Alt Fuel Options

Of late I've obviously been writing quite a bit about unconventional fossil fuels and far less about biofuels. In fact, one of my friends in the biofuels business alluded to my having "gone over to the Dark Side".

The notion behind that remark is that biofuels are sustainable and do not contribute to global warming whereas the unconventionals represent a continuation of business as usual with what dire environmental consequences one scarcely dares to imagine. Biofuels are good because they have no adverse impacts on the environment. Fossil fuels are bad because they do.

Of course such assertions beg the question of whether most biofuels are sustainable in any real sense. Most fuel crops today are raised, harvested, and processed with plenty of fossil fuel inputs, and eliminating all of those inputs and substituting only renewably sourced fertilizers, electricity, process heat, and motive power would almost certainly elevate production costs significantly. And that we are moving toward truly sustainable biofuels is open to question to say the least.

But I'm not really intent on arguing the point. Given the relatively meager production of either biofues or unconventional fossil fuels today in comparison with conventional petroleum products, both together will scarcely be able to mitigate any steady decline in conventional fossil fuel production in the near future. If one is really concerned about energy security, then one should not encourage a war between the producers of either.

There is the issue of climate change, however. Unconventional fossil fuels are not and cannot be carbon neutral while in theory biofuels can be. So encouraging the wider use of unconventional fossil fuels would not appear to be very responsible.

There is another way at looking at the situation, however, one that I think merits consideration.

Confronting the Crunch

Most energy analysts who've contemplated the peaking of conventional crude oil production see a rapid escalation in prices and the possibility of severe shortages when that eventuality come to pass, and it inevitably will. Robert Hirsch is such an analyst, and he's written extensively on the subject for the U.S. Government. His papers are in the public domain and should be read by anyone with concerns about energy policy.

Hirsch discounts biofuels altogether, seeing salvation only from unconventional fossil fuels, enhanced recovery methods for conventional oil, and improving the energy efficiency of personal vehicles. I happen to think he's wrong in dismissing biofuels, though I think he's right about the seriousness of the risks.

By my reckoning biofuels can probably contribute a double digit percentage to the nation's overall liquid fuel supply, though for how long is uncertain. But coal, oil shale, and methane hydrates definitely represent what is collectively a far larger source of liquid fuel, at least potentially, than do biofuels manufactured with any proven production method.

Of course there are those who see America's copious consumption of liquid fuels as something positively sinful, and the popular phrase "oil addiction" suggests that the citizenry should simply bit the bullet and start doing without, particularly in the case of petroleum. And indeed some in the environmental movement believe that fossil fuels should be very rapidly phased out regardless of the economic pain that would follow.

The problem is that oil withdrawal symptoms are not like kicking oxycontin. In the case of the latter, or of other addictive depressants, for that matter, one endures a hellish few days and then feels decidedly better as the body is cleansed of its habitual toxins. With fossil fuels nothing remotely like that is going to happen. They are so interwoven into the modern economy that even a slight diminution in supply, were it to occur suddenly would be wrenching if not catastrophic. We're not going to feel better without them once we get "clean", rather, we're going to feel very much worse.

One may entertain bucolic fantasies of prosperous green, self sustaining communities surrounded by organic farms, but the possibility of realizing such fantasies with today's swollen populations appears to be slight. We might do a little better than our nineteenth century ancestors who consumed a fraction of the energy per capita that we do today and lived very poorly as a consequence, but we likely not enjoy anything like our current levels of mass prosperity.

But beyond that it is difficult to speak with certainty, and the problem in prognosticating is the lack of any clear model.

True, western Europe endured dire petroleum shortages during World War II while, at the same time, the U.S. stringently rationed its own abundant oil output, which probably wasn't necessary, by the way. Yet these brief episodes tell us relatively little of what to expect in a future post peak world. In the Europe of the nineteen forties the dominant fossil fuel was coal, not petroleum. Relatively few people owned cars, and the trains still ran on coal or on electricity generated by coal fired electrical utilities. In the petroleum dominated United States, the rationing of gasoline certainly imposed a hardship on the civilian population, but the engagement of the U.S. in the War lasted only three and half years, and the economy and manufacturing capacity grew enormously notwithstanding the rationing. America emerged from the War poised for undreamt of prosperity and resumed heavy consumption of oil almost immediately.

But we can't just keep feeding the beast and ignoring global climate change, can we? Won't rising sea levels and major weather disturbances ultimately exert extremely negative effects on the U.S. and on world economies as well?

Probably they will. So too will resource wars which seem increasingly likely.

So what to do?

In the long term, the industrialized world has to achieve some real breakthroughs in the generation of electrical and thermal power if it is to survive in anything like its present form. Massive and systematic exploitation of wind, solar, geothermal, and ocean energy with the help of new technology could conceivably sustain industrial civilization, but I am skeptical as to whether the requisite build-outs can or will proceed apace. The infrastructure for such sources is necessarily extremely extensive because the sources are so diffuse, and the question arises as to whether the financial markets or governments will support long term investments with delayed payoffs in the face of rather profound economic disturbances occasioned by declining fossil fuel production—which must inevitably occur sooner or later.

The other options involve unproven variants of nuclear energy. These include fusion "which is the energy of the future and always will be", thorium reactors, and breeder reactors.

There is no certainty whatsoever that the power of nuclear fusion will ever be successfully harnessed for power generation. Fifty years of research and hundreds of billions in investment have led to incremental progress but no breakthroughs, though dozens of design and technology variants have been explored by eminent physicists throughout the industrialized world. The best practical physicists in the world have consistently failed. People talk about launching a Manhattan Project for new forms of energy. Fusion has had twenty Manhattan Projects and has gone nowhere.

Is it worth another concerted effort? Probably, if only because the consequences of success as opposed to its probability would be overwhelming.

Breeder reactors, as I have indicated in earlier pieces, have a long record of failure as well. Experimental prototypes have been constructed that worked for a time, but almost all have been shut down for safety reasons, and little new experimentation is underway. And of course there's the terrific unsolved problem of nuclear proliferation. Breeders create fissionable material in superabundance. Any nation that has one has a bomb factory.

Thorium reactors are still entirely experimental. The technology is too undeveloped to permit any valid assessment of its feasibility as a major power source. It might be the answer, but that can't be said with any certainty. In its favor, the technology produces short half life radioactive wastes, does not support runaway reactions or meltdowns, and cannot be used to make explosive devices, at least that appears to be the case. And then there's the fact that resources of radioactive thorium are ample and untapped, though disproportionately located on the subcontinent of India, which, not surprisingly, leads the world in thorium reactor research.

Beyond these embryonic but very real technologies for producing nuclear power lie devices like Casmir effect engines and schemes for harnessing the so-called "dark energy" which certain eminent physicists, most notably, Nobel laureate, the late Richard Feynman, have identified. Dark energy, which is analogous to dark matter, is said to pervade the universe, but how might it possibly be tapped? Whatever the reality of dark matter, there is no clear roadmap for its exploitation.

Perhaps no energy dense replacement for fossil fuel and existing fission reactors lies in the offing. But if one does, it is most likely to be developed by nations with abundant wealth and abundant and secure energy resources. Research in fusion particularly consumes enormous amounts of electrical energy. If we must race to develop such advanced technologies, do we really want to limit the number of energy resource upon which we might draw. Do we want to close down all the coal fired generators and eliminate all that electrical capacity and try to power experimental fusion or thorium reactors with wind farms. Do we want to go further and eliminate fossil liquid fuels and divert much of our reduced output of electricity to plug-in hybrids and pure electric cars? Some people would argue that this is the correct course. Accept limits, don't undertake some Faustian quest to harness stupendous sources of energy.

But I like to think that the impulse that drove homo sapiens to leave the Continent of Africa and wander the globe and ultimately to subjugate it is not extinct, and that as long as the species survives its members will accept no limits. And that they will gamble with their last remaining fossil resources to establish the infrastructure for something new and better and vastly more sophisticated.

But you never know.

Alt fuel options

Dan,

You write:

With fossil fuels nothing remotely like that is going to happen. They are so interwoven into the modern economy that even a slight diminution in supply, were it to occur suddenly would be wrenching if not catastrophic. We're not going to feel better without them once we get "clean", rather, we're going to feel very much worse.

Fossil fuels are woven into a material standard of living that is absurdly wasteful. Consider the amount of energy spent maintaining lawns (natural gas used to produce fertilizer, gasoline to run lawn mowers and weed wackers, energy to treat and pump water, etc.). Consider air conditioned 2500 square foot homes, 2000lb plus automobiles driven to pick up a sack of groceries or a video. Consider the vast array of appliances, power tools, and electronic toys of ever increasing variety and sophistication. Consider jet skis, ATVs, jet air plane travel, grocery stores with fruit from New Zealand, Chile, Central America etc. and wine and beer from around the world. This list can be extended ad infinitum. No physical barrier exists to a vastly reduced consumption of energy and resources on the part of the overdeveloped nations of the world. Of course no one wants to give up the advances of modern medicine or to spend the winter wrapped in animal skins, but to claim to that to give up the race to increase the size of our pile of toys, the glamor of our material status symbols (cars, houses, lawns etc), or the stupidity of our recreational excesses is to sink into degradation and misery reveals a spiritual poverty of an extreme sort. Have you read Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a palace?

A fine and costly residence, particularly that of a great official. The residence of a high dignitary of the Christian church is called a palace; that of the founder of his religion was known as a field, or wayside. There is progress.

You write:

One may entertain bucolic fantasies of prosperous green, self sustaining communities surrounded by organic farms, but the possibility of realizing such fantasies with today's swollen populations appears to be slight.

Any vision of a long term sustainable system of food production must include topsoil preservation and nutrient recycling. Grinding up bedrock to make our own soil and separating potassium and phosphorus from crustal rocks at their background concentrations (0.15% and 0.04% respectively) is never going to make economic sense no matter how plentiful our energy supplies become. Dismissing the idea of sustainable food production as a ‘bucolic fantasy’ shows a profound ignorance of basic ecological facts.

You write:

Massive and systematic exploitation of wind, solar, geothermal, and ocean energy with the help of new technology could conceivably sustain industrial civilization, but I am skeptical as to whether the requisite build-outs can or will proceed apace. The infrastructure for such sources is necessarily extremely extensive because the sources are so diffuse, and the question arises as to whether the financial markets or governments will support long term investments with delayed payoffs in the face of rather profound economic disturbances occasioned by declining fossil fuel production—which must inevitably occur sooner or later.

And

If we must race to develop such advanced technologies, do we really want to limit the number of energy resource upon which we might draw?

The point is that we are not trying to draw on these resources to develop anything at all with respect to a sustainable future. We are merely trying to keep the stock market ‘healthy’ (i.e. growing) for as long as possible. The stock market is not going to devote massive resources to long term solutions to resource depletion. The only way to make the necessary investments is to voluntarily reduce our consumption of economic output and to devote the resources saved to creating sustainable systems of long term production. We do not need extremely smart, productive people working 60 plus hours a week figuring out how to pack more features into our cell phones. This misdirection of resources cannot be fixed unless we interfere with the market in a serious way.

You write:

But I like to think that the impulse that drove homo sapiens to leave the Continent of Africa and wander the globe and ultimately to subjugate it is not extinct, and that as long as the species survives its members will accept no limits.

The no limits mentality is the epitome of human arrogance and stupidity. The admission of the finite nature of our world and of the fact that we are co-dependent members with a complex ecological community is not an admission of defeat but a demonstration of intelligence. I too wish to believe that the human race has a long and intellectually rich future in front of it, but the attitudes expressed in your essay substantially decrease the likelihood that such a future will be realized.