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Will the Rate-of-Conversion Problem Derail Alternative Energy?
23 May, 2008 02:02 pm
Many alternative energy advocates claim that it is possible to replace our fossil fuel economy with one that runs on a combination of nuclear power and renewable energy from the wind, the sun and the farm. Credible scientific estimates suggest that they are right. However, those advocates often fail to consider one critical issue that could derail their plans, the rate-of-conversion problem. How long will it take to make such a transition? And, more importantly, how long do we have?
When the book became a surprise bestseller, it vaulted him from relative obscurity leading to media and personal appearances around the globe. Published in 2004, the book's message was that we might hit the peak in world oil production as early as this decade and that that peak could be followed by a relentless and economically debilitating decline. This view--not unique to Goodstein--seems far more plausible now as oil prices make new triple-digit highs on a regular basis. Since the book appeared, Goodstein and others who have written about peak oil have been joined by a chorus of voices that reaches all the way to the top of the world's largest oil companies and even into the U. S. Congress which now has a peak oil caucus.
Most of what Goodstein wrote in "Out of Gas" was already well understood by the small group of oil geologists, academics and others who had been following the peak oil issue. But his book appears to have made one very important contribution. He has put a label on a critical, complex problem associated with energy transitions. It is a problem that--even if you understood it--would be hard to characterize. He calls it the "rate-of-conversion" problem.
The first thing to understand is that the fossil fuel alternatives which we normally think about--nuclear power, wind, solar, and biomass--are all heavily dependent on fossil fuels for their production. For example, if biomass--say, corn for making ethanol--is grown in the conventional way, it requires the application of copious amounts of pesticides and herbicides made from oil as well as nitrogen fertilizer derived from natural gas. Running the farm machinery, transporting the crop, processing it at the ethanol plant and then transporting it to the refiners who blend it with gasoline and from there on to the service stations, all of these require considerable fossil fuel. (Particularly fossil-fuel intensive are the ethanol plants themselves which are now turning to coal for power.)
But, what about nuclear power? Surely, nuclear power isn't very fossil fuel intensive. In fact, it requires large amounts of fossil fuel to mine and refine the necessary uranium fuel, to build the reactor and its containment and other associated buildings, and to service the plant while it is in operation.
Theoretically, we could make hydrogen by stripping it from water molecules using the electricity from the plant. The process is referred to as electrolysis. The resulting hydrogen could then be used to fuel the vehicles and mining machinery needed to service the plant. But, first we'd have to convert our transportation and mining infrastructure from one that runs on gasoline and diesel to one that runs on hydrogen. But before we would be able to do that on a very large scale, we'd have to complete many, many nuclear plants using our existing stocks of fossil fuels.
We could also decide to run the vehicles and mining machinery on electricity. But, again, we'd first have to electrify our transportation and mining infrastructure, something that would be enormously costly and time-consuming. (Such a transformation would also favor wind and solar power which are good at producing electricity.)
That brings us to a crucial issue at the heart of the rate-of-conversion problem. When should we start making our conversion to an alternative energy economy? The answer is fairly straightforward. We should start while we still have ample and even growing supplies of fossil fuels. This is especially true of oil which is so critical to transportation and to the mining of the minerals needed for nuclear reactors and fuel and for the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels.
The era of plentiful fossil fuels, however, may be drawing to a close sooner than many believe. Oil, coal and natural gas have all vaulted to many times their low prices of this decade. Estimates for a peak in oil production range from this year to 2037. But the 2037 estimate from the U. S. Energy Information Administration is premised on the discovery of 22 billion barrels of oil every year from now until then. Discoveries have actually been running about 9 billion barrels per year. (We consume over 30 billion barrels per year worldwide.) If this lower rate of discovery simply holds up for the next 30 years--and discovery rates have actually been declining since the mid-1960s--that would put the peak within the next decade based on official, publicly available numbers.
Natural gas has already peaked in North America and is likely to peak worldwide by 2030 according to oil geologist Jean Laherrère. Even coal, which most people believe remains abundant, may peak as early as 2025.
Despite the pressing need for a rapid energy transition, it is doubtful that such a transition will be initiated by market forces before fossil fuels become scarce and therefore very expensive. The reason for this is that markets consistently wrongly assess the mineral economy, projecting what resource economist Douglas Reynolds calls "the illusion of decreasing scarcity." That means that prices stay relatively low until shortly before a resource peaks. Oil was only $10 a barrel as recently as 1999. Less than a decade later it is more than 13 times higher, and half of that increase has come in just that last year.
Because of the very long lead times required to transform our liquid-fuel based infrastructure, for example, into one that runs on electricity, undertaking such a conversion while oil or other fossil fuel supplies are declining could be very challenging indeed. The alternatives may not expand quickly enough to make up for the energy being lost. In that case, the whole transition project would be imperiled by the declining total energy available to society. That means that money and therefore energy would have to be taken from somewhere else in an already squeezed economy to keep the transition going. Contrary to expectations that so-called green industries will create new jobs, this scenario would result in the creation of new green jobs probably at the expense of jobs elsewhere in the economy (that is, barring improbable and extraordinary sudden leaps in the energy efficiency of the economy).
In such circumstances most people would naturally be focused on just making it through the day with little concern or appetite for spending a considerable amount of their incomes to buy electric cars or retrofit their homes for energy efficiency or passive solar heat. Nor would there likely be much appetite for raising taxes for a government-led transition program and/or set of subsidies related to making a transition away from fossil fuels.
Given the current skyrocketing prices of all fossil fuels, it appears that we are very late in the game indeed. It is not clear that a transition program started now would be completed before oil and possibly natural gas began to decline. But, it is clear that the public--at least in the United States--already has little appetite for a government-led solution when the major U. S. presidential candidates are proposing to lower gasoline taxes this summer to ease the burden on family budgets.
Ok, you may say, perhaps the move directly to a nonfossil fuel economy may no longer be possible. Perhaps we need to transition first to coal which is still abundant (notwithstanding pessimistic assumptions about supplies) and from there to a nonfossil fuel economy. Setting aside the implications for climate change, we would still be facing similar conversion-related problems. Coal is an excellent fuel for electric power generation. But it cannot power existing cars, buses, trains, ships and planes directly. Some of our transportation could be electrified and that, of course, would involve a long-term infrastructure transition. One the other hand, with current technology we can turn coal into liquid fuel that can then be used by existing vehicles and delivered to them through our existing energy infrastructure.
Such a coal-to-liquids strategy, however, might take 20 years to implement fully even if we pursue it on a crash basis, according to a U. S. Department of Energy report (now widely referred to as the Hirsch Report after its primary author). That's not exactly a quick transition. The strategy would also involve ramping up coal production by perhaps a factor of 10, according to Goodstein. That's not something that could happen overnight either.
Beyond this, major energy transitions in the past from wood to coal and coal to oil have involved moving from a lower quality fuel to a higher quality fuel. Back then we were moving in the direction of greater energy availability. Returning to coal would be a move to a lower quality fuel that also poses many difficulties of scale.
As for nuclear power, Goodstein estimates that it would take 10,000 nuclear power plants to replace all the energy we are currently getting from fossil fuels for all purposes. There are now about 400 nuclear generating plants worldwide. A nuclear build-out on this scale would be the biggest infrastructure project ever attempted. And, it would take decades to complete assuming the public had the will, the money (in the form of subsidies) and the available fossils fuels to complete such a project.
The ideal, of course, would be to create an alternative energy economy that could reproduce itself, i.e, an economy in which nuclear, wind and solar power could used to build new and replacement wind generators, solar panels and nuclear power plants. But the rate-of-conversion problem is going to make getting there increasingly difficult with every moment of delay. This is especially true if oil production peaks before this decade is out, as Goodstein fears, since a decline in oil availability would seriously confound any attempt to move quickly to an alternative energy economy.