The Energy Revolution has met some major milestones In the six months since I have been writing this blog, in that there there have been several key developments relating to energy technology and policy which I would like to review and comment on.
My focus immediately became on transportation fuels, as I soon found out it was our most immediate concern. The development of technology and “roadmaps” that could lead to independence from foreign oil imports for the US and other countries have made significant progress in the last six months. Although funding to accelerate usage of biofuels is totally inadequate, further evidence of the availability of potential resources is a major step.
- The refusal of congress to institute new mileage standards for passenger vehicles and light weight trucks is a major disappointment. Causes of this complacency include: 1) Congress is unconvinced of the urgency of the problem 2) Lobbyists that are opposed to these standards are much too influential and 3) Congress would rather let market forces create a demand for biofuels and hybrid vehicles rather than getting involved.
- Release of the Hirsch report which presented three scenarios for mitigating a decline in oil production. This report clearly indicates that if aggressive action to mitigate peak oil is not taken at least 10 years before it occurs we will face grave economic impact. A must reading for all concerned about peak oil and the mitigation thereof.
- Record quantities of ethanol are being produced in Brazil with 40% of new cars sold capable of burning 100% ethanol and all gasoline sold contains at least 25% ethanol. The country is nearly independent of oil imports and is becoming a major exporter of ethanol. Brazil is a model in the use of renewable fuels for the rest of the world. Please take note!
- Release of the Oak Ridge report stating that up to 30% of our liquid fuels could be produced from cellulosic materials.
- Announcement by DOE that enzymes have been developed that permit using any cellulosic material as a feedstock to the production of ethanol. This development makes possible meeting goals for producing 30% of our liquid fuels from cellulosic materials. This occurance was anticipated in the previously item and makes biofuels a major, realistic alternative.
- Announcement by CleanFuels that it was in the process of commercializing production of biodiesel from algae using smokestack emissions as fuel. This is significant in that it complementary, not competitive with other biodiesel production routes. At the same time the process also reduces CO2 and NOX emissions from power plants. Though not nearly as far along in development as ethanol, algae biodiesel would make it possible to be the major biofuel.
- Increasing sales and announcement of hybrid vehicles, which is our main means of conservation of gasoline.
- Announcement by scientists at the University of Wisconsin that they had developed a process for producing Alkane based biodiesel from any carbonaceous material.
- A new Renewable Fuels Standard in the new Energy Bill requiring a doubling in the use of biofuels to 7.5 billion gallons a year by 2012. Biomass was redefined to include any organic material grown for the purpose of being converted to energy. This is not nearly a large enough program to allow ethanol and biodiesel to replace our oil imports in a timely manor, but it is a step in the right direction.
Alternative Energy Sources
I have not followed these developments as closely as the transportation fuel requirements because they are not quite as critical, with more developed technologies available. The following is a short list of the most important developments that I have noticed.
- Announcement of the first plant to produce electricity from wave energy. Wave energy appears to have advantages over wind energy for coastal locations.
- Continued development of more efficient and less expensive photovoltaic solar cells. These include solar cells based on quantum dots, concentrating solar photovoltaics, and thin film photovoltaics. The latter five years or more off, could bring the price of solar power down to $1.00 per watt, competitive with electricity currently provided by utilities.
- Publication of papers that that argue that a diversity of the type of renewable energy sources and the geographical distribution of renewable energy plants could go a long ways towards mitigating the intermittency of power production from renewable energy sources.
- The admission that peak oil is real by the US governments and government agencies, as indicated by the Hirsch report, above.
- The tacit admission, by Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries, that they no longer have sufficient spare capacity to meet gaps in the production requirements for crude oil.
- Repeated warnings that world wide production capacities are likely to peak at 88 to 90 mgd, which is unlikely to meet demand much beyond the next few years. Any additional production due to new capacity are likely to be offset by even larger production declines from existing sources.
My original conclusions of six months ago are validated to some degree, but the details have changed considerably.
- Peak oil is likely to occur a little earlier than I first anticipated, in the next 1-5 years, with 2-3 years being my best guess.
- Sufficient alternate sources for liquid fuels have been identified, but not developed fast enough.
- The development of a commercial process for production of biodiesel could be huge and should lead to developments of competing technologies with accompanying cost reductions and increased production capabilities.
- The enzymes developed for ethanol production as significant and already implemented on a limited basis.
- The failure of congress to institute new mileage standards for passenger vehicles and light weight trucks is a major blow to transitioning through The Energy Revolution. Conservation of fuels has to be one of the major points of a successful energy policy. Without it we are doomed to major economic disruptions.
I am working on a post which will attempt to access how these developments effect possible plans to mitigate the consequences of peak oil.
Prof Goose of the Oil Drum had a post on this subject on the EZRA KLEIN that addresses these issues from another point of view which I recommend highly. Another, much more in depth analysis by Matt Savinar, "Life After the Oil Crash" is also highly reccomended.