November 19, 2007
Wall Street Journal Takes Peak Oil Seriously

On the front page today the Wall Street Journal basically legitimized the coming of peak oil.

A growing number of oil-industry chieftains are endorsing an idea long deemed fringe: The world is approaching a practical limit to the number of barrels of crude oil that can be pumped every day.

Some predict that, despite the world's fast-growing thirst for oil, producers could hit that ceiling as soon as 2012. This rough limit -- which two senior industry officials recently pegged at about 100 million barrels a day -- is well short of global demand projections over the next few decades. Current production is about 85 million barrels a day.

The WSJ writers refer to peak oil theorists as "debased" and try to put distance between the supposedly more legitimate statements now coming from the titans of the oil industry and the predictions of supposed peak oil nuts. I think these writers are unfair in their treatment of the lower status and, in their eyes, less legitimate theorizing of petroleum geologists and physicists. How dare anyone but owners and top managers of capital get taken seriously? But the titans of industry were not long ago painting a far rosier energy picture (as were inept national and international energy information agencies) and I'm finding it hard to see them as the more legitimate experts on this topic. The sharpest peak oil theorists are looking a lot more accurate in their assessments than the CEOs of big oil companies.

It is becoming harder to label someone as a fringe kook for saying that Peak Oil is coming Real Soon Now. You can still tell us we are wrong. But I'm no longer fringe on this topic and that of course makes all the difference in the world. It creates a problem for me personally. How can I be cutting edge? Now I've got to find more topics to be fringe on since some of my major themes are heading into mainstream legitimacy and acceptance.

Who are these non-fringe people who say we are nearing the peak? ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva says we'll never hit 100 million barrels per day.

"I don't think we're going to see the supply go over 100- million barrels a day. Where is it all going to come from?" Conoco CEO Jim Mulva said at an investor conference in New York.

I've got readers complaining to me that I need to take global warming seriously and get out of the denial mode. Well, Peak Oil is going to do far more to cut CO2 emissions than the Kyoto Accords would have done had they actually been adhered to. All those models that projected future CO2 emissions based on the world using 130+ million barrels of oil a day are based on unrealistic assumptions. I doubt we'll even reach 95 million barrels per day. Then comes the downhill slope. Or are we already on it?

Jeffrey J. Brown (aka Westexas at The Oil Drum) says the real problem is that net exports will decline even more rapidly than total production.

Kenneth Deffeyes predicted that world oil production (note that he used crude + condensate, not total liquids) would peak between 2004 and 2008, most likely in 2005. He observed that world crude oil production probably peaked in 2000, but he never backed off what his mathematical model showed.

The cumulative shortfall between what the world would have produced at the May, 2005 rate and what it has actually produced is over 700 mb (EIA, crude + condensate). So, the crude oil data suggest that we probably did peak in 2005.

However, the real problem is net export capacity. We are working on our final written report on the top five net oil exporters (about half of current world net oil exporters), but note that their total liquids net exports fell by -3.3%/year from 2005 to 2006, and the decline in net exports is almost certainly going to accelerate from 2006 to 2007. This is the fundamental reason for high oil prices--we are bidding against other importers for declining net oil exports.

Brown and his often co-writer khebab (Samuel Foucher) argue that oil exported from current net oil exporters (countries that make more oil than they use internally) will decline more rapidly than oil production in those exporters. They call this the Export Land Model as they group all the oil exporters into "Export Land" and the rest of us in "Import Land". They expect more rapid growth in demand in oil exporters will cause their exports to drop even before their production does. This is an extremely important observation. The amount of oil available to buy will go down even faster than the decline rate of oil production. Worse yet, the number of people bidding on that oil is going up due to population growth and economic growth. Asian economic growth - especially in China - is going to bid oil prices up so much that oil imports into the United States, Europe, and Japan will decline more rapidly than oil exports from producers.

Think about that.

There's a wild card that could make the short to medium term picture even worse: Countries with large oil reserves could decide to lower production even more rapidly in order to conserve oil to sell later. With prices in the stratosphere why sell as much as you can sell now if the high prices at a lower production rate will give you plenty of cash to run your government and placate your population?

Given the plateau and decline in world oil production (the second graph is really bad news) and khebab's guesses on possible future trends in production I gotta say I'm feeling job insecurity. Stuart Staniford thinks production declines in some big existing fields might even accelerate. Not good. China might take any increase in oil production in 2008 (but Hamish McRae is being optimistic in assuming there'll be an increase for China to take).

The present climb in the oil price has coincided with rising demand from China. Put it this way: China used about three-quarters of the additional supply of oil in the world last year. The economic team at ING Bank notes that China may account for all the additional production this year. If China is to go on using all the additional oil that is available, or more, the rest of the world will have to get by with less. This makes the present surge in the oil price different from all previous oil shocks: it is caused by rising demand rather than restricted supply.

Recently I've gone through a shift in my thinking about Peak Oil. I'm no longer worried about trying to figure out when it will come. The analytical curiosity about future events has been replaced with something that is beginning to feel more like fear. Peak Oil looks to be coming soon enough that I'm thinking more along the line of how to earn a decent living while economies around the world go through one year after another of wrenching recession.

Got any constructive thoughts about adaptation? I'm keen to hear them.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 November 19 10:50 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels

aa2 said at November 20, 2007 4:32 AM:

The thing that concerns me is how much pain the intervening years will bring. I know the ways out, they are not complex for someone who understands the issues deeply(which is about 1 person in a million).. but the nations will have to bring someone to power who understands the why's.. then give him the authority to make radical change. And I know radical changes of directions are not culturally easy to do.. for one there is great vested interest in the status quo. And literally any change is going to hurt some status quo winners.

Thats why it seems likely the pain will have to be high enough for people to change thinking, and the 'forces of change' to be more powerful then the 'powers that be'. A couple examples... one was Grey Davis in California's insane energy plan and anti-new power stations development.. he became the first governor in California history to be recalled, and the new governor got a mandate to build infrastructure. But it took electrical bills going to 1000$ a month for apartment dwellers and then the citizens were ready for change.

Much more serious was 1930's America and Germany, the level of depression was unacceptable but the status quo system of the 1890's-1920's no longer worked in the 1930's world. It took very large cultural and political shift to bring in leaders who could make the structural changes neccessary to get their respective nations out of depression and rolling again.

For jobs I know the power industry is going to have to scale up big time in the next 15 years. It might take a year or two before the anti-devleopment greens and socialists get steamrolled out of the way though.

Ned said at November 20, 2007 6:02 AM:

Yes, peak oil is not far away, if it hasn't arrived already. So what - plenty of alternatives exist - ethanol, methanol (CTG), improved battery technology, fuel cells, etc. The soaring price of oil will rapidly spur the development of alternative fuels plus increased conservation. For decades, the doomsayers have been predicting one disaster after another, and mostly we're still waiting. Remember global cooling? The great depressions of '88, or '93 or '97 or whenever? The population time bombs that would lead to mass starvation? We're still waiting. That's not to say that some of these things couldn't happen - of course they could. But they haven't yet. For a long time it has been obvious that the US should develop a program of energy independence, and now peak oil is going to force us to do so. Pity we didn't do it sooner, but I expect little else from the idiots running this country. In 1939, with the start of World War II, Germany rapidly shifted her entire economy from one based on imported petroleum to one based primarily on alternative fuel production. All those airplanes, tanks and U-boats were powered primarily by alternative fuels. The technology now has come a long way from 1939, plus our plants are not being bombed. Look upon peak oil as an opportunity, not a crisis - just thing, no more oil export money to the Saudi fanatics, Hugo Chavez and the Nigerian gangsters. And if youre still worried about global warming, take a look at this:

Wolf-Dog said at November 20, 2007 6:15 AM:

Phoenix Motorcars is already getting ready to mass-produce build its pure electric SUV in Mexico:

This SUV uses a new type of lithium battery that gives it a range of more than 100 miles, but next year there will be an improved battery that doubles the range to more than 200 miles. Note that this battery by Altair Nanotechnologies gets charged in less than 10 minutes and has a life of more than 20 years. The 200 mile range version is the same technology, and it is destined to
get improved.

Note that this SUV is a real heavy vehicle for 5 people, it even has a truck version: is NOT a light sports car that can only carry 2 passengers without suitcases.

Thus if we build 20 nuclear reactors (1000 Megawatts per reactor, costing $3 billion per reactor) by per year we can have 200 reactors, which is enough to charge 300 million electric cars.

Clifford J. Wirth said at November 20, 2007 8:13 AM:

We are now at Peak Oil, and scientific and government studies indicate that the impacts will be devastating. See this well-documented report:

D. F. Linton said at November 20, 2007 8:31 AM:

Coal-to-liquids for transportation and coal-burning electric generation for ten or twenty years while we build large numbers of fast-breeder nuclear generating stations and fuel processing sites. Petroleum becomes mostly a chemical feedstock. If the planet warms a bit, adapt. It better to run the A/C a little more than to freeze in the dark.

Brian Wang said at November 20, 2007 8:36 AM:

I am not convinced that we are at peak oil/liquids.

We are seeing some problems that are being made worse because of the war and potential of war with Iran and speculation. Most projections of the peak are for a substantial plateau. Any demand destruction would hit poorer countries first.

The initial step is conservation. Dropping speed limits back to 55mph on highways.
750,000 gallons per day
Instituting the other conservation measures.
No drive days. One day a week retail store closures.
More government imposed and assisted telecommuting.
Satellite office programs.
Fuel rationing.
Carpooling, transit, odd-even and other measures can reduce fuel usage by 8-15% right away and several can be sustained without harming the
economy. A mid-term transition would be to require and setup satellite offices and wifi buses and trains (so that people could be productive
while traveling on transit)

Those steps were in the first part of transitioning from oil.

10-20% reduction with those measures. 2-4 million barrels per day for the USA.

I see no indications that such measures for 4 years would not be sufficient to allow ANWR and the new gulf oil to get spun up. Then the
shale oil, biofuels and more oilsands and more electrification and high efficiency vehicles. (ANWR 800,000 bpd by 2018, gulf Oil brazil - maybe 1 million bpd by 2015, Chevron -gulf of Mexico Maybe 700,000 bpd by 2012, Shell oil shale - maybe 1.5 million bpd by 2025, other significant deep oil possible of coasts of africa and asia, Canada will still be exporting oil from oilsands in the pipelines to the USA.
IF Iraq and Iran get stable they each could produce about 6 million bpd, which is 6 million bpd more than they do now. A more desperate big country with a big military could super-surge double down to make that happen.)

I believe that China also has the means to conserve and use its $1.4 trillion in reserves to ride out a rapid transition.

The best technologies for moderating peak oil would be better oil recovery (enhanced oil recovery) like Toe to heel air injection

there are other means of enhanced oil recovery. Actually carbon sequestering into old fields enhances oil recovery.

The material on the Petrobank web site indicates that it is expected that THAI will recover 70% to 80% of oil originally in place. If 10%
of the oil originally in place is burned in the process, this would leave 10% to 20% of the oil originally in place in the ground.

By comparison, recovery using current steam processes is estimated to be 20% to 50% in the high-grade, homogeneous areas where steam methods
can be used.

Transitioning from oil. conserve. Use and develop alternative liquids (biofuels, fuel from shale).
Drill everywhere like ANWR (Enhanced oil recovery, don't fall back to coal, but go hard for more oil and a nuclear/electric switch).
Use electrical transportation. China has 60 million electric cycles and scooters already. (existing batteries good enough for bikes and scooters)

===Then there is the transition to far greater efficiency in the mid-term 2010-2025
Thermoelectronics I see as big from 2010+ making engines and society more efficient

Superconductoring motors for industrialization.
Improved industrial processes

===More power, nuclear fission, wind, and maybe fusion
If we do not get good nuclear fusion then the world and China will build a lot of nuclear fission.
I also like the kitegen system for wind power and think it would work and be cheaper and better

There will also be 10MW superconducting wind generators

I discuss the nuclear plans of China, India and Russia

China's nuclear build is accelerating, with interior provinces likely to get reactors

China's big hydro build

I go into detail about scaling up nuclear fission by a lot. I also discuss how "nuclear waste" is unburned nuclear fuel. The right
reactors (which have been built before) would burn it all.

Worst case oil problems trigger a four year crash program transition and a deep recession Weaker countries in Africa etc... are hit the most.

Fusion best bets in my view : Bussard fusion, Tri alpha energy colliding beam fusion, Z-pinch rapid fire, Hyper (laser fusion)

brian wang said at November 20, 2007 9:59 AM:

california and 19 other states could force higher fuel standards.
Two lawsuits could force the higher fuel standards and better environmental standards

Talk of 38 mpg by 2015.

davetweed said at November 20, 2007 10:01 AM:

The thing that worries me is the "supertanker turning effect": the only way things work is starting to turn well in advance, trying to do things at the last moment leads to insurmountable problems. In particular, I'd like to have very well designed and well built, well manned and safe nuclear power generation. However, going instantly from current low international construction rates to 20 a year in the US alone strikes me as crazy. I'd want to start by ramping up and hyper-testing the initial models, discovering where the contractor skimped on concrete, or the designer didn't think about something, or staff wages are too low to encourage diligence, or even that geographic planners overestimate cooling capacity of rivers (

is the first reference google throws back). I think it's going to be like this with most adaptations; the physical world is not like a webserver where you can quickly yank things that are misbehaving, you have to start slow to verify you haven't screwed somewhere.

And if the world collectively puts off starting the changes by borrowing money against the future and running down material stockpiles, then suddenly a decision is made to frantically start big projects then I see huge problems.

guest said at November 20, 2007 10:21 AM:

There's a wild card that could make the short to medium term picture even worse: Countries with large oil reserves could decide to lower production even more rapidly in order to conserve oil to sell later. With prices in the stratosphere why sell as much as you can sell now if the high prices at a lower production rate will give you plenty of cash to run your government and placate your population?

This is in fact a very beneficial effect: it means that the possibility of future oil shortages is accounted for well before physical production begins to decline, i.e. keeping oil in the ground in anticipation of higher prices extends the production profile and incents mitigation efforts. See "How to talk to an economist about peak oil" by James D. Hamilton, noting that the post was written in 2005. Peak oil has now entered the mainstream, so it's probably been priced into the market and there's no particular reason to expect any further price swings.

brian wang said at November 20, 2007 10:42 AM:

I discuss short, mid and long term steps in transitioning from oil.

Conserve, drill everywhere (ANWR, deep sea oil etc...), enhanced oil recovery,
biofuels/biodiesel/oil shale/oilsands, effiency of vehicles and industry (electric bikes, thermoelectronics etc...),
Push current technology as much as possible (20% power uprating for nukes 87 of 104 US nukes not given extended uprates, more wind,
more efficient cars etc...)
develop really good new tech (better fission- MIT uppowering tech, fusion, kitegen, new solar, geothermal)

odograph said at November 20, 2007 11:38 AM:

Interesting times, especially for those of us who have been thinking/blogging about peak oil for the last few years.

It's funny how each one of these "turning points" feels like just that for a day or two, before things fall back to normalcy. Of course, by normalcy I don't mean an unchanging or static world. I think we are evolving all the time, and patterns of energy production and consumption have been evolving right along with everything else.

To quote myself:

What should we do? We are not short on plans. The national news contains daily reports on hydrogen, wind, biodiesel, solar, ethanol, clean coal, biomass, and geothermal energy projects. And we see as many reports on the conservation front, with smaller, more efficient, gasoline, diesel, hybrid, and electric cars, efficient homes, and appliances. It’s not like we aren’t trying. We are just trying in the imperfect, messy, and sometimes even corrupt, human way.

Is this a bigger "turning point" than the ones previous? In a way I hope so. Should the Journal's plateau prediction come true, it will be a gentler way to wake people up than the "debased" peak-and-declines ;-)

odograph said at November 20, 2007 11:44 AM:

on "thoughts about adaptation," I think we'll try everything, and maybe find some things that work.

Brock said at November 20, 2007 12:26 PM:

"Well, Peak Oil is going to do far more to cut CO2 emissions than the Kyoto Accords would have done had they actually been adhered to."

Generally concur with the post, but since Peak Oil's most likely near-term effect is to drive coal use ...

I must say though that the Peak Oil community's fascination with the "cataclysmic" effects of Peak Oil do suggest all the trappings of a Doomsday cult. Sure, it's based on more substantial footing than a few cryptic quotes attributed to Nostradamus, but I think any objective observation of some of Peak Oil's supporters would see the similarities. It has attracted its fair share of kooks.

Randall, unless you work at a gas station (which I know you don't) I don't think there's anything you can really do to ensure job protection other than "Be good at what you do." If the economy contracts 10% (not that I'm saying it will), it's not like there will cease to be demand for PHP programmers; it's just that we'll be able to afford 10% fewer of them. As long as you're in the top 90%, you'll still have a job. Some industries have more or less elastic demand curves though, and so are subject to greater or lesser degrees of job security. I expect a lasting recession will be harder on the Budget Tours industry (and other frivolous things) than farmers or doctors. Be in an industry with non-elastic demand curves.

j said at November 20, 2007 12:45 PM:

Electric vehicles and nuclear power generation? Great. Coal-to-liquids transportation fuels? Great. Bicycles? Great. More efficient homes and appliances? Great. The problem is not the lack of an acceptible set of solutions, which in combination might work well, it's the lack of foresight, time, and money.

It seems pretty likely that major problems from fossil fuel depletion will occur before there's much of an effort to mitigate the problems. It will be an event like Katrina, that "no one saw coming" until after the fact, when it suddenly becomes obvious that it was highly probable and anticipated by many. There will be little or no desire to expend the money and effort before the fact, and after the fact there will at best be significant pain and dispruption. Any one care to run through a few financial figures on what is necessary to build all those nukes, replace a sizable fraction of our vehicles (which will have no trade-in value except as scrap) with plug-in's (which aren't available yet), etc, etc? This is a multi-trillion dollar proposition. The country can't even pay its own way now, let alone when the rest of the world is no longer subsidizing our lifestyle and a recession or worse is in progress. It's technically possible to mitigate the problem, but how about politically, socially, and economically?

Wolf-Dog said at November 20, 2007 1:16 PM:

"care to run through a few financial figures on what is necessary to build all those nukes, replace a sizable fraction of our vehicles (which will have no trade-in value except as scrap) with plug-in's (which aren't available yet), etc, etc? This is a multi-trillion dollar proposition. The country can't even pay its own way now, let alone when the rest of the world is no longer subsidizing our lifestyle and a recession or worse is in progress. It's technically possible to mitigate the problem, but how about politically, socially, and economically?"

Given how much money we have already wasted in in Iraq and Afghanistan, if we spent only half as much on energy R&D, we would have a solution in less than 10 years. As I mentioned above, building 200 reactors would cost $300 billion, but if we spread the
cost over 10 years by building only 20 reactor per year, the cost would be only $30 billion per year, which is affordable to the US government. If the government had allocated just another $20 billion per year for battery research and development instead of that totally useless hydrogen fantasy, then we would be ready to replace oil within 10 years, for an annual cost of $50 billion to the government. But ironically, it will be the Democrats who are less owned by the oil interests who would follow this path. Remember, it was a Democratic president who started the Manhattan Project, and this time Hillary might start the Bronx Project for energy research and development.

Ned said at November 20, 2007 3:21 PM:

Wolf-Dog makes a good point. The costs of transitioning to an alternative fuels economy will be fairly high, but the costs of NOT transitioning will be even higher. As I implied in my earlier post, if the idiots running this country had any sense, they would have started down this road years ago, and we would already be well on our way. Oh well, better late than never, I guess. One thing we don't know at this point is what the solution will look like - which technologies will be the winners, and what the proper mix of technologies will be. The free market is very adept at sorting these things out - I would reserve the role of government for very long term fixes, such as fusion research, where the short term financial rewards are not so apparent.

aa2 said at November 20, 2007 3:49 PM:

If the Democrats started acting like Roosevelt and building great infrastructure.. instead of ordering people to cut back and back.. it seems they would landslide win every election.

I like your ambition of building 200 reactors, thats the kind of big thinking I believe we need. I'd build them in complexes of maybe 4-16 reactors. So that maintenance, operation, security and administration could be much smaller per plant, as well as less land needing to be cleared to make way for transmission lines. Putting them on the ocean or great lakes when ever possible, so that cooling and water is not a worry.

You can go to a site and start with even 2 reactors.. but have room to upgrade to say 12 reactors on the site.. And in addition have room for 4 breeder reactors for sometime in the future. So the breeders could burn the waste fuel that got built up over decades of operating all those reactors. And not have to transport the waste around.

In an area like California or Georgia short on water I would also combine with desalination plants. If you are super heating the seawater to steam you might as well desalinate in there.

odograph said at November 20, 2007 3:53 PM:


WorldChanging has a nice article about how we've been doing this since the 70's.

donald wilkins said at November 20, 2007 5:38 PM:

Hooking nuclear power to the reverse water gas shift (RWGS) would a) eliminate dependence on foreign, b) allow recycling of carbon dioxide into fuel, c) fuel that unlike liquid hydrogen or methanol already suits our vehicles and fuel infrastructure and d) permit humans to control the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. The technology is proven but has not been integrated into the systems we need.

Four approaches could be used to start the pump. First the US Navy has nuclear powered ships. Carriers could be modified to produce aircraft fuel and ship bunker fuel. Producing its own fuel would reduce the Navy's dependence on fragile, expensive supply lines and reduce its operating costs. When in port, and here the submarines would be useful, the reactors would power RWGS systems producing hydrocarbons for civilian uses.

Second Iceland has immense geothermal resources with no effective way to get the energy to market. Several RWGS plants could turn Iceland into a significant oil supplier.

Third states along the Gulf Coast could position nuclear power/RWGS plants offshore to produce oil products for transportation in existing pipelines. Missisippi has two major coal burning plants on the coast. Nuclea plants at those sites would turn a pollutant, carcon dioxise, into fuel.

Third - a small island nation such as Jamicia could place a nuclear reactor offshore and basically declare its energy independence.

Randall Parker said at November 20, 2007 6:48 PM:

Donald Wilkins,

I have long wondered about the economics of reducing carbon dioxide. Nukes can be designed to split water at high temperature rather than by the less efficient hydrolysis process. The development effort to design such nukes would be considerable. But the United States is currently burning 20 million barrels a day times over $90 per barrel and so $1.8 billion a day in oil. We can afford to do the R&D.

Once the nukes produce the hydrogen ions we need to mix them in with CO2 and reduce the carbon. What would that cost?

The cost depends in part on the cost of getting the CO2. The CO2 has to come in a form that doesn't have contaminants that mess up the catalysts used in the reduction process or contaminate the resulting hydrocarbons. Mercury in coal electric exhaust might be a problem.

Also, how much carbon comes up out of smoke stacks as compared to how much gets used as oil?

Also, hydrogen produced by nukes could reduce carbon in biomass. Take partially reduced carbon found in sugars, fats, and protein and fully reduce it. Then the purpose of biomass is to capture carbon for reduction.

Then I wonder at the practicality of capturing carbon dioxide right out of the air. The materials used to do it would need to be cheap and cover a large area so that wind will deliver it. Then solar power to drive the fixation probably makes the most sense.

Randall Parker said at November 20, 2007 7:55 PM:

Brian Wang,

I know we have all sorts of technological options. But look at the costs. These costs will get delivered via wrenching recessions of the sort we last saw in the 1970s. But this time around I'm expecting deeper recessions that last longer.

First off, there's going to be a massive destruction in value of capital as capital built for oil becomes a lot less useful and in many cases useless. Sure, we'll construct new capital. But that diverts resources away from consumption. Living standards will decline.

Second, destruction of capital and of business models will lead to lay-offs. We'll have people getting laid off and inflation at the same time.

Third, we'll have considerable migration as people move closer to jobs and closer to areas with lower heating costs in the winter and closer to train lines and ports. High oil costs will change the relative value of living in different parts of larger nations.


Big infrastructure builds: I'd like to see the US government get into a massive program to replace oil and eventually natural gas as heating sources for all public builds. Geothermal heat pumps are the best substitute. Installing them in government buildings would cut fossil fuels use and also serve as a useful example to everyone else.

I also think the federal government should offer $3000 per vehicle subsidies to police departments to buy cop cars that have diesel engines. Cop cars do high mileage per year and therefore burn a lot of fuel. So per car shifted to more efficient energy they'll gain the most in saved oil.

Randall Parker said at November 20, 2007 8:42 PM:

Brian Wang,

Higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks really don't matter at this point. The price of gasoline is going up to $4 per gallon and well beyond. Once everyone knows that we are post-peak in oil production people will become afraid to buy less efficient cars.

Lots of government policies that might have helped 5 years ago (e.g. car fuel efficiency standards and battery research) are too late. Pricing is going to do more to change decisions than those policies could hope to do.

Randall Parker said at November 20, 2007 9:02 PM:

Brian Wang,

For some policy changes we really are too late to be thinking about them. We need to think about what government policies would help at this point. I can see several:

1) Governments should make themselves more energy efficient. They are less responsive to price signals. They need to switch to diesel and hybrid and smaller vehicles. They need to replace their oil burner heaters with geothermal heat pumps. They need to make their buildings far more efficient.

2) Governments should fund energy research that has longer term pay-offs.

3) Governments should change zoning laws to increase mixing of commercial and residential zoning so that people don't have to travel as far to stores and jobs.

4) Governments should enact more energy efficient building codes.

5) Governments should build more bike lanes and other physical layouts of roads to make more energy efficient transportation options easier to choose.

Am I missing anything?

rsilvetz said at November 20, 2007 10:12 PM:

I'm laughing. Mark my words. You will not hit peak oil in your lifetimes. Why? Because high prices will bring both marginal and new sources into the market and it will generate substitutes. There will be no catastrophe, no dramatic changes in lifestyles or any other "sky is falling" scenario. Oil is plentiful and will remain so.

Did I mention that oil is the second most plentiful substance on the planet after water....?

Jadelink said at November 20, 2007 11:01 PM:

Randall:- Am I missing anything?

Yes, a massive investment in suburban rail and light rail/streetcars, as well as a properly upgraded interstate rail system.

...oh, and the political will of any government to tell the American people that they are going to have to take an economic hit one way or another.

Randall Parker said at November 20, 2007 11:32 PM:


Why do you see light rail as a solution? My impression is that outside of a few cities we don't have the population densities needed to make light rail cost effective.

I suspect electric cars are at least as fuel efficient as light rail.

Phil said at November 21, 2007 12:12 AM:

So, when liquid oil flows start causing our society headaches, we'll turn to dirty old coal where we can, and carbon dioxide emissions will keep on rising.

Until we hit another barrier or ten.

Peak phosphorous, peak clean water, and even peak nuclear fission.

All coming to a society near you, soon.

Book your advance tickets now, it's going to be quite a show.

odograph said at November 21, 2007 12:13 AM:

We are actually doing all those things Randall listed at at November 20, 2007 09:02 PM. It's a question of pace though, and of the other, dumber things we are doing (like corn ethanol, hybrid SUVs, and coal-to-liquids) at the same time.

If our punditry is just that we should do more smart things and less dumb, ok, fine.

But I think practically that we'll work our way through all this only slowly. We aren't going to stop corn ethanol and switch to vehicle efficiency on a dime. That's too bad, but that's just who we are as a species.

I mean, look at the slow acceptance of the uber-rational Prius ... we just aren't that nimble.

James Bowery said at November 21, 2007 1:20 AM:

People are under the impression that capital concentration is somehow immune to the maxim that power corrupts. What is going to happen as energy sources dwindle is human inventiveness will become more valuable, which will revitalize the Yeoman class through increased wages and a more rational distribution of wealth. As that happens capital will go into the contemporary versions of the Wright Brothers, Newton, Darwin and a host of other Yeomen in history that triggered revolutions in science and technology.

It must be understood that this idea that capital is magic is a myth promulgated by the wealthy who have have lost the ethics and the intelligence to act in their own enlightened self interest. Virtually any catastrophe that is visited upon civilization -- particularly Western civilization -- at this stage is all for the good.

Yes, the changes will be wrenching, but unlike the 1930s when the catastrophes were a consequence of the high concentration of wealth, this is more akin to the advent of WW II which allowed wealth to flow to the inventive Yeomen once again.

odograph said at November 21, 2007 1:35 AM:

Heh, Yeomen with VCs.

chris Prelitz said at November 21, 2007 7:48 AM:

Nukes not the answer:

Unless we make radical sweeping change ASAP, we stand a chance at going down in history as the dumbest group of stewards in the history of the planet. The gas tank is half empty. We need to pull over, look at the map and change drivers to one who will lead us on a road to thriving in the next post oil age.

The construction of reactors takes large amounts of energy. More importantly, mining, milling and enriching uranium to produce reactor fuel takes even more fossil fuel and generates huge amounts of greenhouse gases. And reactors release large plumes of heat directly into air and water; reactors in both France and the United States have had to be shut down because they overheated adjacent rivers.

A reactor costs about $4 billion to $5 billion to build and more than double this amount to clean up. It can take 15 years to build a facility that may operate 30 to 40 years. And by the time it's completed, we'd have to start a new round.

Industry leaders like to say that new reactors are absolutely safe, that there'll be no repeat of Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. But they also say Chernobyl wasn't so bad after all.Elizabeth Cardis of the International Agency for Cancer Research in Lyons, France, puts the number of deaths related to Chernobyl at 30,000 to 60,000.

The unsolved waste problem: To build a new generation of nuclear reactors without knowing what to do with the huge quantity of radioactive waste generated by existing plants is highly irresponsible. The government has spent huge sums on its unsuccessful effort to find a suitable burial site. Putting this material in the environment seems unwise.

As Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told the New York Times: "The abiding lesson that Three Mile Island taught Wall Street was that a group of NRC-licensed reactor operators, as good as any others, could turn a $2 billion asset into a $1 billion cleanup job in about 90 minutes." So the government can continue to subsidize the industry, says Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, but the effect "will be the same as defibrillating a corpse: It will jump, but it will not revive."

Terrorist targets: Nuclear power stations, if attacked, could disperse radioactive materials over a large area. A British specialist calls them "pre-deployed radiological weapons" within the countries terrorists would most like to hit.

The answer will be a combination of efficiency, lifestyle change, re=localization, renewable energy and putting an end to every dollar and drop of oil spent in fighting overseas wars. A decade from now folks will be asking: what were they thinking driving SUV's that burn 12 mpg? Or building homes and buildings that can't even be occupied when the power or gas goes out because they've gotten so far away from living within the means of the natural environment.

Brian Wang said at November 21, 2007 9:05 AM:

Why do you think there will be a repeat of Chernobyl ? Are we going to stop building containment domes ?
Chernobyl reactors had no containment dome. Are we going to switch to manually operated control rods? All new reactors have passive control systems. Even the other eight reactors of that type have not had a problem in the 20 years since. They are running with lower void efficiencies.

The world health organization estimate is that Chernobyl might have 4000 excess deaths from increased disease. Those deaths are spread out over 40 years.
Yet the world health organization also indicates 3 million deaths per year from outdoor air pollution from fossil fuels.
1 million deaths per year from coal pollution.
There was a recent coal mining accident in the Ukraine (the country of Chernobyl). It killed 89+ (probably 108) people. More than twice the immediate deaths from Chernobyl. The Ukraine averages over 200 coal mining deaths each year. In 1992, the Ukraine had 492 coal mining deaths. So coal mining has killed more people in the Ukraine than Chernobyl.

Coal mining the burning of 6-7 billion tons of coal per year, also distributes 20,000 tons of Uranium and thorium into the atmosphere and environment each year. More radioactive material than nuclear plants.

Radiological (dirty) bombs are not nuclear bombs. They just increase clean up costs after the fact. Most reactors are sited 5-10 kilometers from major populated areas. Chemical explosives are unable to create that large a blast radius. The domes are resistant to large aircraft. If the terrorist had big enough explosives to do the job they could just hit a big buildings and get more effect. They could also blow up a refinery or a dam and get more deaths.

Half of the reactors in the US have been given 20 year operating extensions which would put them up to 60 years of operating life. It is expected that most of the other reactors will also get extensions. Japan is researching extensions to 70 years. The US is looking at further extensions to 80 years.

your information on nuclear reactor construction times and costs is cherry picking the worst cases. Not every project is the Montreal Olympics with cost overruns. Most are the LA or Calgary olympics.

Most reactors historically were in the 5-9 year range.

Recent reactors completed overseas by the same multinationals that will make reactors here are taking 5-7 years.

the main costs in construction are the financing costs. The plants completed on schedule are hitting construction budget targets.
Ulchin 6 (operational 2005) - less than 5 years
Tianwan 1 (operational 2006) - 7 years
Tianwan 2 (operational 2007) - 7 years
Shika- 2 (operational 2005) - less than 5 years
Tarapur - 3 (operational 2006) - 6 years
Tarapur - 4 (operational 2005) - 5 years
Kaiga - 3 (operational 2007) - 5 years
Higashi Dori (operational 2005) -5 years

Cernavoda -2 had stopped construction. construction restarted in 2003. completed in 2007.

Of the 500 some reactors that have been built (435 operating, some were already shutdown) then how many had the big cleanup costs you are talking about ?

amory lovins has been predicting doom for nuclear energy for 30 years.

Nuclear power plant orders have increased by 100 this year

The climate change bills could increase nuclear and renewable build away from coal and triple nuclear and renewables by 2030

From 1993-2005, nuclear has been helping more as a better energy source:
Wood (biomass): 96 thousand megawatt-hours/per year.
Waste: - 259 thousand megawatt-hours/per year. Negative number.
Geothermal: - 190 thousand megawatt-hours/per year. Negative number.
Solar: (Usually everybody’s favorite): +8
Wind (Another favorite): 1345 thousand megawatt-hours/per year.

Overall renewable energy 1,000 thousand megawatt-hours/per year.
Nuclear energy added 16,203 thousand megawatt-hours per year for nuclear even without building a new plant.

coal plants also use a lot of water to cool their operation.
some nuclear reactors do not use water cooling.
Coal mining is mountain top removal in the USA.
Use 1000 tons of explosives per day to blow away dirt and forest to get at coal. 7% of Appalachian forest blasted into woodchips.

insitu leach mining for uranium leaves the rock and earth in place. (most common method)

Coal has to move 6-7 billion tons of coal per year. 40% of freight rail and 10-20% of trucking is to move coal.
So coal also causes more traffic and rail deaths and injuries.

wind power uses more concrete and steel to generate the same electricity as nuclear power. 5000 large wind turbines to equal one nuclear reactor.

Nuclear power stacks up well on lifecycle studies (including mining) of different energy sources.

Nuclear "waste" is unburned nuclear fuel. Molten salt and other high burn reactors can consume the uranium and plutonium in current waste for energy. Two such reactors were built in the 60s and 70s. Research ongoing in France, India and other places.
Remaining material has half life of less than 30 years. In 300 years, would have less radiation than background radiation. Storage is easier than dealing with toxic waste of coal. Nuclear "waste" is stored in vats and tanks. Coal and fossil fuel waste gets stored in the environment and your lungs.

Brian Wang said at November 21, 2007 9:38 AM:

Recessions can happen even without peak oil. Financial and housing problems can cause them too. Wars can help contribute to them as well.

The world has to spend tens of trillions building energy and water infrastructure over the next few decades. We might as well make the right choices.

People can move closer to work or the jobs can be moved closer to the people (my idea of satellite offices and more telecommuting.)

If the Iran war does not happen, then oil prices will back off. But whether we go into recession will depend more on how bad the credit and housing crisis gets.

Steps are being taken. I think if we get through to 2012-2015 without a major supply breakdown then the efficiency gains from technology will start kicking in in a major way.

from now to 2012-2015. Need to hope for more production from Russia (500,000 bpd) and Suadi Arabia (maybe 1-2 million bpd).

Worldwide forced conservation (because of supply constraints and costs) can reduce demand by 20% without massive economic damage.

People are still going on road trips and travelling this Thanksgiving. Fuel costs factor into my decisions about where to eat out or shop. Even if fuel costs double again, people in the developed countries and China can adapt.

Nick G said at November 21, 2007 9:40 AM:

Randall, the most dramatic government solutions, with the best $ and Energy ROI, are carpooling and telecommuting.

We can do both almost overnight, and reduce commuting oil consumption dramatically (by 75% in a few months, if we really got serious about it).

Carpooling involves a bit of inconvenience. Telecommuting requires changing long-ingrained management & work habits. They both require some leadership....

As far as where to work, I think government and utilities will be pretty safe.

Nick G said at November 21, 2007 9:44 AM:

Randall, you might want to look at and

Car-sharing will allow maximum utilization of scarce hybrids and ErEV's - the average car is only in use 66 minutes per day.

Ride sharing will enable carpooling.

odograph said at November 21, 2007 9:51 AM:

To drum my point about (a) ongoing response, and (b) the futility of "car segment" thinking ...

"Stark was a Mercedes-Benz salesmen at the time but now sells the [Smart] Fortwo in Oakville, Ontario, an upscale Toronto suburb. He notes that buyers don't fit a set demographic.

'There certainly are a lot of people who could buy anything they want, but we see everyone from a university student to someone who has two Jaguars in their garage. What they all want is an eco-friendly vehicle,' he said. 'They're friendly, personable people who enjoy life and want to make an environmental statement.'"

more here

David Govett said at November 21, 2007 9:57 AM:

There must be a few billions barrels of oil on garage floors around the world. Sounds like a start-up to me.

odograph said at November 21, 2007 10:28 AM:

You're right Nick, that is fun ... it's a software problem. As somebody who's working on software problems in another window ... LOL. What goes around comes around.

Randall Parker said at November 21, 2007 5:15 PM:

Chris Prelitz,

I've read credible sources that claim nuclear reactors return the energy invested in their construction in the first 3-6 months of operation. Some studies claim a 50 to 1 ratio of energy output to energy input. But other participants of the Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI or EROI in some circles) put the ratio at 5 to 10.

The problem we'll face in a declining oil situation is that there won't be a lot of oil available to use as energy to do new construction. But we will still have coal and natural gas to power steel mills and other plants needed to make construction materials. So a big build of nuclear power plants seems doable even during declining oil production.


Carpooling: I don't see it as something that government can lead. It requires lots of cooperation between individuals. It seems very much a ground up sort of thing. That will come only as a result of really high gasoline prices. But my expectation is that people will prefer moving closer to work and driving much smaller cars over carpooling. People don't want to restrict the timing of their movements to the timing of movements by other people. Though we will see more carpooling.

I think we could rapidly cut our fuel usage in half out of necessity. We have several ways to do that:

1) Car pool.

2) Move closer to jobs.

3) Change to jobs closer to home.

4) Employers move jobs closer to workers - in the extreme via telecommuting.

5) Keep smaller cars on the road longer while retiring bigger cars sooner.

6) Short distance drivers sell smaller cars to long distance drivers.

7) Build lots of smaller, diesel, hybrid cars quickly.

8) Retune and upgrade existing cars for better fuel efficiency. I'm really interested to know more about this one and have been asking car engineering friends about the possibilities. If anyone knows more about this please chime in.

brian wang said at November 21, 2007 6:31 PM:

you cannot save 75% of the oil use from carpooling because only 40% of the oil in the USA is used for car vehicle transportation.

Freight trucks are 12.7%

Raw material for chemicals and plastics 10%

Air travel 6.7%

Heat for factories 5%

heating homes and offices (mostly in the Northeast) 4.9%
refineries 3.3%
pavement 2.8%


Converting homes and offices and factories to not use oil and use electricity would work but would take time.

This pdf talks about 5% relatively easy savings and then getting to 10% and making it stick

Randall Parker said at November 21, 2007 8:20 PM:

Brian Wang,

Thanks for the useful link to your post about the uses of oil.

Interesting: 40.7% of oil is for personal transportation. But 12.7% is for trucks. So the ratio is 3.2 to 1. I would have expected a much higher ratio.

That low ratio is a problem. It is harder to reduce the truck energy use than the car energy use. Some truck shipments can get shifted to trains. But the market probably is already optimizing the truck-train mix already. How can government policies shift more shipments to trains? My guess is only higher prices will do it.

Air travel is a similar problem. People want to travel by air. Only higher prices will change that.

Cutting out oil for heating: Tax policy might work here. Provide same year complete write-offs for installation of heating pumps that totally replace oil heaters.

I recall reading that oil used for electric generation is due to some NIMBYism around NYC. They ought to replace their old oil burner electric generators. But opposition to new power plants keeps very expensive oil electric plants in operation. New York has high electric costs as a result.

Oil as chemical feedstock and oil for farming: I suspect some of the oil listed as for chemical feedstock is really for farming to make farm fertilizers and chemicals. I'd like to get a better idea of how much oil and how much natural gas go into making American agriculture function.

Process heat: Could factories get built around nuclear plants with process heat piped out from a nuke to factories in a hot liquid or gas to surrounding factories?

Oil for plastics: Can nanomaterials produced with electrically-driven processes serve as substitutes?

For every use of oil we need to ask how we can do the same thing without oil. I expect most substitution to come in the form of using electricity as the substitute. But that won't work for every case.

Engineer-Poet said at November 21, 2007 8:20 PM:
The sharpest peak oil theorists are looking a lot more accurate in their assessments than the CEOs of big oil companies.
Of course.  Oil companies (and the petro-states which pay for the reports from the likes of CERA) are in the business of selling oil, and if all their customers start to use less oil both their sales and the value of their reserves goes down.  Nothing will excite people about more efficient systems than the news that the price of inputs is about to skyrocket, so the oil industry's profits are best served by denying as long as anyone might believe them.

Some oil companies have apparently decided that nobody's going to believe them any more.  This means Peak Oil is here, now.

I've got readers complaining to me that I need to take global warming seriously and get out of the denial mode. Well, Peak Oil is going to do far more to cut CO2 emissions than the Kyoto Accords would have done had they actually been adhered to.
No it won't.  The decline of oil and gas is already causing a rush back to coal, which emits more CO2 per BTU than any other fossil fuel.  Coal-to-liquids emits roughly twice as much carbon per unit of fuel than petroleum does.

CTL is not a real option even absent AGW.  The US has already hit peak energy from coal (tonnage increases but BTU/ton is going down) and there are serious transportation bottlenecks.  Diverting coal to make liquid fuel means taking down the electrical grid, unless other generation can be ramped up even faster.  Until 2015, the only real boosts in the pipeline are nuclear-plant uprates and wind.  Nuclear is about 20% of the US grid, wind is ~1%; coal is 50%.  Do the math.  Then consider that natural gas in N. America has peaked, and we may not be able to compensate with LNG imports even if our economy and energy security permit it.

Randall Parker said at November 21, 2007 9:21 PM:


I can't figure out your position. A rush back to coal will boost CO2 emissions? Or coal production is peaking?

My position: Oil will peak first. Then natural gas at most 10 years later. Though probably sooner. Coal's exact peak date is harder to guess. But American coal reserves probably aren't as big as advertised and world coal reserves might not be so big either.

I agree that demand for coal for electric and CTL will compete. Coal prices should rise and ditto electricity. But electricity prices will not go up anywhere near as much as electricity prices. Yes, natural gas supply is going to be a problem as well.

We can reduce natural gas usage by shifting heating to geothermal heat pumps. Natural gas used to generate electricity to run geothermal heat pumps seems a more efficient way to heat than burning the natural gas directly.

Electricity during the early post-peak years: Yes, I'm beginning to think electric supplies will be a much bigger problem than I used to think it would be. Coal and natural gas will get other demands placed on them. Nukes take 5 years to build. Wind seems like it has the biggest short term surge potential. I'd like to know how much potential exists to uprate existing nukes.

Randall Parker said at November 21, 2007 9:27 PM:

Nick, odograph,

I doubt the software development problem for the Volt is really all that big.

First off, I've never seen an engine ECU program that was bigger than 2 megs to download doing flash updates. Maybe there are bigger ones than I've seen. But I've never seen really big ones and a fair amount of what goes in are calibration constants. Others ECUs have smaller programs. Transmissions usually half or less than engines.

Second, I'm expecting electric motors to have simpler ECU algorithms. Internal combustion engines have lots of algorithmic trickery for operating under different loads, RPM, etc. Why would electric motor control be similar in complexity?

The biggest problem with the Volt is batteries, not software. Even now GM might have to subsidize the cost of the Volt at $30k each due to expensive batteries. Now, maybe after a couple of years the batteries will get much cheaper. I don't know. But what that article says isn't encouraging.

aa2 said at November 22, 2007 3:26 AM:

Brian Wang thanks for all that info on nuclear plants.. I've been enjoying reading your site for the last few weeks too, reading back through past posts.

Btw for businesses one big way I'd like to see them cut costs is not so much air travel. I've been looking at some of the latest teleconferencing equipment and I see no rational need to fly thousands of miles a week to be in face to face meetings. Its not just the pollution either.. its the cost of paying for a hotel, taxis, restaraunts, airplane tickets.. and probably the biggest all that travelling time the employee is not working. I believe management in large corporations and government is using travel and meetings as a big perk of being 'in the club'.. and the first company to break away in a big way will have a large competitive advantage.

Massive increase in the cost of flying could change their behavior anyway though. Something like 90% of air travel is business and government. Teleconferencing could easily slash 2/3rds of business and government travel miles imo.. So 6.7% * .9 * 20 million barrels * .66 = about 780,000 less barrels a day of oil. If the other nations in the world made the same changes and have about the same ratio of flying.. that would be about 3 million barrels less needed per day.

odograph said at November 22, 2007 7:08 AM:

As I read the "software" comment, it was about those batteries, and their safe operation:

"We've got a lot of problems to solve because nobody's done this before. What's new is the whole interaction between the internal combustion engine and the battery. The car's circuitry must handle enormous power loads. There's a lot of intricate software."

Basically, it's about those exploding cell phones and notebook computers ... and how much it would suck to have that kind of error on the scale of an electric car.

This is the "energy density" issue that many have written about. As we attempt to pack more and more energy into a smaller space (for notebooks, or for electric cars with longer ranges), we tend to make something that is less and less stable. We have to improve density and safety at the same time.

GM has a hard road, because they don't need just to make something that can sell somewhat near $20 (like a regular hybrid), but also they mush make something that will never, never, explode (as, as far as I know, the regular hybrids have never done.)

Isn't GM looking at liquid cooling for their battery packs?

(Though, as always, I'll be willing to judge these things equally with other options, when a price is set, and their performance is proven in the real world.)

Engineer-Poet said at November 22, 2007 8:28 AM:
A rush back to coal will boost CO2 emissions?
Yes.  Australia appears likely to boost exports, and Britain is returning to coal as supplies of natural gas run out.  Underground gasification will take formerly-inaccessible deposits and put them in the atmosphere.
Or coal production is peaking?
I was referring to United States coal production, and there are two points which must not be confused here:
  1. Total energy from coal mined in the USA appears to be going down; the lower-grade coals now being mined have far less energy than anthracite and high-grade bituminous.
  2. Total tonnage of coal in the US continues to rise, and carbon with it.
The energy trend could change if UCG takes hold here, but I haven't seen anything about it.
Nukes take 5 years to build.
They seem to take another 5 years to plan, at least in the US.  Further, the rate of construction will be limited by the supply of skilled labor.  It'll take us a while to ramp up to where we once were.
donald wilkins said at November 22, 2007 8:50 AM:

Economics has been the ruin of many a-good engineering project.

“Implementing the ‘Hydrogen Economy’ with Synfuels,” Dr. Robert E. Uhrig, Dr. Kenneth R. Schultz, and S. Locke Bogart, The Bent of Tau Beta Pi, Summer 2007, pg. 18- 22
provides a brief analysis of a RWGS facility. Although their analysis seems somewhat incomplete to me, they state that the facility could produce gasoline for $1.86 per gallon. Of course this makes many assumptions not the least of which is the size of the carbon credit applied to the product and the synthetic product does not have state and Federal taxes applied.

I have not read “Production of Liquid Synthetic Fuels from Carbon, Water, and Nuclear Power on Ships and at Shore Bases for Military and Potential Commercial Application,” Proceedings of the 2006 International Congress on Advanced Power Plants (ICAPP 2006), S.L. Bogart, K.R. Schultz, L.C. Brown, and B. Russ, June 4-8, 2006. I am told that it puts forth the same case that I am trying to build for a proposed article.

The Fleet is at the end of a long, fragile supply line. If I were a bad guy I would strike that exposed jugular vein by sinking a supply ship or two or blowing up a refinery. In the Navy application the nuclear plants are already used for propulsion. The energy to build synthetic fuels would be essentially free; it would only be used in RWGS when the ship is in port or when the vessel is not proceeding at full power.

Atmospheric CO2 content is 370 parts per million (ppm) or approximately 0.64 cubic inches in a cubic foot of air. At 14 miles per hour, the air stream carries approximately 317.6 cubit feet or 3.12 pounds of CO2 every hour through an area of one square foot. If an absorber leaches 50% of the CO2 from the air passing by, a collector of 1,282 square feet could harvest every hour one ton of carbon dioxide. The energy to release one ton of CO2 from hydroxide, Ca(OH)2 would be 280 kiloWatt- hours (kW-hr). The cost would be whatever price you attach to the electricity and capital costs.

odograph said at November 22, 2007 9:01 AM:

BTW, as I head out the door for my pre-Thanksgiving mountain bike ride, a thought occurs ... compare the GM Volt promotion and development cycle to Apple, their innovation, and their products. Apple (and I think most car or computer companies) plays things pretty close to the vest. Not only won't they tell you what they will be putting into production in 2010, they'll deny rumors about what they are releasing next month.

It's interesting to think about GM's big public Volt story, the degree to which it might be wise, the degree to which it might have gotten out of hand, the degree to which it binds them to one technology plan.

News last week was of "Internal Skepticism" at GM ....

Brian Wang said at November 22, 2007 9:04 AM:

I had a lengthy argument and discussion and did the research on the nuclear construction (labor shortage) issues.

I believe that importing labor and training up more pipe workers etc... can deal with the labor issue

Qualified Personnel
Hiring the highly-skilled and highly-valued construction workers needed to build nuclear units is expected to be a challenge. Qualified boilermakers, pipefitters, electricians, and ironworkers are expected to be in short supply in local labor markets. The use of workers from other communities and states (travelers) will be required for these construction trades. All other construction trades (i.e., laborers, insulators, equipment operators, teamsters, etc.) should be available in sufficient numbers to support GEN III+ unit construction projects

Train and certify more boilermakers, pipefitters, electricians and ironworkers.

Estimated peak labor requirement of 8,000 construction worker to construct eight GEN III+ nuclear units with a total labor requirement of 12,000 workers (more workers for more plants being constructed at the same time). The total number of construction workers in the U.S. is expected to grow by 15% from 6,700,000 in 2002 to 7,700,000 in 2012.

Based on discussions with major trade unions and associations, we conclude that programs are in place and are being developed to train the qualified welders needed to support new nuclear power plant construction. Programs like the SENSE Welding School Program, the Apprentice Training Program, and the Helmets to Hard Hats Program have been developed and are being implemented to bring new workers into the construction trades. Union, community college, and career training programs exist to train new construction workers. The challenge has been to recruit U.S. citizens into the technically demanding and high-paid construction trades.

By 2015, when the first of the new reactors start rolling out the labor and component issues should be sorted and allow for the massive scale up and rolling out of a lot of reactors in 2020-2030. If we convert a lot of coal plant construction crews that would be a lot of suitable workers. 1-2 years to convert.

some other small steps like getting all cabs converted to hybrid and then electric vehicles.

60 million electric bikes and scooters. adding 30 million per year in china. This can be scaled up for north america and europe and integrated with public transit. Better for traffic. Equal to 300-600mpg. Electric bikes and scooters can easily go up to 40-mph and 60mph+. Need to get enhanced safety gear. Better helmets and suits.

Wolf-Dog said at November 22, 2007 9:48 AM:

"Based on discussions with major trade unions and associations, we conclude that programs are in place and are being developed to train the qualified welders needed to support new nuclear power plant construction."

Once again it is "politics" before practical reality. The "training" of welders, etc, would be necessary only for traditional pressurized water reactors. The new designs such as the modular pebble bed reactor are so simple that do not require massive metal containers like in the pressurized water reactors.

The pebble bed reactor, if developed and implemented, would take a lot less time to build, probably a year or less, due
to its simplicity, and modularization. The word "modular" is used to mean that the reactor itself is not only small, but it
can be built in many chunks in a factory and then transported to the user site to be assembled.

In order to re-process the fuel of the pebble bed reactor to extract the long term byproducts (and to prepare new fuel from it to be burned again in a reactor), a reprocessing facility will be needed, but this is easy.

Engineer-Poet said at November 22, 2007 10:14 AM:

The problem with the pebble bed is its vulnerability; the pressure vessel is exposed, and is far easier to attack than a unit deep inside a concrete containment shell.  I'm not sure, but the passive safety may require that shell to be cooled by the environment; burying it under insulating soil may not be allowed.

Never seen anything which addresses these points, and I'd be happy to be shown my concerns are baseless.

Randall Parker said at November 22, 2007 11:06 AM:

Donald Wilkins,

Regards releasing a ton of CO2 with 280 kwh: It seems safe to assume 10 cents per kwh and so $28 for the energy to get a ton of CO2 from the atmosphere. But capital costs come on top of that. Curiously, the $28 per ton is in the ballpark of some proposed carbon taxes.

That ton is mostly oxygen. If memory serves carbon has an atomic weight of 12 and oxygen 16. So only a quarter of a ton of carbon in that ton of CO2.

But we need to get 3 hydrogen atoms per carbon atom.

I really would like to know the cost of creating synthetic hydrocarbons using atmospheric CO2 with new nuclear power plants specially designed to produce hydrogen. Whatever that cost is represents the long term upper bound on the cost of liquid hydrocarbon fuel for transportation.

Nukes designed to produce hydrogen could produce it much more cheaply than nukes that generate electricity for hydrolysis. But we'd need a large demand for hydrogen to justify the research and development costs to develop the special nukes.

Your link to “Implementing the ‘Hydrogen Economy’ with Synfuels” using a modular helium reactor puts the cost per gallon at $2.75 without a carbon tax credit. But they are assuming a coal electric plant as a source of CO2. We might need to get the CO2 from the atmosphere as coal reserves decline and more electricity gets generated from nuclear and solar. Still, even $4 per gallon is affordable with various improvements in vehicle efficiency coming down the pike.

Wolf-Dog said at November 22, 2007 12:41 PM:

"The problem with the pebble bed is its vulnerability; the pressure vessel is exposed, and is far easier to attack than a unit deep inside a concrete containment shell. I'm not sure, but the passive safety may require that shell to be cooled by the environment; burying it under insulating soil may not be allowed."

That's the whole point: the reason the pebble bed reactor is built with an open container not enclosed and unprotected, is because even if the whole reactor is attacked by terrorists, the only thing that can go wrong is that the fuel spheres may get spilled all over the place. In that case the reaction stops and there is never any possibility of a meltdown. And although the spheres cannot be touched due to their radioactivity, there is no radiation released by the spheres into the atmosphere. Also since the cooling gas is the helium (or an equivalent inert gas), even if the gas escapes after the container is attacked, there is no radiation.

This is why terrorism cannot cause a disaster when these pebble be reactors are attacked, although they will have some degree of protection of course, since they are valuable. In any case, one of the reasons this kind of reactor is favored is because it is terrorism-proof (in the disaster sense).

Also it is not necessary to make the pebble bed reactors very big to make these economical, small pebble bed reactors for small towns would still be economical.

Wolf-Dog said at November 22, 2007 12:47 PM:

Another thing that is very feasible, is to burn regular biomass directly in power plants. This is not only entirely feasible, but in addition, it is also a method of recycling all the CO_2 generated by burning, because the new biomass (various kinds of switchgrass or other plants that are harvested in agriculturally useless lands) that grows would absorb an equal amount of CO_2.

Engineer-Poet said at November 22, 2007 3:22 PM:

Wolf-Dog, large portions of pebble-bed fuel pellets are graphite.  They will burn if heated in oxygen or air, and radioactive afterheat is enough to do that if the SiC coatings are cracked or otherwise damaged.  The heat of burning graphite will burn or smelt the other components.

I'm of the opinion that the only safe way to build such a reactor is to bury it.  If that requires additional passive cooling, e.g. a thermosiphon loop from the source of cooling water, so be it.  It's even harder to take an airplane or missile and hit a hole in the ground than a solid concrete containment.

aa2 said at November 22, 2007 5:04 PM:

Randall and Donald.. I also am very interested in the cost estimates and technology to make synthetic fuels out of carbon. I still believe batteries are going to be the solution for most of the use. But there is also air travel and ship traffic to think about.

Btw on the battery issue you guys are right the main challenge is now getting the batteries stable and long lasting. Lithium appears to me good enough for plug in hybrids.. if you can get a 25 mile range, that is something like an 80% reduction in fuel needed. When I look at A123's statistics I have a 'gut feeling' that their technology can do it. I was actually surprised when GM narrowed it down to two, with LG Chem's battery still qualifying. Its a lot different chemistry LG Chem is using. There was something like 14 companies in the running at the start too.

diver said at November 22, 2007 5:04 PM:

I wish I could bet Randall and others think we will have years of hard time due to some fictionl peak oil.

It is also funny to read posts claim "it is already here." Just like in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006....

Nick G said at November 22, 2007 7:00 PM:

Randall, Odo,

There's nothing discouraging in those Volt articles. It's perfectly understandable that GM might lose a bit of money for a year or two - the Prius did. The internal skepticism is about the very fast schedule, which suggests they may miss the November goal by a few months - not a big deal. I'm sure GM would prefer to conceal the Volt, but they have no choice: they need the positive PR (that's also an indication of GM's commitment to the Volt - they know that killing it would hurt them very badly). The A123systems li-ion chemistry is inherently immune to the thermal runaway that plagues convention li-ion (the same chemistry to which Toyota has commited itself, to it's regret).

I was struck by the Cole quote: he's very sharp, and if he says GM's competitors are scared, I believe it.

The only disappointment lately has been Toyota's timidity about PHEV's - I'm afraid they're trying too hard to coast on their hybrid R&D.

Randall Parker said at November 22, 2007 8:06 PM:


What was the moral of the story of the boy who cried wolf? You don't want to lose credibility because eventually the wolf comes and you need to be believed when that happens.

You ought to look seriously at the Peak Oil arguments and evidence rather than simply equate claims of an oil production peak made by different people in different areas. I've provided some excellent starting points in my links in the post above.

Wolf-Dog said at November 23, 2007 5:43 AM:

Engineer-Poet: "large portions of pebble-bed fuel pellets are graphite. They will burn if heated in oxygen or air, and radioactive afterheat is enough to do that if the SiC coatings are cracked or otherwise damaged. "


In general, your fears that graphite is combustible, are justified. The graphite moderator rods in Chernobyl certainly did catch fire, contributing to the disaster. But graphite catches fire only after being heated a lot, and as soon as the pebble bed spheres are spilled, they would cool very quickly. From the way they are designed, it is VERY difficult for these pebble spheres to catch fire. This situation is very different from the Chernobyl design.

Engineer-Poet said at November 23, 2007 6:13 AM:

The problem isn't the pellets that are spilled in ones and twos.  The problem is the packed mass which is suddenly in air rather than helium (because the coolant was vented) and is at full operating temperature.

odograph said at November 23, 2007 6:57 AM:

"There's nothing discouraging in those Volt articles. It's perfectly understandable that GM might lose a bit of money for a year or two - the Prius did. The internal skepticism is about the very fast schedule, which suggests they may miss the November goal by a few months - not a big deal. I'm sure GM would prefer to conceal the Volt, but they have no choice: they need the positive PR (that's also an indication of GM's commitment to the Volt - they know that killing it would hurt them very badly). The A123systems li-ion chemistry is inherently immune to the thermal runaway that plagues convention li-ion (the same chemistry to which Toyota has commited itself, to it's regret).

I was struck by the Cole quote: he's very sharp, and if he says GM's competitors are scared, I believe it."

That's a funny way to say it, and it feels like a bit of brand (or technology) loyalty is coming through.

Toyota has the most energy efficient passenger car on the US market today. Man, they must "regret" that. Man, they must be "scared"

Why? Because GM has been holding all these press conferences, with scary non-functional prototypes, dontcha know ....

(Never mind what Toyota, or Mitsubishi, or others might have more quietly scheduled for 2010.)

Wolf-Dog said at November 23, 2007 7:11 AM:

Engineer-Poet: "The problem isn't the pellets that are spilled in ones and twos. The problem is the packed mass which is suddenly in air rather than helium (because the coolant was vented) and is at full operating temperature."

I am sure that the casing of the graphite spheres can be hardened sufficiently, and unless the terrorists use armor piercing machine guns to intentionally breaks many dozens of these spheres, then probably you are correct.

On the other hand, it is certainly possible to build some emergency blanketing mechanism to extinguish the burning graphites by spraying special foam and other absorbing materials all over the neighborhood, or even throw a blanket.

Also note that the modular pebble bed reactor, actually has small modules which look like funnel shaped grain silos, and they are not very big, so that unless the terrorists attack hundreds of such reactors with special armor piercing machine guns to pierce many of these spheres, then they cannot do much damage. The amount of radiation spillage would be much lower than what a real pressurized water reactor would do if it exploded.

In any case, it is certainly possible to build some kind of light protective tent similar to a circus tent that encloses the area around the pebble bed "silo" that contains the spheres, so that even if a number of them catch fire on the ground, there is a way to prevent the release of radioactive gas in the atmosphere.

Nick G said at November 23, 2007 10:42 AM:

"That's a funny way to say it, and it feels like a bit of brand (or technology) loyalty is coming through."

Not at all. In fact, that sounds a little ad-hominem. Are you, possibly, projecting your feelings a bit? I would hope that we would rely less on authority, and more on information and logic....

Not that I should have to prove my objectivity, but our last car purchase was a Toyota.

"Toyota has the most energy efficient passenger car on the US market today. Man, they must "regret" that."


" Man, they must be "scared""

Sure. They've invested quite a lot in the Prius, and they don't want to see it made obsolete. Now "scared" may sound strong for a company with such a strong position, but the Prius is very important to Toyota, and the Volt really does threaten it. Further, beware of thinking of companies in monolithic terms: they're made up of people, who fear for their jobs, careers, personal expertise, and reputation.

I have had a lot of respect for Toyota's risk taking on the Prius, but I'm very quickly losing respect for them - they've handled the whole question of PHEV's very badly, to the point of dishonesty.

Hybrids are important, but a 50% improvement in MPG is only a 33% reduction in fuel consumption (keep in mind that only about half of the Prius's efficiency comes from the hybrid drive), and that can be swamped fairly quickly by growth. What we need is a 90-100% reduction in fuel consumption, which is what a PHEV can provide. Much of the importance of hybrids is their status as a steppingstone to PHEV's.

Nick G said at November 23, 2007 11:06 AM:

I guess it's worth asking, in order to make progress on this question: is it primarily the technical feasibility of the Volt that you question, or GM's sincerity? I suspect we differ on both, but if you want more info (assuming you're open to changing your mind), it would help to narrow down your objections...

Randall Parker said at November 23, 2007 11:06 AM:

odograph, Nick,

I doubt that the technological difference between where GM and Toyota are at with hybrids and PHEVs is all that much. GM just came out with a pretty sophisticated hybrid design for their SUVs and pickups. They aren't achieving Toyota's Prius mpg because they aren't trying to build something that small. Meanwhile, Toyota is developing new generations of hybrid tech. It is hard to tell who will be in the lead a few years hence. But Toyota's $20 billion in profits this year exceed GM's market cap. Surely Toyota can afford to fund the research.

Toyota is using Prius skillfully to win big points with the greenies. That's what Prius is there for. It is not a money maker if business news articles are to be believed. Prius has gotten Toyota a lot of great press and favorable feelings from a lot potential buyers and Prius has helped sell other Toyota products. But Toyota has reached a point where their interests clash too heavily with the greenies and now a lot of environmental groups have turned on Toyota. Why? Because Toyota is aligned with the Detroit auto makers opposing the higher proposed CAFE standards. Toyota would rather sell bigger Tundras and SUVs that have $10k profits per sale than make only smaller cars.

Here are some groups protesting Toyota's opposition to really high CAFE standards:

The Union of Concerned Scientists, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and the National Environmental Defense Fund have written Toyota stating that the automaker should support the measure in part because the automaker makes the best-selling gasoline-electric hybrid, the Prius.

Toyota's motive in this is because they are designing a lot more bigger and lower mpg vehicles. The profits range up to $10k per car. Toyota can't walk away from that just to get good greenie press.

As for technological advantages of GM versus Toyota: The advantages lie with the battery makers. If a Japanese supplier of lithium batteries that is part-owned by Toyota comes up with a great cost and performance breakthrough then GM won't be able to buy those batteries. But if A123Systems meets the needed performance and cost goals Toyota could start buying those batteries.

odograph said at November 23, 2007 11:25 AM:

My perspective, as a greenie, is that I can spend almost 50% less than the US median new car price ($20K versus $28K) to get the most efficient passenger car on the US market. That doesn't mean I put brand or technology loyalty before that. In fact, I've blogged Bad Toyota! myself.

No, this is about what I can do today for peak oil, if not peak oil then global warming, if not global warming then at least for my pocketbook.

BTW, I was re-reading the announcements WRT GM and A123 this morning. I didn't see the word "exclusive." I'd think that A123, if they have a good technology and good patents, would look forward to selling to many automakers. Now, they are young, and we presume poor. GM may have waved enough money to make them thing a little more short-term. Do we know?

And let's not count out Mitsubishi. Their electric prototypes have looked fairly market-ready. If their press conferences are to be believed, they'll have an electric car on the market by 2010 as well.

odograph said at November 23, 2007 11:29 AM:

Nick, the thing that actually hits me the strongest in these discussions is that a real, existing, car is "waved away" in preference to one that is still deep in the design cycle. That seems irrational, especially when one can simply say (rationally) "I'll like whatever is the best 2010 has to offer."

Randall Parker said at November 23, 2007 12:18 PM:


By all means buy a hybrid. The payoff from owning one is about to become much greater as oil prices head up to $120 a barrel and beyond.

I don't drive a hybrid myself because I drive less than 1000 miles per year. In fact, I can walk to work and sometimes do. A hybrid (or any new car) would be wasted on me. I go to the gas station maybe 5 times a year.

Do you really want to adjust to peak oil? If you have high job security and aren't planning on switching jobs in the next few years then move closer to work and walk to work.

The problem I see with that approach: The oil production decline is going to cause massive layoffs. We are going to go thru wrenching recessions. If you own a house then moving is a really big deal. Though if you rent moving, while still a big expense, is not as big a deal as if you are an owner.

Anyone who pays a substantial heating or cooling bill should consider installing a geothermal heat pump

Wolf-Dog said at November 23, 2007 12:56 PM:

Geothermal energy is definitely something to consider, because in many places in the world, including the US, it is not necessary to drill too much in order to reach reasonably high temperatures. Now the key word is "reasonably high temperature":

1)For power generation, a high temperature is obviously needed, and hence unless a very advanced and economical drilling technology is developed, the cost of drilling a very deep well may be initially high (but once drilled, the steam will be unlimited for centuries),

2) But for heating and cooling a house or an apartment building, it is NOT necessary to drill too far, since a rather small temperature difference will suffice to accumulate energy for this purpose.

Again, compared to the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, only a small fraction of that wasted money will be enough to develop geothermal heating for at least half the US. for northern states, this would make a very bid difference. The energy saved from the power grid would then be used to charge electric and plug-in hybrid electric cars.

odograph said at November 23, 2007 2:01 PM:

"Do you really want to adjust to peak oil? If you have high job security and aren't planning on switching jobs in the next few years then move closer to work and walk to work."

There are a lot of ways I could answer this ... but I'll just say that right now, my total direct-energy budget(*) is covered with 2 hours labor, monthly.

We are still talking about future concerns, in a time of relatively high wealth and cheap energy.

* - electricity, natural gas, gasoline

Nick said at November 23, 2007 7:51 PM:


When I think about vehicles, I'm thinking about the future. Personally, I'm like Randall - I live reasonably close to work, and take a (electric) train. I drive less than 2,000 miles per year, and when I last bought a car the Prius had a waiting list and a premium price. I certainly think a Prius is a Very Good Car, but I'm sure that 5 years from now it, and it's competition, will plug in and start saving that much more fuel/CO2. Now, I find the Volt encouraging evidence of that transition, so I like to tell people about that.

The Mitsubishi vehicle appears to be an EV, with a range similar to the last version of the EV-1. I don't think that's good enough.

I would be pretty surprised if GM doesn't have a lock on A123systems. According to Businessweek, it's just in the last 90 days that Toyota has begun to accept that they have to do something different, and they're starting to go nuts about it...

aa2 said at November 23, 2007 10:44 PM:

Nick I've also been wondering if A123 has exclusivity agreements with GM. I've done some googling to try and find out but couldn't tell for sure. One thing I could tell was that Toyota sounded scared... Like defensive comments, trying to downplay the technology, the idiotic comment about having to go beyond lithium.. One thing that has made Toyota successful is that overreaction of fear.

Toyota and GM are the two heavyweights in the world auto industry by revenue. Both neck and neck. Toyota is with Panasonic in a big joint venture on the lithium batteries. I read they both have 500 engineers on the project, for a total of 1000 engineers. But their lithium chemistry seems much inferior to A123's. One hope for Toyota might be there seems to be multiple viable chemistries, eg.. the LG chem one is quite different yet it has qualified along with A123. The A123 one still seemed better to me.

Wolf-Dog said at November 23, 2007 11:02 PM:

One issue is that these automobile companies are desperate to manufacture cheap enough lithium batteries in the immediate or at least intermediate future. As a result, they are likely to sacrifice long-term science: Please view the web site of Altair Nanotechnologies, which already has two very unusual lithium batteries that can provide a range over 100 miles and 200 miles, to a full size SUV or truck (not an light sports car for 2 passengers):

Phoenix motorcars is the company manufacturing these two versions of the SUV or truck with ranges over 100 miles and 200 miles:

The problem is that these nanotechnology lithium batteries are still VERY expensive and such a SUV or truck would cost at least $75,000.

These batteries were developed and built only by using a few million dollars of capital. Just imagine how much better and earlier things would have been progressing if only a small fraction of the money spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were spent on such science. But I am not blaming the US gov't here too much, because the events of 9/11 that led to this war were probably a calculated trap to draw us in, to make us bleed like the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

odograph said at November 24, 2007 6:58 AM:

For future cars, I'm pleased that many bets are being placed widely. That is better for me, the consumer, than if all our eggs were in one basket. They were bad days, for instance, when too many eggs were invested in the Hydrogen Highway dream.

I do think our economy, and our environment, would be a bit better off if more people had bought Priuses, starting in 2000 (with the 2nd generation introduction).

... do we, as a nation, have too many eggs in the "future" basket on this? Or are current hybrid sales levels appropriate?

Engineer-Poet said at November 24, 2007 9:32 AM:

It would have been better if Toyota had built enough Priuses to meet demand (which they failed to do through 2004).

It would also have been better if Detroit had continued the PNGV and brought real hybrids to market.  If a significant fraction of US vehicles were series hybrids able to operate as medium-range EVs with nothing more than a battery trailer, our ability to deal with fuel price hikes and even supply interruptions would be greatly improved.

Randall Parker said at November 24, 2007 11:02 AM:

E-P: Battery trailers. What a concept!

Imagine a vehicle traveling across country by periodically swapping out battery trailer for a freshly charged one.

For lead acid batteries I'm seeing that 843 lb have 13 kwh. So assuming .5 kwh per mile for an SUV you'd only be able to travel 26 miles with a trailer with that weight. To travel 260 miles would require towing 8430 lbs of batteries which is more than an SUV can tow. A smaller car could get further per kwh. But it couldn't tow as much.

That same page puts zinc air batteries at 80 kwh per 843 lb. That would take an SUV 160 miles. With just 4215 lb one could travel 800 miles. Well, there are plenty of vehicles out there that can haul 4215 lb. For example, a properly equipped Ford F150 can tow 9500 lb (another page says 9900 lbs). Though one would need to replace its engine with an electric engine of course.

A properly equipped Lincoln Navigator can tow 9100 lbs. So in the post-peak post-apocalypse landscape of the American future a Navigator converted to electric with an electric zinc air battery trailer could travel between distantly separated solar and wind equipped gated communities. I'm picturing a convoy of such Navigators cruising thru a desolate suburban American landscape defended by Blackstone Group security guards who are veterans of the Iraq war.

So how much do Zinc Air batteries cost anyway? Any idea?

odograph said at November 24, 2007 2:47 PM:

I think the Prius demand crunches were relatively short-lived. I bought mine off the lot in June 2005. I recall a 3-4 month crunch before then, and maybe a 2-3 month crunch after. (Here in SoCal.)

Wolf-Dog said at November 25, 2007 3:39 AM:

The zinc-air batteries are potentially cheaper than lithium, since they use relatively low tech materials overall. But because it is very difficult to patent any special zinc-air battery, it is hard to make money from it, and so this have not been pursued aggressively:
Zinc-Air Module
No. of cells 47
Open Circuit Voltage 67V
Operating Voltage 57-40 V
Capacity 325 Ah
Energy Capacity 17.4 kWh
Peak Power (@80% DOD) 8 kW
Weight 88 kg
Volume 79 liter
Energy Density 200 Wh/kg
Dimensions 726x350x310 mm

But at the same time, a couple of years ago, an all-electric bus with a range over 125 miles per charge, was demonstrated in New York, with air conditioning running the whole day, and full of passengers:

The problem is the lack of funding.

With more development, the range of these buses can be doubled, but even with a 125 mile range, this bus was running the whole day in the city.

Engineer-Poet said at November 25, 2007 8:28 AM:

13 kWh would drive a Prius-class vehicle on the order of 65 miles (200 Wh/mi at the battery terminals).  The tzero achieved what, 270-odd miles on 50 kWh?  (Source on page 4).

Lots of people don't drive much.  If they could get down to zero fuel requirements by throwing a supplemental battery in the trunk, they would be immune to fuel shortages and greatly increase the elasticity of demand.

Randall Parker said at November 25, 2007 8:31 AM:


Using your source of info about zinc air batteries: 200 Wh/kg means you need 2.5 kg per mile in a big SUV (500 Wh per mile). So 100 miles range takes 250 kg. 800 miles like my example takes 2000 kg. With 2.2 lbs per kg that's 4400 lb and close to the figure I had of 4215 lb.

If we cut ourselves down to 40 miles for a commute to work and back that only takes 220 lb.

But isn't zinc air difficult to recharge? Doesn't it take really hot temperatures and special equipment? Is it only practical for fleets?

Also, what is the efficiency of charging? How much of the charging energy is lost to heat?

Wolf-Dog said at November 25, 2007 1:25 PM:

"But isn't zinc air difficult to recharge? Doesn't it take really hot temperatures and special equipment? Is it only practical for fleets?Also, what is the efficiency of charging? How much of the charging energy is lost to heat?"

It appears that the zinc-air batteries, are in fact like a fuel-cell, as these are air-breathing instruments that cause a reaction between a zinc formula and the oxygen from the air. After the zinc-air "battery" is empty, its recharging involves several possibilities. One main possibility is to reprocess the entire battery chemically, and this is not expensive apparently. Some government laboratories have even devised a liquid way of recharging the zinc-air battery by removing the "empty" liquid zinc solution and pumping new zinc liquid, very much like in a gas station. Other firms, like the electric-fuel company, favor just removing the battery and replacing it at a station. other firms actually charge the zinc-air battery directly.

But in any case, zinc-air is almost certainly cheaper than lithium because it is lower tech and involves a very cheap metal that is available in large quantities. But some kind of infrastructure commitment is necessary, but I am sure with some extra money, these zinc-air batteries can be perfected to increase the charge capacity and also improve the methods to charge it fast. Apparently the zinc-air batteries do not get charged as fast as the lithium battery of Altair Nanotechnologies in California (which takes only 10 minutes), but as mentioned above, there are alternative methods of recharging the zinc-air batteries including injecting new liquid and removing the old liquid zinc, or simply replacing the battery like an ammunition clip in a rifle. For buses, this is VERY feasible, since buses are owned by big companies that can service these every day.

And recall that in a pure electric vehicle, since the heavy motor and the transmission, gear box, radiator, etc are removed, there is a lot more room for a heavy battery. You stated that with a zinc-air battery, a 100 mile range for a SUV would require 220 lb weight, but this is only a small fraction of the weight of the SUV. Such an electric SUV (2 tons = 4,000 lb) can easily have a battery 4 times that weight, or 500 lb, which is nearly 10 % the weight of the SUV.

Unfortunately the deep pocket billionaires do not have an incentive to popularize neither the lithium or zinc batteries because it is impossible to patent these technologies at a high level, and so the competition will be impossible to deal with, and so they have not decided to invest. This is why we need some government intervention, a Bronx Project for energy.

Engineer-Poet said at November 25, 2007 9:51 PM:

For more on zinc-air fuel cells, look up Power Air Corporation.

Karl Hallowell said at November 26, 2007 11:15 AM:

Here's a quick list of why "peak oil" advocates get treated like dirt.

1. Too early - peak oilers have been predicting Real Soon Now for decades. Smart money only makes predictions after they've prepared in order to more quickly realize the gains of their new positions.

2. Oil is not energy.

3. Increasing scarcity and cost doesn't imply absence.

4. We've run out of stuff before. History indicates that things usually don't fall apart.

5. There are alternatives. As the price of oil increases, consumers will switch over to these alternatives.

6. Peak oil advocates often exaggerate the dependence of an industry (agriculture, for example) on oil.

7. Peak oil often assumes the absence of a gradual transition. They also assume long term oil demand is far less elastic than it is.

Sure, there are scenarios that can result in sudden, catastrophic peak oil events (say dropping plenty of cobalt salted nukes on oil fields in the Middle East). But I think the most likely scenario is that oil gradually becomes more expensive, much as what is currently happening. Consumers will consume less lowering demand for the oil. There will probably be a long period when the world will switch from an oil-based infrastructure to something else. Then it'll be done.

Larry said at November 27, 2007 2:21 PM:

Fascinating discussion all. Lots of thought and data collection on display. Here's 2-3 cents:

World energy demand, especially 3rd world energy demand, is slated for violent increases over the next few years. I see three big buckets for meeting that demand.

- Conservation. Whether through greater efficiency (plugins) or changed usage patterns (car-pooling, etc.) there are real wins available here. I see no sign that this bucket is big enough to offset the trend growth. The current driver is price, although in most parts of the US (but not California) demand continues to slowly increase. The best way to drive conservation is with price - it minimizes the very real damage to our economy and the jobs it supports that restraints on energy use produce. Rather than having government micro-manage our commuting, car purchasing, heating/cooling choices, we and our economy would be much better off if we used a rebated carbon tax to send the message. I propose a tax that increases 25 cents/gallon/year for a number of years - say until our gas prices catch up with Europe's.

- Alternate energy supplies, mainly solar. Yes, wind, geo, and bio are out there, but they have environmental, usage and/or scale issues. Cost is the only thing keeping us from solar.

- Nuclear. This can scale hugely, safely, and affordably, especially if we shift to more advanced fuel cycles to more fully exploit the available energy. The world has lots of experience building and safely operating these plants. In particular, the are the only realistic alternative for China, which currently is putting multiple coal plants in operation every month. Note that I don't approve of the subsidies to nuclear (or any other energy source) now on the table.

The US has abundant supplies of untapped carbon-based energy. One I haven't seen mentioned here is the approximately 1 trillion barrel-equivalents of shale sitting under Colorado and Wyoming, which Shell is working on. Unlike the mountain-leveling coal miners, they plan to extract the energy in situ. That plus the fact that as the price of oil continues to rise, we'll shift to effective alternatives, means that peak oil is not that interesting except as a conversation starter. You've all heard that the stone age didn't end because they hit "peak rock".

The other role I see for government is to make bets on a lot of different approaches to accelerate improvements in batteries, engines, power transmission, nuclear fuel cycles, solar, including some that are wild and crazy, such as space power. I.e., DARPA, not the Manhattan project.

Randall Parker said at November 27, 2007 7:55 PM:


Oil shale: See my recent post Royal Dutch Shell In Lead With Oil Shale Technology. Note that Shell doesn't expect any production before 2015.

Demand in California: Why do you think it is not increasing? The population and economy are growing. I can tell you from personal experience that the traffic on 101 thru Santa Barbara keeps getting worse and a highway widening plan as well as light rail are coming.

Solar: I'm hoping Nanosolar's first production line will work well next year and start us down the road to affordable solar photovoltaics.

Larry said at November 28, 2007 2:05 PM:


I have read that California demand has gone down slightly for the last few quarters. A little googling didn't get any relevant hits.

Post a comment
Name (not anon or anonymous):
Email Address:
Remember info?

Go Read More Posts On FuturePundit
Site Traffic Info
The contents of this site are copyright ©