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Energy Prepping: Sorry Fractivists, Renewables Are Not the Answer

Sue Mickley
StratComPa Consulting Services, Allentown, PA



Sue Mickley uses history as a lesson for energy prepping and subsidized renewables are not the answer; natural gas infrastructure is key.

This is why I enjoy every bit of warmth the world wants to provide. Being a history buff, I heard about the “summer of snow” or “year with no summer” in 1816 which destroyed all the crops and lowered world temps 5 degrees. There were three major volcanic eruptions between 1813-1816 culminating in the eruption of Mt. Tambura, Indonesia, in April 1816, which was heard 3,000 miles away in Perth, Australia.

It took 50 years for temps to get completely back to pre-eruption levels.  Based on geologist research the world is overdue for a big eruption that could again lower world temperatures. Do we have the resources available to make it through: heat, food, water, filter masks, etc.? Our government definitely has enough stockpiles of food, seeds, and supplies, so no fear on that point.  But we may not be ready in other ways.

Space Shuttle image of Tambora (false color) taken in May 1992. The caldera from the 1815 eruption is clearly visible. NASA

When you evaluate your personal circumstances, you realize that a 3-5-degree average drop in world temperatures will have long-term consequences.  Food, heat, healthcare, transportation, and livelihoods will all be impacted if we don’t have the resources to compensate for the cold, and loss of crops and animals.  Governments will struggle to survive as hunger, disease, flooding, and cold torment the human population.  We can’t fix everything and can’t save everyone unless we are prepared.

In the Mt. Tambura, Indonesia eruption in 1816, it is estimated that over 90,000 lives were lost in the areas surrounding the volcano but there were estimated to be millions of lives lost around the world due to the resulting global cooling.  Remember, that was in 1816 when world population was about 1 billion while today it is over 7 billion. The rich fared better than the poor because they could escape the cities and pay the higher costs for all commodities.

Why should we want to bring up this “ancient” historical event that occurred just over 200 years ago?  To make the point of being prepared.  There are over 1,500 volcanos in the world that are considered active and many others that are considered extinct or dormant.  A good explanation of the different types of volcanos is as follows:

There are three ways to describe a volcano’s activity; there can be active, dormant, or extinct volcanoes. Active volcanoes have erupted recently. A dormant volcano isn’t erupting right now, but volcanologists expect it could erupt at any time. Extinct volcanoes haven’t erupted for tens of thousands of years, and aren’t expected to erupt again.

What causes volcanoes to go extinct? Simply put, they’re cut off from their supply of lava. This is where a chamber of magma underneath the surface of the Earth finds its way to the surface through weaknesses in the crust. A good example of this is the hotspot that created the chain of Hawaiian Islands. The tectonic plate carrying the islands is slowly moving, so that volcanoes are cut off from the hotspot underneath. Eventually they go extinct, while the hotspot creates a new volcano further to the East.

Some volcanoes look extinct, but it might just be a long time since they’ve erupted. For example, the Yellowstone Caldera in Yellowstone National Park hasn’t had a violent eruption in about 640,000 years, but scientists think it’s still active. There has been minor activity and lava flows as recently as 10,000 years ago. The region also has regular minor earthquakes and ground is lifting up in some areas, so scientists think that’s it’s still an active volcano.

Volcanoes thought to be extinct have erupted again. For example, Mount Vesuvius erupted famously in AD 79, destroying the towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii. And the Soufriere Hills volcano on the island of Montserrat resumed activity in 1995.

With those numbers do you think being prepared is prudent?  If no, good for you, you know something I don’t know or you just don’t believe that history repeats itself. If yes, what does being prepared mean? There are many ways of getting prepared.  You could become a prepper and stockpile the goods you need, build a fortress, weaponize to defend what you have, and spend a lot of money you probably do not have to survive the chance of a major life-threatening event. You could make sure you have lots of money to buy whatever you need and get to a safe haven by outbidding everyone else, or, you could expect your government to take care of you.

Having the government take care of you means that your government needs to be prepared.  Our government already stockpiles food, seed, and other resources to help our country survive a catastrophic event.  Will those resources be fairly distributed?  That is something to be determined but one would hope they will.  Emergency healthcare and dealing with epidemics will also fall under the umbrella of our government’s responsibility and we can only hope that they will have enough resources to deal with the cholera, typhoid, and other disease they saw in the 1816-1818 disaster.   Military and police controls are also under our government.  I’m pretty sure the U.S. has that covered.

So, what is left?  In the 1816-1818 world cooling event millions were displaced from their homes because of lack of resources.  We’ve reviewed how we can be pretty confident that our government has most of our needs covered in the event of this type of catastrophe but we haven’t covered energy.  Energy for transportation will be critical for keeping our country running but more importantly, electricity, heating and cooking energy will be critical for keeping our homes and businesses viable.

Let’s look at the energy produced in 1816-1818 vs. today.  In the 1816 era primary fuel sources were organic.  Most of the forests had already been clear cut and the remaining trees were inaccessible so existing wood and organics like animal dung, grasses, peat, and anything else that burns had to be used.  Coal was in its infancy and the only way to transport it to market was with horse drawn carts.

As a result of the discovery of “Stone Coal,” Anthracite, the coal industry saw quick growth but the did not realize a strong market presence until 1820 when the first canal was completed to bring coal from the coal fields in Pennsylvania to the big cities. Hydro was used locally to run mills and small industries.  Wind mills were also used locally but mainly to pump water.

A Natural Gas Streetlight – Source:DOE

Britain was the first country to commercialize the use of natural gas. Around 1785, natural gas produced from coal was used to light houses, as well as streetlights.

Manufactured natural gas of this type (as opposed to naturally occurring gas) was first brought to the United States in 1816, when it was used to light the streets of Baltimore, Maryland. However, this manufactured gas was much less efficient, and less environmentally friendly, than modern natural gas that comes from underground (author note: the invention to use it for heating and cooking, the Bunsen burner, was decades away from being developed).

The bottom line is energy resources were very scarce and the only solution was to migrate to resource rich areas to survive.  The migration to the Cumberland Valley in Ohio during this time was historic.  New Englanders, already devastated by the War of 1812 now had to survive price gouging for food and seeds, a lack of heat, anarchy, epidemics, and loss of their livelihoods.  They received glowing letters from relatives and friends who had settled in Ohio on how good it was to live there.  In 1816 the “Ohio Fever” migration began and didn’t stop until many towns in the northeast were completely emptied or financially devastated.

What does that have to do with us today?  Most might say, “not much,” except it shows what a volcanic event, something possible at any time in our world, can do to civilizations.  Are we moving in the right direction to survive a similar event today? I would argue we are in the best position in the history of the world to survive a major eruption, the years of global cooling, and the devastation that would come with it.  However, we have trends now that would result in us losing that best position to cope.  We are moving towards energy policies that would reduce our resources.  Many of the energy resources currently available would be diminished or rendered inoperable during this time of crisis.

What energy would survive and what would be jeopardized? Below is a list of the energy resources used in 2016 in the U.S.:

A look at the historic and projected world trends in the following graphics show a major shift in energy resource use by 2035. Renewables will almost double, coal will continue to increase, hydro and nuclear will increase (but not in the U.S.), and oil and gas will increase because of worldwide population demands and third world industrialization. The trends show the only resources that significantly increase by 2035 as a percent of the total are renewables and natural gas.

Based on these projections all energy resource uses in the world are going to increase while dependence on one vs. another will dramatically change.

The following projections by BPS of world energy consumption shows that renewables will increase dramatically:

Non-hydroelectric renewables in the power generation sector are projected to be the fastest growing fuel source, growing at an average rate of 7.6 percent per year, quadrupling over the outlook, due to increasing competitiveness of solar and wind power and the move to de-carbonization. Non-hydroelectric renewable energy accounts for 40 percent of the growth in power generation, with their share of global power increasing from 7 percent in 2015 to almost 20 percent by 2035.

The European Union is expected to continue its penetration of renewable energy in the power sector, with the share of renewable energy doubling over the forecast period, reaching almost 40 percent by 2035. However, China is the largest overall source of growth in renewable energy over the next 20 years.

Many are celebrating this monumental shift and success of the growth of renewables but let’s get back to the possibility of a volcanic eruption causing catastrophic world average temperature declines. Looking at the projections for 2035, Europe will be at the most vulnerable with 40% of their energy coming from wind and solar (primarily solar) and even the U.S. at 20% non-hydro renewables would be very vulnerable. Solar panels will be rendered practically useless as the constant inclement weather, dust, and cold will cripple the energy production.

Wind would be even more sporadic then it is now and would often be non-existent for long periods of time. The mechanical integrity of the wind turbines would quickly be compromised. Even Hydro could be severely jeopardized as the constant cold could virtually freeze or at least significantly reduce the water flow feeding the hydropower plants.  But even if these renewables keep generating electricity there still is a major problem with energy delivery, the cold. You see, the energy grid, particularly if it is an aging grid like in the U.S. is much less efficient in transmitting electricity when it is cold. Here is a National Geographic article explaining the phenomenon:

The electric system consists of thousands of components that are mostly electromechanical, with lots of moving parts. Like your car, these systems work best when they operate in the middle of the temperature and moisture/humidity range they were designed for.  When they are new, these devices are designed and rated to operate correctly in even extreme temperatures. But as they age—and much of our infrastructure is already operating well beyond the life span for which it was designed—they may not operate well in extreme conditions.

Most of the time, when power system equipment is subjected to extreme cold or hot weather, all is well as long as it is not subjected to stress. When it gets too cold, hot, or moist, many of these devices operate slower, faster, or less predictably than they normally would—especially when they are called upon to perform really hard work, such as a circuit breaker or switch opening fast enough to protect the system from a short circuit caused by a tree branch falling on a line. (See related blog post: “‘American Blackout’: Four Real-Life Threats to the Electric Grid.”)

One of the stressors noted in the article is a sudden increase in demand for electricity. If the solar resource is compromised under the volcanic scenario it would result in high demand on the electricity grid risking catastrophic blackouts.

Looking at all these possibilities one has to question if we are going in the right direction in energy production and priority. The energy sources that would be the most viable are being reduced and fought by environmentalists and curbed by regulators. Coal has been significantly attacked and has experienced a dramatic decline in production.

Natural gas, mostly delivered by an underground infrastructure, is being fought on the pretense that fracking is dangerous and pipelines may leak. Nuclear power plants are being decommissioned at a fast pace and there are few plans to build new plants in the U.S. All of these policies are being implemented while massive government subsidies and investments are directed towards renewables.

This may someday go down in the history books as the world’s greatest planning disaster as the world’s population increases by 2 billion to over 9 billion by 2035, an increase that is almost twice the world’s population in 1816. We are missing the boat of focusing our money and goals on the true need for secure energy, not renewable energy, and controlling energy demand.

Those goals should be:

  1. Modernizing and increasing the energy infrastructure and particularly the infrastructure grid; and,
  2. Encouraging and developing energy resources that will be reliable even under the most stressful circumstances.

Applying our efforts and money to anything else is a waste and will set us up to fail. We need to make these goals priorities now. Later may be too late.

For more information on the vulnerabilities of our electric grid watch this National Geographic video:

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