Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Energy Glut

Somewhere under the shifting sands of Ghawar, Saudi Arabia, oil is dancing with water, a shotgun wedding. This modern miracle of water injection to maintain oil production is no less astonishing than turning water into wine. Ghawhar is a super giant, an oily Betelgeuse Al Mankib, and its like will never be seen again. The soup we call light sweet crude took many hundreds of thousands of years under favorable conditions to mature from its source material. Biomass sludge to high energy fuel. A good reservoir is sealed tight, as a frosty bottle of beer, crowned with bubbly natural gasses, waiting for a chimp to come along, crack it, and drop a straw.

We've never had so much usable energy as we have now, in the shadow of the last millennium. We are flush; the sharks are drowning in blood and growing fat. Cheap energy is a necessity woven into our post modern world. There is no alternative. A gallon of oil is cheap. A solar cell or a battery is horrendously expensive in comparison, and at best an energy carrier. It might seem strange to describe a solar cell as an energy carrier. In terms of energy spent (lost) to create a solar cell, plus the energy it can trap and use in its lifetime (gained), there is little if any net energy creation. A water wheel is far more efficient.

This glut isn't just a party, it is a ringing alarm. We don't have any energy alternatives that are worth a damn. Given the poor way in which we have used our global energy allotment, that's a twisted blessing. Humanity as a whole has all the brains of an algae bloom. Overpopulation is rising to the extent that we will outstrip our food supply even with plentiful oil. Loss of topsoil suitable for farming is increasing in step with global warming. Eco-systems and food chains are being shot in the head. Never mind widespread poisoning of oceans with heavy metals. South Pacific - now with flavor crystals!

This is driven by the energy that is cheap, and poisonous. When it comes out of the ground, it is sprayed all over the surface of the planet, as a fine mist. Something for everyone. When I drive my car, I am ruining the planet for myself and for starving orphans in Ethiopia. There are plans to burn desiccated trees in Arizona for energy, a product of the western drought, a product of global warming. There is a reason the term "Cedars of Lebanon" is an anachronism. There is a reason Easter Island is treeless, and the Middle East looks like a nuclear war hit six thousand years ago.

So, how long can it go on? Hold up one hand and count some fingers. There you go. That is a good estimate, in years, for how long we have before peak oil hits. Peak energy is the next milestone, and it depends on how much natural gas is out there. Oil is hard to measure, but solid work has been done in recent years by retired oil geologists. Gas is harder to figure. We might have ten years of natural gas growth left, or none. As Matt Simmons has pointed out, it's a vapor. It depletes really fast. And you can't pump it into your clown car. Certainly North America is in decline. Finding a way to prevent floating bombs of LNG from finding port in America is a good example of a useful holding action. Weaken a weak system, and prevent further damage.

There are many sources of information on the glut. Their scholarship is impeccable, unassailable except in a particular context. That context is point of view ignorance, somewhat less than blissful. There is nothing to be done at this point to prevent short term disaster. We must instead plan for the post peak energy world, even if it means doing things which counter-intuitively seem to be anti-environmental. SUV's no longer concern me. Drive and burn all the oil you want. The Kyoto accord will be strictly enforced by Hubbert's peak.

What can we do about a post glut world? Stop hugging trees and hug coal instead. A thousand liters of fluoride and mercury being pumped into our water every year is a catastrophe for a hundred generations. A dead tree? That's life; we can grow more, and on human timescales, as long as the world has not been poisoned, baked and blasted too severely.
Not to pick on trees. That Redwoods are still being hacked down is absurd. I think declaring war on South American cattle is a fine idea. Veganism is a feel good approach to saving a rain forest; a more proactive approach might be to cut down the mono-cattle as if they were buffalo and ignore the lamentations of their ranchers. Level the rain forest for cheeseburgers? It is happening on our watch. Pick fights that affect the world. Nevada may not be the best place for nuclear waste, but we are out of time - if we don't move all the nuclear material that is lying around now into one spot, we never will. Fold the bad hands, and keep moving.

(c) Jon S., 2004


At 4:26 AM, June 30, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uh, excuse me, but going Vegan, while it certainly does make people feel good and healthy and strong, is far more than a feel good approach! By eliminating the demand for flesh, we will have a major impact on the problem of peak oil as well - since about 20% of all the energy used in the US goes into production and distribution of food. And this figure does not include energy used to get food from the store to the place of consumption - or to cook it. Transformation of grain into meat wastes 90% of the original caloric content. Raising animals for (so called) human consumption uses about half of all the fresh water used in the US, much of it through energy intensive pumping, and a significant portion is pumped from depleting, non-renewable fossil aquifers. Ranching causes massive, permanent erosion of topsoil. Without topsoil - we don't eat. Raising animals causes pollution problems, that are often not handled with proper wastewater treatment. Nearly every significant stream, river and freshwater lake in the US is affected by agricultural pollution. Consumption of flesh causes a social callousness to pain - a consciousness that leads to domestic violence and war. Over 5000 people die each year in the US from food borne pathogens - nearly a solid 100% on animal flesh. Vegans need about 5% of the land area required by a flesh eater to raise their food. If the world's population went Vegan, we could restore most of the forests and cheaply and efficiently boost sequestering the excess CO2 that's causing global warming. Large scale use of antibiotics on animal populations eventually renders them useless to cure human diseases. Mad cow is back again. Bird Flu has become a problem because of the huge numbers of birds raised under concentrated conditions. It just may wipe out 30% of the human species. Some people may think this would be a good thing - if they and all their loved ones are guaranteed to be spared. There are many more reasons to go vegan, but this post is getting long enough. Do it for Your health and economy, do it for humanity, do it for the Earth. You'll be glad You did. And You might even feel good about it.

At 1:16 AM, July 06, 2005, Blogger JMS said...

You are right! But the one person out of 100 who goes vegetarian and feels great is not solving the problem.

I agree with your analysis otherwise.

I try and balance nuance with satiric hyperbole wherever possible. This is easily misconstrued, and there is nothing to be done about it.

At 10:55 PM, August 19, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We don't have any energy alternatives that are worth a damn. "


Energy is abundant.

We have a million years in nuclear energy ahead of us once the oil runs out.

But we wont need it, because in the next 100 years solar will get cheap enough (using the same technology they make thin-film computer screens with) that we'll be able to get our energy that way. And wind power gets cheaper and cheaper as fossil fuels get more expensive. The tipping point will be soon enough.

Now, that'll be a tough call ... Coal in the ground that we wont need anymore and cheap nuclear power competing with other renewables getting cheaper.

And batteries will improve enough that electric/hybrid cars will be THE way to go, when you are not in a maglev PRT.

I'm guessing the environmentalists will start protesting solar power around 2024, once they realize that solar will keep us on the high-energy and high-consumption economy that creates our wonderful fabulous world we live in.

"Consumption of flesh causes a social callousness to pain - a consciousness that leads to domestic violence and war."

ROFL - tell me another one.
Consumption of non-flesh causes a social shallowness - a consciousness that leads to saying vapid, inane, claims totally unsupported by evidence and unmoored to reality...

"Ranching causes massive, permanent erosion of topsoil. Without topsoil - we don't eat. "

The idiocy of this is self-evident. Ranching has gone on for over a century in texas, as in many other places on earth, on lands that are unsuitable for farming (too little rainfull) in the first place, and which are as healthy ecologically now as 100 years ago. Another example is New Zealand... it's fully 100% sustainable agriculture. To say otherwise is to spout ignorance.

At 1:24 PM, August 25, 2005, Blogger JMS said...


Oh, an oldtimey acronym. Should I take you seriously?

"Energy is abundant."


Usable, high density liquid fuel which our economy is built around is not abundant in the slightest.

"We have a million years in nuclear energy ahead of us once the oil runs out."

Bull. You can't extract uranium out of the ocean without net energy loss, it is too diffuse. (That is your source for a million years of nuclear energy, right?)

Anyways, mon ami, I've covered in detail every point you've raised over the last nine months on my blog.

Go read it. Enjoy.

At 9:36 PM, April 16, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You only need a seed to produce as much nuclear material as you could possibly want... it's called a breeder reactor.

At 6:01 PM, July 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yet in the long term, solar energy (and its lower-grade derivatives, like wind) is the only source that can be sustained. Thousands of terawatts rain down on the globe, day in and day out, pre-paid for the next five billion years—and unlike oil, the rate we use it does not affect the rate at which it is supplied.

Fission is useful for specialized applications that require high energy density and long periods between refueling, but it's harder to sustain on a large scale for much the same reasons as oil: the difficulty of obtaining fuel and a finite supply. Once we start settling the rest of the solar system, the cost of lifting those isotopes out of Earth's gravity well will become substantial, unless we can find another source closer to hand.

Fusion might be more promising, but we still don't know if it's feasible as a power source in anything less than stellar masses. And hey, maybe we'll get lucky and catch a magnetic monopole or a mini-black hole or some other useful bit of physics exotica. But we can't count on it. Once oil becomes scarce the sun will have to power our civilization, as it has in one way or another from the very beginning,

At 1:48 PM, March 30, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So, how long can it go on? Hold up one hand and count some fingers. There you go. That is a good estimate, in years, for how long we have before Peak Oil hits. Peak energy is the next milestone" ...

That was written about four years ago, in this article titled Energy Glut ...

Guy, a lot of things have happened since then ! And more and more people feel you were right.

But one more thing can be added : Peak Humanity will follow Peak Energy ...

Peak Humanity
Peak Energy News
The smart creature


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