Triggering a lot of thoughts about energy is a good article Mark Clayton wrote in The Christian Science Monitor on February 26, 2004 that has been in my "ought to post about this" list for too long. The article is entitled America's new coal rush.
After 25 years on the blacklist of America's energy sources, coal is poised to make a comeback, stoked by the demand for affordable electricity and the rising price of other fuels.
At least 94 coal-fired electric power plants - with the capacity to power 62 million American homes - are now planned across 36 states.
Many different electric power companies have made the decision that coal is going to be cheaper than natural gas as a source of energy to generate electric power. After a long period during which most new electric power plants have been built to burn natural gas in order to reduce emissions this represents a substantial shift in long term views about availability of different fossil fuels. While part of that shift may be due in part to advances in coal-burning technologies that reduce emissions this shift also appears to be part of a larger pattern of a growing belief that both oil and natural gas production do not look like they will be able to rise as rapidly as demand. At some point in the next two decades it is quite probable that their production will actually fall. This spells a coming era of wrenching readjustments and difficult economic times.
Some experts claim that only half these plants may be built. But that is still a large number.
But experts caution that perhaps no more than half of all proposed plants will ever be built. It can take seven to 10 years for a coal power plant to go from planning to construction - and legal action and public protests often halt them.
My guess is that rising prices for other forms of energy will create conditions that will lead to the building of all of these planned coal-fired electricity generation plants and probably many more.
Industry plans for building coal electric power plants come from a US Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory Office of Coal and Environmental Systems February 24, 2004 report entitled Tracking New Coal-Powered Power Plants: Coal's Resurgence In Electric Power Generation (PDF format).
CIBC World Markets economist Jeffrey Rubin says there are already signs that conventional oil production may have peaked.
Strip out unconventional sources of supply, and crude production is hovering around 65 million barrels, where it has been for the past four years. Has the world already seen the peak in conventional crude production?
The 82 millions per barrel total production today includes oil sands extraction and very deep sea extraction.
Dr. David Goodstein, Vice Provost and Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Caltech, has recently written a book entitled Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil where he argues that the peak of oil production is rapidly approaching. A CalTech press release on the book provides a sketch of Goodstein's arguments on the coming decline in the production of oil.
But even the 1970s' experience would be nothing compared to a worldwide peak, Goodstein explains. Indeed, the country then experienced serious gas shortages and price increases, exacerbated in no small part by the Arab oil embargo. But frustration and exasperation aside, there was oil to buy on the global market if one could locate a willing seller. By contrast, the global peak will mean that prices will thereafter rise steadily and the resource will become increasingly hard to obtain.
Goodstein says that best and worst-case scenarios are fairly easy to envision. At worst, after the so-called Hubbert's peak (named after M. King Hubbert, the Texas geophysicist who was nearly laughed out of the industry in the 1950s for even suggesting that a U.S. production peak was possible), all efforts to deal with the problem on an emergency basis will fail. The result will be inflation and depression that will probably result indirectly in a decrease in the global population. Even the lucky survivors will find the climate a bit much to take, because billions of people will undoubtedly rely on coal for warmth, cooking, and basic industry, thereby spewing a far greater quantity of greenhouse gases into the air than that which is currently released.
"The change in the greenhouse effect that results eventually tips Earth's climate into a new state hostile to life. End of story. In this instance, worst case really means worst case."
The best-case scenario, Goodstein believes, is that the first warning that Hubbert's peak has occurred will result in a quick and stone-sober global wake-up call. Given sufficient political will, the transportation system will be transformed to rely at least temporarily on an alternative fuel such as methane. Then, more long-term solutions to the crisis will be put in place--presumably nuclear energy and solar energy for stationary power needs, and hydrogen or advanced batteries for transportation.
The preceding is the case that Goodstein makes in the first section of the book. The next section is devoted to a nontechnical explanation of the facts of energy production. Goodstein, who has taught thermodynamics to a generation of Caltech students, is particularly accomplished in conveying the basic scientific information in an easily understandable way. In fact, he often does so with wit, explaining in a brief footnote on the naming of subatomic particles, for example, that the familiar "-on" ending of particles, such as "electrons," "mesons," and "photons," may also suggest an individual quantum of humanity known as the "person."
The remainder of the book is devoted to suggested technological fixes. None of the replacement technologies are as simple and cheap as our current luxury of going to the corner gas station and filling up the tank for the equivalent of a half-hour's wages, but Goodstein warns that the situation is grave, and that things will change very soon.
"The crisis will occur, and it will be painful," he writes in conclusion. "Civilization as we know it will come to an end sometime in this century unless we can find a way to live without fossil fuels."
Goodstein sees the peak coming in this decade or the next decade. Needless to say, the world is in no way prepared to adjust to a declining supply of oil
Solar energy will be an important component, an important part of the solution. If you want to gather enough solar energy to replace the fossil fuel that we’re burning today—and remember we’re going to need more fossil fuel in the future- using current technology, then you would have to cover something like 220,000 square kilometers with solar cells. That’s far more than all the rooftops in the country. It would be a piece of land about 300 miles on a side, which is big but not unthinkable.
Dr. Goodstein was kind enough to provide me with some of the basic facts that went into those figures. The energy that would be collected by 300 by 300 mile area is for the whole world and he's assuming a current world total fossil fuel burn of 10 TW (ten trillion watts). He's also assuming a 10% conversion efficiency for the photovoltaics.
Note of course that part of that energy could be gotten from rooftoops. Also, some could be gotten from other human structures. It is conceivable, for example, that future materials advances may allow the construction of roads that could operate as huge photovoltaic power collectors. Also, boosts in conversion efficiency could reduce the amount of area needed by a factor of perhaps 4 or 5 or even higher. For example, some researchers at Lawrence Berkely Labs have shown that an indium gallium nitride material can boost conversion efficiency to 50%. Also many uses of power could be made much more energy efficient.
Another recent book by Kenneth S. Deffeyes entiteld Hubbert's Peak : The Impending World Oil Shortage m akes similar arguments that the peak of world oil production is approaching.
Deffeyes used a slightly more sophisticated version of the Hubbert method to make the global calculations. The numbers pointed to 2003 as the year of peak production, but because estimates of global reserves are inexact, Deffeyes settled on a range from 2004 to 2008. Three things could upset Deffeyes's prediction. One would be the discovery of huge new oil deposits. A second would be the development of drilling technology that could squeeze more oil from known reserves. And a third would be a steep rise in oil prices, which would make it profitable to recover even the most stubbornly buried oil.
In a delightfully readable and informative primer on oil exploration and drilling, Deffeyes addresses each point. First, the discovery of new oil reserves is unlikely--petroleum geologists have been nearly everywhere, and no substantial finds have been made since the 1970s. Second, billions have already been poured into drilling technology, and it's not going to get much better. And last, even very high oil prices won't spur enough new production to delay the inevitable peak.
"This much is certain," he writes. "No initiative put in place starting today can have a substantial effect on the peak production year. No Caspian Sea exploration, no drilling in the South China Sea, no SUV replacements, no renewable energy projects can be brought on at a sufficient rate to avoid a bidding war for the remaining oil."
I've previously written here on the coming oil production peak.
On my ParaPundit site I've written extensively about the political ramifications of rising oil demand during a period of rising prices and greater dependence on the Middle East. One possible source of hope is the possibility of extracting natural gas from ocean gas hydrates. Or perhaps we will be saved by a breakthrough in desktop fusion. Conventional nuclear power has both cost and proliferation problems. What we need is a massive research push on the order of $5 to $10 billion dollars per year in many different energy technology areas to develop methods to produce energy from other sources and to use energy more efficiently.
Update: At a February 24 2004 symposium hosted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies energy industry investment banker Matthew W. Simmons presented a skeptical analysis of official Saudi Arabian oil reserve claims. (PDF format and the following links as well) A couple of Saudi Aramco employees argued for Saudi estimates. If Simmons is correct then the biggest oil field in Saudi Arabia may already be mostly depleted and the beginning of the decline of oil production in Saudi Arabia may happen decades sooner than conventional wisdom expects. Also from the event: the introduction and the event transcript.
One of Goodstein's Caltech colleagues, chemistry professor Nathan S. Lewis, has calculated the total energy used in the world today, coming up with a grand total of 13 trillion watts consumed annually. That figure, he expects, will rise to 28 trillion watts in the next 40 years or so as the world's population increases from 6 billion to 10 billion.
|Share |||Randall Parker, 2004 March 17 05:56 PM Energy Fossil Fuels|