Paul Mobbs & MEIR:
‘Energy Beyond Oil’: Could You Cut Your Energy Use by Sixty Percent?
Energy Beyond Oil, published 2005, represents three years of research into ‘energy futures’ – looking at the geophysical trends affecting energy production, and then look at the impacts that might have on energy demand.
Note: Energy Beyond Oil is no longer available via the publisher, but some independent booksellers still carry copies.
If you would like to buy a good quality copy I suggest you
start at Books and Ink.
This book isn't just about the phenomena of peak oil – which became a talking point a few years after the book was published, when oil prices rose due to supply bottlenecks. The book explores the whole energy issue, from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and finds that we are approaching the limits of the biosphere's capacity to provide ‘dense’ source of energy.
By the middle third of this century our planet will no longer be able to serve humanity's exponentially increasing demands for energy and resources; face with this “ecological overshoot”, contracting our demand for energy and resources will be the only viable option.
As I outline in the text – pregressing through all the various energy options, and looking at their capacity to supply the growing need for energy in the future – this eventuality was foreseen in The Limits to Growth report in 1972.
For a more general idea of what the book covered, read the Introduction below.
The reality of the energy economy today is that it is reaching its physical limits – not just because of climate change, but also resource depletion. We cannot simply ‘unplug’ fossil fuels and start using renewable energy sources because they, again due to the rare metals they depend upon, are also limited in their application. The only reasonable solution is to move beyond simple notions of ‘efficiency’ and instead look at the options for ‘degrowth’.
'Energy Beyond Oil' – Introduction
Since 2002 I've been holding a discussion...
I've had this discussion in the street, on trains, on the phone, at parties, and in many, many meetings. It involves a fairly simple argument that relates to the fields of chemistry, physics, economics and the environment.
The discussion is a sequence of arguments and interpretations of data produced by governments and international agencies. It often results in the participants in the discussion either stuck for words, dismissive of the data, or they describing the interpretation as environmental extremism.
The discussion usually runs along the following lines (the participant's general responses are in blue italics):
There is a fundamental physical law of the universe – The First Law of Thermodynamics. It states: "in any closed system, the total amount of energy of all kinds is a constant"
The Earth is a closed system. It receives energy from the Sun, and the Moon pulls the oceans across the globe to make the tides. Apart from these two, almost constant, energy inputs from the outside the Earth has no other external power sources. Any other energy source we use has to come from the Earth itself... and these sources are running out.
Oil is almost at peak production – after that, it's on its way out. Within ten to twelve years, when the pumps can suck no greater volumes of oil from the ground, production will go into decline and it will never rise again. Oil deposits will be exhausted, in terms of oil being a bulk energy resource, around 2050.
So what's the problem, it going to last another fifty years?
Market economics… When oil production reaches its peak, from that day on every state across the globe will be competing on price for the ever-dwindling level of production that remains. Result: between 2010 and 2015 the price of oil will start climbing higher and higher, doubling or tripling in price in just the first ten to fifteen years after the peak, and from that point on it will never fall in price again. We could shift to gas, but for many of the uses of oil – such as a fuel in cars or as the feed material for the production of plastics – natural gas just can't provide as efficient a replacement.
So what?... all those renewable technologies will get comparatively cheaper?
Energy density… Oil and gas are actually very dense sources of energy – they contain a large amount of energy per unit of mass compared to other sources. Let's compare motor fuel with its nearest renewable equivalent, biodiesel. It takes two hundred and fifty gallons of diesel per year to keep the average diesel car going the average distance travelled every year. Replace that with biodiesel, and you have to find a hectare (2.5 acres) of land to produce the three tonnes of oilseeds biodiesel production requires. Want to make the twenty-odd million the cars in the UK run on biodiesel? – sorry, but that would take five times more land than all the farm land currently in cultivation in the UK. Even if we turned over half the cultivated land in the UK to produce biofuels it would only keep just over two million cars (less than 10% of the current car fleet) on the road – and of course this figure doesn't include lorries, trains, tractors, etc., which would also demand biodiesel to keep running.
But what about hydrogen, that wonder-fuel of the future?
You need energy to make it… The Earth is a closed system and we don't have natural hydrogen reserves. We can't magic it from the air, water, or any other source. Hydrogen itself is not a fuel. Like electricity it is a carrier of energy. We have to put the energy into processes that makes hydrogen in order to produce a fuel that gives us back only 40% to 80% of the energy we invested in making it. Currently hydrogen production relies on the use of hydrocarbons like oil and gas. Of course, there is also the slight problem that large-scale hydrogen use could make a huge hole in the ozone layer every bit as bad as all those chlorofluorocarbons that we banned fifteen years ago.
OK, if we're desperate we can go nuclear can't we?
There's not enough uranium… Even if we ignored all the problems with nuclear power [for example, no one has yet found a fully reliable method for storing the highly radioactive wastes produced for a hundred thousand years] if the world switched most of its electrical requirements to nuclear, there's only enough uranium to keep fission reactors burning for fifteen to twenty years. We could try and get the more risky fast breeder reactors working reliably (not an easy job) to make the uranium go further... in which case we might get fifty or sixty years of energy. The only longer-term nuclear option is fusion. But that's perhaps a century away, and, even then, it's not clear that it could provide for the current energy consumption of the globe for generations to come.
But I thought we could have more oil from Iraq now?
Iraq's oil represents just 4 years global use… Iraq's proven oil reserves are 112.5 billion barrels – global consumption in 2002 was 27 billion barrels, and that's rising two to four percent per year driven by the industrialization of India and China. New oil and gas finds are getting smaller, and are not replacing current consumption. So the total level of oil and gas resources is falling. Also, as existing oil fields reach about half of their viable production, the level of output begins to fall off because it's harder to suck the oil out. Put this together, and Iraq really doesn't make a lot of difference given the scale of global consumption.
Well, we've still got two hundred years worth of coal!
Climate change makes its use impossible… We might have had two hundred years worth in 1950, but at today's level of electricity consumption the UK's 1.5 billion tonnes of coal reserves will only last us nine years. Coal can be turned into oil and gas and all sorts of materials. But coal isn't as efficient to use to produce energy as oil and gas because it mainly consists of carbon, not hydrocarbons. Therefore you have to burn more of it to get the same energy output, and you'd still have problems making other products like fertilizers or plastics. But most significantly, if the world used coal to replace oil and gas the increase in carbon emissions would mean that climate change might wipe us out.
Expensive oil, renewables are not enough, no coal, no nukes... we're in trouble!
Yes, and that starts in the next five to ten years when energy prices rocket – not in fifty years when oil is scarce.
It's at this point that many participants begin to experience what could be described as metanoic shock. Old certainties don't seem so certain any more. And the comfort of our Western lifestyle suddenly seems to represent a thin veneer over the twilight zone where cheap holidays and off-road vehicles are as fond a memory as steam trains.
But this is what we face. It's the laws of physics. You can't create something out of nothing. More interestingly, why are politicians not discussing this, given we're within about two average political terms of when these problems start? That's not clear. It might be that the economists' faith in the market, and that the market will always provide a solution, might be blinkering the view politicians take on the larger issue of energy supply. Perhaps they believe that there will always be alternatives, such as nuclear or renewable sources, that could substitute for our diminishing sources of energy (however, anyone who believes this clearly hasn't done the maths). But there is one other possible answer – since when do politicians promise you less?
What's heartening is that some people see this impending realignment of global energy quotas as a great opportunity. A chance to redefine the balance between humans and the planet in order to create a sustainable future. Of course, many of these people, like myself, were brought up to cook their own food from raw ingredients, to save and mend, and to generally shun the consumer lifestyle. I find that those who are extremely hostile to the arguments over future energy shortages usually represent the antithesis of these traits. And herein lies the problem. There are many other people talking about energy shortages and Peak Oil, mainly in the USA, but usually their discussion is based on how to keep their living standards at their current level. This is an impossibility. It's that horrid First Law of Thermodynamics – if we reduce the level of energy within the system the level of activity inside the system must also contract.
So, here we are. Whilst you read this sentence the world, on average, has just burnt another seven to eight thousand barrels of oil. In fact, it gets through around eighty-two million barrels per day. In order that you can share the argument let's explore the issues in more detail. The data. The trends. The projections. The possible outcomes. Hopefully at the end of this process you will be able to understand what it is we are facing, and perhaps find your own resolution to the potential difficulties we will all face over the next ten to twenty years.
I hope that the message you take from this is a positive one. That Western society is about to undergo a massive, collective shock. But, by applying basic principles of sustainable development we can live through this period... albeit without the ready-meals, cheap flights to Spain, 4x4's, Britney Spears videos, Formula One racing, plastic umbrellas...