An urban legend to comfort America: alternative energy will save us
Summary: This is post #5 in a series examining “urban legends” about energy that comfort Americans. There are solutions, but not the easy ones in which so many Americans have confidence.
I. Our massive reserves of unconventional oil.
II. We’ll run crash programs to solve peak oil, just as we mobilized for WWII.
III. Demand creates supply, by raising prices.
IV. Oil is Oil, even if it is not oil
V. Demand creates supply, from new technology.
Unfortunately, we can rely on none of these myths to see us through the transitional process known as peak oil. Certainly these myths do not substitute for intense research and planning. As dsicussed in previous posts, we know astonishingly little about our consumption patterns, available energy resources, and alternatives. Nor has the available information been collected, analyzed, and used for models and simulations — the foundation of good planning. News reports said that the resent satellite interception cost $125 million; one-tenth of that could fund a multi-disciplinary project that would help plan a sound future for America’s energy supply. Instead we rely on inspired guessing.
Here we discuss three comforting myths about alternative energy sources. These are excuses for not doing the hard work of gathering information, analysis, planning, and executing programs necessary to prepare for the multi-decade transition through peak oil to the next era (whatever that will be).
(V) Demand creates supply, from new technology
We often hear that rising prices will incent scientists and inventors to produce clean and bountiful new energy sources, from Mr. Fusion to zero-point energy generators. I too share this faith, but that does not mean that these wonderful devices will appear when we need them. This is the “whale oil” fallacy. Yes, it happened in the 19th century that new sources appeared before the last whale was harvested for its oil. That does not make it a law of nature.
Almost all significant inventions require decades to move from invention to commercialization. Crash programs (see #II above) can accelerate this somewhat, but seldom can they accomplish in two years what usually takes two decades. Only fools would risk out prosperity on the long odds of doing so.
Potential new sources of energy
Unfortunately we have few new new sources of energy hot in the labs. Most of our “B team” of energy sources (replacements for oil) were developed long ago, waiting for oil prices to rise sufficiently to make them commercially viable. There were discussed in chapter I – IV.
- Converting biomass to ethanol might be humanity’s first chemistry project.
- Wind was harnessed as a power source in 12th century Europe.
- The first solar cell was built in 1883.
- The first geothermal power plant was built in 1911.
- Coal to liquids was used to power the NAZI’s war machines, and by South Africa during the apartheid days.
- Nukes have been slowly improving in reliability and cost-efficiency since the first reactor in 1942.
- The first tidal power plant was built on the Rance River in 1966.
All of these have great potential for use today, but improvements will likely be incremental. They will take many years to roll out on a large scale to provide a significant fraction of our global energy supply. While valuable tools to help us adapt to peak oil, none are panaceas. None provide cheap energy on a large scale (some, such as converting waste vegetable oil to fuel, are cheap but of limited availability).
There are few new technologies with promise to deliver over the next decade or so, such as orbital solar collectors. Perhaps the most promising is fusion, from either the massively funded tokamak (e.g., the ITER project) or the almost garage-science Polywell. However, fusion has been a promising technology for at least 30 years — with commercial development always a will-of-the wisp, remaining just out of reach.
Most likely peak oil will be “fought” with the tools we have today, a “come as you are” party. While the future will see radically new ways to generate and use energy, peak oil might have come and become irrelevant (due to our adaptation) before these achieve large-scale development.
Timeline of peak oil
There are 3 important things to know about forecasts for the arrival of peak oil.
- Publicly available data is inadequate to reliably forecast it.
- Forecasts range from 2005 (T. Boone Pickens and Kenneth Deffeyes) to after 2030 (Cambridge Energy Research Associates-CERA, and the Energy Information Agency-EIA)
- Forecasts are being moved in, not out (International Energy Agency-IEA from 20+ to approx 5 years; Shell from 20+ to aprox 10 years, S. Husseini from 2015 to now).
Our adaptation to peak oil will be rapid, from a historical perspective. There will be a period slowing supply growth (which may have started in 2004), a plateau (short or long), and then a decline (fast or slow). The work of Robert Hirsch and others suggests that in two decades we will have passed through the transition, one way or another. If we start soon and plan well this transition might be smooth, with a little luck. Bad luck and fecklessness on our part and it could be a 20 year depression.
Our adaptation to peak oil
Everything — wars, famines, plagues — works itself out eventually. We will adapt to peak oil, one way or another. Our goal is to do so in a way that preserves America’s wealth and income.
Just saying that we will adapt tells us nothing. As John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1923:
“In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if, in tempestuous seasons, they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”
The next two posts in this series will discuss this in more detail, examining biofuels and fusion.
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For more more information
Some posts about unconventional and alternative energy sources
- Links to articles and presentations of some A-team energy experts , 11 November 2007
- The most dangerous form of Peak Oil , 8 April 2008
- The three forms of Peak Oil (let’s hope for the benign form) , 23 April 2008
- The world changed last week, with no headlines to mark the news, 25 April 2008
- Fusion energy, too risky a bet for America (we prefer to rely on war) , 4 May 2008
- Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off , 8 May 2008
- When the King of Saudi Arabia talks about oil, we should listen , 2 July 2008
- Red Alert: the Saudi Princes have annouced the arrival of Peak Oil , 11 July 2008
- Good news about oil, but for our grandkids – not us , 14 July 2008
- The secret cause of high oil prices , 6 August 2008
Here is an archive of all my articles about Peak Oil.
To see studies about energy — including oil, coal, nuclear, and alternative energy — see the FM Reference Page: Peak Oil – Other Resources.