Glimpse of Alternative Energy Technologies

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After oil, the most important hydrocarbon for energy use is natural gas, or methane gas using the industry's terminology. The situation regarding natural gas is no better than that of oil. Energy experts, such as Matthew Simmons, have stated that enduring natural gas shortages in the US are imminent. He predicted this may result in power interruptions similar to what happened on August 14, 2003, when 57 million people in northern US and into Canada experienced a power blackout.

Due to provisions within the NAFTA treaty, Canada is currently exporting 50 percent of its natural gas to the US, but this practice may not be sustainable as its own domestic supply will soon peak. According to Julian Darley, a British environmental researcher and author of High Noon for Natural Gas, both the US and Canada are experiencing near-critical declines in natural gas production.33

A few of the well-known alternative energy technology options are discussed below. Some of the interesting newest technologies such as thermal depolymerization do not have published EROEI data, but readers are encouraged to review any prospective alternative technologies with net energy in mind.34 The main point to reinforce regarding discussions centered on alternative energies is that any meaningful analysis must be based on the crucial factor of EROEI, a metric reflecting physics, not money. Jeff Wright, author of this book's foreword, evaluated various alternative energy sources as found in Richard Heinberg's book on Peak Oil, The Party's Over: Oil, War and the Fate of the Industrialized Societies3

In the following excerpt, Wright stressed the importance of EROEI when analyzing any type of alternative energy technology, especially claims of an energy panacea. He discounted the possibility of using shale oil for a variety of reasons, despite the fact that there are potentially tens of billions of recoverable barrels in the US. The reason is simple, "The EROEI factor of shale oil is way too low (0.7) to be useful. It takes too much energy to produce the equivalent energy from shale oil."36

Wright also noted two important environmental artifacts encountered when extracting shale oil. First, it is an extremely dirty process, considering that it takes "more than 100 gallons of water to produce a gallon of shale oil." Secondly, the amount of wastewater produced means that when replacing "all of our [conventional] oil with shale we [will] need to find a large basin to hold a new Lake Erie of wastewater."37 [emphasis added]

Additionally, Wright addressed the question of nuclear power that according to Heinberg is an energy source that requires a complex analysis of EROEI. The results are somewhat disappointing when the fully loaded costs of nuclear power are factored in:

The costs for nuclear-generated electricity (1.8i - 2.2$/kWh) are operating costs only, including fuel, maintenance, and personnel ... such figures omit costs for research and development, plant amortization and decommissioning, and spent-fuel storage. Fully costed, nuclear power is by far our most expensive conventional energy source. Indeed, total costs are so high that, following the passage of energy deregulation bills in several states, nuclear plants were deemed unable to complete, and so utility companies like California's PG & E had to be bailed out by consumers for nuclear-related 'stranded costs.'38

Heinberg persuasively argued that nuclear power, as currently implemented, is a dead-end solution when viewed from an EROEI perspective. He concluded:

Industrial societies have, in energy terms, been able to afford to invent and use nuclear technologies primarily because of the availability of cheap fossil fuels with which to subsidize the effort.39

Another alternative energy resource that warrants brief inclusion in this text is the so-called hydrogen economy. Bill Butler has provided a succinct analysis of the issues surrounding the hydrogen economy on his website, "The Great Rollover Juggernaut."40 Butler generally dismissed the popular myth that hydrogen will somehow become our energy panacea after Peak Oil. On his website he exposed why hydrogen fuel cells may not provide the answer to the global transportation challenges following Peak Oil.

This is everyone's 'favorite solution' to the gasoline problem. Nice, clean, efficient hydrogen for fuel cells to power automobiles. It is quite true that if you have an adequate supply of hydrogen, you could use it instead of the present internal combustion engine. There is a bit of a problem that everyone ignores. Where do you get the hydrogen and how much will it cost?

Today hydrogen is produced by reacting methane gas and steam yielding carbon monoxide and hydrogen In terms of useful energy, this is less efficient than just burning the methane. As noted above, natural gas is going to be in short supply after a couple of decades. Scratch natural gas as a source for hydrogen. Perhaps nuclear or 'renewable' based electric power can produce hydrogen via electrolysis (or some other electric process), or some biomass-based reaction can produce hydrogen sometime in the distant future, but this is at best decades away — and very expensive.41

Butler's online critique of hydrogen referred to several reports on this subject, including a technical report entitled "Energy and the Hydrogen Economy." The report concluded with a warning: "The 'Pure-Hydrogen-Only-Solution' may never become reality."42 He also lamented that the US was about to spend billions on hydrogen "pork barrel projects" that may not provide real benefits. A July 2003 white paper by TMD Management warned that hydrogen is not the panacea as sometimes described by proponents:

In most instances, the total energy cost of producing, compressing, liquefying, transporting and delivering it to the user will be far higher than the energy recovered from it. In addition, it is inconvenient and often dangerous to use. It makes no contribution whatever to energy independence — i.e., to weaning the US off imported energy supplies — and almost no real contribution to eliminating or minimizing environmental issues such as global warming — that all has to be dealt with at the hydrogen or energy manufacturing plant and is independent of the choice of fuel.43

Richard Heinberg's second book on energy, Powerdown, carefully examined the unwarranted hype about hydrogen-based energy sources and listed several experts who warned against the uninformed who may be "High on Hydrogen."44 A paper published in Science by Alex Farrell, assistant professor of energy and resources at UC Berkeley, and David Keith, associate professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon, reached similar conclusions about the unrealistic expectations of hydrogen-based transportation systems.45 During an interview, Farrell surmised, "Hydrogen cars are a poor short-term strategy, and it's not even clear that they are a good idea in the long-term."46

The only renewable energy that could theoretically be implemented on a worldwide basis to replace the depletion of oil and natural gas is the enormous solar energy captured every day by the world's tropical oceans. During the 1970s, promising research on Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) was conducted by the US government along with Japan.47 OTEC is a renewable system that produces electricity — and potable water — based on the temperature variance between the warm surface water in the tropics and the consistently cold water found at a depth of 1000 meters.48 Unfortunately, in 1982 the Reagan administration cut much of the funding for OTEC research and development.

However, Hawaii has continued developing OTEC technology with positive results. The process itself of developing and implementing alternative sources of energy requires large amounts of energy, and so it is critical that the global community immediately invest in a fleet of 50- to 100-Megawatt OTEC "plantships" and other renewable technologies while we still have a surplus of energy based on fossil fuels. While potential solutions such as OTEC continue to be researched, the success of any alternative energy inevitably depends much on their EROEI. While the OTEC process is inefficient when compared to burning hydrocarbon molecules, in the long-term it is clearly superior, considering that it is renewed every day by sunlight and, if properly implemented, is much more environmentally benign than any fossil fuel-based system.49

Regarding some of the more popular alternative energy sources, Heinberg warned that we should not allow a false belief in a miraculous conversion to a hydrogen economy, or another energy panacea, thereby creating a mentality of "waiting for the magic elixir."50 After analyzing all the currently available alternative energies, he concluded in his second book that there is no foreseeable magic elixir, and therefore self-limitation is the only realistic and sustainable alternative for the human species. Heinberg titled his book after his term for the bold, personal, and societal strategy of reducing overall energy consumption in a hopefully managed environment, Powerdown.

It is unpredictable how the current global financial system will react to Peak Oil. From an economic perspective, after Peak Oil the global oil supply will begin its long and irreversible decline, regardless of economic theorems regarding supply and demand. Peak Oil will ultimately produce the decline of a pervasive source of electrical energy that will no longer be aligned with current economic theorems of unlimited growth. The result will be a demand-side rebalancing.

Perhaps an entirely new paradigm will eventually evolve that includes metrics such as EROEI, incorporating new theorems that refer to "ecological economics." This system would take into consideration the ecosystem, including biophysical laws and related ecological limitations. In my opinion, whoever successfully constructs a viable mechanism for ecological economics will likely deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

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