Peak Oil Perspective

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It was by teaching a course on energy in 2004 that I first became aware of the enormous challenges facing our society this century. In preparing for the course, I was initially convinced that I would identify a sensible and obvious path forward involving energy from solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal, tides, waves, ocean currents, etc. Instead, I came out dismayed by the hardships or inadequacies on all fronts. The prospect of a global peak in oil production placed a timescale on the problem that was uncomfortably short. It took several exposures to peak oil for me to grasp the full potential of the phenomenon to transform our civilization, but eventually I was swayed by physical and quantitative arguments that I could not blithely wave off the problem—despite a somewhat unsettling fringe flavor to the story.

Aside from excursions here and there, Do the Math represents—in computer terms—a “core dump” of years of accumulated thoughts and analysis on energy, growth, and the largely unappreciated challenges we face on both short and long terms. During this queued process—with much more to come—I have made references to peak oil, but have refrained from a head-on treatment. As important as peak oil has been in motivating my quantitative exploration of life beyond fossil fuels, it seems overdue that I share my thoughts.
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The Energy Trap

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Many Do the Math posts have touched on the inevitable cessation of growth and on the challenge we will face in developing a replacement energy infrastructure once our fossil fuel inheritance is spent. The focus has been on long-term physical constraints, and not on the messy details of our response in the short-term. But our reaction to a diminishing flow of fossil fuel energy in the short-term will determine whether we transition to a sustainable but technological existence or allow ourselves to collapse. One stumbling block in particular has me worried. I call it The Energy Trap.

In brief, the idea is that once we enter a decline phase in fossil fuel availability—first in petroleum—our growth-based economic system will struggle to cope with a contraction of its very lifeblood. Fuel prices will skyrocket, some individuals and exporting nations will react by hoarding, and energy scarcity will quickly become the new norm. The invisible hand of the market will slap us silly demanding a new energy infrastructure based on non-fossil solutions. But here’s the rub. The construction of that shiny new infrastructure requires not just money, but…energy. And that’s the very commodity in short supply. Will we really be willing to sacrifice additional energy in the short term—effectively steepening the decline—for a long-term energy plan? It’s a trap!

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Sustainable Means Bunkty to Me

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What? Don’t know what bunkty means? Now you know how I feel about the word “sustainable.” My paper towels separate into smaller segments than they once did. It’s sustainable! These potato chips arrive in a box that says SUSTAINABLE in big letters on the side. I’m eating green!  When I’m in a hotel, I hang the towel back up rather than throw it on the floor (would I ever do this anyway?) and the placard says I’m being sustainable. Can it be that easy? I claim that not one among our host of 7 billion really knows what our world would look like if we lived in a truly sustainable fashion.  Let’s try to come to terms with what it might mean.

I think most would agree that the rapid depletion we currently witness in natural resources and services, climate stability, water availability, soil quality, and fisheries—to name a few—suggests that we do not live sustainably at present. We can not expect to keep up our current practices with 7 billion people in this world without some major changes.

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Putting the Genie Back in the Toothpaste Tube

You may have heard about the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a result of our combustion of fossil fuels. If we wanted to sweep the excess CO2 out of the air, what would it take? How much is there? Where would we put it? In this post, we will put the numbers in perspective and briefly examine a few of the possibilities for storage.

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Garbage In, Garbage Out

How many times have you heard it: if we could tap into the energy embedded in our copious waste streams, we could usher in a new era of energy independence—freeing ourselves of the need to support oppressive regimes who happen to sit atop the bulk of the oil reserves in the world. In fact, these sorts of claims are abundant enough to give the impression that we have a cornucopia of fresh (and sometimes not so fresh) energy solutions to pursue if we got really serious. This is a hasty and dangerous conclusion, so in this case, waste makes haste.

I consider this perceived abundance of technological solutions to be one of our worst enemies in developing sensible solutions to the coming fossil fuel energy crunch. If ideas abound, each claiming some ability to free us of foreign oil, then surely we’ve got the situation under control and don’t need to invest substantial time and energy today to solve what looks like a non-problem of tomorrow. But what if the claims are overblown, hyped, or just plain wrong? At best, this is irresponsible behavior. At worst, the resulting sense of complacency could delay substantive action to our ruin. Continue reading

Recipe for Climate Change in Two Easy Steps

Today, we’re going to make the world less comfortable, in two easy steps that each of you can do at home. Step 1 shows how easy it is to account for the carbon dioxide excess in the atmosphere based on our cumulative use of fossil fuels. Step 2 bypasses intricacies of thermal radiation to put an approximate scale on the amount of heating we would expect the excess CO2 to produce. Serves 7 billion.

Climate Change in Context

I view climate change as a genuine challenge to the stability of our coexistence with the planet. But it is not my primary concern. A far more dangerous threat to the human endeavor is, in my mind, our reliance on finite resources and the difficulty our economic systems will have coping with a decline in the availability of cheap energy. That said, the issues are closely linked—through fossil fuels—and both benefit from a drive toward renewable resources. Continue reading

Personal Energy Cubes

In this post, we’ll put a physical, comprehendible scale on the amount of energy typical Americans have used in their lifetimes. No judgment: just the numbers.

The task is to estimate our personal energy volume, so that we can mentally picture cubic tanks or bins corresponding to all the oil, coal, natural gas, etc. we have used in our lives—perhaps plunked down in our backyards to bring the idea home. Go ahead and try to guess/picture how big each cube is.
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Does the Logistic Shoe Fit?

U.S. total energy 1650-present (logarithmic)

This is a quick update regarding the first plot shown in the galactic scale energy post. A reader, Chris, called attention to the obvious departure from exponential growth in recent decades. The post required turning a blind eye to many practical issues (like population saturation) in order to entertain indefinite growth, serving to highlight the absurdity of the notion. But Chris goaded me into paying more attention to the departure from the exponential track in the actual data, and here are the results of a logistic approach. Continue reading

A Nation-Sized Battery

As we look to transition away from fossil fuels, solar and wind are attractive options. Key factors making them compelling are: the inexhaustibility of the source with use (i.e., renewable); their low carbon footprint; and the independence that small-scale distribution can foster (I’ll never put a nuclear plant on my roof, even if it would make me the coolest physicist ever!).

lovely future of solar, wind, and honking-big battery

With full-scale solar in the desert southwest, and wind in the plains states, we're going to need a big battery (items not to scale!).

But solar and wind suffer a serious problem in that they are not always available. There are windless days, there are sunless nights, and worst of all, there are windless nights. Obviously, this calls for energy storage, allowing us to collect the energy when we can, and use it when we want.

Small-scale off-grid solar and wind installations have been doing this for a long time, typically using lead-acid batteries as the storage medium. I myself have four golf-cart batteries in my garage storing the energy from eight 130 W solar panels, and use these to power the majority of my electricity consumption at home.

It’s worth pausing to appreciate this fact. Compare this scheme to the dream source of fusion. Why do people go ga-ga over fusion? Because there is enough deuterium in water (sea water is fine) to provide a seemingly inexhaustible source of energy, and there are no atmospheric emissions in the process. Meanwhile, solar provides a source that will last longer (billions of years), produces even less pollution (no radioactive contamination of containment vessel), and is here today! It’s even affordable enough and low-tech enough to be on my roof and in my garage! People—we have arrived!

Storage works on the small scale, as many stand-aloners can attest. How would it scale up? Can it? Continue reading

Galactic-Scale Energy

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Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have seen an impressive and sustained growth in the scale of energy consumption by human civilization. Plotting data from the Energy Information Agency on U.S. energy use since 1650 (1635-1945, 1949-2009, including wood, biomass, fossil fuels, hydro, nuclear, etc.) shows a remarkably steady growth trajectory, characterized by an annual growth rate of 2.9% (see figure). It is important to understand the future trajectory of energy growth because governments and organizations everywhere make assumptions based on the expectation that the growth trend will continue as it has for centuries—and a look at the figure suggests that this is a perfectly reasonable assumption.  (See this update for nuances.)

U.S. total energy 1650-present (logarithmic)

Total U.S. Energy consumption in all forms since 1650. The vertical scale is logarithmic, so that an exponential curve resulting from a constant growth rate appears as a straight line. The red line corresponds to an annual growth rate of 2.9%. Data source: EIA.

Growth has become such a mainstay of our existence that we take its continuation as a given. Growth brings many positive benefits, such as cars, television, air travel, and iGadgets. Quality of life improves, health care improves, and, aside from a proliferation of passwords to remember, life tends to become more convenient over time. Growth also brings with it a promise of the future, giving reason to invest in future development in anticipation of a return on the investment. Growth is then the basis for interest rates, loans, and the finance industry.

Because growth has been with us for “countless” generations—meaning that everyone we ever met or our grandparents ever met has experienced it—growth is central to our narrative of who we are and what we do. We therefore have a difficult time imagining a different trajectory.

This post provides a striking example of the impossibility of continued growth at current rates—even within familiar timescales. For a matter of convenience, we lower the energy growth rate from 2.9% to 2.3% per year so that we see a factor of ten increase every 100 years. We start the clock today, with a global rate of energy use of 12 terawatts (meaning that the average world citizen has a 2,000 W share of the total pie). We will begin with semi-practical assessments, and then in stages let our imaginations run wild—even then finding that we hit limits sooner than we might think. I will admit from the start that the assumptions underlying this analysis are deeply flawed. But that becomes the whole point, in the end.

A Race to the Galaxy

I have always been impressed by the fact that as much solar energy reaches Earth in one hour as we consume in a year. What hope such a statement brings! But let’s not get carried away—yet.

Only 70% of the incident sunlight enters the Earth’s energy budget—the rest immediately bounces off of clouds and atmosphere and land without being absorbed. Also, being land creatures, we might consider confining our solar panels to land, occupying 28% of the total globe. Finally, we note that solar photovoltaics and solar thermal plants tend to operate around 15% efficiency. Let’s assume 20% for this calculation. The net effect is about 7,000 TW, about 600 times our current use. Lots of headroom, yes? Continue reading