Sunday, November 14, 2010

The energy problems encapsulated

The biggest frustration I have whenever I try to explain why something like Peak Oil is such a threat to civilization is that folks usually do not understand the processes that are necessary to produce something new.

And why should they believe the introduction of new products is difficult?  If anything, the biggest problem most have is that they are overwhelmed by new products that show up every day clamoring for their attention.  "How difficult can it be to find and switch to a new energy source?" such folks wonder.  "After all, I have switched between cooking with electricity and natural gas several times in my life."

At that point, I am usually reduced to helpless sputtering.  First of all, switching between methods of cooking is perhaps the easiest conversion possible.  And even that isn't so easy--even IF both electricity and natural gas are already hooked up to your dwelling.  A project to replace an electric stove with a gas-fired one will involve running a gas pipe from your furnace room to the kitchen--a job best handled by a licensed pro.  Holes will have to be cut in walls and floors, etc.  The fussy cook could easily spend $3500 even before the stove was purchased.  At that point, most folks will just say, "Screw it, I'll just keep cooking with electricity."

This also points out my Rule #1 of energy consumption--because it is SO hard to change the energy usage of something once it is built, the MOST important considerations comes at the design phase.  (A longer version of this argument can be found here.  It's my best thinking on the subject of energy efficiency.)

And yet...we are going to have to do exactly that which we would rather avoid.  The problems we have concerning our reliance on oil are not explained by a psychobabble term like "addiction."  We need oil because we built our society to run on 87 octane gasoline and #2 Diesel fuel.  And changing that reality will be orders of magnitude more difficult than running a natural gas pipe to the kitchen.

In fact, someone has actually calculated the size of the problem facing a society built for 87 octane gasoline.  I am willing to bet these guys aren't very far off.
It Will Take 131 Years To Replace Oil, And We've Only Got 10

Dian L. Chu, Economic Forecasts; | Nov. 13, 2010, 8:53 AM 
It seems the panic time for both green enthusiasts and peak oil pundits.
According to a new paper by two researchers at the University of California – Davis, it would take 131 years for replacement of gasoline and diesel given the current pace of research and development; however, world's oil could run dry almost a century before that.
The research was published on Nov. 8 at Environmental Science & Technology, which is based on the theory that market expectations are good predictors reflected in prices of publicly traded securities.
By incorporating market expectations into the model, the authors, Nataliya Malyshkina and Deb Niemeier, indicated that based on their calculation, the peak of oil production could occur between 2010 and 2030, before renewable replacement technologies become viable at around 2140.
The estimates not only delayed the alternative energy timeline, but also pushed up the peak oil deadline. The researchers suggest some previous estimates that pegged year 2040 as the time frame when alternatives would start to replace oil, could be “overly optimistic".  more
This reminds me of a conversation I once heard between a landscape contractor and a homeowner.  LC: So when would you like me to start planting? Homeowner looking wistful: How about 40 years ago.

And no matter how much you hate MS Office, Bill Gates has some interesting thoughts on these matters.
The Miracle Seeker
Bill Gates is investing millions to halt global warming by creating an inexhaustible supply of carbon-free energy
By Jeff Goodell
Oct 28, 2010 11:05 AM EDT
Bill Gates is a relative newcomer to the fight against global warming, but he's already shifting the debate over climate change. In recent years, America's wealthiest man has begun to tackle energy issues in a major way, investing millions in everything from high-capacity batteries to machines that can scrub carbon dioxide out of the air. With a personal fortune of $50 billion, Gates has the resources to give his favorite solutions a major boost. But it's his status as America's most successful entrepreneur that gives his views the most clout: "His voice carries enormous credibility about how technology can be used to solve global warming," says Fred Krupp, head of the Environmental Defense Fund.
When it comes to climate and energy, Gates is a radical consumerist. In his view, energy consumption is good — it just needs to be clean energy. As he sees it, the biggest challenge is not persuading Americans to buy more efficient refrigerators or trade in their SUVs for hybrids; it's figuring out how to raise the standard of living in the developing world without wrecking the climate. Achieving that, he argues, will require an "energy miracle" — a technological breakthrough that creates an inexhaustible supply of carbon-free energy. Although he doesn't know what form that miracle will take, he knows we need to think big. "We don't really grasp the scale of the problem we're facing," Gates tells me in his office overlooking Lake Washington in Seattle. "The right goal is not to cut our carbon emissions in half. The right goal is zero." more

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