The problem with renewable energy

Login or register to post comments Last Post 3348 reads   21 posts
Viewing 10 posts - 11 through 20 (of 21 total)
  • Sat, Nov 01, 2008 - 03:51pm

    #11
    switters

    switters

    Status Gold Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jul 19 2008

    Posts: 435

    count placeholder0

    Re: The problem with renewable energy

[quote=srbarbour]

We will also definitely replace oil with renewables.  Oil is, after all, just a carbon chain.

[/quote]

There’s no doubt that solar has the potential to replace the energy density of oil.  The question is whether we’ll learn to harness the energy in that quantity and then build the infrastructure to take advantage of it.

I must point out that this is far from being the "certainty" that you say it is.  Solar panels require conventional oil and a lot of  technology to produce.  As conventional oil becomes ever-more expensive that process will become more costly and difficult.  Furthermore, as I’ve pointed out several times in this thread we do not currently have the technology or infrastructure developed to utilize electricity for trucks, heavy machinery, boats or airplanes.  This presents a real problem since these uses account for 63% of all oil used for transportation.

You are predicting that in the next 30 years we will:

  1. Build billions of solar panels.  It has been estimated that you would have to run 91,250,000 solar panels for 50 years to equal the energy that is obtained from oil in one year.  Therefore, one year’s worth of oil would require 4,625,000,000 solar panels. 
  2. Invest trillions in PV production.  It’s difficult to develop a clear estimate, but I’ve seen numbers in the quadrillions of dollars in order to produce enough solar energy to make up for what we’ll lose from oil, coal and natural gas.  Certainly improvements in technology and efficiency will bring the cost down, but those decreases will be mitigated by the increasing cost of oil which is necessary for solar PV production.
  3. Invest trillions in infrastructure. Replacing our existing liquid-fuel based transportation infrastructure would cost trillions.  As mentioned above, there is no existing technology to run aviation or shipping on electricity.  Furthermore, these infrastructure developments are highly dependent upon increasingly expensive and decreasingly available oil.
  4. Develop the political will to implement these changes. The country is still in massive denial.  To begin the kind of effort you are suggesting we will embark on would entail a miraculous shift of attention, energy, resources and money towards the development of renewable technology and infrastructure.  No current national political office holder (with the exception of a few congresspeople like Kucinich and Bartlett) has come even remotely close to acknowledging the true problems we face, much less suggesting real solutions.

I think it’s safe to say that what you’re suggesting is far from certain.

I should point out that even companies who are involved in solar energy are not as optimistic as you are about the potential for solar.  Richard Meyer, Head of Technial Analysis Concentrating (Solar Power) at Epuron in Germany, gave a presentation at ASPO VII the other day called "Potential of Solar Energy for Replacing Fossil Fuel".  His most optimistic assessment was that we could replace 35% of the US’s total energy with solar by 2050.

This is incredibly optimistic because the financing for such a deployment of solar would include a $5 tax on every MWh produced from fossil fuels.  I find it difficult to imagine that our government would implement such a tax anytime soon.

I could go on, but suffice to say that although solar holds tremendous potential, there are many  obstacles and challenges to realizing that potential.  These have to be adequately considered in order to develop an accurate working model for what is possible with solar.

  • Sat, Nov 01, 2008 - 04:16pm

    #12
    switters

    switters

    Status Gold Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jul 19 2008

    Posts: 435

    count placeholder0

    Re: The problem with renewable energy

[quote=Akrotiri21]

 

Switters,

A couple of things I am not sure about in your last response.  One is your statement that:

If we take 5% as a mean, in 10 years we’d have 50% less oil production than we do now.  Since we’re currently producing 84mbd, that means we’d hav only 42mbd per day by that time.  The problem, of course, is that demand will increase during that time because of India and China.  Both of these opposing factors will contribute to the supply gap / shortage.

Here are my concerns:

(1) I gather you use 5% as the mean between 2% and 9%, but this seems to be prior to yearly capacity additions and the bringing on of any non-conventionals.  Yearly capacity additions over the last 8 years have been something like 4mbd, or 4-5 % and we should be able to expect something — 2-3 mbd from other sources coming on — for a few years, anyway.  So if 5% is prior to these additions, then decline is roughly flat; if after, then I think you are assuming a pretty high underlying decline rates — something like 10-11%.  That latter may be right, but it is currently an outlier prediction.  (Even Campbell has used a 2.5% net decline rate).[/quote]

I think many of the estimates for nonconventionals do not adequately take into account the amount and cost of conventional oils needed to extract them.  Nor do the estimates factor in the very real effects that extracting these nonconventionals will have on the environment (climate change, drawdown of water, etc.) and the economy (economic impacts of severe weather events, drought, food shortages, etc. caused by rapid increase in greenhouse gases from burning tar sands).

Therefore, I find it difficult to accept that we will get a smooth and continuous contribution of 4-7mbd from nonconventionals in the coming years.  According to Jeremy Legget, the oil industry won’t be able to extract more than 2.5mbd from tar sands even in the most optimistic scenario.

[quote](2) As I run the numbers, a 5% yearly decline rate doesn’t get us 50% less or from 84 to 82, but to 65.

How I get there: multiplying 84mbd by 95% gets us 79.8 after year 1; multiplying 79.8 by 95% gets us 75.81 after year two; multiplying 75.81 by 95% gets us 72.01 after year three; multiplying 72.01 by 95% gets us 68.4 after year four; multiplying 68.4 by 95% gets us 64.99 after five years.  So 5 full years later we have a 23% total reduction.  I don’t know if I have done this incorrectly, but it falls squarely in the range of most projections (as graphed by Hutter). [/quote]

Sorry for the fuzzy math… I was in a hurry yesterday when I wrote that post and didn’t check my numbers.  

[quote](3) As I understand it, demand is a member of a 3-part equation, with price bringing supply into equilibrium with demand.  Where production is very cheap (plentiful) demand will be high.  Kind of like with cheap electricity, we all wander around leaving lights on and buy greedy appliances.  But if electricity becomes very expensive, then demand diminishes very quickly (cut the lights, install energy savers).  So it seems to me misleading to take current levels of demand at current prices and suggest that this is what demand will be and anything less than that equals a shortage; it is what demand would be at the same very cheap prices.  But we agree that scarcity will be kicking in, rapidly sending signals to consumers to substitute, converserve, forego use.  And here is where I agree with you about something that makes me a bit optimistic about our demand elasticity: our current way of life doesn’t actually make us very happy, so making changes isn’t really sacrifice, and many of us are already ready to do it.  Anecdotally I think of one Japanese teenager’s response to a question about what kind of car she would like:  None: "Cars are so 20th century."[/quote]

Certainly demand destruction (from a deflationary recession/depression and/or higher prices) and conservation will have some impact on consumption.  However, analysts like Jeremy Legget have warned against relying on these market mechanisms:

But, some will say, demand has been falling fast since oil hit $147,
and that will head off the problem. It is true that the transport
sector is changing, and it shows the scope we have for cutting global
energy demand and changing supply if we try. But there are problems
with relying on this market mechanism.

First, continuing growth in demand in China and India
is likely to drown out any reduction in demand from structural changes
in the west. Second, the oil industry has – almost incomprehensibly –
been investing less in exploration in recent years. Too much of the
vast profit we saw from BP earlier this week goes on share buybacks.
Third, the industry is relying on aged oilfields, aged infrastructure
and an aged workforce just at the time when oilfields are becoming more
difficult to find and are taking ever longer — sometimes more than a
decade — to bring onstream even when found. Fourth, the oil- and
gas-producing nations have massive and growing infrastructure
programmes that increasingly cut into their scope for export. Fifth, we
worry that Opec has been subject to the same irrational exuberance
about delivery capacity as the international oil companies have been.

[quote]Next, you wrote:

 You cannot have economic growth without a growth in the supply of energy.  I have not seen a single economist who is taken seriously argue with that fundamental truth.

This is, I think, in response to my question:

 But I sense in other comments that "energy intensive" is considered to be intrinsically related to economic growth (and maybe environmental degradation) and therefore less energy intensive is required for a future in which fewer of us live  well.  Is this correct?

All I was asking was whether energy intensive somehow entailed economic growth, not whether growth required additional energy; put differently, can one have an intensive-energy-steady-state-economy, or is that somehow incoherent?

Regarding the "fundamental truth", isn’t it true that you can have economic growth with a static supply of energy if you capture efficiency gains?  Or is that a mistake?

I think we at least agree that — one way or another — we will be moving to a way of life that is more sustainable and enjoyable.  Thanks again for the conversation. [/quote]

I don’t know the answer to this question.  I suppose, theoretically, that it would be possible to have an energy-intensive steady-state economy.  I know that William Catton would scoff at that idea.  He’s say that humans are no different than any other organism: give them an abundant supply of energy and they’ll multiply and grow.

Others would argue that humans can and will figure out a way to resist that biological imperative, and maintain equilibrium with their environment.  

If energy supply is flat but efficiencies are increasing, then the supply of available (usable) energy is still growing so I imagine we could still have economic growth in those circumstances.

The question I have is how likely it is that these efficiencies will be realized in a world reeling from the impacts of climate change, energy decline, resource depletion and economic instability.  Perhaps this is a difference in the way that you and I are imagining the next 30-50 years.  I think there’s going to be a lot of disruption and disintegration of current systems, and that it will not be possible to simply continue with business as usual.  Even during the best of times, it would be a monumental challenge to respond to the "triple threat" of the Three Es; it will be exponentially more difficult as the impacts of these challenges are experienced more directly.

Of course I could be wrong.  And I actually hope that I am! 

  • Sat, Nov 01, 2008 - 04:21pm

    #13
    switters

    switters

    Status Gold Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jul 19 2008

    Posts: 435

    count placeholder0

    Re: The problem with renewable energy

[quote=srbarbour]

I’d add that various cellulosic ethanols are rated at 5:1 energy ratios.   Almost all of these can be produced without a drop of oil additive, though not in so large of quantities. 

[/quote]

Steve,

Have you seen this article on TOD on the Coskata cellulistic ethanol hype?

 

  • Sat, Nov 01, 2008 - 04:53pm

    #14
    srbarbour

    srbarbour

    Status Bronze Member (Offline)

    Joined: Aug 23 2008

    Posts: 52

    count placeholder0

    Re: The problem with renewable energy

[quote]Steve,

Have you seen this article on TOD on the Coskata cellulistic ethanol hype?[/quote]

I don’t care about one company’s hype. There are well over a dozen entities that are involved directly or indirectly in the production of cellulosic ethanol. Some make more dramatic claims than others. Most of these techniques are directly competitive with $3+ gasoline — this is proven by already existing manufacturing. Many have claimed the potential, if given the time and investments, to become competitive with $1.50+ gasonline. Since this is a rather mild improvement, and cellulosic ethanol is massively underdeveloped, there is plenty of reason to believe it has merit.

(Corn ethanol is already fairly competitive with $1.50+ gasoline…)

In any case, what is provided in that article is merely healthy skeptisim of Coskata’s claims. My feelings? The government and other entities should 1) Do their research, 2) Invest in a wide variety of techologies and find out which ones are pure bullshit and which ones are real.

We have, frankly, spent hundreds of billions of dollars on much stupider things than a large scale experiment that has huge implications for our energy future. The worst that happens is it all goes bust, and everyone knows for sure we need to look elsewhere.

Besides, even if they go bust, chances are one of the technologies developed from the whole mess will be worth more than the entire investment combined.

Steve

 

 

 

  • Sat, Nov 01, 2008 - 07:00pm

    #15
    switters

    switters

    Status Gold Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jul 19 2008

    Posts: 435

    count placeholder0

    Re: The problem with renewable energy

Regarding the IEA report which estimated depletion at 9.1%, Richard Heinberg writes the following:

"Considering regular crude oil only, this means that 6.825 million
barrels a day of new production capacity must come on line each year
just to keep up with the aggregate natural decline rate in existing
oilfields. That’s a new Saudi Arabia every 18 months."

He goes on to cast serious doubts on the IEA’s qualifying statment that the world can still achieve higher levels of production with "adequate investment" in exploration and nonconventionals like tar sands:

"In other words, if the $12 trillion that vanished from the world stock
markets last week were invested in new tarsands projects, then
theoretically a few more years of total oil production growth could be
eked out (not growth in net energy production, mind you, but in the
gross—and I do mean gross—production of exotic, very expensive stuff
that it’s physically possible to run your car on, assuming you could
afford to do so)." 

He also said that if the IEA estimate is accurate, then oil production almost certainly peaked in July 2008.

Matt Simmons, for example, and Jeffrey Brown, the creator of the Export Land Model have both been telling as many people as they can that the decline rates, for a host of reasons, are going to be higher than most people expected.  Maybe they anticipated this. 

Even Shell thinks peak will happen before 2015:

“Shell estimates that after 2015 supplies of easy-to-access oil and gas will no longer keep up with demand.” – Jeroen van der Veer, CEO Shell 

Some of the decline may be offset by unconventionals coming online.  The IEA has estimated the unconventional output for 2008 to be 3.42mbd.  For the sake of argument, let’s assume crude oil + NGL did peak at 82.6mbd (IEA estimate of August 2008 production).  If conventionals do decline at 9.1% a year, that’s a loss of 7.52mbd the first year, which translates into a net decline of 4.10mbd (or 4.95%). 

Folks familiar with projections on theoildrum will know that 2%
declines mean reasonably painful adaptation, 5% declines spell very
painful adjustments, while 10% declines mean societal breakdown on the
larger levels. 

But remember, the effects of the current economic crisis on our capacity to increase or even maintain current production of both conventional and unconventional oil must be considered. 

The continued expansion of tar sands production, for example, is by no means assured.  From an article on Rigzone.com:

"Oil
sands companies were the first to feel the pain of plunging oil prices
and the credit crisis. Mining tar-like bitumen and shipping it to
refineries costs more than extracting hydrocarbons from more
conventional fields, bumping up the oil sands’ price threshold.
Analysts estimate some projects may need a long-term oil price of $100
a barrel or even higher to make a decent return.

The high upfront capital costs often lead to heavy reliance on the
credit markets, especially for start-up firms with no independent cash
flow. But this option has slammed shut amid the global liquidity
crisis, and oil sands developers have already started rejiggering
project plans as a result."

The cost of starting a new tar sands project has also risen dramatically over the past few years:

"Five
years ago, the capital cost of building a project that mined bitumen
and processed it into high-quality crude was around C$40,000 per barrel
of production, reckons Andrew Potter, a UBS Securities analyst. The
same project today could cost C$180,000 per barrel, or around C$18
billion for a typical 100,000 barrel-a-day development."

As far as conventional sources go, it’s not reserves that matter.  Peak oil happens when new production flows are fully offset by production declines.  There are many factors which can affect flow rates:

  • geological constraints, i.e. North Sea
  • political constraints, i.e. Russia & Saudi Arabia
  • physical contstraints, i.e. Nigeria
  • human resource constraints, i.e. lack of skilled labor (experienced engineers)
  • capital constraints, i.e. Mexico & Venezuela

The complexity of how all of these variables fit together is staggering, and I think that’s part of the reason that we often see projections for future production that ignore one or more of the variables.  My personal opinion is that when all of the variables are factored in, we are in for a very rough road over the next several years. 

 

  • Sat, Nov 01, 2008 - 07:16pm

    #16
    switters

    switters

    Status Gold Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jul 19 2008

    Posts: 435

    count placeholder0

    Re: The problem with renewable energy

[quote=srbarbour]

(Corn ethanol is already fairly competitive with $1.50+ gasoline…)

[/quote]

You can’t be serious about corn ethanol being competitive with gasoline.  That price includes neither the huge subsidy corn gets nor the huge subsidy gasoline gets in this country.

Furthermore, it has been estimated that between 157 – 262% of existing U.S. cropland would be required to to produce just half of U.S. demand for liquid fuel using corn ethanol.  Corn ethanol requires heavy inputs of water, fertilizer, pesticides and energy to produce.  (Fertilizer is dependent upon NG, and pesticide and energy are oil dependent unless we can produce enough liquid fuel alternatives to make a significant dent).

Not to mention the fact that corn ethanol releases 81-85 kg of CO2 per megajoule of energy produced.  It’s not exactly going to help with climate change.

 

  • Sat, Nov 01, 2008 - 07:33pm

    #17
    srbarbour

    srbarbour

    Status Bronze Member (Offline)

    Joined: Aug 23 2008

    Posts: 52

    count placeholder0

    Re: The problem with renewable energy

[quote]

You can’t be serious about corn ethanol being competitive with
gasoline.  That price includes neither the huge subsidy corn gets nor
the huge subsidy gasoline gets in this country.

Furthermore, it has been estimated that between 157 – 262% of existing U.S. cropland would be required to to produce just half
of U.S. demand for liquid fuel using corn ethanol.  Corn ethanol
requires heavy inputs of water, fertilizer, pesticides and energy to
produce.  (Fertilizer is dependent upon NG, and pesticide and energy
are oil dependent unless we can produce enough liquid fuel alternatives
to make a significant dent).

[/quote]

Uh, no.   I think corn ethanol is terrible.  Worse, it is a distraction from the much better biofuels.   However, it is pertinent to point out the economic factors that make it difficult for corn ethanol to be unseated.

Steve 

 

  • Sat, Nov 01, 2008 - 08:33pm

    #18
    Akrotiri21

    Akrotiri21

    Status Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jul 10 2008

    Posts: 8

    count placeholder0

    Re: The problem with renewable energy

Switters and Steve –

We will have to wait and see the IEA assessment, I guess.  Heinberg’s observation about the volume required and what that would entail if decline is at 9.1% is indisputable; the industry apparently has averaged something 4mbd in additions each year, and we can apparently expect that to continue for a bit, with help from biofuels, nonconventionals, etc. — but all said, net depletion will be setting in shortly and that could still be above 3%-4%.  I’m not disagreeing with any of this; just trying to figure out where along the spectrum from undulating plateaut to the roller coaster heading over the hill kind of plunge we are looking at.  I have seen a number of estimates — including Ken Deffeyes — that point to something like an undulating plateau until about 2020.  Obviously I — I think we — would prefer that for the time it affords for adapting once it has become clear to everyone business as usual must halt and we must now deal with this roaring, multi-headed hydra of a problem.

Brown’s Export Land Model predictions are certainly unnerving — not only because it shows that exports decrease more rapidly than depletion once a country peaks (at least for a bit; Brown has acknowledged that internal pressure to export can take hold as well, pushing exports back up), but also because it underscores the impact on the exporter in terms of lost revenues.  Mexico, for example, may well be on its way to being a failed state with horrendous consequences for its citizens.

One question I have — and you touched on it indirectly by citing Leggett — is the assumption that demand decrease in the US will be swallowed up by China and India.  I suspect this is based on extending out growth rates for I&C, but will these rates really hold?  With the world economy in recession, demand for Chinese and Indian goods and services way down, and then very high oil prices, should we assume these growth rates continue?  Up until now, and very broadly, these countries could subsidize their oil consumption due to large trade balances (or so I read); without that trade, doesn’t production fall off (manufacturing use) and the consumer subsidies become increasingly burdensome?  I have seen China saying that it will now try to maintain its economy by growing internal demand, but is that possible when it has to import expensive oil and doesn’t enjoy the trade revenue it previously had?  I frankly have no idea — any thoughts?

 

 

 

 

  • Sat, Nov 01, 2008 - 09:12pm

    #19
    switters

    switters

    Status Gold Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jul 19 2008

    Posts: 435

    count placeholder0

    Re: The problem with renewable energy

[quote=Akrotiri21]

One question I have — and you touched on it indirectly by citing Leggett — is the assumption that demand decrease in the US will be swallowed up by China and India.  I suspect this is based on extending out growth rates for I&C, but will these rates really hold?  With the world economy in recession, demand for Chinese and Indian goods and services way down, and then very high oil prices, should we assume these growth rates continue?  Up until now, and very broadly, these countries could subsidize their oil consumption due to large trade balances (or so I read); without that trade, doesn’t production fall off (manufacturing use) and the consumer subsidies become increasingly burdensome?  I have seen China saying that it will now try to maintain its economy by growing internal demand, but is that possible when it has to import expensive oil and doesn’t enjoy the trade revenue it previously had?  I frankly have no idea — any thoughts?

[/quote]

You raise a good question and I don’t think that anyone really know the answer.  Leggett thinks that demand in I&C will continue to increase in spite of a worldwide recession/depression, simply because they are so much lower on the curve than we are.  In the case of China, it’s arguable that they will weather the economic crisis better than most and thus be in a position to continue growing.  Of course others disagree and say that the decrease in U.S. demand for Chinese products will bring their economy to its knees.

Who knows what direction it will go in?  Will we have a plateau for 10 years?  For 20?  For two?  There are just too many variables to predict accurately, but in a sense it’s a "lose-lose" scenario.  If we experience a depression bad enough to destroy demand for an extended period, the economic consequences of that are going to make development and production of both oil and renewables very difficult.  Peak might be pushed back a bit as a result, but we may end up in an even worse position than we are now to deal with it when it actually arrives.  If the recession is relatively controlled and demand continues to increase in India and China, then we’ll likely hit peak very soon and be right up against all of the problems we’ve been discussing.

Either way, we should be on a crash course of developing renewables and making dramatic changes in our social and political ethos – not to mention our way of life – to prepare for the transition, whenever peak actually turns out to be.  That is what I ferverently hope for and work for every day.  Unfortunately, these changes aren’t happening fast enough.  All we can do is prepare ourselves, our families and communities; keep spreading the word; and keep holding the vision for a better world for future generations.

 

  • Sat, Nov 01, 2008 - 10:01pm

    #20
    switters

    switters

    Status Gold Member (Offline)

    Joined: Jul 19 2008

    Posts: 435

    count placeholder0

    Re: The problem with renewable energy

Certainly Mish thinks China is going to go down with the rest:

For the third month in four, China’s manufacturing is in contraction. July and August were in contraction as discussed in China’s Manufacturing Contracts for Second Month.

Manufacturing in China expanded in September but has reversed to the downside once again. Amidst weak global demand China Manufacturing Contracts as Crisis Trims Exports.

Full post

Viewing 10 posts - 11 through 20 (of 21 total)

Login or Register to post comments