The future of Energy

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  • Wed, Nov 25, 2009 - 09:26pm



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    The future of Energy

Can Renewables Replace Fossil Fuels?

With peak oil already upon us, sustaining oil supply is akin to running up a down escalator. Or, as Nate Hagens put it at the ASPO peak oil conference earlier this month, “Technology is in a race with depletion and is losing (so far).” The urgent question then is: Can renewables fill the gap of oil depletion?

Mind the Gap

The most recent global data summarized by fuel available from the EIA is, unfortunately, for 2006 and only preliminary (I know they’re trying to improve their reporting but seriously, they need to do better than that), but we’ll use what we’ve got.

In 2006, the total amount of energy the world consumed was 469 quadrillion BTUs, or quads.*  Charted in percentage terms, the global fuel mix looks like this:

World Primary Fuel Mix, 2008. Chart by Dave Waldorf. Data source: EIA Annual Energy Review 2008 (released June 2009)

If the latest information I gathered at the ASPO peak oil conference is correct–and I think it is, or at least is as close to correct as anybody is going to come at this point–then we should expect oil to begin declining at about 5% per year starting around 2012 – 2014.

Of the 157 quads provided by oil, at a 5% decline rate we’ll lose 7.85 quads per year, or 1.7% of the world’s primary energy supply.

The “Geothermal and Other” category, supplying 1.6% of the world’s primary energy, represents all the renewable sources combined: geothermal, solar, wind, biomass, and so on.

Since 1.7% is very close to 1.6%, we can put the challenge of substituting renewables for oil this way: Starting around 2012 – 2014, the world will need to build the equivalent of all the world’s existing renewable energy capacity every year just to replace the lost BTUs from oil.

Fortunately renewable energy of all kinds is enjoying a massive growth spurt, attracting trillions of dollars in investment capital. On average, the sector seems to be growing at about 30% per year, which is phenomenal…but it’s not 100%.

In terms of BTU substitution, then, it seems unlikely that renewables can grow at the necessary rate.

Not Just BTUs

However, the challenge is more complex than mere BTU substitution.

Replacing the infrastructure, particularly transportation, that’s based on oil with one based on renewably generated electricity will in itself require energy–and lots of it. As Jeff Vail, an associate with Davis Graham & Stubbs LLP, said at the conference, between 80-90% of the energy inputs for renewables must be made up front, before they start to pay any energy out.

Even if renewables were able to make up all of the lost energy from oil, still more would be needed to afford any economic growth.

In all it seems a fair bet that it will take at least a decade for renewables to merely catch up with the annual toll of oil depletion. The gap will likely manifest as fuel shortages in the OECD when the developing world outbids it for oil, and a long economic recession or depression…unless efficiency comes to the rescue.

To that point, Vail speculated that population increase alone could offset as much as 30% of the improvement in conservation and efficiency. He noted that despite the recession, car sales are up 29% in India as people buy their very first cars.

Falling Net Energy

Another driver of the down escalator is that the net energy (EROI, or energy returned on energy invested) of nearly all fossil fuel production is falling.

Dr. Cutler Cleveland at Boston University has observed that the net energy of oil and gas extraction in the U.S. has decreased from 100:1 in the 1930’s, to 30:1 in the 1970’s, to roughly 11:1 as of 2000.

Simply put: As the quality of the remaining fossil fuels declines, and they become more difficult to extract, it takes more energy to continue producing energy.

This begs the question: What EROI must the replacements have to compensate for oil depletion?

Vail presented several models attempting to answer it. In his optimistic scenario, assuming a 5% rate of net energy decline and an EROI of 20 for the renewables, the “renewables gap” was filled in year 3. In his pessimistic scenario, assuming a 10% rate of net energy decline and an EROI of 4 for the renewables, the gap wasn’t filled until year 7.

For a sense of how reasonable those assumptions are, we must turn to the academic literature, since no business or government agency has yet shown any particular interest in EROI studies (much to my dismay).

Studies assembled by Dr. Charles Hall (source) put the average EROI of wind at 18 (Kubiszewski, Cleveland, and Endres, 2009); solar at 6.8 (Battisti and Corrado, 2005), and nuclear at 5 to 15 (Lenzen, 2008; Hall, 2008). No data is available for geothermal or marine energy. All the biofuels are under 2, making them non-solutions if the minimum EROI for a society is indeed 3 (Hall, Balogh and Murphy, 2009).

[A quick aside: The huge range of the nuclear estimate is one indication of how difficult it is to accurately asses the costs of nuclear, which is part of the reason I still haven’t written the article I know many of you are hoping to see some day. I’m working on it, and still looking for current research with appropriately inclusive boundaries and updated numbers. Nearly everyone is still using cost estimates that predate the commodities bull run, not even realizing how it distorts their analysis. So far I have found nothing to change my outlook that the nuclear share of global supply will stay roughly the same for several decades.]

I am not aware of any studies on the EROI of biomass not made into liquid fuels–for example, methane digesters using waste, landfill gas, and so on–but its sources and uses are so varied that if the numbers were available, they probably wouldn’t be very useful. While such applications are generally good, they’re not very scalable—they work were they work, and don’t where they don’t.

Theorem of Renewables Substitution

Where EROI analysis leaves us is unclear; it needs more research and a great deal more data. There are some useful clues in it though.

First, we know that biofuels–at least the ones we have today–won’t help much, other than providing an alternate source of liquid fuels while we’re making the transition to electric.

Second, we know that solar tends toward Vail’s pessimistic scenario, and wind fits the bill for his optimistic scenario.

But here’s the rub: The lowest EROI source, biofuels, is the easiest to do, with the vigorous support of a huge lobby and Energy Secretary Chu himself. Rooftop solar is the next-easiest to do but making up the lost BTUs takes longer due to its moderate EROI. And the source with the highest EROI, wind, is the hardest. (I explained why solar is easier here.)

Therefore I propose the following, slightly snarky Theorem of Renewables Substitution: The easier it is to produce a source of renewable energy, the less it helps.

The Winner: Efficiency

All of these factors–the declining supply, the pressures of the developing world on demand, the renewables gap, and the theorem of renewables substitution–underscore how crucial efficiency is to addressing the energy crisis.

It also underscores how profitable the entire energy sector will be for many, many years to come.

With supply maxed out, and demand at the mercy of a developing world, the name of the game now is doing more with less. More efficient vehicles and appliances, building insulation, co-generation…and all the other ways to eliminate waste.

I know it doesn’t have the sex appeal of, oh, say space based solar power, but it’s where the real gains will be made.

*The thermal values (heat content) of various fossil fuels are typically measured in BTUs. One BTU is roughly equivalent to the heat produced by burning a wooden kitchen match. One cubic foot of dry natural gas contains approximately 1,031 BTUs. For those who prefer their data measured in joules, 1 quad = 1.055 exajoules (EJ, or 1018 joules). Renewable energy, however, is typically measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh), or the amount of energy delivered by a one-kilowatt source over the course of an hour. 1 kWh = 3412 BTUs.

Originally published on GetRealList

  • Wed, Nov 25, 2009 - 09:29pm

    Peak Prosperity Admin

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    Re: The future of Energy

Peak Oil : IEA’s predictions seeming more and more infeasible with time

NOTE: Dr Michael Lardelli is a “colleague” of mine who regularly posts on my Peak Oil list and The Onion


On November 9, the Uppsala University in Sweden published a report titled “The Peak of the Oil Age – The Uppsala World Energy Outlook”. The report performs an analysis of the oil production forecast done by the International Energy Agency in 2008. One day before the release of the IEA 2009 edition of its World Energy Outlook report, the team of researchers notably pointed to a world oil supply in 2030 some 26 Mb/d lower than the IEA’s predictions. Dr Michael Lardelli, one of the co-authors of the study, answers Scitizen’s questions.

What was your reaction after the Guardian cited earlier this month an anonymous whistlelblower alleging that the IEA had been distorting its true view on peak oil over US pressure in order to prevent public panic?

Personally I was surprised that the whistleblowers should reveal this information on the IEA distortions. I wonder if it was a coincidence that the “Peak Of The Oil Age” paper was released on the very same day that the allegations came out? Certainly, word was spreading that the Global Energy Systems group in Uppsala had reanalysed the IEA data and their result implied that the peak of oil production was last year, and that a scientific publication was being prepared. Professor Aleklett who leads the Global Energy Systems group had presented this story in numerous venues in early June of this year. One would expect this to create some tension within the IEA. On the other hand, the WEO 2009 report was due for release two days later with little change in the production volume prognosis so the whistleblowers may have been prompted by the fact that the IEA’s predictions were seeming more and more infeasible with time.

As the study proves evidence that we have reached Peak Oil, do you think it will once and for all cut short the discussion?

Unfortunately not. The so-called “Economic theory of energy” has too strong a hold on our business and political elite. This is the idea that high energy prices will stimulate new energy production which will ultimately cause energy prices to fall again. This theory “works” while the energy profit on energy extraction is high as it has been for oil in the past. However, as the size and abundance of newly discovered oilfields decreases, (as it has been doing since the 1960s) it becomes more and more difficult to find and extract oil. The energy profit decreases as does the rate of oil production. (Remember that Peak Oil is about rate of production, not how much is left.) For the next decade I expect you will hear governments and businesses crying that what is needed is massive investments in order to maintain or raise oil production. The IEA is already making these noises in WEO 2009. But the fact that the money does not exist for the necessary level of investment is just a reflection of the fact that our civilisation has insufficient spare energy to divert back into energy production. Looked at another way, the necessary price per barrel to make new oil development worthwhile/profitable is approaching the oil price at which economic activity is damaged. Until our leaders understand energy laws rather than economic theory they will not truly believe in peak oil.

To what extent should policy makers and investors then rethink their future plans for economic growth ?

In the past the IEA has based its predictions of future oil production on the expected level of future economic growth. The reason for this is that economic growth (increased real economic activity, not the illusion of rising stockmarkets due to inflationary low interest rates and money printing) requires an increased rate of energy use. Now that oil production is set to decrease (and, by the way, the energy profitability of oil production will decrease even faster but this was not mentioned in the paper) we will necessarily see a decrease in economic activity unless new sources of energy can be found. Unfortunately, even if alternative sources of energy exist, the infrastructure to harvest and utilize them at a sufficient rate to replace the energy from oil does not exist. So contraction in economic activity is inevitable. Also unfortunately, as the energy available to society decreases, it will become more and more difficult to build the infrastructure to harvest and utilize alternative sources of energy.

Can renewables fill the gap of oil depletion in time to retain our quality of life?

If by “quality of life” you mean our rampantly consumerist and growth-fixated society that is currently supported by an enormous abundance of cheap energy from fossil fuels then the answer is no. It is not only oil decline that threatens this society but also declining availability of other resources that are essential for our high-tech civilisation – such as rare earth metals, helium (from natural gas production) and, crucially, phosphate which is irreplaceable in industrial agriculture. A “business-as-usual” continuation of our society’s current trajectory is impossible whether we want to accept that idea or not. (Mother Nature does not negotiate and infinite economic growth on this finite planet was always going to be impossible.) Hydroelectricity aside, renewable sources of energy provide only about 1% of world energy production. If we threw our every available effort into energy conservation and building a renewable energy infrastructure (a wartime, crash-program effort requiring great privation in the general community as energy is diverted to the crash program) then we might (?) be able to maintain our technological society. The now famous “Hirsch Report” prepared by consultants for the US Department of Energy analysed what would be needed to mitigate the effect of a peak in oil production and found that a crash program of measures would need to be begun 20 years before the peak occurred. Instead we have arrived at the peak totally unprepared.

Besides, the study is rather pessimistic about the commercial viability of non-conventional oil (oil sands, extra-heavy oil, GTL, CTL)…

Yes, the problem is the rate of production, not the size of the resource. For example, the production of oil from oil sands requires huge energy inputs and is limited by a number of other physical factors. This was analysed in a paper titled, “A Crash Program Scenario for the Canadian Oil Sands Industry” published in Energy Policy by the Global Energy Systems group in 2006.

Did you take cognizance of the WEO 2009? What does it seem to you?

I have not had access to the full WEO 2009 report but have only seen the executive summary that is available free online. It is notable for its focus on climate change and the need to move away from use of fossil fuels. The executive summary also notes that, “The financial crisis has cast a shadow over whether all the energy investment needed to meet growing energy needs can be mobilised.” In other words, the outlook for investment into future oil (and other energy) production is now worse than when the WEO 2008 report was released upon which the “Peak Of The Oil Age” paper was based. Nevertheless WEO 2009 still states, “Oil demand (excluding biofuels) is projected to grow by 1% per year on average over the projection period, from 85 million barrels per day in 2008 to 105 mb/d in 2030” which is similar to the WEO 2008 report. You should realise that the reanalysis of WEO 2008 data that was presented in “Peak Of The Oil Age” used the extremely optimistic assumption that, in effect, the weighted average rate of depletion from oilfields yet to be developed will be similar to the highest rates seen in the past. By “depletion” I am talking about the “depletion rate of remaining recoverable resources” parameter defined by the Global Energy Systems group, not the percentage annual decline in production from oilfields. The figure of 75 Mb/d of oil production in 2030 published in “The Peak Of The Oil Age” is a very, very optimistic best case. It is only about 13% lower than today’s rate. Real production in 2030 will probably be considerably lower than that.

The study is available online as PDF.

  • Thu, Nov 26, 2009 - 07:34am

    Peak Prosperity Admin

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    couldn’t resist this one…!

Farting pig sparks gas leak emergency

Victoria’s Country Fire Authority says a call out to a suspected gas leak in Central Victoria on Tuesday night was not what they were expecting.

Fifteen firefighters and two CFA tankers attended a property in Axedale near Bendigo following reports of a strong smell of gas.

But when they arrived they discovered the source of the gassy smell was a flatulent 120-kilogram sow.

Axedale fire captain Peter Harkins says the pig’s owner had alerted authorities.

“He was a little bit embarrassed to say the least. It took us a little while to compose ourselves, to speak to him,” he said.

“When we got there, as we drove up the driveway, there was this huge sow, about a 120-odd kilo sow, and it was very obvious where the gas was coming from.

“We could not only smell it, but we heard it and it was quite funny.

“It was fairly obvious what it was. I think we dealt with it fairly professionally and had a bit of a giggle when we got back to the station.”

  • Sun, Dec 06, 2009 - 02:39am

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    Re: The future of Energy

Graphic illustration of what a fossil fuel energy slave really is – great short video

  • Sun, Dec 06, 2009 - 03:20am

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    Re: The future of Energy

In this weeks paper there is an article about the county getting a wind farm put up.   I sure hope this is a good thing .    I know the husband hauls quite a few west  on the train .     I am positive it will meet with some resistance . …. of course anything new will around here.  I am also sure no one will want it in their back yard .  Not exactly something you can hide over the other side of the hill.


  One of you fine people are going to come up with the answer to the energy crisis and make a bundle on it ,I am sure .

  • Wed, Jan 26, 2011 - 03:53pm

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    Re: The future of Energy


Great topic! Well actually I think that if we really want a better world we have to make a real difference!

Lot of people doesn’t releaze that if you really want to mean something, you have to start with yourself. For examle at home; turn of the light if you live or take a bad instead of a shower!

Saving energy and using green energy means that you save money!

Green energy is the futur of the earth!

Come and check this website, you can find more information about green energy and stuff!

Good luck!


  • Mon, May 09, 2011 - 10:44am

    SPAM_Sun Fusion

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    Even I have heard this news.

Even I have heard this news. The production will start in July, 2012. These turbines are specially designed for wind frams with very little wind. The turbines basically increase the potential of wind evergy(Sun Fusion). The project wants to ensure the fact that it is posible to generate wind energy even in a low windy area.

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