Sunday, September 08, 2013

Our energy future: "They'll think of something"

With oil prices hovering near historic highs and coal, natural gas and uranium prices yo-yoing during the last several years, concerns about the future of fossil fuel and uranium supplies often elicit the response: "They'll think of something. They always do."

This kind of thinking is usually premised on the idea that the future will look like the past, only bigger and better. It does not even admit the possibility that we may need to reduce our energy use. We'll come back this issue later.

The pronoun "they" in the generic quote above is vague, and the speaker does not know that he or she is actually referring to two distinct technological approaches to our energy future. Each technology progresses amid a different and highly consequential backdrop.

Let me cut to the chase. Advancements in technology designed to extract more oil, natural gas, coal and uranium from the ground are in a race with geological constraints. The more of each type of fuel we extract, the more difficult it is to wrest each subsequent barrel, cubic foot, or ton from the Earth's crust. The deposits become leaner, that is, there are fewer units of what we want per ton of earth--and more refractory, that is, more challenging to process in order to separate the stuff we want from the stuff that isn't oil, natural gas, coal and uranium. The empirically established principle is that we go after the easy deposits first and save the difficult ones for later.

So now, we are arriving at the difficult ones: shale gas, tight oil, tar sands and low-grade uranium deposits. Rather than debate the future supplies of each which cannot be known with any certainty, let me turn to the backdrop for what we call renewable energy.

The technological progress we make in solar and wind occur against a dramatically different backdrop. The light from the sun is not becoming less and less intense over the long run forcing researchers to think of ways to capture more and more of the diminishing intensity of sunlight. Instead, even though there are cycles to the sun and cloudy days, the light from the Sun that hits the Earth is remarkably steady. In fact, over the next 5 billion years, the Sun will actually increase in brightness before starting its transformation into a red giant.

Unlike researchers who experiment with methods for extracting ever more lean and refractory deposits of fossil fuels and uranium, solar energy researchers are not fighting a depleting Sun in any time frame meaningful to humans. Their task is to find ever more efficient ways to capture sunlight and turn it into heat and electricity, sunlight that is so ubiquitous and so plentiful that the equivalent of 7,000 times the current human usage of all forms of energy is absorbed by the Earth's land, oceans and atmosphere each year. With solar we are not and will never be in a race against depletion (unless the human species lasts for 5 billion years--which is unlikely since the lifespan of mammalian species averages about 1 million years, though some may persist for up to 10 million years).

Wind, of course, is a derivative of solar power since it merely represents air currents which form in response to the uneven heating of the atmosphere. Given existing technology, there are, naturally, only certain places that are suitable for wind generators. But, as the technology improves, more places will be practical for the placement of wind towers and small household wind devices.

I suppose it is theoretically possible to place enough wind generators on the surface of the Earth to dissipate all the winds. But we are so very far from that, that I think it will likely never become anything but a sporadic local issue far into the future.

Geothermal energy has vast potential, but low efficiency given the costs of extracting it from deep in the Earth. I still see a role for geothermal, but I can't make the claim that it is as a practical matter ubiquitous or, on a local scale, inexhaustible.

I ultimately see a limited role for biofuels to provide liquid fuels for emergency vehicles, rural transport and farm machinery. But, they will not actually be renewable until we stop engaging in agriculture which erodes and degrades rather than builds the soil. For now we must accept that biofuels are actually part of a mining operation--only in this case what is being mined is the fertility of the soils and the fossil fuels used to plant, fertilize, weed and protect biofuel crops from pests.

Ocean thermal, tidal power and wave energy will certainly be niche players. Hydroelectric power has some new potential in developing countries where all the major rivers have yet to be dammed. Small hydroelectric still has possibilities in developed countries. But, most major rivers there have already been dammed. Keep in mind that dams eventually silt up (unless they are dredged) and cease to be sources of energy for society.

So, here's the score so far. Researchers seeking to extract fossil fuels and uranium from the Earth's crust are in a race with ever more stringent geological constraints, a race they will ultimately lose. If that were not the case, we would not already be seeing declines in oil production in country after country in the last 40 years. And, we can expect that this will happen for the world at some point, not only for oil, but for natural gas, coal and uranium as well.

But, as a practical matter, the physical limits of sunlight will NEVER, EVER be reached. What's more, sunlight is not becoming more difficult to access. We have the same access to it today, tomorrow and for the next 5 billion years.

There are some limits to solar and wind power, however, that have nothing to do with their fuel source, sunlight. To scale solar and wind energy production large enough to produce the amount of energy we use today as a global society would take so long--even at vastly increased rates of deployment--that we will almost certainly fail to do so before fossil fuels begin their inevitable and perhaps swift decline.

The other task is to transform an infrastructure dependent on liquid fuels for transportation into one which uses primarily electricity. We are slowly beginning the transition to electric vehicles. But it is at a very slow rate compared to the rate we need. And, private automobiles are almost certainly not the answer for the future. Electric trains, trolleys and buses are a better alternative.

Then, there is the problem of electricity storage. We know how to store electricity, but it is very costly. We need new low-cost solutions, and many researchers are trying to find them.

All these limits on renewable energy explain in part why we have not embraced it as fully as we need to, and why we still prefer fossil fuels and uranium for the lion's share of our energy needs.

But it won't matter what we prefer when the rate of production of nonrenewable energy sources starts to decline. If we are not ready, we will be in a world of hurt.

The only sensible response to this looming possibility is to begin reducing our energy use now in earnest. If we do that, we have a much better chance of making a successful transition to a renewable energy economy--a transition which will happen whether we like it or not.

We actually know right now how to make dramatic reductions in energy use while only affecting our daily activities minimally. But, it will cost money up front (which we'll get back in the form of energy savings). And, it will require enormous political will because some of the changes will have to take place in our transportation and utility infrastructures, both of which are now largely committed to fossil fuels and nuclear power.

Reductions in energy use and the rapid transformation of our infrastructure are not typically what people think about when they say, "They'll think of something. They always do."

We have indeed thought of something. But that something is going to require the active participation of everyone. It isn't going to be done TO us. It will have to be done BY us.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


ChemEng said...

You may have seen the recent article "How solar and EVs will kill the last of the industry dinosaurs". The article summarizes the ideas of author Tony Seba who claims that solar power is becoming economical very fast and will soon displace conventional utilities (which burn mostly hydrocarbon fuels). The following quotation is from the article.

The predictions are made on the basis that the cost of solar and EV batteries will continue to fall, while the cost to consumers of sourcing energy from fossil fuels through the grid or liquid fuels will continue to rise. Before the decade is out, Seba says, both technologies will pass a tipping point that will eventually sweep the incumbents aside, just as technology and cost developments have done in the computer, internet, media, photographic and telecommunications industries.
“I am incredibly optimistic that by 2030, nuclear, coal, gas, big hydro, and oil will be all but obsolete,” Seba told RenewEconomy in an interview in San Francisco last month. “The world will be mostly powered by solar and wind, and most new vehicles will be electric.

Basically, it seems that Mr. Seba agrees with your analysis that oil and other fuels are on the way down. The "They'll think of something” is true — it’s called solar.

It seems to me that the analysis misses two crucial points. The first is to do with cost — trillions of dollars are the unit of currency. I live on the east coast mainline so trains (freight and passenger) trundle by all the time. Like all other mainline trains in the United States (apart from the Acela system in the north-east) the locomotives are powered by diesel fuel. To transform this entire system to solar-based electricity by the year 2030 would be a huge challenge. It would involve new bridges, overhead catenaries, new locomotives, and an immense number of solar cells. Also some means of storing electricity so that the trains can run 24/7 is needed.

But the second point that the article misses is both more critical and more subtle. Simplistically, oil is used (1) to fuel day to day operations and (2) to fund future projects. In the case of trains some oil is used as fuel and some is used to create the steel, plastics, ceramics and all the other materials needed for a new train system. Referring to you EIA chart in your post “The one chart about oil’s future everyone should see” the availability of oil and other fuels will constantly decrease — it’s not a one step process. Given that the fuel requirements for today’s trains will remain about the same (without a major conservation effort), there will be less and less fuel available for use in new projects — including the transition to solar.

Eric Blood Axe said...

Don't sell dams short. Colonel By's dam at "Jone's Falls" built in the 1830s is still operational, and now is even supplying water to a hydro plant.

Anonymous said...

A third "crucial point" for ChemEng:
If the rate of growth of solar capacity is greater than 1/(energy payback time) then net power production is negative.

Anonymous said...

17 years ago we built a solar heated house here in NJ. Most people laughed at us. Saying it wouldn't work and it was a waste of money. Since then we've added solar hot water and PV. The house is net-zero energy. No energy bills and almost no maintenance has saved us lost of money of the conventional house. Not to mention the reduction of pollution.

Harquebus said...

“physical limits of sunlight will NEVER, EVER be reached”
The physical limits to the fossil fuels used to make these inefficient devices have been reached. Peak oil mates, peak oil. Bankrupt governments can not prop up this con job for much longer.

Anonymous said...

It's my understanding that it takes more energy to produce a solar panel than it can produce in it's expected lifetime - a negative return on energy invested.

Anonymous said...

Renewables are growing faster than anyone predicted:

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

“With solar we are not and will never be in a race against depletion (unless the human species lasts for 5 billion years--which is unlikely since the lifespan of mammalian species averages about 1 million years, though some may persist for up to 10 million years).”

So, you think the minerals needed to manufacture the equipment to harness all that limitless sun and wind grows on trees? No, it’s also a finite resource just like oil and coal and eventually it will be gone as well just like the other non-renewable resources we are rapidly depleting.

Kurt Cobb said...

Thanks to all for your thoughtful comments. Let me respond.

It's important to note that I emphasize reducing human energy use dramatically as a first step to making a successful energy transition. I do not expect renewable sources to provide nearly the amount of energy we get from fossil fuels (most of which is wasted).

My piece on the so-called rate-of-conversion problem, linked to in this piece, acknowledges that fossil fuels are necessary (because they power our current infrastructure) to making a successful transition. But if these fuels are just wasted on a final orgy of consumption rather than investment in the transition, I fear that the transition will simply flounder.

Ronnie Wright makes a good point. Some the rare earth minerals currently employed in solar panels--though not as rare as the name would imply--are not limitless. That is why solar researchers are trying to find substitutes. They've found some, but those substitutes are not cost-effective for now. The trick will be to make them cost-effective before too long.

Wright seems a little confused about my statement about the depletion of sunlight. I still stand by that statement, at least for the next 5 billion years. We won't be in a race against depletion because there will be no depletion.

This doesn't, of course, mean there won't be depletion of critical minerals currently used for solar panels. And, that's something that needs to be addressed.