next up previous
Next: . Up: Beyond Peak Oil A Previous: 2 The End of


3 Energy Sources other than Petroleum

So that this report should not seem unduly pessimistic, it's important to also forecast the potential to switch to other energy sources. The issue is not whether we can switch, but how much lead time is required (probably through major governmental initiatives) before this can be accomplished. The discussion of oil already shows that the ``invisible hand of the market'' is not going to provide the ten- and twenty-year lead times for the world to switch to a new energy source.

One should also distinguish between two types of energy production: stationary energy production (e.g. electricity power plants and industrial uses); and mobile energy production (e.g. automotive fuel and aviation fuel).

One can classify energy into: non-renewable energy (oil, natural gas, coal, uranium -- all with finite lifetimes); and renewable energy (hydroelectric, biomass, geothermal, wind and solar). On the scale of human civilization, fusion can also be considered as renewable. Note that the term ``solar energy'' is often abused. This happens because all but uranium, geothermal and fusion ultimately is energy coming from the sun (possibly via organic matter from 200 million years ago turning into oil). Even fusion is sometimes called solar energy because the energy production process in the Sun is based on fusion.

In addition to renewable and non-renewable energy, there is energy storage. This provides no new energy, but allows one to store energy when it is produced, and then use that energy at a later time. Examples are water reservoirs (with pumps to push the water uphill), fuel cells, and batteries. The latter two are important as a potential replacement for gasoline in cars powered by fuel cells or batteries [42].

A final category discussed is reduction of oil consumption through greater fuel efficiency.

Figure 17: 2001 World Energy Production
SOURCE: IEA, Renewables Information [36, Electricity Production, Figure 1]
Image energySupply

3.1 Non-Renewable Energy Sources

3.1.1 Natural Gas:

Natural gas is also a finite resource, but its production plateau for the world may be ten years off or further. 54% of the world's proven reserves is in Russia, Iran and Qatar [16, BP Statistical Review]. North America has reached its plateau now, and will soon be a major importer. Natural gas can and is imported from other continents by first lowering the temperature to -259$^\circ$ Fahrenheit (-161$^\circ$ Celsius) to form liquefied natural gas (LNG). There are (expensive) schemes to use natural gas as fuel instead of gasoline. See, for example, Conoco's Gas-To-Liquids (GTL) project with a demonstration plant to produce 400 barrels of oil per day [30]. Some estimate that this process could become economic with sustained oil prices of at least \$40 per barrel. This process, if pursued seriously, buys us some transition time after the peak production of oil is reached. However, many years are needed to build the full-scale infrastructure for gas-to-liquids. Further, current natural gas production is only 2/3 of oil production (based on energy content). Switching from oil to natural gas would deplete natural gas much faster, bringing even closer the peak in natural gas prodcution. For general information on natural gas, see [29]. For more information on a future peak in natural gas, see the articles of the Post Carbon Institute [15]. (An alternative to natural gas as fuel is to use fuel cells or batteries to convert other stationary energy production into mobile energy production.)

Figure 18: World Shipments of Natural Gas SOURCE: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2003 [16]
Image map_nat_gas_lng_move_565x360

3.1.2 Coal:

Coal reserves are estimated to last 100 years or more [31]. 78% of the world's proved reserves of coal is in the U.S., Russia, China India, Australia and Germany. China is the largest producer of coal, followed by the United States [16, BP Statistical Review]. Coal can be directly burned or (at additional expense) converted to a liquid fuel. The difficulty with coal is that it releases much larger amounts of CO$_2$ (carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere than any other energy source. This (and methane) are the two largest causes of global warming (see Section 3.5). For this and other reasons, the world has moved away from coal. It is now generally agreed that global warming due to human beings is a fact. It is still debated whether the degree of global warming by human beings is sufficient to melt the polar ice caps and flood many cities. If the world switches to coal for its primary energy source, then there will no longer be a debate about global warming. It will be a certainty. Beyond that, there is also a Fischer-Tropf process to convert coal to liquids. However, the conversion process, alone, produces large quantities of carbon dioxide, and some of the same issues apply as for the gas-to-liquids technology for natural gas.

3.1.3 Nuclear Energy:

The world has 100 years or more of uranium reserves (especially if the world also uses breeder reactors to reprocess expended fuel) [32]. The United States, France, Japan, Germany, Russia and South Korea produce 74% of the world's nuclear energy, as electricity [16, BP Statistical Review]. Since Three Mile Island in the United States and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, the world has been nervous about allowing each individual nation to regulate its own nuclear industry. There are also worries about nuclear weapon proliferation. Nuclear reactors produce nuclear waste with trace amounts of plutonium and fissionable uranium. If every country has nuclear reactors, then every country has the potential to reprocess the expended nuclear fuel into weapons-grade uranium or plutonium. It also opens the possibility for smaller groups to steal such expended fuel for reprocessing elsewhere. If countries use breeder reactors to reprocess expended fuel, then it is even easier to convert a portion into weapons-grade uranium or plutonium.

3.1.4 Fusion:

Fusion is an energy source that has always appeared to be twenty years away from commercialization. Fusion reactors consume deuterium (which can be extracted in abundance from water) and lithium (which can be abundantly mined). The world is planning a $5 billion demonstration International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project. This would use the Tokamak design (originally designed in the Soviet Union). Current potential participants include the European Union, Japan, Russia, United States, China and Korea. Eight years after the beginning of construction, it will be commissioned and start producing regular power. If successful, a commercial prototype will follow. If that is successful, further commercial fusion reactors will be built. The ITER project is currently delayed by discussions whether it should be sited in Japan or in France [23].

3.1.5 Shale Oil:

Shale oil exists in abundant quantities in the United States and elsewhere. If all of it could be extracted, the United States alone would have more reserves than exist in Saudi Arabia. However, only a fraction of the shale oil has rich enough oil yields to consider for exploitation. [34]

Shale oil is actually kerogen (pre-oil) locked into rocks. Kerogen can be converted into a petroleum-like substance. Most of the world's shale oil (more than 95%) is in the western United States. The difficulty is to extract shale oil in an energetically efficient manner. If more energy is expended in extracting the shale oil than is contained in the shale oil, then the process becomes uneconomic. There are also environmental issues. Shale oil remains today a difficult technological problem, and mass production is not on the near-term horizon [34].


3.1.6 Tar Sands and Extra-Heavy Oil:

Related to shale oil are tar sands. Tar sands (natural bitumen) are a mixture of sand and a viscous oil that can be further processed into crude oil. Tar sands and their cousins, extra-heavy oil, are a degraded form of oil. More than 85% of the world's bitumen (tar sands) is in Western Canada, while 90% of the world's extra-heavy oil is in Venezuela [33]. Currently, Canada is producing 1 million barrels per day of oil from tar sands and heavy oil, with an increase to over 2 million barrels per day planned by 2010. Venezuela has lower goals. Production derived from tar sands and extra-heavy oil is included in the current world oil production figures.

3.2 Renewable Energy Sources

The International Energy Agency has a wealth of programs providing international collaboration in renewable energy [35]. Among some technologies not reviewed here are concentrated solar power, solar heating and cooling, and ocean energy (waves). Fusion (see Section 3.1), while technically not a renewable energy, might well have been included in this section since its necessary raw materials are projected to last 1,000 years.

3.2.1 Hydroelectric Energy

Hydroelectric energy is currently a mature source, providing 2.7% of world energy production (mostly for electricity) [40].

3.2.2 Biomass:

Biomass, including energy from burning of wood and waste, produces 14% of the world's energy. Technologies such a production of ethanol also require energy input in the form of petroleum-based fertilizers. It is a mature technology that is not currently growing. In the United States, it (and wind energy) benefited from a 1.7 cents per kwH tax credit until Dec., 2003 [39].

3.2.3 Geothermal:

Geothermal energy is today limited to a few sites where cheap extraction of underground heat is possible [41]. Its share of world energy production is less than 0.1% and is not increasing fast.

Figure 19: Wind Energy SOURCE: IEA, Renewables Information [36, Electricity Production, Figure 10]
Image wind

3.2.4 Wind:

Wind energy is growing fast (perhaps 30% per year), but is still at low levels (less than 0.1% of world energy production). The largest producers as of 2001 were Germany, Spain, United States and Denmark, in that order [36]. Nevertheless, in absolute terms, wind energy now adds more capacity each year than does nuclear energy. It currently requires some subsidies or other incentives for deployment, but it is now close to market prices. In some regions, it may already compete favorably with traditional energy sources.

In the United States, there were wind energy tax credits from 1978 - 1985 (Energy Tax Act of 1978) and from 1992 - 2003 (tax credit of 1.7 cents per kwH; Energy Policy Act of 1992, Tax Relief Extension Act of 1999, and Economic Security and Recovery Act of 2001). In Spain, Germany and Denmark, there have also been continuous tax and pricing incentives for wind energy since the early 1990s.

Much of the growth is concentrated in Germany (5% of current electricity production), Denmark (10% of current electricity production) and Spain (5% of current electricity production), with other countries of the European Union also moving toward rapid adoption. Some countries have goals for wind power of 50% of current electricity production. Above that level, there are problems of steady production (the wind is weaker on some days than others), which must be solved by auxiliary schemes for energy storage.

Its adoption in the European Union is motivated by two factors: lessening dependence on imported oil; and reducing CO$_2$ emissions in line with the Kyoto accords [24]. Since the European Union was already investing in wind energy for the sake of energy independence, they strongly favored the Kyoto accords. The European Union hopes to satisfy much of its Kyoto commitments through the use of wind energy. For each unit of wind energy produced, they receive an environmental credit for a reduction of the corresponding CO$_2$ emissions from fossil-based fuels (oil, natural gas, etc.). This reduces global warming.

This system of environmental credits in the Kyoto accord was also strongly favored by the United States. Those tax credits expired in December, 2003, and their renewal was tied to a larger energy bill that did not pass. This has discouraged the American wind energy program. General Electric is the primary American company in wind energy -- in comparison with numerous European companies. The United States has declined to sign the Kyoto accords.

3.2.5 Solar (photovoltaic):

Figure 20: Photovoltaic Energy
SOURCE: IEA Photovolatics [37]
Image photovoltaic

Photovoltaic energy is growing fast (perhaps 30% per year), but is still at low levels (less than 0.01% of world energy production). The largest installations are in Japan (184,000 kW), Germany (82,600 kW) and the United States (44,400 kW) [37]. It currently requires sizable subsidies or other incentives for deployment. It includes photovoltaic cells (PV) to produce electricity directly from sunlight, which is the faster growing component, and solar collectors to produce heat. It cannot grow to 100% since there are some days (and also many nights) without sunlight. The lack of sunlight at night means that energy would have to be stored in the daytime and released at night.

3.3 Energy Storage

3.3.1 Fuel Cells [38], Batteries [42] and Water Reservoirs:

In general, the price of a new technology decreases as its production grows (called economies of scale, or the learning curve). In typical cases, the price may decrease by 15% to 20% each time the production doubles. Wind and solar energy were pushed down this trajectory through government tax credits and subsidies in several countries. Currently, these energy storage technologies are being developed primarily through the marketplace, rather than through similar government subsidies.

3.4 Reducing Oil Consumption

In the United States in 2002, 68% of oil consumption is for transportation (including 45% of oil consumption for gasoline and 8% for jet fuel) [16, EIA Annual Energy Review (Petroleum), Table 5.12c]. The National Energy Policy proposed ``responsibly crafted higher [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] CAFE standards''. In 1975, CAFE standards were introduced that brought average car mileage from 12.9 miles per gallon (18.3 liters per 100 kilometers) in 1975 to 27.5 mpg (8.6 l/100km) for cars and 20.7 miles per gallon (11.4 l/100km) for light trucks (SUVs, minivans, light trucks) in 1985. More than half of new vehicles sold are light trucks. Vehicles over 8500 pounds (3400 kilograms), such as the Ford Excursion and the Hummer, have no restrictions. In April, 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued an administrative rule to boost light truck CAFE standards from 20.7 mpg (11.4 l/100km) to 22.2 mpg (10.6 l/100km) by 2007.

3.5 CO$_2$ Emissions and Global Warming: a Limitation on the use of Coal

Global warming has now been proven. While it is only about 1 degree Celsius (0.5 degrees Fahrenheit) at moderate latitudes, it reaches 10 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) in the Arctic. The Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) report of 300 scientists and commissioned by the eight nations bordering the Arctic has concluded that more than 50% of the Arctic ice will melt by the end of the century, including parts of the Greenland ice cap [44, ACIA]. A complete melting of the Greenland ice cap would raise sea levels by 23 feet (7 meters) [44, ACIA].

Some ramifications are that Denmark has begun a $25 million scientific investigation to show that the seabed at the North Pole is a natural extension of Greenland. This would give Denmark sole oil drilling rights in that region when the ice pack disappears. Canada and Russia dispute this claim.

Similarly, Canada has begun military patrols of the Arctic to enforce its claim to the Northwest Passage as Canadian waters once the passage there is ice-free during the summer. This is predicted by some to happen as early as 2015, but in any event no later than 2050 [44, U.S. Arctic Research Commission]. Large oil tankers cannot pass through the Panama Canal, and must currently pass around Cape Horn in South America. By 2050, the Northern Sea Route long northern Siberia will also be ice-free during summer [44, U.S. Arctic Research Commission].

Carbon dioxide (CO$_2$) has been definitively shown to be a cause of global warming. CO$_2$ (and methane) are called greenhouse gases because, like greenhouses, visible sunlight passes through, but heat (in the form of infrared radiation) is trapped when it tries to escape into outer space.

Complete combustion of a gallon of gasoline produces 19.8 pounds of carbon dioxide. Coal produces 2.8 pounds of carbon dioxide for each pound burned. Natural gas (which is primarily methane) produces 2.75 pounds of carbon dioxide per pound of natural gas.

Figure 21 shows historical levels of CO$_2$ and its close correlation with temperature. Notice the sharp increase of CO$_2$ levels at the right. Figure 22 shows the close correlation of CO$_2$ levels with the rise of industrial civilization. Figure 23 demonstrates the accelerating rise in atmospheric CO$_2$ content by about 35% over pre-industrial levels. It also indicates a current increase in CO$_2$ levels by 0.4% per year.

Hence, the CO$_2$ levels are clearly caused by mankind. Finally, climate models definitively show the 50% increase to have a strong effect on climate.

Figure 21: Relation of CO$_2$ to Temperature over 400,000 years
(Note spike in CO2 at right end of graph.)
SOURCE: New Antarctic Ice Core Data [43]
Image co2-400k-years

Figure 22: CO$_2$ over 1,000 years
SOURCE: Carbon Dioxide Analysis Center, Historical Records from Law Dome ice cores [43]
Image co2-1000-years

Figure 23: CO$_2$ over 42 years
SOURCE: Atmospheric CO$_2$ air samples at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, USA [43]
Image co2-42-years

next up previous
Next: . Up: Beyond Peak Oil A Previous: 2 The End of
Gene Cooperman 2004-12-13