Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Has Peak Oil Arrived? (III)

According to Robert Heinberg (‘The Party’s Over’) the first economic sign of Peak Oil will likely be gas at the price of $7 a gallon. This would mean oil is nearly $200 a barrel. However, that assumes no other supply factors are operating that maintains a price divorced from real supply and demand.

But let’s say this does transpire in the next year or so. What then? How do we cope, what can we expect?

IF Peak Oil really does arrive all aspects of life will become much more costly and difficult than they are now. Indeed, as per a Wall Street Journal article (‘If $$ Gas is Bad, Just Wait, May 23, p. C8) the Executive Vice-President of the Fuel Merchants Association of New Jersey quipped: “Maybe at $6 or $7 a gallon it become less attractive to go to work”

Well, perhaps, but at $10 a gallon it surely would! At that point, I can visualize the entire economy going into the tank unless employers permit massive telecommuting – much more so than now. In addition, governments will need to provide massive tax breaks or concessions to encourage more people to car pool.

The individual driver embedded in his own two tons of steel, will go the way of the dinosaur.

In terms of food, transport and fertilizer costs will go through the roof. One can imagine all these costs added to foods, making food conservation an imperative. No longer will Americans be able to afford food wastage of $7 billion a year.

It is quite possible the average middle income, middle class family will be reduced to eating sardines or tune with some rice five times a week, and maybe chicken or fish the other two days. Beef will become prohibitively expensive, as will pork. Actually, beef and pork will see prices much more common to lamb now.

Utility costs will escalate, perhaps to two to three times more than people are paying now.

Can alternative fuels solve the Peak Oil problem?

The cold, unvarnished and hard fact is that none of the usually touted "alternatives" has the energy density of oil and can replace oil to fuel and power any kind of industrial civilization. "Methane hydrates" ? Matt Savinar torpedoes that proposal easily in his 'Life After the Oil Crash'. Shale oil reserves? Jay Hanson et al. blast that poppycock to kingdom come on their excellent site:


In many cases, what Peak Oil deniers are doing is mistaking a technological advance for a genuine energy source alternative. In the end , it’s all very well to speculate and ruminate that future energy needs will be met, but the question remains: HOW? When one does the math, and in particular pays attention to the 2nd law of thermodynamics and the ‘net energy equation’, this just isn’t on.

Where will energy come from to support an industrial-energy intense and consumptive civilization? Alternative energy buffs can’t just say “new sources” and leave it at that. What new sources? Where? To what degree does the distribution, implementation, and use of these alternative sources demand massive retro-fitting of our industrial infrastructure? How much money, energy, and time will this retrofitting require? To what degree does the distribution, implementation, and use of this alternative require other resources that are in short supply? Do these other resources exist in quantities sufficient enough that the alternative is capable of being scaled up on a massive level?

Unless these questions are addressed as an integral part of any alternative view or proposal, the latter remains mere idle speculation or conjecture.

What about solar? Can that work:? Weisz (Physics Today, op. cit. (I)) notes that the solar total access for the U.S. currently amounts to 22Q per year per 4000 square kilometers. A maximal output of 20Q (about one fifth the current U.S. demand) could be achieved in terms of electricity generation provided a collector area is available from two to four times the area of the state of Massachusetts.

Calculations show that solar cells currently consume twice as much sej as they produce, so they are no bargain. Worse an entirely solar civilization would most likely have to exist at the power output and potential (relative to electric grid capacity) of about one half where we are now. Plus, the collector area would have to expand to around that of the states of Colorado and Nevada combined.

Will you still be able to run your personal computer (even a creaking old Windows 98 like I have) in that low energy environment? Very doubtful unless you have your own nuclear powered or other generator!

Some have asked me if it isn’t at all feasible that solar can be the SOLE potential answer to energy problems – given the Sun is so powerful, etc.

Well, maybe- provided several things occur:

1) We cut population drastically from right now, since each increase in numbers add to the energy burden required to sustain it. There is no "free energy" and each human body is a net energy user. A “solar” world cannot exist, in my opinion, with numbers beyond 3 billion – 2 billion is probably more realistic

2) We allocate an area equal to roughly 500,000 sq. miles for solar collection and conversion, using the most efficient cells, devices available (efficiencies running at 45% minimum.

3) People are encouraged to make their own solar energy collection devices or get their homes re-strrructured to it - soonest.

4) People retreat from their high consumption ethic and develop a de-localized mentality - with no more aspirations for concentrated energy generators, or distant travel. Solar energy- especially in cars, vehicles, simple cannot support it. Nor can it support even remotely the energy-intense military-industrial complex now being run off cheap oil.

Thus, making the switch to solar or a solar built society - the most likely to replace oil to the greatest extent- requires the de-localization of energy resources. Preferably, tiny communities each living off their own solar collectors, growing their own hydroponic or other crops. and foregoing all visions of distant travel - since there will never ever be solar-powered jetliners or cargo ships. Ain't gonna happen.In effect, "globalization" and world trade will have to come to a dead stop. It can't be sustained once the cheap oil is gone, and the net energy of recovery of new sources dips below zero. And the new sources in toto force a massive overhauling of the underpinning infrastructure. (Let’s also bear in mind the bulk of petroleum reserves will have to go into food production, transport, fertilizers etc.)

H.T. Odum's solar "eMergy" (eMbodied energy) measures all of the energy (adjusted for quality) that goes into the production of a product. Odum's calculations show that the only forms of alternative energy that can survive the exhaustion of fossil fuel are: muscle, burning biomass (wood, animal dung, or peat), hydroelectric, geothermal in volcanic areas, and some wind electrical generation. Nuclear power could be viable if one could overcome the shortage of fuel. No other alternatives (e.g., solar voltaic) produce a large enough net sej to be sustainable. In short, there is no way out.
As Jay Hanson pointedly notes:

“The fact that our society can‘t survive on alternative energy should come as no surprise, because only an idiot would believe that windmills and solar panels can run bulldozers, elevators, steel mills, glass factories, electric heat, air conditioning, aircraft, automobiles, etc., AND still have enough energy left over to support a corrupt political system, armies, etc.

Envision a world where freezing, starving people burn everything combustible -- everything from forests (releasing CO2; destroying topsoil and species); to garbage dumps (releasing dioxins, PCBs, and heavy metals); to people (by waging nuclear, biological, chemical, and conventional war); and you have seen the future”

My take? I personally don't believe Americans have the will or moxie to do what is required to live in a radically downsized (diffuse as opposed to concentrated) energy environment. I may be wrong, but I just can't see it. It would require too many sacrifices on their part. And while the current high oil –gas prices have forced some alterations of life style from the sheer economic pain- I cannot imagine it might be permanent. Look how we all lapsed after the OPEC – gas rationing of the 1970s ended!

I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for the corporate owned gov't to do squat either. They haven't up to now - look at the execrable earlier (1990s) provision in the income tax to confer tax breaks on SUV owners! Look at the other energy -squandering legislation, the unwillingness to even remotely consider conservation.

As A. Bartlett emphasizes (Physics Today, July, 2004, ibid):

"Our national goal must be to reduce the total annual consumption of nonrenewable energy for many coming years."

This solution must mean not only severe conservation – much less driving and energy use overall- but also a concerted effort to cut population (which fuels demand). A first start can be made in ceasing all per-child tax credits and breaks, and even (indeed) placing a child tax on couple that insist on having more than one child.

No solution is palatable, but the consequences of inaction will be a million times worse.

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