Oil is the most convenient form of energy ever discovered, second only to nuclear fuels in its energy density. As a liquid, it’s easily stored, transported, and used. It’s wonderfully combustible, but with a high enough flashpoint that it doesn’t explode easily. Its complex hydrocarbon chains are the basis of the petrochemical industry, which uses oil and natural gas as a component in over half a million products, and each item is made with fossil fuel energy.
Basically, if you wanted to invent an ideal energy source, you’d create oil.
The infrastructure supporting oil use is huge, and not easily replaced. Trillions of dollars have been spent to build refineries, oil vessels, drilling rigs, the military air and naval fleets we use to ensure the oil keeps flowing, and the distribution system (i.e. pipelines, oil-delivery trucks, gas stations, etc). Not to mention the billions of cars, trucks, airplanes, and other combustion engine machines that use oil.
The energy to create all these combustion engine-driven machines — from the mining of metallic ores to fabrication — is monumental in scale as well. You can’t suddenly build a new fleet of solar, wind, coal, or nuclear driven tractors, trucks, and cars and billions of batteries, especially at a time when energy is growing more scarce and expensive.
It took us about 50 years for the world to switch from wood to coal, and another 50 years to switch from coal to oil. We have a very, very short time to try to switch to something else — less than a decade — and whatever we try to switch to won’t be as good as oil or we’d already be using it.
Since there is such a very short time left to make a transition, the energy source any expensive, large-scale project pursues must be able to be used in combustion engines. So solar, wind, nuclear and other sources of electricity are simply not of interest near-term, because they can not possibly be scaled up in the short time we have left to make the transition.
The problems with energy resources are listed below. While it may not seem fair that the bright side is left out, that’s all most people ever see – after all, there’s fame and fortune to be made from positive press releases. Negative results aren’t news, and across all fields of science are far less published than positive results.
There’s been a lot of debate about the technical hurdles to overcome – is there enough uranium, do biofuels have a positive net energy, etc., but there’s been very little discussion of the other hurdles.
Declining energy is only the tip of the iceberg. Population growth is at the heart of the converging issues that the Club of Rome models show bringing ecological collapse between 2020 and 2030. The convergence of global warming, depletion of fresh water, forests, soils, and fisheries; desertification, loss of biodiversity, and contamination of our air, water, and soil with toxins will overwhelm the ability of governments to cope.
There is no energy solution that can support the world’s current population, let alone a population that’s increasing.
Energy is the tipping point. We have already far overshot the carrying capacity of the planet, but cheap and plentiful energy has allowed us to work around many of these issues, for example, by pumping large amounts of clean water from 500 feet.
If it turns out that an alternative energy resource can exist without any fossil fuel inputs, and has a high enough energy content to do significant work, then that energy resource could sustain a certain population, but it will be a much lower number than the current fossil fuel-based civilization. Whatever this energy resource is, it would need to be composed of common metals (rare metals essential to making electronic and solar cells are running out faster than oil), and not much cement, which is highly energy intensive.
Garrett Hardin, in “The Ostrich Factor”, details how a state-level society could keep its population in check without the usual war, starvation, and disease.
The higher the population of a region when the “Limits to Growth” are reached, the harder the fall, and the more environmental damage done.
The environmental and scientific community has been shamefully silent on the issue of population. It’s way past time to speak out.
Even if a crisis strikes and democracy goes out the window while our government focuses on energy Manhattan projects, it’s not certain that enough public funding and private capital can be raised.
The people with real money aren’t going to invest in alternative energy. They wouldn’t be wealthy if they threw their money away on non-viable projects. Even if they’ve inherited their wealth and believe in perpetual motion, they have advisers who keep them out of trouble. They have viewpoints similar to Peter Huber’s: “For the next several decades at least, alternative energy sources aren’t serious choices; they are pork barrels, delusions, demonstration plants and daydreams. (Huber)
Global trade and just-in-time delivery have too many inter-dependencies which will be easily interrupted by wars, oil shocks, hurricanes, and other disruptions to build new power plants of any kind quickly. Time is critical. As Hirsch pointed out in his 2005 Peak oil study for the Department of Energy, you’d want to start preparing for Peak Oil at least twenty years ahead of time.
Politically, it will be hard to devote money and energy to new projects when people are freezing and hungry. The existing energy is likely to be diverted to agriculture and essential services, the way blood flows to your body’s core if you plunge into icy water.
All of these projects must be done in a time of increasing hardship, which means increasing crime, and the risk that key engineers will be hijacked or kidnapped, requiring local governments to divert increasing amounts of energy to maintaining order.
If wars are being fought over the remaining oil fields, and large naval fleets patrol the seas to prevent piracy and ensure the continued flow of oil, the military will use an increasingly large percentage of the available oil (Bucknell).
There’s a great deal of local opposition to building the following types of power facilities: LNG (Liquid Natural Gas), windmills, dams (hydropower), coal, and nuclear power.
If an enormous project to build new power plants were begun, there wouldn’t be enough engineers and other technical people to staff the projects. This is already a problem in oil and natural gas fields. The existing engineers will be busy keeping infrastructure like water and sewage treatment running.
Back in 1981, Commander Howard Bucknell III wrote that the public’s understanding of the energy situation was far removed from reality, because when given uncertain and contradictory information, the public believes what they want to believe.
The public and politicians have always blamed energy shortages on oil company conspiracies or outside enemies, which lessens the urgency to adapt.
Ninety percent of the public is scientifically illiterate, and when you combine that with the psychobabble of the Self-Help and Positive Thinking movements, the public is more likely to think of Peak Oil proponents as pessimists.
Scientists and engineers are paid to solve problems, so they tend to see energy problems as challenges that can be solved.
Finally, the implications are so depressing that very few people are willing to contemplate them, or they assume the problems will be solved by someone because human beings are so very clever.
Renewable Energy Sources
Renewable energy depends on non-renewable resources such as (rare) metals, wood, topsoil, and other non-renewable stuff that (topsoil takes 500 years or more to recover from agriculture). This stuff has to be mined, fabricated, and taken to the installation site. Desert solar and geothermal plants use more non-renewable groundwater than nature replenishes. The electricity generated is no longer renewable if it’s delivered across wilderness cut asunder with roads and clear-cut corridors for power-lines.
Nor is the life expectancy of solar panels or wind turbines very long — they don’t last close to as long as a conventional power plant. Dams silt up and use staggering amounts of concrete and steel to build.
The most important reason renewable energy sources will never be able to replace fossil fuels: the energy to build windmills, solar panels, and so on, takes more energy than what is delivered.
Take windmills for instance. When all of the oil is gone, windmills must make more windmills solely on windmill power. Windmill power must be stored to concentrate the power enough to do useful work. So right off the bat, windmills must not only be able to generate enough power to build mining equipment and factories to mine iron ore to make more windmills out of steel with, the windmill is also making batteries from start to finish. Plus all of the components of the electrical grid to deliver the windmill power to customers. All of the components need to be delivered, the people who make the components need to use windmill energy to get to work, and the windmills have of course, made all of the tractors, trains, trucks, and other components of agriculture so the windmill workers don’t go hungry. Now finally, if there’s any extra energy after all this energy expended to make more windmills, finally other people outside of the windmill industry can have some power.
Whatever problems fossil fuels might have, they contain orders of magnitude more energy than renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydrogen, and biomass. Replacing them with renewable energy sources has several major challenges:
1) The main problem facing us is the need for a liquid transportation fuel that can be used in existing vehicles. Solar, nuclear, wind, geothermal, wave, and tidal power don’t address this need.
2) Natural gas made nitrogen fertilizers have allowed up to five times as much food to be grown as could grown otherwise, and that plus mechanization from planting to harvesting, to storing of grain in massive granaries, and oil-based distribution and processing has allowed an extra four to six billion people to exist on the planet than could otherwise be supported. There are no renewable energy sources that can fertilize plants, except for guano, and there are very finite amounts of that. Bat guano used to be so important to farmers that the U.S. Congress passed the Guano Islands Act in 1856. This allowed U.S. citizens to take possession of any guano island in the world not already claimed by another government and empowered the U.S. military to protect them.
3) Most renewable energy (except oils from plants) can’t replace the half million products made from the complex hydro-carbon chains contained in fossil fuels, such as plastic, medicine, paint, pesticide, etc.
4) Renewables such as wind and solar are very diffuse and need large collection areas to capture their energy in real time.
Emergy – Embodied Solar Energy
Bruce Thomson’s definition:
“A solar embodied joule (sej) is one joule of ancient sunshine falling on the earth millions of years ago. The concept enables us to compare different fuels in terms of sun fall needed to produce them in the future when our underground stores of energy have all run out.
We are particularly interested in discovering whether technologies like windmills, solar photovoltaic plants, or other energy generation technologies will actually, in the future, deliver more energy in their whole-of-life than they require to create, maintain, and dispose of them.
It takes 50,000 joules of sunshine falling on plant material in ancient times to create the fossil fuel that today delivers one joule of energy in your fireplace or your car.
When you use the same fossil fuel to create electricity, the efficiency is not 100%. It works out that 170,000 joules of original sunshine are needed to deliver one joule of fossil-fuel based electric heating in your fireplace.
That’s what we mean when we say that the fuel “quality” (that is, the particular type of fuel), is important when trying to determine whether a desired technology is in fact sustainable in a non-fossil fuel future.
When we are adding up the “energy inputs” to the desired technology, we have to use the 50,000 multiplier for each joule of oil or coal or natural gas, but we have to use the 170,000 multiplier for each joule of fossil-based electricity we consume.
Once we have calculated the embodied ancient sunshine joules correctly for each type of input energy, then we can compare that with the output energy to see if we truly get more out than what went into it.
The fatal mistake in almost all net energy calculations in today’s literature, is that people totally disregard the multipliers.
They simply assume there will be joules of fossil fuel available, and count them in as single joules, without any thought that it takes 50,000 joules of solar energy to actually produce those fossil fuels.”
This is also a reason why biofuels are so energy intensive to make – you’re trying to do the work of condensing the energy in plant matter quickly, it’s inherently energy intensive.
Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI)
Do an internet search on this, so much has been written to explain it better than I care go to into. Basically the concept is simple: back when oil was first discovered, it took the equivalent of the energy in 1 barrel of oil to get 100 more barrels of oil. It’s as if you got $100 for every dollar you invested. Most of our infrastructure — clean water pipelines, energy oil and natural gas pipelines, dams, sewage treatment, roads, and so on where built when the EROEI of oil was very high. Now that we’re drilling in very deep offshore water and other remote places, the EROEI is reaching 10, when the price of oil is likely to skyrocket.
Energy Return on Time
Many psychology experiments have shown that people want less money now than more in the future, even if it’s only a 2 week wait. Investors in natural gas can get 70% of their money back in 2 years, versus having to wait 20 to 30 years to get their money back from wind power. No wonder there isn’t more wind power. Nate Hagens explains this in greater detail in Applying Time to Energy Analysis.
The best books and articles to understand in detail the problems with the various kinds of energy are:
- Martin Hoffert, et al 2002 Advanced Technology Paths to Global Climate Stability: Energy for a Greenhouse Planet, Vol 298
- Howard Hayden. 2005. The Solar Fraud: Why Solar Energy Won’t Run the World. Second Edition.
- Ted Trainer. 2010. Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society.
Bucknell III, Howard. 1981. Energy and the National Defense. University of Kentucky Press.
Huber, Peter. Nov 27, 2006. Love Uranium. Forbes.