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Our Photovoltaic Future: The Metabolic Revolutions of the Earth’s History

Geology

 

 

Illustration from the recent paper by Olivia Judson on “Nature Ecology & Evolution (2017) “The Energy Expansions of Evolution”. 

Olivia Judson published a very interesting paper this March on “Nature Ecology & Evolution“. It is a wonderful cavalcade along 4 billion years of the history of the Earth, seeing it in terms of five “metabolic revolutions.” It is an approach that goes in parallel with a paper that I wrote last year on BERQ; even though I focussed on the future rather than on the past. But my paper was very much along the same lines, noting how some of some of the major discontinuities in the Earth’s geological record are caused by metabolic changes. That is, the Earth’s changes as the life inhabiting it “learns” how to exploit the potential gradients offered by the environment: geochemical energy at the very beginning and, later on, solar energy.

Seen in these terms, the Earth system is a gigantic autocatalytic reaction that was ignited some four billion years ago, when the planet became cool enough to have liquid water on its surface. Since then, it has been flaring in a slow-motion explosion that has been going faster and faster for billions of years, until it is literally engulfing the whole planet, sending offshoots to other planets of the solar system and even outside it.

Judson correctly identifies the ability to control fire as the latest feature of this ongoing explosion. Fire is a characteristic ability of human beings and can be argued that it is the defining feature of the latest time subdivision of the planet’s history: the Anthropocene.

Judson stops with fire, calling it “a source of energy” and proposing that “The technology of fire may also, perhaps, mark an inflection point for the Solar System and beyond. Spacecraft from Earth may, intentionally or not, take Earthly life to other celestial objects.” Here, I think the paper goes somewhat astray. Calling fire a “source” of energy is not wrong, but we need to distinguish whether we intend fire as the combustion of wood, that humans have been using for more than a million years, and the combustion of fossil hydrocarbons, used only during the past few centuries. There is a big difference: wood fires could never take humans to contemplate the idea of expanding beyond their planetary boundaries. But fossil energy could fuel this expansion at most for a few centuries and this big fire is already on its way to exhaustion. If the Anthropocene is to be based on fossil fuels, it is destined to fade away rather rapidly.

Does this mean that we have reached the peak of the great metabolic cycle of planet Earth? Not necessarily so. Judson seems to miss in her paper that the next metabolic revolution has already started: it is called photovoltaic conversion and it is a way to transform solar energy into an electric potential, coupled with the capability of controlling the motion of electrons in solid state conductors. It is a big step beyond fire and thermal machinery (*). It is, by all means, a new form of metabolism (**) and it is generating a new ecology of silicon-based life-forms, as I discussed in a previous post that I titled “Five Billion Years of Photovoltaic Energy”.
So, we are living in interesting times, something that we could take as a curse. But it is not a choice that we are facing: we are entering a new era, not necessarily a good thing for humans, but most likely an unavoidable change; whether we like it or not may be of little importance. It is a new discontinuity in the billion years long history of planet Earth that will lead to an increased capability of capturing and dissipating the energy coming from the sun.

The great chemical reaction is still flaring up and its expansion is going to take us somewhere far away, even though, at present, we can’t say where.

A new lifeform, just appeared in the Earth’s ecosystem:


(*) The Jews have been arguing for about a century whether electricity has to be considered a form of fire and therefore prohibited during the Sabbath. It is surely an interesting theological discussion, but for what we are considering here there is no doubt that fire (a hot plasma ignited in air) is not the same as electricity (controlled movement of electrons in solids)


(**) The supporters of nuclear energy may argue that the next metabolic revolution should be seen as the production of energy from nuclear fission or fusion. The problem is that the resources of fissionable material in the whole solar system are too small that they could hardly fuel a truly new geological epoch. As for fusion, we haven’t found a technology able to control it in such a way to make it an earth-based source of energy and it may very well be that such a technology doesn’t exist. But, on the sun, fusion works very well, so why bother?

 

Cassandra’s legacy by Ugo Bardi



130 Comments on "Our Photovoltaic Future: The Metabolic Revolutions of the Earth’s History"

  1. Davy on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 9:15 pm 

    grow up grehg talk like a man not a whining pussy

  2. GregT on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 9:39 pm 

    “You dumbasses get all bent out of shape when people hurt your feeling but that is what you do constantly to others.”

    There is only one person who is responsible for your ‘feelings’ Davy. That person would be you.

  3. boat on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 9:41 pm 

    greggiet,

    A new report shows the US has been a net nat gas exporter for 3 out the last 4 months.

  4. GregT on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 9:44 pm 

    boat,

    In light of what we as human beings are currently facing, that would not exactly be wonderful news.

  5. boat on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 9:45 pm 

    For our negative wind doomers. A new report shows wind at 6.2 percent.

  6. GregT on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 9:56 pm 

    That’s awesome boat. 6.2% is a lot. 6.2% of what?

  7. boat on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 11:14 pm 

    6.2 percent of US electricity-2016
    4.9 percent of US electricity-2014

  8. GregT on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 11:30 pm 

    And what percentage of total energy consumption would be from electricity boat?

  9. boat on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 12:08 am 

    greggiet,

    Learn the eia website if your interested in US energy. Maybe the DOE site for other fun facts.

  10. GregT on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 12:34 am 

    “For our negative wind doomers. A new report shows wind at 6.2 percent.”

    How about explaining your fun facts for everyone else here boat. What percentage of overall US energy consumption would wind provide at 6.2 percent of US electricity production?

    I’m sure that everyone is waiting with baited breath for your usual considerate and intelligent analysis.

  11. Boat on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 12:49 am 

    greggiet,

    6.2 percent, idiot. If one Canadian racist doomer posts one stupid question, how many stupid questions did he post.

  12. Anonymouse on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 1:07 am 

    I see cloggen-frauden, fresh from implying that e-planes fill the skies with happy travelers on their way to EuroDisney, is now making the equally fraudulent claim that man-made hydrogen is ‘clean and renewable’.

    I know its news to you cloggen-frauden, but man-made hydrogen is neither of those things. Hydrogen is energy sink, it takes far more energy(often dirty energy at that), inputs to deliver usable hydrogen to end users, than you ever get burning it. Does not sound very ‘renewable’ now does it?

    Nor is hydrogen an energy source, its an energy carrier, something widely known(ie a fact), by people with above room tempreature IQ’s.

    You just cant seem to stop hoping from one fantasy techNOfix to the next can you? You rattle off a few irrelevant, or just plain wrong statements about [insert techNOfix here], then you move on to your next fixation. The mere fact that none of your hobby horses exist in any meaningful sense, and are not being utilized in anything remotely like the manner you falsely claim they are, never seems to slow you down any however.

  13. Cloggie on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 1:49 am 

    Nor is hydrogen an energy source, its an energy carrier, something widely known(ie a fact), by people with above room tempreature IQ’s.

    I’m surprised that even a not too bright dirty diesel trucker like you seems to have understood that. What our diesel trucker hasn’t yet understood is that it is an open door if there ever was one and that everybody has long understood that hydrogen, like that dirty diesel of your is an energy carrier. Good for you anonymous, that you figured that out all by yourself, I am proud of you!

    Regarding that hydrogen story, I explain it to you once again, this slowly so it sinks even into that foul-mouthed thick skull of yours… as of 2023, 1/3 of the Magnum power station in the north of The Netherlands will switch to burning hydrogen. That hydrogen will initially be produced from natural gas.

    You would be entirely correct to call this a fraud (apparently “fraud” is the only word you seem to know to express your displeasure) if the resulting CO2 would be released into the atmosphere.

    The kicker is: it doesn’t. Got that? The CO2 is going to be stored in a “vault” in the Atlantic, off the West-coast of Norway.

    And this hydrogen from natural gas is merely a stepping stone towards real renewable hydrogen, produced from offshore wind parks in the North Sea, that are now under construction:

    https://deepresource.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/german-offshore-wind-blueprint.jpg

    But since many North-Americans have great trouble planning more than 3 months ahead, you can expect sneers that it is never going to work, because, you see, it doesn’t exist yet. You and this Dave character are fine examples of this can-not-do mentality and for who sneering is a way of life.

    Here is how finally the renewable hydrogen is going to be produced, provided of course that Washington doesn’t blow up the world first:

    https://deepresource.wordpress.com/2017/08/09/electrolysis-of-water/

    Understood anonymous? And remember, I am here to help you making sense out of a complex world.

  14. Antius on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 5:50 am 

    “Regarding that hydrogen story, I explain it to you once again, this slowly so it sinks even into that foul-mouthed thick skull of yours… as of 2023, 1/3 of the Magnum power station in the north of The Netherlands will switch to burning hydrogen. That hydrogen will initially be produced from natural gas.”

    I don’t think there is any reason why this couldn’t be made to work from a technical viewpoint. But it will be expensive and will add to the cost of power at a time when energy costs are suppressing the global economy, Netherlands included. The same is true of renewable energy generally, but problems of low EROI in the primary energy source can be aided or aggravated by the choices made in whole system architecture, such as the wrong choices being made in energy storage and grid balancing technology.

    As the drive to renewable energy is a politically driven decision, choices over which grid balancing technology to develop end up being made by politicians rather than serious scientists. I would speculate that has something to do with why the Netherlanders are developing a hydrogen based energy storage system even though there are other and arguably much better technologies that could be used, like underwater CAES, hot-rock or molten salt energy storage, cryogenic energy storage and a whole load of other options, not to mention hybrid solutions. This tends to happen when politicians drive decisions. They don’t know enough about the relative practicalities to make the right decision and are more interested in PR than they are with the end result. So they end up pushing a solution that happens to be popular amongst the chattering ideologues at that time.

    The other way these people tend to screw things up is their obsession with purist solutions. That is why the UK government is banning petrol and diesel cars and pushing for electric vehicles. There are numerous solutions that could deliver a lower emissions car, but as always, these people want a perfect or ‘pure’ solution and the want the PR that they gain from making the decision on behalf of the rest of us. Political ideologues ruin the world.

  15. Davy on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 6:07 am 

    “I don’t think there is any reason why this couldn’t be made to work from a technical viewpoint. But it will be expensive and will add to the cost of power at a time when energy costs are suppressing the global economy, Netherlands included. The same is true of renewable energy generally, but problems of low EROI in the primary energy source can be aided or aggravated by the choices made in whole system architecture, such as the wrong choices being made in energy storage and grid balancing technology.”

    Antius, this is clogs story. Many of these technologies would or do work in the small scale of the testing lab. It is the commercialization and the productive return that is the issue. We can rid the world of poor people but it would be very expensive and a drastic effort. It would also destroy the as-is status quo economy. We could probably do so many thing from a theoretical point of view but can we do these thing and be productive because in the end we are just wolves chasing rabbits.

    I think hydrogen is a dud. I read Jeremy Rifkin’s book on hydrogen when it came out. I was excited for a time until I started to read and research more. Hydrogen could work but it is likely not cost effective in the big picture. Maybe some good niche applications like fuel cells in the right situation with hydrogen probably is a good fit. Maybe renewable produced hydrogen for these fuel cells but running an economy on hydrogen is probably a bad idea.

    Clog talks about how North Americans can’t plan 3 months ahead and that is partially true we are very short term profit minded people. We see that with Wall Street. Yet, making bad long term decisions likewise lead to trouble and huge wasted efforts. Often time short term planning follows a long term trend. The short term aspects keep the effort realistic.

  16. GregT on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 11:49 am 

    boat,

    “6.2 percent, idiot.”

    6.2% of so called ‘renewable’ electric power generation.

    “Renewable energy in the United States accounted for 14.94 percent of the domestically produced electricity in 2016, and 11.1 percent of total energy generation.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_energy_in_the_United_States

    You have made it abundantly clear that basic arithmetic is among your many failures, so please let me help you out.

    6.2% of 11.1% = .682% or between 1/2 and 3/4 of 1% of total US energy consumption.

  17. dave thompson on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 1:20 pm 

    Cloggie: here is another new Sunweb post I am sure you will ignore. Oh and the name I use posting here is my real name and not some made up “character”, Cloggie. http://sunweber.blogspot.com/

  18. dave thompson on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 1:35 pm 

    IN AN INDUSTRIALIZED SOCIETY, IT FALLS TO THE PROMOTERS OF A FUTURE FOR “RENEWABLE”
    ENERGY TO SHOW HOW THESE ESSENTIAL
    MATERIALS AND SO MUCH ELSE CAN BE PROVIDED.

    From http://sunweber.blogspot.com/

  19. sunweb on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 6:08 pm 

    Thanks Dave, I just posted that today. Had Cloggie in mind when I did some of the research.

  20. dave thompson on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 9:34 pm 

    Sunweb, much respect for your sensibilities and calculations. I do not get the denial that comes with the BS of industrial civ people that seem to have this ideal of transition. WTF guys come on tell us, give us the prove. Otherwise all just hyperbolic BS of transitional crap.

  21. dave thompson on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 10:00 pm 

    Hello Cloggie where are you????

  22. GregT on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 10:34 pm 

    Cloggie is trained as an engineer Dave. Their sole purpose is to overcome environmental obsticles. Much like the eCONomists, they believe that mankind is somehow in control of the natural environment. Nothing could be further from reality.

  23. dave thompson on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 11:01 pm 

    I am trained as a realist. My sole purpose is to seek the truth.
    Our environment is what we live in. The only obstacles humanity faces are the ones we put up. Mostly stemming from resource depletion and over population brought about by the FF abundance that is but a blip, on the human time scale.

  24. Makati1 on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 11:30 pm 

    But, the human timescale is fast approaching it’s end dave. FF will be here long after we are dust as a species.

  25. Cloggie on Fri, 11th Aug 2017 1:40 am 

    Oh and the name I use posting here is my real name and not some made up “character”, Cloggie.

    Everybody can call himself “dave thompson” or “superdave” or anything. No way to verify that claim. And btw how do you know that my real name isn’t Cloggie? In Korea everybody is called “Kim”. In Holland everybody is called “Cloggie” or in my case “Arthur van Cloggie”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVkrGJxdhuI

    Cloggie: here is another new Sunweb post I am sure you will ignore.

    I have addressed sunweb’s blog several times in the past. But I know your attitude by now: you pose questions or drop a link without any substantial intellectual effort by yourself and next you expect me to invest an hour to read and several hours to respond in an elaborate post. Thanks, but no thanks. As I said before: $200/hour

    http://peakoil.com/consumption/move-over-tesla-europes-building-its-own-battery-gigafactories

    sunweb: http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2017/05/renewable-future_26.html
    IT FALLS TO THE PROMOTERS OF A FUTURE FOR “RENEWABLE” ENERGY TO SHOW HOW THESE AND SO MUCH ELSE CAN BE PROVIDED.

    Cloggie: sunweb, there is no alternative for a renewable future. We will see how far we will get.

    sunweb: Cloggie – that is an attitude I can support somewhat. I am concerned about not including a caveat of reduction of consumption. That however would challenge everything. I am not saying don’t do solar or wind energy collecting devices, I had them since 1981. What I am cautioning is not being honest about the constraints. I am also concerned about the trauma from creating a false hope.

    I’m far more concerned about a trauma of not having a replacement energy system that addresses both depleting fossil fuel reserves as well as climate change effects from using fossil fuel.

  26. Davy on Fri, 11th Aug 2017 5:15 am 

    Cloggie, while I admire what is happening with renewables especially in your northern Europe, Dave and sunweb are making potent points. Population and consumption and by extension economics trumps the technical in this macro situation. I think you might technically do some 100% “remove and replace” FF with renewables in Holland for example but that is not a real 100% transition in a global world. You can’t talk about a 100% renewable world without the whole world going renewable. Your Euro land is just going to outsource what it can’t transition or in the case of collapse be unable to fulfill and support your attempt at decoupling from modern industrial life run on FF.

    The economics of this worthy endeavor are tremendous. It requires a healthy global economy with no problems. Sooner or later this global economy will be much diminished. An NK war is the likely candidate currently. A significant amount of your renewable components are produced in Asia. Asia is set to be turned upside down by a NK war.

    From my point of view I am happy with what is happening with renewables. I was happy for what the US did with fracking. All this has bought us some time. What I am not happy with is we are not taking heed of the collapse process in progress with the worst of decline just ahead. We are starting to get even people like the EIA talking oil shortages in just a couple of years if serious investments are not undertaken. We were given some breathing room and we should have made some efforts.

    You people in Northern Europe are making an effort and this effort is laudable. Where you Euros are wrong is to think you are on the cusp of a renewable world. You Euros are just blowing hopium to the masses. You guys think the status quo of affluence can continue as-is with a green veneer. Sorry clog, we are behind the eight ball now. Keep up the good work but I am not buying into your tale with a happy ending.

  27. Cloggie on Fri, 11th Aug 2017 5:26 am 

    It requires a healthy global economy with no problems.

    Disagree. America was in a deep crisis between October 29, 1929 until 1940 and arrived at planetary pole position in 1945 regardless.

    Germany was until 1933 in a far worse state than the US, thanks to Versailles. Less then 10 years later they had overrun most of Europe in matter of two years.

    “Crisis”, “bad economy”, “financial collapse” are so overrated. What counts are human potential, engineering creativity and laws of physics. These factors almost guarantee the success of the energy transition.

  28. Davy on Fri, 11th Aug 2017 5:40 am 

    cloggie, that was the early 20th century. This is the new age of the globalized interconnected 21st century. There is no comparisons with the US achievements post 1945. That was an aberration of multiple positives. It also involved the beginning of the techno optimistic age of markets and new FF products. This age will be looked back on as the age of death marketed by the Americans and bought into by the rest of the world. You are again in the baby pool.

    Maybe you Euro’s will get lucky and we ride through some more economic storms but sooner or later the big shit will hit the fan and not pass through. Your Euro economy, that is already sick, will not have the resources to undertake the huge effort needed to transition. You may even fall flat on your face with half-baked ideas and a huge amount of stranded assets. I can see all those stupid autonomous vehicles sitting idle in a bigly parking lot somewhere.

  29. Cloggie on Fri, 11th Aug 2017 5:58 am 

    The Daimler and Bosch vision of driverless e-vehicles:

    https://deepresource.wordpress.com/2017/08/11/the-world-of-autonomous-e-vehicles-according-to-daimler-and-bosch/

    Note the lack of “diversity”, apart from a guitar player who could be British.lol

    Last week diesel was court-banned in Stuttgart, the home of Daimler, Bosch and Porsche.

    This will only speed up the rush away from fossil fuel into renewable powered e-vehicles.

  30. dave thompson on Fri, 11th Aug 2017 7:31 am 

    Cloggie your answers show just how disingenuous you are with your assertion.
    Making your claim of charging $200 an hour is a cop out.
    As if anyone here on this board pays anyone ever.
    Posting a link, as you do Cloggie, and asking you a question or two,in response to your posts that easily refute anything you claim.
    Especially grandiose claims of a non existent world transition to a clean green, alt energy, industrial civ as you do, requires YOU to prove other wise.
    Stop posting your claims if you do not like being questioned or proved wrong and cut the BS about charging an hourly consulting fee, as it is a lazy way out of ignoring counter posts that you cannot intellectually challenge

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