The Optimistic Side of Peak Oil

I just finished reading an article in this month’s Wired magazine that provides the techno-optimistic perspective on peak oil.

The article suggests that a number of alternative energy sources will become available as oil hits higher price points.

I just finished reading an article in this month’s Wired magazine that provides the techno-optimistic perspective on peak oil.

The article suggests that a number of alternative energy sources will become available as oil hits higher price points.

If reading Kunstler (which will be featured in the City Club Citizens Read book club next month) is too depressing, this is just the pill you need to take. Of course I’m not sure all their projections are realistic. Here are a few:

– Liquification of Natural Gas into diesel fuel (seems to neglect the fact that Natural Gas is on a peak curve as well).

– Liquification of Coal into gasoline

– Extraction of Oil from Tar Sands (Gordon Price mentioned this one as well – since the tar sands are in Canada – but neither address the issue of the energy you have to put in to get the petroleum out)

My own belief is that reality is somewhere in between, and that the race will be to see whether a combination of conservation and alternatives can kick in before large-scale disruptions in society occur due to cost and lack of oil.


11 responses to “The Optimistic Side of Peak Oil”

  1. Want to know your household CO2 output? British Petroleum has a table: you can google for a link, then click on “carbon footprint calculator.” I know there are a large number of other variables.

    I’ve been wondering about those big old houses in Northeast Portland with gas and oil furnaces and gas ranges; how efficient are they? My Victorian in Sellwood actually does quite well on energy consumption, since it has many layers of siding plus storm windows. Even with alternative transportation, saving on fuel, our houses in Portland are not built that well and often are big energy consumers, so we may be bigger energy users than we admit (of course not nearly as much as the rest of the northern US). I’m know the new condos are far better.

    Energy improvements I’m considering: on-demand electric water heaters with preheating tanks at room temperature; awnings to reduce my already minimal air conditioner load (night purge cooling reduces AC use). Oh yeah, and request the student tenants to take short showers! ha ha

  2. The consensus at the Denver ASPO-USA conference was that the scarcity will be in liquid fuels, 2/3 of which we use for transportation. As you point out, Chris, natural gas has already peaked in North America, and we don’t have the infrastructure to import massive amounts of LNG, which we also need to use to make electricity as well as residential, commercial and industrial heat.

    Oil sands have something like a 3 to 2 ratio of oil extracted to oil consumed. In addition, extraction is very environmentally damaging and the supplies are ultimately limited, too.

    Finally coal. The numbers I heard were that we have 250 years of coal in this country (one of the world’s largest sources) at CURRENT LEVELS OF USE. That number drops to 100 years if demand rises at 2% per year (a very conservative number) and 80 years if we turn it into gasoline.

    All these sources are non-renewable, take a lot of new infrastructure to permit use and have a low net energy ratio.

    Bottom line: let’s start making changes in behavior and urban design so that we won’t choke when gasoline is $10 and more a gallon.

  3. Anyone,

    Rex mentions “changes in urban design.” This is also going to be very important in the developing world where populations are huge and rapidly modernizing. Since 2000 I have been tuned into the UN-HABITAT forums (coming to Vancouver BC, June 19-23, 2006); much of the discussion centers on improving slums. But why not construct entirely new cities? Now, there is too much dependency on the “export economies,” which is why people flock into the overcrowded cities—looking for jobs.

    A new city could be based on self-help or cooperative enterprises, in which people directly provide for their own needs, with much less specialization. And still allow for micro- enterprise. A few years ago I was able to show a UN official the new, fiber cement-board,(i.e HARDI-Panel) commonplace here, which could supplant the conventional cinder block, mud brick, or reinforced concrete common in the third world. Very environmentally friendly and cost-effective. They are already involved with much cooperative agriculture. Now if these new settlements could be dense enough to make bicycle power cost effective, they could circumvent the fossil fuel dependence which ails us. Settlers could be attracted by modern, high tech libraries and recreation and the chance to get out of a rundown environment.

    As in the story of Portland, where two individuals came west specifically to found a city, there must be many areas around the globe where the conditions are suitable to begin new settlements. Does the Portland experience have enough to offer? Of course at these forums there is innovation from hundreds of other places, as well. Anyone else interested in going?

  4. A few months ago FX had a show called Oil Storm it was fictional, but it starts with a Hurricane damaging Louisiana refineries, pipelines and terminals, then terrorism getting out of control in Saudi Arabia causes American Troops to be send to stabilize Saudi Arabia, then their tanker terminals are taken out, and tankers colliding in the Houston Shipping Channel leads to Gas Prices reaching up to $9.00 per gallon. China outbid us for Russian Oil, which we counter-outbid with infrastructure investment in Russian Oil Rigs and pipelines. This was not about peak oil, but still can have the same effects.

    As for the Athabasca Tar Sands in Alberta, Atomic Energy of Canada(AECL) has proposed using the lastest technology CANDU Reactor which can directly burn our spent nuclear fuel, to do Steam Assisted Gravity-Drainage, but the Alberta PM said no.

    It is about time the railroads and the Federal Govenrment re-invested in Electric Railroads. We once had one in the Northwest, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific, The Electric operation lasted about 6 decades. I noticed the two electrified divisions, were close to areas with heavy Hydropower production. The Coast Division and the Rocky Mountain Division. Had they not had that gap between Othello, Washington and Avery, Idaho, who knows, the cost savings of not having to swap out electics for steamers(later diesels) and vice versa would have made it more economical to upgrade the Locomitives in 1972-74, than axing the Electrification.

  5. Far be it from me to presume anyone in this forum’s political affiliation. But making radical changes in infrastructue and urban design, and making new cities out of whole cloth strike me as fairly “progressive” proposals. Our window for doing such things is getting smaller, as progressivism and liberalism are very much the politics of plenty. And right now, our plenty comes in large part from the surplus granted by cheap oil. The conundrum is that these are solutions to expensive oil, but when oil gets expensive, there will be little political will for undertaking such experiments.

    Stirling Newberry and Blogging of the President wrote a very good article on this a few months ago.

  6. I got 8 tonnes of carbon generation for my small studio apartment… 4 when I weather strip my windows and buy 50% green energy. I have no car.

  7. While Western countries may soon make strides in replacing fossil fuel, including oil, with other energy sources what will happen in the behemoth of Asia? We are just beginning to feel the impact of rapid growth in China. I see a new “domino effect” but this time one of industrialization. China is seeking ties with India and Japan, and I am sure they will help each other grow. There are two-and-a half billion people right there. How far behind will be: Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and SE Asia? Might as well figure the entire world, since everyone wants economic improvement. Will motorcycles and cars replace bikes, animals, and human powered freight? No doubt. But this is where urban planning will have to step in. While western countries steadily implement alternative energy, poorer countries are inclined to take the most economically viable (in the short run) path. I hope the inevitable, increased petrol consumption is only a phase before their societies devise alternatives.

    New developments in alternative energy: Norway and Japan are moving ahead on wave power and deep water wind turbines and also ocean current generation. Passive solar has many possibilities and new coatings are enhancing the energy collection. Stirling cycle engines can produce clean power and could possibly be combined with passive solar collection.

    The best route, I think, is simply to make do with less. Also geting away from dependence on exports and towards self-help

  8. Somewhere in the middle is the answer for us because we have a choice to use less (e.g., land use management and planning) and to move towards technologies which can be de-centralized.

    A few years ago, GE came out with a home fuel cell that generates electricity from NG or propane I believe but maybe costs and NG price spikes doomed it. My current interest is with higher efficient batteries, and what I like to call “natural force movement generation” (wind, star, gravity). Nothing pulled in on Goggle.

    We will need examinations (risk analysis maybe already have started) of our energy requirements and energy sources/suppliers for each critical civil and personal action and reaction. Its like the global supply chain of a Lean Manufacturing company, you must look for ways to be efficient at all times and know your weak links.

    Water collection
    Water filtration
    Water distribution
    Food production
    Food distribution
    Food storage
    Emergency response (fire, police, ambulance)
    Health care requirements
    Home heating and cooling
    Business heating and cooling
    Manufacturing and Services
    Government heating and cooling
    Self movement requirements

    Its most likely that “thinking outside the box” will be the only location for solutions and individuals currently “inside the box” will not be able to work through this. One thought is for the Oregon State Police: Cruisers will be required to live near their area of influence.

    I think we are on our own here and we need to be aware of our critical energy usage/dependencies for the sake of our community requirements.

    Again, thanks for this forum since some of us haven’t or can’t get to the Portland Peak Oil meetings.


  9. I certainly agree that efficiency and learning to make do with less will be a big part of the solution. The problem is that it’s a bigger problem than just energy. It’s cheap oil that drives globalization and labor arbitrage: every barrel of oil we don’t use makes it cheaper for companies to re-locate manufacturing overseas. In the reality of the current economic climate, the only thing that using less oil does is make it cheaper to send your job overseas. Demanding that our citizens live under austerity measures to free up funds that effectively subsidize the loss of their jobs is political suicide. A tenable solution has to address this at the same time as it addresses the physics of energy creation.

  10. Michael, I don’t think we will need to worry about this from the standpoint of our efficiency improvements. We, of course, are small in the big picture of energy consumption. And everyone will be dealing with higher fuel costs (including the shippers). The macro-economics of this will hit everyone square in the face. Products will be very expensive to ship.

    From this standpoint, China and India with 2.3 Billion people and close to all the newest factories will see less price impact for transportation costs.

    But, we, as in the USA are going to have a “meltdown” or “the worst hang over” of anyone for three reasons. We are far away from todays manufacturing plants; we have been going farther and farther into debt; and our culture depends on cheap fuel costs more then any other country.

    Portland deciding to be ready for “Peak Oil” isn’t going to reward the globalization model since we are doing this for ourselves, not for the corporation.

    We have just pulled our heads out of the hole. I think what separates our local decision makers and citizens is Change isn’t something we run away from.

    Thinking outside the Box here:

    Issue: No/Less refrigeration/spoilage.
    Solution: Eat what you have from local farms within two/three days. People will need time to find food. Maybe drinkable water too.

    Possible future work week schedule: Two days of ten hours then one day for shopping (food). Then the second two ten hour days then the second day for shopping (food). The seventh day will be a day of rest/worship/more shopping. A staggered personnel schedule can keep production running and keep the stores/offices open.

    One of our biggest decisions will be if refrigeration is more important then using the energy for other consumers like the gasoline powered automobile. This choice effects areas where oil-fired turbines are used for electrical power generation.

    In my mind, electrical generation will become more important than gasoline.

  11. Ray says, “elelctrical generation will become more important than gasoline.” Yes, when you consider that most of this country relies on fossil fuels for electrical power generation. We all know that arctic cold weather causes huge spikes in natural gas and fuel oil prices; but summer heat waves have a noticeable effect, too. With a swelling population, augmented by the upward mobility of the American middle class (think professions and office workers buoyed up by imported manual workers) expect increased demand every year. This November, natural gas costs twice as much as two years ago. And the winter is still ahead.

    I used to participate in the forum of The Daily Reckoning. The founder, Bill Bonner, following the success of his previous book, Financial Reckoning Day, has a new one: Empire of Debt. He would agree with your points. The only opposing fact I would toss out is that we are also importing huge amounts of labor and outsourcing other jobs, thus forestalling a crisis. (The DR are huge “goldbugs.”) I wouldn’t object to Portland being a “cosmopolis” but I hope there is a cost-effective way to achieve it. Whoever succeeds George W. is going to have to solve the federal deficit problem. Bonner, et al, maintain that we are already too leveraged in foreign credit.

    Ruth Cook, on the Portland planning commission insisted that we not forget the value of out Port facilities. I do hope the present commissioners are heeding that opinion. The same could be true of our metal manufacturing industries.

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