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Renewable Energy and the Race Against Peak Oil

Few would argue with the proposition that within the next 20 or 30 years our current sources of fossil fuels and other somewhat substitutable liquids will be only a fraction of the 90 or so million barrels a day (b/d) that we are current consuming. Long before then however, fossil fuels are likely to become so expensive that major changes in how we power our civilization are likely to have occurred. Some of this change will come because existing renewable technologies such as wind and solar become more economically competitive. Some changes will come because new technologies will be discovered or developed into sources of energy or methods of saving energy. A few years of global crop failures may be enough to convince a critical mass that there is indeed something to this carbon emissions thing and something has to be done.

In looking at what we will need to maintain some recognizable semblance of our civilization in coming decades, it is clear that we are going to need new sources of energy that can be implemented at a faster pace than is happening with our current crop of renewables. Or we are going to have to come up with major efficiencies in the way we use fossil fuels. We are currently happy with, and can afford, vehicles that burn fossil fuels at tens of miles per gallon, whereas with coming technology, hundreds of miles per gallon should be attainable. The missing ingredient is simply that motor fuels are still too cheap to spark a major transition to other forms of powering transportation. For now the political will to drive this spark through taxation is simply not there, particularly in the United States and we will have to wait for market forces to raise prices.

Experts in efficiency tell us that here in America we could get along with a third less energy and never miss it. The Europeans burn half the oil we do in the Untitled States and seem to get along.

Off the radar screens for most of us, however are insights into the pace at which technological developments impacting our future are taking place. One of my favourite websites is the one run by the Green Car Congress which catalogues all the developments announced each day relevant to better efficiency and less polluting energy. Every month there are dozens of announcements from all over the world of new products or claimed technical breakthroughs that could be useful in getting us through to the latter half of this century.

Many of these announcements and claims are so far down in the technological weeds that it is impossible to evaluate the significance of the claims. In the case of cellulosic ethanol (biofuels from non-edible plants) there are so many overlapping claims of progress it is impossible to tell if there is real progress being made towards a useful product and if so, just which technology might be used.

Far more comprehensible are the announcements related to internal combustion vehicles. Here we have dozens of announcements and claims by vehicle and parts manufacturers of more efficient cars and trucks that will be for sale shortly. The general tenor of these announcements is that very efficient cars and trucks could be available by the end of this decade, making the current government goals of 50 or so mpg by 2025 seem rather modest. As most vehicle manufacturers are already doing business in the EU, where gasoline retails for close to triple what it does in the U.S., they are fully cognizant that they must change before another round of gas price increases begins to drive motorists to far more limited use of their cars.

In recent weeks there have been many announcements concerning new electric cars and trucks which can provide transportation with less or even no liquid fuels. Prices of electric vehicles in comparison to conventional cars are coming down rapidly and major improvements in battery capacity and price should make electric cars competitive before the end of the decade.

Every now and again a new idea turns up in the literature that if implemented could lead to a major reduction in the need for liquid fuels. Siemens in Europe is experimenting with a hybrid freight truck that would draw is power from overhead electric lines as trams and electric trains do while traveling between cities and only use their diesels for local roads. While overhead wires and new trucks would be expensive, the advent of such technology would depend on the cost of liquid fuels and perhaps that of liquefied natural gas in the U.S.

Another interesting concept was contained in a Department of Energy grant to develop a natural gas powered vehicle that can use its own engine to pump up the natural gas to the pressures required for on board storage. This would allow a car to be connected to an inexpensive low pressure home natural gas pipe and refill itself without expensive external natural gas pumps. Another project would allow on board natural gas tanks to be created in a shape allowing them to be blended into empty space in a car.

It is impossible to say where and at what pace all this is going. At the minute the OECD is beset with serious economic problems that seem likely to continue in one form or another for many years. How much this will hinder the adoption of alternative sources of energy and energy saving technology is impossible to say. What seems reasonable to conclude, however, is that technology is not stagnant and that numerous developments are underway that reduce the demand for liquid fuels significantly. But then there is global warming.

By. Thom Whipple

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Leave a comment
  • Mel Tisdale on July 24 2012 said:
    The last six words are the most significant.
  • Scottar on August 17 2012 said:
    the problem with renewables is they don't have the energy density nor consistency to replace fossil fuels which probably will be around a lot longer due to constant improvements to drilling and production techniques.

    Wind has to be one of the oldest infant industries on the planet. In 1882, Thomas Edison built the Pearl Street Station in New York City - a coal fired power plant. A mere 5 years later, a Scottish academic named James Blyth built a wind turbine to make electricity and run the lights on his cabin. After 125 years of generating electricity, wind still can't stand on its own without special subsidies from the federal government.

    The energy is free but capturing it is not. Power plants work somewhat like a ICE vehicle. They get the best economy when traveling at a steady load, speed. In stop and go drivng you get the worst MPG. Same with power plants. but you basically have two types, base load that supply an ever constant load and peaking plants that service variable loads. And as you guessed it peaking plants get less bang per BTU and are more expensive by design.

    So with PV solar and wind you have to constantly have peaking plant backup to compensate for their variability. It would be better just to have the peaking plants as they waste more energy trying to back the intermittent renewable plants.

    And finally, since the energy density of the renewable fuel is so diluted you need a much larger infrastructure to harvest enough to offset fossil fuels energy density. That means much more land and materials to construct the massive infrastructure to replace the fossil plant's energy output capacity.

    This is what countries like Spain are discovering:

    During the first 2 years of his administration, President Barack Obama and top officials praised Spain as a successful model to create employment and improve energy security. For over a decade Spain has accumulated nearly 25 billion euro in debt - equivalent to more than half of the urgent capitalization needs of its distraught financial system- mostly in the form of subsidies for wind and solar energy. Basically the country did not pass along to consumers the cost of generating around 30% of its electricity through renewable sources, and faced with the prospect of a macroeconomic sovereign collapse it has decided to hike taxes for power utilities, to increase consumer prices, and to cut some of the generous subsidies that the renewable industry has enjoyed. The conservative government’s proposed solution has expectedly enraged all sides.

    Spain’s generous subsidies already attracted more than twice as much installed capacity than its peak demand of 40 GW, and much cheaper fossil fuel and nuclear generators are being left idle to pay for renewable output. In this context, the country has no choice but to pull the plug on its renewable experiment. More than a decade of robust Spanish growth ended in 2008 as a construction boom went bust leaving millions without a job and as the global economic crisis further undermined the economy.

    Meanwhile, the difference between the cost of generation and what consumers pay is adding between 7 and 10 billion euros annually in debt, depending of the year, according to the Energy Ministry, 60% of which comes from subsidizing renewable power. The subsidy system itself is also dysfunctional. Solar companies get as much as 50% of the subsidies, despite contributing less than 5% of total power generation in 2011, while wind power gets around 25% of subsidies despite contributing 3 times more power. The government thus plans to raise taxes across the board for power generation between 3 and 20%, depending on the source. Fossil fuels, nuclear and hydroelectric would be taxed the least, while renewable would be taxed more. Companies have said consumer prices will inevitably increase.

    This is the boondoggle that is going to make us independent. Then you are counting unhatched chicken eggs. Renewables have not proven to be viable except for minor local needs on a very limited scalability.

    4th gen nuclear looks to be the path to independence energy independence as with that you can manufacture hydro carbon based fuel to replace oil and also have electric mass transport. The advanced designs don't require water for cooling and can burn up the waste generated by the old designs. They by nature are immune to the meltdown problem of the old designs.
  • Scottar on August 17 2012 said:

    "A few years of global crop failures may be enough to convince a critical mass that there is indeed something to this carbon emissions thing and something has to be done."

    Mel should do some research, this is a repeat of what happened back during the dust bowl days of the 1930's. Research has shown it was more severe back then, and as now, due to a super El Nino event which also caused extended drought back in the 1950's.

    So stop playing the ad-homism, CO2 global warming game, the data shows otherwise. Good place to go is icecap.us
  • Sky on June 28 2014 said:
    In the long run, I doubt that single occupant vehicles will be so ubiquitous. Future generations will find out. During the last century, cheap liquid fossil fuels have translated into geographical arrangements that will not likely prove sustainable or economical in the future. Over the very long term, people will probably have to transition toward more local autonomy with greatly reduced travel distances. Yes, there are big claims being made by developers of bio fuels, but I am highly skeptical as to whether they will be scalable or produce high enough net energies to grant the business as usual wish that prevades. Electric cars are probably another fractal of that same dream. If battery production were scaled up to facilitate the number of cars we have in the world today, mineral resources required to make them would quickly become scarce, leaving extremely energy intensive processes as the only means of producing them. Most certainly, there will not be sufficient net energy from alternative energies, along with other resource constraints, to prevent the end of our current growth based economic paradigm. We need to skip over the car fetish and move one to broader solutions: More autonomous communities, very short commutes, rebuilding the train system for moving freight, smaller resource footprints and much higher efficiencies all the way 'round.

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