Energy Page

When you look up 'peak oil' the picture looks pretty grim. It need not be. I am a born pessimist, and this rant may seem like denial at first, but it is not. It is not-so-carefully thought out, but just some ideas. First thing is more oil drilling in the Arctic will not fix the problem. It will delay it by a couple years, at most.

Before I get going, I'm going to clarify that I am a Canadian, living in oil country (Alberta) but I wrote this article from an American point of view. I did this not necessarily because I want to be an American or anything - I love my country and want to stay here. Rather, the USA is one of the world's largest users of energy, and has a lot of inefficiency bred into it. And I don't have that much of a self-serving interest, except for the lives of our children and grandchildren.

How Much is Petroleum Fuel Worth to You?

Even with the (relatively) high cost of gasoline or diesel, the energy available is pretty amazing considering the price. A typical European sedan gets around 8L/100km. To get a feel for the amount of energy that one litre of fuel contains, try pushing that car at 100 km/h for around 12 km (or around 60 mph for around 8 miles if you want to be difficult). Heck, pushing that car at only a couple miles an hour for 8 miles is tough enough. Was it worth the $1.40 for that litre of fuel (or around $5.00 per gallon, again, if you want to be difficult) to make your life easier? Either it was, or you'd be thinking that it would be easier to just walk that distance without the car. Given the amount of power actually available there, gasoline (and diesel fuel, and bunker-C, and jet fuel) is one of the biggest bargains of the universe! It's even cheaper than those little plastic bottles of water, which is another rant for another day. In terms of human labour, if you could push that car 8 miles, at probably a few miles per hour, on a flat surface... and get paid minimum wage to do it, that litre of gasoline should be worth about $30.00.

Global and USA Energy Usage, 2004

Let's start with energy use in the world first, and I will use 2004 numbers.

Grim, eh. Let's concentrate on the USA for now. The USA is the largest per-capita user of energy, and probably the most difficult to change.

Total... 3.1 TW

Well, let's do a couple of corrections here. Oil is primarily used in combustion engines - with an efficiency of about 20% on average, including refining and fuel distribution. So let's correct this to energy output.... that means oil really contributes 0.26 TW of actual work being done. Gas is used typically in combined cycle generators with an efficiency of about 50-60%. Half of the gas is used in these turbines, the others will be low efficiency. Anyways, when you calculate out the efficiency of each energy source, you get this (approximately). Note that this assumes that once energy is electricity, it will be used efficiently. That is a reasonable expectation in most cases, as very few large AC consumers will tolerate large energy waste, and in electric vehicles, lower efficiency means accepting an even more restrictive range than batteries already provide.

Corrected Work Numbers

Total... 1.26 TW. I am going to state now that if we were to replace most oil with electrical power via battery storage, the total energy needed to charge those batteries is approximately 0.35 TW on average, depending on the charging efficiency average.

Do We Have Generation Capacity to 'Plug America In'?

Of that, just under 1 TW is already in the form of electricity. Well, let's work on that number for now. A typical nuclear power plant generates about 1 GW. To generate the power we currently use oil for, but in the form of electricity, you need about 250 big nukes. Ouch. We might be able to build that many. But I doubt it. Gas is ok for now, coal is ok for now. Eventually we will have to deal with those, but not yet. Right now gas comes from a friendly neighbour (look up north... where it's a bit cold) and also from indigenous sources. Coal is indigenous. But it gets better... the electrical capacities (gas through renewables) are peak (nameplate) capacity. The average use factor of those is about 50% - which means that of 1 TW generating capacity, a bit less than 0.5 TW is actually used on average. That leaves just under 0.5 TW of capacity unused on average. This number corresponds well to the US EIA summary of total power generated in kW*h. This really does mean that there is approximately double the generating capacity than average (but not peak) use, or 0.5 TW available for other purposes - on average. Also, a crash electrical conservation program should result in a lowering of the required energy generation capacity - essentially 'free' energy. The reason that electrical transportation does not necessarily require peak energy use is that usually they will be charged at night, and the leveling generation plants would be left on.

Interestingly enough, the amount of coal-fired electricity is about equal to the total amount of oil. What makes that interesting is that, in theory, we almost have sufficient generating capacity in the USA to eliminate almost all (or maybe all) imported oil use, effective almost immediately! Basically however long it takes to Plug America In. Many power companies say so! A lot of people say 'bullshit' but the numbers show they are close to right. Why? Because power use is lowest at night. Why almost? Because storage battery charging has an efficiency of about 90% (for good batteries), or even 60% (for lead-acids) and an electrical drivetrain has an efficiency of about 90%. Plus, with Chelsea Sexton over at Plug In America.... there's a good reason to plug in.

Now, batteries and electric motors do take a lot of energy to produce, but so does a cast engine block. The energy required to mine the metal ore, separate the good stuff out, cast and finish the parts, etc... You have to expend energy to make a vehicle regardless of what fuel it uses.

Of course, gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel are convenient forms of fuel. They are very energy-dense. Let's look at who uses oil....

Who Uses Oil, Alternatives.... and how much do you use?

Personal transportation (gasoline, primarily). About 45% of all oil imported or extracted within the USA is converted into gasoline, or about 10 million barrels per day. Primarily personal transportation, some commercial transportation, and some light industrial use. Judging by the interstates and the city congestion, I would hazard a guess that most of this is actually spent on commuting - or sitting there idling. A total of about 30% of all energy used in the USA is for total transportation, and about half of that is personal transportation.

If we can convert the fleet over to electrical power, which I know is not realistic right now, we will have had no problem with charging infrastructure, no problem with commuting, and mostly, the possibility of job creation, again. Wow, wouldn't that be nice. Not without a price. To be reasonably priced, and to get a reasonable range, cars will have to look different. Look at the GM EV1 or the Honda Insight. Yea, they look strange, but they would be getting over 100 mpg if driven on gasoline! That takes care of, surprisingly enough, probably around 40% of the USA oil consumption. Yea, we have to change, a little. Get used to it. But a commuting vehicle is certainly an option. But so is a decent public transportation system. Amtrak reports record ridership. Calgary and Edmonton are both building new light rail transit stations. Edmonton still has many electric trolley bus units in service, and Vancouver has a lot of them - even new ones! Carpool with someone and you use half the fuel. Even the extremely conservative Alberta just announced $2 billion in public transit. They are also pumping money into carbon storage technology which I'm not sure is really required - using a nuclear plant for tar sands extraction makes infinitely more sense to me. But at least a whole bunch of money into new public transit projects. I think one great project would be a Calgary-Edmonton high speed passenger train. Perhaps some private money (Westjet?) might be helpful, too. A split where the province puts up the track and a couple airline companies expand to passenger rail transport.

Natural gas was proposed by T. Boone Pickens for transportation, and that is an excellent short-term solution. Eventually we will exhaust our gas supply, but we have another 20 or so years available, after oil - or maybe more, if we tap into methane hydrates.. As a short-term solution, countries such as India and China and Pakistan and Iran are all converting their fleets to run on natural gas - much more aggressively than in North America. Although I can't agree with his policy totally, it does make a lot of sense, and we should be doing what we can. He is willing to put up his personal money to do it, and he is not an idiot. I listened to his speech, and I was impressed that a businessman could be so forward-thinking.

Commercial transportation (diesel, primarily). About 40% of the remainder of oil is used for heating oil, locomotives, and big trucks. The big trucks are a bit of an issue. A railway locomotive with about 3.5 MW of traction power available (and about 2 MW used for most pulling) will haul about 50 to 100 semitrailers full of stuff - each big truck delivering somewhere around 200kW to pull the load down the road. Aerodynamics on a train are better - boxcars naturally slip-stream without the danger of tailgating - after all, the cars are joined together rather solidly. Also, rolling resistance is considerably lower, and a train usually only stops once in a city - not for every red light, even when just passing through. Sorry, truckers, but you can't beat this efficiency. You can't beat the door-to-door service of a truck, though, however. Efficiency in switching cargo from train to truck - essentially a just-in-time rail service - could easily make trucks and trains to co-exist without so much of a problem. Also, since diesel-electric locomotives use electric traction power, they could, in theory, be converted to run on an overhead or third-rail system by only adding a couple of pieces - plus the overhead line. You could have a choice of diesel when there's no power available, and electric, when there is. Yea, it'll take a while to build it, and some resources. But we have unemployed people that are capable of working, so let's put them to work here! By the way, all of this is being done in Europe already! We have larger distances to cover, but that doesn't make that big of a difference, really. CNG or LNG can be used as an interim fuel, too, but eventually, a transition to electrical power needs to be done.

Agriculture (diesel, primarily, plus natural gas for fertilizer production). This is tough. Unlike trucks and trains and cars, this is harder because the tractor drives up and down the field and not on a road, requires about 400 kW of power, and the extension cord for that is sure to get caught in a cultivator. I doubt battery technology will progress enough to drive a tractor down the field. Hopefully a real biofuel that does not take most of the cropland, for example, algae-diesel, can help out here. Or if a crash conservation program works, we likely have hundreds of years of oil, if we only use it specifically for growing crops. Agriculture should be the priority for liquid fuels. Finally, hydrogen is required to make nitrogen fertilizer. It is possible to harness electricity to make water in a reverse fuel-cell reaction requiring heat and electricity. If this is done right, efficiency should be around 60% or so, which is comparable to the natural gas reaction used to make hydrogen. After you have hydrogen, the remainder of the fertilizer plant has no problems. We probably need to build a couple of nuclear plants for that. The NRC appears to be expecting many applications this year.

Aviation. Sorry, this gotta be liquid fuels. Hopefully the algae oil thing works out. This is about 15% of the total oil use in the USA. Energy self-sufficiency, for now, would be achievable even if we had to use oil for this.

The Most Important User of Oil

Some people may say that military should get first in line. Maybe, but there is something much more important.

In terms of liquid fuel, if we take agriculture, which uses approximately 15 litres of fuel per acre to put in a crop while using continuous cropping and single-pass seeding and fertilizing, spraying it, and taking it off. For the rough US agricultural land area, not including hay or cattle grazing operations, that would be an average use of around 75,000 barrels per day.... a drop in the bucket, so to speak. I used my brother's farm for a rough number - corn will take more energy. But in terms of 'orders of magnitude', it is unlikely to be more than possibly 200,000 barrels per day. Once we add agrichemicals and food transportation, the number starts to creep up.... probably 2 or 3 million barrels per day. Attention to efficiency should be able to reduce this down to a half or third what we use now. If we really did give agriculture priority to diesel fuel, even a relatively small amount of oil from the Alberta tar sands currently produced (about 1 million barrels per day could feed the farming portion of agriculture for hundreds of years. Of course, there are better, cheaper, sources of oil right now.

Could the USA be Energy Self-Sufficient?

With all of this in mind.... with a relatively major restructuring of two sectors - personal transportation and commercial transportation - the USA could be energy self-sufficient, rather quickly. That is reducing oil consumption by over half. How long to do it? Depends on the national goals. If the USA decides to be serious about it, we could see this transition over a period of about five to ten years. Remember that Americans are very good at innovation. They can be motivated. In 1969, two men stepped on the moon, and managed to wind their way back home. The promise was given in 1963. That's six years!!! In those six years, the United States of America designed one of the biggest rockets ever, came up with a mission plan that involved two spacecraft the size of a couple of telephone booths finding one another all while 240,000 miles away from home, pretty much developed embedded computers and real-time operating systems, developed telemetry systems that worked, and got into long distance radio communication. That is a lot of technology. We don't even have to develop as much stuff to get going!!!

Do you think that Americans are not capable of meeting the challenge of self-sufficiency? I know they are. We need government, corporate, and individual leadership, starting now. It is possible. You don't have to believe the doom-and-gloomers. Yea, they might be right. They might be wrong. I don't doubt American know-how and abilities. If the oil companies were involved, there might not be as much resistance as in the past - after all - they are energy companies and have been renaming themselves as such. Perhaps the windfall profits of the high prices could pay for some new power plant capacity and a new battery manufacturing plant? If there's money in it.... The key here is to not get (much) resistance. After all, if they are still making money, maybe it's all good. Get the military industries involved, too. If they have the know-how to manufacture a missile that works most of the time, perhaps manufacturing generation station parts is a reasonable goal?

Dealing with 'Running Out'

Let's finish the rest of this story now..... energy self-sufficient but still using domestic oil. How do we get prepared for 'running out'? Easily. Well, first, let's start with saying that we will never really run out of oil. Never. At some point we will be leaving some in the ground, just because we have not figured out how to get it out.

If you have energy available, you can synthesize most petrochemical feedstocks in other ways. Essentially, you can make synthetic oil if you have hydrogen and carbon and the right catalyst. They do it now at heavy oil upgraders such as the one in Lloydminster, Alberta. To actually pull this off, we're going to need a bunch more power - a few nukes, maybe, or maybe we will have solar power under our belt quite easily. Anyways, you need to believe it is possible because it is already being done to process ground-based oil.

Now, there are theories of abiotic oil (oil that was here since the formation of the earth, or perhaps simply carbon in the mantle and a handy source of hydrogen). These theories might be right, or they might be wrong. I don't know. But I can't imagine 85 or 100 million barrels per day springing up from there. If, however, we are in a situation where maybe one million barrels per day could be extracted at that rate, agriculture could at least continue.

If we only had to feed agriculture with oil, we practically have an infinite supply of oil - at least five generations worth of it. So in theory, if we conserve enough, we should be able to still eat, for quite a while.

I trust the numbers shown on this site: for some reason. He does give a good breakdown of probable and known oil reserves, and when we are likely to 'run short'.

Will We Ever Run Out of Oil?

I have been reading a lot. I doubt it. There are two reasons why I think this.

If oil is indeed non-renewable, at some point it becomes so expensive of a commodity that we only extract the little bits we need to make stuff- we won't burn it.

However, it appears to me that oil may be semi-renewable, and there may be a lot more of it than we think. Things are not always as they seem. There are some theories that state that oil is 'made' in the mantle by some mysterious process. Hmmmm. Rock (CaCO3) + iron oxide (FeO) + water (H2O) generates a lot of long-chain hydrocarbons under high pressure and temperature. Of course, this happens in a 'geologic' time frame, but it does not really need to be that slow, really. Chemical reactions tend to either happen or not. Usually chemistry does not favour reactions that take 'millions of years of heat and pressure'. Also, most chemical processes do not favour reduction over oxidation, especially in long-chain hydrocarbons. Interesting theory. Let's see if it could possibly hold. We know that deep in the crust, rock is formed. So we do have a supply of 'rock'. We know the earth's core is made of molten and solid iron. Where does the water come from? There are deep underground pressurized cavities of water - trapped seawater - deeper than we would expect. These pressurized cavities are responsible for deep-ocean geothermal vents. They also help destabilize and lubricate faults, and apparently there is a large deposit of underground water under China. We have the ingredients. Once the oil is made, it tries to seep upwards due to the decreasing pressure gradient. Only if there is a break in the lowest part of the crust can the oil escape. Under those pressures and temperatures, oil will not decompose as was initially thought. As the pressure and temperatures are released, most of the oil is stable, some of the oil converts to methane, and we have natural gas. If the oil and/or gas runs into a salt dome, it gets trapped in the porous rock or sand underneath. If it gets too close to the earth's surface without getting trapped, you get surface oil like the tar sands of Alberta. Most places where we have found oil are sedimentary, but that may be because the sedimentary structures can actually trap and hold the oil for later discovery. They will also have bacteria - sedimentary deposits were, after all, at the surface some time ago. Some of these bacteria feast on hydrocarbons and even excrete different hydrocarbons.

Ok, neat theory, but.... whaddawha? It is interesting to note that there are many deep-earth 'faults' in the Saudi Arabia area of the world. If oil were indeed primarily made in the mantle, and if there was to be a concentration of faults there, and if there were a source of water deep below to actually make oil, then the Saudi fields should be refilling from deep below. Perhaps that is why they seem to be pumping and pumping and pumping and no sign of stopping. Hmmmm... Gulf of Mexico - the dino-killing meteor, right? Some scientist apparently discovered hydrocarbon soot in the layer of stuff found where dinos went extinct. Hydrocarbon soot? We weren't burning it then. Possible theory? Gulf of Mexico is hit by a meteor, it cracks open the upper mantle/lower crust, releases a ton of hydrocarbons, and the meteor impact produces so much heat that a large pool of hydrocarbons spew out, ignite, and burn, creating all that soot. Those cracks are still there, and a lot of oil is found in the Gulf of Mexico. The Russian/Ukrainian geological theories indicate that deep drilling should find oil, and indeed, Russia has become a world power again, thanks to oil exports. They were oil-poor using traditional methods. Of course, deep-drilling is painfully expensive. Casings can't be just normal old steel - you have to use tougher stuff. There might be something to this.

Plant matter did not all concentrate in the middle east. It has been spread throughout the globe. Why so much oil there? When you start asking questions about the stories the media thrusts on you, then you really start the learning process. These theories may be wrong, or may be right, but from a physical law point of view, they are simpler and more obvious than any other theory of the origin of petroleum oil, Russian experiments where deep-earth conditions were duplicated and produced oil, thermodynamics, and Occam's razor (simple) suggest to me that we may have been taught how things work incorrectly. Is 'oil comes from dead dinos and plants' the next Piltdown Man?

The other side of this is that oil 'refilling' is relatively slow compared to the rate we use it at. I would not be surprised to find somewhere between 1MMBD and 20MMBD of economically available almost unlimited oil. That means we need to reduce our world consumption of this stuff by at least a factor of four and probably more to take advantage of this, if, indeed, this theory makes sense. Even if the whole abiotic oil theory is a bunch of crap, reducing our consumption level to between those numbers would extend our oil lifetime to centuries instead of decades.

From an environmental view, however, having an essentially unlimited supply of oil would be an environmental catastrophe. The postiive side of this, however, is that, although 'peak oil' is probably going to be real, we have a cushion on which to land - if abiotic, there's a nice cushion, if it's biotic and limited, we have a bit of a harder cushion, but we don't have a bed of razor blades waiting down there.

Alternative Energy Sources, and Solar Electrical Storage

Solar, tidal, geothermal, wind, hydroelectric... and we can store power, too. We do it with hydroelectric plants - we pump water uphill at night, and let it run down during the day. We can use compressed air storage in underground caverns at reasonable pressures. We can even use massive flywheel storage. Or, heaven forbid, we actually accept that there will be less power available after the sun goes down, so local storage is used... each household is responsible for storing enough energy to get them through the night. Not hard! We can use solar via PV cells, or heat engines with massive mirror-based collectors. We can locally cook on a sunny day using just a parabolic mirror - no power required from the power grid. But once our society is capable of running on electricity instead of burning fuel, technology does not need to make everything obsolete. A new energy storage medium may become available. It is still compatible with the infrastructure and every user of it! A new energy source may become available because we've learned how to harness the energy in neutrinos.... it still magically can be fed into the existing infrastructure!

Free Energy.... Yes, I'm Serious!

The most critical thing is to look at efficiency. Heating.... we should be using heat pumps, and ground-based heat storage. Cooling - we should be using ground-based heat storage. It is more efficient than trying to heat the air. Residential lighting should be LED or CFL. I calculated out my residential lighting requirements. I could light my house sufficiently with about 20 watts of power, with the exception of Christmas lights. Anyways, with 20 watts of required power, I could use a 100 watt solar panel to do it. Of course, it takes a lot of energy to make a solar panel, but that will change with technology - it already has. We can insulate our houses better, and change how we use that house a bit. Building houses down into the ground is logical from a temperature control point of view. These are not a big changes.

Efficiency comes from everywhere. Power transmission is now more efficient in DC form, with DC to AC converter stations scattered throughout the transmission system. Cogeneration, and more evenly distributed generating stations would be good, too.

You thought I did not know about the second law of thermodynamics... The only 'free' energy is that which you don't use.

How Not To Make an Electric Vehicle

A 'modern' gasoline vehicle provides a good example of what not to do. Aerodynamics are critical. The GM EV1 has (had?) a drag coefficient of around  0.18, most cars are about 0.3. Low rolling resistance tyres are common now. A stiffer suspension than a couch on wheels will waste less power. Get used to it. The 'stumbling block' is supposedly batteries, right? We have lithiums which are common now. For a while, we could have used NiMH batteries except for a little patent issue. Which brings up another point.... use it or lose it. In matters affecting the energy security of a country, preventing use of a potential technology is a bad thing. If you don't make it, you must license someone else to make it if required. NiMH wet cells are more tolerant of abuse, tolerate temperature extremes better, really, the ideal EV battery. NiCd's are useable, but the cadmium is a bit of an issue. Anyways, a range of 100 to 200 km is realistic, and a range of 60 km is downright affordable. The EV1, which was around a decade ago, was able to (barely) make 200 miles on its NiMH battery pack! I could live with that! I want one! Oh yea, they were crushed.

Why Do Developing Countries Have Electric Vehicles and We Don't?

They are making EV's for use in China and India and most of Europe. Why? Why do you think? Yea, North America is a different space, but we still live in cities. Hop on a train if you want to go to a different city. But why is China ahead of us on electric transportation? Things are cheap there, and energy is expensive. They have indigenous coal, but need to import oil. Kind of like the USA. Why is Tata Motors in India making EV's? And GM, who did at one point, ended up crushing theirs? I don't see the logic here. With smart bidirectional chargers, electric vehicles could even be used for electrical load leveling - if the electrical grid in one area needs a bit of a boost, a bidirectional charger could take a bit of power from the battery, and supply the grid. The power company and battery charger would communicate to ensure you got a full charge by the time you were ready to go to work.

Have Fun?

Birth Control. Use it. Want to reduce energy use, use a condom. A condom only takes a few watt-hours to manufacture (well, Trojan wouldn't tell me but I can guess from the price), but the result of not using one will use many megawatt-hours of energy over their lifetime. Sorry, but it's fundamentally true.

Doomers? They Are Not Necessarily Right.

It doesn't have to be all doom-and-gloom. At least some of the doom-and-gloomers must not have actually looked at solutions that are possible, and within a fairly short time frame. We may need to drill a few more oil wells to give us a bit more time to adjust. But adjust, we can. Humans are the most adaptable creatures on this planet. We're clever, though probably not that smart. If we start now, many of us will be adapting a little bit, but if we don't, only a few of us are going to be left to do the adapting. By the way, horses are not the answer. If you thought ethanol used too much corn, horses take more.

Probability Of Change?

Now, what is the likelihood that political and commercial interests follow a reasonable course for energy self-sufficiency, and eventually a shift to different alternatives? Well, that depends, but actually probably not good. Political interests seem to be focused on stirring up trouble in those areas of the world that have cheap-to-extract oil. I do not think this is the best approach, but it has been the approach of the last several governments. If, however, we do not look at making some of these changes, we are likely to see a depression and a massive depopulation that make 1929 and the plague look like dress rehearsals. If we all realize the changes that need to be made early enough, maybe, just maybe, we could essentially freeze our way of life and our population now and be comfortable for centuries, essentially living a lifestyle somewhere between the 1950's and now. I am not going to give odds here, though.

Now, if the economy ('marketplace') is allowed to adjust normally, this will be a non-event - as prices go up, consumption drops, and consumption stays below the maximum extraction rate. We know that the extraction rate is going to slow down at some point, and that slowdown is going to be gradual (over decades or even a century). This is not a bad situation.

There is, however, a possibility of something that Mother Nature is going to throw our way, and it will not be global warming, or peak oil, and it may not even be influenza or AIDS - you never know. We might be thrust into an ice age, we may be prey for a new species of bird that eats humans, or perhaps three quarters of us develop a peanut allergy and a wind blows peanut shells all over the planet. Who knows what the future holds? Nobody. To quote a famous Canadian, Steve Smith... "Remember, I'm pulling for you. We're all in this together."


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