"Peak Oil" is a catch phrase for the theory that
we are facing an upcoming slow exhaustion of conventionally obtained
fossil fuels. That much is so patently true that it borders on
tautology. Oil is a finite resource. One way or another, our
use of it therefore will cease. Larger oil deposits are easier to
find than smaller ones. Sooner or later, the oil fields we drill would
run out, and we would have to look for others, finding less and less
as time went by. What the Peak oil theory also claims is that as
oil extraction became more difficult, demand for oil would continue
to increase, making each barrel pricier and your share of oil
It's been 6 months after my first article, and the 200 day moving average for
the price of oil has reached $60 per barrel, and will continue to
rise slowly since winter has begun. The day by day price continues to
fluctuate by over a dollar. Oil and gas production in the Gulf of
Mexico has been severely disrupted by the last hurricane season, and
is not expected to recover until the summer, right in time for the
The Saudis have admitted that by 2015 they
expect not to be able to increase production in line with demand,
which in real terms means this day will come much sooner. In the last
six months, just as in the last 30 years, there have been no new major
finds of oil. And in the Appalachian Mountains, old oil wells are back
in production, now that their care and operation is profitable again.
Let's look at the alternatives.
Why the Alternatives are Paltry and Unattractive
Petroleum is a wonderfully convenient material. Yet it is a finite
resource, as was well known from the very beginning of our oil economy. The
supposed best hope for our time, the hydrogen economy, was discussed in
depth in a lecture by J.B.S. Haldane,
Daedalus, or Science and the Future
, presented to the Heretics circle in Cambridge in 1923.
In his lecture, Haldane pictured the future of Britain
after both coal and oil. What he imagined was a widespread deployment of
windmills, which are used to produce and liquify hydrogen,
stored underground thanks to Britain's limestone geology, ready for use
on demand by industry. He was also forward thinking enough to predict
the invention of flourescent lighting on account of the inefficiency of
the incandescent variety. Haldane could almost afford to be blithe
about a post-carbon Britain. He was only speaking of Britain, and an
older Britain, one highly dependent on coal but not yet on oil, and
a Britain where the farming was not yet "tractored out" and plenty of
people knew how to sail. And, there was no end in sight for oil or coal.
That was in 1923. Since then, the alternative energy scene
has evolved greatly, but is no more ready to replace oil than it was then.
To explain why, I should sing the praises of oil's great convenience.
Oil products, such as gasoline and diesel oil, carry
an astonishingly high concentration of energy. A single gram of oil
contains the energy of a day's labor on part of a healthy man.
(Ex-oilman Pierre Chomat coined the term Ergamine, or energy
slave, in his book Oil Addiction - The World in Peril.)
This energy can be put aside for long periods, moved around in
bottles small or very, very large, and stored safely. Then,
all this energy can be put to use at the turn of a key.
And to top it all off, we know how to use this energy in
machines that can propel themselves over most of the earth's
surface and perform hard labor wherever they go.
It is not easy to up such an ante, and despite decades of hard
work, the alternative energy scene of today would look eerily
familiar to Mr. Haldane. Many years' cogitation by first rate minds
have gone into this effort. It is not for lack of intelligence or
imagination that we have not made progress here. It is because
the quest for energy sources is fundamentally different from the
other endeavors of scientists and engineers. The most common technology
quest is that of doing new things with available materiel and energy.
At this we have gotten so good we can call it instinctive. A line from
J.M. Barrie's play Peter Pan comes to mind. "All you need is trust, and
a bit of pixie dust."
A more difficult quest is the one to do what has
been done before, but with less energy and cheaper materials.
We're good at it, but not as good, which is why we are still using
those wasteful internal combustion engines to move around.
The most difficult is the quest to find more sources of energy.
More pixie dust. We really could use help from the faeries.
Here's what we have right now:
Unconventional Fossil Fuels
A good starting point is oil's unconventional
cousins. There is more energy in deposits of these
than there is in reserves of conventional oil,
but "conventional" is misnomer. What makes oil conventional
is that it is convenient to use, because of several attributes it has.
The ideal oil find is convenient as follows: it is light.
That means it is neither too dense nor too thick, and
therefore extractible by cheap drilling equipment. it is sweet,
meaning low in sulfur content and thus easy to refine. It is in a
big deposit, so you can set up a well, get it running and go read
Kuro5hin for the next several years before having to pack up and
drill elsewhere. It is placed somewhere with decent weather and close to
enough of the amenities of life. And finally, the people near your
rig want you to be drilling there.
A good example of convenient oil is, East Texas crude oil, as discovered
in the Spindletop find in 1901. (Though some of you may beg to differ
about the weather.) As such oil runs short, or fails to
meet demand, you have to give up on the beer and drill for it in
places with worse weather than Texas, like, say, Saudi. You have to
look harder for smaller finds, and get less and less profit each time
you haul your rigs over. Then you have to give up on land altogether
and drill the ocean bottoms, going deeper and deeper and into stormier
You might decide to go drilling in places where the locals don't want you
to drill. Maybe they are too remote or powerless for their objections
to carry weight. And maybe you don't mind drilling because the people who
object are a bunch of goddamn dirty [insert relevant ethnic slur here.]
You wouldn't do it if you could drill elsewhere, but if that's where the
oil is, to hell with the [ethnics] living there.
Having reached this point, you now have to settle for oil that is
thicker and more sour. Thicker means you spend more money on your
drills and pumps, and pour more fuel into running them, and the oil
comes out more slowly. More sour means more money into your refining
apparatus, more energy spent on your refinery fires, and more
pollution produced at the refinery. Then you start looking at
the really thick oils: the oil tars of Venezuela and the tar sands
of Alberta. When you reach that point you are getting less and less
energy out for each unit of energy you invest in extracting and
refining oil. With conventional oil, for each 10 gallons of fuel you
buy, approximately one gallon was already spent in extracting, refining,
and transporting it to the station where you filled up. When you
start using tar sands, the ratio is more like a gallon spent for
every gallon you obtain.
Another problem is that once you are digging oil out instead of
pumping it, you are no longer able to boost production as easily.
To boost extraction in an oil field, you just drill another bore
somewhere nearby and start another pump. When instead of a pump you
have a huge digging machine, it's not so easy to increase production.
The reverse direction is also bad. To slow down oil production, you
turn down a few throttles. To slow down production in a tar sand
field, you have to tell a large number of employees to go take a day
off, or give them a pink slip. It makes the economics of all this
And the pollution from unconventional oils is truly nasty. Tar sand
extraction requires producing immense amounts of wastewater, and the
energy invested also produces lots of air pollution. None of this is
visible to me, as I fuel my Honda in Boston, but it is still out there.
Other nonconventional oils come from oil shale and coal
liquefaction. Oil shale extraction is even more problematic than tar
sand (which is why there is tar sand extraction happening but no oil shale
Another source of unconventional fuel is coal gassification.
The option is always there, to do it, but at a tremendous cost.
The gassification process takes major chunks of energy off
a coal mine's output. If at all possible, you're always better
off just burning the coal for steam. And increased reliance on
coal means increased reliance on an industry that goes through
miners like a meat grinder. The human and political cost is
This is what unconventional fossil fuels mean. Their extraction
from the ground provides less energy profit per energy invested.
That can really knock down the effective
fuel efficiency of that hybrid you're so proud to have bought (not to
worry - it's still better than driving a guzzler.)
It requires more intervention by more people with more skills
using fancier machinery and therefore requires more money to
employ. It pollutes more at the extraction and refinery stages.
The unconventional industry is not as versatile at adjusting
output to market conditions. To sum up, by every possible measure,
unconventional means inconvenient. It means less energy at higher
financial cost, higher environmental cost, higher social cost, and
higher moral cost.
So much for unconventional fossil fuels. Other options also
exist. There's nuclear power. I'll be concise. Nuke plants put out less
radioactive waste than coal plants, ironically, but
we have still not perfectly solved the question of how
to dispose of their wastes, especially if we scale up the
use of nuclear power. More challenging is the matter of
decommissioned nuclear plants.
Finally, yellowcake uranium ores won't last forever either.
Then there are the more speculative energy technologies.
We are 50 years away from developing fusion. 50 years ago,
we were 50 years away from developing fusion. (Oft-said joke, that).
If we do figure out how to carry out a sustained fusion reaction,
none of us will ever have to think about energy again.
Strictly speaking, almost all of the energy we use is solar energy.
But for here I'll define
as power gotten by building an
apparatus and exposing it to sunlight. Solar energy has many
benefits besides the warm fuzzies it gives to think about. It is
a source that will keep on giving until the sun goes red giant,
and solar technologies supply us with the same solar energy that
oil does, but without a 50 million year middle man, and therefore
much more efficiently. But of course, there are catches.
Solar is only available one half of the day, at times of fair
weather, and can only be used efficiently in lower lattitudes,
especially desert areas. Worst of all, solar energy does not scale
up well. In order to gather up enough solar energy
to power our modern day lifestyle, we would need to spread solar
collectors over a wide acreage. Then we would need personel to
traverse this wide area to maintain the solar plant as it is subjected
to wind, rain, rock slides, lightning, wild animals, and saboteurs.
In a desert climate. Travelling, no doubt, in off-road capable automobiles,
if nothing else, then just to get the dust off the panels.
Nevertheless, solar energy technologies are promising.
Photovolatic cells are improving in efficiency and in
price. They have already crossed the most important benchmark:
a PV cell will gather more juice from the sun than it takes
to manufacture it. Newer designs boost efficiency further by lensing
light from larger areas onto smaller PV cells. A more problematic
issue with PVs is that they transmit every drop of energy at
the moment thet collect it from the sun. An alternative to PVs
comes from thermal collection. An array of sun tracking mirrors
can heat a sodium collector or an oil tube, to high temperatures
(2000 degrees C for a sodium collector). The heat can be saved
for a while and then spent by an adjustible heat exchanger to
run a steam engine or sterling engine. Such solar plants can heat
up in the daytime and continue to provide electricity well into
More promising still is solar algae technology. Solar algae assemblies
are tacked onto any smokestack producing CO2, be it a power plant or
any other heavy industry setup. The smoke is bubbled through water
containing algae bred for this application, which then traps the
carbon and nitrogen emissions and performs photosynthesis, a process
whose efficiency can be boosted in a high CO2 environment. On a sunny day
a solar algae kit can trap 80% of the CO2 going through it. The algae then
concentrate into a source of biodiesel and ethanol. Solar algae is a
win all around. It reduces greenhouse emissions and provides us with
fresh oil. Look for this technology to expand. But by itself it is
not a complete answer to the challenge of oil scarcity (nothing is).
Similar catches apply to wind
There is enough wind out there to supply a major amount of our
needs. Their energy is available only when the weather is willing,
and they involve
the manufacture of finely designed metal foils (of increasingly
exotic metals) which are then deployed far and wide and
exposed to the elements. These are mechanical parts subjected to irregular
strains and wear and tear. And, even dead bugs are enough to cost a wind
foil a third of its efficiency. The same catch applies: we do not know if
the economics, logistics, or thermodynamics are favorable for
setting up and maintaining wind farms without an underlying carbon
economy. A more speculative technology is that of tidal power.
The idea is to build an apparatus on the coast, in sea water,
where it will be exposed to the salty water, the barnacles and seaweed, to
the wind, the waves, and the tides. Oh, and it will gather energy by fighting
the tide. To anyone who wishes to build a tidal plant, Good Luck.
Another source for liquid fuels is agriculture. Grow a crop,
harvest it, refine it and out comes liquid energy. If only
it were so easy. Agriculture today is an oil intensive activity. Oil powers
the tractors and combines that plow, till, spread seed and manure,
and finally collect the harvest. Oil powers the pumps that irrigate
so many of the fields. Oil and gas provide the chemical feed stock
for the nitrate fertilizers that made the so called Green Revolution
take place, and they power the processes that make them. Oil powers
the mining and delivery of phosphates. And, oil powers the crop as they
go from the fields to the factories and kitchens. A lot of energy
besides solar energy goes into producing fuel crops. In the case of
ethanol and biodiesel, none of the crops used to make it can be grown
to make an energy profit. Two crops that can are the American
switchgrass and Asian elephant grass,
but only if they are not fermented or pressed into oil.
To make sense, switchgrass has to be pressed into pellets and burned.
You can run trains that way. And generators. And heat farmhouses.
But not an automobile society.
There is also a new process called thermal depolymerization (TP), that
tries to mimic the process by which oil source rock was cooked into
oil in the earth's bowels. You can throw almost any organic matter
in, and oil comes out, at a 15% energy cost. The big catch with
TP isn't whether it scales up, but whether it scales down. The first
TP plant was built next to a turkey processing plant, for obvious reasons.
And it quickly fell into financial trouble because the turkey plant
found other uses for its waste. The bigger catch with TP is the cost of
gathering organic materials for the process. TP depends on an underlying
base of food processing and household waste separation to provide
each plant with its inputs. If the new economy doesn't support enough
of these activities to create the inputs and transport them to each
plant, we lose. This is why TP has to scale down. A plant in
every neighborhood might work. Maybe. What won't work is combining
agriculture with TP, because without oil, our crop yields per acre are
going to drop, and we have no way of knowing just how many acres we
will be able to devote to fuel crops rather than the more mundane
goal of growing food. It may be none.
Remember that word. Cogeneration means making better use of our existing
energy infrastructure. A steam turbine generator doesn't just generate
electricity. It generates hot water that need not go to waste. MIT's cogen
plant is linked to an elaborate warm water plumbing system throughout the
campus. And really, any community with a steam plant or other source of
waste heat can plumb itself for tremendous energy savings by circulating
waste heat to where it can be useful.
Similarly, Toronto just started on a program to save cooling expenses for
its downtown buildings. Toronto's water system draws from deep into
Lake Ontario, where the temperature is a constant 4 degrees C. Previously
the water would equalize with surface temperatures in the filtration plant.
Now the water is first circulated through heat exchangers in several downtown
buildings to save on cooling costs.
Similar ideas can take hold in many places. The philosophy behind them
is to use energy in the form made available rather than converting (and
converting) from form to form, losing some at each step.
But still, it's nice to have energy in a form that can be saved, stored,
transported, bought, sold, and used when needed. We do, sort of. It's called
oil. When it qualifies as being within defined tolerances for density
and composition, oil can be traded and optioned in the exchanges of New
York and London. But it is running short. Which brings us back to
Haldane and the hydrogen economy. The hydrogen economy is supposed to help
is unite every source of energy no matter how small or whimsical into
a single grid for all uses, including automobiles. The hydrogen economy
is a cruel joke. Turn your back on an oil tank and it will sit there.
Turn your back on hydrogen and it will seep away into the atmosphere,
through every crack and valve. Worse yet, hydrogen is a corrosive reducing
agent. It eats its way out of tanks, pipes and valves. And its energy density
So, to Sum Up
There are other sources of energy that I have omitted.
All of them show some promise, but there are too many unknowns to easily
figure out which of them will be used in what proportion to supplant
what we do these days with oil.
This blog does go at length into doing back-of-the-envelope estimates. But some things you should keep in mind:
our grandparents, parents, and we ourselves have invested dozens of trillions
of dollars into the worldwide oil economy. The people out there who are
developing and deploying new energy sources are living like you and me,
as part of the oil economy. They use it to obtain materials and manufacture
their tech, to transport and maintain it. Can a solar cell factory
be powered by solar cells? Not today. Can a society without oil build a
nuclear plant? Right now it is easy to explore and debate the merits of
alternative energy sources. Oil lets us think of each alternative by itself.
It's what lets us bail out easily from any investment gone sour. But the
oil economy is going away. While it is still here, we can use it to
fuel the transition to the energy economy of the future. If it goes away
before we've done it, we are screwed.
And once we have left the oil economy, be it the easy way or the hard way,
we will move into a different looking world.
Without oil, energy will be more scarce. You will find yourself at times
unable to obtain energy for your use at any price you can afford. It will be
more expensive in every sense of the word. Particularly scarce will be energy
in forms that can be used to power self-moving vehicles. Of the energy
available to you, a portion will be available on its own schedule, not on yours, and its schedule will be subject to change without prior notice.
Don't be too surprised. This is already true for a lot of people out there.
Be prepared. My next article (hopefully more promptly written..) will be on some of the ways our way of life depends on the oil economy and what that means for short term energy crunches, like what we saw in Hurricane Katrina.