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Fri Jan 11, 2013, 08:24 PM

Beyond Jevons: the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics - The Maximum Power Principle

I read a mention of the Maximum Power Principle on a mail list earlier today. It triggered an old unused memory of encountering the idea a few years ago, and in light of our recent discussions of the Jevons paradox I looked into it again. It's likely that this principle has much more to say about our society's use of energy and energy efficiency than Jevons.

Basically the principle says that those systems that use the most power (i.e. energy used to do useful work), and use it most efficiently, tend to prevail.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximum_power_principle
The maximum power principle has been proposed as the fourth principle of energetics in open system thermodynamics, where an example of an open system is a biological cell. According to Howard T. Odum (H.T.Odum 1995, p. 311), "The maximum power principle can be stated: During self-organization, system designs develop and prevail that maximize power intake, energy transformation, and those uses that reinforce production and efficiency."

The idea was developed first by Alfred Lotka in 1922 in an attempt to relate the evolution of biological systems to physical principles. Odum had this to say in 1970:

Lotka provided the theory of natural selection as a maximum power organizer; under competitive conditions systems are selected which use their energies in various structural-developing actions so as to maximize their use of available energies.

Whether or not the principle of maximum power efficiency can be considered the fourth law of thermodynamics and the fourth principle of energetics is moot. Nevertheless, H.T.Odum also proposed a corollary of maximum power as the organisational principle of evolution, describing the evolution of microbiological systems, economic systems, planetary systems, and astrophysical systems. He called this corollary the maximum empower principle.

Odum saw this principle as the ecological analog of Ohm's Law.

This prompts the thought that our civilization has evolved on the basis of this principle, which is effectively "built into" our very existence as organisms. We are predisposed to use all the energy we have available, and use it in the most efficient way possible, to meet the needs of society. Unfortunately, it also implies that it will be very difficult to achieve reductions in overall system-wide energy use, whether through efficiency or simple restraint. Since fossil fuels are the very essence of "available", we as organisms and as a civilization seem predisposed to use as much of them as we can get our hands on, so long as the need for energy remains.

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Reply Beyond Jevons: the Fourth Law of Thermodynamics - The Maximum Power Principle (Original post)
GliderGuider Jan 2013 OP
GliderGuider Jan 2013 #1
wtmusic Jan 2013 #2
GliderGuider Jan 2013 #3
wtmusic Jan 2013 #4
GliderGuider Jan 2013 #5
TheMadMonk Jan 2013 #6
GliderGuider Jan 2013 #8
LARED Jan 2013 #10
bananas Jan 2013 #19
bananas Jan 2013 #7
GliderGuider Jan 2013 #9
bananas Jan 2013 #18
CRH Jan 2013 #11
immoderate Jan 2013 #12
CRH Jan 2013 #14
GliderGuider Jan 2013 #13
CRH Jan 2013 #15
GliderGuider Jan 2013 #16
bananas Jan 2013 #17

Response to GliderGuider (Original post)

Fri Jan 11, 2013, 08:52 PM

1. More discussion of the MPP in and Jevons

http://prosperouswaydown.com/tag/maximum-power-principle/

Many in peak oil circles have fastened on the theory of a 19th century economist named Jevons to represent the idea that we will use any available, un-obligated energy. Jevons observed inductively that increasing the efficiency of coal led to wider uses in multiple industries, so in the long run, saving through efficiency in one place got offset by expanded uses later elsewhere. But the MPP takes it a step further deductively, explaining complexity in systems terms. If there is available energy, we will always opt to adapt ourselves and the system to maximize power inflows through self-organization of feedback loops, gathering energy and adding it to our hierarchy step by step, transforming simple systems into complex ones over time.

Technology is the name of the tools we build to help us to entrain more energy. If there is still surplus energy lying around available for collecting, then we will design one more iteration of software, derivatives, or iPhones to sell more stuff, create more wealth, and keep growing. Apple now suggests in ads that the laws of physics are just general guidelines that can be overcome. Perhaps there is some Faustian lesson here if we could only understand our hubris about technology.

In an earlier post I said that opting to worry about climate change instead of limits to growth allows us to believe that we can keep what we’ve got while also finding solutions for the problem through technology and markets, our two favorite religions. Technology and markets are mechanisms to harness and maximize power by entraining more and more energy into our market economy.

I have come to suspect that climate change articles that fail to suggest solutions are avoiding the subject because any real efforts to think logically about solutions eventually unearths the root cause of climate–growth. Increasingly, public debate has become a minefield of blindspots we have to dance around. If we step on a growth bomb or a nuclear meltdown, our rhetoric about our climate war with nature blows itself up. Ask yourself, What is the cause of climate change? Ask that question several times, until you get to the root cause. Source reduction is the only effective way to deal with industrial pollution. In order to manage inputs we must first recognize that we cannot return to economic growth. Source reduction is not compatible with capitalism, so this shift in policies would need a complete retooling of our cultural, social, and political systems.

I agree with Mary Logan on this. While climate change may be the proximate cause of the imminent immiseration of humanity and countless other species, the root cause is, and has always been, growth. And the urge to growth is bred in the bones of both man as biological organism, and civilization as the technological representation of us as a community of organisms.

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Response to GliderGuider (Original post)

Fri Jan 11, 2013, 09:40 PM

2. Some say we're hardwired for reproduction too

but everytime you see a pretty server at your favorite restaurant, do you hit on her? Why not?

It's not just humans either.

"Animal societies vary in structure from eusocial insect colonies with a single reproductive female supported by hundreds, thousands, or even millions of non-breeding workers, to cooperatively breeding groups of vertebrates with one or more breeders and a small number of non-breeding helpers. Given the diversity of social taxa, why do some species form complex societies, while other closely related species do not? Within these societies, why do some individuals attempt to reproduce, while others delay their own reproductive efforts to help raise the offspring of others? Determining the answers to these and other questions requires considering how and why groups form, and how individual behavioral roles are determined within groups."

Things are not nearly as simple as you make them out to be.

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Response to wtmusic (Reply #2)

Fri Jan 11, 2013, 09:47 PM

3. Things are not as complex as "some" make them out to be either.

Do you have a problem with looking for the organizing principles of human behaviour?

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #3)

Fri Jan 11, 2013, 10:06 PM

4. I've just pointed out that they're not nearly as simplistic as you portray them.

Are they?

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Response to wtmusic (Reply #4)

Fri Jan 11, 2013, 10:37 PM

5. There are simple laws underlying the universe.

That doesn't mean the universe is "simple". For example, F=MA is simple. Orbital mechanics are not, but when you dig down far enough, you find F=MA lurking there. If we don't understand the simple stuff we have no hope of understanding the complex stuff. MPP appears to be one of those underlying simplicities.

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Response to GliderGuider (Original post)

Sat Jan 12, 2013, 12:47 AM

6. Except that it's wrong.

 

Systems evolve to be as parsimonious as possible, not to be as efficient as possible.

Perfect efficiency fails the first time there's a shortfall of inputs.

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Response to TheMadMonk (Reply #6)

Sat Jan 12, 2013, 10:13 AM

8. Got support for that?

Odum's work, along with Daly's, basically spawned the entire field of ecological economics. If you're going to dismiss it, it would help to present some backup.

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Response to TheMadMonk (Reply #6)

Sat Jan 12, 2013, 10:31 AM

10. This particular theory is about self-organizing systems.

 

Generally organic social and biological system. I do not see parsimony as intrinsic to those systems.

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Response to LARED (Reply #10)

Thu Jan 24, 2013, 05:36 AM

19. Conscious systems evolve to be artistic, because life imitates art. nt

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Response to GliderGuider (Original post)

Sat Jan 12, 2013, 07:34 AM

7. A better analogy might be impedence matching. nt

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Response to bananas (Reply #7)

Sat Jan 12, 2013, 10:13 AM

9. After reading the piece below on efficiency and power I'm inclined to agree.

Last edited Sat Jan 12, 2013, 11:40 AM - Edit history (1)

Since impedance matching maximizes the power transfer there does seem to be a good analogy there.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #9)

Thu Jan 24, 2013, 03:51 AM

18. Cars have 3 gears because sometimes you want power, sometimes efficiency.

When you're merging onto the freeway, you want power.
Once you're at cruising speed, you want efficiency.

People who learned to drive with manual transmissions understand this intuitively,
people who learned to drive with automatic transmissions understand this cognatively,
without a firm intuitive grounding.


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Response to GliderGuider (Original post)

Sat Jan 12, 2013, 10:54 AM

11. For me, I would question the last paragraph of the OP, ...

My thoughts are that humans inefficient use of energy is a part of our larger problem.

Our use of energy has been fashioned around individual use rather than communal use. An example, everyone needs a car to go the the same place, our work centers. Therefore several thousand cars arrive within five miles of each other at the same time, with three empty seats. Another example, work schedules around fixed times rather than schedules designed to take advantage of natural light, temperature variations (hot/cold), etc. Individual rather than communal food services, laundry, etc.

Operating as groups we are still inefficient, individually were are beyond wasteful. The consumption - throwaway inertia, both as individuals and as a society has taken years to make a dent in the conservative use of power or materials. As a global community humans still are inefficient at conservation, sharing, and recycling, all needed for the efficiency Odum and Lotka propose. Other examples of specie evolution might illustrate this principle, but not humans individually or collectively, in their economics, social structures, lifestyles, or desires.

edit correct grammar

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Response to CRH (Reply #11)

Sat Jan 12, 2013, 11:11 AM

12. You are right. Nature seeks to "use up" energy. Efficiency is not a consideration.

If efficiency were a consideration, life would not exist, as it accelerates entropy.

--imm

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Response to immoderate (Reply #12)

Sat Jan 12, 2013, 11:28 AM

14. OOH, I like that, ...

"If efficiency were a consideration, life would not exist, as it accelerates entropy."

Food for thought that one! Thanks.

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Response to CRH (Reply #11)

Sat Jan 12, 2013, 11:27 AM

13. MPP and efficiency

http://www.eoearth.org/article/Maximum_power_principle



Odum used and elaborated Lotka’s energy principle as an evolutionary criterion in systems. He clearly differentiated between energy efficiency (the ratio of useful outputs over total inputs) in systems and power (the rate of doing useful work) and related these two concepts. As Figure 1 shows, at zero efficiency power is also zero because no work is being done. But at maximum efficiency, power again is zero because to achieve maximum efficiency one has to run processes reversibly, which for thermodynamic systems means infinitely slowly. Therefore the rate of doing work goes to zero. It is at some intermediate efficiency (where one is “wasting” a large percentage of the energy) that power is maximized.

The significance of this is that in systems (including both ecological and economic systems), those configurations that maximize power, not efficiency, will be at a selective advantage. Entropy dissipation is required for the survival of living systems and there are limits to the efficiency at which this can go on in dynamic adaptive systems. These efficiency limits are at a much lower levels than those theoretically possible at reversible (i.e., infinitely slow) rates. For example, real power plants operate much closer to the maximum power efficiency than to the maximum possible efficiency.

This would imply that the efficiency measures we talk about with respect to appliances and industrial processes are moving the process up the curve towards the optimum point in the middle rather than maximizing efficiency in a theoretical sense.

Like most things in life, it's all about achieving the right balance.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #13)

Sat Jan 12, 2013, 11:48 AM

15. Hi GG, it is not the theory I contend,

it is that as a civilization humans have succeeded in efficiency. If the global society is viewed as a system, and the global economy is viewed as a system, I think the test of efficiency, fails.

Just my opinion. The global organization of industry, to grow cotton in Mississippi to ship to china to process into clothes to ship to Mississippi to sell, is only efficient in capturing industrial corporate profit.

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Response to CRH (Reply #15)

Sat Jan 12, 2013, 12:16 PM

16. I guess I agree, but I don't see the conclusion that might follow

Last edited Sat Jan 12, 2013, 12:51 PM - Edit history (1)

If we are on the rising part of that curve before power is maximized, then increasing our efficiency is moving us up the curve and enabling more power to be dissipated in doing "useful" work. My concern is that increasing the amount of human-useful work we can do with each unit of energy simply increases the rate at which we degrade the rest of the world.

My mother had a firm belief that what the world needed was less efficiency. From her social-justice point of view the value of inefficiency was that it put more jobs in the hands of the local working class. But at lower efficiency levels we also do less overall damage to the planet because we harness less power.

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Response to GliderGuider (Reply #16)

Thu Jan 24, 2013, 03:48 AM

17. My mother used to say the same thing.

And I largely agreed with her.

I don't have kids of my own, but one of my elder brothers said her social justice perspective had an extremely beneficial effect on his kids.

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