It has long been prophesied that we’ll run out of oil. The first time I remember was back in the 1960’s when we were going to be all out by 1980. This was all based on “known reserves”, likely places remaining where we could look and the then current technology. Technology however improved, meaning that since then we have had a string of prophecies. At the moment we are due to run out by 2040. At some point in time it will come true.
Interestingly, the world’s biggest supplier, Saudi Arabia, has started constructing nuclear power stations, sixteen of them. Nobody knows how much oil remains there (the SAs are not letting on or lying) but this is perhaps an indicator that all is not well in Saudi Arabia.
However much the technology improves, at some point that prophecy will come true. Before then the price of oil will skyrocket as depletion kicks in. When we are talking of essentials, it only takes a small shortfall to cause massive price increases. (Eg, think on houses in the UK at this very moment).
This will also be a time when oil consumers can be held to ransom by the producers (already happening, some would say). It will take years and £billions to rejig our lives and commerce around any substitute. The quicker we have to do it, the greater the cost and disruption. Ideally we need an energy source where we are not depending on imports from dodgy and unstable parts of the world.
Other factors to consider are the energy recovery balance; ie energy returned on energy invested (ERoEI), also the energy payback time (EPBT), that is, the time taken to recover the energy invested in any power generating/converting project. This includes manufacture, maintenance and the energy input.
Example: Oil – ERoEI
When oil was originally discovered, it took on average one barrel of oil to find, extract, and process about 100 barrels of oil. The ratio, for discovery of fossil fuels in the United States for example, has declined steadily over the last century from about 1000:1 in 1919 to only 5:1 in the 2010s. This is due to the increased difficulties of extraction. We are now reduced to fracking as the easily recoverable reserves are exhausted. Obviously this means that as a 1:1 ratio is approached oil will become increasingly non-viable (and expensive.) As regards the payback time, the only reason oil is viable is because the infrastructure was built long ago. Whenever did you hear of a new oil refinery being built? Long before this happens we shall have to give up burning oil as a fuel, it’s far too valuable for other things. This also applies to the other fossil fuels.
Oil will be the first fossil fuel to become nonviable, followed by gas and then coal. This is a very major problem, not only from the energy point of view. Where are our plastics and even tarmac for the roads going to come from? Will we end up “mining” old refuse sites to recover the plastics so gaily thrown away today? Where will our lubricants come from? How about pharmaceutical products? How will we make steel, bricks and cement? How will we make explosives and poison gas? What about artificial fibres and dyes? Will we even be able to make pots to p**s in?
Example – Wind turbines
The ERoEI ratio varies between 10 and 20 (depending on how windy the site is and how large the turbine is). This ratio will improve as the technology advances. The EPBT is three years on a perfect site, ie the time taken to recover the energy expended in manufacture and erection.
Example – Photovoltaic panels
ERoEI is between 8.7 and 34.2 . Payback time varies between 1 and 4 years. This depends on the site and the amount of sunshine. Again, the technology improves all the time.
The difference with the renewable resources is that as time goes by, these figures will become more favourable as the technology improves, unlike fossil fuels doomed to an ever downward spiral. The input energy is unending and can’t be taken away from us by those nasty foreigners.
The problem of course is intermittency with weather related energy resources. However the wind is always blowing and the sun shining somewhere. Transcontinental electricity grids are already under construction to reduce this problem. This reduces but does not eliminate the problem. A lot of money is going to have to be spent on tidal energy which is constant and predictable.
Weather related energy is diffuse, it takes large and highly visible projects to capture it. People “Dahn South” don’t seem to like wind turbines for example. Well, tough luck I say. Oop North we have had to put up with coal mines and power stations for over a century. Energy gathering can be done on small scale widely spread rooftop PV panels for example. Most electricity generated is used locally so transmission losses are low. This takes up no additional valuable space. Gas will be used to “fill in” during dearth periods.. An expensive but unavoidable necessity.
Energy storage and management
There will need to be much effort, expense and research expended in this field. Already we have “Smart Meters”. The function of these is not actually to save money as advertised. It’s true function is adjust tariffs instantly. In times of dearth, electricity will cost more, thus they’ll encourage the consumer to switch off. This may well all be done automatically in the future, both domestically and commercially. There will probably be cheaper tariffs for people prepared to sign up to an interruptible supply. These may be people with their own electricity storage. There is already an “industry” where people charge batteries on cheap electricity and discharge into the grid at a higher rate. Electric vehicle batteries may also be linked in.
We are all going to have to use less. Domestic houses are to be built to much higher insulation standards. Gas will not be used for heating, it will go to the new breed of high efficiency Combined Cycle Gas Turbine power stations. Houses will be heated by heat pumps. All these arrangements are already in place. Domestic appliances are going to have to be much more efficient, there is still lots of scope.
The extraction and burning of fossil fuels causes massive pollution which cuts years off the lives of many people and reduces the quality of life through ill health, especially in urban environments. As well as pollution of the air, we have pollution of agricultural land and hence water and everything we eat.
Finally there is of course there is global warming. I am not a climatologist, I was a combustion engineer (in part). The CO2/global warming link makes perfect sense to me. If I want advice on a technical topic, I ask an expert, not a politician. After all I would never ask a politician how to fix my car. Or indeed anyone with ties to the oil industry.
The Nuclear Option
We will look at the nuclear option in a further article: the lies and misinformation.
Yes, it’s a very big topic!
However, you can’t take a position unless you know the elementary stuff at least.