- Sukey Watson-Thomas on About
- Sheila Chambers on Patzek: CTL coal-to-liquids from FT Synthesis is NOT likely to happen
- Carrie Hampel on Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System. National Academy of Sciences.
- energyskeptic on David Fleming. 2007. The Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy. A Life-Cycle in Trouble
- Keith Pickering on David Fleming. 2007. The Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy. A Life-Cycle in Trouble
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Tag Archives: peak oil
Converging Energy Crises – And How our Current Situation Differs from the Past May 29, 2014 by Gail Tverberg At the Age of Limits Conference, I gave a talk called Converging Crises (PDF), talking about the crises facing us as we reach energy … Continue reading
I intend to show why oil can’t be replaced by alternative energy, and why the peaking of oil means the peaking of all other resources from coal and natural gas to solar, wind, nuclear, the electric grid, concrete, plastics, pesticides, fertilizers, microchips, electronic goods, the internet, roads, railroads, ships, trucks, and every other manufactured object, because they all depend on oil throughout their life cycle. Half a million are even made out of oil. Some some are made from oil, some run on oil only, and all depend on oil from mining and crushing of ore to fabrication, and are delivered by diesel-fueled combustion engines over roads mad with and from (asphalt/bitumen) oil.
There’s a bright side. The end of the oil age means the end of climate change. The odds are very good we won’t drive ourselves and millions of other species extinct.
Only with engines equivalent to trillions of horses, but far heavier and more destructive could we so quickly and easily devour forests, fisheries, aquifers, mine topsoil, and pollute. Combustion engines magnify what muscle power can do trillions-fold.
1) First you need to know how much fossil fuel energy is burned so you know how much alternative energy you need to build to replace it:
In 2013, the United States burned 96.5 quads (96.5 quadrillion BTU’s) of energy a year, 84% was fossil fuels: 36 petroleum, 26 natural gas, 18.5 coal. In 2013, the United States generated about 4,058 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, 67% from fossil fuels (coal 39%, natural gas 27%, and petroleum 1%). Other Energy sources percent share: Nuclear 19%, Hydropower 7%, Biomass 1.48%, Geothermal 0.41%, Solar 0.23%, Wind 4.13%
That is an awful lot of fossil fuel to replace!
2) Second, you need to prioritize. THIS IS A LIQUIDS FUEL CRISIS since 98% of transportation runs on oil, and nearly 100% of essential vehicles run on diesel: Farm tractors, ships, barges, freight trucks, and freight trains. A replacement fuel for these essential vehicles is the #1 priority, because these machines grow, harvest, and distribute food and all other essential goods.
Petroleum supplies 98% of the energy used in transportation (biofuels just 2%). Diesel-combustion engines do all of the essential work of society and can only burn diesel fuel refined from petroleum. These billions of diesel-engine-powered vehicles represent trillions of dollars of investment with lifespans of 20 to 40 years, so you can’t just wave a magic wand and instantly replace them. Many use the interstate highway system and other roads where they can refuel at hundreds of thousands of gas stations connected by millions of miles of pipelines, all of which need to be replaced with the mysterious new alternative fuel source. In addition:
- Highways and Roads will last 20 years at most
- the Interstate Highway system is perhaps the largest waste of investment in human history
- A Century from Now Concrete Will be Nothing But Rubble
- It takes decades to replace fleets of vehicles, which also suffer from the potential of a shortage of resources such as rare earth metals and the energy required to mine ore and fabricate the vehicle itself (Hirsch 2005).
- Energy Collapse – Peak Oil, Painful Withdrawal
Clearly we can’t continue to depend on oil. The United States has only 2% of global oil reserves, most of which are difficult and expensive to extract. The rest of the world can maintain its current production of conventional crude oil from known reserves 4 times longer than the United States (hence our gigantic military so we can be the “Last Man Standing” anyhow). All fossil fuels have peaked world-wide (oil), probably coal, and soon natural gas.
3) We can’t electrify the transportation that matters most: medium and heavy trucks, tractors and harvesters, ships, mining equipment, etc.
Batteries and fuel cells aren’t energy carriers – they store the electrical energy generated mainly by carbon-dioxide producing and non-renewable natural gas and coal.
Diesel & gasoline (46 MJ/kg) have up to 92 times the energy density of a lithium battery and 271 times the energy density of a lead-acid battery.
A truck can’t move with a battery 92 to 271 times the size of its current diesel-fuel containing tank.
The maximum possible energy density a perfected battery could hold is 3 MJ/kg, which is still 15.3 times less than diesel or gasoline, and therefore you’d still need a “gas” tank 15.3 times larger.
And the lifespan of batteries isn’t nearly as long as diesel engines.
We’ve already sunk many trillions of dollars into 136 million cars, 110 million trucks, and 1 million buses served by 159,006 gas stations (NAS 2013). It would take 12 to 30 years to replace such a huge fleet with alternative vehicles. There is no enormously enlarged electric grid and battery exchange system in place for an electric fleet (so that vehicles don’t need to wait 8 hours to have their battery recharged) to replace the existing 159,006 gas stations, many of which have oil delivered cheaply via part of the 1.5 million miles of oil and gas pipelines in the United States (NAS 2010).
4) Scale. World-wide, we burn 1 cubic mile of oil a year. Here’s what you’d need to do to replace that energy
Allowing fifty years to develop the requisite capacity, 1 CMO of energy per year could be produced by any one of these developments (source Joules, BTUs, Quads-Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off – IEEE Spectrum):
- 4 Three Gorges Dams,developed each year for 50 years (18 gigawatts), or
- 52 nuclear power plants, developed each year for 50 years (1.1 gigawatts, such as the Diablo Canyon Power Plant), or
- 104 coal-fired power plants,developed each year for 50 years (500 MegaWatts), or
- 32,850 wind turbines, developed each year for 50 years (large turbines with 70-100 meter blade span, rated at 1.65 MW, i.e. General Electric Wind Turbines), or
- 91,250,000 rooftop solar photovoltaic panels developed each year for 50 years (a typical 2.1 kW panel)
Cubic miles of oil (CMO): only 100 CMO that ever existed. We have used 50 CMOs so far, with 50 left, but the last 50 are dregs, nasty stuff hard to get out and remote, and population is growing exponentially still, so demand is going up — meaning we have less than 50 years left to transition to other energy sources.
Scaling up dams would displace millions of people and there aren’t very many rivers left to dam in the world.
5) Energy Density
Oil is a butter fried steak wrapped in bacon. Solar, Wind, and most other alternative energy resources are lettuce. You’d get all of your 2,000 calories a day from one and a quarter pounds of bacon-wrapped steak, versus 31 pounds of lettuce.
Oil is second only to uranium in energy density.
Diesel & gasoline (46 MJ/kg) have 25 to 92 times the energy density of a lithium battery (depending on the battery) and 271 times the energy density of a lead-acid battery. The maximum possible energy density a perfected battery could hold is 3 MJ/kg, which is still 15.3 times less than diesel or gasoline.
Here’s another way to look at energy density: A gallon of gas comes from 100 tons of prehistoric plant matter (40 acres of wheat), condensed like moonshine over millions of years into the densest form of solar energy on the planet. If you look at just the gasoline consumed every year in America, 131 billion gallons, that’s equal to 25 quadrillion pounds of prehistoric biomass.
6) Oil’s high energy density means we can not electrify tractors, trucks, and other essential vehicles
The weight of the battery or fuel cell would be so heavy the tractor couldn’t move. If the truck can move, it won’t have room for cargo. This is why you don’t ever hear about electric trucks, electric farm tractors or harvesters, electric ore mining vehicles, and so on.
And where would the electricity come from to charge battery powered vehicles? Mostly from coal and natural gas, where two-thirds of the energy contained is lost as heat, and another 10% lost over transmission lines.
Oil has 3 times the energy density of plant biomass by weight, and 5 times more by volume.
7) Fossil fuels not only provide the energy to make goods, they are also physically used as a feedstock in over 500,000 products — the basis of the petrochemical industry
We will need an alternative energy resource which can also replace the half-million products made from petroleum, natural gas, and coal, such as:
Ink, Hand lotion, Nail polish, Heart valves, Toothbrushes, Dashboards, Crayons, Toothpaste, Luggage, Parachutes, Guitar strings, DVDs, Enamel, Movie film, Balloons, Antiseptics, Paint brushes, Purses, Sunglasses, Footballs, Deodorant, Glue, Dyes, Pantyhose, Artificial limbs, Oil filters, Ballpoint pens, Skis, Pajamas, Golf balls, Perfumes, Cassettes, Contact lenses, Shoe polish, Fishing rods, Dice, Fertilizers, Electrical tape, Trash bags, Insecticides, Floor wax, Shampoo, Cold cream, Tires, Cameras, Detergents (need.org)
Medicines: aspirin is produced from phenol, a petroleum-based molecule, Some antibiotics are produced through fermentation of esters and alcohols, and nitrogen mustard is made from propylene glycol, all of which derive from petroleum. Many antihistamines, antibiotics, antineoplastics, and psychoactive medications are made from phenols, acids, anhydrides, alkanoamines, and aldehydes, which are made from petroleum feedstocks. Celluloses and polymers—some from petroleum—are needed for both tablet binders and pill coatings, and petroleum-based molecules are used to make the plastic bottles and safety caps in which medicines are packaged. Anything plastic. Polyesters, vinyl chloride, polystyrenes, acetone, epoxy resins, polycarbonate, acrylic polymers, synthetic rubber, epoxy resins, nylons. Many pharmaceuticals, textile fibers, lubricants, pesticides, fertilizers, cleaners, and other products are made from petrochemicals (Frumkin).
8) If you wanted to invent an ideal energy source, you’d make oil
Oil has extremely high energy density, and is the most convenient form of energy ever discovered. 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.
Oil is a liquid, easily transported in pipelines (by far the least energy to move versus rail, truck, or ship). It takes very little time to pour gas or diesel into a vehicle gas tank. Compared to natural gas or hydrogen, petroleum takes up very little space.
Solids like wood, coal, oil shale, and biomass can’t be put into a pipeline (the cheapest way to move energy), and it takes energy to convert them to a liquid fuel. They’re less convenient to transport than a liquid or gas.
Gases take up so much space, you need to compress them, and that takes both a lot of energy and time.
Energy from wind or solar can’t easily be transported, first you have to build apparatus to harness the wind or sun, then you have to converted the energy to something that can travel, such as electricity, which requires an expensive electric grid.
For the first time, the world must move to energy sources that are far less useful and convenient than fossil fuels. “Up to now, we’ve always gone to a better fuel,” notes economist Robert Kaufmann of Boston University (BU). And oil has proved the best of the better. Compared with wood, coal, or gas, it is a great fuel, densely packed with energy, easily transported and stored, and efficient at releasing its energy in modern engines. Renewables are another matter. Fuel sources like corn kernels or wood chips tend to be bulky. Their energy content is diffuse. Planting energy crops and building solar or wind farms is a land-hungry process, and the energy they deliver is often intermittent and hard to store. You can’t run airplanes or cars on photovoltaics” (Kerr).
“Human history has been about the progressive development and use of ever higher quality fuels, from human muscle power to draft animals to water power to coal to petroleum. Nuclear at one time seemed to be a continuation of that trend, but that is a hard argument to make today. Perhaps our major question is whether petroleum represents but a step in this continuing process of higher quality fuel sources or rather is the highest quality fuel we will ever have on a large scale.” (Hall)
9) Alternative energy resources are dependent on fossil fuels from start to finish and beyond — operations & maintenance
For example, consider a windmill. A windmill farm in the Escalante desert, built to produce 5.55 TWh of power, would require 13.8 million pounds of aluminum, 2.8 trillion pounds of concrete, 639 billion pounds of steel, etc. The wind farm would occupy over 189 square miles. In 1992 dollars such a wind farm would cost $200 million, which doesn’t include labor, future operational, and maintenance costs, and would serve less than 1% of the United States population (Pacca)
After fossil fuels are gone, the windmills must be able to generate enough energy to maintain themselves and reproduce new windmills, including all of the equipment and tools used to mine the metal and concrete, forge metal into blades and towers, the energy need to deliver by railroad or truck and build those railroads, trucks, and the roads the trucks drive on to deliver the windmills to be delivered to their sites. Windmill energy must also provide the energy to build and maintain the electric grid and storage infrastructure, and all of the workers involved in the process. Any extra energy generated beyond these needs can now be used to run the rest civilization.
10) At the heart of our dilemma is the fact that Oil is the MASTER RESOURCE that UNLOCKS ALL OTHER RESOURCES.
The dependencies of the windmills above are true of every other product, exploitation of any other kind of resource, and all of our infrastructure.
- As long as you have oil, you have fresh water, because you can drill down and pump it up from 500 feet below.
- As long as you have oil, you can find the last remaining schools of fish with spotter planes and sonar in the most distant parts of the globe and scoop them all up.
- As long as there is oil, you can make cement, plastic, steel, computer chips, mine lithium, uranium, rare earth metals, and all the other essential components of alternative energy “solutions”.
- As long as there is oil, you can grow, harvest, distribute, shop for, and cook food.
The electric grid couldn’t exist without oil, yet neither can oil live without electricity — refineries depend on it. Just as oil is about to decline, so too is the grid, neglected after deregulation when repair money went to CEO pay and shareholder’s pockets instead. If that doesn’t kill the grid, the Chinese will, should we ever try to oppose any of their plans, such as drilling for oil in the South Seas despite other nations claims (as is happening near Vietnam now). In war games where the United States Navy intervenes in such a situation, we lose every time, because we know the Chinese have planted logic bombs in the software that runs the grid and can easily take it down, or crash the stock market, derail our trains, blow up our refineries or chemical plants.
11) TIME. You’d want to understand how long it would take to convert from fossil fuels to something else so you could start enough ahead of time to avoid war and social chaos over the remaining resources
The Department of Energy paid Robert Hirsch to do a Peak Oil study in 2005. Hirsch concluded you’d want to start at least 10, or better yet, 20 years ahead of time before peak oil to prepare for the transition to other energy resources.
Conventional oil peaked world-wide in 2005 (Kerr 2011, Murray, IEA World Energy Outlook 2010) and we’ve been on a plateau ever since then. We don’t have 10 or 20 years. Unconventional oil is nasty, heavy, difficult and very expensive to get at and has a very slow rate of flow — very soon (between 2015-2020) it will not be able to make up for the decline rate of conventional oil.
Since there is no 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 replace the fleets of trucks, tractors, trains, ships, barges, mining equipment, and other combustion engines that do the work of society.
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’s not hard to imagine how wars could break out over the remaining oil given that 83% of reserves are in Russia or OPEC.
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 no time to try to switch to something else. And nothing would be as good as oil or we’d already be using it.
“Energy and money are not the only critical aspects of development of energy alternatives. Recent work by Hirsch et al. (2005) has focused on the investments in time that might be needed to generate some kind of replacement for oil, should that be possible and peak oil occur. They examined what they thought might be the leading alternatives to provide the US with liquid fuel or lower liquid fuel use alternatives, including tar sands, oil shales, deep water petroleum, biodiesel, high MPG automobiles and trucks and so on. They assumed that these technologies would work (a bold assumption) and that an amount of investment capital equal to “many Manhattan projects” would be available. they found that the critical resource was time — once we decided that we needed to make up for the decline in oil availability these projects would need to be started one or preferably two decades in advance of the peak for there not to be severe dislocations to the US economy. Given our current petroleum dependence, the rather unattractive aspects of many of the available alternatives, and the long lead time required to change our energy strategy the investment options are not obvious. This, we believe, may be the most important issue facing the United States at this time: where should we invest our remaining high quality petroleum (and coal) with an eye toward insuring that we can meet the energy needs of the future. We do not believe that markets can solve this problem alone or perhaps at all. Research money for good energy analysis unconnected to this or that “solution” simply are not available” (Hall).
The only transportation fuel a National Academy of Sciences report in 2009 could come up with to replace some of the oil we burn every day was a crash course to build liquified coal plants immediately and grow them at 20% per year so we could produce 3 million barrels a day by 2035, about 15% of what we burned in 2007. If we wanted to product 5 million barrels a day we’d need 700 million tons of coal a year — 70% more than we consumed in 2009. That in turn would require a huge investment and expansion of coal mines and transportation infrastructure to get coal to liquefaction plants and deliver the liquid coal to fueling stations. Meanwhile, many electric power plants depend on coal and would be competing for any coal produced (NAS 2009).
12) Why we can NOT substitute natural gas, liquefied coal, tar sands oil, and other liquid fuels for diesel
Not enough Natural Gas to use for Transportation
The NAS noted that we don’t have enough natural-gas to use as a feedstock for transportation-fuel production. So we’d have to import it and we don’t have the infrastructure to do that or distribute it. We also increasingly are using natural gas for electricity production and to keep the grid from blowing up from intermittent alternative energy like wind and solar with NGCC plants. At best we have enough NG to fuel 1/5 to 1/4 of transportation from our NG reserves, and it would take a tremendous amount of investment in a new distribution infrastructure and fleet of NG vehicles. Natural Gas vehicles aren’t a solution — there aren’t enough fueling stations, and the tanks take up most of the trunk space, their range is at best 100-150 miles, and the public thinks of natural gas as too explosive.
We don’t know how to do this, all projects have been defunded, and even if we did, at least 40% of the energy contained in the coal would be diverted to removing the carbon dioxide, leaving only 60% to do work. Probably even more coal would be mined to make up for the 40% loss, leading to tremendous environmental damage.
Why GTL and CNG from Natural Gas (or coal, etc.) won’t work
Neither GTL (gas to liquids) diesel or Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) possible unless an abundant and inexpensive source of natural gas were found (NAS 2009).
Compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) are currently being explored as alternatives to diesel fuel for trucking fleets, and both have significant drawbacks compared to DME. CNG engines, though well suited for medium-duty short haul applications, have proven inadequate for heavy-duty long haul commercial trucking. Poor fuel economy limits the range of CNG trucks, thus requiring more fuel stops and resulting in a less productive truck fleet. Also, CNG fueling requires the installation and running at fueling stations of costly and energy intensive gas compressors that pressurize on-board CNG fuel tanks up to the 3000 to 3600 psi required.
LNG, though capable of producing the power required for long haul trucking, also suffers from significant drawbacks. As with gasoline and CNG engines, LNG engines require spark ignition systems for combustion and therefore lack the fuel efficiency of compression engines burning diesel or DME. Furthermore, the need to store LNG at temperatures below -260 0F doubles the cost of fuel tankers for transportation and more than quadruples the cost of on-board fuel tanks on the trucks themselves, leading to higher costs and therefore lower operating margins for commercial carriers. Because fuel tank temperatures vary as trucks travel, fuel must be vented from the LNG tank into the environment in order to maintain a safe tank pressure and proper system operation
Dimethyl ether (DME)
The reason there’s excitement over DME is that it can be burned in diesel engines, which do the real essential work of society. Tractors, harvesters, trucks, mining equipment, and other diesel vehicles can’t be electrified with batteries or fuels cells since these weigh too much (per kg, oil has 91 times as much energy as a lithium battery of the same weight).
DME has about half the energy content of diesel fuel, so a truck will have to carry about twice the amount of DME for a given range – a penalty that’s worse with CNG and LNG. Two gallons of DME weigh 11 pounds compared to diesel’s 7.5 pounds, so a DME-fueled truck or tractor will be heavier than a diesel-fueled truck, and is better suited to local than long-haul distances. Diesel engines need a special injection system and different cylinder heads to handle the high fuel flow of DME, and steel fuel tanks to store it aboard a truck.
There are many problems with DME, the main one being that it’s seen as a way to convert our limitless supplies of natural gas into something diesel engines can burn now that we’re energy independent. But of course, fracking has only let us import a little less oil and delayed peak natural gas for a few years. DME can also be made from coal, but we are at peak coal too.
The refining process from natural gas to DME may have too high an EROEI as well. As with other gas-to-liquids processes, the first step is conversion to syngas, a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. This syngas is then synthesized into methanol. Finally, DME is produced through a methanol dehydration reaction.
Dimethyl ether (DME) is not suitable for gasoline engines because of its high cetane number, but it can run a diesel engine with little modification. The primary challenge facing the use of DME is the lack of an infrastructure for distribution. Other disadvantages include low viscosity, poor lubricity, a propensity to swell rubber and cause leaks, and lower heating value compared with conventional diesel (NAS 2009).
DME costs twice as much to make as methanol (which is an intermediate product in the methane-to-DME refining process), and is also more expensive to make than diesel fuel, so refiners prefer to sell methanol. DME is mainly used as aerosol propellant to replace chloroflurocarbons in paints and cosmetics. World-wide production of DME in the world is less than 150,000 tons per year.
No matter how promising DME might be it’s not easy to compete with diesel, which is available everywhere from the existing distribution infrastructure.
Declining energy is only the tip of the iceberg. Population growth is at the heart of the converging issues that the Club of Rome “Limits to Growth” 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, which further lowers carrying capacity.
The environmental and scientific community has been shamefully silent on the issue of population. It’s way past time to speak out.
The cost to vastly increase the electric grid, build windmills, solar, and so on is far beyond our ability to pay for – hundreds of trillions of dollars, who is going to lend us that much money? Can we afford all the mineral and metals required? Many of the resources we need are also at peak, such as: minerals, metals, platinum group metals, lithium, copper, helium, steel, sand, to make all these things, or whether China, which controls many essential rare minerals and metals, would sell them to us, or if we could afford to buy them.
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.
One reason political and economic leaders aren’t talking about peak oil is that it would likely bring on a world-wide stock market crash. Given the lack of reforms, corruption, and unfunded liabilities, it’s likely to come down on its own even without that trigger.
Most oil and natural gas companies depend on borrowing money to explore and drill. Even companies with large cash balances may not be able to function in the world-wide depression after a financial crash, because supply chains will be broken as businesses and nations fail, and shipping grinds to a halt.
After the peak price of $147 for oil, declining demand and prices has led to a significant drop in investment in exploration and production, guaranteeing oil shocks in the future.
Politically, it will be hard to devote money and energy to new projects when people are freezing and hungry, and the political system is so dysfunctional and polarized and too complex with too many problems to solve all at once. If any sense or competence remains, perhaps locally or regionally, the existing energy is likely to be diverted to agriculture and essential services.
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. Ninety percent of the public is scientifically illiterate.
The public and politicians have always blamed energy shortages on oil company conspiracies or outside enemies, which lessens the urgency to adapt.
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.
When the crunch hits, there is likely to be so much fear, mass migrations to cope with (i.e. people will want to move to California for warmth and food, states that still produce energy, grow food), social chaos, crime, and so on, that energy will be devoted to maintaining order that could have been used to train people with the new skills needed to adapt to a lower energy future, insulate buildings and homes, and so on.
If sense doesn’t prevail, the oil will be diverted to fight wars over the remaining oil fields (Bucknell). World War II was all about oil grabs by Germany (Russia’s oil), and Japan (Indonesial Oil), as Daniel Yergin describes in his Pulitzer prize winning book The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power. Also see Michael Klare’s Resource Wars:The New Landscape of Global Conflict.
Refineries are easy targets and take 5 to 7 years to build, war could bring every nation to its knees if widespread enough. Even though the United States has 2% of world oil reserves, we won’t be able to use it if our refineries are blown up, or our infrastructure, especially the electric grid, is brought down in cyber warfare.
Alternative Energy Sources
- David Fridley, LBNL scientist
- No single or combination of alternative energy resources can replace fossil fuels
- Wind & Solar need thousands of tons of steel, aluminum, cement, concrete, copper but produce little energy
- High-Tech can’t last: Limited minerals & metals essential for wind, solar, microchips, cars, & other high-tech gadgets
- Alternative Energy Reading List
- Heinberg, Richard. September 2009. Searching for a Miracle. “Net Energy” Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society. Post Carbon Instutite. Heinberg concludes there will be no combination of alternative energy solutions that might enable the long term continuation of economic growth, or of industrial societies in their present form and scale.
1) Renewables are INTERMITTENT and UNRELIABLE
Renewables are far worse off than fossil fuels and even wood when it comes to another crucial energy quality: continuity of supply. A coal-fired power plant can be cranked up as needed; not so sun or wind.
Coal-fired, gas-fired, or nuclear power plants operate 75% to 90% of the time. But wind turbines typically operate between 20 and 35% of the time. The sun is always unavailable half the time, plus whenever there’s cloud cover.
Often wind power or solar power is generated when it is least needed, wind power at night, and solar power much less in the winter when there’s both less sunshine and the angle of the sun generate less power.
Worse yet, building wind and solar doesn’t mean you can get rid of coal, natural gas, or nuclear power plants at all. In fact, often utilities have to build natural gas combined cycle plants to quickly kick in to make up for the power lost when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining.
Wind and solar make the grid LESS RELIABLE:
“Within minutes of wind or solar disappearing, a thousand megawatts of electricity — the output of a nuclear reactor — can disappear and threaten stability of the grid. To avoid that calamity, fossil fuel plants have to be ready to generate electricity in mere seconds. That requires turbines to be hot and spinning, but not producing much electricity until complex data networks detect a sudden drop in the output of renewables. Then, computerized switches are thrown and the turbines roar to life, delivering power just in time to avoid potential blackouts. The state’s electricity system can handle the fluctuations from existing renewable output, but by 2020 vast wind and solar complexes will sprawl across the state, and the problem will become more severe.”
Renewable energy adds unprecedented levels of stress to a grid designed for the previous century. Green energy is the least predictable kind. “The grid was not built for renewables,” said Trieu Mai, senior analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The role of the grid is to keep the supply of power steady and predictable. Engineers carefully calibrate how much juice to feed into the system as everything from porch lights to factory machines are switched on and off. The balancing requires painstaking precision. A momentary overload can crash the system (Halper).
Engineers haven’t yet developed energy storage devices suitable for storing solar and wind power, and they would add to the ultimate cost.
Many of the windiest and sunny regions in the world are virtually uninhabited, so electricity would have to be moved long distances to cities. The same patchiness holds for other renewables, from geothermal to hydro energy. For biomass, everyone has some arable land for growing energy crops, but much of it is already spoken for. And even if the land were available, energy crop yields would fall short of the need.
Check out this post by Roger Andrews, Renewable Energy Growth in Perspective, which shows how insignificant wind and solar are in the amount of overall energy used by society (and hydro and geothermal as well).
The “sobering reality,” Smil says, is that there is only one renewable—solar energy—that could by itself meet future energy demands. Wind power could conceivably make a significant contribution, but the rest—hydro, biomass, ocean waves, geothermal, ocean currents, and ocean thermal differences—would provide just one-tenth to one-ten-thousandth of today’s energy output from fossil fuels. So the bulk of the burden will fall on solar, but turning the sun’s rays into useful energy has a long way to go, Smil notes. Today, photovoltaic electricity accounts for less than 0.1% of the world’s electricity. Solar heating, such as solar water heaters, accounts for less than 0.1% of total global energy production. Such numbers would have to grow rapidly for a long time to make a difference, but renewables’ handicaps do not bode well for speeding up the next energy transition. Fossil fuels “were phenomenally attractive,” yet it still took 50 to 70 years to bring them into widespread use, says IIASA’s Grübler. That’s because, no matter how attractive a fuel might be, it takes time to create the infrastructure for extracting and transporting the resource, converting it into a usable form, and conveying it to the end user. It also takes time for inventors to develop enduse technologies—such as steam engines, internal combustion engines, and gas turbines—and for consumers to adopt them and create demand. Renewables “will be slower because they’re less attractive,” says Grübler. “They don’t offer new services; they just cost more.” (Kerr)
4) Dependence on other stuff
You have to build windmills to harness wind, solar plants to harness solar power. These apparatus need all kinds of materials depleting faster than even oil, coal, and natural gas. There isn’t a single object or step that doesn’t have fossil fuel inputs – ore is mined with ore trucks, crushed to extract the ore, smelted, fabricated, delivered.
5) Environmental Impact
Biofuels deplete topsoil and aquifers, nuclear energy plants can melt down and there’s nowhere to put the waste, dams displace people, mining the metals for wind and solar PV harm the environment, and so on. Dams emit a lot of carbon dioxide during construction from the massive use of cement, methane is released from drowned plants, habitat is destroyed, water quality changes, gravel and sand are trapped behind the dam walls, affecting beaches, estuaries, and rivers downstream, prevent salmon from spawning, and so on. Any kind of reactor that uses water to cool down with (coal, nuclear) heats the water which can harm the habitat.
6) Is the resource renewable?
What’s the point in replacing fossil fuels with something temporary? We want something sustainable that will last forever. Wind and sunlight are renewable, but the equipment to capture the wind and sunshine are not renewable, because the equipment requires non-renewable metals, minerals, and significant amounts of non-renewable oil, coal, and natural gas to make.
Wood is renewable, but only if not too much is harvested. John Perlin documents many civilizations that fell because they harvested too much wood in his wonderful book “A Forest Journey: The Role of Wood in the Development of Civilization”
7) Scale — see #3 above – there is nothing we could build that would replace a cubic mile of oil every year
8) Is the resource close enough to get?
We’ve built millions of miles of natural gas pipelines at over a million dollars per mile. There are a lot of natural gas reservoirs we’d love to exploit, but it would cost too much to run pipelines to them, more than what the natural gas could be sold for.
Most of our wind is in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota, far from the big cities where people live. The cost of harvesting wind in these states and building up the electric grid to deliver the electricity is simply too much money, plus 10% of the electricity is lost as it travels such long distances. And as we heat up from climate change, the risk of the wires starting forest fires grows.
Solar power is best in the far Southwest, again, far from the main population centers (except for southern California and Arizona).
Most of the power from the ocean (Wave, Tide, Ocean Current, OTEC) or rivers is too far to hook up to the electric power grid (and vulnerable to corrosion, hurricanes, large waves, bio-fouling, high capital costs, etc).
9) Energy Density (also see #4 above)
Weight density. An electric battery typically is able to store and deliver only about 0.1 to 0.5 MJ/kg, and this is why electric batteries are problematic in transport applications: they are very heavy in relation to their energy output. Thus electric cars tend to have limited driving ranges.
Volume (or Volumetric) Density This refers to the amount of energy that can be derived from a given volume unit of an energy resource (e.g., MJ per liter). Obviously, gaseous fuels will tend to have lower volumetric energy density than solid or liquid fuels. Natural gas has about .035 MJ per liter at sea level atmospheric pressure, and 6.2 MJ/l when pressurized to 200 atmospheres. Oil, though, can deliver about 37 MJ/l. In most instances, weight density is more important than volume density; however, for certain applications the latter can be decisive. For example, fueling airliners with hydrogen, which has high energy density by weight, would be problematic because it is a highly diffuse gas at common temperatures and surface atmospheric pressure; indeed a hydrogen airliner would require very large tanks even if the hydrogen were super-cooled and highly pressurized.
The greater ease of transporting a fuel of higher volume density is reflected in the fact that oil moved by tanker is traded globally in large quantities, while the global tanker trade in natural gas is relatively small. Consumers and producers are willing to pay a premium for energy resources of higher volumetric density.
Area density This expresses how much energy can be obtained from a given land area (e.g., an acre) when the energy resource is in its original state. For example, the area energy density of wood as it grows in a forest is roughly 1 to 5 million MJ per acre. Area energy density matters because energy sources that are already highly concentrated in their original form generally require less investment and effort to be put to use.
If the energy content of the resource is spread out, then it costs more to obtain the energy, because a firm has to use highly mobile extraction capital [machinery], which must be smaller and so cannot enjoy increasing returns to scale. If the energy is concentrated, then it costs less to obtain because a firm can use larger-scale immobile capital that can capture increasing returns to scale. Thus energy producers will be willing to pay an extra premium for energy resources that have high area density, such as oil that will be refined into gasoline, over ones that are more widely dispersed, such as corn that is meant to be made into ethanol.
10) High Energy Returned on Energy Invested
At the start of the oil age, the net energy — the amount produced versus how much energy was used to produce it was 100:1.
That left 99 other units of energy to build houses, roads, bridges, airports, railroads, schools, hospitals, drinking water and sewage treatment plants, chemicals, amusement parks, drive across the country, heat and cool structures, build millions of electronic gadgets, toys, and so on.
Charles A. S. Hall estimates you’d need an EROEI of at least 12 to 13:1 to run civilization as we know it.
Solar PV has an EROEI of only 2.45 in sunny Spain, and somewhere between 1.6 and 2 in Germany.
Richard Heinberg defines EROEI as
- The amount of useful energy that’s left over after the amount of energy invested to drill, pipe, refine, or build infrastructure (including solar panels, wind turbines, dams, nuclear reactors, or drilling rigs) has been subtracted from the total amount of energy produced from a given source.
- If 10 units of energy are “invested” to develop additional energy sources, then one hopes for 20 units or 50 or 100 units to result.
- “Energy out” must exceed “energy in,” by as much as possible. Net energy is what’s left over that can be employed to actually do further work. It can be thought of as the “profit” from the investment of energy resources in seeking new energy.
- The net energy concept bears an obvious resemblance to a concept familiar to every economist or businessperson—return on investment, or ROI. Every investor knows that it takes money to make money; every business manager is keenly aware of the importance of maintaining a positive ROI; and every venture capitalist appreciates the potential profitability of a venture with a high ROI. Maintaining a positive energy return on energy invested (EROEI) is just as important for energy producers, and for society as a whole.
- The transition to alternative energy sources must be negotiated while there is still sufficient net energy available to continue powering society while at the same time providing energy for the transition process itself.
Heinberg prefers EROEI over EROI because the latter might lead readers to think it means energy returned on money invested. Money is meaningless, an abstract concept to grease the wheels of commerce, not something you can put in your gas tank and drive on. It’s best to leave money out of net energy (EROEI) considerations. I don’t use EROEI as much as I’d like to because people just don’t get it, and change the discussion, or reply with objections in terms of money, which they’re more familiar with.
I also despair of discussions about EROEI, because corporate scientists who always publish in non-peer-reviewed journals easily fool the public by setting the boundaries too narrowly. For instance, researchers who found ethanol production to have a positive EROEI above 1:1 only considered the energy used at the ethanol refinery. They left out the energy to make tractors, the energy to plant, fertilize, harvest, and deliver the corn to the ethanol plant, and trucks and trains delivering the ethanol after it’s been made (it can’t go in a pipeline).
Another problem is that the EROEI of each wind or solar plant will vary depending on how old it is, where it is, and so on.
Back when we depended on wood before coal, and grew all of our food, it took 90% of the population to produce enough food to feed themselves and another 10% of town folk who were merchants, artists, soldiers, or gentry. Even as recently as 1850 over 65% of work done was muscle-powered, versus only 1% today now that machines do most of the work. Just 1 liter of oil is equal to a person working two weeks of 10-hour days (Pimentel).
11) Electricity doesn’t solve our problems
Smelting requires coal. Not electricity. Large vehicles will never be able to run on (electric) batteries or fuel cells. They’re too heavy, and the laws of physics mean that per unit weight, they can only carry a small fraction of the energy the same weight of energy-dense oil can:
“Today’s lead acid batteries can store about 0.1 mega-joules per kilogram: 500 times less than crude oil (50 MJ/k). Lithium ion batteries are able to deliver .5 mega-joules per kilogram: 100 times less than oil. The theoretical maximum a battery could ever deliver is 5 mega-joules per kilogram, 10 times less energy than oil”, according to Kurt Zenz House, Chief Executive of C12 Energy.
Who cares about cars? Since the billions of diesel engines that do all of the work of society that keeps us alive — tractors, harvesters, trucks, trains, and ships can’t be converted to run on electricity, we’re back to the age of wood again, and 2 billion people or less on the planet.
Issues by type of Alternative Energy Resource
Also go to the energy and books sections of energyskeptic to get more detailed information on specific kinds of energy.
The only hope to replace the problem we face — the need for liquid transportation fuels — would be biomass converted to diesel. We don’t have enough biomass to do this. Even if you burned every single plant in America, including their roots – which is much more energy producing than converting all of this biomass to liquid fuels, you would still produce less energy than we burn in a year, and you’d be left with a barren moonscape.
Biofuels have a low EROEI (possibly negative in fact), and are tremendously ecologically destructive — they deplete topsoil, aquifers, are the 3rd major source of carbon dioxide from cutting down rainforests to grow palm oil, runoff of fertilizer to grow biomass creates vast dead zones in waterways, make food prices far more expensive as corn is diverted to make fuel instead, and much more (see “Peak Soil“).
Most forms of alternative energy create electricity, which doesn’t solve the main problem, the need for LIQUID TRANSPORTATION FUELS. There are enormous issues with the electric grid which wind, solar, and other kinds of generated electricity travel over
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.
Frumkin, H. Energy and Public Health: The Challenge of Peak Petroleum. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2602925/
Hall, C.A.S., R. Powers and W. Schoenberg. 2008. Peak oil, EROI, investments and the economy in an uncertain future. in Pimentel, David. (ed). Renewable Energy Systems: Environmental and Energetic Issues. Elsevier London
Halper, E. Dec 2, 2013.Power struggle: Green energy versus a grid that’s not ready. Minders of a fragile national power grid say the rush to renewable energy might actually make it harder to keep the lights on. Los Angeles Times.
Huber, Peter. Nov 27, 2006. Love Uranium. Forbes.
IEA World Energy Outlook 2010 (world oil peaked in 2006).
Kerr, Richard. 13 Aug 2010. Do We Have the Energy For the Next Transition? Past energy transitions to inherently attractive fossil fuels took half a century; moving the world to cleaner fuels could be harder and slower. Science Vol 329.
Kerr, Richard. 25 March 2011. Peak Oil May Already Be Here. Science Vol. 331 no. 6024 pp. 1510-1511
Murray, J., and King, D. 26 January 2012. Oil’s tipping point has passed. Nature, Vol 481 pp 43-4
NAS 2009. America’s Energy Future: Technology and Transformation. 2009. National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, National Academy of Engineering.
NAS 2010. Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use. 2010. Committee on Health, Environmental, and Other External Costs and Benefits of Energy Production and Consumption; National Research Council
NAS 2013. Transitions to Alternative Vehicles and Fuels Committee on Transitions to Alternative Vehicles and Fuels; Board on Energy and Environmental Systems; Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences; National Research Council
Pacca, S. et al. July 15, 2002. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Building & Operating Electric Power Plants. Environ Sci Technology 36(14):3194-200.
Pimentel, David et al. 2008. Food, Energy and Society,Third Edition.
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