Fuel for Thought

My recent posting on deepwater oil drilling raised questions about alternative energy sources. The news of more and more permits allowing deepwater oil drilling is discouraging given available alternative fuels, but understandable.

Here's why.

A recent Science publication by Richard Kerr provides an historical perspective of energy production and consumption since the 18th century. It is no surprise that fossil fuels are so popular, because:

A coal mine or oil field, for instance, yields five to 50 times more power per square meter than a solar facility, 10 to 100 times more than a wind farm, and 100 to 1000 times more than a biomass plant. Even if analysts subtract the energy needed to extract, transport, and process coal, it still yields 50 times more energy than ethanol from corn and 10 times more than ethanol from sugar cane, according to Cleveland. Oil is now 13 times more productive than corn ethanol.

The following graphic tells the tale:


Top dog, for now.

Fossil fuels each took half a century to dominate energy production (bottom). Renewables have gained (top left), but they are diffuse and therefore less attractive sources (top right).

According to this analysis, weaning away from fossil fuels will be a "long, tough road" ahead.

Wind turbines dot ridges, distillers turn farmers' corn into ethanol by the billions of liters, and solar panels sprout on roofs. The energy revolution that will bring us clean, secure energy is under way, sort of. Never has the world so self-consciously tried to move toward new sources of energy. But the history of past major energy transitions--from wood to coal, and from coal to oil and gas--suggests that it will be a long, tough road to scaling up alternatives to fossil fuels that don't stoke greenhouse warming.

For some historical perspective:

During the War of 1812, for instance, wood shortages around Philadelphia prompted residents to experiment with burning coal for heat and industry. And when Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well in the United States in 1858, whale oil for lamps was getting harder to come by. U.S. kerosene from oil soon displaced whale oil as an illuminant, and Americans were out of the whaling business.

Perhaps the best advice is the following:

"the best thing to do is reduce consumption," says BU's Kaufmann, given that "we've got the technology to reduce energy use tremendously." Conservation would buy time for meagerly attractive renewables to make some inroads before fossil fuels begin to bow out.

Note to educators: You can download the eBook, "Energy Transitions" for free here, the source of the graphic shown above. It is a superb teaching resource about alternative energy sources.

More like this

It's clear from the graphic of US use that an opportunity was missed (from the 1980's on) to continue the expansion of nuclear power on a curve comparable to that of gas, thirty years earlier. If this had happened, the consumption of coal would now be down around the 10 quads mark instead of 25 as shown.

This may be at least partially blamed on two effects: the reorganization of regulation to the NRC and the deregulation of electricity markets. The NRC have zero operating reactor project starts to their credit in thirty-five years, and have often enabled those seeking to block nuclear power plant starts through barratry and bureaucracy. Deregulation has heavily favored the building of cheap power plants that are expensive to operate (fuel costs) - like natgas - as opposed to expensive power plants that are relatively cheap to operate, like nuclear, because the fuel costs are effectively a pass-through cost - hurts the ratepayer rather than the utility.