Marshall Brain's Follow-up on Peak Oil
The post entitled Peak oil will be a non-event generated a lot of email. One comment was, "can you show me a list of all the alternate energy ideas you are talking about?" That list is now available here:
AltEng - tracking the alternative energy sources that will be replacing oil over the next two decades
If you know of other articles that belong in this list, please send them in.
One of the most interesting articles in the list so far is this one:
Let a Thousand Reactors Bloom
From the article:
Physicists and engineers at Beijing's Tsinghua University have made the first great leap forward in a quarter century, building a new nuclear power facility that promises to be a better way to harness the atom: a pebble-bed reactor. A reactor small enough to be assembled from mass-produced parts and cheap enough for customers without billion-dollar bank accounts. A reactor whose safety is a matter of physics, not operator skill or reinforced concrete. And, for a bona fide fairy-tale ending, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is labeled hydrogen.
For exactly that reason, the DOE, along with similar agencies in Japan and Europe, is looking intently at high-temperature reactor designs. Tsinghua's researchers are in contact with the major players, but they're also starting their own project, focused on what many believe is the most promising means of generating hydrogen: thermochemical water splitting. Researchers at Sandia National Laboratories believe efficiency could top 60 percent - twice that of low-temperature methods. INET plans to begin researching hydrogen production by 2006.
In that way, China's nuclear renaissance could feed the hydrogen revolution, enabling the country to leapfrog the fossil-fueled West into a new age of clean energy. Why worry about foreign fuel supplies when you can have safe nukes rolling off your own assembly lines? Why invoke costly international antipollution protocols when you can have motor vehicles that spout only water vapor from their tail pipes? Why debate least-bad alternatives when you have the political and economic muscle to engineer the dream?
The part that is so interesting about it is that all of the technology to pull it off exists today. It is not as though this is hypothetical -- we've had nuclear reactors running in the U.S. for decades.
If you simply cannot stomach the idea of nuclear power, then you can take a technology like the Bill Gross' Sunflower. It is able to generate 200 watts of solar electricity for $400. If you assume that electricity costs 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, then a Sunflower pays for itself in about seven years. However, the cost of electricity is rising fast (here in Raleigh, the request before the utilities commission is to raise residential electricity rates 10% this year). So if you assume that the cost of electricity is 20 cents per kilowatt-hour, a Sunflower pays itself back in three years. After that, the Sunflower's electricity is free.
If you were to plant millions of Sunflowers (or something similar) in places like the Mohave desert or Texas, you've gone a long way toward eliminating both oil dependence and greenhouse gases. And, again, this technology exists today. This article proposes that a solar energy farm of the size shown in the map below could meet all of the energy needs of the United States:
Isn't that amazing? This article suggests that, by covering all of the nation's existing parking lots with solar cells, we don't even need to use new land to hold the solar panels. All of the businesses that now see their customer and employee parking lots as a cost center would suddenly be able to make a profit from them instead.
Given that these technologies exist today and are ready to go, "peak oil" will be a non-event. Yes, we will have to make some minor adjustments. For example, we are all likely to be buying new cars powered by electricity or hydrogen or biodiesel (or whatever) over the next decade or so. But most people will end up buying a new car over the next decade anyway -- it is not like this is a major change of behavior.
The adjustments to peak oil will all be like that -- gradual and obvious and straightforward. If we do it with a little forethought, we and the environment will all be much better off without oil. We will look back on the fossil fuel economy like a bad dream.