Energy at the Crossroads by Vaclav Smil (Part 2 of 2)

Fossil Fuel Futures

Smil’s take on the future of fossil fuels seems very similar to that of Steve Koonin (and thus BP), namely that there’s plenty of all of them in the ground for us to damn ourselves to a hothouse hell, if we should so desire.  I’m not entirely sure whether this strikes me as an optimistic, or pessimistic statement, but I suspect it’s pessimistic.  If we were forced to change our energy systems, I believe (unlike many Peak Oilers) that we would be up to the challenge, dramatically reducing demand without reducing our standard of living, increasing conversion efficiencies, and innovating our way out of the mess partly technologically, and partly socially.  If, on the other hand, we have to choose to stop burning fossil fuels, I’m much less confident that we’ll do the right thing.

Ironically, despite the fact that Smil took an entire chapter to decry forecasting, he suggests some predictions in this chapter (written in 2001) which have already proven spectacularly untrue, particularly regarding China’s coal usage.  Between 1995 and 2001, according to Smil, China’s coal production dropped by ~1/3.  He attributes this largely to decreasing energy intensity of China’s economy, more efficient use of fuels, and their shutting down of many small, rural, manual coal mines.  Incredibly, since 2001, China’s coal consumption has more than doubled (according to BP’s 2008 statistical review of world energy).  Obviously, comparing production to consumption isn’t quite fair, but I do wonder why he chose production instead of consumption.  And unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like China is taking Smil’s advice, to use the highest efficiency plants available on the market today, largely because they would require a lot of expensive imported equipment.  Though ultimately, the difference between a 25% and a 45% efficient coal fired power plant isn’t large enough to stop changing the atmosphere.  Even thermodynamically impossible 100% efficient plants wouldn’t do that.  As far as missed predictions go, it’s much easier to overlook his skepticism about the inevitability of higher future oil prices, in the face of the record oil (and natural gas) price spike of 2008.  Those prices have been volatile for a long time, and now that gas prices have settled back down to $2.50/gallon, the US generally seems willing to forget that $5 gas is possible, and not something we have a tremendous amount of control over.  Next time liquid fuel prices spike, I have to wonder if we will again act surprised.

He points out that the scale of non-traditional reserves is enormous, and that high fuel prices, especially if they are consistently high will (as we have recently seen) spur innovation in extraction technologies.  The Athabasca tar sands, oil shales, coal to liquids, seafloor methane hydrates, Venezuela’s extra-heavy Orinoco crude, and much improved reservoir recovery rates can, in combination, and with the right pricing, magnify our oil and gas reserves to at least several times what we have on the books today.  Actually using all that available fuel, in a burn-it-all future, is very possibly suicidal.  At the same time, most major energy sinks have significant room for efficiency improvements.  Slower, more aerodynamic, lighter-weight cars could fairly easily increase fuel economy tenfold.  Co-generation of electricity and useful heat can double a power plant’s efficiency from ~35% to ~70%.  Our homes and buildings can, in most places, be built so that they do not require any external energy inputs to maintain comfortable temperatures.  Replacing the mountains of our daily disposable plastic junk with a relatively few durable and repairable objects performing the same tasks would greatly reduce the energy footprint of our material goods.  We can also re-design our cities to be human-centric instead of car-centric, and shift our diets away from energy intensive meat and dairy.  Even these technologically straightforward options, available today, would greatly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.  Were these fuels really to be scarce, and were that scarcity reflected in their prices consistently, I have little doubt that we would find a way to avoid using them.

The harder question is whether or not we can find the will to change our ways while leaving cheap, plentiful fuel in the ground.

Nonfossil Energies

Smil dedicates a chapter to looking at the possible non-fossil solar energies: hydro, biomass, wind, direct (PV or thermal), at our current (pitiful) energy storage technologies, and finally at nuclear energy.

He was much more positive about hydroelectric power than I am, and I think at least partly this is because he restricted his focus to energy alone.  Certainly, if all you care about is energy, then hydro is great, but if you care about water and soil too, it’s less straightforward.   The effects of large, low-elevation reservoirs in arid regions on water availability is significant because of evaporative losses, and this also concentrates salts, which are ultimately deposited in agricultural soils, and the lifetimes of reservoirs have turned out to be significantly shorter than we might have hoped, and their flood management capabilities are fundamentally at odds with their power generating ability (see When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce and Cadillac Desert for more…).  I had no idea that there were 20GW (10 times the size of the Hoover dam, 3 times as big as the Grand Coulee on the Columbia) power stations in the Himalayas.

To my surprise, it turns out that today biomass (burning wood and crop residues and dung, for the most part) still provides a significant portion of global primary energy, on par with hydro power, and far larger than all wind and direct solar combined.  The conversion efficiencies for traditional biomass are appallingly low, but not quite as bad as corn ethanol (which is negative, overall).  Even were we able to do direct cellulosic ethanol (or other indirect biofuels), it’s only reasonable if we’re desperate for liquid fuel.  Flying, for instance.

Among renewables, wind and solar are the largest, least diffuse, and most accessible energies, but they are still spread thinly enough to pose problems.  We need new transmission lines, running east-west so that we can synchronize peak demand and peak supply.  These lines need to be much more efficient than our current grid, and much more dynamic, because of the irregularity of wind and solar generation.  We need to dedicate vast tracts of land to direct solar capture.  Saul Griffith’s “Renewistan” would be about the same size as Australia.

Efficiency isn’t a source of energy per se, but we (especially in the US) waste a lot of energy without getting anything useful out of it.  Any demand management we can do will make satisfying our energy needs with renewables much easier.  I don’t think Smil buys Amory Lovins’ claim that we could live just as well on 90% less energy, but he clearly sees plenty of room for improvement, even without (horror) sacrifice.

Another thing that would make renewables much more practical is real energy storage: some way to take electricity, and save it for later.  Ideally, this could be in a chemical form, for later use with, e.g. a fuel cell.  Right now the biggest energy storage systems we have are pumped hydro.  Two reservoirs, connected by a big huge pipe.  During off hours, grid power is used to pump water up the hill, and during peak hours, it runs turbines on the way down.  Not very efficient.

Finally, we could choose to go for the nuclear option, on a scale far beyond anything we’ve done so far.  Smil rates this unlikely, for political reasons primarily, though he admits the economics are not great either (whereas Lovins thinks the economics of nuclear power is total disaster).

Possible Futures

I was expecting a few different specific scenarios in this section, but that’s not what I got.  It was almost a little bit desperate.  A familiar desperation though.  The beginning of the book was very dry, but describing the scale of the challenges that face us if we want to transition to present-day solar energy instead of photons captured deep in the geologic past, and the apparent lack of urgency we feel, as a civilization, about this task, Smil is clearly frustrated.  He has told this story before.  Some of the challenges are technical, most of them are political and economic and social.  We can probably solve the technical problems eventually, if we put our minds to it.  But it’s unclear we want to put our minds to it, or make the changes we need to in order to avoid remaking the world for the worse.

In the end he asks, were our lives really so miserable 50 or 60 years ago, before energy use in the developed world began skyrocketing?  What have we really gained by our more energy intensive lifestyles?  Is a 500 square meter house really so much more hospitable than a 100 square meter one?  Do we actually enjoy living 50 miles from our workplaces, and spending an hour or two in the car, in traffic, each day?  These questions don’t apply to a lot of the developing world, yet, but they do seem to be attempting to follow in our footsteps.

The last graph in the book makes very clear that this will not happen.  The exponential rise in power consumption over the last hundred years, from 0.5 TW in 1900 to 10 TW today, cannot continue.  We will not be using 200 TW of power in 2100.  The question is how we will manage the curve rolling over, and I don’t think anybody knows the answer.

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Zane Selvans

A former space explorer, now marooned on a beautiful, dying world.

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