Return to Renewable Energy Sources

Alternative Energy Feasability

Energy Density

Few people realize how much energy is concentrated in even a small amount of oil or gas. A barrel of oil contains the energy-equivalent of almost 25,000 hours of human labour. A single gallon of petrol contains the energy-equivalent of 200-to-500 hours of human labour.

Most people are stunned to find this out, even after confirming the accuracy of the numbers for themselves, but it makes sense when you think about it a bit; it only takes one gallon of petrol to propel a three ton SUV 10 miles in 10 minutes when travelling 60 mph. How long would it take you to push a three ton SUV 10 miles? And at what speed?

While people tend to drastically underestimate the energy density of oil and gas, they drastically overestimate the energy density (and thus scalability) of renewables.

Example #1: Wind compared to Natural Gas
It would take every single one of California’s 13,000 wind turbines operating at 100% capacity (they usually operate at about 30%) all at the same time to generate as much electricity as a single 555-megawatt natural gas fired power plant.

Example #2: Wind compared to Coal
As of 2004, the United States had 6,361 megawatts of installed wind energy. This means that if every wind turbine in the United States was spinning at peak capacity, all at the exact same time, their combined electrical output would equal that of six coal fired power plants. Since, as mentioned previously, wind turbines typically operate at about 30% of their rated capacity, the combined output of every wind turbine in the US is actually equal to less than two coal fired power plants.

Example #3: Solar compared to Coal
The numbers for solar are even poorer. For instance, on page 191 of his 2004 book “The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World”, author Paul Roberts writes:

. . . if you add up all the solar photovoltaic cells now running worldwide the combined output – about 2,000 megawatts – barely rivals the output of two coal-fired power plants.
Robert’s calculation assumes the solar cells are operating at 100% of their rated capacity. In the real world, the average solar cell operates at about 20% of its maximum capacity as the sun is not always shining. This means the combined output of all the solar cells in the world at the end of 2004 was equal to less than 40% of the output of a single coal fired power plant.

By 2008, there was just over 5,000 megawatts of solar PV cells installed worldwide. Operating at average efficiency of 20%, the combined output of all the PV cells in the world is now equal to the output of a single coal fired power-plant

Example #4: Solar and Wind compared to Petroleum
In order to offset a 10% reduction in U.S. petroleum consumption, the amount of installed solar and wind energy would have to be increased by 2,200%.

Example #5: Solar compared to Petrol
The amount of energy distributed by a single petrol station in a single day equivalent to the amount of energy that would be produced by four Manhattan sized city blocks of solar equipment. (There are over 170,000 gas stations in the U.S. alone.) The reason for this difference is because, as explained above, oil is an incredibly dense source of energy while solar is extremely diffuse.

Example # 6: Low starting point for industrial solar
It would take close to 220,000 square kilometres of solar panels to power the global economy via solar power. This may sound like a marginally manageable number until you realize that the total acreage covered by solar panels in the entire world right now is a paltry 10 square kilometres.

Example #7: Diminutive contribution of residential solar:
According a recent MSNBC article entitled, “Solar Power City Offers 20 Years of Lessons:”
By industry estimates, up to 20,000 solar electric units and 100,000 heaters have been installed in the United States, diminutive numbers compared to the country’s 70 million single-family houses.
This means that even if the number of American households equipped with solar electricity is increased by a factor of 100, less than two million American households will be equipped with solar electric systems. Assuming we are even capable of scaling the use of household solar electric systems by that amount, two questions remain:
#1. What do the other 68 million households do? What about the millions of companies, nations, and industries around the world of which the industrialized world are dependent?
#2. Since oil, not electricity, is our primary transportation fuel (providing the base for over 95% of all transportation fuel) what good will this do us when it comes to keeping our global network of cars, trucks, airplanes, and boats going?
Example #8: Electric Car Batteries versus Gasoline Engines
Dr. Walter Youngquist explains:
. . . a gallon of gasoline weighing about 8 pounds has the same energy as one ton of conventional lead-acid storage batteries. Fifteen gallons of gasoline in a car’s tank are the energy equal of 15 tons [3,000 pounds] of storage batteries. Some will say that the problems associated with lead-acid batteries as pointed out by Dr. Youngquist can be resolved by moving to lithium-ion batteries. Unfortunately, lithium is in such short supply globally that electric car manufacturers are already anticipating problems sourcing it even though only a tiny fraction of westerners currently drive electric cars

Example #9: Energy Intermittency, Lack of Battery Technologies
Unlike an oil pump, which can pump all day and all night under most weather conditions, or coal fired/natural gas fired power plants which can also operate 24/7, wind turbines and solar cells only produce energy at certain times or under certain conditions. This may not be that big of a deal if you simply want to power your discretionary household appliances or a small scale, decentralized economy. If, however, you want to run an industrial economy that relies on airports, airplanes, 18-wheel trucks, millions of miles of highways, huge skyscrapers, 24/7 availability of fuel, etc., an intermittent source of energy will not suffice.
While promising work is being done to counteract the intermittency of wind and solar energy, most of this work is still in the developmental stage and won’t be ready or cost effective on a large scale for several decades at the earliest.

Example #10: Expansion of Renewable Power Means More, not less, Dependency on Coal and Natural Gas for “Back up Power“
Without a cost-effective and scalable storage (battery) technology to provide power when the wind is not blowing or the sun is not shining, large scale solar/wind farms must be backed up by things like oil pumps or natural gas/coal fired powered plants. For this reason, the expansion of renewables like wind power actually requires an expansion in the use of fossil fuels.

Example #11: Lack of Energy Density
As explained a few times in the preceding paragraphs, oil is simply unmatched in its energy density. A good way to illustrate its density is to analyze what it would take in terms of solar PV panels to generate the energy necessary to run a typical car. Physicist Les Jackson explains that once you account for the typical solar PV efficiency rating of 20%, you would need a solar panel setup measuring almost 100 feet on each side in order to power your car.

The sun delivers approximately 1,000 watts of total energy per square meter (roughly 100 watts per square foot) on the earth, and that’s really only when there’s direct light, at noon, on a clear day. If you could convert all that solar energy to electric power you’d need 7.43 square feet for each horsepower (there are 743 watts in one horsepower) in your motor. You need at least 50 horsepower (37,000 watts) to safely move a car in real-world traffic, so you’d need at least 371 square feet of surface area to generate the electricity. That’s a square about 19 feet on a side, so your car would have to be very large or have a huge solar sail on it to capture the light.

It gets worse, because solar photovoltaic panels waste most of the sun’s energy. The best solar panels on the market today are less than 20% efficient at conversion of energy, so you really need panels 5 times larger than the one in the example above to create enough electricity to run the car.

Remember also that we’re talking about “perfect” conversion of energy at midday when it’s clear outside. As the sun goes down so does the amount of electricity. If this isn’t difficult enough, how do you compensate for those periods when the car is driving in the rain, cloudy weather, through tunnels and at night? What we’ve got here is a fundamental problem of capacity: There’s simply not enough surface area on a car to generate sufficient power from photovoltaic cells.

Add to these pressures the fact that photovoltaic cells cost at least $6 per watt of output, making these things prohibitive for most people even if size weren’t a consideration.


Transportation Fuels

Inappropriateness as Transportation Fuels:

Approximately 2/3 of our oil supply is used for transportation. Over ninety percent of our transportation fuel comes from petroleum fuels (petrol, diesel, jet-fuel). Thus, even if you ignore the challenges catalogued previously, there is still the problem of how to use the electricity generated by the solar cells or wind turbines to run fleets of food delivery trucks, ocean liners, airplanes, etc.

Unfortunately, solar and wind cannot be used as industrial-scale transportation fuels unless they are used to crack hydrogen from water via electrolysis. Hydrogen produced via electrolysis is great for small scale, village level, and/or experimental projects. In order to power a significant portion of the global industrial economy on it, however we would need the following:

  • Need #1: Hundreds of trillions of dollars to construct fleets of hydrogen powered cars, trucks, boats, and airplanes.
  • Need #2: Hundreds, if not thousands, of oil-powered factories to accomplish number one.
  • Need #3: The construction of a ridiculously expensive global refuelling and maintenance network for number one.
  • Need #4: Mind-bogglingly huge amounts of platinum, silver, and copper, and other raw materials that have already entered permanent states of scarcity.

Feasibility of Alternatives

Despite their individual shortcomings, it is still possible for the world economy to run on a basket of alternative sources of energy – so long as we immediately get all of the following:

  • A few dozen technological breakthroughs.
  • An unprecedented degree of political wills, honesty, and bipartisan cooperation.
  • Tremendous international collaboration.
  • Massive amounts of investment capital.
  • Fundamental reforms to the banking system.
  • No interference or obfuscation from the oil industry.
  • About 25-50 years of general peace and prosperity to retrofit the world’s $45 trillion dollar per year economy including transportation and telecommunication networks, manufacturing industries, agricultural systems, universities, hospitals, etc., to run on these new sources of energy.
  • Rational and non-corrupt elected officials and capable government appointees to manage the generation long transition.

If we get all of the above, we might be able to get the energy equivalent of 3 – 5 billion barrels of oil per year from alternative sources.

That’s a tremendous amount of oil – about as much as the entire world used per year during the 1950s, but it’s nowhere near enough to keep our currently mammoth-sized yet highly volatile global economic system going. The world currently requires over 30 billion barrels/1.2 trillion gallons of oil per year to support economic growth. That requirement will only increase as time goes on due to population growth, debt servicing, and the industrialization of nations such as China and India.

So even if the delusionally optimistic 8-step scenario described above is somehow miraculously manifested, we’re still facing a 70-90% reduction in the amount of energy available to us. A 70-90% reduction would be extremely painful, but not the “end of the world” if it wasn’t for the fact that, as explained previously, the monetary system will collapse in the absence of a constantly increasing energy supply. If a shortfall between demand and supply of 5% is enough to send prices up by 400%, what to you think a shortfall of 70-90% is going to do?

To make matters worse, even if the all of the above obstacles are assumed away, we are still faced with the problem of “economic doubling time.” If the economy grows at a healthy clip of 3.5% per year, it doubles in size every 20 years. That growth must be fuelled by an energy supply that doubles just as quickly. Thus, our total “energy debt” will have compounded itself by the time we have made any major strides in switching to alternative sources of energy.

The situation can be summed up in three words “We are fucked”

You can sort of see why some people may be advocating massive population reduction, but even that would only delay the inevitable, unless ALL of society moves away from fossil fuel dependency.
Investment in Alternatives

“Won’t high oil prices motivate us to look for alternatives?”
To a certain degree, yes. Unfortunately, the situation is far too complex to be solved via alternative energy “plug-and-play” as is commonly believed.

First, we really don’t have any ready-to-scale alternatives that share oil’s energy density, energy portability and high energy return on energy invested (EROEI).

Second, and perhaps more importantly, even if we did have alternatives that shared the characteristics of oil, we won’t be motivated to invest in them on the massive scale necessary until it’s too late.

To illustrate this point: As of October 2007 a barrel of oil costs about $75. The amount of energy contained in that barrel of oil would cost between $100-$250* dollars to derive from alternative sources of energy. Thus, the market won’t signal energy companies to begin aggressively pursuing alternative sources of energy until oil reaches the $100-$250 range and stays there for several years. At the moment (May 2015) a barrel of oil is around $60.

Once we do finally begin aggressively pursuing these alternatives, there will be a 25-to-50 year lag time between the initial heavy-duty research into these alternatives and their wide-scale industrial implementation. However, in order to finance an aggressive implementation of alternative energies, we need a tremendous amount of investment capital – in addition to affordable energy and raw materials – that we absolutely will not have once oil prices are permanently lodged in the $200-$300 per barrel neighbourhood.

*This does not even account for the amount of money it would take to locate and refine the raw materials necessary for a large scale conversion or the retrofitting of the world’s $50 trillion plus economy to run on these alternatives.

While we need 25-to-50 years to retrofit our economy to run on alternative sources of energy, we may only get 12-to-18 months once oil production peaks. Within a short time of global oil production hitting its peak, it will become impossible to dismiss the decline in supply as a merely transitory event. Once this occurs, traders on Wall Street will quickly bid the price up to and possibly over, the $200 per barrel range as they realize the world is now in an era of permanent oil scarcity.

With oil at or above $200 per barrel, gasoline will reach $10 per gallon, assuming it is even available. This will cause a rapid breakdown of trucking industries and transportation networks which have all been built and financed under the assumption fuel prices would remain low. Importation and distribution of food, medicine, and consumer goods will grind to a halt as trucking and shipping companies go bankrupt en masse.

The effects of this will be frightening. As Jan Lundberg, founder of the Lundberg Survey, aka “the bible of the oil industry” recently pointed out:
The scenario I foresee is that market-based panic will, within a few days, drive prices up skyward. And as supplies can no longer slake daily world demand of over 80 million barrels a day, the market will become paralyzed at prices too high for the wheels of commerce and even daily living in “advanced” societies.

The trucks will no longer pull into Wal-Mart, or Safeway or other food stores. The freighters bringing packaged techno-toys and goods from China will have no fuel. There will be fuel in many places, but hoarding and uncertainty will trigger outages, violence and chaos. For only a short time will the police and military be able to maintain order, if at all.

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