In contrast to the cockeyed optimism of Lamar “nuclear option” Alexander and many genuine advocates of sustainable, alternative energy, the sobering truth about our energy future can be found in a short but incisive book by Richard Heinberg, entitled “Searching For A Miracle–‘Net Energy’ Limits and the Fate of Industrial Society.” It’s available for free from the website of the Post-Carbon Institute.
In a mere eighty-three pages, Heinberg makes it clear that it will, indeed, take a miracle for our energy-intensive way of life to continue.
He begins by laying out “ten key criteria for comparing energy systems and their limits,” and then he rates the full spectrum of energy production possibilities, from the greenest to the grungiest, by those criteria. In the third section, Heinberg expounds his view of our most likely energy path into the future, and closes with “The Case for Conservation.”
The criteria are: direct monetary cost, dependence on additional resources, environmental impacts, renewability, potential scale of contribution, location, reliability, “energy density” (how much energy can be derived from a given quantity of the energy source), transportability, and “energy returned on energy invested,” (“EROEI” for short) more simply referred to as “net energy,” analogous to “net profit.” That seems like something that any capitalist should be able to understand, right?
The net energy return of the petroleum we have used for the last hundred years or so was extremely high–a hundred to one for most of the twentieth century. This fantastic profit is what has enabled us to create the civilization we think of as normal. The problem, as Heinberg is quick to point out, is that there is no other energy source that offers a return anywhere near as favorable. Domestic petroleum production today, which mostly comes from technologically complex sources like offshore wells, clocks in at around 10:1, while imported oil has an EROEI ratio of about 20:1–the cost of getting it to the USA does not completely offset the greater ease of extraction from Saudi, Mexican, and other oil fields. Coal still offers a fairly good net energy return, around 70:1 by Heinberg’s calculation, but at an unacceptable environmental cost. And nuclear power, the darling of so many on both sides of the aisle in Washington, is near the bottom of the pile with an EROEI of about 10:1. That ratio, interestingly enough, is the same EROEI that anthropologists calculate for hunter-gatherer societies Ain’t that enough to make ya think?
If it’s any consolation to you nukeheads out there, photovoltaic power also has a dismally low EROEI, and wind generators are only a nose ahead of the solar/nuclear bottom dwellers. The EROEI of extracting oil from tar sands comes close to being negative, especially if larger environmental factors are considered.
Petroleum currently provides about a third of the world’s energy needs. The only major oil fields that are still increasing production are in Russia. Mexico, which is one of the US’s major suppliers, is in steep decline, and the status of the oil fields in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait are closely guarded state secrets–and the Saudis have recently announced that they are no longer looking for new oil fields “so part of this wealth is left for our sons and successors God willing,” as King Abdullah put it. A wise monarch, at least on this issue.
About a quarter of our civilization’s energy comes from burning coal. Its high environmental price, both at the mine and out the smokestack, goes without saying; but Heinberg predicts that we are at the point of peak coal as well as peak oil, and that in another three decades much of the coal that remains in the ground will take more energy to extract than it will provide.
Natural gas provides another quarter of what keeps our lights on, and it, too, is pushing its limits. The recent invention of “fracking” technology, which injects chemicals into deep formations to loosen up gas deposits, is creating an epic ecological conflict: is it more important for companies to get rich harvesting natural gas in the eastern US, or is it more important for New York City to continue to have potable water? While natural gas once blew freely out of the ground along with oil, giving it a very favorable EROEI, the new, high-tech extraction methods have made natural gas much more expensive to extract, and Heinberg pins the EROEI of fracted natural gas as equal to or less than 10:1, which he estimates is also the threshold below which energy extraction is not worthwhile.
Hydropower, aka “dams,” provides about a fifth of the world’s electricity. There are actually quite a few rivers in the world that could still be harnessed, but the environmental price tag of doing this would be quite high, in terms of carbon release and ecosystem disruption for humans and other animals. Dams also depend on a steady supply of flowing water, which, in a time of erratic climate change, could be problematic, and dams do fill up with silt after a while, a problem the US is encountering with Hoover and Glenn Canyon dams on the Colorado River. When, not if, these dams become full of silt and empty of water, it will be “game over” for much of the southwestern US. Sooner or later, China’s massive dam projects will meet the same fate. Increased hydropower is not a long-term solution to our demand for electricity.
Heinberg next analyzes nuclear power, which accounts for a mere 6% of world electrical production. If we attempted to achieve Senator Alexander’s fantasy of replacing coal and oil with nuclear power, we would need to build nearly ten times as many nuclear power plants as are now in existence–but there’s a supply choke-chain for uranium that, like coal and oil supplies, gets tight about the middle of this century–and that’s without a massive increase in demand for nuclear fuel–production of which, Heinberg is quick to point out, is neither clean nor carbon-neutral. Nuclear power advocates have been promising for decades that reprocessed nuclear fuel will give nuclear energy long-term viability, but the reality of nuclear fuel “reprocessing” is, Heinberg points out, still experimental at best and highly polluting at worst. France, which Senator Alexander likes to hold up as a shining example of nuclear power, has a radioactive hot zone around its reprocessing plant that should be enough to give anybody pause.
Heinberg then goes on to give us the mostly bad news about all the “green” and not-so-green energy alternatives. Wind power is intermittent and land-intensive; photovoltaic power is too high-tech and dependent on rare elements; biofuels have ridiculously low EROEIs and all too often take food out of people’s mouths, biomass is at or beyond its sustainable supply limits already, passive solar doesn’t really generate energy, it just conserves it. He has some good things to say about solar mirrors and geothermal energy, but both are dependent on a fossil-fuel economy–which, it appears, is going to be fading away in the coming decades.
So–what is to be done?
On page 58, Heinberg tells us:
…there is no single “silver-bullet” energy source capable of replacing conventional fossil fuels directly….Though several of the sources discussed already serve, or are capable of serving, as secondary energy sources.
This means that as fossil fuels deplete, and as society reduces reliance on them in order to avert catastrophic climate impacts, we will have to use every available alternative energy source strategically. Instead of a silver bullet, we have in our arsenal only BBs, each with a unique profile of strengths and weaknesses that must be taken into account.
And even if we fire all our BB’s, the result will still be, in his words
…the world’s economy is likely to become increasingly energy-constrained as fossil fuels deplete and are phased out for environmental reasons. It is highly unlikely that the entire world will ever reach an American or even a European level of energy consumption,and even the maintenance of current energy consumption levels will require massive investment.
That “massive investment,” as he sees it, is quite unlikely. Why? He doesn’t say it, but I will: there is too much inertia in the status quo. The world’s wealthiest people believe that there is not enough to go around, and they have determined that they will do whatever it takes to hang on to what they have, and to hell with the rest of us. If the planet would be better off with fewer humans, let social Darwinism determine who survives–but candy-coat it, spin it carefully, find charismatic spokespeople like Barack Obama who project caring and compassion and hope for the future; but, behind the friendly facade, circle the wagons and load the machine guns. If the US did not have such a massive military establishment, we would have enough money to fund energy transition, social programs, and health care, and still cut the budget. Why don’t we? Because of who the army answers to, and why those people want to make sure they maintain control…but, as I do so often, I have digressed…back to the book review!
As I said, the final quarter of the book is devoted to energy conservation. Early in it, Heinberg lays out the results of continuing down the path we are on:
How far will supplies fall, and how fast? Taking into account depletion-led declines in oil and natural gas production, a leveling off of energy from coal, and the recent shrinkage of investment in the energy sector, it may be reasonable to expect a reduction in global energy availability of 20 percent or more during the next quarter century. Factoring in expected population growth, this implies substantial per-capita reductions in available energy. These declines are unlikely to be evenly distributed among nations, with oil and gas importers being hardest hit, and with the poorest countries seeing energy consumption returning to pre-industrial levels (with energy coming almost entirely from food crops and forests and work being done almost entirely by muscle power).
Thus, the question the world faces is no longer whether to reduce energy consumption, but how. Policy makers could choose to manage energy unintelligently (maintaining fossil fuel dependency as long as possible while making poor choices of alternatives, such as biofuels or tar sands, and insufficient investments in the far more promising options such as wind and solar). In the latter case, results will be catastrophic. Transport systems will wither (especially ones relying on the most energy-intensive vehicles—such as airplanes, automobiles, and trucks). Global trade will contract dramatically, as shipping becomes more costly. And energy-dependent food systems will falter, as chemical input and transport costs soar. All of this could in turn lead to very high long-term unemployment and perhaps even famine.
Yes, folks, we are staring down the road to Hell, and yes, it is paved with good intentions.
The other road, the one we have not yet taken, involves rethinking, restructuring, and restraint. For an example of “rethinking,” one of the most important points Heinberg makes is that we need to quit thinking of “growth” as a measure of the health of an economy.
There are a lot of “re-words” in Heinberg’s list of, uh, re-medies: research, retrofit, reduction, re-localization, re-ruralization, re-direction, and return–as in,
The return of control of the bulk of the world’s remaining natural resources from corporations and financial institutions in the industrialized countries to the people of the less industrialized nations where those resources are located.
For me, this simple statement has incredible ramifications. For one thing, I think the corporate pirates and their puppets in government are highly unlikely to let go of their ill-gotten gains. On the other hand, this is what many corporate mouthpieces are talking about when they say of people who are not co-operating with their agenda, “They hate us for our freedom.” They hate us for our freedom to go into their back yard and take their stuff–and well they should.
Heinberg also points out that this greed is unnecessary, citing studies that relate human satisfaction to energy access:
The data appear to show that well-being requires at least 50 to 70 Giga Joules (of energy) per capita per year. As consumption above that level slightly expands, a sense of well being also expands, but only up to about 100 GJ per capita… above and beyond that level of consumption, there is no increase in a sense of well being. In fact the more consumptive and wealthy we become, the less content and satisfied we apparently are….. North America’s energy consumption is currently about 325 GJ per annum.
And there you have it….we are using three or four times more energy than we would really be happy with….a kind of “energy obesity.” I submit that the extreme reactivity of all those, Tea-Partiers and “liberals” alike, who subscribe to the doctrine that ‘the American way of life is not negotiable” is rooted in denial and a guilty conscience.
Will enough Americans (especially our corporate overlords) break through the cycle of anger and denial, let go, and allow a sane future to evolve? Or will we burn up the last petroleum in a battle over the last clean water, and pollute it in the process? It’s an exciting time to be alive, folks.
music: Eliza Gilkyson, “Unsustainable“