Dr. George Possin’s November 28th presentation, Oil/Gasoline Depletion: Crisis of the 21st Century, at the McChesney Room was standing room only. Dr. Possin, who has a PhD in physics, has worked at GE R&D for 37 years, earning 76 patents and publishing 68 papers. His talk was solidly based in science and, as he forewarned, somewhat depressing.
Fossil fuels—oil (petroleum), natural gas and coal—are being depleted.
A crisis in oil will be coming soon as conventional oil is rapidly declining. Other harder to reach sources are now being tapped, such as tar sands in Alberta and off-shore deep water drilling. Both have high environmental costs, and tar sand processing requires a large amount of energy. Meanwhile the prediction is that worldwide energy consumption will increase by 50% in the next 20 years-- if the energy sources can be found. Without sufficient energy supply to meet demand, worldwide economic collapse is likely.
Ninety-four percent of US transportation is fueled by oil. Finding an alternative fuel for vehicles is extremely difficult. Options to replace oil for transportation are being explored. Coal liquefaction is being pursued in South Africa and China. Biofuels, such as ethanol made from corn, use productive land and remove a food source. Making fuel from algae has some promise, but is also land intensive and not very efficient. The use of hydrogen as a fuel is problematic: it explodes, and it is made with natural gas, a fossil fuel. Another option is electric cars, but they have limited range, and the batteries are very expensive.
Electricity, which our technological world relies on, comes mostly from coal fired plants. About 6% comes from hydro. Increasing this percentage significantly would require huge dams and flooding vast areas, which would only increase hydro produced electricity to 12%. Waves can be used to run turbines to generate electricity along the Alaskan coast, the West Coast and Hawaii, far from population centers where the electricity is needed. Wind, photovoltaic solar, and thermal solar are all intermittent. No wind or sun; no power because there is no viable way to store electricity for when the power source is down. Also, the best windy and sunny areas of the country are not near large population centers. The energy generated cannot be effectively sent farther than 500 miles because present transmission lines are inherently unstable beyond that distance, causing black outs to occur. Also, the cost of very long transmission would exceed the value of the electricity.
PV solar is expensive and takes up a lot of space. A ten square foot panel typically could supply an average of 100 watts for 8 hours, enough for four screw-in fluorescent light bulbs. Since PV cost is very high, without subsidies it is uneconomical. The panels also need maintenance like cleaning to retain efficiency.
Geothermal energy is possible in limited areas like Yellowstone. Hot rock geothermal has uncertain and has limited potential.
Nuclear power plants supply 21% of US electricity and could supply all of it. Plants can be located near population centers, unlike wind and solar. Safety is a concern. However, in the US there have been no deaths or demonstrated ill health effects of nuclear plants. In comparison, many deaths have occurred with coal mining. France supplies 77% of its electricity from nuclear. There a uniform design is used, which makes plant construction more efficient. Here free enterprise has led to each company using its own design. Storage of spent fuel has not been adequately dealt with in this country, but safe storage is a political issue, not a scientific problem.
Nuclear is the most cost effective option for supplying electricity. Capital cost of converting the entire country to nuclear power is 1-2 trillion dollars. Converting to wind would cost 2.5 trillion and to photo voltaic solar 7 trillion, which is not a total fuel solution because wind and solar are intermittent. At the most, 25% of the nation’s energy needs can be generated from wind and solar.
The future will see more expensive energy, conflict over scarce energy resources, use of more nuclear energy and more green energy, mostly wind. With decline in oil, the development and use of synthetic fuels will be increased. Development of electric trains as a major part of our transportation system is needed, and a decrease in air travel is unavoidable. Conservation should be increased, which would postpone the inevitable decline of fossil fuels.
[Editor's Note: This is a scientific presentation, but it is very understandable to anyone interested in energy and our future. George will provide this presentation without fee or honorarium to groups large and small, near and a bit farther. Contact him via email (email@example.com) to schedule a presentation for your group.]
Recommended for further reading: David MacKay, “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air”, “The Long Emergency” by James Kunstler, and “Energy Options Beyond Oil” by George and Carol Possin, which is available on line.
Ruth Bonn is a member of the League of Women Voters. Contact her through comments to this blog or privately via member email.