The Coming Oil Crisis - Energy Alternatives

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

The world is running out of oil and the shortages will only get worse. Technology leadership is needed to develop practical energy alternatives. Automation companies have the knowledge and experience to get involved in this new and burgeoning market.

This article was published by:
Check out, April 2004

The US (approximately 5% of the world's population) uses approximately 26% of the world's supply of oil. That would perhaps be acceptable if we were self-sufficient; but we're not. In the US, the demand for oil outstripped our capacity to produce it in 1970. That's when we started to be really dependent on foreign sources.

The Hubbert Peak

It is widely accepted that oil is a finite resource which follows the basic laws for depletion:
  • Production starts at zero;
  • Production then rises to a peak which can never be surpassed;
  • Once the peak has been passed, production declines until the resource is depleted.
These simple rules were first described in the 1950s by Dr. M. King Hubbert, and they apply to any relevant system, including the depletion of the world’s petroleum resources. The rate of production can be plotted on a graph against time, providing a picture of the total lifetime of availability. The point of maximum production (known as the Hubbert Peak) coincides with the midpoint of depletion – when half of all resources have been used. The area under the complete, projected curve shows the total amount that was ever and will ever be available for production, known as known as the "ultimate".

In the case of oil, when the Hubbert Peak is reached, we will have used half of all available resources. It is generally accepted that US oil reserves passed the Hubbert peak in the ‘70s. Remember the oil crisis of 1973? The Middle Eastern OPEC nations shut off exports to the US, and the artificial shortage that followed had devastating effects: The price of gas quadrupled in a matter of months. In some places, motorists were forced to wait in line for several hours, just for gas.

Many people now believe that the Hubbert peak for world oil resources has already been reached, or will be reached within the next 3-5 years. Cleary this problem can only get worse, and ultimate shortages are only a matter of time – a few decades at most.

Energy alternatives

The problem with developing new energy sources is that everyone expects this to be done with short-term capitalistic motivation. And that is simply not possible when competing with the current costs of oil, and the tremendous investments already made in the infrastructure – extraction, pipelines, transportation, refining, and distribution.

America already has the technology needed to develop solar energy. For less than the cost of imported oil (if the cost of military involvement is included) the US can get 100% of its energy requirements from the power released by sunlight radiating over the desert regions of the Southwest. American solar energy would be cheap, renewable and under our own control. To get to the practical stage, the initial hardware and infrastructure need to be publicly funded.

Electricity generated from America's solar energy can produce hydrogen gas by electrolysis of water, which can be used to power new hydrogen-fueled cars. Hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines have already been developed that will perform as well as existing gasoline engines, allowing the use of existing automobile technology for mass production.

Hydrogen is a clean universal fuel that can be used to power cars, trucks, planes, trains, buses, boats and ships. It can heat homes and commercial buildings, and generate electricity. It can replace all forms of fossil fuels. A nation that has converted all of its power systems to run on hydrogen will no longer be dependent on oil, because hydrogen can be made from many different sources of energy such as wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, fossil and nuclear.

Energy efficiency – safe nuclear energy

It has been pointed out that most energy sources are "energy inefficient" – the cost to produce is more than the energy derived. Some even compare oil to a "battery" that was produced over hundreds of thousands of years, and can only be used irrecoverably by burning the stored (and limited) energy sources.

Many experienced people insist that the only energy efficient source available today is Nuclear, which can easily serve all requirements for the foreseeable future. The problem is safety – the dangers of radiation exposure and contamination – that is widely misunderstood.

Nuclear advocates point out that a nuclear power plant has the lowest environmental impact of anything available today, for the amount of energy produced. The energy density of nuclear fission (energy available per kg of fuel) is the highest of any option today. This reduces both the use of natural resources, and the impact of resource extraction. Clearly, a major investment in clean, safe nuclear fuel must be a major objective on the road to energy independence.

France is the world leader when it comes to the use of nuclear energy. Nearly 76 % of the electricity generated in France is produced by nuclear power stations. France even has an electrical power overcapacity and provides its surplus to neighboring countries.

Technology is the solution

The solutions to energy independence are to be found in technology. The future brings hope with several energy technology alternatives: solar cells, hydrogen storage, clean coal, CO2 recycling, synthetic fuels and safe nuclear power. Nanotechnology materials and production methodologies show great promise.

As engineers, we should study the oil situation carefully, to sift out the myths and legends from stark reality and hard facts. This is a crisis that we cannot simply leave to vested interests and politicians.

The automation industry has all the background knowledge and experience needed to make a significant impact in this vital arena. Practical and immediate technology leadership is needed. And significant growth and success awaits the companies that succeed!

Here are two books I suggest you read:

  • Out of Gas –
    The end of the age of Oil, by David Goodstein
    A physicist and vice-provost at CalTech explains in layman's terms the science behind his prediction that our oil-dependent civilization is in for a crude awakening when the world's oil supply really begins to run out. The effects of an oil shortage can be immediate and drastic, while it may take decades, to replace the vast infrastructure that supports the manufacture, distribution, and consumption of the 20 million barrels of oil Americans alone gobble up each day. This book is not a happy read, but an important one.
  • The Party's Over –
    Oil, war & the fate of industrial societies, by Richard Heinberg
    The world is about to run out of oil, and will change dramatically as a consequence. Contention for dwindling energy resources will lead to more and more oil wars in the Middle East and elsewhere. There will be chaos, unless the US joins with other countries to implement a global program of conservation and sharing. Discusses social implications, with recommendations for personal, community, national, and global action. A wake-up call for humankind as the oil era winds down.

Related links:

Click MSNBC - Crude awakening

Click Book: The Party's Over - Oil, war & the fate of industrial societies

Click Book: Out of Gas – the end of the age of Oil, by David Goodstein

Click The Hubbert Peak of Oil Production

Click American Energy Independence - lots of good links!

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Copyright 2003 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA