June 3, 2008

Energy production and usage after oil

[Note that I originally published this essay on Apr. 23, 2008 in some online discussion groups I'm a member of.]

Below are some articles that I have found to be of relevance to the "energy crunch" problem coming to human civilization in the 21st century. This problem occurs as the intersection of two issues.

First, "third world" countries around the world have been industrializing and substantially increasing their energy consumption, in line with other countries such as the United States, Great Britain, and so on that have had such higher energy consumption for many decades. So the demand for energy is increasing substantially.

Second, by far human civilization has come to rely on oil to produce the majority of the energy we use, but oil is a nonsustainable (nonrenewable) energy resource, and numerous experts in the oil industry and other analysts estimate that we will be reaching "peak oil" status within the next 10 to 20 years (the point at which, due to the relatively fixed amount of oil, it will reach maximum production but then production will decline after that point).

Demand increasing. Supply dwindling.

I don't happen to be one of the doomsayers, but this is an issue that people really should become increasingly aware of, in terms of (1) simply being personally conscious about ways in which to reduce their consumption of energy (energy conservation), (2) making social/political choices implementing social policies that reward more efficient uses of energy, and (3) also making social/political choices rewarding experimentation, development, and implementation of methods of producing energy that do not use oil.

By the way, in terms of energy consumption efficiency, I'm not thinking in terms of top-down government dictated social mandates, but more in terms of bottom-up economic choices. In other words, if it really is more energy efficient then it should be cheaper and people will buy it precisely because of that. These things can be very simple, such as using more energy efficient light bulbs. If you're only going four or six blocks, just walk instead of driving the car. (And I note that people are beginning to think along this line more, with gasoline approaching $4 a gallon.) On a government level, such a simple decision can have very significant consequence, such as when a city implements a policy to, over time, when a street light burns out, simply replace the street light with a more energy efficient light.

I have no personal vested interest in any particular energy producing method. I simply am aware of the fact of what oil is, and the fact that it really is going to run out over time over the next 100 to 150 years *or so*. (No one needs to quibble with me about the number. If you want to say it's 200 or 300 years, that's fine, my point remains the same.) I also happen to think that for me personally this is not a major issue, because I'm going to die an old man before it becomes a truly major problem. But I'm smart enough to realize that in the long term we need to consider what should be thought about and done now to help deal with the problem over time, for human civilization in following generations.

Also note that I have particular disdain for government boondoggles, wasting tax money giving handouts to wealthy big business agricultural interests Note that this doesn't just waste tax money, but more importantly it actually *diverts attention and effort away from methods that really work*. I'm not saying what I'm saying here because I have any bias against biofuels, because I don't. (Indeed, in the online references below you'll see me refer you to another example of biofuel production that I am led to believe is far superior to corn ethanol.) It's just that I've never read anything over the last twenty years that has ever led me to judge that the corn ethanol projects have been anything more than a waste of time and tax money.

Also, it amazes me how much so many people are confused about hydrogen fuel cells and the so-called "hydrogen economy." This is NOT an alternative production of energy. (Note that here I'm not referring to atomic fusion.) The idea of hydrogen use has to do with another issue entirely, which is coming up with ways to reduce our impact on the environment with our high energy usage. Hydrogen is ONLY an "energy carrier." You can think of it like a battery - you have to put energy into the battery to get it out. Hydrogen has nothing to do with thinking about energy production, but is only tangentially related in terms of coming up with methods of consuming energy more "cleanly." (And it's debatable whether hydrogen is even, or can be made to be, a feasibly efficient energy carrier.)

There is no one solution to this problem. There are many solutions will grow and evolve in combination in terms of scientific and technological development, and economic feasability, as our societies are forced to move away from our primary dependence on oil, since ultimately we really don't have any choice about it. The oil isn't going to run out in 20 or 30 years, but it *is* going to run out. It is not a sustainable energy resource in the long term, and we all know it.

With all this in mind, I provide you with some recent online references, about a variety of ideas concerning energy production besides oil.

Geothermal Heat Pumps

U.S. Leads World in Wind-Power Growth

"Grass Gas" Shows Promise as Superefficient, Clean Fuel

Tapping tidal energy: the wave of the future

A Solar Grand Plan
(Scientific American, December 2007)

ITER Project (Fusion Energy)

Glenn Morton's Oil Crisis Page

What in the world is happening to energy?

The Hydrogen Economy

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