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Dave Summers

Dave Summers

David (Dave) Summers is a Curators' Professor Emeritus of Mining Engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology (he retired in 2010). He directed the…

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Will Alternative Energy Save Us From Peak Oil

The people of the world are going to continue to use energy. The fundamental question that this future reality poses relates to the sources from which the energy will be produced. The vast majority of the current energy supply comes from fossil fuels, but, whether it is because of the belief that fossil fuels are going to be the cause of calamitous climate change, or because of the belief that viable production of fossil fuels cannot be sustained at increasing rate, there is a recognition that alternate and sustainable forms of energy are going to have to play an increasing role in the energy mix in that future. However the rate at which those energy supplies are brought into the mix, and the levels that they can achieve are subject to considerable discussion.

The 2011 BP Statistical Review of World Energy in recognizing this, added two new sets of information to their 2011 review of fuel use around the world. The first of these documents the amount of commercial electricity that comes from renewable sources, and the second covers the amount of biofuel that is produced each year. Looking at the amount of electricity generated, the greatest renewable source is currently hydro-electricity, for which BP reports:

Rising use of hydro-electricity around the World
Rising use of hydro-electricity around the World in million tons of oil equivalent (divide by 50 to get a rough measure of the equivalent in mb/d) (BP Statistical Review)

The report notes that the increase in the last year, at 5.3% this is twice the historical average, has come mainly through growth in the Asia Pacific region. Note also that this is for electricity generation, Biomass contributes more energy, but a lot is burned directly for heat.

Other forms of electricity generation have also grown:

Growth in the supply of electricity from renewable sources
Growth in the supply of electricity from renewable sources in million tons of oil equivalent (BP Statistical Review)

The greatest growth has been in Europe, and the overall trend would appear encouraging. In terms of the liquid fuels that must be produced to replace petroleum products in transportation BP shows that ethanol is being most actively developed in the Americas, while in Europe the emphasis is on biodiesel. Combined the growth over the last decade is shown as follows:

Biofuel production
Biofuel production in millions of tons of oil equivalent (again divide by 50 to turn this into a rough estimate in mbd). (BP Statistical Review)

To put these numbers into context, however, one needs to recognize how small a portion of the global supply that these supplies now meet. With a global demand getting close to 90 mbd, a biofuel supply that is just over 1 mbd is not currently making much impact, although if the growth rate of 13.8% in 2010, were to be sustained, it could start to have an impact in a few years.

If one looks at the global contribution to power, bearing in mind that the category of biomass includes everything from trees, through brush wood to dung requires some degree of husbandry to be sustainable, the distance that these technologies must grow before they are significant contributors can be realized.

Relative contribution of different energy sources to global power
Relative contribution of different energy sources to global power in 2008 (IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy )

The BP review, while providing a widely referenced source of statistics about energy use at present, and in the past, does not cover future use, however. And the quantity of renewable energy that will be available plays a critical part in helping to plan for that future. It is thus of interest to note that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released a report on Renewable Energy. In the summary press release, the report is cited as showing how up to 77% of global energy could be achieved from renewable sources by 2050.

The report has already received some significant criticism but since it is useful to know how one can grow renewable energy to that level, that fast, I did follow up on one of the references. Steve McIntyre notes that it can be traced back initially to Chapter 10 of the report, and from there back to a paper that admits to the 77% only being achievable if nuclear power is shut down, no CCS power plants are built and there are drastic steps forward in the efficient use of energy. Since those are likely unrealistic I’m not going to chase after that. But what I do find interesting is where the IPCC anticipate that the growth will likely come from. And that can be found in this couple of charts, showing the progress to 2030, and then that achieved by 2050.

Anticipated growth in renewable energy sources
Anticipated growth in renewable energy sources to supplies in 2030 and 2050 (For comparative purposes the global electricity demand in 2008 is cited as 61 EJ/yrear). (IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy)

The IPCC report notes that in order for any meaningful progress to be made there must be significant policy changes as well as moves to ensure the adequate levels of innovation will be achieved that are required to make the progress assumed. (Which is in my book assuming that one can legislate technology, which as we have seen with the cellulosic ethanol story is not necessarily so). But one should also be cautious about the speed of politicial change. There is a lesson, for example, that has just emerged from the UK.

Back in 2007 the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in the UK commissioned a study on the coming of peak oil that has just been released, and which may explain the complacency of the UK Government. That report noted that while the UK is less dependant on oil to fuel its economy than other OECD nations, the oil that it does use is difficult to replace since it fuels some 70% of national transportation. The report looked at various time frames for peak oil (pre-2010; 2010 to 2015; mid 2020’s; late 2030’s) and concluded that only the first two would pose a problem. By increasing production from the FSU countries and increasing investment in production to meet demand the report justified the medium and long term scenarios. (However at the same time the report saw price remaining around $60/bbl, which is unrealistic already). The conclusions included the following:

• While global reserves are plentiful, it is clear that existing fields are maturing, the rate of investment in new and existing production is being slowed down by bottlenecks, the economic downturn and financial crisis and that alternative technologies to oil will take a long time to develop and deploy at scale;

• The UK economy would be initially relatively robust to higher prices; however, if peak oil happens before 2015 there would be negative economic consequences for some of the main importers of UK goods and services resulting in a negative impact on the UK economy in the longer term. If the peak happens later, it would be possible to mitigate the impact through greater end-use efficiency and the production of sufficient quantities alternative liquid fuels.


• Given the uncertainties around the timing of peak oil and its implications for the UK, there are no obvious additional policies the UK government should pursue to minimise the likelihood of a 'peak oil' scenario and to be prepared to mitigate its impacts in addition to those already in place.

In reviewing changes since the initial report, the summary notes that while not believing in a near term “peak” the authors do not preclude a risk of a supply crunch.

The Guardian article notes that the DECC minister is now starting to have a bit of a re-think. This is driven, apparently, by the rising concerns in industry about the growing signs that all in not as well in petroleum supply as the DECC report would have it. But the speed of bureaucratic change in thought means that it has taken four years to realize that there might be a problem. It doesn’t bode well for the adoption of forward thinking strategies. Unfortunately it doesn’t bode well for assuring that the world has enough energy for its needs either.

By. Dave Summers

David (Dave) Summers is a Curators' Professor Emeritus of Mining Engineering at Missouri University of Science and Technology (he retired in 2010). He directed the Rock Mechanics and Explosives Research Center at MO S&T off and on from 1976 to 2008, leading research teams that developed new mining and extraction technologies, mainly developing the use of high-pressure waterjets into a broad range of industrial uses. While one of the founders of The Oil Drum, back in 2005, he now also writes separately at Bit Tooth Energy.

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  • Anonymous on June 17 2011 said:
    In the Thatcher years we sold off our oil fileds to the private sector, and we became a net exporter of oil in the 90's when it was only fetching $15 to $19 a barrel.. Now we have to import nearly a third to make up this gap, at over $100 a barrel, looks like someone did not do their homework. I studied oil at school in the 80's and knew that in the future around the year 2000 oil would peak, and I was on 15 at the time !!
  • Anonymous on June 18 2011 said:
    This article tells me something. It tells me that at last we are starting to get the energy economists we need, whether they are doing this kind of work full or part time, or for money or just the hell of it.Valuable article Dave, and the same is true for your comment Patrick.
  • Anonymous on June 19 2011 said:
    I agree with both Fred and Patrick. What I'd like to see is someone doing a report on how Russia is using her energy resourcew as a political weapon, given that Peak Oil is probably going to be upon us shortly, and that the West will shortly have a rival for its demand for Russian oil and gas in the form of China. China and Russia are about to sign what could be the 'Energy deal of the millenium'. When this happens, and piplines are laid over the next 50 years between Siberia and China, and Russia develops China as her main customer, Europe will have to go begging to Russia for terms.
  • Anonymous on June 19 2011 said:
    continued...Additionally, as Saudi oil begins to peak, if this isn't alrerady happening, Iran will most likely become the second supplier with control of both iranian and iraqi oilfields. Iraq apparently has potential reserves about equal to Saudi. Russia and Iran will therefore become the main energy power players. In this case, alternative energy will take a back seat as these two players ensure their indispenibility to the world energy markets. If China continues to flood the world market with vheap goods, and she is being supplied by Russia principally and Iran, who are most probably in cahoots over energy supply, alternative energy even as a growing phenonmenon in terms of proportion of global demand, will become politically meaningless.
  • Anonymous on June 26 2011 said:
    Is perhaps a company called defkalion (GREECE)our saviour with their new energy source (e-cat/andrea rossi).Its possible- they held a pressconferencelast thursday to lay out their commercialplan for this new energy source.After this new forms of energy will be introduced.(Orbo/Steorn)
  • jibana on February 28 2012 said:
    The pamsla arc melter created by InEnTec is not necessarily perfected. Consider the record in Red Bluff, California, where 2 years ago InEnTec got defeated after extensive hearings revealed that no successful plan had been built to date. The one in Japan cracked and leaked. A prototype in Washington was never really in operation. The one in Hawaii got clogged with glass and broke down. Waste piled up and sickened workers because it was medical waste. The inventor admitted under oath that there are five places in the invention that emit fugitive emissions including dioxin into the atmosphere, and heavy metals and other toxics. The plant had to use large amounts of water to wash filters, and had no plan in Red Bluff for where that water was going to go after it was used cleaning toxic stuff!!!!!It's necessary to look into this carefully before jumping in behind it. Nice idea in theory, but not necessarily workable. Email me and I can get you the public records. Citizens had a mighty fight for a couple of years in a tiny town that tried to sneak it in without environmental review as required by law. Any community considering the pamsla arc melter better check out the details and don't let them build unless you KNOW it's better than two years ago.

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