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on July 3, 2004
There's no question that within a decade at the most, and probably within two years, we'll be forced to begin utilizing alternative fuels to a much greater extent than today, as we will begin seeing the demand for oil exceed global petroleum production capabilities. But the doomsayers are simply poorly informed about the progress that has been made in renewables and other technologies over the past five years. Since Heinberg is so uninformed, I'll try to educate him briefly.
Perhaps the most significant recent advance has been the order-of-magnitude drop in the cost of the enzyme needed to make cellulosic ethanol from waste and switchgrass. Equally important, wind energy in favorable locations is now competitive with natural gas. Also, the cost of photovoltaic has dropped by a factor of three in the past decade, and another factor of two drop in price can be expected in the coming decade, at which point it will begin to compete in select applications. Electric vehicles, using lithium ion batteries, with driving range over 350 miles, will be available within a year, and they will be competitive in major respects with gasoline hybrids. Within a few years, advanced, clean-coal power plants with CO2 sequestration will be more efficient than most coal-fired power plants currently in use today.
About two-thirds of our current hydrogen production (from natural gas, which is a very limited resource in North America) is used to make ammonia and nitrates for fertilizers. We can use wind farms in the Dakotas to produce all the renewable fertilizer our nation needs (this would take about 250 GW of peak wind power). Of course, various raw materials would need to be transported to the wind farms, and the fertilizers would need to be transported out, but fertilizers are much more easily stored and transported (by rail) than hydrogen. We can easily eliminate the use of fossil fuels for fertilizers. The potential benefit is huge, both in terms of massive industrial jobs creation (over a 10 to 15-year period) and in terms of CO2 emissions reductions. Moreover, such a project would also eliminate our dependence on imported LNG and allow natural gas prices to decrease.
Several excellent articles that have appeared recently on advanced biofuels include the following:
Yes, things will change, and we can expect oil to stabilize at around $60/bbl (current dollars) within a few years, but the world will deal with it. That price, along with fossil carbon taxes, will be high enough to make renewables and synfuel largely replace petroleum over the next four decades. As a result, we'll still be pumping some petroleum a hundred years from now - albeit at a greatly reduced rate. And by the way, Heinberg is absolutely right about one thing: the energy solution will not involve hydrogen. (...)
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on April 28, 2004
The book evaluates alternative energy sources with a metric called "energy returned on energy invested" (EROEI). This makes it appear scientific, but there are problems with the analysis. The author clearly prefers cleaner energy sources, and so does his science.
Most discussions of this topic fail to consider the total available energy if we used multiple alternatives (e.g., shale and coal and nuclear and wind) at once, something which could happen in a true supply crisis. This book is no exception: it gives thumbs up or down on each alternative as though we can only choose one at a time. The author irrationally rules out the possibility that new technologies in recovering oil/shale/coal etc. could appear in time to help us, or that efficiencies in solar panel technology are possible. His bias prevents him from even realizing that, if only to better our odds of survival, a chunk of cash should be invested in this kind of R&D, as part of a comprehensive solution.
The EROEI figures are misleading when he considers solutions which arise from waste products, such as biodiesel. Biodiesel is often made from waste oil used in french fry production. Fair measurements shouldn't include the cost of growing the vegetables that were used to make the oil, as this was going to be done anyway. It's true that, in energy shortage, we might produce fewer vegetables (and one can't produce all of our energy needs from waste products), but doing so would boost the efficiency of the other primary energy sources. He should include a set of EROEI figures for biodiesel, with and without the energy cost of growing waste product. This applies to ethanol (which I believe can be made from discarded corn husks) as well. He doesn't even mention thermal depolymerization, which generates new petroleum by pressurizing and heating biomass or plastics (and thus extends the "party" and throws off the thesis of the book).
As to nuclear power, the author calculates its EROEI based on today's plants, which he notes are rarely operational. But they are rarely operational because of public opposition and protests, not because of possible energy return. France gets 76% of its power from nuclear fission today, because the French public are less agitated about the topic than Americans are. Again, the EROEI figure he uses should be accompanied by another figure which shows what is ideally possible from that technology. Having these upper and lower limits-- a range of EROEI-- would give us a more scientific presentation on what's possible, alongside what's currently considered practical. Public attitudes can and do change.
I think the polemic is entertaining and probably largely accurate, but turns off the half of the audience which vote Republican, and, as such, was unconstructive.
I do appreciate his not adding to the misleading "hydrogen economy" hype, which glibly spins hydrogen as though it is itself a source of energy, when, in reality, an undiscussed energy source would have to be available in order to even produce hydrogen. Claiming hydrogen is a source of energy is like claiming "batteries" are the solution to energy production. Kudos for not getting sidetracked into that sad ploy.
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on April 26, 2004
I appreciate the book's attempt to use metrics. We need this sort of analysis. But I think it gets sometimes off track and its use of the statistics is a little tendentious. The geopolitical element is relevant, but some Republican voters have posted that its pot-shots at Bush and others are gratuitous. I personally agree with the author that Bush and his party are a huge part of the political problem, but I must concur with these reviewers that I wish the author hadn't put that in. It's not relevant to the underlying science, and I think it turns off many conservative and libertarian readers on an issue which we all will need them to help solve, too. Even if the government is not the main player in the resulting solution, entrepreneurs of any political stripe are certainly needed in the world of renewable and distributed power generation. Everyone's butt may be on the line. The author unfortunately deals with each alternative in Siskel-and-Ebert fashion (thumbs up, thumbs down). He doesn't entertain the possible average EROEI if (imagine!) we tried to use all available solutions at once, in desperation, something I imagine would be more likely than not in his scenario. The author is dismissive in general about the big unknown factor: new technologies improving the efficiency of some of his dismissed alternatives-- especially in a crisis when more heads would be deployed to solve the problems. As with most prognosticators, he ignores at his peril the rather large risk that the future won't be as he forecasts. We can't assume these advances will magically occur-- they may not, and his thesis that we are at risk right now is totally sensible, as is basing all of your EROEI numbers on current technology. But I think it would be more scientific to add a big caveat about "all other things being equal", and discuss this possibility in the conclusion. It is, after all, a possible hope, and something to invest in also. He presents the book as though it's guided by science alone. Then he dismisses across the board all power sources that aren't 100% renewable/clean. His conclusions could be correct. But it also happens to fit the ideological position he expresses elsewhere, and I am skeptical about the sheer likelihood of a perfect harmonic convergence between his ideology and his science. There's just no gray in that part of the analysis. I don't think he does this because he consciously wanted to indoctrinate us with "leftist" thinking, as some charge, but I think his preference for [frankly] the more environmentally preferable technologies biased him toward reviewing them more favorably and vice versa. As examples: biodiesel and ethanol may take energy to produce, but a fair analysis would include statistics minus the energy the farmer was using anyway to grow his corn or whatever was the input to the process. He doesn't mention thermal depolymerization, which generates new petroleum by pressurizing and heating biomass (and thus extends the "party" and throws off the thesis of the book). I also hate nuclear power, but the author calculates its EROEI based on today's plants, which he notes are rarely operational. I could be wrong, but don't the public opposition after 3-Mile Island and the constant protests and shutdowns comprise the lion's share of the reason for poor plant productivity? Regardless of what he thinks is politically possible (or terrorism-proof, etc.) today, he should at least give us an EROEI figure that relates to what's scientifically possible in the best case scenario, too. Opposition might change if we had no oil alternative and new reactors were meltdown-proof breeder reactors far from centers of population. If we don't want that (and, with 5 nuclear subs rotting away in the Atlantic as we speak, we shouldn't), we should at least be forewarned in case we are caught deer-in-the-headlights and we learn suddenly then that's our only productive alternative energy source, and our alternative is to lose our wasteful bourgeois lifestyle. One thing I do appreciate is it ignores the prevailing, glib "hydrogen" discussion which our society is carpet-bombed by in books like "the End of Oil", which spins hydrogen as though it is an abundant, mineable source of energy, which it isn't. In all, this book is a great first start on the subject, a great introduction to the topic, and definitely worth reading. I just wish someone else could re-do the EROEI numbers from a more balanced perspective.
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on July 6, 2004
If I were rating this book solely on entertainment value, I'd have given it 4 stars. . . it was a very enjoyable read. That said, I'm not sure I could even give the arguments in the book 2 stars. I found it particularly ironic that while he repeatedly disparages economist, he liberally quote Paul Ehrlich, who was so thoroughly embarrassed in his 1980's bet with the economist Julian Simon.
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