Monday, April 02, 2007

Alternative Energy, Add-ons and Replacements

It seems one cannot deal with the subject of peak oil without getting drawn into the peripheral discussion of alternative energy. That whole discussion, however, is full of misunderstanding, misinformation, disinformation and the source of a significantly dangerous false sense of security. One of the most common counters to the characterization of peak oil as a global crisis is a cornucopean belief that as the oil declines we will bring on-stream alternative energy technologies to replace those pushed to the sideline by the oil decline. People point to hydrogen, nuclear, geothermal, wind energy, wave energy, tidal energy, solar energy, bio-fuels, garbage-fuels and more. One or some combination of them will fill the gap, the optimist declares, and business and life will go on as usual.

The average person, when they hear the term "alternative energy" interprets that to mean "replacement energy". The reality, since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution has been quite different. The reality has been that every new energy source "discovered" has been treated as an add-on to the existing energy portfolio, not as a replacement of it.

There is, to begin, a common misperception that the fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, and coal) were "discovered" in the past couple hundred years. That displays hubris akin to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible claiming God created the world during some week in 4004 B.C. There is archaeological evidence that coal was used in the Bronze Age over 5000 years ago. There is a debated theory, based on archaeological evidence, that coal was used as a fire fuel as long ago as the Stone Age. Natural gas was the fuel that fired the eternal flames in the Ancient Greek Temple of Rhodes and the Temple of Vesta in ancient Rome. Oil in the form of tar and asphalt was in use as much as 3000 years ago. In 4th century China there were oil wells as deep as 250 metres, that oil transported over considerable distances in bamboo pipelines and used to evaporate sea water to get salt. In ancient Japan oil was called "burning water". Even many of what we call alternative energies have been in use for centuries. Water power was the primary source of energy for much of "industry" during the middle ages.(1) Wind power in windmills and sails goes back thousands of years. Passive solar has been used extensively in many cultures for a variety of purposes. Geothermal energy was employed in Hawaii and by the Maori in New Zealand as long ago as biblical times. Ethanol and bio-diesel predate our modern day usage of both oil and natural gas. Various forms of oils derived from plants have been used for lighting, cooking and heating for thousands of years.(4)

What changed starting at the outset of the Industrial Revolution was the amount of energy being employed by society because of the growth of industrialization. Coal usage in Britain in 1700 before the Industrial Revolution was about 2.5 million tons per year. By 1900 it had grown by a factor of a hundred to over 250 million tons per year.(2) By 2000 global coal usage had risen to 4-billion metric tonnes a year. During the 20th century overall global energy consumption grew from 0.7 terrawatts to over 15 terrawatts in 2004, an increase in energy use of 2142% and an increase of over 640% energy use per capita.(3)

Coal usage in Britain, for example, did not replace the use of wood for fuel before the forests of Britain and Ireland were wiped out, though it could have been used to save what forests remained. In fact, though coal was already significantly in use when the forests were essentially depleted, British demand for wood as a fuel continued with demand being satisfied by expensive imports from the colonies and from continental Europe.

When oil, in the early twentieth century, began its rise to its position of dominance in the global fuel mix, polluting and less efficient coal was not abandoned. The growth in coal demand slowed for a while but over the course of the 20th century, while the population was quadrupling, global coal usage increased six-fold to about 4-billion metric tonnes per pear. And coal usage between 2000 and 2005 grew by over seven percent per year, a faster growth rate than either oil or natural gas. Coal today, despite oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, geothermal and other energy sources, still supplies over 25 percent of global energy demand and over 40 percent of global electricity.

Natural gas did not replace coal or oil as an energy source. It was simply added to the list of available energy sources. Nuclear for generating electricity did not replace electricity generated by coal, oil or natural gas. It was simply added to the list. Solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, hydrogen, bio-fuels are not replacing any of the current energy sources. The growth in all of these "alternatives" combined is not sufficient to cover overall increased energy demand or to offset declines in any of the primary energy sources. And because of the high energy demand in building out an infrastructure for any of these alternatives, that build-out itself adds to the energy demand that those primary energy sources must satisfy. Using solar power to run the plant that makes solar panels is not how this technology is being built out.

There is no attempt or intent to correct this common misperception that "alternatives" can and will replace the energy sources on which we currently rely. No one involved in government or the energy sector or in the financial sector has a vested interest in doing so. The makers of electric cars want to make electric cars. The last thing they want to tell the buyer of one of their cars is that the grid will probably fail before their car. With so much global capital invested in the current energy paradigm the last thing anyone in power wants to do is admit that it may soon collapse like a house of cards and that none of the "alternatives" in any combination can "replace" our current energy sources. They see "alternatives" as choices, not replacements, for as long as they can keep the wheels under the "business as usual" train.

Oil, natural gas, and coal are all headed for peaks sometime between now and 2020. Oil will probably be first, sometime within these next 3-5 years. But both natural gas and coal are very minor as commodities traded on a world market and transported around from country to country. Even with coal, ninety percent of all coal is used within the country of origin.

Words often disguise as much or more than they clarify. The term "alternative energy" is totally unsuited for giving the public a true picture of the global energy predicament. It is probably far too late to consider a change but clearly the use of "optional" or "additional" would be more appropriate to describe the way we have treated new energy sources. There really are no new energy sources that can be described as "replacement".
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1. History of Energy - James C. Williams, Ph.D.
2. Coal Mines
3. World energy resources and consumption
4. Population and Energy - Graham Zabel

2 comments:

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