Sunday, May 28, 2006

Motivation, Part Two

I'll be back to positive, life-affirming stuff soon, I promise. Or at least some random, rambling gibberish. But I have to finish this topic.

If you've spent any time pondering what I wrote last time, you might be thinking, "Big deal, even if we are at the top of the curve, that just means we've used up half of the oil in the world. There should be a huge amount of oil left." That would be correct.

The problem is, whenever we do reach that peak, that means there will never be another year with as much oil produced as that one (well, accounting for bumps in the actual curve). Oil production will gradually decline, so that 50 years after that peak, we'd be at the same level as 50 years before.

Gradual doesn't sound so bad, right? But wait. Add in the fact that every year we use more oil, and we import a higher percentage. Then add in the fact that China is putting 1,000 new cars to their roads every single day. And by the way, India and Russia are starting to adopt the "American Dream" and all the cars that come with it. Other countries are not far behind. There are a few billion people who aspire to have what we have. Demand for oil is climbing fast. Let me throw a few graphs at you:

US Annual Net Oil Imports
[image source]

Oil Consumption: Asia Pacific and China
[image source]

Oil Consumption: China Alone
[image source]

When demand is increasing and supply drops, prices go through the roof. And when I say "through the roof," I don't mean what's happened already. If the price of oil really does go through the roof, think of all the things that are impacted. Commuting. Trucking. Airlines. Trains. Ships. Transportation of virtually all goods, including food. (The average food item travels 1500 miles to get to your plate, if you live in the US. It's more like 5000 miles in Canada.) Food production, including farm machinery, pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer. Many pharmaceuticals. Manufacturing. Almost anything made of plastic or packaged in plastic. Asphalt. Vinyl. Heating oil. Propane. Any number of synthetic fabrics and materials. The list goes on and on.

Our economy is built on cheap oil. Our cities are built for cars. Our factories are built for large machinery. Our farms are built for large machinery, plus pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers. A huge percentage of what we buy comes from other continents, by ship, by plane, by rail, by truck, and eventually by our own cars.

I read somewhere that the energy in one gallon of oil is the equivalent of 25 humans working all day long. It's as though we've had 25 slaves working for us all day, for every gallon of gas we use. Three bucks a gallon doesn't sound so bad now does it? No wonder the prices at Walmart are so low.

So here's where it gets scary. In order to pump oil, in order to refine it and ultimately use it, you have to find it. There's a long delay between finding an oil field and acutally using the oil.

Think about the amazing technologies that are available for finding oil: satellite imagery and GPS, computer analysis, advanced equipment that can peer deep into the earth. Think about the amount of money oil companies invest in newer and better ways of finding oil fields. Now ask yourself what year do you think the largest amount of oil was discovered. Make a guess.

The answer is 1965. Over 40 years ago. Here's a graph that shows oil discoveries, decade by decade:

So what about alternatives?

There are plenty to choose from: ethanol, biodiesel, natural gas, coal, wind, solar, nuclear, hydroelectric, hydrogen fuel cells... and many others. More obscure things like tar sands, oil shale, and coal liquefication are left as an exercise for the reader.

Pick any one of the alternatives. Compared to petroleum, they all have flaws. Oil is amazing stuff. It's portable, it's stable, it's versatile, and it's always been easy to get.

Let's briefly look at a few energy options. Ethanol is expensive to produce, even with access to cheap oil for growing the crops needed to produce it. There's been a fair amount of press regarding biodiesel made from waste vegetable oil. Great idea, but there's nowhere near enough waste oil to fill the gap. And making new vegetable oil for biodiesel is also very expensive, even with access to cheap oil. Natural gas is in the same boat with oil - it's getting expensive because it's getting harder to come by.

Most of the rest are hard to run your car on. Coal is pretty dirty stuff. I think we can all rattle off some of the environmental concerns there. It's also a fossil fuel, which would just shift the problem to a different finite resource. Solar is expensive. Where I live, it would take something like $150,000 to fully replace a typical home's electric usage with solar panels. Again, this is even with access to cheap oil for manufacturing and distributing the panels. Wind is better than many other options, but you need, well, wind. More than most places have. Nuclear is pretty controversial, and relies on yet another finite resource - uranium. Do you want a nuclear plant down the road? Most people don't. Hydroelectric means dams, and dams can make a pretty big mess of an ecosystem. Plus, at least in North America, most of the good candidate sites for dams already have them. Hydrogen fuel cells sound great, but they require hydrogen to operate. From an energy standpint, it's expensive to get the hydrogen in the first place.

The main difference is that oil is very easy to get. Compared to other energy sources, the cost to obtain it is trivial. It might take the equivalent of one gallon of oil to extract, refine, and distribute 30 gallons of oil. As a comparison, it takes one gallon of ethanol to get 1.2 gallons of ethanol from corn. That's a huge improvement though. It used to take one gallon of ethanol to make 0.16 gallons.

Now that doesn't mean that the Energy Fairy won't come along and save us. I hope she does. Biodiesel made from algae that's used to purify sewage. Advances in ethanol from sugar instead of corn. (Brazil has invested heavily in this approach, but it's taken 20+ years.) Cheap solar panels. People are doing research into all kinds of interesting things. But remember nuclear fusion: Billions have been spent over the course of decades, but it's still decades away, just like it always has been. The key questions for alternative energy sources are how much energy does it take to get energy back out, and how scalable is it? Our appetite for energy is huge. Unimagninably huge. A tripling of the price of gas in five years, and we're still driving big, thirsty, overgrown, two-ton station wagons to buy plastic trinkets and eat tasteless, out-of-season produce.

The Energy Fairy has her work cut out for her.

I think this is a topic that you'll start to see appearing more often and in more places. There are "slow crash" theories and "fast crash" theories, people who try to debunk most of what I've said here, and even people who think that oil fields replenish themselves over time. Google for "peak oil" and you'll find all of the above and then some.

A lot of smart people have put their minds to this problem, and have come away scared. A lot of smart people have also said, "Bah, what a load of crap," and gone on with their lives. I'd like to be in the latter group, but I haven't been able to research my way out of the former.

If you really want to see a lot of links, graphs, and cross-references, check out Life After the Oil Crash. It's one of the more dire presentations on this topic, and it's very long. But it's got loads of credible references, and it's been cited more than once in the US Congress. For a more data-driven, novice-oriented site, check out Wolf at the Door.

Is this the end of the world as we know it? I have no idea.The good news is that there's a lot of fluff in our current lifestyles. If this all turns out to be another Y2K, I'll be thrilled.

However, it's hard to deny that oil is a finite resource, and that some day, some generation is going to have to pay the piper. I'd rather it not be ours. That's why I've got a little extra motivation to practice conservation and self-sufficiency.

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.


At 5/29/2006 10:06 PM, Blogger Mia said...

I can only hope that more and more people come to these realizations and make changes in their lives. I think a lot of the problem is that a) people aren't aware of the problem, and b) people don't realize that small changes can make a big difference. Until the individuals in power acknowledge the problem and implement change, we can thank everyone like you who is making a difference--even if it's just watching their own back--and cheering on that poor energy fairy.

At 5/30/2006 10:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The secodnary impact of the high price of oil is starting to effect even the telecom industry. I am getting told by my vendors that the price of cable is only fixed for a short, and growning shorter every week, period of time. When my vendor asked the cable rep why, the reply was the rising cost of oil is effecting the price of plastic used in the coating of every single piece of copper/fiber getting manufactured.

In the mean time, I am learning how to garden and considering using the bike to get to work. The sudden change in activity might kill me but otherwise I don't see any problems.


At 6/06/2006 8:37 PM, Blogger Laura said...

Excellent summary.

At 6/21/2006 1:01 PM, Blogger Dan Trabue said...

Great article.


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