Peak Oil is You

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Peak oil also means peak renewables

Alternative Energy

Mainstream experts on energy promote some incredible beliefs. Today I was reminded just how fantastical are their beliefs by a conversation on Twitter with oil analyst Thina Saltvedt. She claims that thanks to technological progress, renewables can be scaled up at the same time as fossil fuels are scaled down. She doesn’t dispute that peak oil will happen, and we even agree that peak demand will probably happen first, but we have very different beliefs about what this means for the future of industrial civilization.

According to the mainstream narrative, peak demand is nothing to worry about. By this logic, the prices of oil and other commodities are now dropping because we no longer need so much of these materials — and if we did, prices would surely rise again to enable extraction. I have explained in a series of posts why contrary to popular belief, the oil price is not obliged to rise just because we need it to. Let me now address the other common fallacy: the notion that renewable energy can be scaled up in the face of peak oil (or peak demand, for that matter).

Most people, including celebrated experts on the subject, seem to think of renewable energy products as emanating from an alternative universe where fossil fuels play no role. All we have to do is send money to this parallel universe to get windmills and solar cells and so on in return. In reality, of course, we have at best externalized most of their production to places like China, but renewables still very much demand fossil energy input at every stage. There is not a single factory in existence capable of producing industrial renewable energy products using only renewable energy as input to itself and all associated supply lines. We are in fact so far away from this scenario that it boggles the mind to even contemplate. We would have to remake our entire civilization from scratch! And probably break the second law of thermodynamics, too.

So where would you get the energy from to scale up renewable energy even as fossil energy is scaled down? We know that nature doesn’t provide energy loans. All the energy needed to produce a solar panel or windmill must be available before you can get any energy back, and then it takes several years just to break even. So are we to believe that the extra energy is going to come from renewables themselves? Because there is no other way if fossil fuels are leaving us, whether by peak demand or peak supply. Can renewables really break out of the fossil-fuel-based economy and reproduce themselves?

This is where it gets impossible. Proponents of renewable energy often claim that the EROEI of windmills is in some high ballpark like 25 or 50, so they must be sustainable. But you can’t just look at EROEI in one small corner of the system and conclude that the whole system can work. When you factor in other things, such as energy storage or how to maintain the roads or have a functioning financial system or how to provide education and health care, renewables don’t look so good anymore. People like Gail Tverberg have helped me understand that it is the whole system that is unsustainable. It took considerable reading before it became intuitive to me that renewables can’t work. The issues are too complex sum up in a simplistic notion like EROEI, but the more I learn, the clearer it becomes that we can’t make the transition.

Even if a transition to renewables could theoretically have been accomplished, we are out of time. Thirty years ago we might have had a shot at it, but not now. We had a one-time gift of fossil energy that could at least have sustained industrial civilization for very long time if we had used it wisely, but we didn’t. We have no prospect of remaking industrial civilization to run on renewables when things are falling apart because we lack the energy to maintain the current system. Peak oil thus inexorably means peak renewables as well.

Take a look at the Tverberg estimate of future energy production again, which shows peak renewables at the same time as peak oil and everything else. I would be grateful if Thina Saltvedt or other cornucopians could explain how we can possibly defy this energy graph and have a future based on renewables. Because I sure don’t see a way.

11 Comments on "Peak oil also means peak renewables"

  1. MSN Fanboy on Sat, 28th Mar 2015 2:08 pm 


    But seriously take off the rose-tinted glasses!

  2. dave thompson on Sat, 28th Mar 2015 2:39 pm 

    I was thinking I could build my own personal escape pod of an off grid sustainable food producing homestead someplace. It would work I have concluded until TSHF. Once collapse occurs the strong will overpower whomever and whatever, leaving people who prepped dead in their wake.

  3. Perk Earl on Sat, 28th Mar 2015 3:01 pm 

    There are sometimes discussions here about Tainter’s perspective on complexity. This Youtube link is not visual, it’s a single pic with a conversation between Tainter and a moderator. He talks about how greater amounts of available energy provide the opportunity for greater complexity, but also as systems become more complex they develop more problems that require greater complexity to solve.

    He also discusses renewables which he does not see as possibly replacing FF and continue the industrial age, due in part to their much lower energy density. The first 40 minutes are the best.

    Joseph Tainter – The Energy Crisis and the End of The Industrial Age

  4. shortonoil on Sat, 28th Mar 2015 4:59 pm 

    Does the end of the oil age mean the end of renewables? We truly don’t know the answer to that, but we can say that it will be an incredible challenge to over come. We can, however, give some estimates on the energy needed to build out such infrastructure. For instance: a $40,000 PV system takes 225 million BTU to construct, or 72,000 Kwhrs. That is equivalent to the energy in 38 barrels of oil. Since a $40,000 PV system is needed to power the average home it is evident that most people will simply not be able to afford such an expense.

    Oil’s primary utility is, however, in powering the world’s transportation machinery. There renewables are not going to be able to fill the void. A $40,000 EV also requires the energy equivalency of 38 barrels of oil to build. With 247 million passenger vehicles in the US it would take the equivalent of 9.4 Gb to replace that fleet. That is almost a year and one half of total US oil consumption. The economy would undoubtedly collapse before its construction could be completed.

    The principal barrier to conversion to a renewable system is time. We have at most fifteen years before oil is no longer a primary source of energy for our civilization. In essence the oil age will have passed, and we will have nothing to compensate for it.

  5. Rodster on Sat, 28th Mar 2015 5:58 pm 

    “The principal barrier to conversion to a renewable system is time. We have at most fifteen years before oil is no longer a primary source of energy for our civilization. In essence the oil age will have passed, and we will have nothing to compensate for it.”

    I can already hear Sarah Palin…”frack baby frack”.

  6. Makati1 on Sat, 28th Mar 2015 7:01 pm 

    TOTAL systems are necessary to produce any ‘alternate’ energy. TOTAL includes some form of compact, plentiful (as in excess) cheap, energy to power it from deep mines to roof top to outlet.

    Rodster, yes, she probably will, and that worked out well didn’t it? When the product costs more to produce than the consumer can afford, what happens? Read the news.

  7. Plantagenet on Sat, 28th Mar 2015 7:03 pm 

    Obama says we have a 100 year supply of NG. When the oil runs out lets just switch to NG.

    E Z P Z

  8. Nony on Sat, 28th Mar 2015 7:31 pm 

    Mighty, mighty Marcellus!

    2012 increase: 3.0 bcf/day
    2013 increase: 3.4 bcf/day
    2014 increase: 3.0 bcf/day

  9. Davy on Sat, 28th Mar 2015 8:14 pm 

    Short you are being nice to the AltE’ers. It is all too evident the end is near for oil and AltE. We have barely made a dent in the global power generation equation with AltE at a time of peak everything, at a time of functional markets, and at a time of still adequate energy supplies.

    We have clocked up an enormous amount of debt in the global economy. At some point some kind of effort will have to be made to pay something on that debt. Extend, pretend and debt forgiveness has limits and also suffers diminishing returns. IOW the global economy does not have the capital or the resources to convert even partially over to AltE. What we see now and in the maybe next few years is all there will ever be. It will then likely be a matter of cannibalization through salvage of the existing infrastructure.

    The other issue with an AltE build out is how are all the other infrastructure going to be maintained and rebuilt at the same time AltE systems are built out? Much of man’s modern infrastructure is approaching useful life. Once AltE is built out how will it replicate and maintain itself?

    We must consider peak oil dynamics at work subtly and continuously. We can discount POD back significantly and it still presents a significant systematic risk. The system is sensitive to a very small amount of growth or lack of growth. These days TPTB are talking about 25 basis points as significant. Look how hard it is to for the Fed to raise rates even slightly.

    POD is going to start to have an increasingly bigger impact on growth. What we are seeing now is the beginning of this process. It is difficult to say how long the global system can manage this inertia of POD slowing the momentum of growth. We have a systematic economic drag that will prevent the necessary ingredients for an AltE build out. We have a segment of investors with fossil fuel bias that is not going to promote AltE. We have the energy trap with AltE because of the large upfront cost and the long payout. The global economy does not have the money to overcome this delayed ROI.

    I want to live in an AltE world. I want to have a green world. I want an end to all the brown lifestyles and attitudes. Nascar suck, spectator sports suck, the car culture sucks, and I could go on for pages with what sucks. These sucks are not going to end until a crisis forces them to end. AltE cannot be built out with these sucks sucking blood needed for AltE BAU conversion. Once these sucks end that is all she wrote for BAU and AltE. The consequences and unintended consequences of a brittle and unreformable system like BAU makes any significant changes nearly impossible and still maintained BAU. We must have BAU to transition out of BAU

    We may have a few short years because we are likely now in the beginnings of the bumpy descent. The lies, corruption, and manipulations can continue through wealth transfer and cannibalization of the public for private gain for a time. Whole segments of society will be triaged out of BAU. Countries will be let go to collapse. The hypothermic activity of an organism dying will be the scenario of a dying BAU. This can play out for a few years but we are close to the end

  10. Perk Earl on Sun, 29th Mar 2015 3:03 am 

    “Nascar suck, spectator sports suck, the car culture sucks, and I could go on for pages with what sucks.”

    Funny you should write that, Davy, cause tonight when watching the Kentucky vs. Notre Dame NCAA men’s basketball game, I wondered for how many more years there could be ‘March Madness’.

  11. Davy on Sun, 29th Mar 2015 7:08 am 

    Perk, imagine the carbon burned to go to those events. Think about the Olympics and that carbon. I love to think of all the hypocritical greens and AGW’ers that go to the olympics or visit the March madness basketball joke. What a crock of shit. I am a hypocrite too participating in BAU but I admit it.

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