Why Alternative Energy Can’t Save Us from Peak Oil

One of the standard responses from Government and Oil companies when faced with the peak oil scenarios is to say that alternative energy sources will make up the gap and we shouldn’t worry. Wrong!

This is Part 2 in a series on Energy futures and this post looks more closely at Chapter 4 of The Last Oil Shock, where author David Strahan goes through many of the alternative supply solutions and checks the math and underlying assumptions. In each case the alternative is too little and too late to really help much at all.

There are also some organisations concerned about climate change who believe the demise of big oil will somehow help reduce the damage from global warming. Oil accounts for less than 40% of total C02 emissions with the balance coming from coal and gas and so with a greater reliance on coal and gas it is extremely unlikely that the oil reduction will be that helpful.

As Strahan discusses most of these ideas are not well thought out and plain wrong.

For example 95% of oil uses are for transport where coal can’t help much and gas could help some (in transport) but gas supplies are highly linked to oil in most cases. Because we want the alternative sources to be “clean” this suggests that the two most feasible options would be hydrogen and biofuels.

Hydrogen – Not a Real Option
The most attractive idea from using hydrogen as an energy source for transport is that a hydrogen fuel cell is much more efficient than a conventional internal combustion engine. A figure of 18% is the useful energy to the wheels with a standard engine, whereas hydrogen offers the potential of 50% due to its much higher efficiency and the lower number of moving parts which reduces friction loss etc. however it is not that easy.

On the minus side the expense of hydrogen technology means it could be 10 years before cars could be below $100k in price which means that won’t help most of us. Safety and the need of plenty of storage space are also issues. Ultimately (fuller details in the book) Hydrogen needs to be super cooled as a gas at -240 ‘C however the trade off is that uses 30% of the energy value and this means that the energy efficiency is back down at 25% while a Toyota Prius is as high as 32%.

There are other ways of producing hydrogen but the short answer is hybrids* and even the new generation of diesels are better at the present time. We could use electricity to generate Hydrogen but the amount needed is prohibitive.

Strahan continues with the math and concludes that 81 gigawatts would be needed to replace current transport energy needs in the UK. As this is more than the current generating capacity in the U.K that is not an option.

Solar and Wind
Check pages 92 and 93 in the book for the math which includes calculations for wind, solar and nuclear with numbers that I haven’t personally checked but you are welcome to try. The short version is that using current technologies even if we could do it the amount of land area needed and the time it would take to get setup in measured in decades and we don’t have that long.

Strahan concludes

“hydrogen as a transport fuel seems to be utterly incapable of mitigating either global warming or the last oil shock…it might work in Iceland, where they have limitless hydro -electricity… but for the rest of the world its back to the drawing board”

Biofuels including Ethanol
We don’t eat enough fish and chips for this one to really help much. 300m litres of cooking oil is just too small compared to 25b litres of diesel needed in the U.K. The NZ numbers would be similar proportions but I’m all in favour of recycling that used frying oil. Alternative versions of biofuel such as biodiesel or bioethanol both generally require large amounts of land at the expense of food production.

A feature at Worldchanging suggests that bio-diesel from algae might be the best bet

“A single acre of algae ponds can produce 15,000gallons of biodiesel — in comparison, an acre of soybeans produces up to 50 gallons of biodiesel per acre, an acre of jatropha produces up to 200 gallons per acre, coconuts produce just under 300 gallons per acre, and palm oil — currently the best non-algal source — produces up to 650 gallons of biodiesel per acre. That is to say, algae is 25 times better a source for biodiesel than palm oil, and 300 times better than soy.”

Cellulosic ethanol might be the bright hope here as it is based on using waste byproducts and not so land hungry. However the amount of “waste” product is not as great as needed. Elsewhere in the book the Fischer-Tropsch process is discounted as a method of supply as well.

In New Zealand bio-ethanol blended petrol just launched comes as a byproduct of milk production from Fonterra via Gullso while it is not cellulosic ethanol it might succeed to some extent in delaying the full shock of oil prices at the pump.

See here for Consumer information from Energywise for NZ motorists.

Note from Dr David Haywood(Thanks David) – It seems likely that NZ *is* one of the few countries where biofuels for transport could be economical, thanks to our massive resource of dodgy-quality wood. See: here for more.

Brazil and Ethanol
The availability of sugar cane and 30 years of experience means that it has been a great success in Brazil but hard to scale up much further although the theoretical numbers are surprisingly high. After 30 years Brazil has replaced up to 30% of its transport needs from Ethanol which show how difficult a goal this is.

Strahan calculates would take 320m hectares to replace 2003 petrol consumption, which is more than 15 times the total area of land in cultivation for sugar cane in 2004. Given that petrol consumption is still growing and even if goals are more modest like a % of the total in countries like Brazil and where that makes sense it could help soothe the transition at least in part.

Consequently environmental, land use and social issues preclude sustainable ethanol production on a large scale for most countries. Bio-diesel from Jatropha is promising but the conclusion is similar. 359m hectares of land planted in that crop just isn’t feasible.

Ultimately with all of these alternatives we can’t come even close in the short term to replacing a significant level of energy for transport regardless of the methodology. We still need massive conservation to be part of any transition plan.

There is much more detail in the book , but you’ll need to buy it now. Hopefully you get a clearer idea of how rigorous the research has been and that arguments like hydrogen or bio-fuels saving the day are simply not correct.

However exploring alternative energy sources is good for business. This note is out of date now but even so the numbers are large and positive motivators for business.

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Another Book Review
This comes from Mick Winter see here for more

“Strahan is first of all a superb journalist. He is objective in his facts, backs up his statements, and offers both breadth and depth in his account of Peak Oil. But Strahan also has a position; one which enhances, rather than obscures, his objectivity. His wry, even biting, sense of humor and his observation of the energy predicament’s ironies and, alas, frequent hypocrisies, come through in a manner that allows his facts to be enjoyable digested all the way through the book.

I highly recommend reading The Last Oil Shock.”

Mini Summary of the Books Key arguments
From this profile piece here is the shortest summary of the book I have found. Most of this post has just barely covered number 1.

1. Biofuels and hydrogen are utterly inadequate to make good the looming transport fuel deficit
2. How ‘running out’ of oil paradoxically will not help but worsen climate change
3. How traditional economics critically underestimates the importance of energy, and therefore the severity of the last oil shock.
4. Why governments, oil companies, and environmentalists oppose the idea, and why they are wrong
5. How the oil reserves of Middle East OPEC countries are almost certainly far smaller than claimed, meaning the global peak will come sooner rather than later
6. How the actions of oil companies belie their predicament, despite their publicly confident positions
7. How the invasion of Iraq was not ‘all about oil’, but all about peak oil.

*Note on Hybrids (Not in the book)
It seems to me that hybrids are great in theory but the cost differential is so high that in New Zealand at least you are still better to buy a much cheaper car and use the balance to pay for fuel. It may be different elsewhere but the going rate for a used hybrid like the Prius is around $25k. My calculations are very rough – in some places tax incentives make the deal better. See here for some more NZ background. To do the calculations properly you need to look at payments over 3-5 years and factor in fuel savings and price rises over that time. It may be for some people who commute larger distances that the payback from a hybrid would make sense.

A similar car could be obtained for $10k and even if/when fuel costs triple you can still buy a whole lot of petrol for the $15k difference. So although I would love a hybrid – suspect that the higher the price of petrol the higher the price (including resale value) of the hybrid goes.

Perhaps there are other technology advances like the pivotal engine which improves on two stroke technology for example. Now a 3 wheeledVespa equivalent with a pivotal engine – that could be something.

See also Why running out of oil could make climate change worse

This is Part 2 of a 4 part series. See these related posts in the series.

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