Friday, September 25, 2009

Can we ever again accept life in a no-energy world?

Hi. Can we talk?

I'm not sure if you've ever given it much thought but..... we are heading for a measurable and persistent decline in available global energy resources that will eventually leave us in a no-energy world. Seriously!

I assume you have heard about peak oil. Well, it's not just oil. It's natural gas, coal, hydro electricity, nuclear power, virtually all forms of energy. Oh, and of course global warming is happening at the same time. Have you ever considered what all that is going to mean to you? To your lifestyle? To the lives of your children and their children?

No? Well think about it. Please!

I don't want to rain on your parade, put a damper on your party. But things are going to change. Hell, they already are. And not for the better. Maybe you just haven't noticed.

I don't mean for you to become a (pick one; peakster, peaknik, peak-oiler, nut job), although that is certainly an option. But it takes years of study to be able to read between the lines of the utter crap politicians and the mainstream media throws at us as they struggle to avoid talking about reality. But won't you at least look at both sides of the debate? And there is a debate, and will continue to be a debate as long as so much effort is being put into keeping you from seeing the reality of the situation.

Just as denial is no way to deal with grief, it is no way to deal with energy decline and climate change. Sooner or later you have to stop trying to avoid reality and face up to it, however painful that may be.

I'm not going to go into a long song and dance here of trying to overwhelm you with the statistics. I'm not even going to try to convince you that peak oil is real. I have written over a hundred articles on this blog already aimed at doing that. And there are so many other sites doing the same. But a thousand articles aren't going to do the job unless you can be convinced to read them, unless you can be convinced to open your mind. And that is what I am trying to do here.

I know peak oil and the thought of terminal energy decline is scary. Very! I remember years ago when I first understood the implications of peak oil. I was paralyzed with fear. It took me well over a year to accept it as reality and to start looking beyond peak oil to what life is going to be like on the other side. I realized that denying it was not going to stop it from happening. There was going to be a peak and there was going to be a life on the other side of it. If I didn't think about it, allow for it, plan for it, prepare for it, then it was going to just happen to me and I would be caught up in a huge flood of unprepared people struggling trying to adjust to the massive changes it will bring. I didn't want to be part of that flood. And I don't think you do either.

Where do we look for an example of what life will be like in a post-carbon, post-oil, post-energy world? We can look to history, study what life was like before the industrial revolution. We can look to the third world, the poor countries where people live without energy and survive on $2.00 a day. We can look to various TV reality programs that place people intentionally in a non-industrial, agrarian lifestyle for a season, a year, several years. We can look to heritage villages like Toronto's Black Creek Pioneer Village, or Eastern Ontario's Upper Canada Village, or Australia's Olde Sydney Towne. In so many ways the post-carbon world will very likely look and function very much like the pre-carbon, pre-industrial world.

I am, in a sense, luckier than most around me. I can look to my own past, my own upbringing and childhood. Yes! I've been around for a few years. I was raised in a home where we heated with wood. We had a large, multi-tentacled wood furnace in the cellar and a large cookstove in the kitchen. Each year from the time I was twelve I would go with my stepfather and a neighbour out to the woodlot to cut our winter's supply of wood. We had no running water and no well, used an outhouse with old newspapers for toilet paper, bathed immodestly in a galvanized tub on the kitchen floor (in a house with five older sisters), carried pails of water from a neighbours pump a couple hundred yards up the street, got up first on cold winter mornings to restart the fire in the furnace and cookstove and break the ice on top of the water bucket. We closed off a major part of the house in winter to save on heat needs. We packed snow against the outside of the house in winter to help with insulation. The outside of my bedroom window, and other windows, was covered in plastic sheeting from fall until spring. We hard a large half-acre garden that produced much of what went into the cellar in mason jars every fall. For protein my step-father would bag a deer most years and that was supplemented with a couple of galvanized garbage cans full of sucker fish caught in the fall, and the odd stolen chicken through the winter.

You will, I am sure, see hardship in that. I see fond memories. But......... could I go back to living like that again? No. My health is deteriorating and I am getting on in age. If I were younger, yes. I could do it.

But what about you? If you've never lived like that it would be a very hard adjustment to make. I don't think most people could. Sooner or later, though, there may not be a choice. I never gave it a second thought as I was growing up. For a time I guess I never imagined that people could live any other way, at least not until a television found it's way into our home. But if you have lived your entire life in what we see as normal society today, how will you ever adopt to a lifestyle like that in which I was raised? Or even more primitive, like the lifestyle my parents and grandparents grew up with?

Think about it. Please!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How Much is that Energy Really Worth?

We have long-passed the point where we can continue to value energy in terms of dollars or any other currency. We lost that luxury when the total global production of energy peaked and began to decline, more specifically when the net energy per person went into decline globally.

As in the case of any commodity, when the availability of supply can no longer keep pace with demand then the availability, from that point onward, dictates the price of the commodity. It is no longer a buyer's market.

Global energy consumption per capita peaked sometime during the 1990s. Since that point the global population increase has been greater than the total global increase in energy production and energy consumption.

Although the rate of growth of per capita energy consumption in the US - which today uses roughly 25% of all energy used globally - has decreased from 2.5% in the early 1990s to less than 1.5% in 2008, it is still on the increase. Obviously, with a total global energy supply on the decline and U.S. per capita consumption still on the rise, the percent of total global energy use by the U.S. is on the increase while much of the rest of the world, particularly the third world, are being priced out of the energy market and are already having to cope with ever-decreasing energy availability.

Energy, unlike almost every other commodity, requires the consumption of some of itself - energy - in the production of itself. The more energy we produce the more energy consume in producing it. That is called EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested). It can be difficult to equate one form of energy to another, especially since the pricing of different forms of energy is not consistent when it comes to the value of the energy produced. You will often see the acronym BOE used in regards to energy. This stands for Barrels of Oil Equivalent. And that is very important when trying to understand EROEI.

Let us take that to the extreme for simplicity's sake. Let us suppose the only form of energy available on this planet is oil, rather than the more complex Barrels of Oil Equivalent. The EROEI, therefore, shows how much energy, in the form of oil, is used in order to produce that oil. Obviously you want to use as little oil as possible to produce that oil because it is only the oil produced in excess of the oil used that is available for other uses than producing the oil in the first place.

At the beginning of the oil age it is estimated that the amount of energy used to produce the readily available, high quality oil with which the oil industry began was about one barrel used for every 100 barrels produced. Ninety-nine out of every 100 barrels of oil produced was available to be used for other than producing oil.

In the time since then, of course, the energy cost per barrel of oil produced has steadily risen. On average, when considering all forms of oil like tar sands and deep water, we get a little more than ten barrels of oil for every barrel of oil invested. In fact, when it gets to tar sands and ultra-deep-water oil and bio-fuels produced from corn ethanol, the EROEI ratio gets very close to 1:1. It takes almost the energy equivalent of a barrel of oil to produce a barrel of oil. If we ever pursue producing oil from the various shale deposits like Bakken it could take more energy to produce every barrel than what we get out of it.

The peak oil theory, contrary to what certain denialists continue to claim, does not suggest we are running out of oil. In fact most knowledgeable peak oil pundits will quickly point out that we will probably never run out of oil completely. What the peak oil theory does say is that we will reach a point where the flow, the rate of production, can no longer be increased, that demand will thereafter be greater than production and that that gap will widen year by year.

Once you pass that peak, as well, the energy gas of the energy produced will increase inexorably, pushing the world ever faster toward depletion. From the peak onward the cheap, easily-accessible, high quality oil has all been consumed. There is still oil left but it is much more expensive, in terms of energy consumption, to produce it. From peak onward, therefore, the amount of oil produced in excess of the amount of oil consumed in its production declines faster than the overall decline in the rate of production.

When the energy consumed in producing a barrel of oil passes the total energy contained in a barrel of oil, it doesn't matter what form of energy is used to produce that oil or what price that energy form is set at. At that point it takes more energy to produce energy than the energy produced. There is no energy surplus, over and above production energy cost, available to do anything other than produce oil.

So how much is our energy really worth, when calculated in terms of energy used in its production? Are we prepared to continue to produce oil and other forms of energy even when it takes more energy to produce it that what we get out of it? It is a question we will soon have to answer if our approach to peak oil continues to be; use as much as we can as long as we can and then figure out what to do for an encore. We don't yet see the net reduction in global energy production, the global energy consumption per capita. That price is being paid by the third world. But reality will soon come home to roost. Soon either the whole rest of the world will have to give up all claims to energy to support North America's energy habit or we will all be in the same rapid race to the bottom, ourselves included. Or we can all fight for what is left.