March 16, 2010

Can we really transition from oil fast enough to deal with Peak Oil?

Sure. We need to be clear: we have two separate problems: climate change, and liquid fuels, not a general problem of peak energy. If wind and natural gas are inadequate, we have more than enough coal to keep the lights (and whatever else we want to power with electricity) on during a transition (for better or worse). See Are we running out of coal? and Are we running out of coal? - part 2

You might ask:

During a transition to what?

Wind would be the biggest, with (in rough descending order) nuclear, solar, hydro and others.

how long it would take?

However long we choose - we could do it in 20 years if we want, or we could do it in 50. 50 years would be no more expensive than BAU, but terrible for AGW mitigation.

What would be the cost of both producing those renewables

For wind: about $7/average watt capex, giving about $.07/KWH wholesale cost, or about $.12/KWH retail. That's a little more expensive than old, dirty coal plants, but it's competitive with any form of new generation (including new coal, even without sequestration). We can see in Germany and Japan that $.12/KWH is more than cheap enough to support a strong economy.

What would be the cost of converting everything that now uses oil to use those renewables?

Very little, if we did it through attrition. An EREV like the Chevy Volt will cost about the same as the average new US vehicle, with large volume production, and reduce liquid fuel consumption by 90% (that's the range that biofuels can scale to - ethanol production is about 10% of gasoline volume right now).

Don't you have to add in the cost of all those batteries and inverters?

Like the Prego commercial, "that's in there". In other words, wind power costs include inverters and transmission, and EREV costs include batteries.

The wind doesn't blow all the time

Actually, it does, somewhere. It just takes some geographic diversity to take advantage of that fact, and a moderate amount of long-distance transmission.

the sun shines only in the daytime.

Isn't it convenient that's when we use the most?

The transition target has to be vastly scalable

Which wind is.

but cost less than existing energy sources, else the effort to switch alone will cause significant disruption.

Not if the transition is long enough. We could transition over 30 years, and that's more than enough time to amortize the capex of existing generation. Personal vehicles, of course, last a much shorter time: we can replace about 10% of VMT per year with no pain at all.

How could we replace about 10% of VMT per year - wouldn't that require new car sales of 25M per year (50% more than the all time record)?

The thing you have to keep in mind is that some vehicles travel many more miles than other: Commercial vehicles like taxis drive much more, and newer personal vehicles drive more. Vehicles less than 1 year old account for roughly 10% of US Vehicle Miles travelled.

An aggressive transition to electric would accelerate that tendency, both in terms of sales and in terms of preferential usage of new vehicles. After all, what difference is there between current new vehicles and those from 50 years ago, when automatic transmissions were introduced? Sure, electronic stability control and ABS are nice, but 95% of new vehicle sales come from a desire for the latest fashion - that's part of why people can so easily defer purchases during times of uncertainly, like the last 2 years.

Any transition to more expensive energy, which is the only reasonable expectation, will cause significantly greater pain.

A little, but we see in Japan and Germany that electricity twice as expensive as that in the US can easily support a strong economy.

Can renewables really make up the difference?

There's at least 5x as much easily usable wind resource as we need, and 1,000x as much solar.

But a great acceleration would be necessary.

That's the thing - it wouldn't. First, wind is already "here" - it provided 42% of new generation in the US last year. 2nd, we have enough coal to cover any transition (unless, of course, we want to do something about climate change, as we should - but that's a different problem).

can we afford wind?

An investment of about $2.6k in wind power per vehicle could provide all the "fuel" needed for personal transportation (13k miles per year/4miles per KWH/8760 hours per year x $7 per watt = $2,597). For 100k miles, that's about $.03/mile, much less than gas or diesel. It will be easy and cheap to power EREV/EVs (either bicycles or Volts). As this article stresses, that's the big kahuna.

That assumes $2 per nameplate watt, at 30% capacity factor. The US has more than enough of that, at that price, to supply 200% of our current electricity consumption. Heck, either N. Dakota or Texas alone could provide 30-50%.

What role do you see conservation, efficiency and simple doing without playing in your future scenario?

Really, we haven't converted to a renewable electricity economy already because it would hurt the careers and investments of too many people. When we get to the "tipping point" where the overall society demands solutions to AGW and PO, we'll move very quickly to EREV/EVs and wind power - there will be some temporary personal conservation on the way, but that won't be the primary thing.

Heck, why do without when you can just buy an EREV/EV?

if we put all our energy into producing enough solar and wind energy to power a world of Prius cars and don't have enough resources to upgrade the grid or supply charging stations we have wasted our remaining fossil fuel resources.

So manufacturing wind/solar might use so much resources that we wouldn't have enough to upgrade the grid or supply charging stations? The answer: we have more than enough energy to do both. First, manufacturing (of solar panels, wind turbines, grid equipment or charging stations) mainly uses electricity, and we have plenty of that from coal (see how useful it is to deal with things one at a time?), if needed. 2nd, wind has a very high E-ROI, meaning that it will pay for itself. 3rd, HEVs don't need grid upgrades or charging, and the grid is just fine as it is for a pretty large buildup of EREV/EVs.

Isn't the statistic that matters how much of our current FF fired electrical generation has been replaced by wind or any other source?

No, it really doesn't. Nobody's retiring generation at the moment, unless it's seriously functionally obsolete. People often get confused by that point, but it's a red herring.

There is a difference between having enough power, and decarbonizing our power. We should decarbonize our power, but that's very different from the premise that we're running out of energy.

We are at least as dependent upon FF for for energy today as we were 5 years ago. And possibley more so. Isn't that the big issue?

That's the issue for decarbonizing. But it's not the issue for our economy running out of power We have plenty of coal - enough to bake the planet. Will we do so? I'm afraid we probably will...but we won't run out of electricity.

But isn't our economy going to grind to a halt because of oil scarcity?

No. The food-and-goods freight transport network of the modern world uses about 25% of oil consumption in the US. Light vehicles overall account for 45% of oil consumption: their utilization could be doubled with carpooling in a matter of months, freeing up whatever fuel was needed by the freight network.

What about historical examples of societies that didn't recover well from economic transitions, like the US South after the Civil War?

I don't think the South is a very useful model for most of the world. It might be a good model for oil exporters.

First, it needs to be said that the South lost the first modern war of total destruction. 30% of all white males aged 18-40 were killed (  There are usually more injuries than deaths: very likely only 20% of the white adult males were left healthy at the end of the war. Both ex-masters and ex-slaves were left without financial, industrial or technological capital with which to rebuild. Transportation, industry and even agriculture were laid waste - think of Sherman's march to the sea: everything was systematically destroyed.

The impact of slavery on human capital may have been the worst: slavery left a cultural heritage of passivity and violent authoritarianism (classism, racism, sexism, domestic violence, etc, etc) for both ex-masters and ex-slaves that cannot be underestimated (as discussed above regarding West Point traditions). To work (especially with your hands) was dishonorable for ex-masters, and to think and take responsibility for oneself was terrifying for people who had been publically tortured and killed for centuries, and who now faced a similar lynching campaign. The lack of more practical human capital can't be underestimated: ex-slaves didn't know how to read and write, how to run their lives (handling money, land titles, etc), how to raise their children or relate to spouses, etc, etc.

2nd, the South was a commodity exporter, like Russia and Saudi Arabia today. It was devastated by the "resource curse". "During the time of the Civil War, there was a dramatic slowdown in British cotton demand. As the textile industry matured, its rapid replacement of traditional methods naturally slowed. While the industry was still growing, its rate of growth slowed to match the relatively natural growth of population and incomes. The drop in demand growth, coupled with the tremendous cotton supply coming from the Southeastern states, led to falling prices. As poor conditions persisted for South Carolina’s cotton producers, no viable alternative crop could be found. The now relatively stagnant cotton economy remained until the end of the 19th century, as industrialization reached the state."

All in all, the South had a uniquely frozen culture, due to the violence, abuse and misinformation required to maintain a slave society, and the "resource curse" created by it's dependence on a single export commodity (cotton) in a single industry (agriculture). Despite the availability of capital from the North, the South was in a uniquely unfavorable position for adaptation to a new world. It may be a model for oil exporters like Russia and KSA, but not for dynamic, educated countries in the OECD.

Wouldn't affluent people used to a consumerist lifestyle have comparable problems to face new realities?

OECD economies show a much greater ability to change. Look at Japan post 1870. Look at Germany and Japan post-WWII. Look at the US post-WWII. Look at the world car industry, which is gearing up to produce EVs, something which they found anathema only 5-15 years ago.


Didn't it take a couple of generation for horse transportation to be replaced by street cars and ICE vehicles?

Yes, and difficulty of the transition contributed at least a bit to the Depression. The difference: hybrids, EREVs and EVs are being built by the same companies that built ICE vehicles, operate the same way, cost the same over their life-cycle, and need very little new infrastructure (90% of US vehicle owners have access to off-street parking, and more than 50% have private garages). The difficulty of the transition is orders of magnitude smaller.

Doesn't an energy transition require heavy investment which is not easily forthcoming under crisis conditions?

On the one hand, that's assuming the premise that Peak Oil will cause economic crisis. On the other, it's precisely under crisis conditions when investment is easiest - look at WWII: the US Depression ended because the war provided a good excuse for massive governmental spending and investment.


The most important element of a transition from oil is the electrification of transportation. Surprisingly, the first part of the EV revolution has been here for years, in the form of the Prius. The Prius cuts fuel consumption by 50% (50MPG vs the US fleet average of 22MPG), in the US hybrids are 3% of new sales, and there are more than 1,000,000 on the road.

And now, the Leaf and the Volt are coming out, and it is really clear that we have all the technology we need, we just need to use it.