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
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:
- It is the peak production that matters, not how much of the resource is left.
- 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.
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.
- Radioactive material released by a large coal burning electric plant would be enough to build two atomic bombs.
- Mercury pollution is one of the main consequences of burning coal and is blamed for 60,000 annual cases of brain damage in newborn children in the U.S.
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”!
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:
- To start with, it fails ENERGY RULE #3 - Energy Density as a huge volume of 157 cubic metres of natural gas has the same energy equivalent as only one barrel of oil.
- Natural gas also fails ENERGY RULE #5 - Byproducts. It does not give us any oil byproducts so greatly needed to build and maintain our Modern Industrial World.
- And finally, it fails ENERGY RULE #4 - Scalability. Natural gas wells are declining at much steeper rates than oil wells. A study by The Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO) revealed that unless more wells were drilled, production would fall by 38% within a year. In that scenario, 1,600 new wells would be required per year to maintain production at its current level.
- Fracking methods require millions of litres of water, pumped from natural water bodies and transported in large trucks running on diesel. The fracking fluid resulting from each individual process is laden with thousands of kilograms of chemicals at levels that are frequently unacceptably higher than the level that U.S. federal safety standards stipulate.
- Endocrine Disruption Exchange tests have concluded that 93% of these chemicals are reported to affect health if ingested, inhaled or if they enter in contact with the skin. Among these chemicals are methanol, benzene, naphthalene, ethylbenzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, glycol ethers, hydrochloric acid, toluene, xylene, sodium hydroxide and others. They are considered caustic, carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic and 43% are endocrine disruptors which mimic hormones or block hormones in the human body causing infertility, ADHD, autism, diabetes and thyroid disorders. Even childhood and adult cancers have been found to be linked to endocrine disruptors through fetal exposure. 4
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:
- Bio fuel fails ENERGY RULE #2 - Oil Dependency. It requires oil and other fossil fuels to grow the crops and further to extract and refine bio fuel. Huge quantities of nitrogen-based fertilizer are used for corn crops used to obtain ethanol. Additionally, ethanol is highly corrosive and can therefore not be transported in pipelines, necessitating delivery by tanker trucks that run on diesel fuel. 6
- Bio fuel fails ENERGY RULE #4 - Scalability. Since ethanol is produced through grain and oilseed farming, harvests are being used to fuel our cars instead of feeding ourselves. As David Strahan, author of The Last Oil Shock puts it, “Even if we devoted all our cropland to biofuel production, we would only produce a quarter of our current fuel consumption. We could all starve to death in a traffic jam”. Primarily because of this trend, the price of food around the world has doubled since 2007 (post Peak Oil).
- Last but not least, bio fuels also fail the very first ENERGY RULE #1 - Net Energy (ERoEI), which is the most important one. Indeed, the final knockdown to bio fuels is that it takes 4.9 litres of petroleum to obtain a meagre 3.8 litres of ethanol!!
- Nitrogen-based fertilizers, used to aggressively boost bio fuel crops, cause soil and water damage as well as public health concerns. Fertilizer runoff has been killing life in the Gulf of Mexico for decades, while contaminated ground water used for public water supply in the U.S. has been known to increase the thyroid cancer risk in women.
- Dedicating forest land to growing bio fuel crops causes deforestation while soy biodiesel and corn ethanol actually double their carbon emissions compared to petrol. This of course contributes to global warming. And so it is devastating the planet instead of preserving it, as most ethanol proponents claim.
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.
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:
- From the above it is obvious that producing oil from tar sands violates ENERGY RULE #1 - Net Energy (ERoEI). The Energy Returned on Energy Invested is at best marginal.
- It also violates ENERGY RULE #2 - Oil Dependency, as every step of extraction and production is immensely fossil fuel dependent.
- Extracting tar sands requires the felling of large areas of ancient boreal forests. Greenpeace estimates that annual carbon dioxide emissions caused by tar sands go beyond 80 million tons of CO2, which is more than that currently produced by all of Canada’s vehicles. This is hardly a recipe for dealing with global warming. 7
- Huge quantities of water with even larger quantities of precious natural gas are burnt to generate poor quality crude oil. The amount of natural gas used for example is enough to heat more than 3 million Canadian homes. And it takes between two to four barrels of water to produce one barrel of tar sand oil. 8
- Tar sands’ thirst for water has produced large amounts of toxic wastewater. The second-largest dam in the world was built to hold toxic waste back from flowing from the tar sands to the Athabasca River. 9
- As a result, Alberta’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are higher than any other country in the world.
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.
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.
- Oil shale fails the very first test. It violates ENERGY RULE #1 - Net Energy (ERoEI). Producing material that resembles liquid oil requires burning natural gas and heating kerogen to above 300 degrees centigrade, which itself requires a high energy consumption process. The National Resources Defense Council citing Rand Corporation estimates that generating 100,000 barrels of oil from oil shale would require energy the equivalent of a new power plant capable of serving a city of 500,000 people!
- Oil shale fails ENERGY RULE #2 - Oil Dependency. It requires extensive oil infrastructure to extract and produce.
Now let us consider the environmental effects of oil shale:
- The method requires flattening vast areas of land, thereby seriously damaging wildlife and vegetation in the area.
- Each barrel of oil obtained from oil shale requires 2.1 to 5.2 barrels of water taken from already water-challenged regions. The same amount then becomes contaminated wastewater due to the extraction process and must be disposed of responsibly.
- And besides this damage, Worldwatch Institute reports that oil shale extraction releases lead, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide for which proper disposal is an issue and can be ecologically catastrophic.
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 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.
- Solar energy is a low density energy, with low conversion efficiency (about 15%). This makes it fail ENERGY RULE #3 - Energy Density. Solar needs extensive areas for the installation of solar panels. Therefore, around towns, cities and industrial areas, where it is most needed, the price of land makes this an exorbitant option.
- No wonder that despite extremely generous subsidies by governments, solar and wind combined are only 1.3% of the global energy production. So clearly, it fails ENERGY RULE #4 - Scalability.
- Solar energy fails ENERGY RULE #2 - Oil Dependency as eventually solar panels and storage batteries themselves are made using an oil energy-based infrastructure. Therefore solar will always be oil dependent. As the price of oil goes up, so does that of solar panels and batteries.
- Solar fails ENERGY RULE #5 - Oil Byproducts. Solar panels only generate electricity and do not provide any of the oil-based byproducts.
- Solar energy is unable to provide a steady load of electricity that would be needed for heavy current usage such as fridges, motors, electrical industrial machinery or air-conditioning units, let alone running any part of our transportation such as ships, planes, trucks and trains, whether it be on direct solar energy or batteries.
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 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.
- The Net Energy or ERoEI can be reasonably high (around 15 to 20 times) depending on the site. But producing only electricity, which is no significant replacement for oil and its by-products. So wind fails ENERGY RULE #5 - Oil Byproducts.
- Wind fails ENERGY RULE #4 - Scalability as there are very limited suitable inland sites for installing windmills. Therefore at best, wind is only a modest help in the total world energy supply.
- And finally, the complete wind farm enterprise is built, run and maintained using an oil infrastructure and byproducts. So wind energy fails ENERGY RULE #2 - Oil Dependency.
- Similarly to solar energy, large amounts of wind-generated electricity cannot be stored and remain unreliable. Wind can therefore not provide a base-load necessary to electricity consumption in our Modern Industrial World.
And now the environmental costs.
- Apart from this, wind-generated power causes several environmental concerns. The most important windmill sites tend to be located in areas where air funnels through the hills, which are also commonly flyways for birds. After all, birds intuitively follow the flight of least effort using wind currents to their advantage and this leads them into the windmills. Not by chance but by design.
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 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.
- First of all, large dams are built on a mammoth infrastructure that runs on oil. Right from the construction, machinery, installation and power-generation to its distribution and maintenance. So dams fail ENERGY RULE #2 - Oil Dependency.
- Dams fail ENERGY RULE #4 - Scalability. Most of the suitable dam sites are already constructed so (thankfully) dams cannot be scaled up significantly – a blessing in disguise.
- The end product is electricity, not a replacement for oil, and of course we get none of oil’s vital byproducts. It is therefore a mere illusion that hydro-electricity is any replacement for oil. It fails ENERGY RULE #5 - Oil Byproducts.
And now the enivironmental costs:
- Environmental destruction is silent and incalculable. Rivers are the arteries of the Earth and large dams kill a river downstream. So by concept a large dam is equivalent to blocking an artery in the body of the Earth. Visualize gangrene in a limb where the blood supply is cut off. Would you do it to your body? Certainly not! Then why do we allow large dams to kill the body of the Earth?
- All dams finally silt and so have a finite life. But the river is dead forever. Sedimentation is inevitable and in fact, reports are revealing that reservoirs are silting up at rates much faster than calculated. Silt deposits have reduced water storage capacity by 30 to 40 %. In a few hundred years most large dams will be concrete walls holding mud on one side. 10
- Useful wetlands, which are usually valuable for farming, have become flooded and are not available for food production.
- Upstream, human settlements and wildlife are displaced and destroyed by reservoir flooding. The resulting urban migration creates slums and flagrant social disparity in large cities.
- Approximately 50 million people (40 million in the case of large dams) were displaced by big projects in 50 years of independence, according to N. C. Saxena, then Secretary of the Planning Commission, quoted in Dams, Displacement, Policy and Law in India, 1999.
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:
- Even all downstream communities are devastated without even being considered as project-affected, so they have no chance of receiving compensation. They don’t even feature in the numbers above.
- Water is privatized and diverted to rich farmers, industries and metros that have the most wasteful practices for water in known history. Rich farmers grow water-thirsty crops like sugarcane – not a food crop but instead a crop for a completely ancillary and redundant sugar industry. Care to browse through some figures on diabetes in the Modern Industrial World?
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 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.
- The Net Energy or ERoEI has never been estimated honestly. This is because of the complexity of the process. Total energy needed for decommissioning is now estimated to be approximately 50 percent more than the energy needed in the original construction. 11
- The oil dependency story is the same with nuclear energy as with all other alternatives – it is totally dependent on an oil infrastructure. So it fails ENERGY RULE #2 - Oil Dependency.
- Once again nuclear does not give us any by-products of oil on which our Modern Industrial World is built, run and maintained. So it fails ENERGY RULE #5 - Oil Byproducts.
And now the environmental costs:
- The used up radioactive rods must cool off in ponds that need a reliable electricity supply to keep them stirred and topped up with water in order to stop radioactive fuel from drying out and catching fire. This would be increasingly difficult and costly to sustain in an energy depleting world.
- Later, all this radioactive waste material needs to be packed by robots into high security canisters lined with steel, lead, and pure electrolytic copper which will then be buried in immense and seemingly stable geological depositories.
- The energy needed to manufacture these canisters is estimated to be approximately equal to the energy needed to build the reactor in the first place. 12 Has anyone bothered to tally that to energy invested?
- Apart from energy considerations, nuclear energy is extremely capital intensive. Nuclear only became viable because of heavy subsidies from the government. Uranium is required, which is a rare and finite source with its own production peak. Since 2006, uranium prices have already more than doubled.
- Nuclear is often touted as a carbon-free method of generating electricity. That is the same sleight of hand that makes a number of alternative energies look benign, given that only the final stage is being factored. But what about all that goes on before and after?
- Elaborate and expensive radio-active waste disposal techniques are only a way of deferring present responsibilities onto future generations who will eventually discover and be exposed to its radiation.
- The entire process of mining, processing, enriching, treating and disposing of uranium has significant greenhouse impacts. One example is how uranium enrichment requires large volumes of uranium hexafluoride and other halogenated compounds. These are greenhouse gases that have the 10,000 times the potential of carbon dioxide in regard to global warming.
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.
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.
- The current source of hydrogen is natural gas (CH4), which is a hydrocarbon. It requires more energy to break a hydrogen bond than what can be obtained from the hydrogen produced and therefore hydrogen fails ENERGY RULE #1 - Net Energy (ERoEI).
- So putting the infrastructure in place to efficiently and cheaply produce and store hydrogen on the same widespread basis as oil and its derivatives today, is an enormous, costly, and long term task.
- Apart from this, hydrogen is highly explosive and therefore difficult to handle, having to be compressed and cooled at extremely cold temperatures in order to be transported and stored. It is therefore obviously not a convenient replacement for gasoline!
CONCLUSION: Hydrogen is a pseudo-alternative solution and can never replace or significantly contribute in an oil-based economy.
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.
- The basic problem of hydrogen fuel cells is that we expend more energy in generating the hydrogen than the energy generated in a fuel cell with the same hydrogen as fuel. So fuel cells intrinsically fail ENERGY RULE #1 - Net Energy (ERoEI).
- If we use fossil fuels to generate hydrogen, using the methane-steam or electrolysis of water methods, we will see no benefit over directly using fossil fuel. So fuel cells also fail ENERGY RULE #2 - Oil Dependency.
- And after all that, fuel cells only give electricity, and none of the byproducts of petroleum that shape our world. Yes, fuel cells most definitely fail ENERGY RULE #5 - Oil Byproducts.
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.
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.
- Few places in the world can find steam or water at very high temperatures close to the surface of the Earth to exploit economically. So how much can you possibly scale up this solution? It basically fails ENERGY RULE #4 - Scalability from the start.
- The end product is electricity – not any substitute for the byproducts of oil, thus failing ENERGY RULE #5 - Byproducts.
- It is obvious that the complete Geothermal enterprise runs on oil, so it fails ENERGY RULE#2 - Oil Dependency.
- Geothermal power generating site reservoirs around the world are now in decline, as geothermal energy-based electric power wears out reservoirs faster than their ability to recharge.
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 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, 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 is not a significant power source. There is no data regarding Net Energy gained figures.
- Only about nine viable sites have been identified in the world. Two are now in use (Russia and France) and generate some electricity. So this solution fails ENERGY RULE #4 - Scalability.
- Tidal power generates only electricity and needs a huge oil infrastructure to maintain. So it also fails ENERGY RULE #5 - Oil Byproducts.
- Tidal power is intermittent so it would therefore only allow power generation for around 10 hours each day, when the tide is actually moving in or out.
- Salt water corrodes metal parts and makes it difficult to maintain tidal stream generators. Barrages across estuaries are extremely costly and difficult to maintain.
- Damage to the environment is immeasurable and affects a very large area - many kilometers upstream and downstream.
- By blocking the normal flow of tides and by using turbines with rotating blades or leaking mechanical fluids, such as lubricants, tidal power production can harm or kill marine life.
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 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.