23 January 2011

Why Johnny Can't Predict the Future

All Images: BP Energy Outlook_via_BitToothEnergy

Although the human brain is thought to be a prediction engine, there are limits to the predictive precision and accuracy of even the best human brains and brain products, eg computer models. If the brain or model uses faulty assumptions and data, the output prediction will fail.

BP recently released its annual Energy Outlook report, which projects the world energy future to the year 2030. The report was parsed most helpfully by the Bit Tooth Energy blog, with several images extracted from pdf to html format.

A number of things about the imaged predictions tend to jump off the page:
  • The extremely slow predicted growth for nuclear energy
  • The rate of growth of energy utilisation for undeveloped countries
  • The rate of expansion predicted for "biofuels"
...and a few other things best kept for future examination.
Notice the flat rate of growth for nuclear in the plot above. The best way to understand that prediction is to understand how much of a threat clean, cheap, and abundant nuclear energy poses to the petroleum industry overall. The rapid development of small modular reactors and molten salt reactors in particular, promise to make available huge quantities (trillions of barrels of oil equivalent) of bitumens and kerogens at a much lower cost than are presently feasible. Nuclear energy would also allow oil producing countries to export more oil which would otherwise be spent on cooling, desalination, and other electric power uses.
Notice the apparently rapid rise in biofuels supplies in the graph above. This prediction came as something of a surprise to many readers of the report, although Al Fin energy analysts believe that the prediction is a self-serving underestimate -- although not as blatant an underestimate as BP's nuclear power growth estimate.

Petroleum companies feel that they can live with ethanol as a fuel additive, and ethanol supply is mainly what is being predicted to rise in the graph above. Unfortunately for BP, by 2030 ethanol will be among the least of the biofuels. Ethanol is far inferior to butanol as a fermented biofuel. By 2020, methods for mass production of bio-butanol are very likely to begin to push bio-ethanol aside. In the same fashion, advanced hydro-treating of lipids along with Fischer-Tropsch fuels will produce far more valuable commercially available fuels than ethanol by 2020. Finally, microbial hydrocarbons should be ready to begin scaling up to industrial levels by 2020, with significant market impact by 2030.

So while BP predicts that biofuels as a whole will provide about 10% of liquid fuels by 2030, Al Fin analysts predict that (non-alcohol) microbial fuels alone will provide at least 10% of liquids by that date. Advanced hydrotreated biodiesels, F-T fuels, other advanced catalytic biofuels from bio-syngas and pyrolytis products, plus bio-alcohols will add at least another 10 to 20% of total liquids by 2030.

If you can imagine the impact that replacing 20% of petro-fuels by advanced renewable bio-fuels would have on world markets, you will have a small idea of how the established and highly centralised markets will be shaken by this simple trend alone. If you add to that the impacts from expanding nuclear, expanding shale oil & gas resources, and increasing use of coal to liquids and gas to liquids, and expansion of Canada's oil sands and Venzuela's heavy oils (after Chavez is ejected) -- your image will be closer to the truth, although still a likely underestimate of what is possible.

The US President is very strongly influenced by members of his administration with roots in the environmental movement. The environmental movement has been predicting catastrophic resource depletion, with associated economic ruin and mass human dieoff, for several decades now. Far wiser persons who have pointed out the fatal flaws in the environmentalist's predictive process have been largely ignored and scoffed at. And so we see US national energy and environmental policies being set and enforced by persons enmeshed in a system of thought that has invariably led to failed predictions of doom. The same is true for most European and Anglospheric nations.

If the developed world becomes hog-tied by regulations spurred by visions of doom and resource scarcity, we will fall into a self-fulfilling prophecy of energy starvation -- political peak oil. Political peak oil combined with the demographic contraction of Europeans, Koreans, Japanese, and other advanced cultures of high achievement -- the groups who have largely spurred technological improvement and the environmental improvements of the world from the mid 1900s onward -- the world will indeed be plunged into a serious state of turmoil.

Those optimistic predictions BP made regarding the rapid energy use growth in the undeveloped world, will surely fail in an environment of political peak oil, falling demographic global "smart fraction", and increased autocratic controls over most economic aspects of every person's life. The current president of the US is setting policies which lead unerringly toward that destination, and he is joined by most of the political leadership of the developed world.

Al Fin futurologists do not expect things to work out the way that the US revolutionary-in-chief intends. That is a good thing. Because there are actually revolutions which can lead the planet in a good direction. Revolutions which Mr. Obama will never be capable of comprehending.

It is not important that BP or any other institution or conglomerate be able to predict the future accurately, as a whole. It is only important that enough persons understand the mechanisms which drive innovation and human economic activity. Even if the masses continue to tend toward an Idiocracy, the competent cores of individuals with the better ideas will find ways to network and interact with each other.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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