Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Peak Oil Crisis, Part 5: Energy in 2050

Falls Church News-Press

By Tom Whipple
June 2, 2005

By mid-century it will be over. The world will be at, or very close to, the bottom of Hubbert’s Peak so that energy derived from petroleum will be too scarce, too expensive, or too rationed to be a significant factor in our lives or economy.

That the next 45 years will be stressful is probably the understatement of this young century, for the transition from a world economy that floats almost completely on cheap oil-based energy to one that must do without, is bound to be difficult. For the United States , which with some five percent of the world’s population, currently consumes some 25 percent of the world’s daily oil production and has thus far not taken any important steps to prepare for the coming shortages, it will be even more difficult.

The likelihood of a “Deus Ex Machina,” some source of energy that is as cheap and easy to obtain as petroleum has been, does not seem very good. It will not be the much-touted hydrogen, which is a sort-of-convenient mechanism for storing energy until we need it and not a fuel. Think of hydrogen as a big flashlight battery, which is expensive to produce and, as it is a very light gas, is a pain to carry around in any quantity.

The only big source of really cheap energy anywhere on the horizon is nuclear fusion. Most commentators who understand the field say we are currently nowhere near developing nuclear fusion into a useful source of energy, and the odds of having it working in time for the pending energy crisis rank somewhere near those of winning the lottery. Beyond fusion, there are only sources we know little or nothing about, such as gas hydrates.

It looks as if we are going to have to descend the peak using whatever sources of energy we have working today. These include our old friend, coal, and a mixture of nuclear fission, solar power, wind power, wave/tidal power, geothermal, hydro, and biomass (plants that can be processed into fuel). The mix of these sources of energy we will be using 50 years from now is impossible to predict. Technology is changing, as is the relative cost of producing energy from these “alternative sources.”

Aside from the obvious, such as windy places having wind generators and sunny places having solar panels, the only thing certain is that here in America our profligate use of cheap energy for almost everything will be long gone. Conservation, conservation, conservation will be the order of the day.

Life with very limited quantities of petroleum and natural gas does not mean a complete return to the 19th century. But, at least in the short term, say for 20 or 30 years, after oil production starts to slide, there will be major, some say traumatic, changes in our lifestyles. As our transportation currently is almost completely based on petroleum, converting our 210 million cars and light trucks to much more efficient models and reconstituting neglected rail systems will occupy much of the next 50 years.

Vehicles powered by internal combustion engines will undergo the biggest change or will simply stop being used. Cars and light trucks can be built or converted with some difficulty to electric power and long haul shipping can with some effort be moved to electrified railroads.

Aircraft are more of a problem so we should probably keep whatever oil is left for crossing the oceans -- unless the sailing ship makes a comeback. While hydrogen powered airplanes are possible, there is quite a development cycle ahead so that our currently ubiquitous air travel is highly likely to be much more expensive and restricted in coming years.

The world, particularly the U.S. , has very large coal reserves -- some say as much as 200 years worth at present rates of consumption. A dramatic increase in the use of coal -- probably in some liquefied form that would make it cleaner and suitable for use in transportation -- however, would reduce the 200 years considerably.

There are many aspects of 20th century technology that will still be around and will have grown in importance. Digital communications takes relatively little energy and can substitute for much travel, learning, and entertainment. I would expect telecommuting will become nearly universal by mid-century and will substitute for much of the travel we now enjoy or the commutes we endure.

It will not be too long before we discover educating our children can be done through distance learning rather than concentrating them at the end of a bus ride or on some distant campus.

Finally, the biological revolution of recent decades will be of increased importance in coming decades as we learn to manipulate DNA to replace oil-based pesticides and fertilizers to maintain adequate levels of food production.

Somewhere along the line, governments at every level will figure out rationing of energy by price will lead to so much social unrest between the “haves” and the “have-nots” that fairer allocation schemes will have to be devised either by taxes or direct allocations.

It will be a much more government-regulated world 50 years hence -- society will become much too complicated to have it any other way.



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