The Peak Oil Crisis: Solutions a First Cut
By Tom Whipple
After a thorough airing of "whether" and "when", the Denver peak oil conference moved to the murkier issue of "So, what do we do about it?"
The current answer, of course, is to keep drilling. Do whatever it takes — cut taxes, forget air quality, drill in the parks, drill on the seacoasts, drill in the arctic, drill everywhere there is a hint of more oil. As the "more drilling" policy has limited prospects, the Denver conference explored the four major alternatives that could produce large quantities of liquid fuel— shale, tar sands, coal to liquid, and biomass.
Shale can be dismissed quickly as being impractical for the foreseeable future on a large scale because it requires too much energy and entails too much of a threat to the environment.
Meanwhile, billions continue to be spent to increase oil production from the Alberta tar sands. Current plans call for 2 million barrels a day by 2010 and perhaps 5 million by 2030. For a world which currently consumes 84 million b/d, the tar sands, which have all sorts of environmental issues connected with extracting the oil, will never replace conventional oil on the scale it is currently being consumed.
Large-scale conversion of coal to liquid fuel is the first alternative source showing promise to produce liquid fuels on the scale of millions of barrels per day in the next decade or two. The technology has been around for 60 years and was used extensively by Germany during World War II and more recently by South Africa . Although the process relies on non-renewable fossil coal as a feedstock, the world still has large coal reserves. Moreover, modern conversion methods can do much to remove air-polluting impurities during the processing into liquid fuels. A number of organizations are beginning to plan for large-scale coal conversion facilities, and this will only be accelerated as the price of conventional oil climbs higher and higher.
One of the highlights of the oil conference was a report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) about the progress being made on producing liquid fuels from renewable biomass. For those not familiar with the concept, fuels and chemicals can be made from trees, grasses, agricultural crops, animal and human wastes, and algae.
Recently, research has focused on using enzymes to convert non-edible plants such as trees and grasses into ethanol. Studies have shown that some 1 billion tons of lignocellulosic biomass (trees, grasses, etc.) could be grown in the US each year. The NREL believes the conversion of this amount of renewable grass and trees to liquid fuels could supply 50-70 percent of the US 's requirements.
New sources of biomass, along with increased use of conventional biodiesel and ethanol produced from soybean and corns as gasoline substitutes, suggests the future for the farmer and the agriculture industry in general looks brighter than it has for decades. Indeed, if a significant part of liquid fuel production becomes the responsibility of farmers, we could see a conflict between food and biomass-for-fuel production that would drive food prices significantly higher.
However, the major problem with large-scale production of liquid fuels from coal and biomass is the massive amounts of capital and the years required to build the plants to do the conversion. If worldwide oil depletion sets in within the next five years, there is likely to be a period of many years during which there will be major shortages of liquid fuels in the quantities we have been consuming.
During the coming decades, we are going to have to make decisions about how to allocate decreased amounts of liquid fuels among many competing uses. One of the guidelines will be to reduce the use of high-energy liquid fuels wherever there is an acceptable substitute.
For example, electric or even coal-powered trains could replace a large portion of long-haul truck traffic. The advent of lightweight electric or ultra-high mileage hybrid cars could eliminate a significant portion of the gasoline consumption. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine the technology that would allow a large airplane to fly on coal or electricity. There will clearly be a need for some liquid fuels many years into the future.
One thing becoming clearer all the time is that better electric storage batteries are going to make a big difference. Should a reliable battery with much denser energy storage and much faster recharge times become available (at affordable prices), it would go a long ways to smoothing the transition from petroleum based liquid fuels to renewables. Lithium-ion batteries are already demonstrating that currently available cars can achieve more than 100 miles per gallon for large portions of their daily use. Cars optimized for these batteries could presumably do much better.
One of the more interesting presentations at the conference was the role electric vehicles with big rechargeable batteries could play when paired to interact with a residence. A large car battery could help store excess solar and wind electricity, coming only intermittently, for use around a home at night. The same batteries could be recharged off the grid during the night when the power company has excess capacity.
At the moment, our future transportation is starting to look like biomass and big batteries.