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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Y2K versus Peak Oil

Here’s an interesting link for all you peakniks. The post and the subsequent comments are just the sort of error that I think the majority of the population make currently, and will continue to make when confronted with the reality of energy decline.

The article draws a comparison between the furore over Y2K and the current interest in peak oil. The comparison is erroneous for some very important reasons, which I will try to outline here.

Let’s look first at the nature of both problems, starting with Y2K. The article correctly points out that Y2K was not a hoax as many imagined after the fact. It was a real problem for a large number of computer systems, and one that could have been a pain in the backside for all concerned. But, due to the generally low level of understanding of computer systems the threat was easily blown out of proportion in the public arena, and fed a variety of techno-phobic madness that reflected the zeitgeist of those times.

However, the problem was not insoluble at all. Programmers and systems administrators had very clear methods for dealing with the problems that were forecast. The problem was simply one of a large amount of work in a set period of time. The public hysteria that eventuated was entirely out of proportion to the nature of the problem and the likely effects. I agree with the author that this panic probably did in fact ensure that many of the more drastic scenarios proposed didn’t come about.

So is peak oil a problem of the same type? Will current discussion raise awareness enough that solutions will be found and enacted?

Peak oil is a problem that represents not one problem due to occur at a set date, but a complex of interacting factors likely to influence our lives for the foreseeable future. The problem may appear to be; how do we replace oil with alternatives? But the real question is; how are we going to deal with the transition to a lower quality energy resource?

This is the point that I think makes technological optimists so infuriating in the eyes of those that have seriously looked at the nature of energy resources. It seems a simple enough concept but it is in fact very poorly understood. So I’m going to have a go at explaining it.

The most crucial characteristic of any energy resource is its energy profit ratio, or energy returned on energy invested, hereafter shortened to EROEI. This is a measure of the multiple of energy that one can extract from investing a set amount of energy. For example it may take the equivalent of one barrel of oil to find, pump, refine and distribute ten barrels of oil. The EROEI in this case is 10. Similarly it may take one barrel of oil equivalent (BOE) to produce 8 tenths of a BOE of ethanol, in which case the EROEI would be 0.8.

This idea has been called emergy, or embedded energy by Howard Odum and is absolutely vital in assessing energy resources. It can be difficult to assess, and it does change over time for different resources.

One thing we can say with certainty is that fossil fuels have offered, and still do offer, the best EROEI. Of the fossil fuels oil has been the stand out performer, with natural gas following closely behind. But even these two stars can’t hold their top spot forever. As the amount of liquid and gas in the ground reduces, that remaining gets harder to find and pump. The EROEI consequently drops.

So that in itself is a problem. We are having to work harder to get the energy we need. But maybe we can change to some other form of energy? Given that, at the moment, no other form of energy (not even nuclear power) offers an EROEI as good as fossil fuels, why would we? How on earth are we expected to make our lives easier by using a resource that requires more work to produce the same amount of energy? When the EROEI on fossil fuels drops to the level of other sources of energy the transition becomes possible. But is it that simple? Indulge me while I tell you a tale.

A family live in the middle of a broad plain, on which grow two types of plant. One yields a high-energy fruit that is excellent sustenance but reproduces very slowly. Picking the fruit destroys the plant. The second plant yields fibrous, unpalatable gourds that are much less nutritious. At first the family harvests the high-energy fruit and they prosper. Their numbers swell and they are able to harvest more and more extensively from their home. Over the course of the years they destroy the easiest to reach plants and must now travel further and further to get the high-energy fruit. They start supplementing their diets with the fibrous gourds. Their number increases still further, and the availability of the fruit decreases still. They have to put more and more effort into gathering the gourds. Eventually they have to abandon the fruit and concentrate entirely on the gourds. However the gourds are not nutritious enough to feed all of the family and they start to become malnourished. The harvesting is difficult work and in one particularly hard winter several members of the family starve, followed by more the next year.

So you see the difficulty. Decreasing energy yield colliding with an increasing population is not something that can continue for long. And this is in fact a situation that has occurred often enough in history to be unremarkable (see Collapse by Jared Diamond). The difference is now that it’s not just one family on one plain, but one entire species, on one entire planet.

Now people may say; maybe we will find some energy source that has a better EROEI than fossil fuels. To these people I say, best of luck to you. If you can fearlessly go where generations of technicians, engineers, scientists and others have so far failed to go, then all the better for everyone. I have publicly said that if nuclear fusion does ever become energetically and technically viable then I will throw a big party for all of those that had faith. But my suspicion is that it will forever be a low energy yield operation, not because of the yield of the fusion reaction itself, but because of the enormous engineering difficulties, the solutions to which all entail large energy outlays.

Ideas like biodiesel and fuel cells reflect an unjustified optimism in the benefits of progress and technology. We are bound by the laws of thermodynamics in the ways that we can exploit energy, and as result of that we must face up to the effect this will have on the level of population that we can support. This is especially true since we are more and more reliant on fossil fuel derivatives to keep food production at high levels. Moreover, we need to look at how a decreasing population, not an easy thing to voluntarily bring about, will affect the way we arrange commerce and trade. As I have stated before one of our great difficulties is that our present economic system has no real ability to go backwards, at least not without great pain.

Energy decline and Y2K are two fundamentally different things. Y2K was only ever likely to have a very specific and temporary effect on modern life. It may have highlighted our dependence on modern technology, but it was in no way an apocalyptic event, and despite public hysteria was never going to be. Nor does energy decline have to be, but we need to be aware that it will have far reaching effects. Peak oil advocates hopefully will bring attention to the problem, but the difference is that the ‘solutions’ to the problem they are highlighting are not equivalent to rewriting a few lines of code. Rather that smirking about peak oil I suspect that most people will be too preoccupied with where they are going to get their next meal to worry about whether peak oil was all it was cracked up to be.

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