When we enter the decline phase of conventional oil—likely before 2020—we will scramble to fill the gap with alternative liquid fuels. The Hirsch Report of 2005, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, took a hard look at alternatives that could respond to the scale of the problem in time to have an impact. Not one of the approaches deemed to be currently viable in the report departs from fossil fuels. But what about biofuels? To what extent can they solve our problem? We’ll dip our toes into the math and see where a first-cut analysis leaves us.
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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.
A few weeks back, I made the case that relying on space to provide an infinite resource base into which we grow/expand forever is misguided. Not only is it much harder than many people appreciate, but it represents a distraction to the message that growth cannot continue on Earth and we should get busy planning a transition to a non-growth-based, truly sustainable existence. To prove what a distraction it is, I will distract myself again this week with another space post. This time, true to the brand, I will do the math on why the infinite resources of space appear to be of questionable use to our human enterprise.
Part of my motivation comes from the bruised, and bruising comments in reaction to the Why Not Space? post. The faith is strong that technologies are already in hand and that we just need NASA to get out of the way so the commercial bounty of the sky will open up and we’ll finally be off to the races. I myself refrained from ruling out such a future, but the mere suggestion that we may fail to expand into space was clearly considered by many to be ridiculous—as if such a fate is predestined: as sure as the sun will tomorrow. Sociological impulses tugged at my physicist bones, tempting me to study exactly how such an unshakable faith has been implanted in so many obviously smart people. For these folks, the arc of the future is as sure as the historical progression from the Dark Ages until now. Wait? Was there something before the Dark Ages? Something grand? Alas, my history fails me.
Leaving the sociology aside—but before we get busy with the math—I’ll share the story that during the comment firestorm, an individual contacted me from NASA headquarters (not to revoke my funding, thankfully), offering thoughtful perspectives on space policy. The part I can’t shake is the statement that it takes decades of serious research to answer two simple questions: “Can humans live and work in space for the long term?” and “Can an economically viable activity be found in space?” Opinions aside, these are open questions, and have been for some time. We have no proof—or even firm expectation—that either is practical or possible.
Lots of Stuff
Around the time of the final U.S. Space Shuttle flight, a NASA official was asked in a radio interview to explain what was left to inspire young kids about space. The answer was that mining asteroids and the Moon offered a new grand challenge to inspire our kidlets. Granted, space mining probably is a bit more inspiring than off-shore drilling or coal mining as a career choice. It’s got space in it. But are we really serious about getting materials from other bodies within the solar system?
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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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A common question I get when discussing solar photovoltaic (PV) power is: “What is the typical efficiency for panels now?” When I answer that mass-market polycrystalline panels are typically about 15–16%, I often see the questioner’s nose wrinkle, followed by dismissive mumbling that 15% is still too low, and maybe they’ll wait for higher numbers before personally pursuing solar. By the end of this post, you will understand why this response is annoying to me. At 15%, we’re in great shape: it’s plenty good for our needs. Let’s do the math and fight the snobbery.
First, let’s look at the efficiencies of other familiar uses of energy to put PV into perspective. I will act as if I’m directly addressing the PV efficiency snob, because it’s fun—and I would never be this rude in person. This may not apply to you, the reader, so please take the truculent tone in stride.
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
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.
Initiating this blog, I wanted to get a few posts out quickly so folks could get a feel for the nature of the content. On that score, the previous post on 100-mpg cars is probably most representative of future content.
I’ve got dozens of ideas for future posts that I am eager to share, but I will pace myself to about one new substantial post per week (would be hard to sustain more, given demands of my job). Since the Energy Bulletin is running these posts as a series, I don’t want to get too far ahead of their weekly publication schedule. As such, I will sit on my heels for a bit until we’re synchronized. So thanks for your patience, and keep a lookout for the next post sometime around the first week of August.