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Sean Breed


This article contains many fascinating ideas, which should all be tested very rigorously as soon as possible.

Society-wide testing of energy/social engineering schemes is difficult, so such testing should be carried out on island nations and states, such as Hawaii or the Bahamas.

Recovering from a hurricane, for example, using only natural weather based energy, should be a useful exercise for any small isolated society.

Darkest Yorkshire


Whenever you see videos of proud engineers showing off their wind farms and solar arrays they say how many thousands of homes it can power, but never anything else. How many solar panels or wind turbines does it take to run an electric train?



Great article , the mindset of using fossil fuels has created its own problems when it was cheap and abundant. Now the situation has changed and a new paradigm needs to be explored.

Arun Isaac


I think there is a typo in two of the headings:

Adjusting Supply to Demand: Factories
Adjusting Supply to Demand: Sailboats

It should be "Adjusting Demand to Supply".

As always, a well thought out and thought provoking article from the low tech magazine. Thanks!

kris de decker


@ Arun

Thanks so much for pointing that out. Corrected.



"Adjusting energy demand to supply would make switching to renewable energy much more realistic than it is today."

Which is, as I am sure you know, utterly unrealistic.



"In other words, they accepted that renewable energy was not always available and acted accordingly. For example, windmills and sailboats were simply not operated when there was no wind."

File this under "No Sh*t Sherlock." The above was not a choice, it was a response to reality.

You might want to get a little more of that response into this paen to low-tech non-solutions to a place that has around 7 billion (with a "b") humans on it. Many of these will not be satisfied at all with a wait around for your car and refrigerator to get going on solar energy policy. And when many people are not happy with this sort of thing what you get is a very high-tech, soon to be low-tech, war.

kris de decker


@ vanderleun

"The above was not a choice, it was a response to reality."

And the same goes today: it's not a choice, it's a response to reality. We cannot switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy without rethinking the whole society. If you think otherwise, then you don't understand the many differences between renewable energy and fossil fuels.



We cannot switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy without rethinking the whole society. If you think otherwise, then you don't understand the many differences between renewable energy and fossil fuel.

No Kris, we do know the differences. Efforts to re-think society while ignoring reality (i.e., the New Soviet Man) always end up with gulags or holodomors.

kris de decker


@ Butch

Your reference to communism simply makes no sense. It would be the wind and the sun deciding when economic activity proceeds, there's nobody telling anybody else what to do. And to convince me that you do know the differences between fossil fuels and renewables will take some more effort.



This was a great read and shows a plausible scenario for an industrial society running on mostly renewables.

I think it's worth noting that burning fossil fuels will still be cheaper and easier than relying on intermittent energy sources. This means that even though the scenario is viable, there isn't much reasons for countries to stop digging up fossil fuels.

How can we convince the US to keep their coal underground? Unless the countries that don't possess fossil fuels compensate them financially, I don't see it happening...



For society to shift to a low-/no-carbon economy, so many drastic changes are required that no precision is possible in plotting a course for the transition. What can help is vision.

Separately, I love the pre-carbon-economy art in this essay!



Thank you Kris for your work.
I'd like to know your opinion about power2gas. It is suggested by Negawatt in France as a solution to store renewable energy.

Peter Shield


A great stimulating read, we already talk about eating seasonally. That is eating what is available when the weather locally permits certain fruit and vegetables to produce, animals to breed, and fish to breed and or migrate. So why not energy, as someone who lives off grid, 100% powered by solar panels I am use to using energy when it is available to work, and for that matter conserve food, equally the fridge gets unplugged when the days draw in and the basement gets colder. As you point out this approach could be spread much wider, although there are limits. Hospitals cannot work occasionally, though energy hungry functions such as MRIs could be scheduled when energy production is at its highest for example. Blast furnaces could prove a tad problematic.



When I was a kid, I lived in rural Michigan. We went skiing when snow was on the ground, skated when there was ice on the pond, swam when the snow and ice were long gone, climbed trees year 'round. My brother and I built model airplanes, mostly in the winter, and flew (and repaired) them in the summer. Music, reading, arguing went on all year long.

When we were teenagers, we had a 19½ fr long centerboard sloop ("Lightning" class #307!) which we raced, in the summer. One summer we went cruising instead, at night sleeping under a tarp, cooking on an old Coleman stove. Sailing along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, some days we managed only 5 miles, once we did ≈50 miles; it depended on the wind and adolescent fancy.

A pleasant old (to us) man in Ludington asked us why we didn't use a motor; we'd go faster. My brother airily replied, "When we're sailing, we're already there."

Oh, to be teenagers in Michigan in the early 1950's!



"The only downside is that workers would be free from work especially in winter and on cloudy days."

This is definitely not a downside (as long as we rework the economic model along with the energy model).

kris de decker


@ Nicolas

Power2Gas is not different from other energy storage technologies. It can be a great technology if used on a small scale, for example in combination with adjusting energy demand to supply. On a much larger scale, it runs into problems. In this case, the energy losses in the energy conversion are very large, so there's a need to build more wind turbines and solar panels to make good for these losses.

David P Lubic


There are a couple of things I would like to add that the author has not noted in regard to refinements in energy use that were available a century ago for ships and trains.

Not mentioned in this was the technological advancement of clipper ships. These slim vessels with their towering clouds of canvas were originally developed for the China tea trade. Some of those ships had names that ring today--Flying Cloud, Great Republic, Thermopylae, and the last survivor, Cutty Sark.

These ships developed into legends for very fast sailing times, typically under 100 days, from Hong Kong to London. Keep in mind this was before the Panama Canal and involved sailing around the tip of South America through some of the stormiest seas on earth.

But their greatest advantage wasn't the great bursts of speed they could put on under ideal conditions. . .but their efficiency in lighter winds. Many such ships were at least as well noted among sailors for their ability to ghost along in winds too slight to move anything else. There is at least one account of a clipper actually making a trip from Hong Kong to London and back again--and on return to Hong Kong, finding an old East Indiaman ship that was ready to go at the same time as the clipper, but still hadn't left because there hadn't been enough air for her to move!

In regard to railroads, the now unfortunately abandoned Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific's Pacific extension had two electric divisions (with an unelectrified gap in the center that was supposed to be closed but never was). Power was supplied by electric utilities from hydroelectric plants, which meant the road had to pay for the power as opposed to generating its own.

That meant the road wanted to minimize power purchases. How they did that was to take advantage of regenerative braking, long a feature of electric railroads and now a feature of hybrid and electric cars. This is turning motors into generators and sending the power back into either the grid or the battery.

In the case of the Milwaukee Road, they would, as far as possible, schedule trains in such a way that a descending train, in regenerative braking, used its generated electricity to power another train going up the same or a nearby grade.

That would be mighty handy on a railroad as mountainous as this one was.



Demonstrating this approach would make a decent science fair project. If I wanted to test this on a small scale, what application would you recommend? Non-grid-tied solar is reasonably cheap, and there must be some common, in-demand manufacturing that can operate while the sun shines and shut down when it doesn't, with minimal battery backup. At the very least, there's distributed scientific computing, but that wouldn't be as illustrative as manufacturing.



"before the arrival of the steam engine, there was no way of converting biomass into mechanical energy."

For some biomass there was -- beast mills! (Or human ones.) But yes, no way of turning inedible biomass into motive power.

"I think it's worth noting that burning fossil fuels will still be cheaper and easier than relying on intermittent energy sources."

Probably not if the full social costs of pollution and dependence on a finite resource were counted. Plus we tend to actively subsidize the demand for gasoline, with government policies arranging society to cater to cars.

Damien Detcherry


Thanks Kris for this great article and overall for the quality of your publications.

I appreciate your critical mind and how you apply it to the enormous challenge we're currently facing with the coming end of fossil fuel energy.

However, I would like to highlight one significant limit I see in your perspective.

For me, the solar panels and wind turbines we see today are high-tech products like any other high-tech products (computers, smartphones, ...etc).

Given the level of complexity, precision, performance they have or require (for their magnets, cells, composite materials, ...etc), they're highly dependent on abundant energy (and minerals), something that is still made possible by fossil fuels today.

But the day fossil fuels or more generally, non-renewables resources, are constrained (which will happen soon), I think we won't have the ressources to keep on building them (or their parts) while maintaining the rest of the economy. Or said differently, the remaining energy will be allocated for a different usage than building solar panels or its various high-tech components.

So, if we deploy massive solar or wind power plants, I'm afraid we'll be rapidly unable to operate them as their maintenance will become impossible. Additionally, we'll be left with high technologies that will be difficult to recycle or turn into another usage (given their complexity).

More generally, my feeling is that:
In the gradual process of downscaling the economy to a sustainable level (which is what I think you agree on), it's dangerous to replace an existing technology with a technology that is more "high-tech" (more complex, more composite, more precise, consuming more resources ...) because it's more vulnerable to resource tensions and less adaptable (recyclable, reparable).

Therefore it seems wiser for me to restructure our economy by gradually "low-teching" our various technologies (including energy) than to restructure our economy around high-tech (and thus precarious) solar panels and wind turbines like you suggest here.

Maybe I'm oversimplifying but that's what I understood from reading the French author Philippe Bihouix in his book "L'âge des low-tech"

What do you think ?

Bruce Teakle


Thanks Kris for an excellent article on an important question.
Have you looked at the strategies employed by people who already live with intermittent electricity? There must be many millions of people living with grid power that operates only part of the time due to financial, social or technical problems.
Our family, on a remote solar supply, employs strategies as you describe. On sunny days we use 2 or 3 times as much electricity as cloudy days, using it for cooking, pumping, chainsawing firewood, and in workshops. In cloudy weather we leave bike batteries uncharged, cook with charcoal or wood, and avoid various electric tasks.



Shipping and storing work is way easier than energy, and hemispheres are opposite. So if we are prepared to abandon the just in time-shopping model, in favour of shipping and warehouses, there is no need to wait a season for the goods. Manufacture and ship form the northern hemisphere in the summer, then from the southern hemisphere in the winter. Sending information on who bought what across the world, requires very little energy and time. If large enough stores can be built perhaps connecting seaports to trains) and particularly if sailing ship times can be accepted(perhaps with a small auxiliary electric motor + batteries for reaching places away from the trade winds and crossing becalmed areas. then we have a small energy use.
We can always use geothermal as baseline for essential continual process.

Hugh Spencer


I agree Damien .. it seems something that commentators and enthusiasts tend to completely forget. I watch our local Alternative Tech group promoting higher and higher (and less and less repairable) solutions to renewable energy generation. I live off grid solar .. and try to use the KISS principle - but it becomes almost impossible (unless you have the skills and resources to design your own versions of inverters, MPPT's and so on .. the current ones are utterly unrepairable. Solar panels degrade - some faster than others (and you won't know whether the brand you bought has longevity) - I have a pile of duds here. Vaclav Smil has made some interesting analyses of the reality of attempting to continue BAU with renewable energy - basically you can't - because of 'energy density' - the amount of power per square meter of generator that can be produced. Article generates screams of outrage and denial from those who declare that renewables will power the world as we know it .. maybe a world of 500 million!



One problem that you don't take into account is that if you close factories (or offices) when you don't have energy, then you will have to build more of them for the same output. Which means wasted energy. How does that compare to the wasted energy of overbuilding renewable sources? Also in some cases switching on and off might directly need energy.
One example I think of adapting demand to supply is that the economy might migrate to sunnier places. Or to countries which don't mind burning coal.

Nikolay Ivankov


To produce cost-efficiently, manufacturers will need to make compromises. From time to time, these compromises will lead to product shortages, which in turn could encourage people to consider other solutions, such as repair and re-use of existing products, crafted products, DIY, or exchanging and sharing goods.

This picture is overly romantic.

In USSR, it led to those in charge for storing into the upper strata of the society.

... You come to me, and through the store manager, through the shop manager, through the merchandiser, through the back door, I've took hold of a deficit. Listen up, no one has that, I do! You taste, you lose your speech, so peculiar is it tastes! I respect you, you respect me, we both are respectable people.

You go to a premiere, who's sitting on the front line? Respectable people: the store manager, the shop manager, the merchandiser behind them. All the city administration likes the store manager, values him. Why? Cause he's sitting on deficit products! Deficit is the great engine of peculiar interpersonal relationships!

Now imagine, there is no deficit.
I bought what I need, you bought what you need, he bought what he needs, everyone buys what they need. We don't care of each other, walk around, bored. Store manager goes by - we don't care about him. Shop manager goes by - we don't care. Merchandiser comes by - we look at him as if he were a puny civil engineer!...

M. Zhvanetsky, "Deficit", 1974

I bet not many of the readers the joke. Not actually even me, for I was born a decade later, and so starting with my school childhood I've been living an an economy of abundance.

It led to total deficit of everything possible, and to long queues for the everyday appliances. It also led to overproduction, and to forced sales: if one wished to buy some deficit product, they were often forced to buy something they didn't need at all.

Please have this in mind when you say about rethinking the economy.

John Weber


I question whether solar and wind can truly maintain very high temperature heats needed for many industrial processes. Many materials used in our industrial world require energy from mining to manufacturing for processing and transportation. The energy for some of these products is in the form of high temperatures – 2000° F (nearly 1100°C).
These processes run 24/7 365 days.

There are proposals that solar and wind energy collecting devices can provide the energy to maintain the industrial world. To look at this possibility, solar electric panels, wind turbines and concentrated solar installations in the form of parabolic trough collectors (PTC) have been assessed.

The energy requirements in 2010 for the following essential components of our industrial world are provided: steel, aluminum, chromium, copper, manganese, cement and glass. This energy would be mining, processing and transporting to name some. Other important components of the industrialized world such as nickel and cobalt are not considered because they are part of the high temperature processing of other ore metals.

The kWh output and area required for installations of solar electric panels, wind turbines and PTC has been researched. This then is divided into the energy (exajoules converted to kWh) required for global production of each material in 2010.
121,214.45 Square Miles of Solar Electric Collectors
257,472 square miles and 2,807,276 Wind Turbines
77183.4 square miles of PTCs
There are many other critical components of our global industrialized world that require industrial heat (lead, silver, tin, food processing) that are right at the top heating limit of solar devices. They must also be included in an all “renewable” future. If only half of important materials were provided, what would our world be like?

See maps, images and calculations at:

Sam D


Just letting you know there are people still reading this and being inspired two years later.

Edwin Brophy


What about running road transport on intermittent sources? Cars of course can be electric. Trucks and buses can run on hybrid biofuel/electric. People will just charge their cars only when solar or wind is available. If there is a shortage of electricity to power their cars, and there is no way they could make all their journeys in their electric car, they could use public transport. Buses could run on biofuels so don’t need to be using electricity to charge them when no electricity is available. You don’t need much fuel because the transport infrastructure would be entirely electrified while wind or solar are generating enough power to charge the vehicles. Running the internet on intermittent power is easy. While it is daylight, you can use a solar phone charger to charge your phone. Solar panels don’t generate electricity at night so basically switch of your devices at night and store electricity in your phone’s battery. Nighttime is while using the internet is unnecessary as you are asleep. Running a home heating system on intermittent electricity can also be done. Use a heat pump to pump heat from the outside of the building to the inside. Turn off the electricity supply to the heat pump while no electricity is available. The building (if well insulated) should keep the heat giving time for a backup source of heat (hydrogen or fossil fuel or wood) to fire up.

Theo Manent


Thank you Kris for this great article !

Here is a contemporary example of putting these principles into practice. The Neoloco factory (https://neoloco.fr) in France presents itself as a "solar bakery and roastery".

- Baking : bread is baked using either a traditionnal wood-fired oven or a solar oven, priority beeing obviously given to the latter. (video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWjLCCM0kv0)

- Roastering : various local seeds are solar roasted and processed in order to provide an alternative to standardized and world-wide imported products such as peanuts, spices and coffee. Since these food items are not perishable, they can be processed at any sunny period of the year and properly preserved for later use. (video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKhLtC3tdu4)

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