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Facing the Facts on Fossil Fuel

Facing the Facts on Fossil Fuel thumbnail

We are so accustomed to our dependence on petroleum that discussions of alternative energy futures take its convenience and efficiency for granted.

This is Part 1 in a three-part series focusing on fossil-fuel dependence and the intersection of energy and the environment. Part 1 discusses what underpins our current dependence on fossil fuels to meet our energy needs: its unmatched efficiency as an energy source.

Developed societies have enormous energy needs, which at present can only be met by large-scale energy sources (oil, gas, coal, nuclear power, and hydro). An increased dependence on “unconventional” fossil fuels (oil from oil sands, shale gas) has been met with an increased level of concern about environmental issues surrounding these developments, including proposals for pipelines to carry oil-sands crude, and the “fracking” process required to release gas from deeply buried shales. Protesters, raising concerns about “Canada’s dirty oil,” would like to stop the oil-sands industry and cause pipeline projects to be cancelled. But our dependence on fossil fuels means we need to take a more holistic approach to these issues. At present, without fossil fuels, industrial production would be crippled, there would be no efficient transportation, and there would be little or no economic growth. Despite concerns about fossil-fuel emissions and impacts on climate, we must not lose sight of the critical importance of fossil fuels to developed society. Because of this, climate-change solutions cannot be focused only on Canada’s petroleum industry, which is making strides to reduce its carbon intensity.

There is much hopeful talk about a future “low-carbon economy” following a switch to renewable energy, but, at present, the major renewable sources – solar, wind, and biofuel power – cannot provide the necessary substitute, despite much optimistic promotion of a clean, green future. This is true even in jurisdictions where there has been heavy investment in renewables: Consider the wind farms of Denmark and Germany, which only meet five to 20 per cent of the countries’ electricity needs. Wind is too variable to provide a steady base-load capacity – coal, gas, or other traditional power sources need to be retained for this purpose. Furthermore, the scale of the needs is commonly misunderstood. A typical thermal-power plant (gas, coal, nuclear) can generate 200-2,000 MW of electricity continuously, whereas the most powerful modern wind turbines only generate three MW in the same timeframe under ideal conditions (i.e. when the wind is blowing at the right speed, which seems to only be about 30 per cent of the time). Thus, thousands of wind turbines are needed to make a real difference, and backup thermal-power plants must still be retained.

There is an increasingly urgent need to develop new and cheaper renewable-energy technologies. For one thing, the supply of petroleum is finite (something I will discuss in more detail in Part 2 of this series). For some applications – air transportation and the manufacture of plastics and other synthetic materials being among the most important – there is currently no substitute for petroleum. As a developed society, we often fail to recognize our enormous dependence on fossil fuels for these purposes.

Current renewable technologies, in addition to being of limited use, are very inefficient. In order to measure the efficiency of various energy sources, economists have created an index called the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI), which considers how much energy it takes to get the useful energy out (for example, the energy required to drill a well). EROEI can help us understand which energy sources promise a good return on investment. It tells us, for instance, that petroleum has decreased in its returns over the last several decades. At the beginning of the petroleum age, and until the 1970s, the return on petroleum energy invested was about 100:1 (100 units of energy were produced per one unit of energy invested). However, the increasing need to search for reserves in remote or hostile territory, such as the deep offshore, is steadily reducing the returns to less than 20:1.

Providing insight into the returns on investment for various energy sources, EROEI gives us a sense of their value and their likelihood of use for the foreseeable future:

  • Unconventional petroleum sources, including oil sands and shale gas, have indices in the 5-10:1 range.
  • Nuclear power, notwithstanding the huge start-up and maintenance costs, has an index in the 15:1 range.
  • Hydro power and coal have impressive indices in the 100:1 range.
  • Wind looks competitive with unconventional petroleum, at an estimated 18:1, but only when the wind is blowing.
  • Solar power is in the range of 2-8:1.
  • For some biofuels, calculations suggest that the index is less than one – that it takes more energy to create the fuel than is delivered upon combustion.
  • Geothermal energy could have great potential as a heat source and for electricity generation, but remains largely untapped.

Based on this index, then, it looks like fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas (as well as nuclear power and hydro) will remain essential to meeting electricity generation needs for many years yet. In the developed areas of the world, we are so accustomed to dependence on petroleum that we take its convenience and efficiency for granted. The compactness, flexibility, transportability, and energy density (the amount of energy per unit mass) of liquid oil and natural gas are currently unchallenged by the other sources. To continue the supply of these resources as long as possible requires drilling in more difficult areas, using more invasive technology, and expanding the infrastructure of plants and pipelines for delivery to the places it is needed. These developments raise legitimate environmental concerns, an important factor that I will discuss in the third article in this series. While it is naïve to think that our energy supply can be transformed overnight, the pressure to make this transformation is also linked to the finite nature of oil and gas, which I will explore in more detail in Part 2.

The Mark

3 Comments on "Facing the Facts on Fossil Fuel"

  1. sunweb on Tue, 21st Feb 2012 2:16 pm 

    I keep posting this. There is nothing but muscle, some biomass, mechanical wind and water that will be continuously available at the end of fossil fuels. Actually for billions, this is somewhat or totally true already. There is this search for business as usual answers that don’t exist.
    Solar and wind energy capturing devices as well as nuclear are not alternative energy sources. They are extensions of the fossil fuel supply system. There is an illusion of looking at the trees and not the forest in the “Renewable” energy world. Not seeing the systems, machineries, fossil fuel uses and environmental degradation that create the devices to capture the sun, wind and biofuels allows myopia and false claims of renewable, clean, green and sustainable.

    Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) is only a part of the equation. There is a massive infrastructure of mining, processing, manufacturing, fabricating, installation, transportation and the associated environmental assaults. Each of these processes and machines may only add a miniscule amount of energy to the final component of solar or wind devices yet the devices cannot arise without them. There would be no devices with out this infrastructure.

    How else would we do it? There is always the old way. Who of us will go down in the mine first?
    A story in pictures and diagrams:
    From Machines making machines making machines

  2. BillT on Tue, 21st Feb 2012 2:44 pm 

    sunweb, they don’t want to believe it, but, deep down, I think they know. Nuclear never was even a 1:1 energy source. Not when you factor in the hundreds of years that the waste will have to be managed or the eco damage that it has done. The rest of the ‘renewables all require oil, as you well understand. I just saw the movie “Ghost Rider 2” in which the main character takes control of one of those huge mining machines. It reminded me that that machine will never exist without massive oil energy to get it made and powered. It is bigger than most Walmarts and about twice as high and all steel.

    I Googled the biggest and found the ‘Bagger 288’:
    The machine is 104 yards high and 235 yards long (almost 2.5 football fields in length)(10 stories high)
    * Weight is 45,500 tons (that’s equivalent to a bumper to bumper line of jeeps 80 miles long)
    * It took 5 years to design and manufacture at a cost of $100 million
    * Maximum digging speed is 10 meters per minute
    * Can move more than 76,000 cubic meters of coal, rock, and earth per day.

    Now put that dirt in perspective and it would take 144,196 of those machines to mine the amount of iron ore moved in one day in the world. We won’t even mention the other ores like for aluminum or mining coal, or even moving the dirt and rock to get to the ores, etc.

    Do they really think that wind or solar is going to make a new 45,500 ton machine? How about 144,196 of them when these wear out? We are living on the inheritance of all that cheap plentiful oil of yesteryear, not the stuff we have today. THAT is reality…

  3. Arthur on Wed, 22nd Feb 2012 12:18 pm 

    The Romans had 5 story buildings without fossil fuels.

    Dutch global empire (1602), no fossil fuels:

    I am not totally convinced by the inevitability of total cultural collapse. Industrial society probably, but society?

    Denmark is doing fine with renewable energy. The island of Samso lives for 100% from renewable energy:

    Denmark now generates 33% of it electricity via wind:

    I am expecting sort of a fallback to the European 1950s, that is a society virtually without cars. But electricity will be available, albeit possibly rationed.

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