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.

This is the last post in a series examining 5 “urban legends” about energy that comfort Americans. 

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.

  1. Converting biomass to ethanol might be humanity’s first chemistry project.
  2. Wind was harnessed as a power source in 12th century Europe.
  3. The first solar cell was built in 1883.
  4. The first geothermal power plant was built in 1911.
  5. Coal to liquids was used to power the NAZI’s war machines, and by South Africa during the apartheid days.
  6. Nukes have been slowly improving in reliability and cost-efficiency since the first reactor in 1942.
  7. 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.

  1. Publicly available data is inadequate to reliably forecast it.
  2. Forecasts range from 2005 (T. Boone Pickens and Kenneth Deffeyes) to after 2030 (Cambridge Energy Research Associates-CERA, and the Energy Information Agency-EIA)
  3. 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.

Please share your comments by posting below.  Please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For more more information

Some posts about unconventional and alternative energy sources

  1. Links to articles and presentations of some A-team energy experts , 11 November 2007
  2. The most dangerous form of Peak Oil , 8 April 2008
  3. The three forms of Peak Oil (let’s hope for the benign form) , 23 April 2008
  4. The world changed last week, with no headlines to mark the news, 25 April 2008
  5. Fusion energy, too risky a bet for America (we prefer to rely on war) , 4 May 2008
  6. Peak Oil Doomsters debunked, end of civilization called off , 8 May 2008
  7. When the King of Saudi Arabia talks about oil, we should listen , 2 July 2008
  8. Red Alert: the Saudi Princes have annouced the arrival of Peak Oil , 11 July 2008
  9. Good news about oil, but for our grandkids – not us , 14 July 2008
  10. 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.

21 thoughts on “An urban legend to comfort America: alternative energy will save us”

  1. The other problem is the TYPE of energy available.

    I think the solar rollout is going to be far faster than Fabius Maximus believes: Its a silicon technology, and there are some very VERY interesting plants in the low-rate/mid-rate production phase (First Solar with their bigscreen-TV style production, Nanosolar with their print on production, others): several GW of installed solar a year seems like its only a couple years away at the current economics.

    Its like LCD TVs: That market went from none to universal, including a lot of replacement of existing TVs that wasn’t necessary: a VERY fast transition.

    Likewise, wind has dropped enough in cost (thanks to airplane technology for the blades and other such advances) to be economically viable with only a little political juice.

    But cheap daytime electricity won’t power our cars and our trucks!

    Battery technology is just Not There for viable electric cars, and the roadmap for batteries is far worse than the roadmap for solar. A plug-in Prius might have a 10 mile electric-only range with economically viable batteries. The Volt may claim a 40 mile range, but thats a $40K car, mostly because of the battery pack!
    Fabius Maximus replies: Taking solar from 1% to 10% will take years. Look at the time required for personal computers to go from a rarity (1982) to everywhere in home and work (1998?). The rollout of new tech is a well-understood process.

    And, as you note, peak oil is largely about liquid fuels used for transportation. Solar cannot directly run cars or trucks. Other systems are needed, such as plug-in hybrids. And these too require many years to develop and rollout in tens of millions. And they must be serviced, requiring new systems and trained people.

    Why is this so difficult to understand?

  2. FM speaks well in terms of pointing out the utter insanity of this country NOT devoting significant resources to taking stock of where we are, what our needs are projected to be, and modeling various ways to meet them. This is especially tragic given that we have the information required to start, the talent to process it, and the technological tools to make significant progress.

    On a more inductive level it seems apparent to me, and others have pointed this out at least in part: we have two types of supply, carbon-based and not, and two types of demand, transportational and not. Absent any unanticipated breakthroughs, which we may hope for but should not expect, it is clear that we should insofar as possible use non-carbon fuels for non-transportational uses, and carbon fuels for transportation. If this is true, then a major issue becomes the recycling and recapture of carbon, on as local a basis as possible (to maximize efficiency). Conceptual, financial and legal incentives are probably best introduced from the top down, but detailed solutions and implementations are probably best done from the bottom up, nationally on the one hand and on a local/county level on the other.

    It also may be true that collectively, in this matter, we have arrived at a point where the economic Darwinism of the free market is no longer functional because of limited resources. Greed and bottom-line shortsightedness in this area, as in health care and high finance, are now overt threats to the three rights that are supposedly inalienable. We must adjust.

  3. The economics are somewhat different on solar. US total electricity production is ~4 PWh/year (wikipedia).

    A GW/year production facility becomes ~2 TWh/year for solar (300 sunny days, 8 hours/day) in the sunnier areas of the US (there is a LOT of desert in the southwest). And Nanosolar’s and First Solar’s single plants are each ~1 GW/year of solar cells, and about a 2 year startup time for their current production plants (future plants would be quicker).

    So just 10 plants on the NanoSolar/FirstSolar scale can increase US electricty production by .5% a year, with reasonable rampup and low capital costs. So I think solar CAN be built faster. As a bonus, solar can be placed far closer to use to minimize transition loss.

    Its actually about the only one which does have a fast-ramp-up of capacity: akin to the adoption of LCD TVs rather than personal computers. I just don’t think it will do very much good with regard to oil issues!

    It doesn’t provide night-time capacity, which means solar makes sense for heavy-industry: if I was a smelter out reasonably-far south I’d be putting in as big a solar farm as I could: getting as many of my power costs fixed for the next 30+ years is a big BIG benefit.

    If I was Google, I’d be investing bigtime in solar farms (and they are): it may power my servers only 8 hours/day, but given that daytime ONLY use of the server costs ~$130/year easily for a server costing <$800, power is a big part of the cost, and Google although they try to have their systems pegged 24/7, there is a lot of stuff they could run 8/7 instead.

    But it doesn’t power homes well. And it doesn’t power cars! The classic Lawrence Livermore “water flow” graph shows the problem: Any solution which doesn’t change the flow into the TRANSPORTATION box, or change the size of the transportation box, is not going to solve the oil problems.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Gosh, that is so simple. Hop right over to DOE and tell them everything is AOK, no need to worry.

    Except for a few minor details, which have been explained hundreds or thousands of times in reports about solar. Let’s go over them again.

    (1) The Nanosolar story is as yet verified (see the Wikipedia page for links). (2) Solar is not just a renewable source, is is also an interruptable source. So there must be a provision for back-up power (e.g., natural gas turbines), which are part of the cost equation — and make it far more expensive at present than coal, nukes, or natural gas. (3) Grid stability becomes difficult to maintain when interruptable sources provide more than 5%, with 10% probably the current max.

    For more about this see “Electric Power from Renewable Energy: Practical Realities for Policy-Makers” (a slide presentation based on his December 2002 article in the Journal of Fusion Energy (the article an be purchased online here)

  4. {references to charcoal were a translation error}

    To set up a CTL plant would require about two years. Add one year planning/bureaucracy time and one year waiting time because the plant construction companies have full order books.
    The second wave of such plants could be done after another two years, the third after another two years at most.

    That wouldn’t enable a rapid replacement of crude oil, but replace maybe about one per cent of the crude oil, and I don’t expect the supply gap to grow faster than that. The coal production would need to be increased as well – this involves different companies.

    The wind/solar/geothermal power alternatives could replace new charcoal power plants and lead to a decrease of charcoal coal consumption plus enable old charcoal coal and nuclear power plants to take over the peak demand time activity of natural gas power plants. Again – a slow replacement process, but possibly exactly the amount of replacement that’s necessary.

    Germany covers almost 7% of its energy demand with renewable energy. Water energy is at its max. potential, wind energy won’t have major growth as well, photosynthesis-based energy is extremely area-inefficient and a dead end. Solar power has a huge potential (only the photovoltaic technology in Germany due to the clouds that scatter the light) – it depends entirely on the relative cost-effectiveness.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not see the point of your comment. What are you attempting to say?

    (1) CTL. I do not know where you are getting this information, but China — the only nation with a CTL-construction program — cannot expand CTL capacity that quickly. And these things run faster there than anything in the US! This also assumes that these plants scale up without problems (possible, but hardly certain). We might not learn about that soon, as China just cancelled most of their CTL program (finishing up one or two plants closest to completion).

    “wind/solar/geothermal power alternatives could replace new charcoal power plants”

    (2) Interruptable sources (e.g., wind, solar) are expensive due to the need to have back-up power sources available (which is part of their cost). (3) There are major technical problems when such sources provide greater than roughly 10% of grid power.

  5. I was going to write an opinion response to FM’s article but then I thought: Why are not more people writing out so much on this subject?

    This is the latest of numerous posts FM has put together on this and it is not easy, it will never be easy. It does and will take work and dilligence and initiative and thought and discipline to conceptualize a solution and more importantly to execute a solution. And it will not be a single solution or a single person’s solution or a single industry’s solution. It will be a collective economic solution. I think FM has captured this in his blogs on this subject.

    I think most of us need to shut our mouths and do something about it. It is behavior WE must modify. It is our job to work on the solution. Vote in the election but more importantly vote with your wallet.

    * Go out and buy tomorrow’s technology or even the latest technology where it is efficient.
    * Spend the time to consider alternatives for your life.
    * Know the costs of your decisions.
    * Or blog about it IF your willing to spend the time and effort FM has.

    Otherwise quit the speculation about the distant future and speculate about reducing next months bill. Demand FOR NEW TECHNOLOGY creates new technology.

  6. The viability of any energy technology depends not only on its efficiency in transforming a “flow” into electricity, but the availability of raw materials for construction. Most solar and wind enthusiasts will be hard pressed to find enough neodymium and other minor metals to scale up their devices to meet their projected claims. We’ll have to forgo a whole lot of cell phones, iPods, laptops, and other mobile devices to make enough rare metals available for thin-film photovoltaic use.

    Energy technology that uses the most widely available source materials and the least complicated technology has the best chances for long-term commercial viability. Some combination of geothermal for baseload power and solar mirrors for peak loads might work.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I have often seen this theory, but have never found any supporting material. Any cites for this?

  7. Why is your goal “adapt to peak oil, one way or another … [and] to do so in a way that preserves America’s wealth and income?”

    Just as converting to another energy source in a timely and scaleable fashion is not a law of nature, as you rightly say, it is also not a given that it is possible to preserve America’s wealth and income. Shouldn’t sustainability be a goal, along with quality of life, rather than standard of living, as implied in your goal?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Adapting in an environmentally friendly manner is a consideration, as it is in all industrial activity. Sustainability is not, IMO. Any more than it was in tapping oil in the first place.

    So we use more coal and uranium. Why not? They too will run out eventually, but that is no reason not to use them now — so long as we plan for the next transition, to avoid repeating this problem.

    Eventually all our current energy technologies will be considered barbaric (“In the 21st century they burning things to make energy and used windmills! How quaint.”). Much like Doctor McCoy looking at a 20th century hospital (“Cutting and stitching people like rugs!”)

  8. The technology exists today to provide all of our current requirements and more. So what is the issue? Rampup time.

    A reasonable person might conclude that we have three to five years before peak (see megaprojects and shell corporation’s estimate).

    A reasonable person might also conclude that we could power 250 million private vehicles in North America for a 30 mile trip off of electricity with a mix of coal, nuclear, wind, pumped storage, solar pv, solar thermal and hydro. That same reasonable person might conclude we need to build between 30% more generating capacity than we have today and 400% depending on the assumptions you make.

    The same reasonable person might conclude that due to the average turnover time in the US fleet, we could have an entirely new fleet in seven years.

    Unfortunately, though the technology exists to do all of the things we want to do, we only have 3-5 years and production capacity does not satisfy the goals.

    For generating capacity, the DOE ran a study that the current grid has enough off-peak capacity to run 84 million vehicles. I have run the numbers myself and depending on the assumptions, can either match this number or reduce it to 10 million vehicles. In any event, the planned additions to capacity will reach 30% by 2015 but won’t reach anywhere near 400%. That is the good news. The grid can take and will be able to take it.

    What is the bad news? We have nowhere near the capacity to produce 1 million electric vehicles per year never mind 40 million. That is not to say we are nowhere, because most all major auto manufacturers are building facilities to produce plug-in hybrids, but none will be ready on anything more than small scale before 2010.

    So the take home? Peak is here or nearly here and we have no suitable replacement in time. We WILL be facing a liquid fuels shortfall soon and thus demand destruction will be required to bring supply and demand back into balance.

    That may mean economic contraction. It may mean some of us will have to give up driving and take mass transit until production of electric vehicles has reached suitable volumes. What it does NOT mean are the associated myths that go along with peak oil such as die-off etc. It means economic contraction or demand contraction. That’s the reasonable conclusion.
    Fabius Maximus replies: You must have a different definition of “reasonable person” than I.

    “A reasonable person might conclude that we have three to five years before peak (see megaprojects and shell corporation’s estimate). … Peak is here or nearly here…”

    A range of forecasts extending from now thru 20+ years hardly supports your “reasonable belief.
    ** Forecasts of peaking in 8 – 15 years: many Wall Street experts, Wood MacKenzieJR West of PFC Energy.
    ** Forecasts of 15 – 20 years: ExxonMobile, Cambridge Energy, and the Energy Information Agency of the US government.

    “The same reasonable person might conclude that due to the average turnover time in the US fleet, we could have an entirely new fleet in seven years.”

    Perhaps you mean 17 years. The median age of cars in the US was aprox 9 years in 2007 (source: RL Polk survey). Even longer for commercial trucks. Destroying a large fraction of these assets makes little sense, unless oil prices go to hundreds of dollars/barrel.

  9. Saudia Arabia is the long anticipated answer to your question.
    Fabius Maximus replies: What does this mean?

  10. In your reply to comment 8, you reveal the kind of thinking that probably most have in the western world. As I mentioned earlier, there is no law of nature that dictates any civilization will be able to meet its resource requirements (aka desires), whatever they are. There is no law of nature that dictates resource and environmental limits are figments of our imaginations. Citing fictional characters does not strengthen an argument. We might find that our current energy sources are the pinnacle of what can reasonably be achieved, rather than the reverse that you imply (though I don’t personally believe that they are the pinnacle).

    You ask why we shouldn’t use whatever energy source is available. Your implication is that we should and it’s hard to argue against that. However, we should only do so if we have a plan for having less energy in the future. As we turn energy source after energy source into waste heat, it is inevitable that we’d have to eventually live with only what nature can provide on a yearly basis, instead of what it provided on an era basis. There will not always be transitions to some other energy source to feed our insatiable thirst for power.

    Sustainability should be our goal since unsustainable practices cannot endure. Only if we don’t want a society that endures should we have a goal of maintaining wealth and income.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I cannot see any basis for saying “it is inevitable that we’d have to eventually live with only what nature can provide on a yearly basis, instead of what it provided on an era basis.”

    The universe is filled with massive energy sources, dwarfing anything we are likley to need. A some point everything might end — protons themselves decaying away. But thye zillion years until then should be good ones.

    “There is no law of nature that dictates resource and environmental limits are figments of our imaginations.”
    True. And vice versa. So let’s use what is available, and continue the search for better sources.

  11. I like “sustainability” and like to measure it. Peaceful human organizations have a way to measure it.
    Profit. Organizations not making a profit are not sustainable. (The gov’t is not peaceful, and sustains itself with forced collections.)

    The gov’t, acting for the public, should be devoting some many millions of USD, now, to purchasing solar power for air conditioning of gov’t buildings, with panels over the the parking lots. In cooler Northern states, many millions of USD in wind farms, near cities. The gov’t should be changing tax laws to encourage other users to produce more energy. Of every type.

    There should be a revenue neutral gax tax / lifestyle change rebate, so that drivers pay more at the pump but get a check rebate — that will make it easier for them to change their behavior and reduce their gas purchases. If we are truly afraid of a future oil peak shock increase in cost, we should be attempting to increase the price ‘sooner’ than the market, in order to reduce demand sooner and reduce the shock.

    This won’t happen — because $150/bbl oil of 6 months ago is less than $100/bbl now. Due partly to the US and global economic slowdown. Had gas taxes been explicitly used to stabilize price increases since $40/bbl (not so long ago), it’s likely the US could have seen steady increase to the $100/bbl price.

    But voters don’t like the higher prices. And would prefer to believe myths, while voting for policies that promise to keep prices low. Thus, there is likely to be another price shock coming.

  12. The U.S. wastes so much energy that one of our best energy sources is just to stop wasting it. Drive a smaller car with a carpool of 4 and it cuts gas usage by a factor of 8.

    Right now, it is possible to get a quality electric bicycle with lithium battery for $3,000 and solar panels to power it for $1,000. The E-bike gets over 1,000 miles per gallon in energy equivalent. I commute to work on an E-bike and enjoy it. While my employer wants me to drag my carcass to work, they don’t seem to want me to bring a 3-ton steel box along (I have to pay for parking). I get to work as fast on the E-bike as in a car: door-to-door, and I can park it in the office.

    It looks to me like Peak Oil is real and we are facing a supply crunch and very high gas prices in a few years. But (not on FM’s list of myths): lack of supply causes creative alternatives.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Agreed! In my article discussing this I mention conservation as a combination of many factors: capital expenses to increase efficiency, substitution of labor and/or time for energy (switching from car to bike), and behavior changes (local vacation instead of Mexico).

  13. You said that you “cannot see any basis for saying ‘it is inevitable that we’d have to eventually live with only what nature can provide on a yearly basis, instead of what it provided on an era basis.'” The only way that what I said would not be the case is if humans eventually start to plunder or live on other planets, leaving a steady or falling population on earth able to import resources from off planet. And then the off-worlders able to eventually do the same (assuming they could make any off-world habitat liveable). Even then humans would eventually have to live on the yearly budget of what nature provides unless they cold somehow travel, and import resources from, other star systems that lie almost unimagineable distances away (it will not take us a year to travel a light year, but several orders of magnitude more).

    So to say you can see no basis for what I said appears to be incredible. Maybe you meant that you have hope that humans could plunder other worlds at some point in the future. However, given that we are talking about laws of nature, there is no law of nature that states humans will be able to figure out how to efficiently plunder other worlds. So my take is that we really ought to consider living off nature’s yearly budget given that there is, at least, a good likelihood that we’d have to do that eventually anyway. On the other hand, many people appear to want to continue believing humans can overcome limits, no matter what they are.

    Remember also that we need to live within nature’s budget without damaging the habitat that supports us. So it might not be a case of using whatever wind, sun, or tide energy that we can lay our hands on. All of these energy flows currently have a purpose within the current balance of nature and we must tread cautiously in trying to alter those flows.

    Sustainability is tough and I doubt humans have the wit to figure out how to live that way.

    You said, “‘There is no law of nature that dictates resource and environmental limits are figments of our imaginations.’ True. And vice versa.”

    What does that mean? What is vice versa? That limits may be figments of our imagination? Given that nature does impose limits (as we can observe with decreasing ore qualities, diminishing returns in oil exploration, and the effects on the environment of our emissions), trying to continue the American way of life (or the way of life of any other society that isn’t living sustainably) seems a very poor strategy.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I consider your opening statement a very narrow vision of possible futures. While your confidence in your vision is remarkable, the history of long-range predictions suggest that a bit more uncertainty is warranted.

    Esp odd the reference to “plundering other worlds.” Are their life forms on our moon, or the moons of Jupiter, that will object? If not, would disturbing their lifeless surface violate some religious belief of yours? If so, perhaps you could meet with a “right to life” group to get some tips on imposing your religious beliefs on the rest of us.

    “Even then humans would eventually have to live on the yearly budget of what nature provides unless they cold somehow travel, and import resources from, other star systems that lie almost unimagineable distances away”

    I suggest some time with the Encyclopædia Britannica. It would take some unimaginably long time to exhaust the natural resources of this solar system, or even the nearby parts of it. Even with our primitive technology, which will proably improve over time and make this discussion moot.

    The rest is a bit over the top, doomster distopias. Contemplate life in London circa 1500, 1700, 1900, and today. Try to imagine similar progress in the future.

  14. One key issue is bottlenecks. Each of the viable technologies has some sort of critical bottleneck. One major example is pressure vessels for PWR fission reactors (which requires incredibly high quality steel and very high skill levels to manufacture), another is turbines.

    The first is overcomable if there is a switch to the British gas cooled reactor design (AGR) or similar (as these do not require the steel preasurised containment vessel), but otherwise the industry worldwide (after been ran down for decades in many places) is flat out, with long leadtimes to expand production. The collapse in the related skilled workers simply adds to this issue. The UK, for example, cannot now build a nuke plant without (a) digging a lot of people out of retirement or (b) depending on the French.

    The second one is a killer. Solar thermal, geo-thermal and nuclear power (all mature and cost effective technologies) depend on turbines to turn heat into electricty. Cranking up production to meet the demand will be very difficult, for the exact same reasons, ie run down of plant and skilled workers. There is one hope here, the collapse of the airline industry will free up a lot of resources now applied to making jet engines, a very similar technology, unfortunately a cynic would predict that the plant be sold off and the workers be allowed to rot on unemployment, or will find jobs overseas.

    We’re back to the tyranny of lead times, it takes time to build up the plants and skills necessary and the longer we wait the tougher it becomes.

    Don’t worry though other places are stuffing up as well. Here in Oz, where geo-thermal and solar thermal have been calculated as enough to meet all electricity demands .. we’re pouring money into that great oxymoron ‘clean coal’. Raises that old issue “are we collectively too stupid as a species to survive”?

  15. I try to calculate this on a monthly basis. I publish a spreadsheet on the following website every month:

    The exports are simply derived from adding KSA’s NGPL production to their C+C production and then subtracting an estimate of their monthly consumption. The Kingdom’s production numbers are fairly reliable and usually confirmed by at least 4 Western sources: BP, EIA, IEA, and Platts. Internal consumption numbers are as good as any for any other country.

    Exports should be fairly easy to verify and usually are by an outfit called Oil Movements which tracks tankers. The tankers are clearly observable by satellite and narrow choke points (Suez Canal, Straits of Hormuz). Suezmax and VLCC tankers hold 1 million and 2 million barrels each. The Kingdom exports approximately 8-9 million barrels per day. That’s not a lot of tankers. They have long, standard routes and final destinations where the oil is also counted.

    There is some question whether or not all the NGPLs are consumed in the domestic petrochemical industry or if and how much of them are exported. If it is that important I know that the information is out there to allow one to answer that question or at least make a reasonable guess.
    Fabius Maximus replies: {revised reply} We have a winner!

    Yes, we rely on tanker movements to calcuate Saudi oil exports. Several firms track them. Petrologistics, I believe, is the oldest and best known (profile here). Lloyd’s also does so, plus other smaller firms. This data has a long history of variance with other sources, despite it being seemingly simple and accurate to track.

    There was the infamous “missing oil” in 1998. And this summer oil prices collapsed in part because of calculations that a surge of oil tankers were heading towards the US. They have yet to arrive. Lost in the Bermuda Triangle, perhaps?

    Much of our oil data comes from such sources, bizarre for real time data about the key commodity for the global economy. The reserve data is even less reliable. This makes the often confident and precise conclusions of some analysts seem odd, and accounts for the terrible track record of forecasts about oil. Reader beware!

    Note: I missed the last two paragraphs when I was interrupted by a telephone call, so my first response was wrong. My apologies to MFP.

  16. I think the most promising alternative energy souce is Geothemal. It is not dependent on the wind blowing or the sun shining. With advances in drilling technology we can exploit it practically anywhere in the World.
    Fabius Maximus replies: One of the oddities of the energy crisis is that we often see unproved theories described as fact. Geothermal is one of those about which great claims have been made since the 1970’s, with little to show for them. Such as hot dry rock geothermal.

    Perhaps new technology will, as you say, produce breakthough results. But at present these are still in small-scale tests. For a current report see “As Geothermal Energy Heats Up, 5 Next-Gen Projects Take Shape“, Popular Mechanics, 28 August 2008

  17. I think you better explain what you are getting at, since you’ve been hounding people for an answer to this one. Do you have an answer or a theory? Is it a trick question?
    Fabius Maximus replies: My reply to your comment was in error (interrupted by a call, I skipped the last 2 paragraphs. I have posted a revised reply and apology above.

  18. “I consider your opening statement a very narrow vision of possible futures. While your confidence in your vision is remarkable, the history of long-range predictions suggest that a bit more uncertainty is warranted.”

    Of course I’m uncertain over what the future holds. I have no crystal ball, nor do you. Should we not consider what we know? We know that this is quite a habitable planet, at the moment. We know that living elswhere would be very difficult. We know that the resources of this planet and the ability of this planets to absorb our waste without drastically altering our habitat is limited. What don’t we know? Well, we don’t know that we will be able to get off this planet in any meaningful way (as regards our present resource and climate difficulties), or recover resources from other worlds.

    So it seems that you want to ignore the certainties, in the hope that the uncertainties will pan out. Once again, not a particularly useful strategy, if you turn out to be wrong.

    “Are their life forms on our moon, or the moons of Jupiter, that will object?”

    What on earth are you talking about? I never said that there were life forms on other planets and used the term “plundering” loosely. Perhaps I should have toned it down. My apologies. It’s interesting, though, that you chose to latch onto this aspect, rather than the primary point that consuming the resources of other planets is a long way from being a given, and may never happen.

    “It would take some unimaginably long time to exhaust the natural resources of this solar system, or even the nearby parts of it. Even with our primitive technology, which will proably improve over time and make this discussion moot.”

    You seem to have a religious belief in mankind’s ability to reach out to other planets for our American style pleasures, and continue economic growth for ever (or at least as long as you care to think about). In 40 years, after setting foot on the moon, which other planet have humans set foot on? Are you absolutely, 100%, certain that they will set foot on other planets or robotically retrieve resources, economically, from other solar system bodies? Perhaps it’s not a religious belief (because there is some evidence that, given enough resources and time, humans might be able to do those things) but it seems foolish, in the extreme, to assume that these things will be possible and in a timely fashion to help bypass some of the limits we have on this planet.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Your comment about “plundering” other planets, and your comments here, go to the heart of this discussion. You appear to dismiss, without the slightest evidence or logic, our ability to continue technological progress.

    “You seem to have a religious belief in mankind’s ability to reach out to other planets for our American style pleasures, and continue economic growth for ever (or at least as long as you care to think about).”

    Is there any reason to think this progress will stop? To call this a “religious belief” is strange. I do so on the basis of history and current technological evolution. Both are as concrete as can be. The equivalent religion would be one where God has lived with us for several centuries, showering us with benefits and promising to stay and continue doing so. If that is your church, I will happly join.

    “In 40 years, after setting foot on the moon, which other planet have humans set foot on? ”

    We have demonstrated the ability to do so should the need arise.

  19. Sustainability, conservation, sounds fine. But as for “economic darwinism” of the free market, greed etc. being a source of the problem, and then drag in health care and financial markets, I must comment. So much of what we’re going through right now is caused or worsened by pushy/stifling politicians/agendas, pushing “affordable housing” with higher risks, contributing to collapse then saying they have to fix that too, or hobbling free markets in areas like health care, pushing up costs, red tape, then saying, gosh it doesn’t work! Government must take over (is there a pattern here?) I used to be able to afford my own health care not too long ago making LESS than I do now!!! No, I’m not against regulation or oversight.
    But how is the most recent bailout being used? NOT for its intended purposes. Knock the free market all you want. Bigger, stifling, meddling government is worse.

  20. Sigh… what people don’t understand is that technology is booming, look for instance at video games. they went from 2D pac-man, to things things like doom 3 call of duty world at war in a matter of decades, computers also went from 8 mb hard disks to 2 terrabyte Hard drives.

    now I’m saying if technology can do this, that it is well viable to say that batteries or superconductors will leap in efficiency, so i say that alt. energy is extremely useful and innovative. it is my hope that one day, superconductors will be able to capture lightning. far-fetched as this thought is, i think that within 50 years we will at least be well on our way towards limitless energy. besides FM thinks that Alt energy will progress as computers did.

    now imagine solar panels being invented without computers, this would have taken that amount of time. but with enough research going into Alt. energy I believe that, with computing and other such technology, that we can easily come up with very viable solar or hydro cars. I mean, if there if already The Volt, (car that runs completely on electricity) that if we stick a dc/ac converter in with a solar panel we can easily get a solar car in the next decade. Fm is talking about going from the beginnings of modern tech to current time. What equating Fm’s opinion of solar development to the real world is to compare Egyptians using slaves to using Aliens (please excuse this bad analogy). Thank you for your time.

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