Life After the Oil Crash/ Part II. Alternatives to Oil:
Part II. Alternatives to Oil:
Fuels of the Future or Cruel Hoaxes?
I have designed the following passages with somebody new to the issue of oil depletion in mind. If you would like more in depth explanations, with graphs, charts and the like, please consult The Oil Age Is Over: What to Expect as the World Runs Out of Cheap Oil, 2005-2050.
What about alternatives to oil? Can't we just switch to a different source of energy?
Unfortunately, the ability of alternative energy to replace oil is based more in mythology and utopian fantasy than in reality and hard science. Oil accounts for 40% of our current US energy supply. None of the alternatives to oil can supply anywhere near this much energy, let alone the amount we will need in the future as our population continues to grow and industrialize. When examining alternatives to oil, it is of critical importance that you ask certain questions:
1. Is the alternative easily transportable like oil?
2. Is the alternative energy dense like oil?
3. Is the alternative capable of being adapted for transportation, heating, and the production of fertilizers, plastics, and pesticides?
4. Does the alternative have an Energy Profit Ratio (EPR) comparable to oil? Oil used to have an EPR of 100 to 1. It only took one barrel of oil to extract 100 barrels of oil. This was such a fantastic ratio that oil was practically free energy. In fact, at one point in Texas, water cost more than oil!
Oil's EPR is now down to 10 to 1, which is still pretty good. If a proposed alternative energy source doesn't have an EPR comparable to oil, the amount of good it does us is very limited. Keep these questions in mind as we examine the shortcomings of the oil alternatives in the following questions.
Can't we use coal to replace oil? I know it's dirty and could hurt the environment, but who cares about pollution if the alternative is starving?
Like oil, coal is a fossil fuel. It accounts for 25% of current US energy supply. Although we have at least 200 years of coal left in the ground, it is unsuitable as a replacement for oil for the following reasons:
1. It is 50% to 200% heavier than oil per energy unit. This makes it much more difficult to transport than oil.
2. Coal mining operations run on oil fuels as do coal-mining machinery and transportation. As oil becomes more expensive, so will coal.
3. Pollution is also a major problem. A single coal-fired station can produce a million tons of solid waste each year. Burning coal in homes pollutes air with acrid smog containing acid gases and particles.
4. Currently, coal has an EPR of 8 to 1. That ratio used to be 100 to 1. By 2030-2040, that ratio will be 1 to 2. It will take two units of coal to extract one unit of coal. When any resource requires more energy to extract it than it contains, it ceases to be a resource. Thus, while the Earth may be endowed with a generous supply of coal, by 2030 it will be of little use to us.
What about substituting natural gas for oil?
Like oil and coal, natural gas is a fossil fuel. It accounts for 25% of current US energy supply. As a replacement for oil, it is unsuitable for the following reasons:
1. US natural gas production peaked around 1970. By the year 2000, US domestic production was at 1/3 of its peak level. While natural gas can be imported in its liquefied form, the process of liquefying and transporting it is extraordinarily expensive and very dangerous. Demand for natural gas in North America is already outstripping supply, especially as power utilities take the remaining gas to generate electricity.
2. Gas is not suited for existing jet aircraft, ships, vehicles, and equipment for agriculture and other products.
3. Conversion consumes large amounts of energy as well as money.
4. Natural gas also does not provide the huge array of chemical by-products that we depend on oil for.
What about Hydrogen? Even Arnold, who owns 10 Hummers, says he's a proponent of hydrogen fuel cells. Everybody talks about it so much; it must be good, right?
Hydrogen accounts for 0.01% of the US energy supply. As a replacement for oil, it is unsuitable for the following reasons:
1. Hydrogen must be made from coal, oil, natural gas, wood, biomass or even water, but in every instance, it takes more energy to create hydrogen than the hydrogen actually provides. It is therefore an energy “carrier,” not an energy source.
2. Liquid hydrogen occupies four to eleven times the bulk of equivalent gasoline or diesel.
3. Existing vehicles and aircraft and existing distribution systems are not suited to it.
4. Hydrogen cannot be used to manufacture plastics or fertilizer.
5. The cost of fuel cells is absolutely astronomical and has shown no downtrend.
Hydrogen is such a poor replacement for oil that "Hydrogen Fuel Cells" should be called "Hydrogen Fool Cells." Dr. Jorg Wing, a representative of the auto giant Daimler/Chrysler made this clear at the Paris Peak Oil Conference when he explained that his company did not view hydrogen as a viable alternative to petroleum-based engines. He stated that fuel-cell vehicles would never amount to a significant market share. Hydrogen was ruled out as a solution because of intensive costs of production, inherent energy inefficiencies, lack of infrastructure, and practical difficulties such as the extreme cost and difficulty of storage.
You may be wondering, "But didn't Bush say in the 2003 State of the Union speech that he was giving billions to develop the hydrogen economy?" Yes, he did say that, but he didn't mention that the money was going to fund using nuclear power to get the hydrogen. The limitations of nuclear power are discussed next.
For more on the problems with hydrogen see:
Fuel Cell Folly
Why Hydrogen is no Solution
What about Nuclear Power? If we're desperate, we won't have any choice but to use it.
Nuclear power accounts for 8% of US energy production. As a replacement for oil, it is unsuitable for the following reasons:
1. Nuclear power is extremely expensive. A single reactor costs between 3 and 5 billion dollars, not counting the costs associated with decommissioning, increased costs for scarcer nuclear fuels; increased costs to safeguard nuclear facilities and materials from sabotage, terrorism, and diversion; increased likelihood of major, multi-billion-dollar accidents and their disrupting economic effects.
2. Number of reactors needed in the US: 800-1000. Current number: only 100.
3. Retrofitting current vehicles to run on nuclear-generated electricity would further increase the expenses related to a nuclear solution.
4. Nuclear power cannot be used to produce plastics, pesticides, or fertilizer.
5. Uranium requires energy from oil in order to be mined. As oil gets more expensive, so will nuclear power.
6. All abandoned reactors are radioactive for millennia.
7. A nuclear power plant requires tremendous amounts of oil to construct. When you take into account the amount of energy used to construct a nuclear plant, no plant has ever produced much more energy than it took to construct it. Nuclear power has only existed because the oil used to construct nuclear power plants has been so cheap.
8. Even if we were to overlook these problems, nuclear power is only a short-term solution. Uranium, too, has a Hubbert's peak, and the current known reserves can supply the Earth's energy needs for only 25 years at best.
What about solar power?
Solar power currently supplies .007% of the US energy supply. As a replacement for oil, it is unsuitable due to the following reasons:
1. Energy from solar power varies constantly with weather or day/night.
2. Not practical for transportation needs. While a handful of small, experimental, solar-powered vehicles have been built, solar power is unsuited for planes, boats, cars, tanks, etc.
3. Solar cannot be adapted to produce pesticides, fertilizer, or plastics.
4. Solar is susceptible to the effects of global climate change, which is projected to greatly intensify in the decades to come.
5. Estimates are that about 20 percent of US land area would be required to support a solar energy system that would supply less than one-half of our current energy consumption. To develop such a system would require phenomenal level of investment and new infrastructure. This land requirement can be expected to diminish arable (food producing), pasture, and forest lands to some extent, with the most critical loss being arable land.
Despite these limitations, a typical solar water panel array can deliver 50% to 85% of a home’s hot water, though. Recent advancements in solar panel technology suggest that solar's EPR could reach 10, if proper investments are made. Using some of our precious remaining crude oil as fuel for manufacturing solar equipment would be extremely wise.
What about wind power?
Wind power accounts for .007% of US energy supply. As a replacement for oil, it is unsuitable due to the following reasons:
1. As with solar, energy from wind varies greatly with weather, and is not portable or storable like oil and gas.
2. Wind cannot be adapted to produce pesticides, fertilizer or plastics.
3. Like solar, wind is susceptible to the effects of global climate change.
4. Not appropriate for transportation needs.
Despite these limitations, wind power is the most promising of the various oil alternatives. According to a 1993 study done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, wind could generate about 15% of US energy, if proper investments are made. According to a recent Danish study, wind's EPR could be as high as 50 — by far the highest of any of the available alternatives. The fact that wind is our most promising alternative indicates that replacing oil is essentially impossible. For instance, in order for wind to be used as hydrogen fuel, the following steps have to be taken:
1. Build the wind farm. This step requires an enormous investment of oil and raw materials, which will become increasingly expensive as oil production drops.
2. Wait for X number of years while the original energy investment is paid back.
3. Construct an infrastructure through which the wind energy can be converted to hydrogen. This requires an enormous investment of oil and raw materials, which will become increasingly expensive as oil production drops.
4. Retrofit our current infrastructure to run on this fuel. This requires an enormous investment of oil and raw materials, both of which will become increasingly expensive as oil production drops.
5. Deal with enormous political and industrial resistance at each step.
6. Pray that we can repeat this process enough times before economic obstacles and war completely cripple our ability to do so.
You're forgetting about plant-based fuels. Can't we just grow our fuel?
To a certain degree we can, but biomass, ethanol, and biodiesel will never be able to replace fossil fuels for the following reasons:
1. Depending on who you consult, ethanol has an EPR ranging from .7 (making it an energy loser) to 1.7. Methanol, made from wood, clocks in at 2.6, better than ethanol, but still far short of oil.
2. By 2050, the US will only have enough arable land to feed half of its population, not accounting for the effects of oil depletion. In the years to come, there won't be enough land for food, let alone fuel.
3. While a handful of folks have adapted their vehicles to run on biodiesel, this is not a realistic option on a large scale. There is simply not enough biodiesel available in the world to replace even a fraction of the energy we get from oil.
4. Current infrastructure, particularly manufacturing and large-scale transportation is adaptable to plant-based fuels in theory only. In reality, retrofitting our industrial and transportation systems to run on plant fuels would be enormously expensive and comically impractical.
Finally, when evaluating claims about plant-based fuels, be aware of who is providing the data. As Dr. Walter Younquist points out:
Ethanol production survives only by the grace of a subsidy by the US government from taxpayer dollars. Continuing the production of ethanol is purely a device for buying the Midwest US farm vote.
[Not surprisingly] the fact that the company which makes 60% of US ethanol is also one of the largest contributors of campaign money to the Congress – a distressing example of politics overriding logic.
What about that new technology that can turn anything into oil?
"Thermal Depolymerization" (TD) which can transform many kinds of waste into oil, could help us raise our energy efficiency as we lose power due to oil depletion. While it could help us ameliorate the crash, it is not a true solution for the following reasons:
1. Like all other forms of alternative energy, we have run out of time to implement it before the crash. Currently, only one TD plant is operational. Thousands of such plants would need to come online before this technology would make even a small difference in our situation.
2. TD is really nothing more than high-tech recycling. Most of the waste input (such as plastics and tires) requires high-grade oil to make it in the first place.
3. It is unclear what the EPR of oil derived from TD is. How much energy does the TD process require to produce a barrel of oil? If the EPR of oil derived from TD does not approach the EPR of traditional oil, it will not alleviate our problems.
The biggest problem with TD is that it is being advertised as a means to maintain business as usual. Such advertising promotes further consumption, provides us with a dangerously false sense of security, and encourages us to continue thinking that we don't need to make this issue a priority.
What about free energy? Didn't Nikola Tesla invent some machine that produced free energy? Couldn't we just switch to something like that?
While free energy technologies such as Cold Fusion, Vacuum Energy and Zero Point Energy are extremely fascinating, the unfortunate reality is that they are unlikely to help us cope with the oil depletion for several reasons:
1. We currently get absolutely zero percent of our energy from these sources.
2. We currently have no functional prototypes. Were a functional prototype of a free energy device unleashed on the public tomorrow, our oil-and-gas-fueled economy would be plunged into chaos. It is unlikely that such a scenario would be allowed to play itself out.
3. We've already had our experiment with "free energy." With an EPR of 100 to 1, oil was so efficient and cheap an energy source that it practically was free.
4. The development of a "free energy" device would just put off the inevitable. The Earth has a carrying capacity. If we are able to substitute a significant portion of our fossil fuel usage with "free energy", the crash would just come at a later time, when we have depleted a different resource. At that point, our population will be even higher. The higher a population is, the further it has to fall when it depletes a key resource. The further it has to fall, the more momentum it picks up on the way down through war and disease. By encouraging continued population growth, so-called "free energy" could actually make our situation worse.
5. Even if a functional free energy prototype came into existence today, it would take at least 25-50 years to retrofit our multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure for such technology.
Are these alternatives useless then?
No, not at all. Whatever civilization emerges after the crash will likely derive a good deal of their energy from these technologies. All of these alternatives deserve massive investment right now. The problem is that none of them can replace oil, no matter how much we wish they could. All the optimism, ingenuity and desire in the world doesn't change the physics and hard math of energy. Even in the best-case scenario, we will have to accept a drastically reduced standard of living. None of the alternatives can supply us with enough energy to maintain even a modest fraction of our current consumption levels. To survive, we will have to radically change the way we get our food, the way we get to work, what we do for work, the homes we live in, how we plan our families and what we do for recreation. Put simply, a transition to these alternatives will require a complete overhaul of every aspect of modern industrial society. Unfortunately, industrial societies such as ours do not undertake radical changes voluntarily.
For more information on renewable energy see the following articles:
Overview of Renewable Energy by Paul Thompson
Alternative Energy Sources by Dr. Walter Youngquist