The solution to peak oil

In this 3rd installment, Sid Ryan looks at solutions to the worlds reliance on peak oil

Peak oil is not a theory, it is a fact. Although we cannot be sure of exactly when demand will outstrip supply, the fact that oil is a finite resource means that it will happen. Sooner rather than later. If humanity is going to survive with any dignity we will need to transition back to a system that is based on the ultimate source of all our energy, the Sun.

Biofuels and hydrogen are touted as solutions but are in reality fundamentally flawed. Wind, solar and wave power are the future, but even they have serious setbacks. We’ll need a more radical re-think of where we get our energy, how we transport it and how much we use if we’re going to make it to the end of the century. And there’s one technology that might just save the planet.

If we’re going to analyse how effective green energy technologies are, we’ll need to look at the concept of net energy. How many units of energy does it take to make a unit of energy you can use? That ratio of energy in to energy out drops the harder you have to work at finding oil. In the 1950’s you could get 50 barrels of oil for every barrel you spent looking for it, very soon we’ll be at the stage where that ratio is one to one.

It’s important to realise that no matter how astronomical the price you can get for selling the oil it still doesn’t make sense to put more energy in that you get out. The only solution is to subsidise your energy investment with other, more efficient, sources and that simply compounds the problem of high energy demand. Market forces and price cannot solve the problem of dropping net energy from fossil fuels.

This is why the so called unconventional fuels will not save us from the impending crash. Canadian tar sands are often cited as evidence that we have plenty of oil remaining. That may be true, but it doesn’t take into account how energy intensive the process is. Firstly it requires strip mining of a large area to collect the bitumen soaked sand, then you separate the sand from the bitumen (using steam produced by burning natural gas), then you have to refine the heavy tar into usable products. Whereas the energy return on conventional oil can be as high as 40x, tar sands produce only about 4x.

Net energy return is also why bio-fuel and hydrogen powered cars are a pipe dream. Although they have the benefit of not producing CO2 they require more energy to produce than they will ever give out. The maths on bio-fuels simply don't work. Studies have found that once you take into account how much energy is required to farm the crops, produce the fertilisers and pesticides and then refine the crop into biofuel, there is only the slightest energy gain or even a net consumption of energy. Biofuel promoters also have to ignore the fact that the land required to power one car could feed nine people.

Hydrogen is little more than a store of energy, it is certainly not a source. Hydrogen primarily produced either by reacting methane with water, or by using electricity to split water. You need 1.3 kWh to produce enough hydrogen for 1 kWh of electricity. Even hydrogen didn't take so much energy to make then it still can't rival the ease of use of petrol. It's highly corrosive, needs to be liquified at great cost to transport, is liable to leak and explode and simply doesn't have the energy density of petrol.

In terms of transport, electric cars are one of the few viable solutions. But you still need to get that electricity from somewhere. If we see widespread uptake of electric cars, then our energy demand and the strain on nationalised grids will go even higher, and in the short term increase our reliance on fossil fuel. That's where wind, solar and wave come in. Crucially, while the net energy return for fossil fuels is dropping, as we invest in better technologies for green energy their energy return should increase.

Wind energy can provide around 20x the energy that’s invested in building a turbine. The problem comes from the fact that wind energy can’t be relied on to provide a constant stream of energy. When wind is only a small percentage of total electricity production the fluctuations can be accommodated, but rise much over 20% and you start to get problems. For the UK at least, wave and tidal electricity is also another viable option. A report by the Public Interest Research Centre has found that by fully exploiting our capacity for just offshore wind and water based production we could produce six times our current energy demand. Actually achieving that goal would require a huge amount of investment and government intervention, but nothing in excess of the fervour that the UK exploited North Sea oil reserves.

Solar power is trickier, its main constraint being the availability of land to house solar arrays. It’s estimated that you’d need 20% of the total land in the US to produce just under half of its energy demand. But the ease of installation for a domestic use make it a good local power producer.

The danger in leaving investment in green energy infrastructure too late is that they will become too costly to fully invest in once peak oil hits. Consider that the 20,000 dish concentrated solar power plant in the Mojave desert required nearly 10,000 tons of aluminium. How much more expensive will that aluminium be once we lose the cheap energy to extract it from its ore? Similarly, wind turbines, tidal barrages and wave power also require great amount of steel, and the hydrocarbons to smelt it.

The main problem with green energy technology is that our national grid is poorly equipped to transmit it effectively. Sending electricity over long distances is highly inefficient. An Energy Information Agency report found that the US grid lost 60% of the energy is transmitted. The UK, being smaller, doesn’t face this challenge on quite the same scale, but it seems to invalidate the plans for a European supergrid run off North African solar plants. A better solution could be quite the opposite of centralisation, local energy cooperatives powering small communities. For projects large and small if we’re going to make best use of fluctuating green energy then we’ll need investment in energy storage facilities.

There is one technology that is often missed out when discussing alternate energy sources. I came across it researching my dissertation and frankly it’s one of the most revolutionary concepts I’ve ever heard and it hinges on the oldest energy harvesting techniques in the world: photosynthesis. Genetic engineering will soon move to a stage where we can get a generic chassis cell, stripped of its non-essentials, and then plug in genetic modules to get it to make whatever we’d like. The end goal, is capturing CO2 and water combining them to make sugar and then using that energy to make chemically perfect, pure hydrocarbons, all within a living cell, using the power of the sun.

Let that sink in a second. We’re talking about solving peak oil and global warming in one fell swoop by creating a life-form to recycle our waste. With sufficient skill these cellular factories can be optimised to work at rates far higher than nature, in any climate on earth, programmed to die outside their bio-factory apparatus and be optimised to use an alternate genetic code to prevent genetic contamination of other life. Once we can effectively computer design proteins for a specific function we won’t use any other technique to make any material on the planet. This technology isn’t here yet, but it’s in the pipeline.

We may be running out of oil, but there are other options for harvesting the energy we need to maintain some degree civilisation. Solar, wind and wave energy will see us through the crisis but they all require investment immediately if we’re going to have the infrastructure in place before the crunch. In the short term, those of us that can reduce our need for energy will be least affected by the coming storm. When oil prices rise, everything powered by it will become more expensive too, unfortunately, in this world, that is simply everything.

Photo - Wind turbines 02 by soil-net@cranfield.ac.uk

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