Friday, July 20, 2007

Facile Fables

Here it is, the report that will put us all at ease about fossil energy: Facing the Hard Truths about Energy.

Again, it is necessary to thank Alan Kelly for acknowledging that global warming may be a problem, or at least regulations related to controlling global warming could be a problem for oil companies. First, let's just note that factual errors of the most significant kind seem to be present in the report. The loudest howler seems to be this: on the core question, "Can incremental oil and natural gas supply be brought on-line, on-time, and at a reasonable price to meet future demand without jeopardizing economic growth?" they seem to have misquoted those who have tried to answer this question independently by a factor of two. Misquoting in that way seems just the sort of thing they like to do, so at least we know we are in for more of the same.

So, let's take their key findings in turn to see it there is anything worth knowing:


1) Coal, oil, and natural gas will remain indispensable to meeting total projected energy demand growth.

As we have seen here, we can dispense with coal rather quickly and while achieving the efficiency to use photosynthesis to meet our current liquid fuel use is not possible, advances in this area suggest that meeting a good fraction can be done. The improved efficiency that comes with shifting the rest to wind and solar far outpaces the moderate efficiency measures they are calling for.

2) The world is not running out of energy resources, but there are accumulating risks to continuing expansion of oil and natural gas production from the conventional sources relied upon historically. These risks create significant challenges to meeting projected energy demand.

Here we may agree, to a point, we are only just beginning to participate again in real energy and there is more than enough, but what they mean is that the world is not running out of coal, oil and gas, and on this, it is very hard not to laugh. The world is always running out of these things so long as they are being used. Perhaps they are admitting that "conventional sources" the kind they have always said there are plenty of, are depleting to the point where they can't meet demand.

3) To mitigate these risks, expansion of all economic energy sources will be required, including coal, nuclear, renewables, and unconventional oil and natural gas. Each of these sources faces significant challenges—including safety, environmental, political, or economic hurdles—and imposes infrastructure requirements for development and delivery.

Of the sources listed, only renewables are economic and have the capacity to expand, everything else is more expensive and hastens depletion. It is also interesting that safety, the environment, politics and the economy are considered hurdles rather than just the things we want to sustain. I guess when you are in the business of creating oil spills, everything looks like a beach to defile.

4) “Energy Independence” should not be confused with strengthening energy security. The concept of energy independence is not realistic in the foreseeable future, whereas U.S. energy security can be enhanced by moderating demand, expanding and diversifying domestic energy supplies, and strengthening global energy trade and investment. There can be no U.S. energy security without global energy security.

We must hitch our wagon to dictatorships. Almost all of the projected growth of supply (yes the report projects growth) comes from the Middle East. Brazil, on the other hand, may seek energy independence since they are a smaller portion of the the market and so are less important to the National Petroleum Council's business interests. Oh well, who would expect any patriotism from multi-nationals? Best to cut them out of the energy supply entirely. We're not dipping too deeply into the report here, but it should be noted that their idea of security seems to include the notion that strategic reserves allow for Venezuela or Iran to be taken off-line for more than a year each (ES p. 27). More wars for oil would seem likely to do for US security what the current oil war does. Multi-nationals may not be the best source for advice on these kinds of issues. They would like us to provide security services for them but this does not enhance our security.

5) A majority of the U.S. energy sector workforce, including skilled scientists and engineers, is eligible to retire within the next decade. The workforce must be replenished and trained.

Apparently we need to encourage students to train for jobs in a dying industry. Now, if this industry can't fund it's own training program then they must know they are cooked. But, we should look to bar the treasury doors since the retirement of this work force that they warn of here may, in part, be insured through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation even as these types of companies move their assets offshore. Renewable energy is where the job growth potential is.

6) Policies aimed at curbing CO2 emissions will alter the energy mix, increase energy-related costs, and require reductions in demand growth.

This statement seems nowhere supported by facts. What we know is that wind is cheaper than gas wholesale and solar is cheaper than coal retail except very close to the mines. The only place where wind and solar compete directly now with oil (which is too expensive to really compete with coal except on a few islands) is in home heating. In most places, geothermal heat pumps make wind and solar the better deal. While it is silly to burn coal at a power plant and lose more than half the energy up the stack to run baseboard heaters, running efficient electric heating with wind or solar, which are not heat engines, makes loads of sense. So, yes the energy mix will alter, but costs will come down. Supply growth can lessen because wind and solar are not nearly as wasteful as combustion. Requiring reduction in carbon demand growth will reduce energy related costs (except for oil, coal and gas shareholders) rather than increase them.

Now, let's just run through those findings one more time: 1) We have to have oil, coal and gas to meet demand. 2) We're not running out but we are. 3) So, need to rely on other sources. 4) US security is hostage to oil company security: need a hand-out. 5) Need another hand-out to handle retirement of work force. and 6) Global warming is expensive so demand can't be met.

Laughter is the best medicine: Hope you'll see the humor in this even through the bathos.


M. Simon said...

Too bad you are a green.

Because if you thought in terms of profit what you want would be easier to accomplish.

Think of the illegal drug market (I'm against prohibition), you can't stop it because it is profitable.

The only way to advance renewables (I'm Naval Nuke Qualified and yet the thought of all those neutrons and plutonium running lose does not make me a happy camper) is to make them cheaper than the alternatives.

With your physics background you ought to be able to pitch in.

Feel free to contact me. Power and Control is my main blog.

Chris Dudley said...

Welcome and please read on. You'll see that I'm very pro-business. The places where I am critical are situations where the playing field is made uneven by corporate structure.

I think you'll notice that I do not critisize military use of nuclear power. The waste produced there can be unmade without straining our energy budget. It makes a lot of sense to seperate what we are defending from how we defend it. There are strong reasons to make more managable logistics a part of defence while at the same time not spoiling what is being defended with overwhelming amounts of nuclear waste. These problems make civilian nuclear power very expensive, and much more expensive than renewables. However, corporate structures, which manage to shift off the responsibility for insuring against accidents and dealing with the waste disposal on to the public, create market distortions which keep nuclear power prices artifically low and thus impede adoption of renewables. A similar thing happens when we defend golobal energy security rather than seek energy independence to assuage corporate interests. In may ways, corporate business is no longer business but rather political manipulation and patronage.

I feel physics is very helpful in understanding energy issues, but what has surprised me is how much biology I've needed to learn. I have never fully appreciated how facinating the subject is. When I read about the quantum treatment of photosynthesis, my standard prejudices are reenforced: It's all physics anyway. But then I look into the energy potential for using slime molds and I get a Loren Eisely moment. What turns out to be the biggest energy issue is that we must fit in with the ecosystem and where our energy use causes damage, we need to make changes.