Viability Of Alternatives
First of all, let us compare the relative energy derived from
different types of fuel. For instance, straw only yields around 15 megajoules per kilogram (MJ/kg), wood yields 20 MJ/kg, coal yields 20-25 MJ/kg, while fossil fuels (oil, gasoline, jet fuel) yield around 42 MJ/kg. The corresponding energy densities are 1000 watt per square meter for wood, 5,000 watts per square meter for coal, and 40,000-50,000 watts per square meter for fossil fuels. The energy density of fossil fuels is unparalleled and it is the reason industrial societies have become so dependent on them.
Before we run out of fossil fuels, we will run out of the cheapest and most easily accessible fuel. Soon, it will not be economical to continue to rely on fossil fuels. However, alternative energy sources are not without their own short comings. For instance, renewable sources require huge areas to gather the energy. To heat a city the size of, lets say, Montreal with fuel wood would require hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest lands. Wind farms would require massive areas under turbines and such wind farms may cause considerable change to wind and atmospheric dynamics, upsetting ecological systems. Furthermore, were it not for massive subsidies, wind power would not be competitive with other energy sources. Hydropower can only capture about 30-40% of the total potential energy in a given basin, and most basins in Europe and North America are saturated. Hydropower has been almost entirely captured in Europe and North America.
Alternative Sources of Power
There are still an estimated 909 billion tonnes of proven coal reserves worldwide, enough to last at least 155 years. But coal is a fossil fuel and a dirty energy source that will only add to global warming.
The natural gas fields in Siberia, Alaska and the Middle East should last 20 years longer than the world’s oil reserves but, although cleaner than oil, natural gas is still a fossil fuel that emits pollutants. It is also expensive to extract and transport as it has to be liquefied.
Hydrogen Fuel Cells
Hydrogen fuel cells would provide us with a permanent, renewable, clean energy source as they combine hydrogen and oxygen chemically to produce electricity, water and heat. The difficulty, however, is that there is not enough hydrogen to go round and the few clean ways of producing it are expensive.
Ethanol from corn and maize has become a popular alternative to oil. However, studies suggest ethanol production has a negative effect on energy investment and the environment because of the space required to grow what we need.
Biofuel refers to fuels derived from recently living organisms, today mostly in the form of ethanol from plants such as sugar cane, soybeans, and oil palm. Biofuels often use more energy to produce than they contribute. Scientists hope that biofuels can replace much gasoline used today. The use of biofuels has led to horrific consequences for the people of the world and the environment. This will continue to mean that the growing of crops for fuel, mostly for export to Europe, Japan and the US, is being done on large-scale plantations in the third world. Ancient forests are being cut down, threatening extinction for many species. Reduction of greenhouse gases is lost when carbon-capturing forests are cut down. In Malaysia, the production of palm oil for biodiesel is a major industry. The development of oil-palm plantations was responsible for an estimated 87% of deforestation. In Sumatra and Borneo, 4 million hectares of forest have been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares are scheduled for clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5 million in Indonesia. Thousands of indigenous people have been evicted from their lands, and some 500 Indonesians have been tortured when they tried to resist. The forest fires which every so often smother the region in smog are mostly started by the palm growers. Hundreds of thousands of small-scale peasant farmers are being displaced by soybeans expansion. Many more stand to lose their land under the biofuels stampede. The expanding cropland planted to yellow corn for ethanol has reduced the supply of white corn for tortillas in Mexico, sending prices up 400%.
For investors in alternatives to oil and gas, the driving force has been the belief that whoever develops the next great energy sources will enjoy the spoils that will make the gains from creating the next Amazon.com or Google seem puny. In the development of biofuels this means that they do not pay attention to long-term effects. The economy is broken up into competing units of capitalist control and ownership over the means of production. And each unit is fundamentally concerned with itself and its expansion and its profit. The economy, the constructed and natural environment, and society cannot be dealt with as a social whole under capitalism.
Massive Diversion of U.S. Grain to Fuel Cars
Corn prices have doubled over the last year, wheat futures are at their highest level in 10 years, and rice prices are rising. The use of corn as the feedstock for fuel ethanol is creating consequences throughout the global food chain. Food prices are rising in China, India, and the US, housing 40% of the world's people. Vast quantities of corn are consumed indirectly in meat, milk, and eggs in both China and the US. In China, pork prices were up 20% above a year earlier, eggs were up 16%. In India, the food price index in 2007 was 10% higher than a year earlier. The price of wheat has jumped 11% and this is only the beginning. As more and more fuel ethanol distilleries are built, world grain prices are starting to move up toward their oil-equivalent value. In this new economy, if the fuel value of grain exceeds its food value, the market will move it into the energy economy. With 80 or so ethanol distilleries under construction, nearly a third of the 2008 grain harvest will be going to ethanol. Since the United States is the leading exporter of grain, what happens to the U.S. grain crop affects the entire world. The world's breadbasket is fast becoming the U.S. fuel tank. The UN lists 34 countries as needing emergency food assistance. Food aid programs have fixed budgets. Protests in response to rising food prices could lead to political instability that would add to the list of failed and failing states. President Bush has set a production goal for 2017 of 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels. The risk is that millions of those on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder will start falling off as higher food prices drop their consumption below the survival level.
In 2007, 18,000 children were dying every day from hunger and malnutrition.
Any fuel derived from any plant requires the availability of fertile topsoil, water, increasingly complex and expensive fertilizers, pesticides, and an appropriate climate. The first, second, and last of these are presently threatened. The use of biofuels is therefore a short term solution with disastrous longterm consequences. Biofuels will directly compete with food. This will increase intra- and international tensions and consequently conflicts. The production of biofuels will increase deforestation and contribute to loss of biodiversity. Of course, farmers, particularly industrial agricultural enterprises, will derive short term profits and therefore like it.
Plants need some 30 different soil elements to grow. If any of them becomes depleted, growth will decrease and ultimately cease. Biofuel production will accelerate the speed with which the finite amount of fertile global topsoil is degraded.
As already explained in previous sections, oil-dependent nations are turning to renewable energy sources such as hydroelectric, solar and wind power to provide an alternative to oil but the likelihood of renewable sources providing enough energy is slim.
These sources: solar, wind, nuclear, tidal, etc. are not as energy dense, portable, or as readily usable as fossil fuels. History tells us that complete development of new energy sources (coal and oil in the past) takes about a century.
Fears of the world’s uranium supply running out have been allayed by improved reactors and the possibility of using thorium as a nuclear fuel. But an increase in the number of reactors across the globe would increase the chance of a disaster and the risk of dangerous substances getting into the hands of terrorists.
Can Nuclear Energy Replace Oil?
We can draw an economic model to calculate whether or not nuclear could replace oil. (By G.R. Morton, http://home.entouch.net/dmd/nuke.htm)
6.29 bbl (barrels) = 10.9 megawatt-hour
1 bbl = 1.73 megawatt-hour
700megawatt = 404.6242775 bbl/hour (http:// www.cameco.com/investor_relations/annual/2001/glossary/ index.php)
There are 8760 hours per year so a 700 megawatt plant produces:
6,132,000 megawatt-hour = 3,544,508 bbl/yr
We produce around 30 billion barrels of oil per year. So for the world to replace this we need:
8463.796477 700 MW plants
$1,250,000,000 per plant
$10.5 trillion investment
The US GDP is about $10 trillion. This represents about 1/3 of the global domestic product. Given that they take about 4 years to build the investment would mean a 10% tax on everyone and every corporation--and that would mean that the people would pay far more than 10% of their personal income. Corporations don't pay taxes, they pass them on to consumers.
And these costs don't include the cost of getting rid of the nuclear waste. This is only for building the things. So looks like we will not be able to replace oil with nuclear.
There is continuing debate over whether a suitable energy alternative might be found to replace the energy from oil as it runs out, but there is certainly no compelling evidence that a comparable substitute will be found.
It is difficult to think about ‘how things will play out’ when an oil-based global economy loses its cheap energy source. It has never happened before. It will never happen again.
Incidentally, “alternative energy” doesn’t work. As John Gever et al. explain in “Beyond Oil”, it is physically impossible to use windmills etc. to produce the same amount of energy that we are now getting from thirty billion barrels of oil. “Alternative energy” will never be able to produce more than the tiniest fraction of that amount.
The energy budget must always be positive and output must exceed input. Too much tends to be expected of renewable energy generators today, because the contribution of fossil fuels to the input side is poorly understood. For example, a wind turbine is not successful as a renewable generator unless another similar one can be constructed from its raw materials using only the energy that the first one generates in its lifetime, and still show a worthwhile budget surplus.
Or, if corn is grown to produce bioethanol, the energy input to ploughing, sowing, fertilizing, weeding, harvesting and processing the crop must come from the previous year’s bioethanol production. Input must also include, proportionately, mining and processing the raw materials and building the machines that do the work, as well as supporting their human operators.
There is nothing that can replace cheap oil for price, ease of storage, ease of transportation and sheer volumes in the timeframe we need.
EROEI and EPR
An important element in comparing fossil fuels with other forms of energy generation goes by the unfortunately unmemorable acronym of EROEI – “energy returned on energy invested”. An alternative version of this is the EPR – Energy Profit Ratio. To produce any energy, whether it is pumping oil out of the ground, or building and operating a wind turbine, you need to use some energy in the process. If the energy returned is less than the energy you produce, it is generally not worth producing it.
As a simple example, imagine a (very small) car whose fuel tank holds 1 liter of petrol. The car’s fuel efficiency is 20 km per liter. If the nearest petrol station is 5 km away, fine – you wait until the tank is quarter full then drive there to refill (positive EROEI). If it is 10 km away, you have gained nothing (and lost money) – by the time you have refuelled and driven home, you only have enough fuel left to return to the station to fill up again. And if the station is 15 km away, once you have filled up and reached home, you would not have enough left to get back to refuel again. You would be better off staying at home and simply using up the existing petrol for other journeys (negative EROEI).
The EROEI is calculated by taking the energy content of your energy (in whatever units you wish) and subtracting the energy used in producing the energy. The result will be a number either negative, positive or zero. The higher the number, the better.
The only time when negative EROEI can be worthwhile is if the energy produced is in a more useful form than the energy used. For example, oil can be used not only for energy generation but to make petrochemicals whereas wind-generated electricity cannot. So it could be more worthwhile using some wind-electricity to pump oil-energy out, even if the EROEI is negative. Using the car analogy above, if the journey to the 15 km petrol station was also used to deliver some goods to sell, you would gain elsewhere even if you lost out on the petrol.
“One thing is clear: the era of easy oil is over. What we all do next will determine how well we meet the energy needs of the entire world in this century and beyond.”
~ David J. O’Reilly, Chairman & CEO of Chevron, July 2005.
Now they are crying, “Where is the petrol? Where is the petrol?” So if nature does not supply petrol, then all these horseless carriage will be pieces of tin. That’s all.
- Srila Prabhupada
The use of solar energy has not been opened up because the oil industry does not own the sun.
“As soon as you make misuse, the supply will be stopped. After all, the supply is not in your control. You cannot manufacture all these things. You can kill thousands of cows daily, but you cannot generate even one ant. And you are very much proud of your science. You see. Just produce one ant in the laboratory, moving, with independence. And you are killing so many animals? Why? So how long this will go on? Everything will be stopped.
Just like a child. Mother is giving good, nice foodstuff, and he's spoiling. So what the mother will do? "All right. From tomorrow you'll not get." That is natural.”
-Srila Prabhupada (Lecture on Bhagavad-gita, Los Angeles, December 27, 1968)