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Exponential Icebergs

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September 30, 2002

By Harry Braun

President Bush's priorities of going to war with Iraq underscore that he and his top advisors do not understand the significance of the many "exponential icebergs" that threaten the human community far more than any potential threat from Iraq or Al-Qaeda. Indeed, given the exponential nature of the interrelated global energy and environmental problems, the U.S. and other countries should be focused on shifting from oil to hydrogen with wartime speed (i.e., within a 5 to 10-year period). Hydrogen is the key to this transition because is the only non-polluting "universal fuel" that can make the U.S. energy independent and power virtually every existing engine or appliance, from the family automobile and range, to commercial aircraft, moon rockets, power plants, or a Coleman stove on a mountain top. Ten million one-megawatt wind turbines could be rapidly mass-produced to provide over 100% of the U.S. energy requirements (i.e., 100 quads). As such, it is not necessary to wait for fuel cells or nuclear fusion to shift to hydrogen.

Because of the "exponential age" in which we live, we are rapidly approaching either a biotechnological utopia, where "biochips" will manufacture "designer genes" to eliminate the molecular mechanisms of aging and disease-or an oblivion scenario whereby more and more people will be competing for fewer and fewer resources. Like the passengers aboard the Titanic,

if we are not able to change course in time, we will not be able to avoid the devastating exponential icebergs of climate change that will result as major food production systems begin to fail. The exponential icebergs of global population growth, droughts, floods, and the destruction of the oceans have already started to disrupt global food production systems, and if this dangerous trend is allowed to continue, at some point in the not too distant future, supermarkets will be rapidly sold out in panic buying. Millions of people will suddenly be dependent on what they have on-hand. Guns, ammunition, and gasoline will become the most important assets as the fabric of civilization dissolves in matter of days - if not hours. No one will care about Iraq as panic and chaos affect millions of unprepared people who will desperately be attempting to avoid starvation.

The Exponential Time
Of 11:59

One cannot understand the serious nature of exponential growth without knowing what is meant by the exponential time of 11:59. For example, if a bug is put in an empty bottle at 11:00 in the morning, and it is observed that the bottle is full of bugs at 12:00 noon, when will the bottle be half-full? The Answer: 11:59. The significance of this analogy is that if you were one of the bugs in the bottle, at what point would you begin to realize that you were running out of resources. Note that at 11:55, the bottle is only 3% filled, leaving 97% of the space for growth, but the exponential inertia of the last four minutes will totally consume what appeared to be a vast resource.

Arithmetic versus Exponential Growth

Note that the arithmetic growth increases at a constant rate, in contrast to the exponential growth that increases at an increasing rate.
Human Population Growth
Note that late-stage of the exponential growth curve of the human population,
which is now going vertically off the page.

Another simple but graphic example of exponential growth is to consider what happens if one penny is saved on the first day of the month, and each day thereafter, the amount is increased at a constant rate of one cent per day. At the end of a 31-day month, one has accumulated 31 cents. However, if the amount is exponentially doubled each day, at the end of a month one will have accumulated over $10.7 million - an increase of over 34 million percent.

Shifting From Oil to Hydrogen with Wartime Speed

The significance of the "exponential age" in which we live is that it is much later that most people think. Existing oil reserves are expected to last for 40 or 50 years, at current rates of consumption. However, even if there were a 1000-year supply of oil, with 5% annual growth in consumption, the 1000-year supply would be exponentially consumed in only 79 years. The U.S. has a 250-year supply of coal at current rates of consumption, but if it were used to make hydrogen on a scale to displace oil and natural gas in the transportation and energy sectors, the 250-year supply of coal would be used up in about 30 years, and the environmental impact from the strip mining alone would be devastating. Given these exponential consumption realities, the focus needs to be on manufacturing hydrogen from water with renewable energy resources and technologies, which is what photosynthetic green plants on the earth have been successfully doing on a global scale for over 3.5 billion years. Unlike oil and natural gas, the renewable energy technologies can not only make the U.S. energy independent, but also allow it to be transformed from the world's largest energy importer, to the world's largest energy exporter.

Referred to as "The Phoenix Project," this "transition of substance" calls for building and installing approximately 10 million wind-powered electrolysis systems to make the make the U.S. energy independent of all fossil and nuclear fuels. In addition, virtually every existing automotive and aircraft engine will need to be modified to use hydrogen fuel. Because hydrogen is renewable and pollution-free, Americans do not have to give up their large SUVs because it is not necessary to "conserve" hydrogen. Moreover, extensive field tests over many decades by NASA and BMW have shown hydrogen to be much safer than gasoline or other hydrocarbon fuels when leaks or accidents do occur. Even in the famous Hindenburg accident, if anyone bothers to read the actual accident report, they will find that two-thirds of the passengers and crew survived, and no one was burned to death from the enormous quantity of hydrogen onboard that was used as a lifting gas for the airship.

Wind Hydrogen Systems

Wind machines are currently the lowest-cost renewable energy technology that could be mass-produced for large-scale hydrogen production, and they alone could make the 100 quads of hydrogen needed to make the U.S. energy independent of all existing fossil and nuclear fuels. According to Harry's calculations, approximately 12 million one-megawatt wind machines would be required, and given that over 17 million cars and trucks are manufactured in the U.S. each year, the 10 million wind systems could easily be built and installed within a five or ten year period. The land that would be needed exists in abundance in America, where most ranchers will be able to earn more income from wind farming than they do with cattle or crops. Mass-producing wind electric systems for large-scale hydrogen production will employ millions of Americans and provide long-term economic security. Hydrogen is a critical element to make wind and other renewable energy technologies practical. This is because most renewable energy systems are intermittent in nature, which means that even at a good wind site, the wind only blows about one-third of the time, or most solar technologies (such as photovoltaic cells) only operate about 25 to 30 percent of the time because they are not able to function when the sun goes down. However, if the wind machines (which now produce electricity for far less cost than photovoltaic cells) are mass-produced for large-scale hydrogen production, their contribution can be increased from less than one percent of the total U.S. energy requirements, to over 100 percent!

Fair Accounting Act

The "trigger mechanism" for this "transition of substance" is the Fair Accounting Act legislation that is outlined in Chapter 9 of The Phoenix Project. The legislation would ideally eliminate the $150 billion a year in subsidies to fossil and nuclear fuel systems and factor in the external costs of energy, which include environmental degradation and climate change, the billions of dollars in health care costs that are the result of millions of people breathing unhealthy air everyday, corrosion to buildings and bridges and the military costs of protecting the remaining oil reserves in the Middle East. If this "fair accounting system" were used, taxes on a gallon of gasoline would be increased by at least $1.00 a gallon, which would then make hydrogen competitive with gasoline and other hydrocarbon fuels. Moreover, the funds raised by the Fair Accounting Act could then be returned to the consumers in the form of a tax credit to defer the cost of modifying their existing vehicle to use hydrogen fuel. As the fossil fuels are phased-out, so will the carbon tax imposed by the Fair Accounting Act.

While raising taxes of any type is a difficult challenge, it is worth noting that in countries such as the UK, France, Germany, Sweden, and Japan, fuel taxes of over $2.00 per gallon have been in effect for more than two decades. Ultimately, the bottom line is that if gasoline is less expensive at the pump than hydrogen, most consumers will continue to purchase gasoline. As such, tax policy dictates energy policy. Consumers need to understand that they are already paying well over the proposed $1.00 a gallon fair accounting tax in external energy costs. The only difference is that they are not paying the cost at the gas pump, but rather in their taxes, health care costs, and their day-to-day quality of life.

While the Bush administration is seeking to secure the remaining oil in the Middle East and find the last of the world's oil offshore and in the remaining wilderness areas, neither of these efforts will resolve the fact that the remaining global oil reserves are unsustainable. Moreover, even if the oil reserves were inexhaustible, their profoundly negative environmental impacts would still dictate a transition to a solar hydrogen energy system. Democrats are primarily focused on conserving the remaining oil by getting consumers to give up their Sport Utility Vehicles (all of which can be modified to use hydrogen), but neither party is talking about a wartime shift to wind-powered hydrogen production systems, that would fundamentally resolve many of the world's most serious energy, economic and environmental problems. We have found our civilization addicted to an "Oil Economy" that is highly polluting and rapidly diminishing, and we have the opportunity to replace it with a "Hydrogen Economy" that is inexhaustible and essentially pollution-free. However, this change in course needs to take place well before we hit the exponential icebergs that are closer than most people think.

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