Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The REAL Dead-End Energy Technology

A few weeks ago I was watching a debate on the Newshour on the local PBS station involving alternative energy technologies in the wake of the catastrophic BP spill. They had a proponent of alternative energy technologies, so called 'green' technologies, and a representative championing more oil drilling by oil companies.

I try not to wax political here or on the main site, but the pro-oil company guy was both obnoxious and belligerent, and worst of all, just plain wrong about a lot of points. Especially egregious was his repeatedly calling solar and wind power 'dead end' technologies. His skewed logic relied on the fact was that the basic ideas of solar and wind power were proposed a century or so ago, but their development has only been limited since.

Of course, such thinking is completely spurious, and shows ignorance of how technologies actually develop. Gunpowder, for example, was invented about a thousand years before reliable gunpowder weapons were finally developed. But if one asked a scholar in about 1000 AD if gunpowder was a 'dead end' technology based on what was available then, they'd probably say yes. And be completely wrong.

Most technologies don't explode onto the scene all at once, but rather go through a long period of slow but gradual development, and come to the fore only when there is a clear need for them. Steam engines were around as early as 1698 (or the 1st century AD, depending on your definition), but didn't catch on as a popular technology until 1800s. Rockets took a thousand years to go from fireworks to moon shots. Even the internal combustion engine, the killer app oil needed to become profitable, took decades to evolve into its industrial form.

The past decade, when dependence on the oil economy has led to numerous wasteful wars, environment-destroying oil spills, and a roller coaster of prices at the gas pump, has shown the pressing need for reliable, renewable energy technologies. In fact, if you keep up with the technology news, there has been a veritable explosion of so-called 'green' energy technologies, refinements and breakthroughs both. Solar energy cells dramatically increasing in efficiency and decreasing in price, wind farms and geothermal taps popping up everywhere, wave and tidal power projects grabbing a number of headlines.

Now I like to be realistic, and I realize that the world will be dependent on oil for energy for many decades yet. But ultimately, there is only a limited supply. It may last for a number of decades yet, maybe even into the next century, but it will eventually run out. Oil, not wind or solar or nuclear or tidal or geothermal or alternate fuels, is the REAL dead end energy technology. The sooner we begin switching over to alternatives, the less our economies and power grids and wallets will need to be at the mercy of a very volatile world market in oil.

And ironically, it is the resource-rich oil and energy companies like Exxon and Shell and BP who are in the best position to lead the large-scale conversion to these new technologies, and insure their long-term solubility and profitability in the process. But apparently they only care about short-term numbers and have to resort to tactics like propping up shallow, belligerent shills on news programs to spread misinformation. Its a shame, really.


Zot said...

Oil as an energy source may be a dead end, but we would still need it for things like plastics and various other chemicals. At least until the technology to convert organic waste into hydrocarbons matures beyond experimental (there are at least a few pilot plants that do this)

Anonymous said...

Energy is a commodity; therefore it will take care of itself. The reason people have been slow to adopt alternative fuels is that they are still more costly than fossil fuels. As the supply of oil and coal is depleted, the price will rise and people will demand less of it. At the same time, energy companies will accelerate the development of new energy sources (whatever they may be) and the price will come down. Simply subsidizing the technology before it becomes economical to do so is wasteful.

frgough said...

This whole line of argument annoys the heck out of me. Oil is used to provide portable power, and yet everyone says we need to replace it with centralized power infrastructure.

As a portable power source, nothing comes close to oil. It is easily transportable, stable, easy to extract energy from and has excellent energy density. Oh, and it's biodegradable. And it's primary byproducts when used (water and CO2) are important nutrients for plant life.

The reason wind and solar have remained stagnant for a century or more is the same reason chemical batteries have. The laws of physics.

Paul Lucas said...

frgough: I never said that oil and its derivatives in and of themselves are not an effective fuel and energy source.

But the extraction, processing, and byproducts of oil has led to a lot of headaches, from oil spills to economic turmoil to global warming.

And most damning of all it should be obvious to everyone that the supply is ultimately limited. The reason BP was drilling a mile down under the Gulf of Mexico was because it had to; most easily-accessible sources are already tapped. But even the mile deep ocean wells and similar remote drilling operations will ultimately run out as well. What are we supposed to turn to then?

Its not the 'laws of physics' that are holding back solar and wind and geothermal, its lack of substantial investment and development, because most energy concerns in the last century have concentrated on the cheaper short-term option (oil) instead of long-term ones (renewables.) If the major energy conglomerates spent even a quarter as much on renewables development as they do on drilling development, no one would be doubting just how effective wind and solar and the others potentially are.

Anonymous said...

It very much is the laws of physics which make it impossible for wind and solar to provide our energy without energy storage technology we at present DO NOT HAVE and which we can't count on having at the scales we'll need it in the near time.

For you see, the power in wind is proportional to the cube of the wind speed, thus if the wind drops to half speed (which happens a lot, even offshore) you only get one eighth the power.

Solar also doesn't work very well at night and loses quite a bit of power when it becomes cloudy.

Geothermal also requires a site that has a lot of hot rocks to be usable and they aren't exactly everywhere (though geothermal can be useful unlike wind and solar).

Non-hydro renewables have been over-subsidised and have received subsidies far out of proportion to how much energy they actually generated.

Oil pretty much isn't used for electricity production any more these days (due mainly to nuclear power I should add), most energy comes from coal which is of course even worse, biomass which is pretty bad also gets a bit of use as does methane.

The biggest carbon neutral energy sources are nuclear fission and hydroelectricity and those are also the only two technologies to have taken market share away from fossil fuels.

Anonymous said...

Oil and coal will run out so indeed, we need long term sustainable alternatives but Solar and Wind will not work. For one, you can not build enough of them to support large metropolitan areas. 2. The maintaining is costly. 3. No one want's too see them in the desert where they can encroach upon the environment, nor off of our shores which can be an expense in of itself and lastly there simply is not enough power output for such farms as you have to build a lot and i mean a lot of such farms. At best local energy companies could set up programs for home owners and low income people to install solar units and allow some of the power to be shared to level the costs back to the grid. The real solution over long term clean energy is Thorium Fluoride Reactors. These are safe, clean green nukes that can be built smaller then our current outdated nukes and for less money as well. Imagine an infrastructure of these plants that can run our electrical grid while allowing the energy to be directed to local electric car stations, therefore replacing our gas stations and current fleet of gas powered cars. We can invest in such technologies if we allow the greed, fear of nukes and smart investment policies to make this happen. Everyone wins here.