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Enough energy after Peak Oil to rebuild and repair concrete infrastructure?

Enough energy after Peak Oil to rebuild and repair concrete infrastructure? thumbnail

Concrete is an essential part of our infrastructure.

And it’s all falling apart, as Robert Courland’s 2011 book Concrete Planet makes clear.

The Romans built concrete structures that lasted over 2 thousand years.  Ours will last a century — at most.

Courland writes that the buildings and monuments we build may last less than a century, despite this, builders, architects, and engineers who know the shortcomings of steel and concrete continue to build structures that will deteriorate.

The problem isn’t the just the concrete; it’s the iron and steel rebar reinforcement inside.  Cracks can be fixed, but when air, moisture, and chemicals seep into reinforced concrete, the rebar rusts, expanding in diameter four or five-fold, which destroys the surrounding concrete, and ultimately destroys the building, road, bridge, dam, levee, home, airport runway, sewage and water pipes, school, canal, power plants, grain elevators, shipping piers, tunnels, and so on.

Courland says that engineers and architects have known about this problem a long time, yet either refuse to admit it or don’t think it matters.  The main theme of this book is that it does matter, as Courland explains in these three excerpts:

1)     The lifespan of concrete is not only shorter than masonry, it “is probably less than that of wood…We have built a disposable world using a short-lived material, the manufacture of which generates millions of tons of greenhouse gases.”  Cement is the third largest source of CO2 after autos and coal-fueled power plants.  The World Coal Association states that “Coal is used as an energy source in cement production. Large amounts of energy are required to produce cement. Kilns usually burn coal in the form of powder and consume around 450g of coal for about 900g of cement produced”.

2)       “Even more troubling is that all this steel-reinforced concrete that we use for building our roads, buildings, bridges, sewer pipes, and sidewalks is ultimately expendable, so we will have to keep rebuilding them every couple of generations, adding more pollution and expense for our descendants to bear.  Most of the concrete structures built at the beginning of the 20th century have begun falling apart, and most will be, or already have been, demolished”.

3)      The world we have built over the last century is decaying at an alarming rate. Our infrastructure is especially terrible:

  • 1 in 4 bridges are either structurally deficient or structurally obsolete
  • The service life of most reinforced concrete highway bridges is 50 years, and their average age is 42 years….
  • Besides our crumbling highway system, the reinforced concrete used for our water conduits, sewer pipes, water-treatment plants, and pumping stations is also disintegrating.  The chemicals and bacteria in sewage make it almost as corrosive as seawater, reducing the life span of the reinforced concrete used in these systems to 50 years of less.”

I’m sure the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) would agree. Below is their 2009 report card for America’s infrastructure (all of these use at least some, if not a lot, of concrete).

  • C+ Solid Waste
  • C Bridges
  • C- Public Parks and Recreation, Rail
  • D+ Energy
  • D Aviation, Dams, Hazardous Waste, Schools, Transit
  • D- Drinking Water, Inland Waterways, Levees, Roads, Wastewater

Their 2013 report card will state we need over 3 trillion to fix this. But ASCE says nothing about the short life of concrete anywhere on their website, let alone demand that future projects be built to last.  The ASCE 2013 report card comes out March 19.  I’ll be watching to see if they even mention that we need to build millennia-long lasting concrete buildings, roads, bridges, dams, schools, drinking water pipes and facilities, and levees in the future.

We know there’s a problem, we know how to fix it (the last chapter explains how to make long-lasting concrete), and yet there’s no pressure to do it, because it’s cheaper to do it the wrong way, especially in a time of tight credit.   To do it right, it costs a bit more up front, but the payback is tens of trillions of dollars in saved future costs. I predict Capitalism’s’ short-term  focus will prevent long-lasting concrete projects from coming to fruition.

On top of that, there’s no demand from the public, journalists, engineers, or architects.  There has not been any outcry since this book was published to build with long-lasting concrete in the future that I can find.

Well, have only been two attempts to do something that I could find:

  1. A bill that passed in the Senate (S.775) but failed in the House: The National Infrastructure Improvement Act, to establish a National Commission on the Infrastructure of the United States
  2. The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Engineering Laboratory has started to fund research to prevent concrete from cracking in a program called REACT: Reducing Early-Age Cracking Today.

Peak Energy and Concrete

It will take a tremendous amount of energy to replace and/or fix our concrete infrastructure, energy that will be less and less available.  Why waste our remaining energy and create vastly more greenhouse gas to make concrete, unless it will be built to last thousands of years like Roman Concrete?

Our descendants won’t be driving everywhere, in fact, they’ll probably wish they could convert the pavement to farmland, which will take centuries even after the cement is gone for the soil to recover — why not start now?  Stop maintaining roads in the national forests, rural areas, and wherever else it makes sense –let them return to gravel and eventually fade away.

Perhaps we should even consider DE-paving and DE-damming to restore streams, fisheries, wetlands, and ecosystems for future generations.

We should convert some roads to railways while we still have energy to spend, since trains are around seven times more efficient than trucks.

At this point it seems crazy to build projects with short-term concrete we KNOW will only last for decades.

Eventually buildings over 5 stories tall will be of little use — why keep building skyscrapers?

Future generations won’t able to build, let alone repair and maintain what we construct.  Once we stop maintaining our concrete (and cement) structures, they will quickly fall apart.

We just won’t have the energy to build and maintain many concrete structures in a wood-based civilization.  Consider all the wood it used to take for a limestone kiln to make 1 cubic yard of lime: a dozen cords of wood (a cord is 4’ x 4’ x 8).

Another example Courland cites (page 139): Since the Mayans “used 20 full-grown pine trees to create just 1 cubic meter of lime, the amount of deforestation caused by the need for farmland, plaster, and stucco probably tipped the environmental balance deep in the red”.

I wonder how many trees would be needed to build the 27.1 million cubic meter Three Gorges Dam in China?   I suspect even deforesting the earth wouldn’t be enough.

And those of you downstream from the Hoover and other large dams might be interested to know that these are still “undergoing the curing process, thus forestalling corrosion. It will be interesting for our descendants to discover whether the tremendous weight of these dams will continue to put off the rebar’s corrosion expansion” (page 327).

Failing dams are a double tragedy, since electricity from hydro-power will be especially valuable as one of the few (reliable) energy sources in the future.

And what the hell are the people in the future going to do with all this concrete — build sheep fences?

Alice Friedemann

Energy Skeptic

17 Comments on "Enough energy after Peak Oil to rebuild and repair concrete infrastructure?"

  1. BillT on Wed, 23rd Jan 2013 2:26 pm 

    Don’t worry, there will not be enough people left to worry about the crumbling concrete. Ina thousand years, our cities will be gone. Crumbled back into the earth. There may be a few monuments left. The Pyramids are probably good for a few more millennia. The statues on Easter Island will still stand. Many of the ancient monuments will still be standing, but modern man’s will be gone under sand or jungle.

    No, they will not be rebuilt. Eventually crossing a major river will be by steam ferry or swimming your horse across. Mail will be delivered on horseback, if there is any. When? My guestimate will be by 2100.

  2. csatadi on Wed, 23rd Jan 2013 2:59 pm 

    The film Life after People explained the issue in detail.

  3. Arthur on Wed, 23rd Jan 2013 3:43 pm 

    The car will be the first victim of peakoil, so the bridge and road problem will fix itself. Use rail and canals again for long distance travel/transport and local roads around a railway station and let the highways rot away. Rail needs far less maintenance than roads. In Switzerland I have seen perfect rail tracks with the year 189x stamped on it.

  4. Plantagenet on Wed, 23rd Jan 2013 4:32 pm 

    Too bad Obama lied about funding “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects when he wasted a trillion dollars in his phony stimulus bill. That kind of massive fraud and abuse just makes it that much harder to get money for legitimate infrastructure projects in the future.

  5. PrestonSturges on Wed, 23rd Jan 2013 5:44 pm 

    There are stone rail road bridges over 100 years old that are still in use and carrying vastly larger loads than when they were built. They went back to building stone bridges because early iron bridges frequently collapsed.

  6. Arthur on Wed, 23rd Jan 2013 8:27 pm 

    Meanwhile in Australia:

    $20 trillion oil basin discovered in Australia set to turn the country from importer to mass exporter

  7. Vipp on Wed, 23rd Jan 2013 9:06 pm 

    If we fail and collapse. There probably won’t be another complex civilization to have to worry about the concrete buildings.
    Thing is we’ve used up the most concentrated sources for metals and energy that civilizations after us won’t have a chance to build themselves up.

    We are pretty much the one and only chance for earth, and we are failing.

  8. DC on Thu, 24th Jan 2013 1:23 am 

    Like the article points out, the Romans built vastly superior concrete structures and they did it without using a single barrel of oil or KW of electricity to do it. We are both incapable now, of doing anything remotely as long-lived, and are also simply too lazy to do so.

    But if they did it with oil, then humans will be able to build with concrete without it in the future if it comes to that. Well just have to relearn a few forgotten arts.

  9. GregT on Thu, 24th Jan 2013 1:44 am 

    The romans were very efficient in their use of human slavery. We replaced our slaves with oil.

  10. rollin on Thu, 24th Jan 2013 4:33 am 

    The problem is not concrete, the problem goes back to our trade/profit system and our limited forward thinking. Everything is built for profit and longevity of major construction past 100 years is not required by companies or by government. Building for longevity raises the price dramatically and no one generally really cares what is happening a century from now, it’s service life is unimportant to companies that would be lucky to last that long.
    If we had lifespans of 200 years or more, buildings and infrastructure would be made to last at least 300 years.
    Who cares about the current infrastructure anyway since we are going to transistion to a whole new way of life? Why bog down the next few generations with a whole bunch of useless constructs? Let them design their own world. We need to clean house, not clutter it up.

  11. DC on Thu, 24th Jan 2013 5:43 am 

    Your funny rollin, people that built better structures in the past with ‘inferior’ technology, lived just as long as you and I, sometimes rather less. That did not prevent them from building some very durable works. And if you think companies are the problem, well…ok that right. Companies dont build things as shoddy as they do because there is no public need for long lived infrastructure, in fact, there is a very great need, but that need is simply swept under the rug. No, companies build things the way they do, because they are A) lazy, but more importantly, they design things to need constant, as in on-going maintenance, which they themselves provide. Iow, its something of a racket. Like ‘developers’ that build shoddy houses knowing full well in 20 years time(or less!) they will be considered ‘ghetto’ and be knocked down.

    In ages past, many significant projects where undertaken not to profit engineering firms and mafia controlled construction companies, but to serve the needs of A) the State, B) society as a whole, and C) many were undertaken as public works projects to provide employment for all that could do the work. Nowadays, infrastructure work projects, when they are under-taken, are in effect, allready spoken for by the corporate construction firms. The public rarely, if ever benefit from the work itself.

    They were costly back then as they are now, but most were undertaken not with the idea that a ‘company’ would later clean up on on-going maintenance work. They just didn’t think in those terms, and would likely be amused we spend so much maintaining so many poorly built works. You think a resource contrained world should build there own, and we let what we have decay? What will they build it with? Nothing, or precious little. People 500 years from now will needs good bridges and roads and buildings just like we do. But our looting the planets resources wont leave them much to do it with. If we built properly now, while there is still some ability left to do so, that will help people living now, and into the future.

  12. GregT on Thu, 24th Jan 2013 6:40 am 


    Did you even read the link that you posted above?

    “The Wall Street Journal reported last week the US could pass Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer this year, thanks to the shale oil explosion.”

    “Mr Bond said the potential in SA was “massive”, but even at the lower end of estimates – about 3.5 billion barrels – it was still very large.”

    This is oil company investment propaganda at it’s best. Utter garbage.

  13. Arthur on Thu, 24th Jan 2013 7:08 am 

    Greg, I did read it. A friend of mine send it. It talks about a range of 3.5-233 billion barrel, a ridiculous broad range.

  14. Arthur on Thu, 24th Jan 2013 9:02 am 

    Exactly Greg, you and I are the largest slave holders in history, with more than 100 slaves at our disposal per person. It is likely a law of nature that some form of slavery will return if the number of virtual energy slaves per capita drops below a certain number (5, 10, 20?). Morals have nothing to do with it. It is a matter of kwh.

  15. James on Fri, 25th Jan 2013 1:19 am 

    Heck, in Columbus Ohio, they rebuilt the 315 route going through the middle of the city 3 times in the past 25 years. It still doesn’t seem to satisfy the local politicians.

  16. BillT on Fri, 25th Jan 2013 2:16 am 

    One calculation of those slaves in your home/gas tank:

    “1 Barrel of Oil = 23,200 Hours of Human Work Output”

    THAT is the reduction coming as we lose each barrel of oil capacity. Eleven year of human work per barrel. The tires on your car took 7 gallons or 1/6 of a barrel. The work of two men for a year.

  17. flipjupitor on Mon, 17th Aug 2015 4:12 am 

    Repairing concrete infrastructure is number one method. Thanks for sharing.

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