4.2 Evaluating Alternative Energy

Created Tuesday 27 March 2018

Types of Alternative Energy Options


The Alternative Energies being discussed these days fall into 3 categories.

Other Fossil Fuels are coal and natural gas. They do not form a direct replacement for oil but do already exist in nature. Please note that they are already bearing the burden of running a large part of the Modern Industrial World.

Liquid Fuel Alternatives like Bio-fuels (Ethanol) or fuel extracted from tar-sands and oil-shale.
Though very poor performers, these are counted as most vital because they can directly replace oil and therefore stand a chance to contribute to running the Modern Industrial World the way it is built.
These fuel alternatives however don’t exist in nature. They have to be produced.

Electricity Alternatives like Solar, Wind, Hydro, Nuclear, Geothermal, Waves, Tides, Fusion and Fuel Cells.

They all only generate electricity and they need an oil and fossil-fuel based infrastructure that needs to be assembled, run and maintained.

1. Other Fossil Fuels: Coal and Natural Gas


Coal


Let us start with a rude reminder – coal and natural gas are both fossil fuels that are already bearing their own burden of running the industrial world and have their own impending peaks. They are therefore not alternatives in a strict sense.
In the case of coal, we have been hearing that there are 150 years of coal supplies at current rates of consumption. Please remind yourself two things that are needed to keep economic growth going as in the case of oil:

  1. It is the peak production that matters, not how much of the resource is left.
  2. We are consuming coal exponentially and a 150 year estimate will actually be gone in the space of about 43 years. Not 150 years! Folks, please don’t forget the power of the exponential.
A large part of those 43 years will be spent doing the bell curve of coal just like oil.
So as coal is already a fossil fuel contributor in our modern industrial world, it is not an alternative in the strict sense but has already been a co-player in providing our energy needs all this while. And so now with oil having reached peak, coal will have to bear a greater burden.
This spells doom in the face of global warming and implies that we don’t really mind if our planet gets fried, just as long as we can keep running the business of growth as usual. It is delusional to believe that coal has all of a sudden become a clean alternative when it is still giving off a huge quantity of CO2 and other pollutants.
Earlier, coal used to be mined with what seemed a gentleman’s code of conduct. You actually dug the good stuff out. But these days we do some­thing that looks like the photo below.

It is called “mountain top removal”!
Now that is real progress! Just blast the whole mountain top off and keep our Modern Industrial World on the growth path.
Maybe someone should organize special holiday packages to witness the progress in “clean coal” technology.

How about the beautiful and pristine Appalachia mountains (photo above) for starters.
Oops… sorry, this is a slightly outdated photo of Appalachia.

Yes, this photo above, is where you will be spending your special-price, all-paid holiday. Appalachia – which has become a desert after intensive mountain top removal. Its rivers have poisoned to get to what we dare call “clean” coal.

A couple of parting points about coal.

CONCLUSION: Resorting to coal to chase the perpetual growth promise is like taking a giant step backwards in time how­ever using a neon-sign that says “Running on Clean Coal”!

Natural Gas


The latest euphoria in the U.S. is a new technology called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that releases natural gas trapped in shale rock that was earlier inaccessible. This is done by creating fractures in the rock with a mixture of water, sand and toxic chemicals pumped under high pressure.

Undoubtedly fracking technology has extended the game but not averted the inevitability of peak oil or its impacts on economic growth. This is evident by the fact that though there is a surge in natural gas production in the U.S., it has not dented oil prices one bit. Crude oil prices are steady over $100 per barrel even in the midst of an enduring economic recession. This is simply because natural gas is not much of a replacement for liquid fuels which are the linchpin energy source for the Modern Industrial World. Surplus cheap natural gas therefore cannot keep the growth engine running.

For the reader interested in a detailed evaluation of the dangers of investing too much hope in natural gas, I highly recommend a book by Richard Heinberg titled Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future.
Meanwhile let us look at how natural gas performs in the context of our Energy Rules:

And now the environmental impacts of fracking:

CONCLUSION: Natural gas by fracking with its low energy density, high well depletion rates and inability to substitute liquid fuels is evidently unable to prevent the decline of economic growth. Yet the aggressive and dangerous measure of fracking being practiced relentlessly is a sure way to kill whole communities by ground water and air contamination with dangerous chemicals.

2. Liquid Fuel Alternatives: Bio Fuel (Ethanol), Tar Sands, Shale Oil.


Alternatives like ethanol, tar-sands and shale oil are the current darlings of the alternative energy struggle because they actually give liquid fuel and can form a direct replacement for petroleum that is crucial to transport, as well as to other aspects of running our world the way it is designed.
These sources are plants and food grains, tar-sands and shale deposits. This is the reason why they are called unconventional sources of liquid fuel as they have to be extracted from deposits or organic matter.
Therefore, they are extremely labor, resource and energy intensive to produce and refine. This translates into higher production costs and up to three times more greenhouse gas emissions per barrel. 5
All these alternatives fail Energy Rule #1 - Net Energy (ERoEI) meaning that the Net Energy or the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI)can at best be marginal – you put a lot of oil energy to produce them and get marginal energy return when they are used. Many studies show that in many cases, we actually get less energy burning them than the sum of the energy invested in producing them. So actually they are net losers of energy. The only reason why we are so desperately pushing for them is because they come closest in replacing petroleum as a liquid fuel and our world is largely designed to run on liquid fuel.
They all fail Energy Rule #2 - Oil Dependency. They all require oil and other fossil fuels to extract and refine. Besides, the environmental implications in each case are monumental. Considering any of these alternatives is a sure sign of desperation to keep the world running as it does presently, at any cost to life on this planet. The whole enterprise borders on insanity.

Bio Fuel (Ethanol)


Ethanol is obtained by growing food grains and oilseed crops that are used to create liquid fuel and is currently being aggressively advertised as one of the most promising liquid fuel solutions. The common man has accepted that ethanol will soon be a true replacement for oil. This is a fantasy that is not based on scientific facts and can therefore be dangerous to believe. Bio fuel fails to follow the following energy rules:

As if failing these energy rules were not enough, bio fuel also generates a certain amount of environmental concerns. Consider this:

CONCLUSION: Ethanol is a net negative-energy solution that comes with a huge environmental cost. This crazy solution is being promoted so aggressively simply because it gives us liquid fuel that the world so desperately needs. Now let us also take a look at its sister liquid fuel contenders - tar sand and shale oil.

Tar Sands


If bio fuel was a suicidal solution, tar sands can be compared to committing cold-blooded carnage.
First of all tar sands are not oil that can be readily used. They are in fact a mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen: an extremely viscous type of oil. Contrary to pumping oil out from the Earth, the oil in tar sands requires energy-intensive refining before it can be used as fuel. This energy we get from copious quantities of natural gas (also a fossil fuel) to generate steam that separates the oil from the sand.
Pushing tar sands as an intelligent and reasonable alternative is an insane, desperate and atrocious stance, as is best illustrated by Dr. Robert Skinner, (Oxford Institute of Energy, speaking in 2003). He says:
I hope that I don’t have the following conversation with my grand­daughter twenty years from now:
“Grandpa, did you really do that”?
“Do ‘what’, Masha”?
“Did you take natural gas from the Arctic, down to Alberta, to boil water, to make steam, to melt tar out of the oil sands, then use more natural gas to make hydrogen, to make the tar molecules into petrol, so that North Americans could drive four ton vehicles five kilometers to sports clubs to spend fifteen minutes riding stationary bikes? Did you really do that, Grandpa”?
“Ahhhh…, yes, Masha, I am afraid we did”.
This prospect summarizes the insanity of tar sands. Tar sands fail the following energy rules:

And now consider the appalling environmental impact of tar sands on the Earth.
It would probably be simpler to just drop a neutron bomb on the area.
Matt Simmons, author of the book Twilight in the Desert, describes this futile enterprise quite suitably. He says: “Gentlemen, we have just turned gold into lead”.
Dr. Frederic Malter, from the Munich Center for the Economics of Ageing, put that a bit more honestly and plainly:
“...society’s excitement about tar sand is like an alcoholic coming into a bar and finding the taps have run dry. But after years of customers spilling beer on the carpet, he kneels down and tries to wring out a few drops of booze from the carpet”.
CONCLUSION: Tar sands is nothing short of a criminal attempt to brush aside over 50 years of environmental awareness to promote a negative Net Energy solution. Once again it reveals the desperation of the situation, thus confirming the peak oil argument: we are at the top of the oil curve, and the era of cheap oil is now gone and done with.

Oil Shale


Let us get one thing clear – oil shale in fact does not contain oil as such, but a solid organic material called kerogen. Therefore oil shale needs to be converted to shale oil through a very energy intensive process.

Now let us consider the environmental effects of oil shale:

CONCLUSION: The perpetual promise of oil shale is best expressed by Brian J. Fleay, from the Institute of Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University (Australia), who states: “Shale oil is like a mirage that retreats as it is approached”. No wonder produc­tion of oil from oil shale has been attempted at various times for nearly 100 years but is yet unviable. Shale oil is, as the saying goes: “The fuel of the future and always will be”.

3. Electricity Alternatives:


Solar, Wind, Hydro, Nuclear, Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, Geothermal, Wave, Tidal, and Fusion. So we have worked our way down to the third option of alternatives – Electricity Alternatives. These are most often mentioned as the first choice of getting off oil dependency but there are traps that avid solar, wind and nuclear proponents overlook. The 2 curses haunting most electricity alternatives are Intermittency and Storage, and so cannot provide a steady base-load that is crucial to serving our modern electricity demands.

Hydro, Nuclear and Geothermal are not affected by this as they can sup­ply a steady base-load. But they have other limitations we will examine later.

Sun-based alternatives, like solar and wind, are intermittent because of day and night, cloudy and clear skies and are dependent on season and latitude. Even in a normal day of sunlight the effective hours of sunlight with appropriate declination angle are limited to about 6 hours – 10 to 4 pm.

Availability of the sun also affects the wind and waves at night. So all ­solar, wind, wave and tidal – are intrinsically intermittent and therefore vulnerable to storage.
Electrical energy can only be stored in batteries and they are expensive, inefficient and heavy. The energy that batteries can store is also very limited. Check how batteries compare with other energy sources in the graph on the next page.

We would require one ton of lead-acid storage batteries to compete with the energy provided by approximately 4 litres of petrol!
To put that in daily perspective it would take 15 tons of batteries to provide the same amount of energy obtained from 60 litres of petrol in a car’s tank.
You can clearly see that any electricity alternative relying on battery storage is facing a failure of ENERGY RULE #3 - Energy Density.

Based on the observations above and on the fact that batteries would add a significant amount of weight to any vehicle running on them, we see that there is no battery system that can efficiently move heavy farm machin­ery to support modern agriculture or trucks, ships and planes that form the back-bone of transportation in the modern industrial world.
Batteries also become virtually useless in extremely low temperatures and need to be replaced every few years at a large cost.

These are significant constraints to begin with and it is best to know they exist before we start diving into the aspects of each electricity alternative.

Solar


Solar energy of course comes from the Sun, which to us seems like an unlimited and ever-bountiful source. The viability of solar however is not how much sun­light reaches the Earth but mainly the rate at which you can harvest and store it, and at what cost.

CONCLUSION: Solar energy is intermittent, low density, expensive, oil dependent, has limits of scalability and generates only electricity. It can certainly be useful at small scale and personal levels but can never keep the Modern Industrial World running the way it does on oil or perpetuate the growth paradigm. Therefore solar is not an alternative in the sense that most solar advocates are imagining.

Wind


Wind is a secondary effect of the sun. The sun heats the air that turns to wind which then turns turbines that generate electricity. So this en­ergy source is similar to solar in that it is not dependable given that sunlight is intermittent.

And now the environmental costs.

CONCLUSION: Wind energy is intermittent, low density, expensive, oil dependent, has limits of scalability and generates only electricity. It is sorely dependent on Government subsidies for viability. It can never keep the Modern Industrial World running the way it is on oil or perpetuate the paradigm of growth. Therefore, it is not an alternative in the sense that most wind advocates are imagining.

Hydro


Hydro electricity, generated by dams, has been originally considered as a green, clean and environmentally friendly source of energy. It has been here for the longest time but the world has discovered the down side of large dams. So here goes.

And now the enivironmental costs:

Here’s how Arundhati Roy, Booker Prize winning author, puts these numbers in sharp perspective in her essay titled The Greater Common Good on large dams:
Fifty million is more than the population of Gujarat. Almost three times the population of Australia. More than three times the number of refugees that Partition created in India. Ten times the number of Palestinian refugees. The Western world today is convulsed over the future of one million people who have fled from Kosovo”.

And as if that was not enough:

So we shut our eyes to the havoc of large dams which proudly compete with the holocaust. Because we all have been sold the great illusion of development. And of course it is not our home and villages that are be­ing flooded. It is only of those 40 million souls, and counting, who were meant to be sacrificed in the great project of nation-building, while being Earth destroying.

CONCLUSION: Large dams are weapons of mass destruction benignly labelled “temples of modern India”. They generate only electricity at a huge economic, environmental and social cost while permanently killing complete rivers. Dam building is the most monumental and structured enterprise of killing our planet. Many first world countries are actively working on dismantling them. But that costs money and energy too!

Nuclear Plants


Nuclear holds a special science fiction aura of sanctity around it despite recent cracks in its im­age. Nuclear plants generate electricity by generating heat through a radioactive reaction. The water, turned to steam, passes through a turbine to generate electricity. The commonly held belief that nuclear is clean and cheap has been shattered by decades of actual experience. Nuclear energy is in deep trouble in all respects today.

And now the environmental costs:

No wonder nuclear power development has been stopped in the United States. Elsewhere, some countries are abandoning nuclear power (e.g. Sweden, Germany, Japan), whereas others who are pursuing it (e.g. Rus­sia) are having second thoughts.

For a thorough demolition of nuclear power in the context of peak oil and climate change, refer to Fleming, D. (2007), The Lean Guide to Nuclear Energy: a Life Cycle in Trouble.

CONCLUSION: The nuclear energy façade is wearing thin with the spate of recent disasters. An honest evaluation of benefits and viabilities therefore will dawn on us tragically only in retrospect – as the energy needed to maintain it declines. To camouflage nuclear as a “clean” or “safe” alternative is a clear sign of desperation in the face of Peak Oil.

Hydrogen


The widespread belief that hydrogen is going to save the day is a good example of how grossly misled people are. Free hydrogen does not exist on this planet. It takes energy from some other source to generate it. Therefore it is a carrier of energy and not a source of energy.

CONCLUSION: Hydrogen is a pseudo-alternative solution and can never replace or significantly contribute in an oil-based economy.

Fuel Cells


Fuel cells are not a source of energy. They are like a generator that needs hydrogen to run, to be able to produce electricity and you have already seen what a grand illusion hydrogen itself is as an alternative.

In a fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen are fed to the anode and cathode, respectively, of each cell. Electrons stripped from hydrogen produce electricity.

CONCLUSION: I leave it to you to read up further on fuel cells and then figure out why there is such a great deal being made about them as an alternative source of energy.

Geothermal


Heat provided by the Earth is the source of Geothermal energy. First, water is pumped down to the Earth’s heat reservoir and is later pumped up to generate electricity.

CONCLUSION: Geothermal will always be a marginal player in the alternative energy solution balance sheet and therefore it cannot halt the inversion of the economic paradigm from growth to shrinkage.

Wave energy


Wave energy installations have been attempted in very few cases. Waves are not a dependable source. The environment in which these systems have to work is very risky and unpredictable. Also, sea water is highly corrosive and long term maintenance promises to be a real challenge.

Apart from this, the end product is only electricity, and producing it in significant quantities from waves seems a very remote, expensive and difficult prospect.
Though there are several experimental projects around the world testing different types of systems the results have been extremely modest.

Conclusion: The possibility of wave-generated energy being a worthy solution is rather bleak. We may wonder how much longer mankind will squander large sums on futile experiments before we finally accept the limits imposed by the laws of energy.

Tidal Power

Tidal power, also called tidal energy, is a form of hydropower that converts the energy of tides into electricity. A site that is capable of producing a valuable quantity of tidal power requires very specific conditions such as a suitably high tide, a particular coastline configuration and a narrow estuary which can be dammed. Such locations are very limited. And besides, the last 100 years have taught us what dams do to a river! So for a start, this is an irresponsible and desperate pursuit.

Tidal power production is not without affecting the environment:

CONCLUSION: Tidal power is a desperate high-tech and cost-intensive measure that is an unviable effort with enormous downsides that will be revealed with time.

Fusion


Fusion is the energy which powers the Sun. The problem is that it is known to happen at the temperature of the Sun, which ranges from about 10,000°C on its surface to an estimated 15 to 18 million degrees in the interior. In short, for fusion to work, we would need to replicate the temperature of the sun. No wonder fusion is an evasive solution that remains hypothetical or almost in the realm of science fiction.

For people resting their hopes on fusion at the crest of Peak Oil, I think it is time to get real! The patient is in the ICU and we are claiming that we are sure of finding a cure any minute because research has been going on for the last 50 years!

CONCLUSION: Even if fusion was to be made possible, it stands the same chances of addressing the issues and limitatins as nuuclear energy already explaing.

Summing up the Fallacy of Alternatives


This was a quick review of the failure of our Alternative Energy hopes. A detailed examination is even more humbling but remains beyond the scope of this book.

The prime objective was to show why running our Modern Industrial World and our current financial paradigm of perpetual exponential growth is not possible with any combination of Alternative Energies. Only fossil fuels had the ability to allow us to operate highly complex systems at gigantic scales to permit exponential growth.
The public, business leaders and politicians (well versed in economics but NOT in energy principles) are all under the false assumption that oil depletion is a straightforward engineering problem of exactly the kind that technology and human ingenuity have so successfully solved before.

Sadly, even the scientific and technical community are misleading the general public by saying that it is just a matter of time, that science and technological innovations will actually beat the upper limits of geology and thermodynamics to solve the energy crisis.

This is impossible and that is what this whole chapter was all about.

So the what is the way forward?

Let us move to the basic and universal idea on which the title of the book is based - The Third Curve.



Backlinks: Energetics & Economics:4. Alternative Energy:4.1 False Solutions