustained. The combination of low world oil prices and a peak in Soviet oil production sealed its fate. Later, the Russian Federation, which inherited the Soviet foreign debt, was forced to default on its obligations, precipitating a financial crisis. Russia’s finances later improved, primarily due to rising oil prices, along with rising oil exports. At this point, Russia is eager to wipe out the remaining Soviet debt as quickly as possible, and over the past few years the Russian rouble has done just a bit better than the U.S. dollar.

The United States is now facing a current account deficit that cannot be sustained, a falling currency, and an energy crisis, all at once. It is now the world’s largest debtor nation, and most people do not see how it can avoid defaulting on its debt. According to a lot of analysts, it is technically bankrupt, and is being propped up by foreign reserve banks, which hold a lot of dollar-denominated assets, and, for the time being, want to protect the value of their reserves. This game can only go on for so long. Thus, while the Soviet Union deserves honorable mention for going bankrupt first, the gold in this category (pun intended) will undoubtedly go to the United States, for the largest default ever.

There are many other similarities as well. Women received the right to education and a career in Russia earlier than in the U.S. Russian and American families are in similarly sad shape, with high divorce rates and many out-of-wedlock births, although the chronic shortage of housing in Russia did force many families to stick it out, with mixed results. Both countries have been experiencing chronic depopulation of farming districts. In Russia, family farms were decimated during collectivization, along with agricultural output; in the U.S., a variety of other forces produced a similar result with regard to rural population, but without any loss of production. Both countries replaced family farms with unsustainable, ecologically disastrous industrial agribusiness, addicted to fossil fuels. The American ones work better, as long as energy is cheap, and, after that, probably not at all.

The similarities are too numerous to mention. I hope that what I outlined above is enough to signal a key fact: that these are, or were, the antipodes of the same industrial, technological civilization.


PART II.  June 28, 2005. Differences between the Superpowers: Ethnicity.

Our thumbnail sketch of the two superpowers would not be complete without a comparison of some of the differences, which are no less glaring than the similarities.

The United States has traditionally been a very racist country, with numerous categories of people one wouldn’t want one’s daughter or sister to marry, no matter who one happens to be. It was founded on the exploitation of African slaves and the extermination of the natives. Over its formative years, there was no formal intermarriage between the Europeans and the Africans, or the Europeans and the Indians. This stands in stark contrast to other American continent nations such as Brazil. To this day in the U.S. there remains a disdainful attitude toward any tribe other than the Anglo-Saxon. Glazed over with a layer of political correctness, at least in polite society, it comes out again when observing whom most such Anglo-Saxon people actually choose to marry, or date.

Russia is a country whose ethnic profile shifts slowly from mainly European in the West to Asian in the East. Russia’s settlement of its vast territory was accompanied by intermarriage with every tribe the Russians met on their drive east. One of the formative episodes of Russian history was the Mongol invasion, which resulted in a large infusion of Asian blood into Russian genealogy. On the other side, Russia received quite a few immigrants from Western Europe. Currently, Russia’s ethnic problems are limited to combating ethnic mafias, and to the many small but humiliating episodes of anti-Semitism, which has been a feature Russian society for centuries, and, in spite of which, Jews, my family included, have done quite well there. Jews were barred from some of the more prestigious universities and institutes, and were held back in other ways (for instance, lynching).

The United States remains a powder keg of ethnic tension, where urban blacks feel oppressed by suburban whites, who in turn fear to venture into major sections of the cities. In a time of permanent crisis, urban blacks might well riot and loot the cities, because they don’t own them, and the suburban whites are likely to get foreclosed out of their “little cabins in the woods,” as James Kunstler charmingly calls them, and decamp to a nearby trailer park. Add to this already volatile mixture the fact that firearms are widely available, and the fact that violence permeates American society, particularly in the South, the West, and the dead industrial cities like Detroit.

In short, the social atmosphere of post-collapse America is unlikely to be as placid and amicable as that of post-collapse Russia. At least in parts, it is more likely to resemble other, more ethnically mixed, and therefore less fortunate parts of the Former Soviet Union, such as the Fergana valley and, of course, that “beacon of freedom” in the Caucasus, Georgia (or so says the U.S. President).

No part of the United States is an obvious choice for the survival-minded, but some are obviously riskier than others. Any place with a history of racial or ethnic tension is probably unsafe. This rules out the South, the Southwest, and many large cities elsewhere. Some people might find a safe harbor in an ethnically homogeneous enclave of their own kind, while the rest would be well-advised to look for the few communities where inter-ethnic relations have been cemented through integrated living and intermarriage, and where the strange and fragile entity that is multi-ethnic society might have a chance of holding together.

Differences between the Superpowers: Ownership

Another key difference: in the Soviet Union, nobody owned their place of residence. What this meant is that the economy could collapse without causing homelessness: just about everyone went on living in the same place as before. There were no evictions or foreclosures. Everyone stayed put, and this prevented society from disintegrating.

One more difference: the place where they stayed put was generally accessible by public transportation, which continued to run during the worst of times. Most of the Soviet-era developments were centrally planned, and central planners do not like sprawl: it is too difficult and expensive to service. Few people owned cars, and even fewer depended on cars for getting around. Even the worst gasoline shortages resulted in only minor inconveniences for most people: in the springtime, they made it difficult to transport seedlings from the city to the dacha for planting; in the fall, they made it difficult to haul the harvest back to the city.

Differences between the Superpowers: Labor Profile

The Soviet Union was entirely self-sufficient when it came to labor. Both before and after the collapse, skilled labor was one of its main exports, along with oil, weapons, and industrial machinery. Not so with the United States, where not only is most of the manufacturing being carried out abroad, but a lot of service back home is being provided by immigrants as well. This runs the gamut from farm labor, landscaping, and office cleaning to the professions, such as engineering and medicine, without which society and its infrastructure would unravel. Most of these people came to the United States to enjoy the superior standard of living — for as long as it remains superior. Many of them will eventually head home, leaving a gaping hole in the social fabric.

I have had a chance to observe quite a few companies in the U.S. from the inside, and have spotted a certain constancy in the staffing profile. At the top, there is a group of highly compensated senior lunch-eaters. They tend to spend all of their time pleasing each other in various ways, big and small. They often hold advanced degrees in disciplines such as Technical Schmoozing and Relativistic Bean-counting. They are obsessive on the subject of money, and cultivate a posh country set atmosphere, even if they are just one generation out of the coal mines. Ask them to solve a technical problem — and they will politely demur, often taking the opportunity to flash their wit with a self-deprecating joke or two.

Somewhat further down the hierarchy are the people who actually do the work. They tend to have fewer social graces and communication skills, but they do know how to get the work done. Among them are found the technical innovators, who are often the company’s raison d’être.

More often than not, the senior lunch-eaters at the top are native-born Americans, and, more often than not, the ones lower down are either visiting foreigners or immigrants. These find themselves in a variety of situations, from the working visa holders who are often forced to choose between keeping their job and going home, to those who are waiting for a green card and must play their other cards just right, to those who have one, to citizens.

The natives at the top always try to standardize the job descriptions and lower the pay scale of the immigrants at the bottom, playing them against each other, while trying to portray themselves as super-achieving entrepreneurial mavericks who can’t be pinned down to a mere set of marketable skills. The opposite is often the case: the natives are often the commodity items, and would perform similar functions whether their business were biotechnology or salted fish, while those who work for them may be unique specialists, doing what has never been done before.

It is no surprise that this situation should have come about. For the last few generations, native-born Americans have preferred disciplines such as law, communications, and business administration, while immigrants and foreigners tended to choose the sciences and engineering. All their lives the natives were told to expect prosperity without end, and so they felt safe in joining professions that are mere embroidery on the fabric of an affluent society.

This process became known as “brain drain” — America’s extraction of talent from foreign lands, to its advantage, and to their detriment. This flow of brain power is likely to reverse direction, leaving the U.S. even less capable of finding ways to cope with its economic predicament. This may mean that, even in areas where there will be ample scope for innovation and development, such as restoration of rail service, or renewable energy, America may find itself without the necessary talent to make it happen.

Differences between the Superpowers: Religion

The last dimension worth mentioning along which the Soviet Union and the United States are in stark contrast is that of religion.

Pre-revolutionary Russia’s two-headed eagle symbolized the monarchy and the church, with a crown on one head and a miter on the other. Along with its somewhat holier manifestations, such as its iconography and its monastic tradition, the Russian church was as bloated with wealth and ostentation, and as oppressive, as the monarchy whose power it helped legitimize. But over the course of the 20th century Russia managed to evolve in a distinctly secular way, oppressing religious people with compulsory atheism.

The United States, uncharacteristically for a Western nation, remains a fairly religious place, where most people look for and find God in a church, or a synagogue, or a mosque. The colonies’ precocious move to leave the fold of the British Empire has made the U.S. something of a living fossil in terms of cultural evolution. This is manifested in some trivial ways, such as the inability to grasp the metric system (a problem considered mostly solved in England itself) or its distinctly 18th century tendency to make a fetish of its national flag, as well as in some major ones, such as its rather half-hearted embrace of secularism.

What this difference means in the context of economic collapse is, surprisingly, next to nothing. Perhaps the American is more likely than not to start quoting the Bible and going on about the Apocalypse, the end of times, and the Rapture. These thoughts, need I say, are not conducive to survival. But the supposedly atheist Russian turned out to be just as likely to go on about The End of the World, and flocked to the newly opened churches in search of certainty and solace.

Perhaps the more significant difference is not between the prevalence and the lack of religion, but the differences between the dominant religions. In spite of the architectural ostentation of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the pomp and circumstance of its rituals, its message has always been one of asceticism as the road to salvation. Salvation is for the poor and the humble, because one’s rewards are either in this world or the next, not both.

This is rather different from Protestantism, the dominant religion in America, which made the dramatic shift to considering wealth as one of God’s blessings, ignoring some inconvenient points rather emphatically made by Jesus to the effect that rich people are extremely unlikely to be saved. Conversely, poverty became associated with laziness and vice, robbing poor people of their dignity.

Thus, a Russian is less likely to consider sudden descent into poverty as a fall from God’s grace, and economic collapse as God’s punishment upon the people, while the religions that dominate America — Protestantism, Judaism, and Islam — all feature temporal success of their followers as a key piece of evidence that God is well-disposed toward them. What will happen once God’s good will toward them is no longer manifest? Chances are, they will become angry and try to find someone other than their own selves to blame, that being one of the central mechanisms of human psychology. We should look forward to unexpectedly wrathful congregations eager to do the work of an unexpectedly wrathful God.

The United States is by no means homogeneous when it comes to intensity of religious sentiment. When looking for a survivable place to settle, it is probably a good idea to look for a place where religious fervor does not run to extremes.

The Loss of Technological Comforts

Warning: what I am about to say may be somewhat unpleasant, but I’d like to get the issue out of the way. Most of the technological progress of the 20th century resulted in a higher level of physical comfort. Yes, that’s why we caused global warming, a hole in the ozone layer, and a mass extinction of plants, fish, birds, and mammals: to be somewhat more comfortable for a little while.

We all expect heating and air-conditioning, hot and cold water, reliable electricity, personal transportation, paved roads, illuminated streets and parking lots, maybe even high-speed Internet. Well, what if you had to give up all that? Or, rather, what will you do when you have to give up all that?

Most of our ancestors put up with a level of physical discomfort we would find appalling: no running hot water, an outhouse instead of a flush toilet, no central heat, and one’s own two feet, or a horse, as the main means for getting around. And still they managed to produce a civilization and a culture that we can just barely manage to emulate and preserve.

It doesn’t take a crisis to make public utilities go on the blink, but a crisis certainly helps. Any crisis will do: economic, financial, or even political. Consider the governor of Primorye, a region on the far side of Siberia, who simply stole all the money that was supposed to buy coal for the winter. Primorye froze. With winter temperatures around 40 below, it’s a wonder there’s anyone still living there. It’s a testament to human perseverance. As the economic situation degenerates, events seem to unfold in a certain sequence, regardless of locale. They always seem to lead to the same result: unsanitary conditions. But an energy crisis seems to me by far the most efficacious way of depriving one of one’s treasured utility services.

First, electricity begins to wink in and out. Eventually, this settles into a rhythm. Countries such as Georgia, Bulgaria and Romania, as well as some peripheral regions of Russia, have had to put up with a few hours of electricity a day, sometimes for several years. North Korea is perhaps the best Soviet pupil we have, surviving without much electricity for years. Lights flicker on as the sun begins to set. The generators struggle on for a few hours, powering light bulbs, television sets, and radios. When it’s time for bed, the lights wink out once again.

Second in line is heat. Every year, it comes on later and goes off sooner. People watch television or listen to the radio, when there’s electricity, or just sit, under piles of blankets. Sharing bodily warmth has been a favored survival technique among humans through the ice ages. People get used to having less heat, and eventually stop complaining. Even in these relatively prosperous times, there are apartment blocks in St. Petersburg that are heated every other day, even during the coldest parts of winter. Thick sweaters and down comforters are used in place of the missing buckets of coal.

Third in line is hot water: the shower runs cold. Unless you’ve been deprived of a cold shower, you won’t be able to appreciate it for the luxury that it affords. In case you are curious, it’s a quick shower. Get wet, lather up, rinse off, towel off, dress, and shiver, under several layers of blankets, and let’s not forget shared bodily warmth. A less radical approach is to wash standing in a bucket of warm water — heated up on the stove. Get wet, lather, rinse. And don’t forget to shiver.

Next, water pressure drops off altogether. People learn to wash with even less water. There is a lot of running around with buckets and plastic jugs. The worst part of this is not the lack of running water; it is that the toilets won’t flush. If the population is enlightened and disciplined, it will realize what it must do: collect their excretions in buckets and hand-carry them to a sewer inlet. The super-enlightened build outhouses and put together composting toilets, and use the proceeds to fertilize their kitchen gardens.

Under this combined set of circumstances, there are three causes of mortality to avoid. The first is simply avoiding freezing to death. It takes some preparation to be able to go camping in wintertime. But this is by far the easiest problem. The next is avoiding humans’ worst companions through the ages: bedbugs, fleas, and lice. These never fail to make their appearance wherever unwashed people huddle together, and spread diseases such as typhoid, which have claimed millions of lives. A hot bath and a complete change of clothes can be a lifesaver. The hair-free look becomes fashionable. Baking the clothes in an oven kills the lice and their eggs. The last is avoiding cholera and other diseases spread through feces by boiling all drinking water.

It seems safe to assume that the creature comforts to which we are accustomed are going to be few and far between. But if we are willing to withstand the little indignities of reading by candlelight, bundling up throughout the cold months, running around with buckets of water, shivering while standing in a bucket of tepid water, and carrying our poop out in a bucket, then none of this is enough to stop us from maintaining a level of civilization worthy of our ancestors, who probably had it worse than we ever will. They were either depressed or cheerful about it, in keeping with their personal disposition and national character, but apparently they survived, or you wouldn’t be reading this.

Economic Comparison

It can be said that the U.S. economy is run either very well or very badly. On the plus side, companies are lean, and downsized as needed to stay profitable, or at least in business. There are bankruptcy laws that weed out the unfit and competition to keep productivity going up. Businesses use just-in-time delivery to cut down on inventory and make heavy use of information technology to work out the logistics of operating in a global economy.

On the minus side, the U.S. economy runs ever larger structural deficits. It fails to provide the majority of the population with the sort of economic security that people in other developed nations take for granted. The United States spends more on medicine and education than many other countries, and gets less for it. Instead of a single government-owned airline, it has several permanently bankrupt government-supported ones. It spends heavily on law enforcement, and has a high crime rate. It continues to export high-wage manufacturing jobs and replace them with low-wage service jobs. As I mentioned before, it is, technically, bankrupt.

Both in the former Soviet Union and in North America, the landscape has fallen victim to a massive, centrally managed uglification program. Moscow’s central planners put up identical drab and soulless buildings throughout its territory, disregarding regional architectural traditions and erasing local culture. America’s land developers have played a largely similar role, with a similarly ghastly result: the United States of Generica, where many places can be told apart only by reading their highway signs.

In North America, there is also a pervasive childish idiocy that has spread desolation across the entire continent: the idiocy of the traffic engineer. As Jane Jacobs cleverly illustrates, these are not engineers of the sort that solve problems and draw conclusions based on evidence, but “little boys with toy cars happily murmuring ‘Zoom, Zooom, Zooooom!'” [Dark Age Ahead, p. 79] The landscape that makes them happy is designed to waste as much fuel as possible by trapping people in their cars and making them drive around in circles.

It can also be said that the Soviet economy was run either very well or very badly. On the plus side, that system, for all its many failings, managed to eradicate the more extreme forms of poverty, malnutrition, many diseases, and illiteracy. It provided economic security of an extreme sort: everyone knew exactly how much they would earn, and the prices of everyday objects remained fixed. Housing, health care, education, and pensions were all guaranteed. Quality varied; education was generally excellent, housing much less so, and Soviet medicine was often called “the freest medicine in the world” — with reasonable service achievable only through private arrangements.

On the minus side, the centrally planned behemoth was extremely inefficient, with high levels of loss and outright waste at every level. The distribution system was so inflexible that enterprises hoarded inventory. It excelled at producing capital goods, but when it came to manufacturing consumer goods, which require much more flexibility than a centrally planned system can provide, it failed. It also failed miserably at producing food, and was forced to resort to importing many basic foodstuffs. It operated a huge military and political empire, but, paradoxically, failed to derive any economic benefit from it, running the entire enterprise at a net loss.

Also paradoxically, these very failings and inefficiencies made for a soft landing. Because there was no mechanism by which state enterprises could go bankrupt, they often continued to operate for a time at some low level, holding back salaries or scaling back production. This lessened the number of instant mass layoffs or outright closings, but where these did occur, they were accompanied by very high mortality rates among men between the ages of 45 and 55, who turn out to be psychologically the most vulnerable to sudden loss of career, and who either drank themselves to death or committed suicide.

People could sometimes use their old, semi-defunct place of employment as a base of operations of sorts, from which to run the kind of black market business that allowed many of them to gradually transition to private enterprise. The inefficient distribution system, and the hoarding to which it gave rise, resulted in very high levels of inventory, which could be bartered. Some enterprises continued to operate in this manner, bartering their leftover inventory with other enterprises, in order to supply their employees with something they could use or sell.

What parallels can we draw from this to employment in the post-collapse United States? Public sector employment may provide somewhat better chances for keeping one’s job. For instance, it is unlikely that all schools, colleges, and universities will dismiss all of their faculty and staff at the same time. It is somewhat more likely that their salaries will not be enough to live on, but they may, for a time, be able to maintain their social niche. Properties and facilities management is probably a safe bet: as long as there are properties that are considered valuable, they will need to be looked after. When the time comes to dismantle them and barter off the pieces, it will help if they are still intact, and one has the keys to them.

Economic Collapse in the U.S.

A spontaneous soft landing is unlikely in the U.S., where a large company can decide to shut its doors by executive decision, laying off personnel and auctioning off capital equipment and inventory. Since in many cases the equipment is leased and the inventory is just-in-time and therefore very thin, a business can be made to evaporate virtually overnight. Since many executives may decide to cut their losses all at once, seeing the same economic projections and interpreting them similarly, the effect on communities can be utterly devastating.

Most people in the U.S. cannot survive very long without an income. This may sound curious to some people — how can anyone, anywhere survive without an income? Well, in post-collapse Russia, if you didn’t pay rent or utilities — because no-one else was paying them either — and if you grew or gathered a bit of your own food, and you had some friends and relatives to help you out, then an income was not a prerequisite for survival. Most people got by, somehow.

But most people in the U.S., once their savings are depleted, would in due course be forced to live in their car, or in some secluded stretch of woods, in a tent, or under a tarp. There is currently no mechanism by which landlords can be made not to evict deadbeat tenants, or banks be prevailed upon not to foreclose on nonperforming loans. A wholesale reintroduction of rent control seems politically unlikely. Once enough residential and commercial real estate becomes vacant, and law enforcement becomes lax or nonexistent, squatting becomes a real possibility. Squatters usually find it hard to get mail and other services, but this is a very minor issue. More importantly, they can be easily dislodged again and again.


The term “loitering” does not translate into Russian. The closest equivalent one can find is something along the lines of “hanging around” or “wasting time,” in public. This is important, because once nobody has a job to go to, the two choices they are presented with are sitting at home, and, as it were, loitering. If loitering is illegal, then sitting at home becomes the only choice.

The U.S. and the Soviet Union were at two extremes of a continuum between the public and the private. In the Soviet Union, most land was open to the public. Even apartments were often communal, meaning that the bedrooms were private, but the kitchen, bathroom, and hallway were common areas. In the U.S., most of the land is privately owned, some by people who put up signs threatening to shoot trespassers. Most public places are in fact private, marked “Customers Only” and “No Loitering.” Where there are public parks, these are often “closed” at night, and anyone trying to spend a night there is likely to be told to “move along” by the police.

After the collapse, Russia experienced a swelling of the ranks of people described by the acronym “BOMZh,” which is actually short for “BOMZh i Z,” and stands for “persons without a definite place of residence or employment.” The bomzhies, as they came to be called, often inhabited unused bits of the urban or rural landscape, where, with nobody to tell them to “move along,” they were left largely in peace. Such an indefinite place of residence was often referred to as bomzhatnik. English badly needs a term for that. Perhaps we could call it a “bum garden” — it is as much a garden as an “office park” is a park.

When the U.S. economy collapses, one would expect employment rates, and, with them, residency rates, to plummet. It is hard to estimate what percentage of the U.S. population would, as a result, become homeless, but it could be quite high, perhaps becoming so commonplace as to remove the stigma. A country where most of the neighborhoods are structured so as to exclude people of inadequate means, in order to preserve property values, is not a pleasant place to be a bum. Then again, when property values start dropping to zero, we may find that some of the properties spontaneously re-zone themselves into “bum gardens,” with no political will or power anywhere to do anything about it.

I do not mean to imply that Russian bums have a good time of it. But because most of the Russian population was able to keep their place of residence in spite of a collapsing economy, the percentage of bomzhies in the general population never made it into the double digits. These most unfortunate cases led short, brutal lives, often in an alcoholic haze, and accounted for quite a lot of Russia’s spike in post-collapse mortality. Some of them were refugees — Russians ethnically cleansed from the newly independent, suddenly nationalistic republics — who could not be easily reabsorbed into the Russian population due to Russia’s chronic housing shortage.

Communal Survival

Russia’s chronic housing shortage was partly caused by the spectacular decline of Russian agriculture, which caused people to migrate to the cities, and partly due simply to the inability of the government to put up buildings quickly enough. What the government wanted to put up was invariably an apartment building: 5 floors, 9 floors, and even some 14-floor towers. The buildings went up on vacant, or vacated, land, and were usually surrounded by a generous portion of wasteland, which, in the smaller cities and towns, and in places where the soil is not frozen year-round, or covered with sulfur or soot from a nearby factory, was quickly converted into kitchen gardens.

The quality of construction always looked a bit shabby, but has turned out to be surprisingly sound structurally and quite practical. Mostly it was reinforced concrete slab construction, with ceramic tile on the outside and hard plaster for insulation on the inside. It was cheap to heat, and usually had heat, at least enough of it so that the pipes wouldn’t freeze, with the steam supplied by a gigantic central boiler that served an entire neighborhood.

One often hears that the shabbiest of these Soviet-era apartment blocks, termed “Khrushcheby” — a melding of Khrushchev, who ordered them built, and “trushcheby” (Russian for “slums”) — are about to start collapsing, but they haven’t done so yet. Yes, they are dank and dreary, and the apartments are cramped, and the walls are cracked, and the roof often leaks, and the hallways and stairwells are dark and smell of urine, but it’s housing.

Because apartments were so hard to come by, with waiting lists stretched out for decades, several generations generally lived together. This was often an unpleasant, stressful, and even traumatic way to live, but also very cheap. Grandparents often did a lot of the work of raising children, while the parents worked. When the economy collapsed, it was often the grandparents who took to serious gardening and raised food during the summer months. Working-age people took to experimenting in the black market, with mixed results: some would get lucky and strike it rich, while for others it was lean times. With enough people living together, these accidental disparities tended to even out at least to some extent.

A curious reversal took place. Whereas before the collapse, parents were often in a position to provide some financial help to their adult children, now the opposite is true. Older people who do not have children are much more likely to live in poverty than those who have children to support them. Once financial capital is wiped out, human capital becomes essential.

A key difference between Russia and the U.S. is that Russians, like most people around the world, generally spend their entire lives living in one place, whereas Americans move around constantly. Russians generally know, or at least recognize, most of the people who surround them. When the economy collapses, everyone has to confront an unfamiliar situation. The Russians, at least, did not have to confront it in the company of complete strangers. On the other hand, Americans are far more likely than Russians to help out strangers, at least when they have something to spare.

Another element that was helpful to Russians was a particular feature of Russian culture: since money was not particularly useful in the Soviet era economy, and did not convey status or success, it was not particularly prized either, and shared rather freely. Friends thought nothing of helping each other out in times of need. It was important that everyone had some, not that one had more than the others. With the arrival of market economics, this cultural trait disappeared, but it persisted long enough to help people to survive the transition.

Smelling the Roses

Another note on culture: once the economy collapses, there is generally less to do, making it a good time for the naturally idle and a bad time for those predisposed to keeping busy.

Soviet-era culture had room for two types of activity: normal, which generally meant avoiding breaking a sweat, and heroic. Normal activity was expected, and there was never any reason to do it harder than expected. In fact, that sort of thing tended to be frowned upon by “the collective,” or the rank and file. Heroic activity was celebrated, but not necessarily rewarded financially.

Russians tend to look in bemused puzzlement on the American compulsion to “work hard and play hard.” The term “career” was in the Soviet days a pejorative term — the attribute of a “careerist” — someone greedy, unscrupulous, and overly “ambitious” (also a pejorative term). Terms like “success” and “achievement” were very rarely applied on a personal level, because they sounded overweening and pompous. They were reserved for bombastic public pronouncements about the great successes of the Soviet people. Not that positive personal characteristics did not exist: on a personal level, there was respect given to talent, professionalism, decency, sometimes even creativity. But “hard worker,” to a Russian, sounded a lot like “fool.”

A collapsing economy is especially hard on those who are accustomed to prompt, courteous service. In the Soviet Union, most official service was rude and slow, and involved standing in long lines. Many of the products that were in short supply could not be obtained even in this manner, and required something called blat: special, unofficial access or favor. The exchange of personal favors was far more important to the actual functioning of the economy than the exchange of money. To Russians, blat is almost a sacred thing: a vital part of culture that holds society together. It is also the only part of the economy that is collapse-proof, and, as such, a valuable cultural adaptation.

Most Americans have heard of Communism, and automatically believe that it is an apt description of the Soviet system, even though there was nothing particularly communal about a welfare state and a vast industrial empire run by an elitist central planning bureaucracy. But very few of them have ever heard of the real operative “ism” that dominated Soviet life: Dofenism, which can be loosely translated as “not giving a rat’s ass.” A lot of people, more and more during the “stagnation” period of the 1980’s, felt nothing but contempt for the system, did what little they had to do to get by (night watchman and furnace stoker were favorite jobs among the highly educated) and got all their pleasure from their friends, from their reading, or from nature.

This sort of disposition may seem like a cop-out, but when there is a collapse on the horizon, it works as psychological insurance: instead of going through the agonizing process of losing and rediscovering one’s identity in a post-collapse environment, one could simply sit back and watch events unfold. If you are currently “a mover and a shaker,” of things or people or whatever, then collapse will surely come as a shock to you, and it will take you a long time, perhaps forever, to find more things to move and to shake to your satisfaction. However, if your current occupation is as a keen observer of grass and trees, then, post-collapse, you could take on something else that’s useful, such as dismantling useless things.

The ability to stop and smell the roses — to let it all go, to refuse to harbor regrets or nurture grievances, to confine one’s serious attention only to that which is immediately necessary, and not to worry too much about the rest — is perhaps the one most critical to post-collapse survival. The most psychologically devastated are usually the middle-aged breadwinners, who, once they are no longer gainfully employed, feel completely lost. Detachment and indifference can be most healing, provided they do not become morbid. It is good to take your sentimental nostalgia for what once was, is, and will soon no longer be, up front, and get it over with.

Asset Stripping

Russia’s post-collapse economy was for a time dominated by one type of wholesale business: asset stripping. To put it in an American setting: suppose you have title, or otherwise unhindered access, to an entire suburban subdivision, which is no longer accessible by transportation, either public or private, too far to reach by bicycle, and is generally no longer suitable for its intended purpose of housing and accumulating equity for fully employed commuters who shop at the now defunct nearby mall. After the mortgages are foreclosed and the properties repossessed, what more is there to do, except board it all up and let it rot? Well, what has been developed can be just as easily undeveloped.

What you do is strip it of anything valuable or reusable, and either sell or stockpile the materials. Pull the copper out of the streets and the walls. Haul away the curbstones and the utility poles. Take down the vinyl siding. Yank out the fiberglass insulation. The sinks and windows can surely find a new use somewhere else, especially if no new ones are being made.

Having bits of the landscape disappear can be a rude surprise. One summer I arrived in St. Petersburg and found that a new scourge had descended on the land while I was gone: a lot of manhole covers were mysteriously missing. Nobody knew where they went or who profited from their removal. One guess was that the municipal workers, who hadn’t been paid in months, took them home with them, to be returned once they got paid. They did eventually reappear, so there may be some merit to this theory. With the gaping manholes positioned throughout the city like so many anteater traps for cars, you had the choice of driving either very slowly and carefully, or very fast, and betting your life on the proper functioning of the shock absorbers.

Post-collapse Russia’s housing stock stayed largely intact, but an orgy of asset stripping of a different kind took place: not just left-over inventory, but entire factories were stripped down and exported. What went on in Russia under the guise of privatization, is a subject for a different article, but whether it’s called “privatization” or “liquidation” or “theft” doesn’t matter: those with title to something worthless will find a way to extract value from it, making it even more worthless. An abandoned suburban subdivision might be worthless as housing, but valuable as a dump site for toxic waste.

Just because the economy is going to collapse in the most oil-addicted country on earth doesn’t necessarily mean that things will be just as bad everywhere else. As the Soviet example shows, if the entire country is for sale, buyers will materialize out of nowhere, crate it up, and haul it away. They will export everything: furnishings, equipment, works of art, antiques. The last remnant of industrial activity is usually the scrap iron business. There seems to be no limit to the amount of iron that can be extracted from a mature post-industrial site.


The dismal state of Soviet agriculture turned out to be paradoxically beneficial in fostering a kitchen garden economy, which helped Russians to survive the collapse.

At one point it became informally known that 10% of the farmland — the part allocated to private plots — was being used to produce 90% of the food. Beyond underscoring the gross inadequacies of Soviet-style command and control industrial agriculture, it is indicative of a general fact: agriculture is far more efficient when it is carried out on a small scale, using manual labor.

Russians always grew some of their own food, and scarcity of high-quality produce in the government stores kept the kitchen garden tradition going during even the more prosperous times of the 60s and the 70s. After the collapse, these kitchen gardens turned out to be lifesavers. What many Russians practiced, either through tradition or by trial and error, or sheer laziness, was in some ways akin to the new organic farming and permaculture techniques. Many productive plots in Russia look like a riot of herbs, vegetables, and flowers growing in wild profusion.

Forests in Russia have always been used as an important additional source of food. Russians recognize, and eat, just about every edible mushroom variety, and all of the edible berries. During the peak mushroom season, which is generally in the fall, forests are overrun with mushroom-pickers. The mushrooms are either pickled or dried and stored, and often last throughout the winter.

Recreational Drug Use

A rather striking similarity between Russians and Americans is their propensity to self-medicate. While the Russian has traditionally been single-heartedly dedicated to the pursuit of vodka, the American is more likely than not to have also tried cannabis. Cocaine has also had a big effect on American culture, as have opiates. There are differences as well: the Russian is somewhat less likely to drink alone, or to be apprehended for drinking, or being drunk, in public. To a Russian, being drunk is almost a sacred right; to an American, it is a guilty pleasure. Many of the unhappier Americans are forced by their circumstances to drink and drive; this does not make them, nor the other drivers, nor the pedestrians (should any still exist) any happier.

The Russian can get furiously drunk in public, stagger about singing patriotic songs, fall into a snow bank, and either freeze to death or be carted off to a drunk tank. All this produces little or no remorse in him. Based on my reading of H. L. Mencken, America was also once upon a time a land of happy drunks, where a whiskey bottle would be passed around the courtroom at the start of the proceedings, and where a drunken jury would later render a drunken verdict, but Prohibition ruined all that. Russia’s prohibition lasted only a few short years, when Gorbachev tried to save the nation from itself, and failed miserably.

When the economy collapses, hard-drinking people everywhere find all the more reason to get drunk, but much less wherewithal with which to procure drink. In Russia, innovative market-based solutions were quickly improvised, which it was my privilege to observe. It was summer, and I was on a local electric train heading out of St. Petersburg. It was packed, so I stood in the vestibule of the car, and observed rainbows (it had just rained) through the missing windowpane. Soon, activity within the vestibule caught my attention: at each stop, grannies with jugs of moonshine would approach the car door and offer a sniff to the eager customers waiting inside. Price and quality were quickly discussed, an agreed-upon quantity was dispensed in exchange for a fistful of notes, jug to mug, and the train moved on. It was a tense atmosphere, because along with the paying customers there came many others, who were simply along for the ride, but expected their fair share nevertheless. I was forced to make a hasty exit and jam myself into the salon, because the freeloaders thought I was taking up valuable freeloading space.

There might be a few moonshine-makers left in rural parts of the United States, but most of the country seems to be addicted to cans and bottles of beer, or jugs, plastic or glass, of liquor. When this source dries up due to problems with interstate trucking, local breweries will no doubt continue to operate, and even expand production, to cope with both old and new demand, but there will still be plenty of room for improvisation. I would also expect cannabis to become even more widespread; it makes people less prone to violence than liquor, which is good, but it also stimulates their appetite, which is bad if there isn’t a lot of food. Still, it is much cheaper to produce than alcohol, which requires either grain or natural gas and complicated chemistry.

In all, I expect drugs and alcohol to become one of the largest short-term post-collapse entrepreneurial opportunities in the United States, along with asset stripping, and security.


Part III.  July 18, 2005.  Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century.

Loss of Normalcy

An early victim of collapse is the sense of normalcy. People are initially shocked to find that it’s missing, but quickly forget that such a thing ever existed, except for the odd vague tinge of nostalgia. Normalcy is not exactly normal: in an industrial economy, the sense of normalcy is an artificial, manufactured item.

We may be hurtling towards environmental doom, and thankfully never quite get there because of resource depletion, but, in the meantime, the lights are on, there is traffic on the streets, and, even if the lights go out for a while due to a blackout, they will be back on in due course, and the shops will reopen. Business as usual will resume. The sumptuous buffet lunch will be served on time, so that the assembled luminaries can resume discussion of measured steps we all need to take to avert certain disaster. The lunch is not served; then the lights go out. At some point, somebody calls the whole thing a farce, and the luminaries adjourn, forever.

In Russia, normalcy broke down in a series of steps. First, people stopped being afraid to speak their mind. Then, they stopped taking the authorities seriously. Lastly, the authorities stopped taking each other seriously. In the final act, Yeltsin got up on a tank and spoke the words “Former Soviet Union.”

In the Soviet Union, as this thing called normalcy wore thin due to the stalemate in Afghanistan, the Chernobyl disaster, and general economic stagnation, it continued to be enforced through careful management of mass media well into the period known as glasnost. In the United States, as the economy fails to create enough jobs for several years in a row, and the entire economy tilts towards bankruptcy, business as usual continues to be a top-selling product, or so we are led to believe. American normalcy circa 2005 seems as impregnable as Soviet normalcy circa 1985 once seemed.

If there is a difference between the Soviet and the American approaches to maintaining a sense of normalcy, it is this: the Soviets tried to maintain it by force, while the Americans’ superior approach is to maintain theirs through fear. You tend to feel more normal if you fear falling off your perch, and cling to it for dear life, than if somebody nails your feet to it.

More to the point: in a consumer society, anything that puts people off their shopping is dangerously disruptive, and all consumers sense this. Any expression of the truth about our lack of prospects for continued existence as a highly developed, prosperous industrial society is disruptive to the consumerist collective unconscious. There is a herd instinct to reject it, and therefore it fails, not through any overt action, but by failing to turn a profit, because it is unpopular.

In spite of this small difference in how normalcy is or was enforced, it was, and is being brought down, in the late Soviet Union as in the contemporary United States, through almost identical means, though with different technology. In the Soviet Union, there was something called samizdat, or self-publishing: with the help of manual typewriters and carbon paper, Russian dissidents managed to circulate enough material to neutralize the effects of enforced normalcy. In contemporary United States, we have web sites and bloggers: different technology, same difference. These are writings for which enforced normalcy is no longer the norm; the norm is the truth – or at least someone’s earnest approximation of it.

So what has become of these Soviet mavericks, some of whom foretold the coming collapse with some accuracy? To be brief, they faded from view. Both tragically and ironically, those who become experts in explaining the faults of the system and in predicting the course of its demise are very much part of the system. When the system disappears, so does their area of expertise, and their audience. People stop intellectualizing their predicament and start trying to escape it – through drink or drugs or creativity or cunning – but they have no time for pondering the larger context.


Security in post-collapse Soviet Union was, shall we say, lax. I came through unscathed, but I know quite a few people who did not. A childhood friend of mine and her son were killed in their apartment over the measly sum of 100 dollars. An elderly lady I know was knocked out and had her jaw broken by a burglar who waited outside her door for her to come home, assaulted her, took her keys, and looted her place. There is an infinite supply of stories of this sort. Empires are held together through violence or the threat of violence. Both the U.S. and Russia were, and are, serviced by a legion of servants whose expertise is in using violence: soldiers, policemen, prison wardens, and private security consultants. Both countries have a surplus of battle-hardened men who have killed, who are psychologically damaged by the experience, and have no qualms about taking human life. In both countries, there are many, many people whose stock in trade is their use of violence, in offense or defense. No matter what else happens, they will be employed, or self-employed; preferably the former.

In a post-collapse situation, all of these violent men automatically fall into the general category of private security consultants. They have a way of creating enough work to keep their entire tribe busy: if you don’t hire them, they will still do the work, but against you rather than for you. Rackets of various sizes and shapes proliferate, and, if you have some property to protect, or wish to get something done, a great deal of your time and energy becomes absorbed by keeping your private security organization happy and effective. To round out the violent part of the population, there are also plenty of criminals. As their sentences expire, or as jail overcrowding and lack of resources force the authorities to grant amnesties, they are released into the wild, and return to a life of violent crime. But now there is nobody to lock them up again because the machinery of law enforcement has broken down due to lack of funds. This further exacerbates the need for private security, and puts those who cannot afford it at additional risk.

There is a continuum of sorts between those who can provide security and mere thugs. Those who can provide security also tend to know how to either employ or otherwise dispose of mere thugs. Thus, from the point of view of an uneducated security consumer, it is very important to work with an organization rather than with individuals. The need for security is huge: with a large number of desperate people about, anything that is not watched will be stolen. The scope of security-related activities is also huge: from sleepless grannies who sit in watch over the cucumber patch to bicycle parking lot attendants to house-sitters, and all the way to armed convoys and snipers on rooftops.

As the government, with its policing and law enforcement functions, atrophies, private, improvised security measures cover the security gap it leaves behind. In Russia, there was a period of years during which the police was basically not functioning: they had no equipment, no budget, and their salaries were not sufficient for survival. Murders went unsolved, muggings and burglaries were not even investigated. The police could only survive through graft. There was a substantial amount of melding between the police and organized crime. As the economy came back, it all got sorted out, to some extent. Where there is no reason to expect the economy to ever come back, one must learn how to make strange new friends, and keep them, for life.

Political Apathy

Before, during, and immediately after the Soviet collapse, there was a great deal of political activity by groups we might regard as progressive: liberal, environmentalist, pro-democracy reformers. These grew out of the dissident movements of the Soviet era, and made quite a significant impact for a time. A decade later “democracy” and “liberalism” are generally considered dirty words in Russia, commonly associated with exploitation of Russia by foreigners and other rot. The Russian state is centrist, with authoritarian tendencies. Most Russians dislike and distrust their government, but are afraid of weakness, and want a strong hand at the helm.

It is easy to see why political idealism fails to thrive in the murky post-collapse political environment. There is a strong pull to the right by nationalists who want to find scapegoats (inevitably, foreigners and ethnic minorities), a strong pull to the center by members of the ancien regime trying to hold on to remnants of their power, and a great upwelling of indecision, confusion, and inconclusive debate on the left, by those trying to do good, and failing to do anything. Sometimes the liberals get a chance to try an experiment or two. Yegor Gaidar got to try some liberal economic reforms under Yeltsin. He is a tragicomic figure, and many Russians now cringe when remembering his efforts (and to be fair, we don’t even know how helpful or damaging his reforms might have been, since most of them were never implemented).

The liberals, reformists, and progressives in the United States, whether self-styled or so labeled, have had a hard time implementing their agenda. Even their few hard-won victories, such as Social Security, may get dismantled. Even when they managed to elect a president more to their liking, the effects were, by Western standards, reactionary. There was the Carter doctrine, according to which the United States will protect its access to oil by military aggression if necessary. There was also Clinton’s welfare reform, which forced single mothers to work menial jobs while placing their children in substandard daycare.

People in the United States have a broadly similar attitude toward politics with people of the Soviet Union. In the U.S., this is often referred to as “voter apathy”, but it might be more accurately described as non-voter indifference. The Soviet Union had a single, entrenched, systemically corrupt political party, which held a monopoly on power. The U.S. has two entrenched, systemically corrupt political parties, whose positions are often indistinguishable, and which together hold a monopoly on power. In either case, there is, or was, a single governing elite, but in the United States it organized itself into opposing teams to make its stranglehold on power seem more sportsmanlike.

In the U.S., there is an industry of political commentators and pundits which is devoted to inflaming political passions as much as possible, especially before elections. This is similar to what sports writers and commentators do to draw attention to their game. It seems that the main force behind political discourse in the U.S. is boredom: one can chat about the weather, one’s job, one’s mortgage and how it relates to current and projected property values, cars and the traffic situation, sports, and, far behind sports, politics. In an effort to make people pay attention, most of the issues trotted out before the electorate pertain to reproduction: abortion, birth control, stem cell research, and similar small bits of social policy are bandied about rather than settled, simply because they get good ratings. “Boring” but vitally important strategic issues such as sustainable development, environmental protection, and energy policy are studiously avoided.

Although people often bemoan political apathy as if it were a grave social ill, it seems to me that this is just as it should be. Why should essentially powerless people want to engage in a humiliating farce designed to demonstrate the legitimacy of those who wield the power? In Soviet-era Russia, intelligent people did their best to ignore the Communists: paying attention to them, whether through criticism or praise, would only serve to give them comfort and encouragement, making them feel as if they mattered. Why should Americans want to act any differently with regard to the Republicans and the Democrats? For love of donkeys and elephants?

Political Dysfunction

As I mentioned before, crisis-mitigating agendas for “us” to implement, whether they involve wars over access to resources, nuclear plant construction, wind farms, or hydrogen dreams, are not likely to be implemented, because this “we” entity will no longer be functional. If we are not likely to be able to implement our agenda prior to the collapse, then whatever is left of us is even less likely to do so afterward. Thus, there is little reason to organize politically in order to try to do good. But if you want to prepare to take advantage of a bad situation – well, that’s a different story!

Politics has great potential for making a bad situation worse. It can cause war, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Whenever people gather into political organizations, whether voluntarily or forcibly, it is a sign of trouble. I was at the annual meeting of my community garden recently, and among the generally placid and shy group of gardeners there were a couple of self-styled “activists.” Before too long, one of these was raising the question of expelling people. People who don’t show up for annual meetings and don’t sign up to do cleaning and composting and so on – why are they allowed to hold on to their plots? Well, some of the “rogue elements” the activist was referring to consisted of elderly Russians, who, due to their extensive experience with such things during the Soviet times, are exceedingly unlikely to ever be compelled to take part in communal labor or sit through meetings with the collective. Frankly, they would prefer death. But they also love to garden.

The reason the “element” is allowed to exist in this particular community garden is because the woman who runs the place allows them to hold on to their plots. It is her decision: she exercises leadership, and she does not engage in politics. She makes the garden function, and allows the activists to make their noise, once a year, with no ill effects. But if the situation were to change and the kitchen garden suddenly became a source of sustenance rather than a hobby, how long would it take before the activist element would start demanding more power and asserting its authority?

Leadership is certainly a helpful quality in a crisis, which is a particularly bad time for lengthy deliberations and debates. In any situation, some people are better equipped to handle it than others, and can help others by giving them directions. They naturally accumulate a certain amount of power for themselves, and this is fine as long as enough people benefit from it, and as long as nobody is harmed or oppressed. Such people often spontaneously emerge in a crisis.

An equally useful quality in a crisis is apathy. The Russian people are exceptionally patient: even in the worst of post-collapse times, they did not riot, and there were no significant protests. They coped as best they could. The safest group of people to be with in a crisis is one that does not share strong ideological convictions, is not easily swayed by argument, and does not possess an overdeveloped, exclusive sense of identity.

Clueless busybodies who feel that “we must do something” and can be spun around by any half-wit demagogue are bad enough, but the most dangerous group, and one to watch out for and run from, is a group of political activists resolved to organize and promote some program or other. Even if the program is benign, and even if it is beneficial, the politicized approach to solving it might not be. As the saying goes, revolutions eat their children. Then they turn on everyone else. The life of a refugee is a form of survival; staying and fighting an organized mob generally isn’t.

The Balkans are the post-collapse nightmare everyone is familiar with. Within the former Soviet Union, Georgia is the prime example of nationalist politics pursued to the point of national disintegration. After winning its independence, Georgia went through a paroxysm of nationalist fervor, resulting in a somewhat smaller, slightly less populous, permanently defunct state, with widespread poverty, a large refugee population, and two former provinces stuck in permanent political limbo, because, apparently, the world has lost its ability to redraw political boundaries. In its current form, it is politically and militarily a client of Washington, treasured only as a pipeline route for Caspian oil. Its major trading partner and energy supplier is the Russian Federation.

The U.S. is much more like the Balkans than like Russia, which is inhabited by a fairly homogeneous Caucasian/Asian population. The U.S. is very much segregated, usually by race, often by ethnicity, and always by income level. During prosperous times, it is kept relatively calm by keeping a percentage of people in jail that has set an all-time world record. During less prosperous times, it is at a big risk of political explosion. Multi-ethnic societies are fragile and unstable; when they fall apart, or explode, everyone loses.

Collapse in the U.S.

In the U.S., there appear to be few ways to make the collapse scenario work out smoothly for oneself and one’s family. The whole place seems too far gone in a particular, unsustainable direction. It is a real creative challenge, and we should be giving it a lot of serious thought.

Suppose you live in a big city, in an apartment or a condo. You depend on municipal services for survival. A week without electricity, or heat, or water, or gas, or garbage removal spells extreme discomfort. Any two of these is a calamity. Any three is a disaster. Food comes from the supermarket, with help from the cash machine or the credit card slot at the checkout station. Clean clothes come from the laundromat, which requires electricity, water, and natural gas. Once all the businesses have shut down and your apartment is cold, dark, smells like garbage (because it isn’t being collected) and like excrement (because the toilet doesn’t flush), perhaps it is time to go camping and explore the great outdoors.

So let’s consider suburbia. Suppose that you own a home in a developed suburban subdivision. There will still be problems with taxes, code enforcement, strangers from outer space living next door, and other boondoggles, which could get worse as conditions deteriorate. Distressed municipalities may at first attempt jack up rates to cover their costs instead of simply closing up shop. In a misguided effort to save property values, they may also attempt to enforce codes against such necessities as compost heaps, outhouses, chicken coops, and crops planted on your front lawn. Keep in mind, also, that the pesticides and herbicides lavished on lawns and golf courses leave toxic residues. Perhaps the best thing to do with suburbia is to abandon it altogether.

A small farm offers somewhat better possibilities for farming, but most farms in the U.S. are mortgaged to the hilt, and most land that has been under intensive cultivation has been mercilessly bombarded with chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, making it an unhealthy place, inhabited by men with tiny sperm counts. Small farms tend to be lonely places, and many, without access to diesel or gasoline, would become dangerously remote. You will need neighbors to barter with, to help you, and to keep you company. Even a small farm is probably overkill in terms of the amount of farmland available, because without the ability to get crops to market, or a functioning cash economy to sell them in, there is no reason to grow a large surplus of food. Tens of acres are a waste when all you need is a few thousand square feet. Many Russian families managed to survive with the help of a standard garden plot of one sotka, which is 100 square meters, or, if you prefer, 0.024710538 acres, or 1076.391 square feet.

What is needed, of course, is a small town or a village: a relatively small, relatively dense settlement, with about an acre of farmland for every 30 or so people, and with zoning regulations designed for fair use and sustainability, not opportunities for capital investment, growth, property values, or other sorts of “development”. Further, it would have to be a place where people know each other and are willing to help each other – a real community. There may still be a few hundred communities like that tucked away here and there in the poorer counties in the United States, but there are not enough of them, and most of them are too poor to absorb a significant population of economic migrants.

Investment Advice

Often when people hear about the possibility of economic collapse, they wonder: “Let’s suppose that the U.S. economy is going to collapse soon. Why is this even worth thinking about, if there is nothing I can do about it?” Well, I am not a professional investment adviser, so I risk nothing by making some suggestions for how one can collapse-proof one’s investment portfolio.

The nuclear scare gave rise to the archetype of the American Survivalist, holed up in the hills, with a bomb shelter, a fantastic number of tins of spam, and an assortment of guns and plentiful ammunition with which to fight off neighbors from further downhill, or perhaps just to shoot beer-cans when the neighbors come over for beer and spamwiches. And, of course, an American flag. This sort of survivalism is about as good as burying yourself alive, I suppose.

The idea of stockpiling is not altogether bad, though. Stockpiling food is, of course, a rotten idea, literally. But certain manufactured items are certainly worth considering. Suppose you have a retirement account, or some mutual funds. And suppose you feel reasonably certain that by the time you are scheduled to retire it won’t be enough to buy a cup of coffee. And suppose you realize that you can currently buy a lot of good stuff that has a long shelf life and will be needed, and valuable, far into the future. And suppose, further, that you have a small amount of storage space: a few hundred square feet. Now, what are you going to do? Sit by and watch your savings evaporate? Or take the tax hit and invest in things that are not composed of vapor?

Once the cash machines are out of cash, the stock ticker stops ticking, and the retail chain breaks down, people will still have basic needs. There will be flea markets and private barter arrangements to serve these needs, using whatever local token of exchange is available; bundles of $100 bills, bits of gold chain, packs of cigarettes, or what have you. It’s not a bad idea to own a few of everything you will need.

You should invest in things you will be able to trade for things you will need. Think of consumer necessities that require high technology and have a long shelf life. Here are some suggestions to get you started: drugs (over-the-counter and prescription); razor blades; condoms. Rechargeable batteries (and solar chargers) are sure to become a prized item (Ni-MH are the less toxic ones). Toiletries, such as good soap, will be luxury items. Fill some shipping containers, nitrogen-pack them so that nothing rusts or rots, and store them somewhere.

After the Soviet collapse, there swiftly appeared a category of itinerant merchants who provided people with access to imported products. To procure their wares, these people had to travel abroad, to Poland, to China, to Turkey, on trains, carrying goods back and forth in their baggage. They would exchange a suitcase of Russian-made watches for a suitcase of other, more useful consumer products, such as shampoo or razor blades. They would have to grease the palms of officials along their route, and were often robbed. There was a period of time when these people, called “chelnoki,” which is Russian for “shuttles,” were the only source of consumer products. The products were often factory rejects, damaged, or past their sell-by date, but this did not make them any less valuable. Based on their example, it is possible to predict which items will be in high demand, and to stockpile these items ahead of time, as a hedge against economic collapse. Note that chelnoki had intact economies to trade with, accessible by train – while this is not guaranteed to be the case in the U.S.

A stockpile of this sort, in a walkable, socially stable place, where you know everybody, where you have some close friends and some family, where you own your shelter and some land free and clear, and where you can grow most of your own food, and barter for the rest, should enable you to survive economic collapse without too much trouble. And, who knows, maybe you will even find happiness there.


Although the basic and obvious conclusion is that the United States is worse prepared for economic collapse than Russia was, and will have a harder time than Russia had, there are some cultural facets to the United States that are not entirely unhelpful. To close on an optimistic note, I will mention three of these.

Firstly, and perhaps most surprisingly, Americans make better Communists than Russians ever did, or cared to try. They excel at communal living, with plenty of good, stable roommate situations, which compensate for their weak, alienated, or nonexistent families. These roommate situations can be used as a template, and scaled up to village-sized self-organized communities. Big households that pool their resources make a lot more sense in an unstable, resource-scarce environment than the individualistic approach. Without a functioning economy, a household that consists of a single individual or a nuclear family ceases to be viable, and people are forced to live in ever larger households, from roommate situations to taking lodgers to doubling up to forming villages. Where any Russian would cringe at such an idea, because it stirs the still fresh memories of the failed Soviet experiment at collectivization and forced communal living, many Americans are adept at making fast friends and getting along, and generally seem to posses an untapped reserve of gregariousness, community spirit, and civic-minded idealism.

Secondly, there is a layer of basic decency and niceness to at least some parts of American society, which has been all but destroyed in Russia over the course of Soviet history. There is an altruistic impulse to help strangers, and pride in being helpful to others. In many ways, Americans are culturally homogeneous, and the biggest interpersonal barrier between them is the fear and alienation fostered by their racially and economically segregated living conditions.

Lastly, hidden behind the tawdry veneer of patriotic bumper stickers and flags, there is an undercurrent of quiet national pride, which, if engaged, can produce high morale and results. Americans are not yet willing to simply succumb to circumstance. Because many of them lack a good understanding of their national predicament, their efforts to mitigate it may turn out to be in vain, but they are virtually guaranteed to make a valiant effort, for “this is, after all, America.

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When will the Alaska pipeline turn into an 800-mile-long Popsicle?

[Below are excerpts on the Alaskan pipeline from Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman.  This is a great book, yet leaves so many possible rust stories uncovered, that I hope Waldman writes Rust II (or any other topic — will certainly read his next book whatever it is). Alice Friedemann ]

Officially, Neogi is the pipeline’s integrity manager. He is responsible for keeping the pipeline intact, whole. Most pipeline operators employ integrity managers, but most pipelines are not like the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System. From Prudhoe Bay to Prince William Sound, TAPS stretches eight hundred miles, which leaves Neogi accountable for one of the heaviest metal things in the Western Hemisphere, through which the vast majority of Alaska’s economy flows. Daily, the four-foot steel tube spits out $50 million of oil.

Four technicians from Baker Hughes, the pig’s manufacturer, wrapped up a third day of checking and double checking and triple checking its componentry. Among other things, in the front segment of the pig, between two yellow urethane cups, they checked 112 magnetic sensors mounted in between 112 pairs of magnetized brushes. These sensors would detect the magnetic field induced in the pipe as the pig, propelled by the flow of oil, traveled through it. Given any kind of anomaly in the half-inch steel—a pit, a ding, a thin spot—the field would change, and the sensors would capture this and record it on a hard drive. Inch by inch, the sensors would capture this information; Neogi hoped they would capture all seven billion square inches of the pipe. That’s 1,200 acres. Using all that data, Neogi would determine the most vulnerable spots on the pipeline, dig them up, and repair them before they became leaks.

No matter how extensively the technicians double checked, even the most advanced pig can’t perform its inspection if the wall of the pipe is covered in wax. Wax, a natural component of crude oil, keeps the magnetic brushes and sensors off the steel wall. The consistency of lip balm or mousse, it plugs up caliper arms that measure the shape of the pipe, and snags odometer wheels. Wax renders smart pigs senseless, leaving them blind, dumb, and amnesiac. Nor can a pig survive a violent voyage. Too fast, and sensor heads melt or crack. Too rough, and the magnetizing brushes wear down. Too jarring, and the universal joint between the pig’s two segments comes apart, wires snap, and power to the magnetic flux sensors is cut off. Poof goes the data, months of work, and millions of dollars—leaving engineers with a pipeline in indeterminate condition, regulators unhappy, and the public at risk. Wax accumulates when the oil cools below 75 degrees, and long, slack sections, where the pig can barrel down mountain passes at high speed, manifest themselves when there’s not much oil flowing through the pipe. Neogi was well aware that it was winter, and that the flow of oil through TAPS was as low as it had been. It was not the best of times to pig.

On account of wax and low flow rates, in the last dozen years, half the smart pig runs have failed.

More recently, a pig was sucked into a relief line at a pump station midway down the line. That the relief line was only sixteen inches in diameter, and guarded with pig bars, was not a sufficient deterrent to the forty-eight-inch pig. This has happened at least a half dozen times. When it happened in 1986, and the pipeline was shut down while the pig was extracted, that meant more than a quarter of the nation’s oil wasn’t moving toward California. Pigs have made it all the way to Valdez, Alaska, only to be ingested in relief lines there. Other pigs have damaged the pipeline, or gotten stuck in it and been destroyed during their extraction.

They planned to launch the tool at seven in the morning, exactly twelve hours behind a red urethane pig of lesser intelligence. That pig, like a giant squeegee, was scraping the line clean. It was the last of nine such scraper pigs that, by Neogi’s design, had been shoved down the pipeline in the previous six weeks. Neogi had kept track of how much wax these pigs had pushed out in Valdez, and graphed it. From 1,200 pounds, the mass had dropped to 400. The line was as clean as it was going to get, primed for inspection. It was ready for the smart

For two decades, the Prudhoe Bay oil fields—Sadlerochit, Northstar, Kuparuk, Endicott, Lisburne—have been declining steadily. Yearly, immutably, they produce 5 percent less oil. The result is that TAPS now carries one quarter of the oil it was designed to carry. It comes out of the ground colder than ever and flows more slowly toward Valdez. Crude used to make it to Valdez in four days, as if running seven-minute miles. Now it walks. Enroute, it cools off even more and, as it does so, deposits more wax on the pipeline. A doctor would call the pipeline arteriosclerotic. While a pipeline waxes, its diameter wanes. Declining throughput makes things difficult for Neogi, but it makes them even more difficult for agencies estimating the pipeline’s lifespan.

The pipeline was designed to survive as long as the oil fields. Lest it clog, it must stay warm, which means that it must remain full of flowing oil. In a perverse symbiosis, the pipeline needs the oil as much as the oil needs the pipeline. As a result, while the consortium of agencies that oversees the pipeline has written that it “can be sustained for an unlimited duration,” Alyeska figures that it’ll survive until 2043, and the state of Alaska figures that it’ll expire a bit sooner. Private consultants, hired to estimate the life of TAPS, mention only “the future” and write of “diligent upkeep” in passive sentences. The estimates all couch what nobody wants to say: the pipeline, once the largest privately funded project in America, and one of its greatest engineering achievements, is now an elderly patient in intensive care.

The companies that built the pipeline foresaw such a future and tried to avoid it. In the immediate aftermath of their 1968 oil discovery, they considered every alternative to a pipeline. They considered extending the Alaska Railroad to the North Slope, until they realized that it’d take sixty-three trains, each one hundred cars long, every day, to ship their oil. They considered trucks, calculating that they’d need nearly the entire American fleet in addition to an eight-lane highway. They looked into jumbo jets supplied by Boeing and Lockheed, turning away when it became apparent that their air traffic would exceed the combined air traffic of all the freight in the rest of the country by more than an order of magnitude. They looked into blimps. They commissioned the world’s largest icebreaking cargo ship, and after it got stuck in the Northwest Passage, they seriously considered using a fleet of nuclear submarines to ship the oil, under Arctic ice, to a port in Greenland. Reluctantly, out of alternatives, they settled on a pipeline.

On most other pipelines, “events” or “incidents” or “product releases”—what the rest of us call leaks or spills—are most often caused by third-party damage. By this, the industry means accidents. Heavy equipment is usually to blame; pipeline ruptures are most often caused by collisions with bulldozers and backhoes. On TAPS, since there’s so little construction across the vastness of Alaska, the risk of accidental third-party damage is low. Natural hazards, on the other hand, present threats in abundance. Earthquakes, avalanches, floods, and ice floes all threaten TAPS. But what really keeps Alyeskans up is corrosion. It’s the number one threat to the integrity of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.  On account of that threat, the pipeline was outfitted with the greatest corrosion-protection features of the era. Its principal protection was its coating: paint. As a backup, a zinc strap the size of a wrist (a giant anode) was buried under the pipe. Though TAPS was, boldly, called rustproof, the defense proved insufficient. Like all coatings, the one on TAPS proved vulnerable—but Alyeska didn’t learn quite how vulnerable for a dozen years. When it did, the company beefed up the pipeline’s corrosion protection with 10,000 twenty-five-pound bags of buried magnesium anodes and a cathodic protection system consisting of a hundred-odd rectifiers spitting a low voltage into the pipe.

Because rocks resist current, the cathodic protection system doesn’t work well in rocky areas, leaving corrosion engineers to their final tool: coupons. On the pipeline, a coupon is a one-inch square of steel, connected to it and buried along it, serving as a surrogate. Alyeska has about eight hundred of them. But coupons don’t prevent corrosion; they just help engineers monitor it.

In a way, monitoring is Alyeska’s second line of defense, and Alyeska does a lot of it. Like all major pipelines, TAPS is monitored by leak-detection software, which compares the flow of oil going into the pipeline with the flow coming out the other end, and also scans for sudden pressure drops. But unlike other pipelines, it is also monitored regularly by pilots using infrared cameras to hunt for signals that the hot oil has escaped into the cold Alaskan earth, as well as by “line walkers” who hunt for dark puddles and squishy tundra along the pipeline, and by controllers watching an array of hydrocarbon-detecting and liquid-detecting and noise-detecting sensors shoved into the ground alongside it. And then there are the dozen state and federal agencies looking over the shoulders of the thousand people operating the pipeline, making it the most regulated pipeline in the world.

But because a smart pig is the only way for Alyeska to determine if its pipeline is about to spring a leak before it has actually done so, and because Alyeska operates under more regulatory scrutiny than any other operator, it sends smart pigs down the line nearly twice as often as any other pipeline operator. It employs a smart pig once every three years, and has been doing so since long before federal pipeline laws stipulated it. Thanks largely to smart pigs, TAPS hasn’t suffered a corrosion-induced leak since it began operating in 1977.2 Over its first thirty years, Alyeska reviewed nearly 350 potential threats to the pipeline, including dents, wrinkle bends, weld misalignments, ovalities, gouges, and corrosion pits. The majority of these problems were found with smart pigs.

Keeping the pipe clean has become a priority nearly as great as keeping it whole, because the latter depends on the former. To keep it clean, Alyeska sends cleaning pigs south weekly. The company keeps a fleet of a dozen such pigs at a maintenance yard in Valdez, and in a perpetual relay, these pigs go back and forth: up the haul road, down the line. The managerial pigs—the smart ones—wait patiently while these janitorial pigs stay busy.

Before the last smart pig run, Alyeska sent a janitorial pig south every four days for a month. When these pigs pop out in Valdez, they usually push out ten or twenty barrels of wax. In the pig mobile, they go straight to the pig wash. The wax, a hazardous material, is collected in barrels and shipped out of state. Once, not many years ago, after the pipeline wasn’t pigged for six weeks, a pig pushed out forty-seven barrels of wax. Beneath all that wax, on account of corrosion, the one-billion-pound pipeline loses in the vicinity of ten pounds of steel a year: the same as an old Ford. Most of that metal loss is on the outside of the pipe, where it’s buried. The inside is, well, nicely oiled. The exception is inside pump stations, where the pipe branches through valves and turbines. In deadlegs—hydraulic culs-de-sac, where oil sits stagnant—microbial-influenced corrosion is a threat. If corrosion struck uniformly, such that the pipeline lost metal evenly and consistently, maintaining it would be vastly easier. After a thousand years, 99.999 percent of the pipe would still be there, sans weak spots. But rust doesn’t work like that. It concentrates in relatively few places, begetting more rust. Alyeska responds only to those places that present severe integrity threats. It looks at spots where 35 percent or more of the pipe’s wall thickness is gone, and where metal loss leaves the pipe at risk of bursting, which it determines from a formula developed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

To the pipeline, though, ravens pose a greater threat. Ravens pick at the pipe’s insulation, and then water gets in. Alyeska spent millions installing bands around the seams of the insulation, and the ravens persisted, outsmarting engineers.

the flow of oil through TAPS decreases, pigging will become drastically more difficult. Below 400,000 barrels per day, it will become impossible to tightline Atigun Pass, because there’s only so much oil a controller can store in the tanks at Pump 1 before he runs out of emergency wiggle room. By then, the slack section on Atigun Pass will be over three miles long. Below 350,000 barrels per day, the “slippage factor” of a cleaning pig will prevent it from scraping the line effectively. With the bypass necessary to keep the wax ahead of it in a slurry, there won’t be enough force to push the pig forward. Alyeska will also need to run them more frequently—as frequently as during this run’s cleaning regimen—and this makes controllers nervous. Meanwhile, by 2015, the small percentage of water entrained in the oil will drop out and begin flowing in a separate layer on the bottom of the line. Collecting at a dozen low spots, it could freeze. In so doing, it could disable check valves or halt pigs. At a flow rate of 400,000 barrels per day (expected by 2020), a pig arriving in Valdez could be pushing a slug of water one third of a mile long. Alyeska may need a new type of pig to push out the water, because water will also corrode the pipeline. Compounding matters, lower throughput will make it harder for controllers to detect leaks.

It was the closest that TAPS had ever been to becoming an eight-hundred-mile-long Popsicle. This is Alyeska’s great fear, its “worst-case event.” Declining throughput may necessitate frequent cleaning pigs, complex operating procedures, smarter and tougher pigs, and increased maintenance—but these are nothing compared with the seizure of the pipeline. North Slope crude gels at 15 degrees. It gets so thick that pumps can’t push it. It becomes thixotropic, like quicksand. For whatever reason—a power outage, say—if the oil sits in the line too long, at the wrong time of year, the threat of the big Popsicle looms. In January 2011, the oil cooled to 25 degrees. The threat is critical.

Alyeska’s former president told Congress that at the flow rate expected in 2015, nine winter days of shutdown could spell the ultimate end of the pipeline. If the oil gels, there will be no recovering from it. The threat makes explosions and even leaks seem trivial. It’s a game ender. It’s because of this conundrum that drilling in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas is of such importance to Alaska, Alyeska, and Alaskans. Those rigs will tie into the Alaska pipeline, feed it their oil. Sure, residents will get annual dividends, and Alaska will receive billions in royalties and taxes that fund pretty much everything in the state. But it’s the long-term future of the state on the table.

The sooner that someone turns around the two-decade saga of declining throughput, keeping the pipeline from turning into a giant Popsicle, the easier those concerned with the integrity of the pipe will sleep. In the meantime, if TAPS leaks for some reason, and the public withholds forgiveness, the resultant delay in offshore drilling could portend the end of the line. That’s what Neogi was implying when he mentioned the impact on future drilling. A big spill could delay offshore drilling in the Beaufort or Chukchi Seas for two decades, and this could spell the end of the line. End of the line would be the end of the state of Alaska, and not exactly beneficial to the economy of the other forty-nine states in the union. Precarious is the future of the pipeline, and high are the stakes in which Neogi and the integrity management crew operate.

Posted in Flow Rate, Threats to oil supply | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

900 Tons of material to build just 1 windmill

You ought to watch “MidAmerican Energy Company – From the Ground Up: Building our energy future, one turbine at a time“. The pictures from the video below are also powerful since they capture how low the EROI of wind power must be when you can see the embodied fossil fuels used to build a wind turbine (plus dozens of worker and hundreds of worker and heavy-duty trucks not shown below).

Yet it doesn’t begin to capture all of the energy inputs to wind turbines. Notably, transmission is left out of the picture, and the natural gas plants to balance intermittent energy, the mining of the ores for iron and steel, or crushing of rocks to make cement/concrete, the fossil fuels in the tons of epoxy, and so on to make the 900 short tons of material (it is probably more like 1300 tons given other peer-reviewed publications on materials used in 2 MW turbines, not all of the materials used were included in this short video).

Most wind power will be forever stranded, because it’s too far from cities to run transmission lines to. If you look at the state level wind maps in the Wind Energy Resource Atlas of the United States List of Maps (RREDC) it appears as if cities have been placed as far from commercial wind power as possible. But no diabolical force is to blame. The distance is due to cities arising near good, flat farmland, yet the best wind is on the ridges of highlands. To get around this, wind turbines taller than the St. Louis arch at peak blade tip have been proposed for the Southeast and other areas without commercial wind (February 18, 2015. Mapping the Frontier of New Wind Power Potential. National Renewable Energy Lab.).

You’d need 32,850 wind turbines to replace the Cubic Mile of Oil consumed globally every year, and a grand total of 1,642,000 turbines to replace oil over the next 50 years, which may be conservative given that the wind isn’t blowing all the time so that triple or more would be needed on a national grid with massive energy storage batteries.  A wind turbine lifespan is 20 years, so many of them would need to be repowered or replaced before the 50 years are up.  Anyhow, clearly wind turbines require too many oil-powered trucks and cement, steel, and so on made with fossil-fired energy to outlast the brief age of oil.

This wind turbine is comprised of at least 875.5 tons of material. The weight of the 40 to 100 geopiers and other components aren’t shown, so let’s assume 900 tons total. An average car weighs 2 tons, so each windmill equals 450 cars — try to top that Burning Man Festival! The crane, excavators, graders, cement, worker, and other trucks required to haul blades, equipment, and workers might weigh 10 times as much as the wind turbine, so some fraction of the energy of all these should count as energy inputs as well, from mining to operational vehicle, and the fuel used (including the 10 foot deep, 100 foot wide, 1650 tons of soil dug out and put back over the concrete base).

Each windmill:

  • Takes 3 weeks to build from excavation to operation
  • 40 to 100 geopiers installed for stability, weight unknown
  • Excavate 10 feet deep 100 feet wide
  • Set 96,000 pounds of reinforcing steel rebar = 48 tons
  • 53 concrete trucks pour foundations. If each truck can haul 8 cubic yards at 2538 lbs/yard * 53 = 1,076,112 pounds = 538 tons
  • Move 1,500 cubic yards of soil @ 2,200 lbs per cubic yard = 3.3 million pounds = 1,650 tons
  • 3 blades : each 173 feet long and 27,000 pounds for 81,000 pounds = 40.5 tons
  • 8 truckloads to deliver turbine components
  • Nacelle: weight 181,000 lbs = 90.5 tons with the generator, gearbox, and rotor shaft
  • Hub: weight unknown
  • Base tower height 53 feet 11 inches, weight 97,459 lbs = 48.7 tons
  • Mid tower height 84 feet 6 inches, weight 115,587 lbs = 57.8 tons
  • Top tower height 119 feet, weight 104,167 lbs = 52 tons
  • Final tower height to blade tip when fully extended 442 feet

12 truck 26 40-100 geopiers installed for stability


33 excavate 10 feet deep50 96000 pounds of reinforcing steel 53 up to 53 concrete trucks to pour foundations 101 1500 cubic yards of soil backfilled and leveled 107 3 blades each 173 feet long 112 and 27000 lbs each 122 8 truckloads to deliver turbine components 135 more turbine components 137 jacking up the turbine 148 nacelle the size of a school bus 159 Hub 216 base tower height 53 feet 11 inches 229 base tower weight 97459 pounds 235 160 bolts around the bottom 246 mid tower height 84.5 feet 251 midtower weight 115,587 pounds 320 three blades 400 top tower height 119 feet 427 nacelle weighs 181000 pounds 453 rotor diameter 354 feet 520 nacelle contains generator gearbox rotor shaft 522 nacell part 2

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Dozens of Reasons Why Wind power Will Not Outlast Fossil Fuels

Source: Lawrence Berkeley Lab (LBL) estimates from Navigant, EIA, and other data

Source: Lawrence Berkeley Lab (LBL) estimates from Navigant, EIA, and other data

SCALE.  Too many windmills need to be built to replace oil.

Worldwide, 32,850 wind turbines with 70 to 100 meter blades generating 1.65 MW built every year for the next 50 years, or 1,642,000 total would be needed to replace the oil we burn in one year at a cost of 3.3 trillion dollars over 4,000 square miles (Cubic mile of oil).

Check out the video showing the enormous amount of material and fossil energy required to build just one windmill, and the pictures in this post which capture the 900 short tons of materials used per wind turbine. Now imagine 1,641,999 more of them.

The limits to growth due to lack of material resources, especially rare earth metals for off-shore turbines (to reduce maintenance of gearboxes) would be reached long before then.

The DOE estimates there are 18,000 square miles of good wind sites in the USA, which could produce 20% of America’s electricity in total.  this would require over 140,000 1.5 MW towers costing at least $300 billion dollars, and innumerable natural gas peaking plants to balance the load when the wind isn’t blowing.  Natural gas production is likely to peak as soon as 2018 and we don’t have the LNG facilities to import NG from other countries, and NG is finite, even LNG imports are temporary.

There isn’t enough dispatchable renewable power from batteries, pumped hydro storage, biomass, or Compressed Air Energy storage to balance, provide peak power and store power for at least a week.

Wind blows seasonally, for much of there year there wouldn’t be enough wind

Once wind penetration reaches 50% or more due to declining fossil fuels and uranium ore, it is questionable whether wind can provide enough power year round due to mainly blowing in the winter across the entire continental United States.

Although it’s possible “the wind is always blowing somewhere”, this implies that if it’s only in region A, then this region alone has to also supply region B through Z. It isn’t likely that the one region, or even two with regions A through Z have enough to power all regions.  That means that if each region has to supply all others, double, triple — a hundred-fold more wind turbines must be built to always meet the wind quota needed everywhere, with most of it idle much of the time, or occasionally producing far more than could be used (Trainer).

Or as Smil (2010) puts it: “The Wind Energy Association’s website deals with “the intermittency myth” by claiming that “there is little overall impact if the wind stops blowing somewhere—it is always blowing somewhere else”. True, but that “somewhere else” may be hundreds or thousands of miles away with no high-voltage transmission lines in between. A new worldwide system where wind would be the single largest source of electricity would require such vast intra- and intercontinental extensions of HV transmission lines to create sufficiently dense and powerful interconnections to deal with wind’s intermittency that both its cost and its land claims would be forbidding”.

The North American continent has a relatively high frequency of prolonged calms, especially in the Southeast iwhere calms are created in the summer and early fall by the semi-stationary high-pressure cell centered west of Bermuda. This Bermuda high is associated with calm or very slow winds, limited mixed-layer formation (conducive to air pollution buildup), and high temperatures. Local wind generation is at a minimum while electricity demand for air conditioning is at its maximum, and because it would be impossible to rely on wind power during this period, the region would have to import large blocks of electricity from the Great Lakes region or from the Midwest—but this arrangement would require a number of additional long-distance high-voltage lines (Smil).

Windmills are useless without The Grid

Most wind will be stranded — it is too far from cities and existing transmission lines to harvest:

wind resources and densely populated hubs in the US. It appears that only Minneapolis is near good (but not excellent, outstanding, or superb) wind. Source: NREL 2012. Download from the dynamic maps, GIS data, & analysis too webpage (http:/

wind resources and densely populated hubs in the US. It appears that only Minneapolis is near good (but not excellent, outstanding, or superb) wind. Source: NREL 2012. Download from the dynamic maps, GIS data, & analysis too webpage (http:/










Many sites with the nation’s best wind power resources have minimal or no access to electrical transmission facilities.

The best wind is far from the electric grid, and remote wind farms often need millions, or even billions of dollars in transmission lines – an overall $8 billion dollar project will send power from a 2,100 MW $4 billion Wyoming wind farm, $1.5 billion for a new CAES facility in Utah — the only salt cavern west big enough to do this, and $2.6 billion to run 525 miles of transmission lines from Wyoming to Utah to California (DATC, Gruver).  CAES are fossil fuel dependent — they’re basically a gas turbine that needs 40-60% less natural gas. The storage facility could yield 1,200 MW of electricity, enough to power 1.2 million California homes.  So whatever happened to the other 900 MW generated by the wind farm?  Add on operation and maintenance costs, the short longevity of a wind farm — 20 years at best — and the fossil fuel energy to fabricate all this steel, cement, aluminum, power the CAES, etc., and you have to wonder how sustainable “wind” power really is when it’s so fossil fuel dependent.

Just as oil doesn’t do much useful work when not burned within a combustion engine, wind needs a vast, interconnected grid or immense energy storage technologies (batteries, natural gas combustion turbines, etc).  The larger the grid, the more wind that can be added to it.  But we don’t have that infrastructure — indeed, what we do have now is falling apart due to deregulation of utilities, with no monetary rewards for any player to maintain or upgrade the grid.

Most of the really good, strong wind areas are so far from cities that it’s useless because the energy to build a grid extending to these regions would use more energy than the wind would provide.

Sure, oil and natural gas require pipelines too, but they’re already in place, built back when the EROEI of oil was 100:1 — though.

We now turn to the matter of adequate interconnections, which in theory looks fairly promising. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that the United States has 175 GW of potential wind capacity located within 5 miles of existing lines carrying up to 230 kV, 284 GW within 10 miles of such lines, and 401 GW within 20 miles of such lines.35 But what matters more than distance to the nearest transmission line is that line’s capacity, and in this respect it is obvious that the situation in the United States is much inferior to that in Europe.

Europe has strong and essentially continent-wide north–south as well as east–west connections, while the United States does not have a comparably capable national network: high-voltage connections from the heart of the continent, where the wind potential is highest, to either coast are minimal or nonexistent. Consequently, the Dakotas could not become a major supplier to California or the Northeast without massive infrastructural additions. Jacobson and Masters argue that with an average cost of $310,000/km (an unrealistically low mean; see the next section), the construction of 10,000 km of new HV lines would cost only $3.1 billion, or less than 1 percent of the cost of 225,000 new turbines, and that HV direct current lines would be even cheaper.36 As with any entirely conceptual megaproject, these estimates are highly questionable; moreover, such an expansion is not very likely, given that the existing grid (aging, overloaded, and vulnerable) is overdue for extensive, and very expensive, upgrading,37 and that securing rights of way may be a greater challenge than arranging the needed financing (Smil 2010).

The Grid Can’t Handle any more Wind Power

Power struggle: Green energy versus a grid that’s not ready. Minders of a fragile national power grid say the rush to renewable energy might actually make it harder to keep the lights on. Evan Halper, Dec 2, 2013. Los Angeles Times.

The grid is built on an antiquated tangle of market rules, operational formulas and business models.  Planners are struggling to plot where and when to deploy solar panels, wind turbines and hydrogen fuel cells without knowing whether regulators will approve the transmission lines to support them.

Energy officials worry a lot these days about the stability of the massive patchwork of wires, substations and algorithms that keeps electricity flowing. They rattle off several scenarios that could lead to a collapse of the power grid — a well-executed cyberattack, a freak storm, sabotage.

But as states race to bring more wind, solar and geothermal power online, those and other forms of alternative energy have become a new source of anxiety. The problem is that renewable energy adds unprecedented levels of stress to a grid designed for the previous century.

Green energy is the least predictable kind. Nobody can say for certain when the wind will blow or the sun will shine. A field of solar panels might be cranking out huge amounts of energy one minute and a tiny amount the next if a thick cloud arrives. In many cases, renewable resources exist where transmission lines don’t.

“The grid was not built for renewables,” said Trieu Mai, senior analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Also: German grid aching under solar power

The role of the grid is to keep the supply of power steady and predictable

Engineers carefully calibrate how much juice to feed into the system. The balancing requires painstaking precision. A momentary overload can crash the system.

The California Public Utilities Commission last month ordered large power companies to invest heavily in efforts to develop storage technologies that could bottle up wind and solar power, allowing the energy to be distributed more evenly over time.

Whether those technologies will ever be economically viable on a large scale is hotly debated.

Windmills are too dependent on oil, from mining and fabrication to delivery and maintenance and fail the test of “can they reproduce themselves with wind power?”

Fossil fuels are essential for making wind turbines, as Robert Wilson explains in Can You Make a Wind Turbine Without Fossil Fuels?

Since electric trucks are impossible, and existing diesel engines can only burn #2 diesel or an exact replica (very hard to make from plants), how on earth would wind turbines be delivered to their remote locations far from cities?

Manufacturing wind turbines is an energy and resource-intensive process. A typical wind turbine contains more than 8,000 different components, many of which are made from steel, cast iron, and concrete, which use so much ghg to create that it is highly unlikely wind saves any carbon dioxide.

On top of that, wind power usually replaces hydropower, which is already carbon dioxide free. When coal or natural gas sources are, these plants are ramped down or switched  to standby, and they’re still burning fuel and emitting carbon dioxide in these modes.  Ramping up and frequent restarting causes thermal generators to run less efficiently and to emit more carbon dioxide and other toxic materials.  It’s hard to tell if wind power saves carbon dioxide or generates extra if you look at the entire life cycle and the need for fossil fuel burning plants to kick in when the wind isn’t blowing.

Oil-based combustion engines are used from start to finish to mine the material to make the windmill, fabricate of the windmill, deliver the windmill components to the installation site, make an enormous amount of concrete and deliver and pour it to on the site where the windmill will be embedded, trenching machines and other equipment to connect windmills to the grid. The maintenance vehicles run on oil, giant road-grading equipment and other oil-based vehicles are used to build and maintain the concrete, asphalt, and dirt roads to windmills and the electric grid, the oil-based cars of windmill employees, and the entire supply chain to deliver over 8,000 windmill components from world-wide parts manufacturers via oil-burning trucks, trains, and ships.

Because wind and solar are intermittent, natural gas peaking plants must be built and fire up quickly when the wind dies down or the sun isn’t shining.

As Nate Hagens, former editor of theoildrum has said, wind turbines are fossil fuel extenders, using huge material and human resources.  Building more stuff, when we are about to have less stuff, just digs the hole deeper.

Not only would windmills have to generate enough power to reproduce themselves, but they have to make enough power to run civilization.  And how are they going to reproduce themselves? Think of the energy to make the cement and steel of a 300 foot tower with three 150 foot rotor blades sweeping an acre of air at 100 miles per hour.  The turbine housing alone weighs over 56 tons, the blade assembly 36 tons, and the whole tower assembly is over 163 tons.  Florida Power & Light says a typical turbine site is 42 by 42 foot area with a 30 foot hole filled with tons of steel rebar-reinforced concrete –about 1,250 tons to hold the 300 foot tower in place (Rosenbloom).

Plus you’d have to electrify all transportation — that’s an awfully long electric cord out to Siberia or Outer Mongolia to the mining trucks gathering the ore to make new windmills.

Consider just the wind power needed to replace offshore oil in the Gulf of Mexico: At 5.8 MBtu heat value in a barrel of oil and 3412 BTU in a kWh, 1.7 million barrels per day of gulf oil equals 2.9 billion kWh per day, or 1,059 billion kWh a year. Yet the total 2008 wind generation in Texas was 14.23 billion kWh, and 5.42 billion kWh in California. Which means you’d need 195 California’s, or 74 Texas’s of wind, and 20 years to build it (Nelder).

Supply Chain Failure

Rare metals, are, well, RARE.  We might run out of them sooner than oil, either geologically or politically, since 95% of them are mined almost totally in China, and they will certainly run out or decrease in extraction as oil supplies continue to decline.

Windmill Turbines depend on neodymium and dysprosium. Estimates of the exact amount of rare earth minerals in wind turbines vary, but in any case the numbers are staggering. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences, a 2 megawatt (MW) wind turbine contains about 800 pounds of neodymium and 130 pounds of dysprosium. The MIT study cited above estimates that a 2 MW wind turbine contains about 752 pounds of rare earth minerals.

Windmills depend on subsidies and tax breaks, after the next financial crash these giveaways will go away

Wind speed matters.  Wind power increases with the cube of the wind speed. Doubling the wind speed gives eight times more wind power. Therefore, the selection of a high-wind-speed location is very important. For example, the difference between wind blowing at 10 mph and 12.6 mph is 100%  (IEC).

Clearly wind farms built where wind speeds are class 4 or higher will be more profitable. California, Oregon, and Washington have already built out their best class 4+ resources. It could take 10 years to never — if there were another financial crash or fossil fuels were declining and allocated mainly to agriculture and emergency services (DOE) — to build out transmission lines to remote high-wind areas before wind farms could be built.

As it is, a great deal of wind farms wouldn’t be built without subsidies.  Warren Buffet has said that he only invests in wind energy because “we get a tax credit if we build a lot of wind farms. That’s the only reason to build them. They don’t make sense without the tax credit” (Pfotenhauer).

Tremendous environmental damage from mining material for windmills

Mining 1 ton of rare earth minerals produces about 1 ton of radioactive waste, according to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. In 2012, the U.S. added a record 13,131 MW of wind generating capacity. That means that between 4.9 million pounds (using MIT’s estimate) and 6.1 million pounds (using the Bulletin of Atomic Science’s estimate) of rare earths were used in wind turbines installed in 2012. It also means that between 4.9 million and 6.1 million pounds of radioactive waste were created to make these wind turbines — more than America’s nuclear industry, which produces between 4.4 million and 5 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel each year.

Yet nuclear energy comprised about one-fifth of America’s electrical generation in 2012, while wind accounted for just 3.5 percent of all electricity generated in the United States.

Not only do rare earths create radioactive waste residue, but according to the Chinese Society for Rare Earths, “one ton of calcined rare earth ore generates 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters (339,021 to 423,776 cubic feet) of waste gas containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid, [and] approximately 75 cubic meters (2,649 cubic feet) of acidic wastewater.”

Not enough time to scale wind up

Like solar, wind accounts for only a tiny fraction of renewable energy consumption in the United States, about a tenth of one percent, and will be hard to scale up in the short time left. EIA. June 2006. Renewable Energy Annual.

Most of wind will never be captured

Only the winds moving in the lowest few hundred meters above the surface can be intercepted, globally about 35% of wind energy, or no more than roughly 1.2 PW, or nearly 2.5 W/m2, is dissipated within 1 km of the surface. The most obvious physical restriction on wind exploitation arises from the fact that giant turbine farms cannot be erected in many suitably windy places. Their construction and operation are either outright impossible (in urban settings) or economically questionable (in rugged or remote terrain), or they are simply highly undesirable (in protected areas such as natural parks and scenic shorelines) (Smil).

Also, we do not know the maximum share of global atmospheric circulation that could be converted into electricity without changing the earth’s climate. Both mesoscale and global-scale models of atmospheric circulation indicate that the very large-scale extraction of wind (requiring installed capacities on a TW scale needed to supply at least a quarter of today’s demand) reduces wind speeds and consequently lowers the average power density of wind-driven generation to around 1 W/m2 on scales larger than about 100 km (Smil).

Windmills can only capture a fraction of the wind blowing — not enough or too much and the windmill shuts down.

Most of the really good wind is in remote locations far from the grid, and can’t be connected.

The wind above a windmill can’t be captured, you can’t get the wind from the ground to a mile high.

Proposed windmill “kites” that extract wind from the jet stream, sounds wonderful, just 1% could supply all of our energy.  But hey, how do you harvest a hurricane, the winds can blow 125 mph up there, and they’re up there with the jets 7 miles high, surely that can’t be easy to pull off.

Much of the time, over an entire region, there is no wind blowing at all, a huge problem for balancing the electricity on the grid, which has to be kept within a narrow range (about 10% of the electricity on the grid is never delivered to a customer, it’s there to balance the flow so that surges don’t cause blackouts leading to the loss of power for millions of people).

Globally we use about 12 terawatts of energy a year. There’s 85 terawatts of wind, but most of it is over the deep ocean, or the many miles above, which we are unlikely to ever capture.  A giant windmill perched on a giant boat has already used more energy in its construction than it will ever generate before this vast amount of energy intensive steel and other material rusts or sinks in violent storms.  Plus you need to string cables from the windmill or ship to land.

The maximum extractable energy from high jet stream wind is 200 times less than reported previously, and trying to extract them would profoundly impact the entire climate system of the planet.  If we tried to extract the maximum possible 7.5 TW from the jet stream, “the atmosphere would generate 40 times less wind energy than what we would gain from the wind turbines, resulting in drastic changes in temperature and weather” according to Lee Miller, the author of the study (Miller).

Carlos De Castro, a professor of Applied Physics, estimates that at most 1Terawatt is the upper limit of the electrical potential of wind energy. This value is much lower than previous estimates (De Castro).

Betz’s law means you can never harvest more than 59% of the wind, no matter how well you build a windmill.

And another huge part of the wind is above the windmills on land.  So you can really only capture a very small part of the wind that’s blowing.

You also have to space the windmills far apart, because on the other side of a windmill that has just “captured” wind, there’s no wind left (Hayden).

For example, if the best possible wind strip along the coast between San Francisco and LA were covered with the maximum possible number of windmills (an area about 300 miles long by one mile deep) you’d get enough wind, when it was blowing, to replace only one of the dozens of power plants in California (Hayden).

A wind farm takes up 30 to 200 times the space of a gas plant (Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age, p. 396). A 50 megawatt wind farm can take up anywhere from two to twenty-five square miles (Proceedings of National Avian-Wind Power Planning Meeting, p. 11).

Wind is only strong enough to justify windmills in a few regions

The wind needs to be at least force level 4 (13-18 mph) for as much of the year as possible to make it economically possible. This means that a great deal of land is not practical for the purpose.  The land that is most suitable already has windmills, or is too far from the grid to be connected.

A Class 3 windmill farm needs double the number of generators to produce the same amount of energy as windmills in a class 6 field (Prieto).

The 1997 US EIA/DOE study (2002) came to the remarkable conclusion that “…many non-technical wind cost adjustment factors … result in economically viable wind power sites on only 1% of the area which is otherwise technically available…”

The electric grid needs to be much larger than it is now

Without a vastly expanded grid to balance the unpredictability of wind over a large area, wind can’t provide a significant portion of electrical generation.  But expanding the grid to the proper size would not only cost trillions of dollars and years we don’t have, now that we’re at peak, we’d have to ruin many national parks, wilderness areas, and other natural areas to install them.

And then, after the oil was gone, and there was no way to replace or maintain windmills, they’d sit there, our version of Easter Island heads, of absolutely no use to future generations, not even for hanging laundry.

Much of the land in the USA (the areas where there’s lots of wind) is quite far from population centers. And when you hook windmills to the grid, you lose quite a bit of energy over transmission lines, especially since most of the wind is far from cities.   It also takes a lot of energy to build and maintain the electric grid infrastructure itself. Remote wind sites often result in construction of additional transmission lines, estimated to cost as much as $300,000-$1 million per mile. (Energy Choices in a Competitive Era, Center for Energy and Economic Development Study, 1995 Study, p. 14). The economics of transmission are poor because while the line must be sized at peak output, wind’s low capacity factor ensures significant under-utilization.

As you can see in the chart below, a large balancing area (and sub-hourly energy markets) are the most important factors in integrating wind into the power grid:

System flexibility increases as the color of the numbered boxes progresses from red to green, and as the number increases from 1 to 10. The items at the top of the table are those attributes that help efficiently integrate wind power into power systems operation. Although the table uses a simplistic 1–10 scoring system, it has proven useful as a high-level, qualitative tool. The red, yellow, and green result cells show the ease (green) or difficulty (red) that a hypothetical system would likely have integrating large amounts of wind power. RTO is regional transmission organization; ISO is independent system operator. Source: Milligan, M.; et al. Oct 22, 2013. Wind Integration Cost and Cost-Causation. 12th Annual International Workshop on Large-Scale Integration of Wind Power into Power Systems as Well as on Transmission Networks for Offshore Wind Power Plants. NREL/CP-5D00-60411. National Renewable Energy Laboratory
System flexibility increases as the color of the numbered boxes progresses from red to green, and as the number increases from 1 to 10. The items at the top of the table are those attributes that help efficiently integrate wind power into power systems operation. Although the table uses a simplistic 1–10 scoring system, it has proven useful as a high-level, qualitative tool. The red, yellow, and green result cells show the ease (green) or difficulty (red) that a hypothetical system would likely have integrating large amounts of wind power. RTO is regional transmission organization; ISO is independent system operator. Source: Milligan, M.; et al. Oct 22, 2013. Wind Integration Cost and Cost-Causation. 12th Annual International Workshop on Large-Scale Integration of Wind Power into Power Systems as Well as on Transmission Networks for Offshore Wind Power Plants. NREL/CP-5D00-60411. National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Wind blows the strongest when customer demand is the weakest

In Denmark, where some of the world’s largest wind farms exist, wind blows the hardest when consumer demand is the lowest, so Denmark ends up selling its extra electricity to other countries for pennies, and then when demand is up, buys electricity back at much higher prices.  Denmark’s citizens pay some of the highest electricity rates on earth (Castelvecchi).

In Texas and California, wind and solar are too erratic to provide more than 20% of a regions total energy capacity because it’s too difficult to balance supply and demand beyond that amount.

Wind varies greatly depending on the weather. Often it hardly blows at all during some seasons.  In California, we need electricity the most in summer when peak loads are reached, but that’s the season the least wind blows.  On our hottest days, wind capacity factors drop to as low as .02 at peak electric demand. At a time when the system most needs reliable base load capacity, wind base capacity is unavailable.

Wind is unreliable, requiring expensive natural gas peaking plants (rarely included in EROEI of wind and solar)

According to Eon Netz, one of the 4 grid managers in Germany, for every 10 MW of wind power added to the system, at least 8 MW of back-up power must also be dedicated.  So you’re not saving on fossil fuels and often have to ADD fossil fuel plants to make up for the wind power when the wind isn’t blowing!

In other words, wind needs 100% back-up of its maximum output.

The first chart is the “Mona Lisa” of wind unreliability, measured at one of California’s largest wind farms. The second is from the California Independent System Operator, showing how wind power tends to be low when power demand is high (and vice-versa). Wind should play an important role, but unless there is a high-voltage, high-capacity, high-density grid to accompany it (as in Northern Europe), or electricity storage, the variability of wind means that co-located natural gas peaking plants are needed as well. The cost of such natural gas plants are rarely factored into the all-in costs of wind (Cembalest).

Wind surges, dies, stops, starts, so it has to be modulated in order to be usable by power companies, and ultimately, homes and businesses. This modulation means that the power grid can only use a maximum of 10% of its power from wind, or the network becomes too unstable and uncontrollable. Because of this problem,  windmills are built to capture wind only at certain speeds, so when the wind is light or too strong, power is not generated.

For example, in 1994, California wind power operated at only 23 percent realized average capacity in 1994 (California Energy Commission, Wind Project Performance: 1994).

No way to store wind energy

We don’t have EROEI-positive batteries, compressed air, or enough pumped water dams to store wind energy and concentrate it enough to do useful work and generate power when the wind isn’t blowing.  There are no storage methods that can return the same amount of energy put into them, so having to store energy reduces the amount of energy returned.  Compressed air storage is inefficient because “air heats up when it is compressed and gets cold when it is allowed to expand.  That means some of the energy that goes into compression is lost as waste heat.  And if the air is simply let out, it can get so cold that it freezes everything it touches, including industrial-strength turbines.  PowerSouth and E.ON burn natural gas to create a hot gas stream that warms the cold air as it expands into the turbines, reducing overall energy efficiency and releasing carbon dioxide, which undermines some of the benefits of wind power” (Castelvecchi).

Wind Power surges harm industrial customers

Japan’s biggest wind power supplier, may scrap a plan to build turbines on the northern island of Hokkaido after the regional utility cut proposed electricity purchases, blaming unreliable supply. Power surges can be a problem for industrial customers, said Hirotaka Hayashi, a spokesman at Hokkaido Electric. Utilities often need to cut back power generation at other plants to lessen the effect of excess power from wind energy.

“Continental European countries such as Germany and Denmark can transfer excess power from windmills to other countries,” said Arakawa. “The electricity networks of Japan’s 10 utilities aren’t connected like those in Europe. That’s the reason why it’s difficult to install windmills in Japan.”

To ensure steady supply, Tohoku Electric Power Co., Japan’s fourth-biggest generator, in March started requiring owners of new windmills to store energy in batteries before distribution rather than send the electricity direct to the utility, said spokesman Satoshi Arakawa. That requirement has increased wind project installation costs to 300,000 yen ($2,560) per kilowatt, from 200,000 yen, according to Toshiro Ito, vice president of EcoPower Co., Japan’s third-biggest wind power supplier (Takemoto).

Energy returned on Energy Invested is negative

If the energy costs of intermittency, back-up conventional plant, and grid connection were added to the “cost” of windfarms, the EROEI would be far lower than current EROEI studies show.

Wind farms require vast amounts of steel and concrete, which in terms of mining, fabrication, and transportation to the site represent a huge amount of fossil fuel energy. The Zond 40-45 megawatt wind farm is composed of 150 wind turbines weighing 35 tons each — over 10 million pounds.

The 5,700 turbines installed in the United States in 2009 used 36,000 miles of steel rebar and 1.7 million cubic yards of concrete (enough to pave a four-foot-wide, 7,630-mile-long sidewalk). The gearbox of a 2-megawatt wind turbine has 800 pounds of neodymium and 130 pounds of dysprosium — rare earth metals that are found in low-grade hard-to-find deposits that are very expensive to make. (American Wind Energy Association).

Materials like carbon fiber that would make them more efficient cost  several times more and use up a great deal more fossil fuel energy to fabricate than a fiber glass blade.

From the mining of the metals to make windmills, to their fabrication, delivery, operation, to their Maintenance is very dependent upon fossil fuel energy and fossil fuel driven machinery. Wind energy at best could increase the amount of energy generated while fossil fuels last, but is too dependent on them to outlast the oil age.

After a few years, maintenance costs skyrocket.  The larger the windmill, the more complex maintenance is needed, yet the larger the windmill, the more wind can be captured.

Windmills take up too much space

Development of a wind power plant results in a variety of temporary and permanent disturbances, including land occupied by wind turbine pads, access roads, substations, service buildings, and other infrastructure which physically occupy land area, or create impermeable surfaces. Additional direct impacts are associated with development in forested areas, where trees must be cleared around each turbine. Land modified for wind farms represents a potentially significant degradation in ecosystem quality (Arnett).

Supplying half of today’s electricity—that is, about 9 PWh—by wind would thus require about 4.1 TW of wind turbines; with 2 W/m2, they would claim about 2 million km2 (772,204 square miles), or an area roughly four times the size of France or larger than Mexico. With average power density of just 1 W/m2, the required area would rise to more than 4 million km2 (1,544,408 square miles), roughly an equivalent of half of Brazil or the combined area of Sudan (Africa’s largest country) and Iran. These calculations indicate that deriving substantial shares of the world’s electricity from wind would have large-scale spatial impacts. Obviously, only a small portion of those areas would be occupied by turbine towers and transforming stations, so that crop planting and animal grazing could take place close to a tower’s foundations. But even when assuming a large average turbine size of 2–3 MW, the access roads (which are required to carry heavy loads, as the total weight of foundations, tower, and turbine is more than 300 tons per unit) needed to build roughly 2 million turbines and new transmission lines to conduct their electricity would make a vastly larger land claim than the footprint of the towers; and a considerable energy demand would be created by keeping these roads, often in steep terrain, protected against erosion and open during inclement weather for servicing access (Smil).

The U.S. energy infrastructure, including the right of way for all high-voltage transmission lines, now occupies up to about 25,000 km2 (9,650 square miles), or 0.25 percent of the country’s area, roughly equal to the size of Vermont (Smill 2008). And the country’s entire impervious surface area of paved and built-up surface reached about 113,000 km2 (43,630 square miles) by the year 2000 (Elvidge). In contrast, relying on large wind turbines to supply all U.S. electricity demand (about 4 PWh) would require installing about 1.8 TW of new generating capacity, which (even when assuming an average of 2 W/m2) would require about 900,000 km2 of land (347,500 square miles)—nearly a tenth of the country’s land, or roughly the area of Texas and Kansas combined (Smil).

In practice, the area per windmill varies quite a bit, averaging about 50 acres per megawatt of capacity because they interfere with each other and need to be widely spaced apart. estimates:

Tom Gray of the American Wind Energy Association has written, “My rule of thumb is 60 acres per megawatt for wind farms on land.”

That may still not be enough for maximum efficiency. More recent research at Johns Hopkins University by Charles Meneveau suggests that large turbines in an array need to be spaced 15 rotor diameters apart, increasing the above examples to 185-250 acres required per installed megawatt.

Note that larger turbines are not substantially more efficient than small ones, because they require proportionally more space.

Remember that capacity is different from actual output. Typical average output is only 25% of capacity, so the area required for a megawatt of actual output is four times the area listed here for a megawatt of capacity. And because three-fifths of the time wind turbines produce power at a rate far below average, even more (2.5×, perhaps, for a total of 10×) — dispersed across a wide geographic area — would be needed for any hope of a steady supply.

Wind power is a good example of how the target of “industrial scale” energy production is wastefully using land, and creating a public backlash against renewable energy in the process. The larger the wind turbine, the further apart they must be spaced within wind farms, and consequently the lower the energy yield per hectare of land. Working theoretically, a large wind 2.3MW turbine (such as a Nordic N90 turbine) spaced five hub heights apart (an average separation distance) from other turbines has a capacity of 108 kiloWatts per hectare (kW/ha). However three 850kW turbines (such the Vestas V52) would occupy the same area of land, and even though they are 40% shorter they produce more power—111kW/ha (note, this figure includes a weighting that reflects the V52’s lower height). The reason that wind farm developers are building ever larger turbines is quite simple: Whilst capital costs can be discounted over future years, maintenance costs are always at the present value. Consequently the development of fewer, larger turbines increases the power output whilst reducing maintenance costs—increasing the return on the capital invested.

Taking the 111kW/ha figure as a representative energy density for wind, to match the UK’s major electricity generators 73,308 mega-Watts (MW) of net installed capacity [DUKES, 2005g], and assuming that the turbines generated for 30% of the time and that an additional 40% of capacity was required to charge batteries/fuel cells to provide a continuous power output, just over 3,000,000 hectares of turbines would be required—equivalent to around 13% of the UK’s land area. Theoretically then, we could generate our power requirements from wind turbines. But, as noted above, electricity is less than one-fifth of the UK’s total energy consumption, so this solution this would only answers a small part of the UK’s energy problem—for a total solution we’d have to densely cover half the UK’s land area in wind turbines (

Even in windy regions (power class 4, 7–7.5 m/s at 50 meters above ground) such as the Dakotas, northern Texas, western Oklahoma, and coastal Oregon, where wind strikes the rotating blades with power density averaging 450 W/m2, the necessary spacing of wind turbines (at least five, and as much as ten, rotor diameters apart, depending on the location, to reduce excessive wake interference) creates much lower power densities per unit of land. For example, a large 3 MW Vestas machine with a rotor diameter of 112 meters spaced six diameters apart will have peak power density of 6.6 W/m2, but even if an average load factor were fairly high (at 30%), its annual rate would be reduced to only about 2 W/m2 (Smil).

Wind Turbines break down too often

DOE. 2014. Wind vision a new era for wind power in the United States. Department of Energy:

  1. Gearbox Reliability. A 2013 summary of insurance claims revealed that the average total cost of a gearbox failure was $380,000. An analysis of 1000 turbines over a 10-year period reported that 5% of turbines per year required a gearbox replacement [29]. Gearbox reliability remains a challenge for utility-scale wind turbines.
  2. Generator Reliability. A generator failure in 2013 was estimated to cost $310,000, while an estimated 3.5% of turbines required a generator replacement.
  3. Rotor Reliability. Average replacement costs for a blade failure are estimated at $240,000, with 2% of turbines requiring blade replacements annually. With larger blades being used on wind turbines, weight and aeroelastic limitations have put added pressure on blade design and manufacturing, which may be one of the explanations for the uptick in rotor-driven downtime. Blade failure can arise from manufacturing and design flaws, transportation, and operational damage. Manufacturing flaws include fiber misalignment, porosity, and poor bonding.  During transport from the manufacturing plant to the wind plant site, blades can undergo several lifts, which result in localized loads that can cause damage if not properly executed. Operational damage is primarily related to either lightning strikes or erosion of blade leading edges.

Offshore Wind Farms likely to be destroyed by Hurricanes

The U.S. Department of Energy has estimated that if the United States is to generate 20% of its electricity from wind, over 50 GW will be required from shallow offshore turbines. Hurricanes are a potential risk to these turbines. Turbine tower buckling has been observed in typhoons, but no offshore wind turbines have yet been built in the United States.  In the most vulnerable areas now being actively considered by developers, nearly half the turbines in a farm are likely to be destroyed in a 20-year period (Rose).

Source: Rose, S. 2 June 2011. Quantifying the Hurricane Risk to Offshore Wind Turbines.  Carnegie Mellon University.

During summer and early fall, global circulation brings frequent hurricanes that can affect the coastal and nearby inland regions extending from Texas to Nova Scotia. These would require repeated shutdown of all wind-generating facilities for a number of consecutive days and would repeatedly expose all turbines and their towers to serious risk of damage and possible prolonged repairs. One can argue that turbines should simply not be sited in these risky regions and that the needed power should come from the continent’s interior, where the machines would not be exposed to hurricanes, though they would remain vulnerable to frequent tornadoes (Smil 2010).

Offshore Windmills have other problems

Offshore windmills are battered by waves and wind, and ice is also a huge problem.

They must be much more reliable due to their vastly more challenging accessibility, rely on subsea power cable networks and substations far from land; and are coupled to a range of support structures, including floating systems that are highly dependent on water depth (DOE 2014).

Offshore windmills need special new vessels because offshore turbines are much larger than onshore, with cranes with maximum lift heights approaching 130 m and lifting capacities between 600 and 1,200 tons, blade lengths up to 80 meters, and rotors u to 165 meters using state-of-the-art composite fabrication facilities and extra special attention to ship blades to the project site.

In the United States  more than 60% of the offshore wind resource lies over water with depths of more than 60 m, but Offshore windmills need to be in water 60 meters or less. In 2008, all installations were in shallow water less than 30 meters deep.

Offshore windmills need to exist in water that’s 60 meters or less. Fifteen meters or less is ideal economically, as well as making the windmills less susceptible to large waves and wind damage.  But many states along the west coast don’t have shallow shelves where windmills can be built — California’s best wind, by far, is offshore, but the water is far too deep for windmills, and the best wind is in the northern part of the state, too far away to be connected to the grid.

Offshore windmills are a hazard to navigation of freighters and other ships.

The states that have by far the best wind resources and shallow depths offshore are North Carolina, Louisiana, and Texas, but they have 5 or more times the occurrence of hurricanes.

As climate change leads to rising sea levels over the next thousand years, windmills will be rendered useless.

Offshore windmills could conflict with other uses:

  1. Ship navigation
  2. Aquaculture
  3. Fisheries and subsistence fishing
  4. Boating, scuba diving, and surfing
  5. Sand and gravel extraction
  6. Oil and gas infrastructure
  7. Compete with potential wave energy devices

Offshore windparks will affect sediment transport, potentially clogging navigation channels, erosion, depositing of sediment on recreational areas, affect shoreline vegetation, scour sediments leading to loss of habitat for benthic communities, and damage existing seabed infrastructure.

Building windmills offshore can lead to chemical contaminants, smothering, suspended sediments, turbidity, substratum loss, scouring, bird strikes, and noise.

There is a potential for offshore wind farms to interfere with telecommunications, FAA radar systems, and marine communications (VHF [very high frequency] radio and radar).

Land use changes.  The windfarm offshore must be connected to the grid onshore, and there need to be roads to set up onshore substations and transmission lines.  Plus industrial sites and ports to construct, operate, and decommission the windmillls.  Roadways need to be potentially quite large to transport the enormous components of a windmill (Michel)

Floating offshore turbines, tethered to fixed spots on the ocean floor rather than mounted directly to the seabed, exist only in prototype and concept stages of development. In addition to withstanding the greater corrosive properties of the marine environment, offshore turbines must be capable of withstanding a more complex structural vibration environment. Fleet availability has generally been lower and O&M costs higher for offshore installations. Further complicating offshore operations is the fact that maintenance access is more difficult and costly. In addition, balance-of-station costs in the form of complex foundations and underwater power collection and transmission systems are much greater for offshore wind energy projects (NREL 2014).

Too expensive

Willem Post goes into great detail about the true costs of wind energy with details from many wind projects around the world in A More Realistic Cost of Wind Energy.  The high cost of wind is hidden by enormous subsidies, beneficial tax rates, accelerated depreciation, not having to pay their share of energy storage, transmission lines, 7% loss of electricity over long transmission lines, and new power plants to back wind energy up when it isn’t producing. Nor does wind need to pay the additional costs of coal, nuclear, and natural gas plants for increased frequency of start/stop operation, keeping gas and coal plants available in cold standby mode, keeping some gas plants in synchronous (3,600 rpm) standby mode, and operating more hours in part-load-ramping mode (extra Btu/kWh, extra CO2/kWh)

George Taylor argues that wind costs at least twice as much in reality because of not having to pay for the conventional power plants that need to back it up, subsidies, tax depreciation, and so on in 2012 The Hidden Costs of Wind Electricity. Why the full cost of wind generation is unlikely to match the cost of natural gas, coal or nuclear generation

Corrosion costs aren’t added in either. Offshore windmills will be subject to a tremendous amount of corrosion from the salt water and air. Wind mills are battered year round by hail storms, strong winds, blizzards, and temperature extremes from below freezing to hundred degree heat in summer. Corrosion increases over time.

The same windmill can be beaten up variably, with the wind speed at the end of one blade considerably stronger than the wind at the tip of the other.  This caused Suzlon blades to crack several years ago.

Complexity: A windmill is only as weak as it’s weakest component, and the more components a windmill has, the more complex the maintenance.  Wind turbines are complex machines. Each has around 7,000 or more components, according to Tom Maves, deputy director for manufacturing and supply chain at the American Wind Energy Association (Galbraith).

Maintenance costs start to rise after 2 years (it’s almost impossible to find out what these costs are from turbine makers). Vibration and corrosion damage the rotating blades, and the bearings, gear boxes, axles, and blades are subjected to high stresses.

Gearboxes can be the Achilles’ heel, costing up to $500,000 to fix due to the high cost of replacement parts, cranes (which can cost $75,000-$100,000), post installation testing, re-commissioning and lost power production.

If the electric grid were to be built up enough to balance the wind energy load better, the windmills breaking down in remote locations would require a huge amount of energy to keep trees cut back and remote roads built and kept up to deliver and maintain the turbine and grid infrastructure.

Large scale wind farms need to “overcome significant barriers”: Costs overall are too high, and windmills in lower wind speed areas need to become more cost effective. Low wind speed areas are 20 times more common than high wind areas, and five times closer to the existing electrical distribution systems. Improvement is needed in integrating fluctuating wind power into the electrical grid with minimal impact on cost and reliability. Offshore wind facilities cost more to install, operate, and maintain than onshore windmills. NREL

Windmills wear out from ice storms, hitting insects, dust and sand abrade the blades and structure, and so on.

TRANSPORTATION LIMITATIONS: Windmills are so huge they’ve reached the limits of land transportation by truck or rail

The best sites with class 4+ wind (good to superb) near transmission and cities are gone.  Wind Turbines to capture class 3 (fair) or class 4+ at 100 meters are too big for roads and rail. The Department of Energy would like to make wind turbines 140 meters or higher to capture the greater windspeeds at that height, but limits to growth are already being hit for 100 meter turbines.

Wind blades over 53 meters (174 feet) too big for roads. Source: DOE. 2014. Wind vision: a new era for wind power in the U.S.

Wind blades over 53 meters (174 feet) too big for roads. Source: DOE. 2014. Wind vision: a new era for wind power in the U.S.

The U.S. market has expanded to include lower wind speed sites (average wind speeds <7.5 m/s) closer to population centers. This is in part because of technological advancements and policy drivers. In some regions, it is also due to limited access to available transmission lines. As a result, from 1998 to 2013, the average estimated quality of the wind resource at 80 m for newly installed wind projects dropped by approximately 10%. This trend has increased the complexity and cost of transportation logistics because components such as blades and towers have increased in size to capture the resource at lower wind sites. As a result, existing transportation infrastructure is increasingly impacting component designs to balance energy production with transportability.

Useful energy increases with the square of the blade length, and there’s more wind the higher up you go, so ideally you’d build very tall wind towers with huge blades.  But conventional materials can’t handle these high wind conditions, and new, super-strong materials are too expensive.

Transportation Logistics. Installed turbine power ratings have continued to rise, to an average of 1.95 MW in 2012 including multiple models at more than 2 MWs and above [53]. As OEMs seek to capture more wind at lower wind speed sites, average rotor diameters have increased rapidly. Tower components have also increased in size and weight to access better winds higher above the ground. Wind turbine blades longer than 53 m begin to present a transportation obstacle due to the large turning radius, which hinders right of way or encroachment areas within corners or curves on roads or railways. Tower sections are generally limited to 4.3 m in diameter, or 4.6 m where routes permit, to fit under overhead obstructions.

The increased size, mass, and quantity of wind components has resulted in more actively managed wind turbine transportation logistics, making use of a variety of land transportation methods and modes. This has resulted in increased project costs of up to 10% of capital costs for some projects.

Design Impacts. Transportation constraints increasingly impact the design of wind turbine components, leading to higher capital costs resulting from suboptimal design. A prime example can be found in the industry-standard rolled steel wind turbine towers, which are limited to a structurally sub-optimal 4.3 meters (14.1 feet) diameter to comply with size and weight limits of U.S. roads. While it is possible to construct towers with hub heights up to 160 m at this constrained diameter, this height results in an exponential increase in the mass and cost of rolled steel towers as shown below.

Figure 2-39. Estimates of trucking and capital costs for conventional tubular towers, 2013. Source: DOE. 2014. Wind vision a new era for wind power in the U.S.

Figure 2-39. Estimates of trucking and capital costs for conventional tubular towers, 2013. Source: DOE. 2014. Wind vision a new era for wind power in the U.S.

As towers get to be 100 meters high and more, and blade length increases, shipping them gets challenging. Trucks carrying big towers and blades must sometimes move with police escorts and avoid certain overpasses or small roads (Galbraith).

Installation. Because of the lift height and mass, hoisting a wind turbine nacelle onto its tower requires the largest crane capacity of all wind turbine construction and installation phases. The masses of a 3-MW nacelle assembly and a 5-MW nacelle assembly are approximately 78 metric tons (t) and 130 t, respectively, without the gearbox and generator (104 t and 173 t with those components installed). Continued increases in tower heights and machine ratings are driving higher nacelle and blade weights. As a result, the availability, scheduling, and logistics of larger cranes have become increasingly challenging.

Because mobile cranes capable of installing the majority of turbines deployed in the United States are of a common size used for construction and other industries, an ample supply of such cranes existed into 2014. As the number of turbines installed at 100 m hub heights and above has increased, however, concerns about the availability of larger capacity cranes has grown.

Another challenge with larger crane classes is difficulty transporting them to and maneuvering them within the wind plant, especially in complex terrain. A 1,600-ton crane has a width of nearly 13 m (41 feet), wider than a two-lane interstate highway (including shoulders), and requires more than 100 semi-tractor trailers to transport it between projects. This makes transportation between turbines difficult and costly.

Department of energy. 2014. Wind Vision: a new era for wind power in the U.S. APPENDIX J:

Over-the-road transportation has limitations because of the length, width, height, and weight of loads that vary across the United States (Table E-5).

Constraint Road Rail
Mass (metric tonnes) 75 >163
Length (meters) 53 53
Width (meters) 4.11 4.27
Height (meters) 4.57 > 4.57

Table E–5. Summary of Key Minimum Logistics Constraints

Most nacelles and large components are shipped on common 13-axle trailers, which have a load constraint of about 165,000 pounds. As weights move above that threshold, the number of available trailers drops dramatically and the use of dual-lane or line trailers is required. These trailers have diminishing returns in terms of cargo capacity because they are heavier. For example, the capacity of a 19-axle trailer (the largest conventional trailer) is approximately 225,000 pounds (102 metric tonnes), which is roughly equivalent to a 4-MW wind turbine nacelle with the drive train removed.

Wind turbine blades above 53 m in length also present a transportation obstacle due to the large turning radius, which hinders right-of-way or encroachment areas within corners or curves. Blade and tower transportation barriers are caused by the difficulty of trucking long blades with wide chords on U.S. roads (in the future, transportation of large diameter root sections will have similar concerns). This barrier limits the length of blade that can be transported over roadways to 53–62 m, depending on design characteristics of the blade, such as the amount of pre-curve and type of airfoils used in the region of the maximum chord dimension.

In addition to the physical limits, each state along a transportation route has different permit requirements. This problem is exacerbated by higher volumes of shipments to wider locations as wind turbine deployments have increased in number. States are also shifting the burden of proof for the safety of large high-volume shipments onto the wind industry. The increased complexity and resulting costs and delays associated with these challenges have led the American Wind Energy Association’s Transportation & Logistics Working Group to coordinate with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials in standardizing the permitting process across states.

Constraints on road transport have also led to an increased use of rail as an alternative for heavy wind components, such as the nacelle; high-volume components; and long-distance shipments. Rail is capable of shipping very heavy loads, greater than 163 metric tonnes, and does not generally require permits for each state. However, rail imposes its own length and width constraints and is not available in every location in which wind energy is being developed.

Trade-offs between rail and road transportation can also be constrained by cargo widths. Rail clearances are affected by overall shape of the cargo but begin to be restrictive on widths greater than 4.27 m (14 feet [ft]). Road transportation is subject to lane clearing constraints on loads exceeding 4.11 m (13 ft, 6 inches). A few select lanes can be cleared for widths up to 4.57 m (15 ft) for towers, but this is not a common occurrence. Road transport cost is affected by width but roads are generally capable of moving widths up to 4.87 m (16 ft). Widths in excess of 3.66 m (12 ft) require escorts. Widths in excess of 4.57 m (15 ft) may also include police escorts, which escalate cost and complexity.

Height can be a challenge in road transport, but rail is often capable of accommodating tall cargo without issue. Most wind turbines require a loaded height (cargo plus trailer deck height) of 4.72–4.77 m (15 ft, 6 inches–15 ft, 8 inches) in order to clear the tallest cargo (e.g., the nacelle or tower). This height is often at the upper limits of many areas of the country for road transport. Tower diameters that exceed 4.57 m (15 ft) often complicate the ability to find a clear route to site.

The numbers in this section are representative constraints; specific routes around the country may be more or less restricted. The key point is that transportation logistics issues are increasing, which can cause delays and added costs, as well as suboptimal component design.

Crane Availability. The availability of smaller (120–150 metric tonnes) “support” crawler cranes may also become more limited as the number of installed turbines increases. These small cranes are used to off-load turbine components, and to support the larger cranes required for the heaviest of nacelles or greater than 100-m hub-heights. These small crawlers are used in all forms of construction, especially infrastructure, and as infrastructure projects gain momentum, the supply of these cranes should increase. With the decline in wind installations in 2013, crane manufacturers have realigned to supply ultra-large crawler cranes to the power generation and petro-chemical facilities. While development of machines to improve capacities at heights required by the wind industry continues, the pace of such investments has fallen considerably.

Investment takes too long, if ever to pay back

There isn’t already a lot of wind power because investors aren’t willing to wait 20 to 30 years to get their money back when they can invest it in oil and natural gas drilling and get most of their money back in a few years.

Suckers who believe the wind proponent value of EROEI at 20:1 don’t understand the factors left out, such as rare metals, natural gas peaking plants, grid infrastructure, maintenance costs, and so on.

Windmills may only last 12 to 15 years, or at best 20 years

Mackay, M. 29 Dec 2012. Wind turbines’ lifespan far shorter than believed, study suggests. The Courier.

A study commissioned by the Renewable Energy Foundation has found that the economic life of onshore wind turbines could be far less than that predicted by the industry. The “groundbreaking” research was carried out by academics at Edinburgh University and looked at 3,000 onshore wind turbines and years of wind farm performance data from the UK and Denmark. The results appear to show that the output from windfarms — allowing for variations in wind speed and site characteristics — declines substantially as they get older. By 10 years of age, the report found that the contribution of an average UK wind farm towards meeting electricity demand had declined by a third. That reduction in performance leads the study team to believe that it will be uneconomic to operate windfarms for more than 12 to 15 years — at odds with industry predictions of a 20- to 25-year lifespan. They may then have to be replaced with new machinery — a finding that the foundation believes has profound consequences for investors and government alike.

Scotland’s landscape could be blighted by the rotting remains of a failed regeneration of wind farms, according to a scathing new report.

Mendick, R. 30 Dec 2012. Wind Farm Turbines wear sooner than expected. The Telegraph

The study estimates that routine wear and tear will more than double the cost of electricity being produced by wind farms in the next decade.

  • Older turbines will need to be replaced more quickly than the industry estimates while many more will need to be built onshore if the Government is to meet renewable energy targets by 2020.
  • The extra cost is likely to be passed on to households, which already pay about £1 billion a year in a consumer subsidy that is added to electricity bills.
  • The report concludes that a wind turbine will typically generate more than twice as much electricity in its first year than when it is 15 years old.
  • Author Prof Gordon Hughes, an economist at Edinburgh University and a former energy adviser to the World Bank, discovered that the “load factor” — the efficiency rating of a turbine based on the percentage of electricity it actually produces compared with its theoretical maximum — is reduced from 24 per cent in the first 12 months of operation to just 11 per cent after 15 years.
  • The decline in the output of offshore wind farms, based on a study of Danish wind farms, appears even more dramatic. The load factor for turbines built on platforms in the sea is reduced from 39 per cent to 15 per cent after 10 years.
  • The study also looked at onshore turbines in Denmark and discovered that their decline was much less dramatic even though its wind farms tended to be older.Prof Hughes said that may be due to Danish turbines being smaller than British ones and possibly better maintained.
  • He said: “I strongly believe the bigger turbines are proving more difficult to manage and more likely to interfere with one another. British turbines have got bigger and wind farms have got bigger and they are creating turbulence which puts more stress on them.It is this stress that causes the breakdowns and maintenance requirements that is underlying the problem in performance that I have been seeing”.
  • Prof Hughes examined the output of 282 wind farms —about 3,000 turbines in total — in the UK and a further 823 onshore wind farms and 30 offshore wind farms in Denmark.
  • “Bluntly, wind turbines onshore and offshore still cost too much and wear out far too quickly to offer the developing world a realistic alternative to coal.

Prof Hughes said his analysis had uncovered a “hidden” truth that was not even known to the industry. His report was sent to an independent statistician at University College London who confirmed its findings.

Not In My Back Yard – NIMBYism

There’s been a great deal of NIMBYism preventing windmills from being built so far. Some of the objections are visual blight, bird killing, noise, and erosion from service roads.

After 25 years of marriage, I still have to sometimes go downstairs to sleep when my husband snores too loudly, so I can imagine how annoying windmill noise might be.  And even more so after someone sent me a document entitled “Confidential issues report draft. Waubra & Other Victorian Wind Farm Noise Impact Assessments” that made the case that windmill noise affects the quality of life, disturbs sleep, and has adverse health effects. I especially liked the descriptions of possible noices: whooshes, rumble-thumps, whining, clunks, and swooshes.  Low frequency sounds can penetrate walls and windows and cause vibrations and pressure changes.  Many people affected would like to come up with a standard that windmill farms must be at least 2 kilometres away and not exceed a noise level of 35 dB(A) at any time outside neighboring dwellings.

Wind turbines depend on rare earth metals

Such as the neodymium used in turbine magnets.  Neodymium prices quadrupled this year, and that’s with wind still making up less than 3% of global electricity generation (Cembalest).

Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of mining the rare metals required for windmills makes their use questionable.  Mongolia has large reserves of rare earth metals, especially neodymium, the element needed to make the magnets in wind turbines.  Its extraction has led to a 5-mile wide poisonous tailings lake in northern China.  Nearby farmland for miles is now unproductive, and one of China’s key waterways is at risk. “This vast, hissing cauldron of chemicals is the dumping ground for seven million tons a year of mined rare earth after it has been doused in acid and chemicals and processed through red-hot furnaces to extract its components.  Rusting pipelines meander for miles from factories processing rare earths in Baotou out to the man-made lake where, mixed with water, the foul-smelling radioactive waste from this industrial process is pumped day after day” (Parry).

Local and Global Weather are affected

Scientists modeled the impact of a hypothetical large-scale wind farm in the Great Plains. Their conclusion in The Journal of Geophysical Research, is that thousands of turbines concentrated in one area can affect local weather, by making warmer drier conditions from the atmospheric mixing in the blades wake.  The warming and drying that occur when the upper air mass reaches the surface is a significant change, Dr. Baidya Roy said, and is similar to the kinds of local atmospheric changes that occur with large-scale deforestation (2Nov 2004. Catch the Wind, Change the Weather. New York Times.

“We shouldn’t be surprised that extracting wind energy on a global scale is going to have a noticeable effect. … There is really no such thing as a free lunch,” said David Keith, a professor of energy and the environment at the University of Calgary and lead author of a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Specifically, if wind generation were expanded to the point where it produced 10% of today’s energy, the models say cooling in the Arctic and a warming across the southern parts of North America should happen.

The exact mechanism for this is unclear, but the scientists believe it may have to do with the disruption of the flow of heat from the equator to the poles.


The Sierra club in Maine is asking the Minerals Management Service  to look at over a dozen aspects of wind offshore, including possible interference with known upwelling zones and/or important circulatory and current regimes that might influence the distribution or recruitment of marine species.

Wind affects the upwelling of nutrients and may be a key factor in booms and busts of the California sardine fishery and other marine species.

Ocean bottom

Installing offshore windmills requires excavation of the seafloor to create a level surface, and sinking the 250 to 350 ton foundations into the seabed, which are very expensive to build,since they require scour protection from large stones, erosion control mats, and so on.

Potential Impacts to Currents and Tides

Wind turbine foundations can affect the flow velocity and direction and increase turbulence. These changes to currents can affect sediment transport, resulting in erosion or piles of sediments on nearby shorelines.  Modified currents also could change the distribution of salinity, nutrients, effluents, river outflows, and thermal stratification, in turn affecting fish and benthic habitats.    Changes to major ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream could affect areas well beyond the continental United States, affecting the climate of North America as well as other continents (Michel).

Lack of a skilled and technical workforce

wind power officials see a much larger obstacle coming in the form of its own work force, a highly specialized group of technicians that combine working knowledge of mechanics, hydraulics, computers and meteorology with the willingness to climb 200 feet in the air in all kinds of weather (Twiddy).

Wind only produces electricity

We need liquid fuels for the immediate crisis at hand.

Wind has a low capacity Factor

In the very best windmill farms, the capacity factor is only 28 to 35%.

Wind turbines generate electrical energy when they are not shut down for maintenance, repair, or tours and the wind is between about 8 and 55 mph. Below a wind speed of around 30 mph, however, the amount of energy generated is very small.

A 100 MW rated wind farm is capable of producing 100 MW only during maximum peak winds.  Most of the time it will produce much less, or even no power at all when winds are lighter or not blowing.  In reality, 30 MW of power production or less is far more likely.  What wind farms actually produce is called the CAPACITY FACTOR.

Quite often you will only hear that a new wind farm will generate 100 MW of power.  Ignore that and look for what the capacity factor is.

This makes a difference in how many homes are served. Per Megawatt, a coal plant up 75% of the time provides enough power in the Northeast for 900 homes and a wind plant up 30% of the time power for only 350 homes. The southhas extremely voracious electricity consumers, so the numbers are much lower: 350 and 180 respectively.

Solar generators typically have a 25 percent capacity factor, because the generators do not produce electricity at night or on cloudy days.

Dead bugs and salt reduce wind power generation by 20 to 30%

Over time the build-up of dead insects and/or salt on off-shor turbine blades reduces power by up to 30%.

Kite Windmills

There are several research groups looking at generating electricity using giant kites up in the jet stream. But it won’t be easy.  Jet streams move around and change their location, airplanes need to stay well away, and lightning and thunderstorms might require them to be brought down.

The strongest wind is 6 miles above us, where winds are typically 60 miles per hour.  Some scientists think there’s enough wind to generate 100 times current global energy demand.

But Axel Kleidon and Lee Miller of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry believe that’s a massive overestimate of the amount of energy that could be obtained. If they’re right that jet stream wind results from a lack of friction, then at most 7.5 TW of power could be extracted, and that would have a major effect on climate (Earth System Dynamics, vol 2, p 201).

Wind Power Can’t be scaled up

Denmark is often pointed out as a country that scaled wind up to provide 20% of its power.   Yet because wind is so intermitent, no conventional power plants have been shut down because they need to step in when the wind isn’t blowing (enough).  The quick ramping up and down of these power plants actually increases greenhouse gas emissions.  And when the wind does blow enough, the power is surplus and most is sold to other countries at an extremely cheap price.  And often they have to import electricity!  The Danish pay the highest electricity prices in Europe.  The actual capacity is 20%, not the 30% the BWEA and AWEA claim is possible (Rosenbloom).

Small windmills

According to the American Wind Energy Association, these are the challenges of small windmills: they’re too expensive for most people, there’s insufficient product reliability, lack of consumer protection from unscrupulous suppliers, most local jurisdictions limit the height of structures to 35 feet (wind towers must be at least 60 feet high and higher than objects around them like trees, etc), utilities make it hard and discourage people from connecting to the grid, the inverters that modify the wildly fluctuating wind voltages into 60-cycle AC are too expensive, and they’re too noisy.

Wind turbines can NOT help us avoid blackouts

This is because wind turbines need power from the grid to work. A blackout knocks them out, too.

Castelvecchi, D. March 2012. Gather the Wind. If renewable energy is going to take off, we need good ways of storing it for the times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.  Scientific American.

Cembalest, Michael. 21 Nov 2011. Eye on the Market: The quixotic search for energy solutions. J. P. Morgan.

Cubic Mile of Oil.  Wikipedia.

DATC. September 23, 2014. $8-billion green energy initiative proposed for Los Angeles. Duke American Transmission Co.

De Castro, C. 2011. Global Wind Power Potential: Physical and technological limits. Energy Policy.

E.ON Netz Corp. Wind Report 2004.Renewable Energy Foundation. E.ON Netz Wind report 2005 shows UK renewables policy is mistaken.

Elvidge, C. D. 2004. U.S. constructed area approaches the size of Ohio. Eos 85:233-34.

Fisher, T. Oct 23, 2013. Big Wind’s Dirty Little Secret: Toxic Lakes and Radioactive Waste. Institute for Energy Research.

Galbraith, K. 7 Aug 2011. Wind Power Gains as Gear Improves. New York Times

Gruver, M. September 24, 2014. Renewable energy plan hinges on huge Utah caverns. Associated Press.

IEC. 2014. Wind speed and power. Iowa Wind Center.

Mason, V. 2005. Wind power in West Denmark. Lessons for the UK.

Michel, J, et al. July 2007. Worldwide Synthesis and Analysis of Existing Information Regarding Environmental Effects of Alternative Energy Uses on the Outer Continental Shelf. U.S. Department of the Interior. Minerals Management Service. OCS STUDY MMS 2007- 038

Miller, L. M. et al. Jet stream wind power as a renewable energy resource: little power, big impacts. Earth System Dynamics, 2011; 2 (2): 201 DOI: 10.5194/esd-2-201-2011

Nelder, C. 31 May 2010. 195 Californias or 74 Texases to Replace Offshore Oil. ASPO Peak Oil Review.

NREL. 2014. Renewable Electricity Futures Study Exploration of High-Penetration Renewable Electricity Futures. National Renewable Energy Laboratory. 21 Sep 2005. Memorandum submitted by Paul Mobbs, Mobbs’ Environmental Investigations. Select committee on environmental audit.

Parry, Simon. 11 Jan 2012.  In China, the true cost of Britain’s clean, green wind power experiment: Pollution on a disastrous scale.

Pfotenhauer, N. May 12, 2014. Big Wind’s bogus subsidies. U.S. News.

Rose, S. et. al. 10 Jan 2012. Quantifying the hurricane risk to offshore wind turbines. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Rosenbloom, E. 2006. A Problem With Wind Power.

Smil, V. 2008. Energy in nature and society. MIT Press.

Smil, V. 2010. Energy myths and realities. AEI press.

Takemoto, Y. 31 Aug 2006. Eurus Energy May Scrap Wind Power Project in Japan.  Bloomberg.

Trainer, T., 2012. A critique of Jacobson and Delucchi’s proposals for a world renewable energy supply. Energy Policy 44, 476–481.

Twiddy, D. 2 Feb 2008. Wind farms need techs to keep running. Associated Press.

Udall, Randy. How many wind turbines to meet the nation’s needs? Energyresources message 2202


More articles on wind problems in various areas (not cited above)

Clover, C. 9 Dec 2006. Wind farms ‘are failing to generate the predicted amount of electricity‘. Telegraph.

Means, E. Jan 12, 2015. Scotland Gagging on Wind Power. Energy Matters.

Not on the internet anymore:

Blackwell, R. Oct 30, 2005. How much wind power is too much? Globe and Mail.

Wind power has become a key part of Canada’s energy mix, with the number of installed wind turbines growing exponentially in recent months. But the fact the wind doesn’t blow all the time is creating a potential roadblock that could stall growth in the industry.

Alberta and Ontario, the two provinces with the most wind turbines up and whirling, face concerns that there are limits on how much power can be generated from the breeze before their electricity systems are destabilized.

Alberta recently put a temporary cap on wind generation at 900 megawatts — a level it could reach as early as next year — because of the uncertainty. And a report in Ontario released last week says that in some situations more than 5,000 MW of wind power, stable operation of the power grid could be jeopardized.

Warren Frost, vice-president for operations and reliability at the Alberta Electric System Operator, said studies done over the past couple of years showed there can be problems when wind contributes more than about 10 per cent of the province’s electricity — about 900 MW — because of the chance the wind could stop at any time.

Each 100 MW of wind power is enough to supply a city about the size of Lethbridge, Alta.

If the power “disappears on you when the wind dies, then you’ve got to make it up, either through importing from a neighbouring jurisdiction or by ramping up generators,” Mr. Frost said.

But Alberta is limited in its imports, because the provincial power grid has connections only with British Columbia and Saskatchewan. And hydroelectric plants with water reservoirs, which can turn on a dime to start producing power, are limited in the province. Coal-fired plants and most gas-fired plants take time to get up to speed, making them less useful as backups when the wind fails.

There can also be a problem, Mr. Frost noted, when the wind picks up and generates more power than is being demanded — that potential imbalance also has to be accounted for.

There are a number of ways to allow wind power to make up a greater proportion of the electricity supply, but they require more study, Mr. Frost said. First, he said, the province can develop more sophisticated ways of forecasting the wind so the power it generates is more predictable.

The province could also build more plants that can quickly respond if the wind dies down during a peak period, for example. But building new gas-powered plants merely to help handle the variability of wind is certain to raise the ire of environmentalists.

The province could also increase its connections to other jurisdictions, where it would buy surplus power when needed. Alberta is already looking at links with some northwestern U.S. states, including Montana.

Over all, Alberta is committed to “adding as much wind as feasible” Mr. Frost said. “What we’re balancing is the reliability [issue].

Robert Hornung, president of the Canadian Wind Energy Association, which represents companies in the wind business, said he prefers to think of Alberta’s 900 MW limit as a “speed bump” rather than a fixed cap.

“We have every confidence they’ll be able to go further than that,” Mr. Hornung said, particularly if the industry and regulators put some effort into wind forecasting over the next year or so. That’s crucial, he said, because “we have projects of many, many more megawatts than 900 waiting to proceed in Alberta.

In Ontario, the situation is less acute than in Alberta, but the wind study released last week — prepared for the industry and regulators — shows some similar concerns.

While wind power could be handled by the Ontario grid up to 5,000 MW — about 320 MW of wind turbines are currently in operation with another 960 MW in planning stages — the situation changes at higher levels, the study suggests.

Particularly during low demand periods when wind makes up a relatively high proportion of the power mix, “stable operation of the power system could be compromised” if backup systems can’t be ramped up quickly to deal with wind fluctuations, the report said.

But Ontario is in a better position than Alberta because it has far more interconnections with other provinces and states, where it can buy or sell power.

And it also has its wind turbines more geographically dispersed than Alberta, where most wind farms are in the south of the province. That means the chance of the wind failing everywhere at the same time is lower in Ontario.

Don Tench, director of planning and assessments for Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, said he thinks better wind forecasting is the key to making the new source of power work effectively.

“If we have a few hours notice of a significant wind change, we can make plans to deal with it,” he said.

Mr. Frost, of the Alberta system operator, said European countries such as Denmark and Germany have been able to maintain a high proportion of wind power in their electricity systems mainly because they have multiple connections to other countries’ power grids. That gives them substantial flexibility to import or export power to compensate for wind fluctuation.

Germany, for example, has 39 international interconnections, he said, making variable wind conditions much easier to manage.

Wiley, L. 2007. Utility scale wind turbine manufacturing requirements. Presentation at the National Wind Coordinating Collaborative’s Wind Energy and Economic Development Forum, Lansing, Mich., April 24, 2007.

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Robert McNally U.S. Congressional Hearing testimony on energy

[I think it is interesting to know what Congress hears about energy from experts, and what the official U.S. energy policies are.  It is frustrating that Energy Return on Invested (EROI) is never discussed, even by intelligent analysts like McNally, leaving U.S. policy with no basis in reality, just hopes and dreams.  Nor is the enormous ecological harm of biofuels – their stripping of topsoil, depletion of aquifers, their dependence on natural gas based fertilizer and oil, destruction of rainforests to grow palm oil, negative EROI, and the myriad reasons why cellulosic biofuels are unlikely to be developed discussed at hearings (i.e. “Peak Soil“).  Well, what else can be expected of a scientifically illiterate congress and public?  With so many leaders crowing energy independence, the train is picking up speed as it heads for the ecological brick wall, not slowing down.  Alice Friedemann ]

Serial No. 113-2. February 13, 2013. American Energy Outlook: Technology, Market and Policy Drivers. House of Representatives. 119 pages.

Testimony of Robert McNally

The critical importance of ample flows of energy, mainly fossil fuels, to sustain our standard of living

We must recognize that our standard of living is closely and inextricably linked to fossil fuels.

It is hard to overstate but often overlooked how much modern civilization depends on continuous access to the substantial flow of fossil fuels from producers to consumers. The displacement of bio energy with coal made the industrial era possible. Subsequent use of oil and natural gas augmented coal and enable d our modern transportation and electricity sectors to develop. Concentrated and abundant energy stores of coal, gas and oil power virtually all we do at the current state of technological development.

Transportation, which is critical to food supply chains and other core systems society needs to function, today runs almost entirely on oil. Electrical generation taps a more diverse suite of fuels but much of it, too, is fossil fuel powered.

“Energy,” as Nobel chemist Richard Smalley noted in 2003, “is the single most important factor that impacts the prosperity of any society.” Fossil-based energy or hydrocarbons–oil, gas, and coal–are far superior to other primary energy sources because they are dense, highly concentrated, abundant, and comparatively easy to transport and store. That is the case now, and it is expected to be the case in the coming decades. The latest EIA International Energy Outlook forecasts that world energy consumption will rise by 53 percent by 2035 and fossil fuels ’ share of total energy consumption will rise from 74 percent to 79 percent.

Patience about the time it takes to transform energy systems

The pace of energy transformations depends on both the availability of economical stores of energy and the development of devices that can turn those energy stores into “work” such as light, heat, and mobility. Major energy transitions take a very long time, measured in decades if not generations.

The respected energy expert Vaclav Smil in 2008 “ Moore’s Curse and the Great Energy Delusion, The American Magazine:

“Energy transitions” encompass the time that elapses between an introduction of a new primary energy source oil, nuclear electricity, wind captured by large turbines) and its rise to claiming a substantial share 20 percent to 30 percent) of the overall market, or even to becoming the single largest contributor or an absolute leader (with more than 50%) in national or global energy supply. The term also refers to gradual diffusion of new prime movers, devices that replaced animal and human muscles by converting primary energies into mechanical power that is used to rotate massive turbogenerators producing electricity or to propel fleets of vehicles, ships, and airplanes. There is one thing all energy transitions have in common: they are prolonged affairs that take decades to accomplish and the greater the scale of prevailing uses and conversions the longer the substitutions will take. The second part of this statement seems to be a truism but it is ignored as often as the first part: otherwise, we would not have all those unrealized predicted milestones for new energy sources.

The main reason why it would take many decades to transform our energy system is that our energy system is colossal. Developed countries have made, and continue to make, enormous investments in recent years in fossil energy production, transportation, refining, distribution, and consumption systems and devices that could not quickly be replaced in any reasonable scenario, even if an alternative energy source was available. Whether one regards our society’s massive investment in and dependence on hydrocarbons as an addiction or a blessing, it is here to stay for many more decades.

Humility and restraint about predicting, much less attaining, arbitrary and aggressive energy targets

The historical record is littered with overly optimistic or scary predictions and policy targets , by experts and non-experts alike. While energy surprises can be humbling for analysts, too often leaders and observers ignore technology, geology, and economics and either predict or prescribe unachievable targets.

They range from period cries of imminent peak oil, through confident predictions in the 1950s that nuclear energy would be “too cheap to meter”, to President Nixon ’s declaration that the US would be energy independent by 1980. Widespread adoption of electric cars or deployment of renewable energy technologies has a long and sad history of failure going back over a century. Just six years ago, Congress passed a law mandating 36 billion gallons of biofuels consumption by 2022 that EIA analysts say cannot be met given economic and scientific realities. In July 2008 former Vice President Al Gore called for the US to commit to producing our entire electricity supply from renewable sources within 10 years. Though he described the goal as “achievable” and “affordable” not one energy expert I am aware of would agree this is even remotely possible. At best, arbitrary and aggressive targets can mislead the public about the complexities and uncertainties involved in energy market transformations and at worst when such targets are married to costly mandates or subsidies, they can become expensive policy errors. I would respectfully recommend policy makers abjure from basing policy on arbitrary, unrealistic targets, much less basing mandates or subsidies on them. Energy transformations are more akin to a multi-decade exodus than a multi-year moonshot, as pretending otherwise misleads citizens and distracts from serious debate about real circumstances and solutions.


Senate Hearing. June 23, 2015. American Energy Exports: Opportunities for U.S. Allies and U.S. National Security. Subcommittee on Multilateral International Development, Multilateral Institutions, And International Economic Energy, And Environmental Policy

Oil and natural gas are the lifeblood of modern civilization. Their abundance and affordability are prerequisites for thriving economic growth, high living standards, and ample employment. They are also an essential requirement for our national security. U S foreign policy has historically benefited from our strong position as a producer and exporter of energy. While we were known as the “Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II, we were equally an “Arsenal of Energy” , supplying nearly six out of seven barrels consumed by the Allies. 1 Even after net crude imports began rising steadily after the war, our control of spare production capacity enabled us to supply our allies and prevent economically damaging price spikes that would have resulted due to oil supply disruptions associated with Middle East conflicts in 1956 and 1967.

But after the energy, geopolitical, and economic convulsions of the 1970s , our confidence in our domestic abundance and control shifted to apprehension about dependence and vulnerability. For the past forty years our foreign and national security policy planning has prioritized preparing against supply interruptions and price spikes, protecting Middle East oil fields from hostile control , an d protecting the supply lines between the region and global markets. In this respect, the tremendous and unexpected boom in domestic oil and gas production in recent years is an enormous blessing for our country. In the last ten years, our net oil imports fell from 12.5 mb/d to 5 mb/d (in the first quarter of 2015) or from 60% to 24% of supply. 2 For the first time since the 1950s, most official projections see U.S. net energy imports, which includes all fuels, declining and eventually ending. 3 Our newfound abundance does not mean we can ignore the Middle East, which holds nearly half of the world’s prove n oil reserves and supplies one-third of global production. That region will remain a source of potential price and supply shocks, and its stability will therefore remain a vital national interest. But our domestic boom does confer enormous benefits and require s that we change our thinking about energy.

It is important to realize that we need not export large quantities of gas to benef it from a foreign policy standpoint. Just having the option to buy from the US strengthens the bargaining power of our allies when they negotiate long term contract prices with suppliers like Russia. Last December, Lithuania opened a costly LNG import terminal, an example of an ally willing to pay a security premium for diversified source of supply. Lithuania’s new terminal forced Gazprom to drop its prices to Lithuania, reportedly by 20%.

Natural gas

While much attention is paid to the spectacular turnaround in our oil supply and imports, it is worth remembering our need for imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) underwent a similar and surprising transition. Between 2002 and 2007 our LNG imports had more than tripled, and officials were expecting another doubling. We were building terminals to import from suppliers like Qatar and Russia . But after the shale gas revolution increased proven reserves by 77% from 200 billion cubic feet (bcf) in 2004 to 354 bcf last year, we are now on track to become a net natural gas exporter by 2017, according to EIA.

1 A History of the Petroleum Administration for War , 1946, p. 1.

2 June 2015 Short Term Energy Outlook, Table 4a.

For historical data, see EIA. In 2005, total product supplied was 20.8 mb/d and net imports were 12.5 mb/d.

3, slide 2


McNally, B. July 19, 2011. Outlook for US Biofuels. 2011 Agricultural symposium, Federal Reserve Bank, Kansas City, Missouri

My outlook for biofuels is, in a word, stark.

First, corn ethanol’s political power in Washington has peaked and is now in surprisingly rapid decline. Future policy support is blocked, and past policy supports are being scaled back. No one expected such a dramatic turnabout, the speed and extent of which is startling. Corn ethanol will be lucky to hold on to a 15 billion gallon per year (bgy) blending mandate, and other, “advanced” biofuel mandates are likely to be reduced by future Congresses or EPA. This shift in policy support for corn ethanol is not yet fully factored into commodity market analysts’ and energy investors’ expectations.

Second, Washington is unlikely to help ethanol surmount the main public policy impediment to greater biofuels blending–i.e. the 10% of gasoline “blend wall.” Washington’s new power constellation and fiscal austerity imperative will limit the future regulatory or fiscal support needed to push ethanol into intermediate blends (e.g. E15) or E85. In the absence of high public support, future growth in ethanol will require technical breakthroughs that dramatically lower costs and allow for production at the commercial scale.

Finally, when ethanol is blended at levels below the blend wall, prices will depend on ethanol’s suitability as a substitute for gasoline, which in turn depends on oil prices. Oil prices are likely to see greater cyclical swings as OPEC is not investing in enough capacity to retain an adequate supply buffer with which to dampen volatility. Greater oil price swings will reduce certainty and bedevil investment in conventional and bio-based energy.

When OPEC supplanted the United States 40 years ago as the dominant force in global oil markets, oil price s rose and imports soared, and energy security became a top policy priority. To promote the growth of a domestic transportation fuel supply, Washington exempted ethanol from part of the federal motor-fuel taxes, placed a tariff protection on imports, mandated government fleet purchases, and extended loans and loan guarantees for ethanol plant investment and federal R&D. Later, policymakers added pro-ethanol incentives in federal fuel economy rules and provided a volatility waiver to the formula in the oxygenated and reformulated fuels programs.

Although President Reagan pared back some support for ethanol, Republican ethanol champions such as Senators Dole, Lugar, and Grassley, as well as longtime Senate Energy Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, protected the blending credit, and the tariff protection survived and was increased. Ethanol has historically enjoyed strong voting blocks in the House and Senate, and the importance of Iowa’s role in the presidential nomination process is not lost on aspiring presidential candidates.

In the 1990s another rationale for ethanol blending emerged: environmental protection. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA) mandated oxygenates in gasoline to reduce carbon monoxide emissions resulting from gasoline combustion.   And as ethanol’s chief competitor in the oxygenate market–MTBE–was phased out due to concerns over water contamination, ethanol benefited further. In the last decade, both energy security and environmental rationales for ethanol blending combined to create a third, and by far the biggest, political wave of support for ethanol. Terrorist attacks and oil price gyrations renewed national alarm about energy security, and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions became the holy grail of the environmental movement.

By offering benefits and political support to both causes, ethanol supporters succeeded–via the 2005 and 2007 energy policy acts–in achieving a new and powerful policy support for ethanol–a large and direct blending mandate. Specifically, in 2007 Congress ordered that the US blend 15 bgy of ethanol into gasoline by 2015, which translates into a conversion of some 40% of the US corn crop into 10% of the gasoline pool. And the nation must consume another 21 bgy of advanced cellulosic, not corn starch-based) ethanol by 2022. From a n energy policy and political perspective, the ethanol mandate is probably the single most impactful energy policy Washington has implemented in the last 11 years.

From a financial market perspective, it is no secret that neither Wall Street nor the oil industry is terribly fond of ethanol on its merits. But market participants have come to believe ethanol is a winner in Washington. As Senator Feinstein observed: “Ethanol is the only industry that benefits from a triple crown of government intervention: its use is mandated by law, it is protected by tariffs, and companies are paid by the federal government to use it. Investment in ethanol production and actual blending soared. Commodity analysts and traders began to assume a greater part of future liquid fuel demand would be met by biofuels. And oil companies began to acquire ethanol facilities and started to view corn fields as upstream energy assets.

Looking around

As we turn to the near past and present, it is striking to watch how ethanol’s fortunes have fallen so hard and so fast in Washington. The change was completely unexpected and is still underway, and market participants have been slow to realize it. I must admit, as one who has been noting the turnaround in ethanol’s fortunes over the recent years, the collapse in recent weeks has been breathtaking.

With the benefit of hindsight, signs of the trend shift emerged in 2008, when agricultural commodity prices soared as ethanol was ramping up in response to the 2007 RFS. Of course, other factors were also at work in the commodity price boom. But there had been no prior official analysis by EIA or anyone else of the impact of the RFS on grain prices. Unusually for such a major energy policy initiative, Washington mandated first but analyzed and debated later. Now well underway, the food versus fuel debate will rage for years. But in Washington perception matters as much as reality, and the perception was and is that biofuels mandates contributed to rising food prices. The second shift came in 2009, when the always-tenuous alliance between the environmental community and the ethanol community began to sour. While g reen groups appreciate d corn ethanol’s utility in reducing carbon monoxide, they were irked by exemptions from tough rules limit ing vapor pressure. Nor did they like the fossil fuel consumption, land-use impacts, and life-cycle carbon emissions associated with higher ethanol blending. But as long as cap-and-trade was on the table in the late-Bush and early-Obama administrations, Greens held their noses and allied with ethanol. Greens did lay some traps in the path of potential corn ethanol growth by insisting in the 2007 RFS that biofuels blending above 15 bgy come from more efficient, less carbon emitting sources than corn, such as cellulosic ethanol. But in the last two years, the Great Recession and Republican gains in the 2010 election have taken cap and trade off the table,

and as a result the falling out has gathered steam. Now that the chief rationale for the ethanol-green alliance has fallen away, tensions are laid bare and the gloves are coming off. Green groups are stepping up opposition to ethanol on grounds that it emits high amounts of carbon on a life cycle basis and that blending credits are an expensive way to cut carbon emissions. The Congressional Budget Office estimated blending credits cost about $750/ton of CO2 equivalent reduction. 2

The third, and I would argue most important, challenge corn ethanol faced was the emergence of fiscal austerity and the need to tighten fiscal policy, which is now the primary focus of the Republican-controlled House and also the top priority of the Senate and White House. And given the size of our fiscal imbalances and the election outlooks of most observers, it is fair to assume Washington’s budget cutting imperative won’t be going away soon. Even those without a strong anti-ethanol bias found it hard to justify continuing a blending credit for a product whose demand is mandated. Environmental groups joined with their usual foes on letters to Congress opposing E15.

Long envied, courted, and respected, ethanol now finds itself vulnerable, low-hanging fruit and facing an “unholy coalition” environmentalists, fiscal conservatives, the oil and food industries, and small engine manufacturers able and willing to block its growth and take back its prior gains.

The first tangible signs that corn ethanol was in trouble in Washington came during the E15 debate in 2010, when Congress and the White House failed to direct EPA to grant ethanol the sweeping waiver for E 15 it desired. Then the Tea Party and Republican House came to town. Turning first to E15, the House voted twice to deny federal funding for E15 blending pumps and storage tanks, by 262-158 and 283-128, and by 285-136 to block E15 waiver implementation.

Then the $6bn per year blending credit moved to the center of the bulls-eye. In June, the Senate voted 73-27 for a Coburn/Feinstein proposal to end the blending credit immediately rather than wait for end-year expiration. A strong reversal from the 1990s, when it was the anti-ethanol forces that typically lost Senate votes with counts in the 20s.

The most recent indication of how far corn ethanol’s star has fallen came during President Obama’s recent news conference–actually the first Twitter town hall. He raised eyebrows calling corn ethanol producers “probably the least efficient producers [compared with cellulosic]” and saying “ it’s important for even those folks in farm states who traditionally have been strong supporters of ethanol to examine are we, in fact, going after the cutting-edge biodiesel and ethanol approaches that allow, for example, Brazil to run about a third of its transportation system on biofuels. Now, they get it from sugar cane and it’s a more efficient conversion process than corn-based ethanol. And so us doing more basic research in finding better ways to do the same concept I think is the right way to go.” The President reportedly has put the blending credit on the table to help offset a continuation of the payroll tax cut.

Adding further support to the negative outlook for ethanol, official energy analysts making long term projections of fuel mix are becoming more cautious about biofuels growth . Whereas International Energy Agency IEA projections had ethanol accounting for almost half of gasoline demand growth in the last five years, IEA now projects the fuel will account for less than a quarter of demand growth in the next five, despite higher projected oil prices, 3 due to higher corn prices and greater uncertainty aro und mandates. 4 IEA sees global biofuels rising from 1.8 mb/d to 2.3 mb/d by 2016, displacing some 5.3% of gasoline and 1.5% of diesel by 2016 on an energy content basis. 5 IEA does not expect cellulosic biofuels to achieve widespread cost competitiveness with conventional gasoline until 2030, despite aggressive mandates. EIA, March 24, 2011. , slide 4.

IEA projects advanced biofuels will rise from 20 kb/d now to 100-130 kb/d in 2016. Even DOE’s forecasting arm, the Energy Information Administration, projects the US will fail to meet advanced biofuels targets by 2022.

Looking Ahead

Discussion about weakening the RFS has already started in Washington. Senator Inhofe (R-OK) and Representative Issa (R-CA) have introduced the Fuel Feedstock Freedom Act, which would allow states to withdraw from the RFS. However, state opt-outs are likely to be logistically difficult if not unworkable. Eventually either Congress or EPA will probably reduce the mandate to prevent it from colliding with the blend wall and raising gasoline prices. The ethanol lobby saw the blend wall danger and first tried to surmount it by getting EPA approval for “intermediate” blends above 10%, such as 15% ethanol or E15. Ethanol forces are trying to secure federal funding and indemnification for intermediate blend infrastructure and consumer acceptance. While EPA (grudgingly, I suspect) granted partial approval for E15 blends, they did so in the full knowledge that very little is likely to be sold due to large remaining infrastructure compatibility, cost and liability concerns, as spelled out in a recent GAO report. 9 Even ethanol-laden companies like Marathon and Valero said they would not offer E15. While ethanol forces took heart when Senator McCain’s bill against eth anol pump funding failed 40-59, it is far from certain that Congress will be in the mood to grant ethanol additional funds or legal protection to enable E15 growth.

Grains and oil converge

From a commodity market perspective, it is noteworthy that grain and fuel prices are becoming more correlated and volatility is going up. Wallace Tyner noted the rapid explosion in ethanol’s market share has established a high and positive correlation between crude oil and corn that has not previously existed. Below the blend wall, the price of crude will drive ethanol prices. Above the blend wall, the price of corn will drive ethanol prices. There are also important linkages between the RFS and higher grain price volatility. As the RFS mandate rises, it will introduce a price-insensitive source of demand for corn. That in turn will impart greater price volatility back onto agricultural markets.   Two academics recently estimate d that at times when the RFS is driving ethanol demand instead of high oil prices relative to corn, inherent volatility in US grain markets will rise by about 25%.   And volatility of US coarse grain prices in response to supply side shocks in energy markets will rise by almost one-half.

A word about biodiesel and wind energy

Biodiesel history has mirrored that of corn ethanol. The inventor of the diesel engine, Rudolph Diesel, actively considered agricultural feedstocks as a fuel. But petroleum distillate established a dominant position, though oil price hikes of the 1970s renewed interest in homegrown alternatives.

Commercial production of biodiesel began in the 1990s, but only increased sharply since 2004 when a $1 blending/production credit was implemented.   In 2005, supplemental credits for the “renewable diesel tax credit” (“renewable” diesel does not use alcohol in conversion) and “small agri-biodiesel production credit” also went into effect. Biodiesel production was around 30 million gallons before 2005, but by 2008 was over 700 million gallons per year, with a large portion exported (though the EU has since imposed an import tariff that has hurt US exports). Biodiesel remains expensive compared with petroleum distillate. Biodiesel economics feature a high correlation between soybean oil and conventional diesel prices, since it takes a gallon of soybean oil to produce a gallon of soy-based biodiesel. In addition, soy-based biodiesel has a slightly lower energy content than conventional diesel. Bruce Babock, of Iowa State University, has noted biodiesel marginal costs are $2 per gallon higher than diesel, requiring a $1.00 credit and $1.00 RIN s price. 12 This makes most analysts cautious about the outlook for biodiesel growth. IEA projects biofuel-based distillate will account for only 4% of diesel demand growth in the next five years, compared with having taken 9% over the last five. 13 EIA expects US biodiesel use to rise from 0.1% of total liquids supply or 0.6% of diesel fuel consumption in 2010 to 0.6% of total supply and 3.0% of diesel demand by 2035. 14 The $1 per gallon biodiesel blending credit does not attract as much support or opposition as the ethanol blending credit. Because biodiesel blending, and therefore subsidy costs, have been lower, it has avoided the attention of the budget cutters, so far. But being small has its downsides too–Washington has frequently let the biodiesel credit expire with barely a whimper. When the credit last expired in 2010, the industry estimated production fell 42 percent and nearly 9,000 jobs were lost. Production fell despite a retroactive and rising RFS mandate, and exports were hurt by an EU import tariff.

As for wind, challenges to large-scale commercialization are fairly well understood. They include intermittency, austerity, distance from load centers, political opposition, and low natural gas prices. However, I am skeptical that $4 per Mmbtu natural gas will endure for too long, given questions about the economics and politics of shale gas production as well as strong political opposition to new nuclear and coal build-out. But ultimately wind cannot scale unless large cost and technological barriers are broken, not the least of which are storage and transmission and public opposition on footprint grounds is overcome.

  • Babcock, Bruce, The State of Biofuels Today, Iowa State University, April 2011
  • Babcock, Bruce A., Mandates, Tax Credits, and Tariffs: Does the U.S. Biofuels Industry Need Them All? CARD Policy Brief, Iowa State University, March, 2010
  • Babcock, Bruce and Carriquiry, Miguel, A Billion Gallons of Biod iesel: Who Benefits?,
  • Iowa Ag Review Online, Winter/2008,
  • Congressional Budget Office, Using Biofuel Tax Credits to Achieve Energy and Environmental Policy Goals, July 2010
  • Congressional Research Service, Intermediate-level Blends of Ethanol in Gasoline, and the Ethanol “Blend Wall,” January 28, 2010
  • General Accounting Office, Biofuels: Challenges to the Transportation, Sale, and Use of Intermediate Ethanol Blends , June 2011
  • Glozer, Ken G., Corn Ethanol: Who Pays? Who Benefits? Hoover Institution Press, 2011
  • Hertel, Thomas W., and Beckman, Jayson, Commodity Price Volatility in the Biofuel Era: An Examination of the Linkage Between Energy and Agricultural Markets , July, 2010
  • International Energy Agency , Medium Term Oil and Gas Market Report , June 2011
  • Tyner, Wallace E., The Integration of Energy and Agricultural Markets, presented at the 27th International Association of Agricultural Economists Conference, Beijing, China, August 16-22, 2000
  • Tyner, W., Dooley, F., Hurt, C., and Quear, J. Ethanol Pricing Issues for 2008. Industrial Fuels and Power, 2008


Serial No. 112-89. December 16, 2011. Changing energy markets and U.S. National Security. House of Representatives. 69 pages

Robert McNally, President of the Rapidan Group, on Changing Energy Markets and US National Security.

Oil is the only major energy commodity we import and lies at the center of our national security concerns.  Our energy security is and will remain strongly linked to trends and developments in the global oil market, not just our import share. We are and will remain vulnerable to price shocks caused by tightening global supply-demand fundamentals and geopolitical disruptions anywhere in the global oil market. And the strategic importance of the Persian Gulf region and its enormous, low-cost hydrocarbon reserves is likely to grow in the coming decades as Asia taps them to fuel growth. Our geopolitical and homeland security interests will remain closely bound to the security of the Persian Gulf region, the sea-lanes to and from it, and the ability to prevent Gulf countries from spending their windfalls on threats to US and global security.

It must not be overlooked that the world urgently needs new productions just to offset declining production in mature fields. The global oil industry needs to find an amount equal to two-thirds of existing conventional production, or 47 mb/d, in coming decades just to offset declines in mature fields. This is in addition to the new oil needed to meet demand growth in Asia and the Middle East.

Ethanol accounts for about 10% of gasoline, and EIA projects all biofuels will rise from 4% of liquids supply in 2009 to 11% by 2035.

While higher US and hemispheric production can and should help fill the gap, OPEC and the Persian Gulf producers hold the bulk of the world’s low-cost, proved reserves (70% and 55%, respectively).

Foreign policy makers should take into account three global energy market changes that will pose large challenges to our energy and economic security. The first is voracious growth in demand for energy, as well as for other natural resources, particularly from densely populated, fast-growing Asia, especially China and India. Achieving modern living standards in developing countries is impossible without consuming large amounts of dense, storable, reliable, and affordable energy. By these measures, fossil fuels are and will remain far superior to alternatives, especially in transportation. Unfortunately, no large scale, commercially viable alternatives to oil exist or are visible on the horizon. The US and other developed countries have made massive investments in oil fields, pipelines, terminals, refineries, tanks and dispensing stations in past decades. And rising Chinese, Indian and other Asian and Middle Eastern economies are starting to do the same.

Second, China and India are going to become tremendously dependent on flows of oil from the Middle East. The International Energy Agency projects China’s oil import dependence will rise from 54% in 2010 to 84% in 2035, and India’s will rise from 73% to 92% over the same period.3 The lion’s share of these imports will come from the Middle East. This is going to make China and India extremely concerned about protecting their access to Gulf supplies and sea-lanes, which is already a strategic concern for the United States.

Third, oil prices are going to gyrate more wildly than in the past as Saudi Arabia and OPEC’s ability to prevent price spikes erodes due to reduced spare capacity. This transition is overlooked but just as important as the first two noted above. The world oil market is leaving the relatively stable OPEC era and entering a new “Swing Era” in which large price swings rather than cartel production changes will balance global oil supply and demand. The Swing Era portends much higher oil price volatility, investment uncertainty in conventional and alternative energy and transportation technologies, and lower consensus estimates of global GDP growth. Ironically, Western governments and investors will miss OPEC, or at least the relative price stability OPEC tried to provide.

In summary, soaring Asian energy demand, sharply increasing Asian dependence on the Persian Gulf, and wild oil price gyrations pose major challenges to US energy security and foreign policy.

What is the future role of OPEC? What happens to price stability?

The changing role of OPEC, with its implications for oil price stability, is the most important, and so far overlooked, feature of global energy markets. It will have enormous consequences for US economic and foreign policy, especially in our bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia, as noted further below. In short, soaring global demand and constrained supply growth is causing OPEC to lose its spare capacity cushion and therefore its ability to stabilize oil prices. While intuitively OPEC losing control may seem like a good thing, it actually means global oil prices, and therefore our pump prices, are going to swing much more wildly in the future, at times high enough to contribute to recessions as they did in 2008.

As a commodity, oil exhibits what economists call a very low price elasticity of demand. In plain English, this means supply and demand are very slow to respond to price shifts. Oil is a must-have commodity with no exact substitutes; when pump prices rise, most consumers have little choice in the near term but to pay more rather than buy less. And on the supply side, it takes years to develop new resources, even when the price incentive to do so rises sharply.

Since the beginning of the modern oil market, producers have tried to mitigate the tendency of oil prices to swing wildly. Standard Oil, the Texas Railroad Commission and the “Seven Sisters” (major western oil companies) succeeded at stabilizing prices by controlling supply, most importantly by holding spare production capacity back from the market and using it to balance swings in supply and demand. The 1967 Arab oil embargo did not lead to a major oil disruption or price spike, partly because the United States had spare capacity in reserve and increased production to make up for lost Arab producer exports. The 1973 Arab oil embargo did lead to an oil price spike, mainly because the year before – in March 1972 to be exact – the United States ran out of spare capacity.

OPEC took over control of the global oil market from the US and the Seven Sisters in the early 1970s. Since the mid-1980s, OPEC’s main tool to stabilize prices has been holding and using spare production capacity. If demand jumped unexpectedly or if supplies were suddenly disrupted, OPEC producers with spare capacity, especially Saudi Arabia, would release more oil, reducing the need for prices to swing in order to balance supply and demand.

But the years 2005-2008 marked the first time spare capacity ran out in peacetime since 1972. As in 1972, the reason was demand was racing faster than production. But today, no new cartel waited in the wings to satisfy global crude appetites. In 2008, market balance was achieved by sharply rising oil prices along with the financial crisis. While many in Washington, Paris, Riyadh, and Beijing publicly blamed speculators, energy experts and economists pointed instead to strong demand for a price inelastic commodity running up against a finite supply.

Going forward, OPEC will still be able to influence how and when oil prices bottom. It can and will likely still take oil off the market to keep prices from falling or to raise them, as it did in late 2008 and 2009.

But OPEC’s ability – really, Saudi Arabia’s ability – to prevent damaging price spikes has eroded. Therefore a replay of 2005-2008 is more a question of when than if. Global GDP growth remains oil intensive. When it picks up (and there are many macroeconomic risks currently, so the timing is uncertain), net non-OPEC supply growth is not expected to rise fast enough to meet incremental demand, requiring OPEC producers to increase production. OPEC is not investing enough in total production capacity to meet demand growth and still maintain the 4-5 mb/d spare capacity buffer needed to assure market participants it can respond to disruptions or tighter than expected fundamentals by adding supply. Saudi Arabia, the main spare capacity holder, says it will hold only 1.5 to 2.0 mb/d of spare capacity, and most other OPEC countries hold little if any back in spare.

As OPEC falters, the price mechanism will return to balance the market through demand destruction, enforcing the iron law that consumption cannot exceed production. Even if our import dependence declines, we will still be vulnerable to price gyrations that are very harmful for consumers and producers and will bedevil economic and foreign policymaking.4

What role do/should energy markets play in U.S. national security policy? In U.S. defense posturing?

Even if our import dependence falls, the US will still have a vital national security interest in the Persian Gulf region. Instability or disruptions in the Gulf will be felt quickly and directly at the pump in the US. Gulf producers will earn billions of dollars in revenue, and the US has an interest in seeing that those dollars do not finance terrorism or other threats to our security. And the US will need to ensure no country can use oil as a weapon or threaten vital trade routes and chokepoints.

While the US must find ways to share the costs, burdens, and responsibilities for protecting the global energy commons, our interest in preventing a regional or external hegemon from dominating the Persian Gulf will remain as vital in the next thirty years as it was in the past. The Carter Doctrine and its Reagan corollary must remain cornerstones of our energy security doctrines. The Carter Doctrine states: “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” And its Reagan corollary extends the policy to include hegemonic threats to our Gulf allies by hostile regional powers, like Iran.

It will be especially important to repair and strengthen the fraying US relationship with Saudi Arabia. The relationship will likely loosen somewhat as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf producers see future sales growth and profits in Asia instead of the western hemisphere. But something bigger is at stake: The grand bargain whereby the US provides Saudi Arabia protection from regional and global adversaries in return for Riyadh ensuring stable oil supplies and prices. This grand bargain has served our national and economic interests, and mitigated occasional wars and disruptions in the region.

At present, each side is less certain the other can uphold his end of the bargain. If, as noted above, Saudi Arabia can no longer prevent oil price spikes from damaging the economy, it becomes less important in global affairs and US foreign policy. And if the US can no longer protect Saudi Arabia from a nuclear, belligerent Iran, then Riyadh’s interest in cooperating with us in many areas, including counter-terrorism and regional security, could decline.

Vulnerability of current and future energy markets to terrorism

Terrorists understand the vulnerability of energy infrastructure.  One consequence of low spare capacity is that any disruption, even of a relatively small size, can lead to an oil price spike. We saw this earlier this year in Libya, when the world lost about 1.7 mb/d of supply, equal to about half of total OPEC spare capacity. Prices jumped about $15 per barrel, helping to push gasoline prices here up to $4.00 per gallon and thereby hurting family budgets and economic growth.

What role does energy play in China’s foreign policy? What can be done to check China’s energy development in the western hemisphere?

China’s leaders are preoccupied with finding resources to supply its voracious growth, including energy resources. As its oil imports increase rapidly, China has followed an energy strategy similar to our policies over recent decades. As the US did forty years ago, China is reacting to the prospect of high and rising dependence on imports by building strategic stocks and implementing fuel economy and other efficiency standards. China is also fostering the growth of globally competitive energy companies and diversifying its sources of energy. And it is developing political relationships and strategic capabilities to protect its investment and supply lines.

China’s energy security policies could pose major indirect threats to our national security if Beijing concludes it can and should ignore our national security interests when engaging with foreign producers. This is of concern with Sudan, Venezuela, and especially Iran.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates US shale gas production has increased twelve-fold over the last decade, now amounting to 25% of total production. EIA projects shale gas will rise to 47% of total production by 2035. Whereas a few years ago we faced the prospect of importing increasing amounts of liquefied natural gas (LNG), we are now permitting export facilities. This new supply holds the potential to revitalize our chemical industry and economically depressed regions of our country, use more natural gas in electricity generation, and possibly fuel natural gas vehicles (though the cost of converting car and truck fleets and fueling infrastructure to natural gas would be very high and the transition would be long, making it impractical except in some centrally-fueled commercial fleets).

Even if we didn’t import a drop from the Middle East, our vital national interest there would remain. The Middle East and the Persian Gulf is and will remain the world’s most important energy region. As of 2009 it held 56 percent of global proven oil reserves, nearly all of those in the Persian Gulf.

With a higher market share and higher prices, Middle Eastern oil producers are going to earn trillions and trillions of dollars in revenues. We must remain engaged in that region partly to ensure that windfall is not spent to threaten us or our allies.

Another interest is to make sure that China and India’s soaring dependence on Middle East oil flow, mentioned earlier, does not lead to strategic competition or conflict. The International Energy Agency sees China’s import dependence headed over 84 percent and India’s over 92 percent by 2035.

U.S. foreign policy can and should aim to share the costs, burdens and responsibilities of protecting the Gulf and sea lanes with other friendly and capable importers. Such cooperation exists to some extent already, such as with multi national anti-piracy patrols. But for the foreseeable future only the United States can play the role of guaranteeing the stability of the Persian Gulf.

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Why methanol is not an option for an alternative car fuel

[Light-duty cars and trucks guzzle 60 percent of petroleum in the U.S. But it is heavy-duty vehicles keep everyone alive (i.e. plant and harvest food, deliver food, build and maintain infrastructure, and so on).  The plan is not to increase mass transit, car sharing, or higher gas taxes to shift American car buying towards fuel-efficient cars and reduce total miles driven.  No, the plan is to find some other fuel for cars to run on, which would free up oil for medium and heavy duty transport.  But there is no alternative car fuel (ethanol does not scale up and is at least as environmentally destructive as coal — see “Peak Soil“), and no guarantee that electric cars will work out this second time around — they didn’t the first time in the 90s when California mandated them.  Below is why methanol is a terrible option. Alice Friedemann.]

Serial No. 112–159. July 10, 2012. The American energy initiative part 23: A focus on Alternative Fuels and vehicles. House of Representatives. 210 pages.

Tom Tanton Executive Director, American Tradition Institute’ President T2 and Associates

California led the search for petroleum fuel alternatives with initial interest focused on methanol. Ford Motor Company and other automakers responded to California’s request for vehicles that run on methanol. In 1981, Ford delivered 40 dedicated neat methanol fuel (M100) Escorts to Los Angeles County, but only four refueling stations were installed. The biggest technical challenge in the development of alcohol vehicle technology was getting all of the fuel system materials compatible with the higher chemical reactivity of the methanol, and avoiding corrosion stemming from water absorption. Methanol was even more of a challenge than ethanol but some of the early experience gained with neat ethanol vehicle production in Brazil was transferred. The success of this small experimental fleet of M100s led California to request more of these vehicles, mainly for government fleets. However, longer-developing problems combined with high cost ultimately killed the program. At the time, almost all methanol was produced using natural gas as a feedstock, with an approximate 25% loss in energy content in the conversion from gas to methanol. Natural gas prices had increased and supplies decreased, leading to noncompetitive prices and short supplies. Ligno-cellulose based methanol (i.e. “wood alcohol”) was only available in limited quantities as is true today.


Mr. Shane Karr, Vice President of Federal Government Affairs, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

It is particularly relevant to this committee to know that emission standards in approximately 40% of the States are about to be increased, and that increase in emissions standards is somewhat problematic with FFV technology and is likely to make FFV technology more expensive. The other important point to note is that the Open Fuel Standard requires vehicles to run on E85, which is ethanol, and M85, which is methanol. While we certainly have built vehicles that can run on methanol in the past and we could do it again, the fact is there are no production facilities in the U.S. making methanol in commercial quantities right now. There are a number of other significant issues that would have to be further studied and addressed if we were going to go in that direction.

It should also be noted that if manufacturers were required to design FFVs to be capable of meeting these emission standards on methanol, the challenges become far greater on all fronts – exhaust emissions, evaporative emissions, durability and test burden. Because burning methanol produces much higher levels of formaldehyde, an air toxic, a whole new development effort focused on meeting stringent formaldehyde standards would be needed. The high volatility and permeation rates of methanol blends bring into question the feasibility of meeting evaporative emission standards (we last produced methanol vehicles before the introduction of real world test procedures in the 1990s). The corrosive nature of methanol leads to durability concerns for fuel system components. Additionally, thousands of additional tests per year would be required, which include more expensive and time-consuming measurement techniques for methanol and formaldehyde, impacting both the need for additional manpower and lab equipment. Simply put, the future emission standards were not developed taking into account the challenges of methanol.

The Methanol Experience

In the late 1980s to mid-90s, automakers produced a limited amount light-duty vehicle models that could run on an 85% blend of methanol in gasoline (M85). This experiment was in response to a series of California initiatives to increase the availability of methanol fuel and M85 FFVs across the state. Below is a generic list of components and modifications automakers may have utilized in the late 80s and 90s to transform a vehicle into a M85 compatible FFV.

The California methanol effort was abandoned for a variety of reasons. The largest was that methanol was finding its way into water supplies and its toxicity was considered a significant health concern.

It is important to note that these vehicles were produced prior to the implementation of the federal Tier 2 vehicle emissions program or enhanced evaporative emissions standards. The Tier 2 program resulted in vehicles emitting 99% fewer smog-forming emissions compared to vehicles in the 1970s. EPA and California are currently in the process of implementing new Tier 3 and LEV III vehicle emissions standards respectively that will require automakers to significantly lower the remaining 1% of smog-forming emissions. Because of the unique nature of methanol, the M85 FFVs produced in conjunction with this CA program would not have been able to meet the Tier 2 emissions targets, much less the pending aggressive Tier 3 and CA LEV III requirements.

But from a vehicle perspective, there were also concerns.

  • Methanol contains 50 percent less energy content than gasoline. Drivers had to refuel twice as often and consumer acceptance was low.
  • The fueling infrastructure was very expensive, and retailers were unwilling to mortgage their futures on an unproven fuel.
  • Today, there are no production facilities in the U.S. making methanol for use as transportation fuel in commercial quantities.
  • The U.S. currently imports over 80% of its methanol needs and the additional imports required to fuel an M85 compatible fleet would be counter to efforts to bolster U.S. energy independence and security.
  • There are no pipelines to ship it around the country and methanol cannot be shipped using conventional oil and gas pipelines due to its highly corrosive nature.
  • There are no pumps available at fueling stations (ethanol pumps would not be certified for methanol, which is more corrosive and much more problematic if it leaks and contaminates our ground water).
  • Methanol does not perform as well as gasoline when a cold engine is started, it’s worse than ethanol

Generic List of Vehicle Components and Modifications Utilized in pre-Tier 2 M85 FFVs:

  • Fuel Pump Speed Controller
  • Canister Purge Valve
  • Engine Modifications:
  1. Piston Ring chrome plated face to resist corrosion and wear.
  2. Exhaust Valve & Seat material upgrade to resist corrosion and pitting.
  3. Engine Oil- formulated to reduce the tendency of methanol to remove anti-wear additives from the oil. Also contains additives to reduce corrosion and wear due to higher acidity of blow-by gases.
  4. Throttle Body – changes made to allow canister purge at idle.
  • Wiring Assemblies – modifications required for component additions.
  • Electronic Control Module (ECM) – changes required for specific methanol inputs and outputs:
  1. Fuel Composition
  2. Fuel Temperature
  3. Fuel Tank Level
  4. Prom and Software Changes
  • Fuel Injector Driver Module
  • Ignition Coil- high secondary current ignition coil for improved cold start.
  • Fuel Rail Assembly – material changes for methanol compatibility to injectors, pressure regulator, and rail coating.
  • Pipe Assemblies – material changes for methanol compatibility.
  • Variable Fuel Sensor Assembly – monitors fuel composition (% of methanol) in fuel line.
  • Catalytic Converter – revised catalyst loading for emissions control.
  • Low Fuel Light – added because of decreased driving range with methanol.
  • Fuel Sender Control Module – interrupts current through fuel level sender to reduce galvanic attack in methanol environment.
  • Fuel Tank – stainless steel required for corrosive methanol environment.
  • Solder -silver solder required for methanol compatibility.
  • Flame Arrestors – stainless steel required to prevent fame propagation from fill door to fill tank.
  • Fuel Hose and Vent Hose – revised for decreased fuel.
  • Fuel Fill Pipe and Vent Extensions stainless steel required for corrosive methanol environment.
  • Fuel Fill Pipe – modified vent pipe to provide canister clearance.
  • Canister – increased capacity evaporative canister required because of higher vapor pressures of low methanol blends.
  • Canister Bracket – unique bracket to reposition large canister.
  • Fuel Cap – gasket materials modified for methanol compatibility
  • Fuel Sender and Pump Assembly:
  1. Higher flow pump to account for reduce energy density
  2. Extensive material changes for methanol compatibility
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Distribution – why it is so hard to add E15 or E85 at a gas station

[One of the huge hurdles to shifting from oil to “something else” is the chicken-or-egg problem of no one buying a new-fuel vehicle with few places to get it, so few vehicles are made, and service stations don’t add the new fuel since there are few customers.  The ethanol distribution problem is an EROI-eroding problem from start to finish (especially since it can’t travel in existing oil or natural gas pipelines and has to be hauled by trains, trucks, or barges using diesel fuel twice as energy-dense as ethanol).  This is just one piece of the distribution system and shows why it is hard for service stations to add E15, E85, or ANY FUEL, though of course each has its own unique costs and difficulties. To see the latest stats on public and/or private stations with biodiesel, hydrogen, propane, CNG, LNG, E85 and so on, go to].


Mr. Shane Karr, Vice President of Federal Government Affairs, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers

Today, consumers have more than 270 models that get over 30 miles per gallon.

The U.S. is already the world’s largest producer by far of com ethanol. No one – not even the ethanol industry — is suggesting that the US should divert more of its arable land to produce additional feedstock for com ethanol. Continued production efficiencies will result in higher yields, but those will be incremental, not exponential. We won’t have the option of importing it in significant quantities (which arguably defeats the energy security goal anyway), given that the second largest ethanol producer in the world is Brazil, which itself has a shortage that will continue as long as sugar prices remain high. And we still wouldn’t have pipelines to ship ethanol around the country efficiently and cheaply or the compatible pumps at fueling stations. So, a number of very significant factors in addition to vehicles would need to change to make the theoretical notion that consumers could buy more ethanol- if they wanted to – a reality.

This is why the Open Fuels Standard Act (H.R. 1687) is supported primarily by the ethanol producers.  Let me start by saying automakers agree with the sponsors of H.R. 1687 that FFVs, currently defined as vehicles capable of running on any blend of gasoline and ethanol up to 85 percent (E85), are an important and worthwhile technology. In fact, there are already close to 12 million E85 FFVs on U.S. roads, and we will probably sell another million this year. However, only about 2% of gas stations have an E85 pump, and most are concentrated in the Midwest, where most com ethanol is produced. This makes sense, because keeping production close to point-of-sale is the most affordable approach. But even in states where E85 pumps are concentrated, actual sale of E85 has been low and stagnant. For example, in 2009 Minnesota had 351 stations with an E85 pump (the most of any state) but the average FFV in the state used 10.3 gallons ofE85 for the whole year.

It is worth noting that achieving compliance with the vehicle production mandates in H.R. 1687 by producing E85 FFVs would cost consumers well more than $1 billion per year by the most conservative estimates. And these conservative estimates are severely understated for the vehicle mandates of the bill for two reasons: (I) H.R. 1687 requires a new kind of tri-fuel FFV that can run on gasoline, ethanol, methanol, and any combination of the 3 fuels, and which does not exist today; and (2) it will be more expensive to produce tri-fuel FFVs that can comply with H.R. 1687, especially with the forthcoming California Low Emission Vehicles (LEV III) and federal Tier 3 emissions standards along with very aggressive fuel economy/GHG emission requirements through 2025.

Serial No. 112–159. July 10, 2012. The American energy initiative part 23: A focus on Alternative Fuels and vehicles. House of Representatives. 210 pages.

Jeffrey Miller, President of Miller Oil Company, Norfolk, VA.

On behalf of the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) Before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Power May 5, 2011 Hearing on “The American Energy Initiative”


My name is Jeff Miller, President of Miller Oil Company headquartered in Norfolk, VA. My company operates 34 stores in Virginia and 2 in Florida. In addition, we supply fuel to 65 independent retail operators in Virginia and 40 in Florida. I also currently serve as Chairman of the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS). NACS is an international trade association comprised of more than 2,200 retail member companies and more than 1,800 supplier companies doing business in nearly 50 countries.

As of December 31, 2010, the U.S. convenience and fuel retailing industry operated 146,341 stores of which 117,297 (80.2%) sold motor fuels. In 2009, our industry generated $511 billion in sales (one of every 28 dollars spent in the United States), employed more than 1.5 million workers and sold approximately 80% of the nation’s motor fuel.

My company is constantly striving to identify the best new products and services we can bring to our stores. Consequently, we are not beholden to any specific product – we simply want to sell what our customers want to buy and, as new fuels come onto the market, we want to have the legal option to sell them. To accomplish this, we will need Congressional assistance to remove existing barriers to new market opportunities.

I would like to focus my comments today on the current situation facing the retail marketplace and then present some recommendations for Congress as you consider options for increasing the use of alternative and renewable fuels.


To fully understand how fuels enter the market and are sold to consumers, it is important to know who is making the decision at the retail level of trade. Our industry is dominated by small businesses. In fact, of the 117,297 convenience stores that sell fuel, 57.5% of them are single-store companies – true mom and pop operations. Overall, nearly 75% of all stores are owned and operated by companies my size or smaller – and we all started with just a couple of stores.

Many of these companies – mine included – sell fuel under the brand name of their fuel supplier. This has created a common misperception in the minds of many policymakers and consumers that the large integrated oil companies own these stations. The reality is that the majors are leaving the retail market place and today own and operate fewer than 2% of the retail locations.

Although a store may sell a particular brand of fuel associated with a refiner – I operate under the Shell, BP and Exxon brands – the vast majority are independently owned and operated like mine. Our relationship to the brand we sell ends there – it is a brand. We are in the customer service business. We have to make decisions each day regarding what products to sell and which services to offer our customers, and we often take some risks – you cannot be successful without doing so. But taking a chance by offering a new candy bar is very different from switching my fueling infrastructure to accommodate a new fuel. So when a new fuel product becomes available, our decision to offer it to our customers takes more time. We need to know that our customers want to buy it, that we can generate enough return to justify the investment, and that we can sell the fuel legally. These are the fundamental issues that face the introduction of new renewable and alternative fuels.


Today, most of the fuel sold in the United States is blended with 10% ethanol. The transition to this fuel mix was not complicated, but it was not without challenges. When ethanol became more prevalent in my market, we realized what a powerful solvent it is. Ethanol forced us to clean our storage tanks and change our filters frequently to avoid introducing contaminants into the fuel tanks of our customers’ vehicles. Despite our best efforts, however, there were times when the fuel a customer purchased caused problems with their vehicles. In those situations, it was our responsibility to correct the damage. And while the transition to E10 required no significant changes to equipment or systems, it taught us some lessons that influence our decisions concerning new fuels.

Retailers are now hearing reports from Washington that the use of fuel containing 15% ethanol is authorized. Some of our equipment manufacturers are telling us that our equipment can accommodate these fuels and that some dispenser warranties have been extended to cover 25% ethanol blends. Ethanol advocacy groups are marketing a Blend Your Own Ethanol program to encourage retailers to use blender pumps to sell higher ethanol blended fuels. There is a lot of encouraging news and reports – but this is really only confusing the situation. We know there are several challenges we must overcome to sell new fuels and we need your help to do so. Unfortunately, some think that discussing such challenges is undermining the value of the new fuel under consideration. That is simply not the case. Rather, how can credible challenges be overcome if they are not discussed and made part of the strategy to implement new fuel programs? So, I would like to highlight some of the issues retailers face when considering whether to sell a new fuel.

To illustrate my points, I will use E15 as the fuel under consideration – but these issues can be applied to almost any other fuel that is being developed.


By law, all equipment used to store and dispense flammable and combustible liquids must be certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory as compatible with that liquid.

Currently, there is essentially only one organization that certifies our equipment – Underwriters Laboratories (UL). UL establishes specifications for safety and compatibility and runs tests on equipment submitted by manufacturers for UL listing. Once satisfied, UL lists the equipment as meeting a certain standard for a certain fuel.

Prior to last spring, however, UL had not listed a single motor fuel dispenser (a.k.a, pump) as compatible with any fuel containing more than 10% ethanol. This means that any dispenser in the market prior to last spring – which would represent the vast majority of my dispensers – is not legally permitted to sell E15, E85 or anything above 10% ethanol – even if it is technically able to do so safely.

If I use non-listed equipment, I am in violation of OSHA regulations and may be violating my tank insurance policies, state tank fund program requirements, bank loan covenants, and potentially other local regulations. Furthermore, if my store has a petroleum release from that equipment, I could be sued on the grounds of negligence for using non-listed equipment, which would cost me significantly more than the expense of cleaning up the spill.

So, if none of my dispensers are UL-listed for E15, what are my options?

Unfortunately, UL will not re-certify any equipment. Only those units manufactured after UL certification is issued are so certified – all previously manufactured devices, even if they are the same model, are subject only to the UL listing available at the time of manufacture. This means that no retail dispensers, except those produced after UL issued a listing last spring, are legally approved for E10+ fuels.

In other words, the only legal option for me to sell E15 is to replace my dispensers with the specific models listed by UL. On average, a retail motor fuel dispenser costs approximately $20,000.

It is less clear how many of my underground storage tanks and associated pipes and lines would require replacement. Many of these units are manufactured to be compatible with high concentrations of ethanol, but they may not be listed as such. In addition, the gaskets and seals may need to be replaced to ensure the system does not pose a threat to the environment. If I have to crack open concrete to replace seals, gaskets or tanks, my costs can escalate rapidly and can easily exceed $100,000 per location.


The second major issue I must consider is the effect of the fuel on customer engines and vehicles. Having dealt with engine problems associated with fuel contamination following the introduction of E10, I am very concerned about the potential effect a fuel like E15 would have on vehicles. The EPA decision concerning E15 is very challenging. Under EPA’s partial waiver, only vehicles manufactured in model year 2001 or more recently are authorized to fuel with E15. Older vehicles, motorcycles, boats, and small engines are not authorized to use E15.

How am I supposed to prevent the consumer from buying the wrong fuel? I can deal with the responsibility for fuel quality and contamination control, but self-service customer misfueling is a much more difficult challenge to control.

In the past, when we have introduced new fuels – like unleaded gasoline or ultra-low sulfur diesel – they were backwards compatible; i.e. older vehicles could use the new fuel. In addition, newer vehicles were required to use the new fuel, creating a guaranteed market demand.

Such is not the case with E15 – legacy vehicles are not permitted to use the new fuel. Doing so will violate Clean Air Act standards and could cause engine performance or safety issues. Yet, there are no viable options to retroactively install physical countermeasures to prevent misfueling. Consequently, my risk of liability if a customer uses E15 in the wrong engine – whether accidentally or intentionally – is significant.

First of all, I could be fined under the Clean Air Act for misuse of the fuel – this has happened before. When lead was phased out of gasoline, unleaded fuel was more expensive than leaded fuel. To save a few cents per gallon, some consumers physically altered their vehicle fill pipes to accommodate the larger leaded nozzles either by using can openers or by using a funnel while fueling. Retailers had no ability to prevent such behavior, but the EPA often levied fines against retailers for not physically preventing the consumer from bypassing the misfueling countermeasures.

My understanding is EPA has told NACS that the agency would not be targeting retailers for consumer misfueling. But that provides me with little comfort – EPA policy can change in the absence of specific legal safeguards. Further, the Clean Air Act includes a private right of action and any citizen can file a lawsuit against a retailer who does not prevent misfueling. Whether the retailer is found guilty does not change the fact that defending against such claims can be very expensive.

Finally, I am very concerned about the effect of E15 in the wrong engine. Using the wrong fuel could void an engine’s warranty, cause engine performance problems or even compromise the safety of some equipment. A consumer may seek to hold me liable for these situations even if my company was not responsible for the misfueling. Defending my company against such claims is financially expensive, but also expensive from a customer-relations perspective.


Retailers are also concerned about long-term liability exposure. Our industry has experience with being sued for selling fuels that were approved at the time but later ruled defective. What assurances are there that such a situation will not repeat itself with new fuels being approved for commerce?

For example, E15 is approved only for certain engines and its use in other engines is prohibited by the EPA due to associated emissions and performance issues. What if E15 does indeed cause problems in non-approved engines or even in approved engines? What if in the future the product is determined defective, the rules are changed and E15 is no longer approved for use in commerce? There is significant concern that such a change in the law would be retroactively applied to any who manufactured, distributed, blended or sold the product in question.

Retailers are hesitant to enter new fuel markets without some assurance that our compliance with the law today will protect us from retroactive liability should the law change in the future. It seems reasonable that law abiding citizens should not be held accountable if the law changes in the future. Congress could help overcome significant resistance to new fuels by providing assurances that market participants will only be held to account for the laws as they exist at the time and not subject to liability for violating a future law or regulation.


The final challenge we face is the rate at which consumers will adopt the new fuels. Assume all the other issues are resolved, I have to ask myself: Will my customers purchase the fuel? It is important to note that this is the first fuel transition in which no person is required to purchase the fuel, unlike prior transitions to unleaded gasoline and ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel.

In the situation facing E15, only a subset of the population (about 65% of vehicles) is authorized to buy it. Yet the auto industry is not fully supportive of its use in anything except flexible fuel vehicles (about 3% of vehicles). This situation could dramatically reduce consumer acceptance. The risk of misfueling and potentially alienating customers if E15 causes performance issues also is a serious concern.

With these unknowns, how can I calculate an accurate return on my investment to install E15 compatible equipment? Again, this is not like offering a new candy bar – to sell E15 I will likely have to spend significant resources.

As new fuels enter the market, their compatibility with vehicles and their performance characteristics compared to traditional gasoline will be critically important to determining consumer acceptance. In addition, the cost of entry for retailers will influence the return on investment calculations required to determine whether to invest in the new fuel.


NACS believes there are options available to Congress to help the market overcome these challenges. I have referenced E15 in this testimony because it is a fuel with which we are all familiar due to its current considerations at EPA. However, E15 alone will not satisfy the renewable fuel objectives of the country. Other products must be brought to market and how they interact with the refueling infrastructure and the consumer’s vehicles should be critical considerations to Congress when deciding whether to support their development and introduction.

Regardless which fuels are introduced in the future, the following recommendations can help lower the cost of entry and provide retailers with greater regulatory and legal certainty necessary for them to offer these new fuels to consumers:
First, because UL will not retroactively certify any equipment, Congress should authorize an alternative method for certifying legacy equipment. Such a method would preserve the protections for environmental health and safety, but eliminate the need to replace all equipment simply because the certification policy of the primary testing laboratory will not re-evaluate legacy equipment. NACS was supportive of legislation introduced in the House last Congress Reps. Mike Ross (D-AR) and John Shimkus (R-IL) as H.R. 5778. This bill directed the EPA to develop guidelines for determining the compatibility of equipment with new fuels and stipulates equipment that satisfied such guidelines would thereby satisfy all laws and regulations concerning compatibility.

Second, Congress can require EPA to issue labeling regulations for fuels that are authorized for only a subset of vehicles and ensure that retailers who comply with such requirements satisfy their requirements under the Clean Air Act and protect them from violations or engine warranty claims in the event a self-service customer ignores the notifications and misfuels a non-authorized engine. H.R. 5778 also included provisions to achieve these objectives.

Third, Congress can provide market participants with regulatory and legal certainty that compliance with current applicable laws and regulations concerning the manufacture, distribution, storage and sale of new fuels will protect them from retroactive liability should the laws and regulations change at some time in the future.

Finally, Congress should evaluate the prospects for the marketing of infrastructure-compatible fuels and support the development of such fuels. These could aid compliance with the renewable fuels standard and save retailers, engine makers and consumers billions of dollars. Policymakers might consider establishing characteristics that new fuels must possess so that equipment and engines can be manufactured or retrofitted to accommodate whichever new fuel provides the greatest benefit to consumers and the economy.

If Congress takes action to lower the cost of entry and to remove the threat of unreasonable liability, more retailers may be willing to take a chance and offer a new renewable fuel. By lowering the barriers to entry, Congress will give the market an opportunity to express its will and allow retailers to offer consumers more choice. If consumers reject the new fuel, the retailer can reverse the decision without sacrificing a significant investment, but new fuels will be given a better opportunity to successfully penetrate the market.

Serial No. 112–159. July 10, 2012. The American energy initiative part 23: A focus on Alternative Fuels and vehicles. House of Representatives. 210 pages.

Jack Gerard, President and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute. Over the past 7 years, the two RFS laws passed in 2005 and in 2007 have substantially expanded the role of renewables in America. Biofuels are now in almost all gasoline. While API supports the continued appropriate use of ethanol and other renewable fuels, the RFS law has become increasingly unrealistic, unworkable, and a threat to consumers. It needs an overhaul. Most of the problems relate to the law’s volume requirements. These mandates call for blending increasing amounts of renewable fuels into gasoline and diesel. Although we are already close to blending an amount that would result in a 10 percent concentration level of ethanol in every gallon of gasoline sold in America, that which is the maximum known safe level, the volumes required will more than double over the next 10 years. The E10, or 10 percent ethanol blend that we consume today could, by virtue of RFS volume requirements, become at least an E20 blend in the future. This would present an unacceptable risk to billions of dollars in consumer investment in vehicles, a vast majority of which were designed, built, and warranted to operate on a maximum blend of E10.

It also would put at risk billions of dollars of gasoline station equipment in thousands of retail outlets across America, most owned by small independent businesses. I believe well over 60 percent of retail establishments in this area are Ma and Pa operations.

Vehicle research conducted by the Auto Oil Coordinated Research Council shows that E15 could also damage the engines of millions of cars and light trucks, estimates exceeding five million vehicles on the road today. E20 blends may have similar, if not worse, compatibility issues with engines and service station attendants.

The RFS law also requires increasing use of cellulosic ethanol, an advanced form of ethanol that can be made from a broader range of feed stocks. The problem is, you can’t buy the fuel yet because no one is making it commercially. While EPA could waive that provision, it has decided to require refiners to purchase credits for this nonexistent fuel, which will drive up costs and potentially hurt consumers. Mandating the use of fuels that do not exist is absurd on its face and is inexcusably bad public policy.

To date, E85 has faced low consumer acceptance as FFV owners use E85 less than 1% of the time. The fuel economy of an FFV operated on E85 is approximately 25-30% lower than when fueled with gasoline due to ethanol’s lower energy content. Also, less than 2% of retail gasoline stations offer E85, which has high installation costs. In 2010 and 2011, EPA approved the use of E15 for a portion of the motor vehicle fleet in order to accommodate the RFS law’s volume increases. We believe these actions were premature and unlawful, and present an unacceptable risk to billions of dollars in consumer investments in vehicles. They also put at risk billions of dollars of gasoline station pump equipment in scores of thousands of retail outlets across America, most owned by small independent businesses. E15 is a different transportation fuel, well outside the range for which the vast majority of U.S. vehicles and engines have been designed and warranted. E15 is also outside the range for which service station pumping equipment has been listed and proven to be safe and compatible and conflicts with existing worker and public safety laws outlined in OSHA and Fire Codes. EPA should not have proceeded with E15, especially before a thorough evaluation was conducted to assess the full range of short- and long-term impacts of increasing the amount of ethanol in gasoline on the environment, on engine and vehicle performance, and on consumer safety. Research on higher blends was already underway when EPA approved El5 in 2010 and 2011. In response to the passage of EISA in 2007, the oil and natural gas industry, the auto industry, and other stakeholders, including EPA and DOE, recognized in early 2008 that substantial research was needed in order to assess the impact of higher ethanol blends including the compatibility of ethanol blends above 10% (E10+) with the existing fleet of vehicles and small engines. Through the Coordinating Research Council (CRC), the oil and auto industries developed and funded a comprehensive multi-year testing program prior to the biofuels industry’s E15 waiver application. API worked closely with the auto and off-road engine industries and with EPA and DOE to share and coordinate research plans. Yet, EPA approved the E15 waiver request before this research effort was finished and the results thoroughly evaluated. The potential for harm from that decision is substantial, as suggested by the results of various research studies, including testing performed by DOE’s National Renewal Energy Laboratory and by the CRC, have been completed to date. The DOE research shows an estimated half of existing service station pumping equipment may not be compatible with a 15% ethanol blend. The CRC research shows that E15 could also damage the engines of millions of cars and light trucks.

E20 may have similar, if not worse, compatibility issues with engines and service station equipment.



We are the Nation’s eighth largest convenience retailer of petroleum products and convenience items in over 13 States. Our wholesale oil division, Gulf Oil, carries and merchandises over 350,000 barrels of petroleum products and biofuels over 29 States, $13 billion revenue places us in the top 50 private companies in the country. We employ 8,000 employees,

We do not drill, we do not refine petroleum products. What we care to sell are products that our customers want to buy that are most economic for them to achieve their desired transport, heating, and other energy uses in a lawful manner.

We blend—in addition to selling petroleum products, which is our primary product that we sell, we blend over 1 million gallons a day of biofuels across our system, and just recently, we have purchased 24 Class A trucks to begin to fuel on natural gas to deliver our fuel products to our stations and stores.

We believe that a sound energy policy rests on four bedrocks. One is that we have diverse fuel sources, and there are two reasons for that. The future is unknowable. The new shale technology that has taken over the industry in natural gas was unheard of more than 2 decades ago. Technology and events are beyond our abilities to understand where we are going, and so to bet any of our future on one single source of fuel would be a mistake. We believe diversity in all systems ensures health and stability. And so we look for diversity in fuel, not only by fuel type, but to make sure that we are not concentrated in taking it from one region, particularly the Middle East and unstable regions.


I do want to point out to all the members that we have billions, hundreds of billions of dollars invested in terminals, gas stations, barges, transportation, and we have to live with the realities of the marketplace and the particulars.

America’s love affair with the automobile is not going away. Neither is the need for transportation fuels that underpin the economy and create jobs. In a country as vast as ours with a density of 79 people per square mile (as opposed to the Netherlands with 1300 people per square mile), the cost of transport is central to economic health.

When total national energy costs exceed 16% of GDP a recession or worse is almost always the result. The United States’ current accounts trade balance for all energy products recently exceeded $1 trillion dollars, and while it has currently been reduced to one half that amount on an annualized basis we look forward to the day when the United States is a net energy exporter. Not only will that be positive to GDP and job growth, but it will position us to revitalize our industrial production, especially in energy-intensive industries with an eye toward value added product exports. And no policy would be more beneficial for the spread of world democracy

Our industry is dominated by small businesses. In fact, of the 120,950 convenience stores that sell fuel, almost sixty percent of them are single-store companies – true mom and pop operations. Many of these companies sell fuel under the brand name of their fuel supplier. This has created a common misperception in the minds of many policymakers and consumers that the large integrated oil companies own these stations. The reality is that the majors are leaving the retail marketplace and today own and operate fewer than 2% of the retail locations. Although a store may sell a particular brand of fuel associated with a refiner, the vast majority are independently owned and operated like mine. When people pull into an Exxon or a BP station, the odds are good that they are in fact refueling at a small mom-and-pop operation.

THE BLEND WALL AND THE NEED FOR A CONGRESSIONAL FIX. Since the enactment of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of2007, we have heard much about the impending arrival of the so-called “blend wall” – the point at which the market cannot absorb any additional renewable fuels. Most of the fuel sold in the United States today is blended with 10% ethanol. If 10% ethanol were blended into every gallon of gasoline sold in the nation in 2011 (33.9 billion gallons), the market would reach a maximum of 13.39 billion gallons. However, the 2012 statutory mandate for the RFS is 15.2 billion gallons. Meanwhile, the market for higher blends of ethanol (E85) for flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) has not developed as rapidly as some had hoped. Clearly, we have reached the blend wall.

EPA recently authorized the use ofE15 in certain vehicles. However, this has so far done very little to expand the use of renewable fuels, due largely to retailers’ liability and compatibility concerns, as well as state and local restrictions on selling E15. Congress can do something immediately to mitigate other obstacles preventing new fuels from entering the market. H.R. 4345, the Domestic Fuels Protection Act of 2012-currentiy before the subcommittee on Environment and the Economy-addresses three of these obstacles: infrastructure compatibility, liability for consumer misuse of fuels, and retroactive liability of the rules governing a fuel change in the future.

The reason the retail market is unable to easily accommodate additional volumes of renewable fuels begins with the equipment found at retail stations. By law, all equipment used to store and dispense flammable and combustible liquids must be certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory. These requirements are found in regulations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Currently, there is essentially only one organization that certifies such equipment, Underwriters Laboratories (UL). UL establishes specifications for safety and compatibility and runs tests on equipment submitted by manufacturers for UL listing. Once satisfied, UL lists the equipment as meeting a certain standard for a certain fuel. Prior to 20I0, UL had not listed a single motor fuel dispenser (aka a gas pump) as compatible with any fuel containing more than 10% ethanol. This means that any dispenser in the market prior to early 20lOis not legally permitted to sell E15, E85 or anything above 10% ethanol – even if it is able to do so safely.

If a retailer fails to use listed equipment, that retailer is violating OSHA regulations and -may be violating tank insurance policies, state tank fund program requirements, bank loan covenants, and potentially other local regulations. In addition, the retailer could be found negligent per se based solely on the fact that his fuel dispensing system is not listed by UL. This brings us to the primary challenge: if no dispenser prior to early 20I0 was listed as compatible with fuels containing greater than ten percent ethanol, what options are available to retailers to sell these fuels? In order to comply with the law, retailers wishing to sell E I 0+ fuels can only use equipment specifically listed by UL as compatible with such fuels. Because UL did list any equipment as compatible with E10+ fuels until 2010, only those units produced after that date can legally sell E I 0+ fuels. All previously manufactured devices, even if they are the exact same model using the exact same materials, are subject only to the UL listing available at the time of manufacture. (UL policy prevents retroactive certification of equipment.)

Practically speaking, this means that a vast majority of retailers wishing to sell EIO+ fuels must replace their dispensers. This costs an average of $20,000 per dispenser. It is less clear how many underground storage tanks and associated pipes and lines would require replacement. Many of these units are manufactured to be compatible with high concentrations of ethanol, but they may not be listed as such. Further, if there are concerns with gaskets and seals in dispensers, care must be given to ensure the underground gaskets and seals do not pose a threat to the environment. Once a retailer begins to replace underground equipment, the cost can escalate rapidly and can easily exceed $100,000 per location.

The second major issue facing retailers is the potential liability associated with improperly fueling an engine with a non-approved fuel. The EPA decision concerning EI5 puts this issue into sharp focus for retailers. Under EPA’s partial waiver, only vehicles manufactured in model year 2001 or more recently are authorized to fuel with E15. Older vehicles, motorcycles, boats, and small engines are not authorized to use E15. For the retailer, bifurcating the market in this way presents serious challenges. For instance, how does the retailer prevent the consumer from buying the wrong fuel? Typically, when new fuels are authorized they are backwards compatible so this is not a problem. In other words, older vehicles can use the new fuel. When EPA phased lead out of gasoline in the late I 970s and early 1980s, for example, older vehicles were capable of running on unleaded fuel newer vehicles, however, were required to run only on unleaded. These newer vehicle gasoline tanks were equipped with smaller fill pipes into which a leaded nozzle could not fit – likewise, unleaded dispensers were equipped with smaller nozzles. E 15 is very different: legacy engines are not permitted to use the new fuel. Doing so will violate Clean Air Act standards and could cause engine performance or safety issues. Yet there are no viable options to retroactively install physical counter measures to prevent misfueling.

Retailers could be subject to penalties under the Clean Air Act for not preventing a customer from misfueling with E15. This concern is not without justification. In the past, retailers have been held accountable for the actions of their customers. For example, because unleaded fuel was more expensive than leaded fuel, some consumers physically altered their vehicle fill pipes to accommodate the larger leaded nozzles either by using can openers or by using a funnel while fueling. We may see similar behavior in the future given the high price of gasoline relative to ethanol. As in the past, the retailer will not be able to prevent such practices, but in the case of leaded gasoline the EPA levied fines against the retailer for not physically preventing the consumer from bypassing the misfueling counter measures. To EPA’s credit, they have asserted in meetings with NACS and SIGMA that they would not be targeting retailers for consumer misfueling. But that provides little comfort to retailers. EPA policy can change in the absence of specific legal safeguards. Additionally, the Clean Air Act includes a private right of action and any citizen can file a lawsuit against a retailer that does not prevent misfueling. Whether the retailer is found guilty does not change the fact that defending against such claims is very expensive. Further, the consumer may seek to hold the retailer liable for their own actions. Using the wrong fuel could void an engine’s warranty, cause engine performance problems or even compromise the safety of some equipment. In all situations, some consumers may seek to hold the retailer accountable even when the retailer was not responsible for the improper use of the fuel. Once again, defending such claims is expensive.

An EPA decision to approve E15 for 2001 and newer vehicles is not consistent with the terms of most warranty policies issued with these affected vehicles. Consequently, while using E15 in a 2009 vehicle might be lawful under the Clean Air Act, it may in fact void the warranty of the consumer’s vehicle. Retailers have no mechanism for ensuring that consumers abide by their vehicle warranties – it is the consumer’s responsibility to comply with the terms of their contract with their vehicle manufacturer. Therefore, H.R. 4345 stipulates that no person shall be held liable in the event a self-service customer introduces a fuel into their vehicle that is not covered by their vehicle warranty.

General Liability Exposure Finally, there are widespread concerns throughout the retail community and with our product suppliers that the rules of the game may change and we could be left exposed to significant liability. For example, EI5 is approved only for certain engines and its use in other engines is prohibited by the EPA due to associated emissions and performance issues. What if E 15 does indeed cause problems in non-approved engines or even in approved engines? What if in the future the product is determined defective, the rules are changed and E 15 is no longer approved for use in commerce? There is significant concern that such a change in the law would be retroactively applied to anyone who manufactured, distributed, blended or sold the product in question.

Contrary to popular misconception, fuel marketers prefer cheap gasoline. The less the consumer pays at the pump, the more money the consumer has to spend in our stores, where our profit margins are significantly greater.

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Kunstler: Potemkin Party

James Howard Kunstler. July 27, 2015. Potemkin Party.

How many of you brooding on the dreadful prospect of Hillary have chanced to survey what remains of Democratic Party (cough cough) leadership in the background of Her Royal Inevitableness? Nothing is the answer. Zip. Nobody. A vacuum. There is no Democratic Party anymore. There are no figures of gravitas anywhere to be found, no ideas really suited to the American prospect, nothing with the will to oppose the lumbering parasitic corporatocracy that is doing little more than cluttering up this moment in history while it sucks the last dregs of value from our society.

I say this as a lifelong registered Democrat but a completely disaffected one — who regards the Republican opposition as the mere errand boy of the above-named lumbering parasitic corporatocracy. Readers are surely chafing to insert that the Democrats have been no less errand boys (and girls) for the same disgusting zeitgeist, and they are surely correct in the case of Hillary, and indeed of the current President.

Readers are surely also chafing to insert that there is Bernie Sanders, climbing in the opinion polls, disdaining Wall Street money, denouncing the current disposition of things with the old union hall surliness we’ve grown to know and love. I’m grateful that Bernie is in the race, that he’s framing an argument against Ms. It’s My Turn. I just don’t happen to think that Bernie gets what the country — indeed what all of techno-industrial society — is really up against, namely a long emergency of economic contraction and collapse.

These circumstances require a very different agenda than just an I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill redistributionist scheme. Lively as Bernie is, I don’t think he offers much beyond that, as if cadging a little more tax money out of WalMart, General Mills, and Exxon-Mobil will fix what is ailing this sad-ass polity. The heart of the matter is that our way of life has shot its wad and now we have to live very differently. Almost nobody wants to even try to think about this.

I hugely resent the fact that the Democratic Party puts its time and energy into the stupid sexual politics of the day when it should be working on issues such as re-localizing commercial economies (rebuilding Main Streets), reforming agriculture to avoid the total collapse of corporate-industrial farming, and fixing the passenger rail system so people will have some way to get around the country when happy Motoring dies (along with commercial aviation).

The “to do” list for rearranging the basic systems of daily life in America is long and loaded with opportunity. Every system that is retooled contains jobs and social roles for people who have been shut out of the economy for two generations. If we do everything we can to promote smaller-scaled local farming, there will be plenty of work for lesser-skilled people to do and get paid for. Saying goodbye to the tyranny of Big Box commerce would open up vast vocational opportunities in reconstructed local and regional networks of commerce, especially for young people interested in running their own business.

We need to prepare for localized clinic-style medicine (in opposition to the continuing amalgamation and gigantization of hospitals, with its handmaidens of Big Pharma and the insurance rackets). The train system has got to be reborn as a true public utility. Just about every other civilized country is already demonstrating how that is done — it’s not that difficult and it would employ a lot of people at every level. That is what the agenda of a truly progressive political party should be at this moment in history.

That Democrats even tolerate the existence of evil entities like WalMart is an argument for ideological bankruptcy of the party. Democratic Presidents from Carter to Clinton to Obama could have used the Department of Justice and the existing anti-trust statutes to at least discourage the pernicious monopolization of commerce that Big Boxes represented. By the same token, President Obama could have used existing federal law to break up the banking oligarchy starting in 2009, not to mention backing legislation to more crisply define alleged corporate “personhood” in the wake of the ruinous “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision of 2010. They don’t even talk about it because Wall Street owns them.

So, you fellow disaffected Democrats — those of you who can’t go over to the other side, but feel you have no place in your country’s politics — look around and tell me who you see casting a shadow on the Democratic landscape. Nobody. Just tired, corrupt, devious old Hillary and her nemesis Bernie the Union Hall Champion out of a Pete Seeger marching song.

I’ve been saying for a while that this period of history resembles the 1850s in America in two big ways: 1) our society faces a crisis, and 2) the existing political parties are not up to the task of comprehending what society faces. In the 1850s it was the Whigs that dried up and blew away (virtually overnight), while the old Democratic party just entered a 75-year wilderness of irrelevancy. God help us if Trump-o-mania turns out to be the only alternative.

Oh, by the way, notice that the lead editorial in Monday’s New York Times is a plea for transgender bathrooms in schools. What could be more important?

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