Energy: Can other forms of energy replace oil?
Let us accept that peak oil has happened and that over the next few decades the price of oil will being going up in leaps and bounds in real terms. Is this the end of civilization as we know it? Well, I hope it is the end of Americans driving around in vehicles that are rediculously large just because they want to come off the best if they have a crash. But other than that, let us look at some facts on alternative energy.
1. It should be understood at the start that the huge bulk of energy used by humans at present is from fossil fuels. Nuclear, wind and solar are all just a tiny fraction. If other forms of energy are to replace fossil fuels on a large scale then their cost must come into line. This may happen by increase in oil prices, which will certainly happen, or by reduction of other costs in real terms. I dismiss nuclear as having too many problems. Not only waste disposal, but being also the products of bombs we cannot trust people with them.
2. Solar power generation costs are reducing in real terms at 7% per annum. This reults in a halving of costs every 10.5 years, see http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2009/05/energy-moores-law-and-substitution.html and http://www1.eere.energy.gov/tribalenergy/guide/costs_solar_photovoltaics.html
3. Over a period of say 35 years, that would be price reduction to 1/10 what it is now for solar power if the same rate of improvement is maintained. The big advantage of solar power is that it has far less environmental impact because it is using heat that was already hitting the earth, and creating no harmful byproducts in its use (maybe in its manufacture?).
4. I cannot find a figure for the present ratio of oil costs to solar power for equivalent amount of energy. Does anyone know the correct ratio?
5. Wind power is viable and used at present as a means of electricity generation.In part because it offers a balance in supply when other sources such as hydro and fossil fuel burning are subject to fluctuations from weather and fossil fuel prices. Wind tends to produce more when hydro is producing less, so that they are complimentary. Wind cannot be the dominant form of energy production.
6. According to http://www.awea.org/faq/cost.html the costs have varied over time from 30 cents/kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to 5 cents/kilowatt-hour at present. This rate of improvement is similar to solar power cost improvement so there may still be substantial future improvement yet to come.
7. People are interested in hydrogen and electric cars. There is no doubt that the technology already exists. However neither electricity or hydrogen is actually a source of fuel. Rather they both operate as a battery device for storing energy that is obtained from one source and later used to power a vehicle.
8. It remains that the electricity that is charging the battery or making the hydrogen must have come from some other source. That source will be oil, nuclear, solar, wind or sucking it out of the aether with some new invention. Please don’t tell me about cars that will run on water – I don’t believe it.
My conclusion is that while there will be big changes in the next few decades resulting from peak oil, there is a very real progress being made in both solar and wind power generation. Substitutions such as solar water heating are already efficient enough to be replacing fossil fuel burning power stations. It does not appear that peak oil will be the end of the world, but it will result in significant changes in the landscape.
There was good article on CNN last week that Chris also noted in one of his postings. It gives you one example of the scale required to replace fossil fuels with alternatives. In summary, the writer’s calcualation assumes that if Americans cut their current consumption by 50% to match the 125 kwh per person per day European levels, the following would be one scenario required to entirely replace fossil fuels with 1/3 each from solar, wind and nuclear:
Solar: 80 square meters per person of solar panels.
Wind: A wind farm with a total area roughly equal to the area of California, a 200-fold increase in United States wind power.
Nuclear: 525 one-gigawatt nuclear power stations, a roughly five-fold increase over today’s levels.
Full Artilce: Let’s Get Real about Alternative Energy
Renewables can and will be an important part of our future however they will never come close to replacing our current level of fossil energy consumption. We will have to consume a lot less as fossil energy depletes.
Here are two exceptional talks on the energy potential and costs of renewables. Unlike most renewable discussions, these talks are filled with facts.
David MacKay – Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air – 12-Mar-2008
Will, scary statistics, but important ones.
I don’t think there has been a lot of benefit from the huge increase in energy usage over the last generation or two. Much of it is just wasted. So we could live happily with a lot less.
If we each had solar panels on our house roof or a windmill on each hill, I don’t see that as a bad thing.
I particularily enjoyed this peice Davos posted May 7th and I haven’t stopped thinking about it ever since:
Paul Stamets: 6 ways mushrooms can save the world
I’d really like to see more serious consideration and experimentation on each aspect of this.
Disclaimer: This could just be me going back to the bargaining stage of awareness!?!
Something that comes to mind as regards your thread has to do with the incredible amount of energy we have wasted in the last 100 years rather than using it to build a sustainable future. When you look at some of the past civilizations you can see that their structures were able to withstand a good deal of time without requiring replacement. Many are standing today. The Pantheon in Rome has been in continuous service for over 2000 years and it will be open tomorrow!
Our society is full of temporary housing, most of it constructed of wood with roofing and siding that will only last a couple of decades without maintenance or replacement. My field is architecture and I am also a builder having been raised from three generations of designers, inventors, contractors and so on.
When you look at the basics of food, shelter, transportation and security and the role energy plays in each then you can begin to decide how you might solve each of those problems.
1)Food and Water: It will need to be produced locally without dependence on fossil fuel for cultivation, fertilization, or harvesting and this emphasis will increase over time. More time will be spent on food cultivation and less on the video games and playstations!
2)Shelter: This should be designed to use the sun to provide for solar heating of the interior spaces and for domestic water. The optimum solution is a passive solar design which requires no other energy to get the job done. Roofs should be designed to capture rainwater and be of a long lasting and fireproof material such as steel. Exterior surfaces should be of cement plaster, stone etc. and preferrably placed over a structure such as insulated concrete to achieve a 1000 year minimum target lifespan. This minimizes replacement efforts which will become significant as energy depletes in the future.
You will likely be told that structures like this are way too expensive to build. That is false. I have been doing it for years and I have been competing with wood frame, non solar temporary structures on a head to head basis. Many of the homes I have constructed are not truly a passive solar design in that they use an "active" solar system to run pumps and so on but that is because the mainstream new home buyer was not looking for a truly sustainable shelter, not because it could not be done. Homes that are designed to have all the modern conveniences and be powered with big solar electric (photovoltaic) grids are doomed. There isn’t enough enegry to build them for all of the population and they will wear out soon enough anyway. Keep it simple … do it passively and minimize the TVs!
Transportation: The big guzzeling monster trucks, suvs, hummers and the like will happily fade away. I think much of our precious remaining energy will be used to provide transpotation of more and more critical payloads and to maintain communications, electrical power and medical facilities, etc.
As we advance further into this century I think that populations whose survival is to a greater degree dependant on conventional energy for food, shelter and transportation will be increasingly at risk. At some point there will be critical events either due to weather, shortages of resources or energy and the like that we will have to deal with. If we are not prepared then a population reduction will probably occur. That is MHO of course.
For me the BIG QUESTION is whether we have enough energy remaining to build the infrastructure we need to actually reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and that is assuming we would have the political will to get it done. As I sit here writing this I think we could do it. We have the technology, we have the knowledge, we have the skills but the old clock is ticking.
[quote=ckessel]Shelter: This should be designed to use the sun to provide for solar heating of the interior spaces and for domestic water. The optimum solution is a passive solar design which requires no other energy to get the job done. Roofs should be designed to capture rainwater and be of a long lasting and fireproof material such as steel. Exterior surfaces should be of cement plaster, stone etc. and preferrably placed over a structure such as insulated concrete to achieve a 1000 year minimum target lifespan. This minimizes replacement efforts which will become significant as energy depletes in the future.[/quote]
Or as an alternative, a quick built shelter that takes maybe a few days to build, from local materials, is easily maintainable and lasts long enough. Looking at the Pantheon, we forget that a lot of Roman architecture is gone, simply because it was built as temporary of wood, cloth and so on. Yes make the things that are needed to be permanent, permanent. However from a housing and shelter perspective do we need to build a house that lasts 1000 years? I suspect not, even if we did (and it’s post crash) I’m sure someone would want to remodel it in 5-10 years. At the moment at least in the US there appears to be a time window for buildings of between 30 and 50 years maximum regardless of the type of building. If we were smart, we’d be building short term constructions that are cheap (in energy and cost) for things that are short term and long term constructions that are more expensive (in energy and cost) for much more permanent buildings. This is something missing from many modern buildings from housing to skyscrapers.
[quote=ckessel]Transportation: The big guzzeling monster trucks, suvs, hummers and the like will happily fade away. I think much of our precious remaining energy will be used to provide transpotation of more and more critical payloads and to maintain communications, electrical power and medical facilities, etc.[/quote]
Actually there’s nothing wrong per-se with any of the vehicles mentioned, it’s their use that is the problem. I own two vehicles, an 8 liter 4×4 off road truck (that fits your description of Monster Truck), that’s used for hauling heavy loads, and getting to and from my property that’s off road, across unpaved and almost uncleared easement, and a Chevy Cavalier that’s used for normal commuting. I would not use the truck for a daily commute except in emergency, in the same way that I would not use the cavalier to move a ton of cargo across several loads, because the efficiency is not there, I’d use a lot more fuel shuttling a ton of cargo in the Cavalier than I would in a single load with the truck. Unfortunately as a society we accept that all of the vehicles mentioned are ok for daily travel and that’s just not the case.
[quote=ckessel]For me the BIG QUESTION is whether we have enough energy remaining to build the infrastructure we need to actually reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and that is assuming we would have the political will to get it done. As I sit here writing this I think we could do it. We have the technology, we have the knowledge, we have the skills but the old clock is ticking.[/quote]
I think we have the energy, however I don’t think that we have the will. It’s too fast a shift in priorities, for the political process to handle, or even want to handle. Our political machines currently want to re-arrange the deck chairs on the Titanic, to feel like they’re doing something, but in actuality they’re achieving perhaps a little temporary peace of mind making pretty patterns.
Coop, your comments are right on the mark, thanks. Ray
|US lab debuts super laser|
|May 30 03:21 AM US/Eastern
|A US weapons lab on Friday pulled back the curtain on a super laser with the power to burn as hot as a star.
The National Ignition Facility’s main purpose is to serve as a tool for gauging the reliability and safety of the US nuclear weapons arsenal but scientists say it could deliver breakthroughs in safe fusion power.
"We have invented the world’s largest laser system," actor-turned-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said during a dedication ceremony attended by thousands including state and national officials.
"We can create the stars right here on earth. And I can see already my friends in Hollywood being very upset that their stuff that they show on the big screen is obsolete. We have the real stuff right here."
Equipment connected to a house-sized sphere can focus 192 laser beams on a small point, generating temperatures and pressures that exist at cores of stars or giant planets.
NIF will be able to create conditions and conduct experiments never before possible on Earth, according to the laboratory.
"This is the long-sought goal of ‘energy gain’ that has been the goal of fusion researchers for more than half a century," Moses said.
"NIF’s success will be a scientific breakthrough of historic significance; the first demonstration of fusion ignition in a laboratory setting, duplicating on Earth the processes that power the stars."
Construction of the NIF began in 1997, funded by the US Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
"NIF, a cornerstone of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s effort to maintain our nuclear deterrent without nuclear testing, will play a vital role in reshaping national security in the 21st century," said NNSA administrator Tom D’Agostino.
"This one-of-a-kind facility is the only place in the world that is capable of providing some of the most critical technical means to safely maintain the viability of the nation’s nuclear stockpile."
Scientists say that NIF also promises groundbreaking discoveries in planetary science and astrophysics by recreating conditions that exist in supernovas, black holes, and in the cores of giant planets.
Electricity derived from fusion reactions similar to what takes place in the sun could help sate humanity’s growing appetite for green energy, according to lab officials.
"Very shortly we will engage in what many believe to be this nation’s greatest challenge thus far, one that confronts not only the nation but all of mankind — energy independence," said lab director George Miller.
The lab was founded in 1952 and describes itself as a research institution for science and technology applied to national security.
"This laser system is an incredible success not just for California, but for our country and our world," Schwarzenegger said.
"NIF has the potential to revolutionize our energy system, teaching us a new way to harness the energy of the sun to power our cars and homes."
Controlled nuclear fusion has been just a few years away for many decades now. 🙂