Beyond peak oil – will black gold turn green?

I had meant today to post on probable limits to large-scale renewable energy, but that write-up needs a bit more time. So in the meantime, the following piece is timely — because it highlights some of the exciting prospects in the ‘green’ liquid fuels arena; provided that we can get our act together and should the R&D ‘gaps’ be closed [part of which simply requires more $$ — something not obviously forthcoming in the CPRS cap-and-trade model for Australia, alas].

Below is a preface article I did for the most recent installment of Issues magazine, an Australian popular science that looks in-depth a key topics in the public arena. From their blurb: “Each quarterly edition is devoted to a single topic, providing extensive background information and opinions drawn from a variety of perspectives on themes of scientific, environmental, medical, legal, social and political significance.” The December 2008 issue is all about biofuels. Here’s my opening article:


Prospects Beyond Peak Oil (original printable PDF can be downloaded here – it’s one of the two free articles available at the Issues website [along with Ian Lowe’s])

As the world glimpses the bottom of the (oil) barrel, Barry Brook ponders alternative fuels.

The modern world depends upon a vast legion of invisible energy slaves – the equivalent of 200 human workers per person for developed countries [h/t to Michael Lardelli on this]. Like servants of the kings of old, they service our every whim. From the food we eat to the cars we drive, our lifestyles are propped up by cheap, readily available energy. Oil.

But what if that multitude of energy slaves started to slip away into the night? What if the river of black gold started to dry up? The dire consequences for the continued prosperity of civilisation hardly bear imagining. Yet that’s just what’s happening – right about now (give or take a few years).

It’s called “peak oil”. That’s the time when oil production reaches its maximum rate, despite the pull of the market demanding ever more supply. It’s the natural consequence of the ongoing depletion of any finite, non-replaceable natural resource. Exploitation of it can’t grow forever – it’s physically impossible. At some point, you start to run out.

Roughly speaking, peak oil is also the point at which we’ve used half of the world’s total extractable oil supply. At this stage, there is still have half left. But it’s the tough half. The light, sweet crude has basically all gone, and it’s time to suck out the heavy, sour stuff. That takes longer, costs more money and takes more energy inputs. That’s bad for growth.

Global oil production is currently stuck at about 85 million barrels a day. Serious energy analysts don’t expect it to ever climb much above that level. A method of supply projection known as “Hubbert linearization” (named after the analyst who successfully predicted the peak in American domestic oil production over a decade before it happened in 1970) suggests that there are about two trillion barrels of useable oil on Earth. That’s the reserves of oil that yield more energy from their use than it takes to extract, pipe and refine them.

We’ve used about one trillion barrels over the last 150 years. It will take a mere 50 years, if that, to use up the rest.

At this point, a peaking of oil-based energy supply (which is now), we have a few choices before us. We can watch modern society regress to a poorer and less productive state, as energy runs out. We can continue to burn up that remaining one trillion barrels and take the climate system on a rollercoaster ride the like of which humanity has never witnessed. Or we can find an alternative energy supply. Fast.

I’m optimistic that there are plenty of alternatives out there. For instance, in theory, we can run most anything off electricity. That includes land-based vehicles, though not aircraft. We can make plastics and pharmaceuticals out of plant-based products instead of petrochemicals. We can store unused renewable energy in compressed air “batteries”, molten salts, and in chemical forms such as hydrogen.

But what do we do about liquid fuels? For a while, crop-based biofuels were thought to be the answer. Grow great swathes of corn, soy, oil palm and the like, and use these to extract ethanol and biodiesel. However, the biofuel bubble has now burst, as it is becoming increasingly clear that there isn’t enough arable land, or phosphate-based fertilisers, to sustain the scale of industry that would be required to replace even a fraction of the world’s fossil-based oil supply. The biofuels life cycle accounting just doesn’t add up.

Or so it seemed. Yet many are now quite convinced that the light at the end of the tunnel is not the headlights of the oncoming freight train named Peak Oil. Instead, they say, it’s the ignition of a new, clean-burning, carbon-neutral oil well – microalgal biodiesel, also known as second-generation biofuels.

Microscopic algae – tiny water-living plants – naturally produce oils in small quantities. This excretion is suitable for the manufacture of biodiesel. If grown over sufficiently large area (deserts are perfect), there is theoretically almost no limit to the amount of hydrocarbons and derivative products (including plastics) that microalgal oil farms can produce. The problem is trying to achieve this at a cost-effective scale.

Currently there are three fundamental roadblocks. First, the algae need to produce more oils per plant cell. Second, the growth rate of algae needs to be enhanced in normal “free” air. (At present, microalgal biodiesel production requires a concentrated stream of carbon dioxide, such as from a gas-fired power station or cement factory.) Third, there needs to be a massive “learning-by-doing” experiment to assess the logistics and refine the efficiency of industrial-scale production.

All these are achievable (insiders say within two to five years) via a combination of genetic engineering, selective breeding, and research and development inputs from a variety of scientific and engineering disciplines. Oh, and plenty of money – but money well spent on innovation for energy security, not squandered on bad loans, hedge funds, derivatives and old-style fossil fuel infrastructure.

It’s time for governments to set good forward-thinking policy that drives cleantech research and fosters co-investment with industry. It’s time for energy companies and venture capitalists to recognise that opportunities create the momentum.

Given the immediacy and seriousness of both the peak oil and climate crises, we have no time to waste.

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  1. “We can continue to burn up that remaining one trillion barrels and take the climate system on a rollercoaster ride the like of which humanity has never witnessed. Or we can find an alternative energy supply. Fast.”

    I mentioned James Hansen’s talk earlier thread here, and again, p.31- is relevant.

    Hansen thinks we’ll burn all the oil because it’s just too useful. He assumes that all the CO2 from oil gets into the atmosphere with little sequestration possibility.

    *Coal* is the big issue, as can be see from page 31. [and also the UFFs]

    Of course, the longer we can stretch oil (& gas), the better the chance are of:

    a) Improving efficiency of transport.
    b) Electrifying more transport.
    c) Scaling new renewable electricity supplies [wind, solar, geothermal] and maybe 4th-gen nuclear.
    d) Figuring out algae (I have friends trying that, and it is hard work), Venter’s oil bugs, or practical Nth-generation ethanol based on miscanthus or something better, etc.
    e) Maybe getting CCS to be useful in some places.

    BEFORE overpowering pressure comes to do more coal-to-liquid, tar-sands, shale oil, methane, and more unsequestered coal.

    Put another way, I’d *love* to have more oil&gas if it reduced (unsequestered) coal use.
    Everything argues for stretching oil as far as we can to get time to avoid worse things.


  2. JM, my reference to the remaining trillion implicitly included the +ve EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) UFF (unconventional fossil fuels), such as the tar sands and oil shales. These might be far higher in terms of barrel volume, true [though the EROEI on much of this stuff is badly quantified], but not in terms of production rate.

    Hansen is pragmatic that we’ll burn all the oil and gas – he regularly says this. I’m not convinced that needs to be the case – I suspect we’ll end up only burning about another 500 billion barrels before it becomes too expensive to bother and we end up using it to make other high value products (if at all) – in other words, we won’t burn all the oil because of the same reason Hansen states – it’s too useful.


  3. I’ve posed this question rhetorically once or twice over the last year, but whilst reading this I couldn’t help but wonder a little more than normal: what if we do replace our current level of fossil energy consumption with renewable sources?

    Exactly how would this impact on the planet, especially if such as replacement brings the other 80% to our style of resource use?

    This is an earnest question. Watching forests, catchments, fisheries and other ecosystems buckle (or begin to do so) as they have, and seeing the strain on water and non-fuel mineral resources, I can’t help but think that we are somehow replacing one brick wall with another.

    What is the picture of the planet post fuel-bottleneck?


  4. Bernard, as you know from my research field and previous posts, I agree most thoroughly that the broader issue is the ‘Sustainability Crisis’ (climate+biodiversity+ecosystem_services+energy+food+water). There is a risk that if we find a new, cheap form of electrical and/or liquid energy source, we’ll simply be ‘liberated’ to continue pillaging the planet’s resources.

    But I’m not convinced that having less energy at this point helps the sustainability agenda all that much. If people start running out of energy then they run out of food and access to clean water. As well as being bad for humanity, this makes for desperate people who will look to do desperate things to survive – including pillaging the last remaining vestiges of the natural world in order to secure the necessities of living. It will also provoke a sharp increase in the number and scope of conflicts, and my strong fear is that this could ultimately result in a nuclear conflagration.

    Globalisation has many bad points, but it also has the potential for people to avoid soiling their own local nests with inappropriate land uses (managing a larger ‘commons’ allows, in theory, for more sensible resource allocation). We won’t fix sustainability by continuing the ‘business-as-usual’ mindset. But I don’t see that we’ll fix it by running out of energy either.


  5. JM: Good call – I see from the Amazon site for the book that, amongst other, Ehrlich (Mr Population Bomb) and Lovins (Mr Sustainability) give it a big tick. I think it underscores my point about energy and achieving sustainability – they are interwoven fates.

    “A brilliant exposition on one of the gigantic problems facing society. Klare is a top expert on the politics of energy and resources. Read him!”—Paul R. Ehrlich, author of The Dominant Animal

    “Four centuries ago, as the conquistadors roamed through South America, it was the search for gold that drove the clash of empires. A hundred years later, as the great powers fought over the West Indies, it was the quest for land that could grow sugar cane. Today, the key commodity is oil. No one knows this subject better than Michael Klare, and his book is a trenchant and informative guide to what the fatal thirst for oil means for the tensions and rivalries of our fragile planet.”—Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost

    “If you want to understand the future of international relations, worry less about ideology and more about oil reserves. Michael Klare’s superb new book explains, in haunting detail, the trends that will lead us into a series of dangerous traps, unless we muster the will to transform the way we use energy in this country. As illuminating as it is unsettling.”—Bill McKibben, author The Bill McKibben Reader

    “Once again, Michael Klare has vividly spelled out the geopolitical ramifications of resource scarcity as he did in both Blood and Oil and Resource Wars. His new book deals with our pending clash as we enter an unprecedented time of surging demand for oil while its conventional supply peaks. The book is a serious must read for any student of geopolitics.”—Matthew R. Simmons, author of Twilight in the Desert

    “When danger looms, ignorance is not bliss. Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet defines a new benchmark for understanding the perilous complexities of strategic natural resources and how they shape the modern world. Klare articulates his message with sober honesty and appropriate urgency. If knowledge is power, it is also empowering; let us use this information to rekindle hope and commit to action, vigorously adopting the practical and profitable solutions that already do exist.”—Amory B. Lovins, author of Winning the Oil Endgame


  6. A few months ago I heard Professor Terry Karl give a good talk at Stanford about “the resource curse” for human development, specifically about oil.

    With relatively rare exceptions, countries/states with “too much” oil tend to be pretty corrupt, oil wealth is very concentrated, and its existence tends to stunt the rest of the economy, as people focus on extracting their chunk of the money from government.

    She recommended Klare’s article Palin’s Petropolitics, which was quite helpful in understanding Alaska with echoes of Huey Long in Louisiana many decades ago.
    spoke a few weeks later, and was good … and scary (consider the Caspian area).


  7. Barry,

    Whilst I wouldn’t classify myself as being to any degree sanguine about our chances for a smooth energy transition, I completely concur with your comments at #6 about the dangers of ‘running out’ of energy.

    I guess my musing was with respect to how our trajectory to avoid an overall ‘sustainability crisis’ might look once we’ve overcome the energy issue. Given the recalcitrance of governments around the world in dealing with both Peak Oil and with AGW, and with current natural resources depletions, I wonder at what point action will commence on a truly global, truly workable sustainability initiative.

    What has to happen first for such to occur?


  8. I’m intrigued by your mention of storage for “unused renewable energy in compressed air “batteries”, molten salts, and in chemical forms such as hydrogen.”

    Often, I hear “pumped storage” thrown in with other storage solutions for renewable energy. Is your omission of pumped storage deliberate?

    I ask because I’ve been watching efforts to put a pumped storage plant in Southern California. I oppose it because it needs a good chunk of our local forest which is under enough pressure as is, and also, the economics (not we environmentalists) are killing it. It is expected to lose $120 million a year for its life. I’d enjoy hearing your view of pumped storage technology.

    thank you


  9. Oh, and I should have added one more to my first list, although it is certainly early Research (R1/R2 in Lessons on R&D from Bell Labs.

    At a recent GCEP meeting at Stanford, one of the most interesting talks was by Caltech’s Nate Lewis about converting sunlight + water directly to hydrogen & oxygen without doing normal electrolysis, using nanostructured (but common) materials and some interesting membrane ideas from plants to get much higher efficiencies than algae or other plants.

    His general points included:
    a) Need good end-to-end efficiency.
    b) Need to use common elements, not rare ones
    c) Need hope of volume manufacturing
    d) For storage, really want to use the chemical bond.

    See p. 52 for the general idea, p12 of good chart about usage of elements.

    Of course, the “hydrogen economy” is tough, but this is the first I’d seen in this direction that might have some long-term promise for distributed solution.


  10. I suspect that biodiesel from algae would work quite well as an adjunct to municipal waste and biochar production.

    First, municipal waste can also feed biochar — wood and paper wastes can be burned. Second, decomposing matter such as sewage can firstly provide natural gas (methane) in a sewage digester plant, and secondly can become a nitrogen-rich fertiliser after this composting (“digesting”) process.

    So we end up with some flammable material (green waste i.e. garden prunings, etc plus the natural gas).

    If we combine this with some biochar production, you also get some net CO2 draw down (charcoal to be buried) and more gases, including flammable ones (methane, carbon monoxide) plus carbon dioxide and nitrogenous gases. These latter can be then percolated through your microalgae pond, producing another fuel substance.

    So from mainly waste components, with the option of some biochar material from either dedicated crop or food crop wastes, we end up with some CO2 sequestration (charcoal), some useful fuel (biodiesel and biogas), and positive inputs for agriculture (the biochar, and any left over composted sewage as organic fertiliser).

    It would require a bit of study to work out whether the output from each stage of the process will be enough to adequately feed the next stage(s). But I think if this system is workable it would be a fairly easy industrial plant to build on a small-to-medium scale. The basic gas separation units, ponds, biochar ovens etc are all fairly low-tech as far as I understand. This would mean it could be mass-produced to a degree and set up at the local level across the country (as the inputs, sewage and green/agricultural wastes, are largely managed on a local or small regional level). It could also be built for export and help poor countries achieve some level of energy self-sufficiency without embarking further down the fossil fuels road.


  11. Pingback: Peak Oil Discussion « BraveNewClimate

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