End of the Age of Oil - Part Two: The Substitute
By: Dr. Elias Akleh
Oil depletion is here and we cannot escape it. Life, as we know it, will definitely change. Nations will be forced to revert back to older life styles. People will not be able to travel long distances any more, and the world will grow bigger. Globalization will no longer be viable and international corporations will diminish. Large cities will shrink in size as people start moving out to rural areas looking for land to grow their own food. To survive towns will become dependent on smaller local economies rather than national chain stores. Civilization will be held back and societies will be forced to revert to middle ages life style unless new sources of energy are found.
Some governments resorted to conflict and war to guarantee exclusive access to as much oil as possible. The United States invaded Iraq – centrally located in the oil producing Middle Eastern region – to control the whole region. It invaded Afghanistan and scattered its military bases in the neighboring countries to guarantee control over oil and gas pipe lines from the Caspian Sea region to the shores of the Indian Ocean. Japan is trying to protect its underwater oil resources from Russian, Chinese, and South Korean ventures. China is rubbing shoulders against the United States for Canadian oil sands. Africa is an open field for all major players; Americans, Europeans, and Asians.
On the other hand, scientists are searching for equivalent and renewable sources of energy. They are looking into alternative resources such as deep-ocean explorations, coal, gases - natural gas, hydrogen and Methane-, biomass, wind power, nuclear, and solar energy.
Still tied to oil many are looking at deep-ocean exploration to replenish our oil reserve. Off-shore explorations found some oil off the coast of American continent and in the South China Sea. Drilling in the American off shores had been going on for some time, yet production was not that economical, and expansion is faced with a lot of political opposition. The South China Sea is a relatively small area, which is considered parts of many neighboring countries, each claiming mineral rights to it. Tension is very high in that region. Some scientist proposed deep-ocean exploration. Yet much of bottom of the sea is still uncharted. Typically oil was “manufactured” in places that were abundant with organic life, which deep oceans are not. So the possibility of striking oil in the bottom of the sea is very slim and is a risky venture. Even if oil is found, the crisis is not solved, but delayed.
Others wanted to revert back to coal as a source of energy. It was claimed that there are enough coal in the ground to provide us with energy for a thousand years at our present rate of use. The largest amounts of coal are deposited in the United States, Russia, and China. Coal can be crushed and liquefied to become a substitute for oil. The technology is very well known and was developed by Nazi Germany during World War II, and was also used by South Africa later on. Yet coal is very dirty and contains many poisonous impurities such as sulfur, arsenic and mercury. Burning coal fuel will produce Carbon Dioxide and other gases that will pollute the environment and the air we breathe, producing many diseases. Besides, the process of converting liquid coal into usable form of fuel is extremely very inefficient, and we have to mine at rate of at least five times the mount of oil to meet just the current consumption of energy. Mining operations should also account for the world’s increasing demand as the standard of living improves in the developing countries. One has to be really desperate to revert to coal as a substitute. Coal is also a natural resource that takes long time to “manufacture”, and eventually will run out.
Many recommended the use of gas – natural gas, methane gas, and hydrogen - as a substitute. After all gas burns a lot cleaner than oil and would make an excellent substitute. Some public buses are running on natural gas although at a very limited scale. Transportation vehicles could easily be modified to run on natural gas. Unfortunately to extract natural gas one has to dig very deep into the heated interior of earth, where rocks are melted to generate gas. Then you have to liquefy the gas for ease of transportation, storage, and usage. This process is very dangerous and expensive that makes it an energy-negative process. You spend more energy into the process than the energy you get out of it.
Methane gas exists in its crude form as methane hydrate, which is a solid that looks like ice and burns as you ignite it. Methane gas is released when the hydrate is immersed into water under high pressure. Methane gas is another finite substitute for oil that we have very little knowledge about; we don’t know where its deposits are, how much of it exists, and whether it could be economically mined.
Hydrogen is another substitute embraced by the American President Bush and by California governor Schwarzenegger as a solution to the oil crisis. It was declared that the moon has large amounts of Hydrogen that could be harvested for future use. To produce Hydrogen for our earthly use we need to extract it from either methane or from water. Methane as we mentioned earlier is another finite fossil fuel. Electrolysis is the process of using electricity to extract hydrogen from water. This process is so inefficient; one needs about six gallons of gas to produce enough electricity to extract enough hydrogen to replace only one gallon of gas.
Many European scientists looked for waste biomass to produce burning gas. Although some European farmers as well as poor Chinese families use some sort of biomass tanks to produce enough gas for their own consumption, the process is not very practical on a large scale. The process of collecting the unsanitary biomass, processing it, and getting rid of its waste poses a health problem. Besides, the amount of produced biomass would not be efficient to generate electricity for metropolitan consumption.
Wind power is a clean viable energy substitute that is being used by some communities. Some Native American tribes have built wind farms to supply their communities with electricity. Regions in northern Europe have strong wind currents that are being used to generate electricity. Yet wind power is not a dependable source of energy for there are very few places on Earth where wind blows strongly and steadily, and you need large areas to build efficient wind farms. Many times wind dies out.
Debate over the use of nuclear energy has been revived during the last few years. Due to the meltdown of the American Three Mile Island nuclear reactor in 1979, and the Chernobyl explosion in 1986, opposition to building more nuclear reactors was very strong. Opponents argue that nuclear reactors pose a devastating threat to all types of life on Earth, and cause permanent damage to the environment. The process of enriching uranium requires the use of large coal power plants that produce large amounts of carbon dioxide and C.F.C. gas – Chloroflouromethane gas – that destroy the ozone layer protecting us from harmful sun rays. Nuclear reactors produce massive amounts of radioactive waste, which lasts for up to half a million years, and will inevitably leak into the Ecosphere polluting our waters, our foods, and every living species on Earth. Cancer epidemics, especially in vulnerable children, leukemia, and genetic diseases would become the norm. We need only to look at the result of depleted uranium in Iraq to see such future. To produce enough energy equal to the amount being consumed, it was estimated that you need to build ten thousands of the largest possible nuclear power plants. This is a losing race; it takes about five years to build a reactor before it starts producing energy, and it requires large amount of space and a tremendous dedicated efforts to do such a feat. With such amount of reactors in operation our known reserves of uranium would last between 5 to 10 years only.
Despite all these facts the American administration wants to build up to 50 new nuclear plants in the next 20 years according to Vice president Cheney’s energy plans. The administration has hired experts and scientists from reputable institutions such as MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Earth Institute at Columbia University, and other university scientists to cast doubts on scientific data used by opponent, and to assure the people that new technologies will help build advanced reactors with better safety features and higher energy output. As far as nuclear waste the administration offers a solution of a permanent repository in Yucca Mountain in Nevada desert a hundred miles away from Las Vegas. We should also mention, here, that the desert of Somalia had also been secretly used as a nuclear waste dump.
Backed by the two nuclear giants Westinghouse and GE the American administration is aiming at monopolizing nuclear energy to become number one energy provider to other countries. We see that in its attempt to curb nuclear industry in India, Pakistan and Iran, and in the sale of 30 Westinghouse nuclear reactors to China over the next two decades. The administration also intends to use the depleted uranium byproduct into its weaponry to subdue any opposition to its global domination.
Energy giants had ignored the easy accessible and practically free solar energy because it does not generate any revenue for them, and its source could not be monopolized. Solar energy is the cleanest, the cheapest, the most cost effective, and a relatively eternal source of energy. It is a natural energy that is stored and transformed into different forms of energy once it reaches Earth. It is stored in plants, and becomes the food we eat. It is stored in trees and becomes organic mass to be later on transformed under the ground into oil. Instead of harvesting impure secondary forms of energy, we should collect natural pure energy directly from the sun.
Solar panels are being used in many parts of the world to heat water and to produce limited amount of electricity. They are mounted on space crafts and satellites to provide them with operating energy. Specialized solar panels could be installed on the walls of buildings to accumulate energy and store it in special batteries for night use. Every house-hold could accumulate and store enough energy to meet its own needs. Solar energy could usher a new cleaner and more peaceful age.
Part One : End of the Age of Oil
*Dr. Elias Akleh is an Arab writer from a Palestinian descent, born in the town of Beit-Jala and lives in the US.