Tag Archives: renewable energy

Peak Oil is Irrelevant

source: Wikipedia

source: Wikipedia

Peak oil has been predicted since the 1950s to occur by various near-future dates, originally as early as 1965. The prediction that US oil production would peak in the 1970s was, in fact, accurate, but new discoveries – including North American sources involving fracking and tar sands – keep pushing the timeline outward. Some say we will always find new oil sources, though economic theory states they will also get inexorably more expensive.

Recent discussions have revived the peak oil debate. A Business Insider article last spring claimed “it is probably safe to say we have slayed “peak oil” once and for all, thanks to the combination new shale oil and gas production techniques and declining fuel use.” It was counterpointed here. But I basically don’t care.

All the talk of peak oil, that we are running out of fossil fuels and therefore need alternatives — or that we’re not and therefore there’s nothing to worry about — is a distraction. In fact, it’s worse than a distraction; it’s misleading because it makes people think that the goal is to find more oil. And that then gives people the impression that since we, in fact, do have existing and yet-to-be-found sources, we don’t have any energy problems. That’s a dangerous path.

The problem is not a lack of carbon-based fuels. The problem is that, if we use those fuels, the resulting greenhouse gas emissions will push the atmosphere far off the critical balance needed to maintain the climate. In other words, those sources – coal, oil, gas – must be left in the ground. Burning them is nothing less than suicide.

The only reason we should really care about peak oil is that it means oil will be getting increasingly expensive and, as that happens, renewable sources will become more competitive. (And that’s before factoring in technical and manufacturing advances for renewables. And certainly before factoring in the unaccounted for “external” costs of non-renewables. When you do that, renewables simply become an even more overwhelmingly obvious choice.)

In many of my environmental classes, I start with a slide that shouts “It’s not just about climate change.” And it isn’t: we have a litany of other serious environmental concerns that shouldn’t – can’t – be neglected as we address human-caused climate disruption. But in the case of carbon-based fossil fuels, it really is all about climate change. Whether we’ve reached peak oil or not is irrelevant. Whether we have oil spills or polluted water from fracking is almost irrelevant, too.  (With emphasis on the word “almost.”) The carbon within fossil fuels must be left sequestered in the ground.

That leads to one more point. Those untapped fuels are sometimes referred to as “stranded assets.” Those poor assets, left stranded. (Or perhaps more to the point, those poor, poor owners of those assets.) We should really think of them, though, not as stranded assets, but as neutralized WMDs since burning them would, in the words of Columbia environmental science prof and former NASA scientist James Hansen, “make most of the planet uninhabitable by humans.”

So we want to strand those WMDs, err, assets. It’s an EcoOptimistic solution in that it addresses both ecological and economic issues and puts us on a path to improving our lives as well. The oil industry may not see it that way, but their definitions of economics and human wellbeing are, to put it mildly, different from yours (I suspect) and mine.

All of the Above. None of the Below.

I don’t like slogans, despite my lamenting the lack of good ones in the environmental world. Like analogies, they tend to oversimplify and convince with their catchiness. (Grammarians may note that I made a simile there between analogies and slogans. My high school English teachers would be proud.) Think of the slogan “guns don’t kill; people do.” Um, yeah, guns do kill. Or “America: Love it or Leave It.” That’s certainly not the only choice.

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said "This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy…” Image source: NPR

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said “This country needs an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy…” Image source: NPR

But I can come up with slogans, too. And in the sense of tit-for-tat, I propose a response to President Obama’s energy policy of “all of the above.” I suggest “none of the below.”  It’s both catchy and overly broad, so it fits the bill.

[On the day I posted this, Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz said at his confirmation hearing “The president is an all-of-the above person and I am an all-of-the above person.”]

“All of the above” sounds, on the face of it, entirely reasonable.  In its inclusivity, it tries to appeal to everyone and it communicates a type of urgency by implying we can’t leave out any options. However it masks the fact (I’m tempted to err on the side of inclusion and call it a belief rather than a fact, but I’m no longer willing to concede that point) that several of the energy sources that get included in “the above” don’t deserve to be.

And, conveniently for sloganeers, the sources that ought not be included come not from above, but below. Specifically, I’m talking about energy sources that we procure from below ground. More specifically still, those would be fossil fuels: petroleum, gas and coal. Let’s contrast this with above ground sources: solar, wind and, with a bit of a stretch, hydro and tidal.

There are two primary differences between above and below sources. The belows are non-renewable  and carbon-producing. As we run out of them they will become increasingly difficult and expensive, and more environmentally destructive, to obtain while emitting more and more climate-disrupting carbon into the atmosphere.

“Above” sources, on the other hand, are constantly replenished and free. The sun doesn’t care how much of its energy we harvest. (Nor does the moon, the source of tidal energy.) And since they don’t involve combustion of carbon-based materials, they don’t increase atmospheric CO2.

“None of the below” is not a perfect slogan. Geothermal energy comes from below ground, yet doesn’t have the drawbacks of other subsurface sources. Nuclear power, a divisive topic even among environmentalists, would technically be a below ground source though it isn’t carbon intense. Its energy origin, however, lies in uranium, whose mining is an ecologically nasty industry.

As a slogan, the main problem, I think, with “none of the below” is that it sounds negative whereas “all of the above” has a positive, optimistic ring to it. (An ironic problem for EcoOptimism.) Perhaps then the trick lies in coopting the original, redefining what “above” means, as in something like “all of the truly above.” Or not. As I’ve asked before, where is the environmental world’s Frank Luntz?

I’ve also written that I am wary of metaphors because it seems there’s always a metaphor to “prove” any point.  Slogans, which tend to make heavy use of metaphors, have a similar liability, but they are indeed useful for quick – and, hopefully, not dirty – communication. So, like ‘em or not, we need a good one.

 

Everything But the Facts

In my recent post for National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge Blog , “The Limited Vision of the Pro-Nuclear Energy Argument,” (which was a version of my EcoOptimism post “Answering the Wrong Question”), one of the commenters wrote:  “it is a fact that only carbon-based energy and nuclear have a high enough energy density to meet our world’s demands. None of the renewables come close.”

I wrote back “It is far from “fact” that only carbon-based and nuclear energy sources can meet the world’s needs. There are many studies showing that a combination of renewable sources can indeed meet that need. And that will be easier still with a rethinking of what we employ energy for and how it actually improves our lives.”

I was referring, in part, to several things I’d read including the WWF’s 2011 “Energy Report,” which states “By 2050, we could get all the energy we need from renewable sources,” and a 2009 article in Scientific American titled “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables.” An indicator that we might even be headed in the right direction was a Climate Progress post “Wind And Solar Make Up 100% Of New U.S. Electricity Capacity In September” and other reports that the growth in renewable energy outpaced conventional sources last year.

Um, yes we can?

Um, yes we can?

Then, almost on demand, up pops a post by the inestimable Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in which he responds to President Obama’s recent statement that we “need some big technological breakthrough” to tackle climate change.

Mr. President — our nation already has the technologies to protect the climate while advancing prosperity. Here’s how.

Your National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed just last June how to produce 80 to 90 percent of America’s electricity from proven, reliable and increasingly competitive renewable sources like the sun and wind.

Lovins points to findings from his RMI book “Reinventing Fire” describing how a combination of energy efficiency and renewables can indeed meet the world’s future energy requirements. Energy efficiency, he writes, “can save 44 percent of projected 2050 electricity needs through proven building and industrial technologies that pay back far faster than any new source of supply. Wasting far less energy and getting the rest at lower and stable prices would powerfully boost jobs and growth.”

Then “conventional wisdom is wrong that solar and wind aren’t viable without a breakthrough in electricity storage. Analysis and experience prove that 60-80 percent solar and windpower — sited across a region, forecasted, and balanced by flexible supply and demand — can keep the lights on with often less storage or backup than traditional giant power stations need now. That’s how Germany, without adding storage, is already one-fourth renewable-powered, and at times last spring met over half its electric load just with solar power. A smart grid will make this even more successful and resilient.”

(You may have heard about the rather spectacular recent claim on Fox News that solar power works better in Germany than it could here because “they’ve got a lot more sun than we do.” There are many reasons, all involving policies, incentives and economics, that solar power has been more successful there than here, but amount of sunshine is definitively not one of them.)

My bet is that the commenter above could provide a bunch of similarly confidant sounding reports supporting his statement.

Believing in facts?

  Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted: “I'm often asked whether I believe in Global Warming. I now just reply with the question: "Do you believe in Gravity?" Image source: Sodahead


Neil deGrasse Tyson recently tweeted: “I’m often asked whether I believe in Global Warming. I now just reply with the question: “Do you believe in Gravity?” Image source: Sodahead

My father, who was a science journalist (and covered some of the early environmental stories), had a plaque on his desk with the quote “There are three sides to every story. Yours, mine and the facts.” But that was before the age of instant digital communications, sound bites and Citizens United. Now, it seems, there are just two sides: your facts and my facts. And anything, repeated often enough, now takes on the feeling of fact.

It’s become increasingly difficult to ascertain whose facts are, in fact, factual. I subscribe to the “follow the money” rule, or rather, don’t follow the money. Self-interest is an incredibly strong force and money, these days, is its enabler. Virtually every climate denier’s “fact” can be traced to “research” or reports funded by corporate, usually fossil fuel, interests.

The counterclaim, frequently utilized in “climate gate” and elsewhere, is that scientists manipulate facts in order to secure funding for their research — as if that funding amounts to even a miniscule fraction of what corporate grant recipients and lobbyists receive. (Even that, by the way, doesn’t always work.)  And never mind that scientific findings go through strenuous competitive peer review before being labeled facts, while the only review of most corporate statements is by their public relations departments.

I know this is a dangerously broad statement and subject to the great observation by Mark Twain that all generalizations are false. But I’ve seen little to lead me to believe otherwise.

Bouncing Back, or Elastic Demand: The Historical Parallels Between Rubber and Renewable Energy

If history truly does repeat itself, then perhaps we can take a chapter from World War II and fruitfully apply it to the 21st century. At the outset of hostilities, even before 1941, it became clear that the military had a significant supply problem with a particular material needed for mobility and other uses such as wire insulation: rubber.

Rubber had been originally sourced from rubber trees in the Amazon. (The rubber, or latex, is tapped from the trees in sort of the way that maple syrup is harvested.)

Harvesting latex from a rubber tree. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

With the development of the automobile, demand for rubber soared and a vicious Brazilian industry rapidly grew. But by the late 19th century, rubber seeds had been successfully exported to Southeast Asia and, from then on, the Brazilian sourcing of rubber declined dramatically from basically 100% to, by 1940, merely1.3%.

Playing the national security card

Which brings us to the start of WWII. The US was dependent on Asia for its rubber supply, and wars on two oceans cut off 90% of the supply. Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Rubber Reserve Company, forcing the major rubber companies to work together and all but conscripted the scientists and engineers in the field to develop reliable synthetic sources of rubber. That source: petroleum.

Germany had, out of necessity, actually produced synthetic rubber in WW1, but it was much more expensive than natural rubber and, therefore, manufacturing ceased when that war ended. Now, there was an immediate dire need for the US to advance that research and put it into cost-effective production.

The wartime effort prevailed (along with such conservation measures as lowered speed limits to decrease wear on tires) and by the end of the war the US was producing almost as much rubber as it had been importing.

 

Manufacture of natural rubber versus synthetic rubber. Source: Mindfully.org.

 

It’s not a perfect environmental parable since natural rubber was displaced by synthetic rubber, dependent on petroleum supplies that eventually had to be imported. The synthetic rubber manufacturing process, too, is not exactly a clean industry. (Not that natural rubber harvesting, as conventionally practiced, was all that sustainable either.) The point, though, is that the US recognized a severe problem of national security and determined that the response had to be stimulation of domestic industry. An all-out effort was initiated and, five years later, amidst wartime conditions, the problem was essentially solved.

The new rubber?

Ironically, seventy years later, it’s the petroleum whose supply is threatened. This time, though, it’s not only rubber production that is in jeopardy; it’s our entire industrial base as well as our lifestyles, that “American Way of Life.” And what’s our national response? Let’s frantically grab onto a diminishing supply of increasingly expensive and increasingly dirty fossil fuel sources and perhaps postpone the problem by a few years while doing nothing to address the core problem. And in going that route, those core problems become even harder and more painful to remedy – if indeed remedies are then still possible — later.

If we had the leadership we had in the 1940’s, it would be a different picture. Yes, speed limits would be reduced to conserve fuel (as they were, but only temporarily, in the seventies). But moreover, we’d see a national effort – one akin to a wartime effort, not our current haphazard and intermittent programs – to ensure our national security by simultaneously decreasing demand for fossil fuels and developing alternative sources.

The synthetic rubber initiative in the 1940s was a matter of life or death. Without alternative rubber production, the war may well have turned out differently. Is the need now for renewable energy significantly different? As then, we face endangered supply lines. On top of that, the supply currently endangered is itself finite and disappearing rapidly (we’ve used up 500 million years of accumulated fossil fuel in less than two centuries) and its usage is creating issues both local and global, and threatening our health, our food supplies and perhaps our survival.

Hubbert’s Curve (above, source: Wikipedia Commons) is a common depiction of imminent peak oil. But perhaps more illuminating and dramatic is this graph (below) from one of my favorite geek blogs, Do the Math. Over millions of years, the Earth slowly accumulated a stockpile of fossil fuels. We suddenly started extracting them only a century or two ago, and are using them up far faster than the planet can replace them. “Blowing through our inheritance” is what Do the Math author, Tom Murphy, calls it.

 


The enemy is different. It’s not as easily identifiable or as obviously evil as countries attacking us (leaving aside Middle East politics and terrorism), but it is at least as menacing. Our way of life is endangered not, as George W. Bush said, by action to fix a combined strategic, economic and ecological problem, but by inaction. Perhaps the big difference is that, at the end of this “war” effort, the outcome is not merely survival, but our flourishing: better, healthier and happier lives on a cleaner, healthier planet. Not acting puts everything at risk. In acting, on the other hand, there is very little to lose, and everything to gain. It’s the consummate win-win-win scenario and shying away from it is not merely foolhardy and shortsighted, but in fact unpatriotic.

So our role models are petroleum-based rubber and the atomic bomb?

Many say we need a contemporary Manhattan Project to develop renewable energy. Perhaps the concurrent rubber project, with its industry focus and strategic parallels, is a better model.

A big, and positive, difference is that, while there was really only one possible substitute for imported rubber, there are quite a few potential substitutes for petroleum. We use oil both as an energy source and as a basis for synthetic materials (like, ahem, rubber). However, we can generate energy from a number of renewable sources, and there are alternatives – existing or in development — to making plastics and other materials from petroleum.

 

Produce packaged, appropriately enough, in bioplastic. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

 

The question might be: how do we create the political environment, as WWII did for rubber, for renewable energy? Preferably, without a war. The strategic importance argument is there, but it hasn’t taken hold in the imperative way that synthetic rubber did. And if I am to be consistent in favoring the carrot over the stick, the demand should not arise from fear – though it’s a helluva motivator – but from desire. What’s needed to engage the next Manhattan or Rubber Project?