Twin Peaks - Coal and Uranium Reserves Insufficient?

For a long time there has been a debate raging between renewable energy advocates and so called “energy realists” who wish to place ever greater reliance on coal and nuclear power. Like many debates over public energy policy it is essentially a dialogue of the deaf with hardened positions being stated vociferously by both sides and opposing views dismissed if not actively derided. In short, it has been a debate where nothing ever got resolved.

Recently, however, some fresh and I think rather potent ammunition has become available to the renewable camp, ammunition which has the immediate potential for transforming renewable advocates into energy realists of another sort and rendering the coal and nuclear folks simply irrelevant.. Nevertheless, I would caution Greens to be mindful of the old saw, “be careful what they wish for” because the larger implications of these studies are most disturbing and not such as to give much comfort to anyone.

The ammunition is provided in two lengthy documents prepared recently by the Energy Watch Group, a panel of mostly European experts who, it must be admitted, carry a brief for renewable energy. The rigor of their work appears to me to be unassailable, however, and no one with concerns regarding energy policy can afford to ignore it.

The first study, which was issued at the end of 2006, is entitled “Uranium Resources and Nuclear Policy”. The second, released a couple of weeks ago, is called “Coal Resources and Future Production”.

Both studies reach startlingly similar conclusions, namely that the peaks of production for coal as well as uranium are likely to occur by 2030 at currently projected rates of consumption. Thus, if the conclusions are true, both will coincide with the peaking of oil production if one accepts the more optimistic predictions for the latter.

I’ll analyze the reasoning of the Group a bit later, but first we must make some attempt to grapple with the consequences of the simultaneous peaking of all of the major nonrenewable resources. True, it may not happen, but if it does it will be an epochal event.

Rogue Waves

If one favors the cliché of the moment, simultaneous peaking constitutes “a perfect storm”; however, a more apt maritime analogy might be the phenomenon of the rogue wave where two or more waves converge and reinforce one another, producing a wave crest of extraordinary amplitude.

So let us delve deeper into this issue.

The notion of peak oil is beginning to gain acceptance not only among oil geologists but at least in some segment of the public at large. Probably most educated Americans have at least heard of the concept whether or not they accept its validity. But the conventional wisdom, not only among the electorate at large but among those who report on energy topics and claim some expertise in this area, is that coal and nuclear resources are sufficient for decades if not centuries of business as usual. And from my experience most renewable energy advocates believe this as well and object to increasing reliance on coal and uranium not because they may be about to disappear thus jeopardizing our energy security, but because of the environmental havoc that will supposedly be attendant upon wider adoption of either resource.

My own assumption was that nuclear, due to very high capital costs and determined political opposition, would play a diminishing role in the midterm, but might re-emerge at some point in the indefinite future, while coal resources would be much more widely exploited in the near future both to produce liquid fuels and to provide the feedstock for synthesis gas. My further assumption was that eventually traditional pulverized coal burning facilities would be phased out due to emission profiles that were likely be considered increasingly unacceptable in the face of growing concerns about the build up of greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere as well as mercury and sulfur pollution affecting local communities.

If these two studies are correct, there is no long term fall back position, and both coal and nuclear will quickly decline just as will conventional oil and conventional natural gas. Thus one can no longer assume that any of the traditional nonrenewable sources can be relied upon to meet the urgent energy needs of mature industrial societies let alone those of the developing world.

But before you break out that bottle of designer vodka made from organically grown grains and begin celebrating the age of sustainability, let us entertain a couple questions—questions that we must surely attempt to answer sooner or later.

First question: what will happen to economic and industrial development worldwide if energy becomes expensive and constrained rather than ever more abundant and ever cheaper as has been the case in the past?

Second question: can renewable energy sources and generators provide not only an equivalent abundance of energy to that provided by fossil and nuclear sources during the late twentieth century but also the potential for future rapid growth in energy generation?

A Nation without Nonrenewable Fuels

The first question is especially difficult to answer because no evolved industrial society has ever faced a protracted decline in the availability of energy resources. Precipitate declines have occurred in time of war due to embargoes, but they were always of brief duration, and subsequently the industrial power would resume its heavy and increasing consumption of energy resources, primarily fossil fuels.

One may assume, however, that any sudden diminution of either liquid fuel or electrical generation would have serious effects upon the economy. Energy resources would be subject to bidding wars, and, worst case, actual shooting wars, and a disproportionate share of national wealth would be allocated to energy producers who would command increasingly scarce and valuable resources. Consumer discretionary purchases would decline as more and more money was devoted to transportation, lighting, and operating existing appliances, and manufacturers of consumer goods would be hard pressed to grow or maintain their existing production levels. Employment levels would almost inevitably dip as the society sought to adjust itself to straitened circumstances.

One could assume, as has James Kunstler whose musings on an energy constrained world fill his latest book, “The Long Emergency”, that the world of the future will become rather like the world of the late nineteenth century before petroleum was extensively tapped. There are reasons to believe otherwise, however.

That world approached its end circa 1890 when the automobile age commenced, so its end is within living memory—if only barely. In other words, we know it well. And it is not a world to which many thinking persons would wish to return for it provided material abundance only to the very few and hardship and want to the many, all as consequence of being relatively energy poor. In the U.S. the population was exactly 60 million according to the 1890 census, but the majority of citizens were ill nourished as evidenced by their relative short average stature. The largely horse powered American agricultural industry of the time, which, incidentally, made do without the fossil fuel fertilizers that ensure bumper crops today, simply couldn’t produce enough food to provide adequate nourishment for the masses of people, including the more than 30 million Americans who lived and worked on farms, though it must be said that an orientation toward export markets tended to produce artificial scarcities as well.

Today the population is five times as large, and agricultural land is largely owned either by diversified agri-businesses or large independent farmers, and the nation is not only adequately fed, it is overfed. And most of us would not have it otherwise. So what happens to our agricultural system when energy gets really, really scarce and expensive?
The short answer is that human and animal muscles, which are pretty puny compared to John Deere diesels, would have to take up the slack. So what would that mean in terms of crop yields? While some labor intensive forms of cultivation can rival the output of American mechanized farms consuming large amounts of fossil fuel, the difficulty of transforming American monolithic agriculture into millions of high yield small holdings is obvious. And there is no guarantee that such a strategy would prove successful. Japan on the eve of Admiral Perry’s intrusion, and with less than half the people it has today, had the highest agricultural yields of any pre-industrial society but was beset by periodic famines and would have been unable to feed itself had its population continued to grow absent industrialization. And even with industrialization Japanese citizens made do on meager diets by and large until the era of postwar prosperity. The current generation of Japanese youth average six inches taller than their grandfathers who fought in World War II.

What I’m saying is that it is very difficult to devolve gracefully. Indeed, most societies faced with acute shortages simply collapse and endure catastrophic declines in population as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse mount their steeds and work their will.

Renewables to the Rescue?

The second question having to do with the readiness of renewables to fill the gap must be answered in the negative at present. See the primer on the Renewable Grid posted on this Website for a fairly thorough analysis of the topic. Replacing the fossil and nuclear grid entirely with renewable based electrical generating facilities is essentially infeasible with current technology. One could and probably should vastly increase the number of renewable based generators attached to the grid but even a phased replacement would result in an entity that would not match the capabilities of the fossil and nuclear grid and would be incomparably more expensive to build. Certain experimental renewable energy technologies may eventually enable us to put in place a truly flexible, cost effective renewable grid, or, alternately, a distributed electrical power system of equal capacity, but those technologies are not proven and may still remain unproven when the peaking of nonrenewable resources is at hand.

So what the hell are we supposed to do? Start reading the “Turner Diaries” and retreat into some kind of survivalist nightmare?

Both reports provide us with an answer, but it is an answer that may not sit well with many thoughtful persons.

American Exceptionalism

If one reads both reports carefully and supplements the information therein with certain other salient facts culled from various and sundry governmental documents both foreign and domestic, one arrives at a conclusion that allows for the possibility of the U.S. continuing in its profligate energy consuming ways but hardly anyone else--and no, I’m not talking about invading Saudi Arabia.

World coal reserves may be being used up at a rate that will result in global scarcity, but coal, unlike petroleum and natural gas, is mostly consumed in the country of origin. The U.S. has 30% of the world’s total and is its second largest consumer behind China which has half as much coal and uses twice as much on an annual basis. Even if the U.S. starts producing a lot of syngas and coal based synfuel it should be adequately supplied with coal for decades, if it chooses not to export any considerable quantity of the black stuff.

And since the U.S. also has more oil shale than all of the rest of the nations of the world combined, it also possesses a huge resource for liquid fuel production—only don’t expect buck fifty gas again because it isn’t going to happen.

And if the U.S. wants more nuclear, it’s also better situated than other large industrial powers. The U.S. is number three in uranium resources, but it’s right next door to Canada which is number two in reserves and currently the world’s largest producer and surely could be persuaded to sell its entire yield to the U.S. if the U.S. were inclined to buy it all. And if that’s not enough, there’s always Australia, the owner of the biggest proven uranium reserves, and, it must be admitted, within the American orbit. Its own needs are modest while America’s are great and so our nukes need not want for fuel if the nuclear industry here needs reviving.

None of this would require armies in the Middle East or confrontations with Arab terrorists or recurrent nightmares about the Straits of Hormuz. Instead the energy is mostly here at home and what isn’t is all in the family.

Of course a determination on the part of U.S. leadership to hog much of the remaining nonrenewable resources would leave most of the rest of the industrial world in a hell of jam to put it mildly. Of the industrial great powers, only Russia commands the fossil fuel resources to continue to splurge. Western Europe, China, and India do not have the resources to maintain industrial growth, and the situation is particularly acute in India and China, both of which are committed to near double digit industrial expansion and explosive growth in energy consumption.

I suspect that the current preoccupation of Western European companies with renewable energy has less to do with concern about the environment and more with finding something, anything to run their industries and public utilities when nonrenewable resources begin to decline. I also suspect that they’re going to have a hard row to hoe.

So what manner of world would we have with only the U.S., Canada, Australia, Russia, and possibly the larger OPEC nations enjoying energy abundance and the rest of the world going abegging? To say it would spell the end of globalization would be an understatement. Indeed the full economic ramifications are almost beyond comprehension. But that such a world could emerge is entirely possible. Something to think about.