September 25, 2008

Can we replace oil in general?

People who are pessimistic about dealing with Peak Oil wonder: which processes happen to use oil today, because of historical accident, and which truly have to do so? What part of manufacturing, transportation etc, is specifically reliant only on oil?

So many things run on oil - can we possible replace oil in all of these applications?

The answer is yes, primarily through electrification of surface transportation and building heating. Aviation and long-haul trucking can be replaced with electric rail and water shipping, and aviation will transition to substitutes.

This will proceed through several phases. The first is greater efficiency. The second phase is hybrid liquid fuel-electric operation, where the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) is dominant - examples include the Prius and, at a lower price point about $20K, the Honda Insight. The 3rd phase is hybrid liquid fuel-electric operation, where electric operation is dominant. Good examples here are diesel locomotives, hybrid locomotives, and the Chevy Volt. The Volt will reduce fuel consumption by close to 90% over the average ICE light vehicle. This phase will last a very long time, with batteries and all-electric range getting larger, and fuel consumption falling.
The last phase is, of course, all electric vehicles, which are are slowly expanding, and being implemented widely (Here's the Tesla, here's the Nissan Leaf). Electric bicycles have been around for a long time, but they're getting better. China is pursuing plug-ins and EV's aggressively. Here's an OEM Ford Ranger EV Pickup, and a EREV light truck (F-150).

Here are electric UPS trucks. Here is a hybrid bus. Here is an electric bus. An electric dump truck. Electric trucks have much less maintenance.

Kenworth Truck Company, a division of PACCAR, already offers a T270 Class 6 hybrid-electric truck. Kenworth has introduced a new Kenworth T370 Class 7 diesel-electric hybrid tractor for local haul applications, including beverage, general freight, and grocery distribution. Daimler Trucks and Walmart developed a Class 8 tractor-trailer which reduces fuel consumption about 6%.

Volvo is moving toward hybrid heavy vehicles, including garbage trucks and buses. Here is the heaviest-duty EV so far. Here's a recent order for hybrid trucks, and here's expanding production of an eight ton electric delivery truck, with many customers. Here are electric local delivery vehicles, and short range heavy trucks. Here are electric UPS trucks, and EREV UPS trucks. Here's a good general article and discussion of heavy-duty electric vehicles.

Diesel will be around for decades for essential uses, and in a transitional period commercial consumption will out-bid personal transportation consumers for fuel.

Mining is a common concern. Much mining, especially underground coal mining (where ICEs can cause explosions), has been electric for some time - here's a source of electrical mining equipment. Caterpillar manufactures 200-ton and above mining trucks with both drives. Caterpillar will produce mining trucks for every application—uphill, downhill, flat or extreme conditions — with electric as well as mechanical drive. Here's an electric earth moving truck. Here's an electric mobile strip mining machine, the largest tracked vehicle in the world at 13,500 tons.

Water shipping and aviation can also eliminate oil: see my separate post on that topic.

Here's a terminal tractor that reduces fuel consumption by 60%.

Farm tractors can be electric, or hybrid . Here's a light electric tractor . Farm tractors are a fleet application, so they're not subject to the same limitations as cars and other light road vehicles(i.e., the need for small, light batteries and a charging network). Providing swap-in batteries is much easier and more practical: batteries can be trucked to the field in swappable packs, and swapping would be automated, a la Better Place. Zinc-air fuel cells can just be refueled. Many sources of power are within the weight parameters to power modern farm tractors, including lithium-ion, Zebra batteries, ZAFC's and the lead-acid developed by Firefly Energy (before their demise), and others.

It's very likely that an electric combine would be an Extended Range EV: it would have a small onboard generator, like the Chevy Volt. Such a design would be more more efficient than a traditional diesel only combine, and would allow extended operation in a weather emergency.

Most farmers are small and suffering, but most farm acreage is being managed by large organizations, and is much more profitable. Those organizations will just raise their food prices, and out-bid personal transportation (commuters and leisure travel) for fuel, so they'll do just fine. As farm commodities are only a small %of the final price of food, it won't make much difference to food prices. The distribution system, too, will outbid personal transportation for fuel. Given that overall liquid fuel supplies are likely to only decline 20% in the next 20 years, that gives plenty of time for a transition.

Even hydrogen fuel cells could be used, though they're not likely to be cost-competitive soon with the alternatives. PV roofs certainly could be used to extend battery life, though the cost effectiveness of that will depend on how much of the year the tractor is in the field. Electric drive trains are likely to be much more cost-effective than liquid fuels, but locally produced bio-fuels would certainly work. Also, fuels synthesized from renewable electricity, seawater and atmospheric CO2 would certainly work, though it would be rather more expensive than any of the above.

Any and all of these is several orders of magnitude cheaper and more powerful than animal-pulled equipment. One sees occasionally the idea that we'll go back to horses or mules - this is entirely unrealistic.

The easiest transitional solution may be running diesel farm tractors on vegetable oil, with minor modifications. Ultimately, farmers are net energy exporters (whether it's food, oil or ethanol), and will actually do better in an environment of energy scarcity.

Iron smelting currently uses a lot of coal, which isn't oil, but is a fossil fuel which we'd like to eliminate. Iron used to be made with charcoal, and iron oxide can be reduced either with direct electrolysis, or with hydrogen from any source.  Eventually smelting will become much smaller - most of the steel used in the USA is reclaimed from scrap (and when industries mature, essentially all of their steel can be recycled);  an electric furnace can re-melt it, and the electricity can come from anything. About 30% of world steel production recycles scrap with electric arc furnaces ( ).

The US Navy plans to go reduce it's 50,000 vehicle fleet's oil consumption by 50% by 2015. They plan by 2020 to produce at least half of its shore-based energy requirements on its bases from alternative sources ( solar, wind, ocean, or geothermal sources - they're already doing this at China Lake, where on-base systems generate 20 times the load of the base), and it's overall fossil fuel consumption by 50% by 2020 with EVs and biofuel.  Here's a base that replaced on-base vehicles with EVs -

Some question the stability of the electrical grid, in an environment of expensive fuel. Utilities like the idea of "eating their own cooking". Here's an electric utility boom lift. Here's a consortium of utilities considering a bulk purchase of plug-ins (and a good article). Here's an individual utility buying electric cars. Similarly, utilities are buying hybrid bucket trucks and digger derricks. Here's a large commitment by two major utilities .

Here's a good quote from the Governor of Michigan: "For automakers, replacing the internal-combustion engine with an electric powertrain is both revolutionary and daunting. In a world where economic Darwinism threatens slow adapters with extinction, U.S. automakers know that they can either lead this historic transformation or become history themselves. Even today, as they engage in a struggle to survive, the Big Three are leading the way: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are scheduled to introduce electrified vehicles next year."

France is planning for a market share for EV's of 7% by 2015, rising to 27% in 2025.


What if our current system is less like a train running out of power, where it will just slow down and stop, and more like a jetliner running out of power, energy which it crucially needs to have a safe landing? Do we really have the resources to build out an alternate energy infrastructure?

Well, at least in the US, there's so much energy used for things with very marginal value that we have a very big cushion. We have an enormous surplus of energy (used for single-commuter SUVs, for example) , so we have quite a lot of flexibility.

EVs don't require significantly more energy than ICEs to manufacture. Wind turbines have a very high E-ROI.

Even if PO reduces the energy we have available, we currently have such a large surplus that we have plenty of leeway to reduce consumption in some places to free up the oil needed for such an investment.

Isn't this a tricky transition, with fragile balances between politics, communications, labor, logistics, public-calm, etc?

It's true - a transition away from oil will put stress on a lot of institutions. On the other hand, this isn't any bigger than similar transitions, like going from coal to oil, or from mules to tractors. And, isn't it good to know that there technical solutions?

Where will the needed electricity come from?

From wind, mostly. Wind has a very high E-ROI, and is plentiful. Solar, nuclear, geothermal, etc will also be important. Coal is extremely abundant, but we have to hope that we don't use it.

Aren't we going to have to live within the limits of our environment?

Sure. Fortunately, energy isn't one of those limits. I'd say that climate change and species extinctions are much larger problems.

What about the invested-in infra-structure for our oil-based life style and what it will take to tear down the old infra structure and replace it with an entirely different one? Won't we have to tear down the suburbs, and similiar infrastructure?

Yes, we'll have to toss out some ICE trucks and cars before the end of their natural lifetime. On the other hand, we do that all of the time: the average US car/SUV/pickup gets 50% of it's lifetime mileage by the time it's 7 years old. They could last 25+ years, if we wanted them to, but we throw them away. The premature retirement of commercial trucks will hurt investors in some trucking companies, but that's a sunk cost.

The real question is, can we afford to build new infrastructure, and the answer is clearly yes: new rail tracks and rolling stock aren't that expensive, and EVs are no more expensive than ICEs.

We won't have to toss out housing - Kunstler is just wrong, completely wrong. A Nissan Leaf will allow a 50 mile commute, or 100 miles with workplace charging.

EVs can be built with the same factories - for instance, the Volt shares a factory with 2 other cars. They drive on the same roads.


Anonymous said...

Great post and I agree with 100% of what you have written.

The important question, however, is this:

How fast can we get production of substitutes moving to be able to replace AT LEAST the loss of transportation we will face during oil depletion on the back end of the peak oil depletion curve?

If we are on a plateau we may have ten years.

If we are about to start declines, we are out of time and there will be Robert Hirsch style disruptions to the economy.

In the latter case we can still make it to the other side without a total collapse but I'm not so sure about a smooth transition.


Nick G said...

DB, as I noted in my reply to your question in the post about pessimism, the US can easily handle a modest reduction of imports, say of 3% per year.

I addressed this in this post:

Robert Hirsch's analysis isn't realistic. I discussed that here:

dylan said...

Your info on agriculture is a bit limited. Large farms get subsidies that's why they seem to make a profit.

Nick G said...


That's an awfully good point - large farms get large subsidies, both in the US and Europe.

On the other hand, if those subsidies were to disappear, they'd still make money. They'd likely make a bit less, but most of the impact would be felt in the form of higher farm commodity prices. Large farms have lower costs than small ones, and will always do much better.

I changed the wording in my article from "very" profitable to "much more" profitable.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nick, I love your blog. I have a question. I too believe electrifying things will be a huge part of the migration away from oil, however, can things such as electric cars be built without oil or is oil needed during the manufacturing process? Basically, can an electric car fleet maintain itself with only electricity?


Nick G said...

Lanie, the short answer is yes, car manufacturing and operation can certainly be done without petroleum.

I'll try to give you a longer answer soon...

Anonymous said...

Thank you Nick. I look forward to your follow-up.