Response to comments about peak oil at Ned Batchelder's blog

Sorry for the extremely long post. As a background, I got an undergraduate degree in geology in the 1970's, but eventually turned to neuroscience, where I currently use neuroimaging to study the visual system.

Well of course I'm for conservation! And I'm for more efficient vehicles. As an aside about those hybrids, they're quite a bit more efficient for city driving. But for smooth freeway driving, the hybrid part doesn't help much, since all the power ultimately has to come from the gasoline engine. Any savings at smooth freeway speeds are due to a lighter chassis, thinner tires, better aerodynamics, and the fact that the gasoline engine is smaller -- all things which could be done with non-hybrid cars. Also, you have to consider the cost (in oil) of producing the car, which is a substantial fraction of the amount of oil it will use in its lifetime. If you have a somewhat less efficient car that is relatively new, it is probably better to continue driving it. And if you sell it, somebody else will just drive it anyway. Just for reference, the NiMH battery in the Prius has 1/45 the energy density of gasoline used in the same car (this assumes that an average automotive engine converts about 25% of the chemical energy in the gasoline into useful work).

I don't feel I am twisting arguments to support a doomsday scenario, I don't wish ill upon anyone else's children, and I continue to hope for the best. I am just deeply worried given what I have been able to find out about fossil fuel energy, its relation to industrial civiliation and world population, and possible alternate energy sources.

There is an interesting discussion over at econobrowser:

about how to talk to economists about resource limitations. The discussion was started by James Hamilton from UCSD, who argues that Peak Oil must be wrong because if it was right, people/investors would have collectively perceived these resource limits and oil futures would already be at $200 now, predicting the coming shortages (this is triple of what oil futures are now). A poster who complained that this in fact is just what actually happened over the last two years (oil prices tripled). But the poster was dismissed with the comment that those increases were mere 'volatility'. Perhaps.

Though I might have secretly thought it to myself sometimes, I'm not arguing that economists are stupid. I'm just arguing that they are not considering data from enough fields, which includes physics, geology, engineering, and human decision making. I always find it easier to think about something with a concrete example. Before the fast fourier transform algorithm was discovered, fourier transforms took a lot of time to compute. Part of the market forces that led to the discovery of the FFT was the fact that people wanted to do very large numbers of fourier transforms. And they still do. For instance, in my field of neuroimaging, all the major scanner companies moved toward multiple receiver-coil systems (partly made possible by cheap cell-phone based RF A/D converters). This multipled the number of fourier transforms that had to be calculated, increasing the demand for even faster fourier transform code. But no such thing has been discovered despite the demand for it. So GE, for example, engineered a proprietary set of parallel processor boards to take over the load. This is a great example where there was a demand for one thing that could not be met by mathematicians and engineers, but then it was circumnavigated by engineers getting the same thing done in a different way.

That is what everybody is hoping will happen -- especially economists -- with currently abandoned oil fields, yet unfound oil fields, and alternative energy sources. But reality (mathematical or geological or physical) can be recalcitrant. The Maxwell equations aren't going to change because the market demands it. The market can't make hydrogen easier to compress (even at 12,000 psi, it still has only 1/3 the energy density of gasoline). The market may increase the cost of oil, but it is very unlikely in my view that the market can substantially decrease the energy required to retrieve oil from oil field previously abandoned because the left-behind oil was uneconomic because oil prices were too low. As price increases, of course some previously-abandoned-as-uneconomic fields will be revisited. But a problem usually not considered by economists is that no matter what the price, once it takes more energy to get the oil out than you get back from burning it, that oil will never be an energy source.

Economists and others are hoping that us more applied scientists will come up with something to save the day, since we always have. So after getting over the shock of finding out about the state of oil/gas/coal production and reserves (and dusting off all those geological words I thought I had forgotten), I started reading about alternatives.

It was very unsettling to find that there does not appear to be anything on the horizon that will allow us go on as we have been for the last thirty years. On the basis of current knowledge, oil will decline first, eventually followed by gas and coal as we reach the middle of this century. As oil declines, synfuels will be generated from coal with a 50% loss of energy. The increased coal use will substantially increase greenhouse gases and aerosols (the aerosols inhibit global warming). Eventually, the average energy-return-on-energy-investment ratio of coal will decrease toward 1.0 because as with oil, we have already mined the easier-to-get (in terms of the energy required) stuff first. Then, since the time constant of aerosol clearance is only a few years (see, e.g., the Mount Pinatubo eruption), but the time constant for CO2 clearance is long (perhaps 100 years), we will be hit by a double whammy of increased global warming and decreased energy sources toward the end of the century.

Some growth is definitely possible in wind and solar, but both of those technologies currently require huge amounts of fossil fuels, and the energy density of solar is very low. Running a $50,000 roof top solar array for a day (it costs that much largely because of the energy required to make the photocells and batteries) and saving the output in a battery, results in about as much useable energy as we find (emphasis on 'find') in a 1/10 of a gallon of gasoline. I don't know if anyone has even thought about making a solar-powered solar cell manufacturing plant. It may not even be possible. In any case, I expect that wind and solar will increase a lot over the next few decades. But wind and solar are only currently supplying 1/1400 of the energy we get from oil, gas, and coal. To completely substitute for oil, gas, and coal, wind and solar would have to increase by 140,000%. That just doesn't seem practical, even over 30 years.

Fission will come back, but uranium is in quite short supply and it is energy-intensive to make fuel out of it. There are no commercial breeder reactors after almost 50 years of work (Japan mothballed their latest try a few years ago). Fusion has only been stabilized for about a millisecond after 30 years of work. Also, it currently requires helium for superconducting containment fields. Helium is a limited resource which comes from some oil and gas wells. When it boils off, it diffuses (back) into space. You can't make it. The amount made by the fusion reaction is negligible. Helium is on a similar depletion curve to oil by best guesses. The US recently sold off it strategic helium supply. Helium is also heavily used for neuroimaging, so I suppose I'm part of the problem. Perhaps a way will be found to use non-low-temperature superconducting coils, though high current, high strength, hi-T superconducting wire does not yet exist. It is possible that fusion can be made to work, but it looks like it it still several decades away from a pratical demo, and maybe even further from an actual working implementation.

Since the turn of the century, the basic energy supply mix of the industrial world has not changed much. Basically, oil and gas increased relative to coal (and coal increased a lot, too). In many respects, this was an easy change, since gas and especially, oil, are more convenient to use and transport, and cleaner burning than coal. Changing over the power supply for industrial civilization and food and fertilizer production from coal, gas, and oil is hugely different than merely adding gas and oil to the mix. It is completely uncharted territory.

Does that mean that we're screwed? Definitely not! It's just that things look a lot more precarious than they did at the end of the 1960's when the world reached its peak of oil discovery, and the known oil in the ground pointed to a many-decade buffer before the SHTF. Just waiting for us scientists to come up with something the way the economists do is acting like the people in cargo cults did when they prayed for more ships to come. The ships might in fact come, but praying won't help.

In any case, I just wanted to say that I'm still hoping for the best.