I really don’t know how much to worry. My friend Jack Santa Barbara is alarmed and he’s a level-headed guy. He’s preoccupied with the looming energy crisis. (http://sustainablescale.org/) Others, however, worry more about global warming, the extinction of species habitat, or the still-increasing human population. Actually, these issues are so interdependent that it hardly matters which one you take as primary. But it’s certainly realistic to take the end of oil as the primary concern, since it’s going to happen so soon, and with probably catastrophic results.
Practically everybody who specializes on Peak Oil is pessimistic. There’s is no prospect of an alternative energy source that is as rich as oil — and when oil is gone, it’s gone forever. Oil accounts for over one-third of the world’s total global energy use and some 90% of its transportation uses. Of course, oil is required for food production. No alternatives are ready yet. Moreover, the worrisome question is, what’s the ratio of a fuel’s energy, compared to the energy required to get it? A new well pumping sweet light crude oil is ideal; its ratio is about 100:1. Coal’s return of energy on energy invested is about 60:1 or 80:1, but it causes terrible pollution, and cleaning it reduces its ratio to only 5 or 6:1. Wind energy has the next highest return — about 30:1. Ethanol from corn is only 1:1, but by growing five crops a year, Brazil’s sugarcane yields ethanol with a ratio of 5:1.
In November Santa Barbara attended a conference in Denver on Peak Oil and Gas and has e-mailed me his notes. Right off the bat, he said that the world’s second largest oil field in the world, in Kuwait, already has peaked and that the decline of oil production rates may be running at 8% per year, not the 2% that had been widely projected. That’s a shocking rate of depletion, but natural gas, which peaked 32 years ago, is being depleted even faster. Some people were counting on liquified natural gas (LNG) to make up the shortfall as oil production declines, but Americans are refusing to allow LNG plants to be built nearby — understandably so, since each one has the potential explosive force of a small atomic bomb. Half the natural gas that we’ll need in 2012 just to stay even hasn’t been discovered yet. Over 27,000 new wells will be required, and there aren’t enough drilling rigs or technical experts to do the job.
With the world’s population growing at 250,000 persons per day, if the oil declines at 2%, we’ll have 24 billion barrels left in ten years. If it is depleting at 8% per year, we’ll only have 13 billion barrels left. Biomass is no solution, says Santa Barbara. It would require that all land now used for farming be shifted over to producing energy crops. There are environmental problems to that as well; the pesticides and fertilizers pollute our water.
The speakers at Denver offered no hope of relying on renewable energy to fill the gap. “It could not possibly make a dent in the shortfall of oil and natural gas we’re facing,” reports Santa Barbara. “This is a liquid fuel crisis: wind, solar, nuclear, geothermal, wave, and hydropower are irrelevant.”
I hope he’s wrong, but he’s certainly not ill informed. Many economists are more optimistic, believing that the market will save us. As oil becomes scarce and its price rises, they say, this will increase the incentives for innovators to produce other, more efficient products. Perhaps so, but can this happen quickly enough? The Peak Oil experts are predicting that we’ll start feeling a significant pinch in five years. My own sense is that our standard of living is going to hit the wall; we’ll have to start conserving in ways that are absolutely unfamiliar to anyone in affluent societies. We can get by okay on one-third the energy that we use now, but the changes won’t be welcome.
One night at 4:00 AM, all of this got to me. I got up and checked the Internet for more cheerful sources. One fellow in Ohio had written a 48-page fantasy story that gave a happy ending to the oil crisis. He had us shifting to hybrid-fuel vans that carried ten persons in car pools, organized by cell phones. (That’s not far-fetched. Only today Toronto inaugurated new rules reserving certain lanes for cars with multiple passengers.) His plot involved a decision by the Muslim oil-producing countries to overthrow their dictators, form a political union, and allocate sharply reduced amounts of oil to the OECD countries. With the support of Russia and China, these forward-thinking Arabs wind up saving the world from us rich capitalists.
It was a good yarn, but I wouldn’t bet on its happening.
Much more encouraging is the letter I received today from the Earth Policy Institute, which is run by authentic experts — notably Lester Brown. (See photo.) He has a new book coming out shortly: Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble. His promotional letter opens by invoking Jared Diamond’s specter: Easter Island. We are headed toward a decline and collapse. Yet Brown does not sound as gloomy as the Peak Oil conference speakers who were so skeptical about renewable energy. Brown’s Plan B is a roadmap for restructuring the global economy to “one that is powered by renewable energy sources, that has a diverse transportation system, and that comprehensively reuses and recycles materials. We have the technologies needed to build the new economy.” Brown even foresees new gas-electric hybrid cars with an extra storage battery for short-distance driving, including the daily commute, by electricity. He has put the first chapter of his book and the table of contents on their web site: http://www.earthpolicy.org.
Part of the plan is to eradicate poverty and stabilize population. That will involve providing universal primary school education, basic health care, and reproductive health and family planning services for women everywhere. The total cost of this: $68 billion. The plan will also reforest the earth, protect topsoil, restore rangelands, stabilize water tables, restore fisheries, and protect biological diversity. The earth restoration budget totals $93 billion per year. Together, these two global initiatives come to a total of $161 billion –only one-sixth the size of the global military budget.
Just think how much more favorably the poor people of the world will view us rich folks if we make that kind of contribution! Now that’s a real solution to terrorism!
How realistic is the prospect of renewable energy? I'm not technically sophisticated enough to judge. But I came across an encouraging article today by Stefan Lovgren in the National Geographic News of Jan. 14, 2005. It's about a new application of nanotechnology to absorb the infrared spectrum from light. These solar cells could be sprayed on or woven into our clothing and used to charge items such as cell phones.
"A hydrogen-powered car painted with the film could potentially convert enough energy into electricity to continually recharge the car's battery." According to Ted Sargent, an electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of Toronto, the sun that reaches the Earth's surface delivers 10,000 times more energy than we consume. “If we could cover 0.1 percent of the Earth's surface with [very-efficient] large-area solar cells, we could in principle replace all of our energy habits with a source of power which is clean and renewable.”
According to Peter Peumans, a Stanford University professor, with further advances, the new plastic “could allow up to 30 percent of the sun's radiant energy to be harvested, compared to 6 percent in today's best plastic solar cells.”
So there you have the controversy. Is such hope realistic? We won’t know unless we try it out in practice. And, realistic or not, that’s how I prefer to live my life. Yesterday my friend Ed said something unexpected when I mentioned these dark problems. He said: “What a privilege to be alive now, with an opportunity to address problems of this magnitude! What a privilege to know that we can really make a difference in the future of humankind!” Wonderful. I love it.