A few years ago, I highlighted the seemingly conflicting predictions that the “world-was-going-to-end” because of increasing use of fossil fuels and resultant anthropogenic global warming (AGW) vs the “world-was-going-to-end” because we were running out of fossil fuels. I contacted some people from both sides, and they both essentially said they were right but the other side was kind-of right too. You can reference this interview with Dr. Hirsch for some background. At that point, nearly three years ago, Dr. Hirsch put the time frame for negative repercussions from “Peak Oil” at 2 to 5 years. It hasn’t happened yet, and I doubt it will happen in the next 2 years. It seems we have a pretty balanced confluence of new sources of oil keeping production at necessary levels while at the same time deriving a greater percent of energy needs from renewables. The price of oil is high, and similar to the prediction of many Peak Oil theorists, I think it will remain high and go higher during the short term. I think it will remain fairly high (within a few percent of its current price) even if the world economy dips further than it already has. Hirsch and others are correct that new sources of oil (and other hydrocarbons) are harder (expensive) to produce, but they are more plentiful than most thought. Natural gas supply continue to rise as well which should help to blunt and shock from traditional oil source shortages. So it would seem the AGW theorists have won the argument for the time being. I would say they were more correct than peak oil theorists, however, I still am not
This topic came into my mind once again because of the recent night image of the earth released by NASA. Check it out here. Scroll down the page and you will find a map you can zoom in on. Curiously, there seems to be a huge new city that popped up in western North Dakota. Without actually contacting NASA or the Energy Department to find out with more certainty, I am going to confidently speculate that the “huge city” is just the thousands of oil and gas rigs that have been built up in that part of the country. (as an aside, Egypt is one of the more interesting features on the nighttime map, you can easily see that nearly the entire population of the country lives along the Nile river).
So it would seem the AGW theorists have won the argument for the time being. I would say they were more correct than Peak Oil theorists, however, I still am not convinced that human society as a whole will continue to use increasingly more fossil fuels for decades into the future. From what I can see, the increasingly expensive fossil fuels are allowing more renewables to be deployed. Technological progress continues to allow us more GDP per unit energy. These trends should continue into the future. Also, even if we do use more fossil fuels 50 years from now, they will be used/burned in ways that impact the environment less. In addition, there are more and more companies devising ways to take carbon dioxide out of the air. As I have mentioned in the past, there is nothing stopping us from taking carbon dioxide out of the air except the lack of determination. Reversing the process will not be easy, but if carbon dioxide is going to destroy the environment (doubtful), sequestration will happen. Newscientist recently ran an article about a few of the companies that are already developing cabon negative liquid fuel (registration required). I doubt these things will scale (economically) very well, but at least it is evidence that it can be done and that we are not doomed and ”past the point of no return” as so many climate theorists claim.
Besides carbon negative fuels and sequestration, the outlook for renewables and electrification of the economy looks quite promising (in my opinion). I know there are significant technological and economic hurdles to overcome but the main problems I have seen are “institutional”. People have a hard time imagining a world without the very successful and useful internal combustion engine. The benefits of electric motors are numerous, which will help convince some people, but the bigger change that is coming is generational. Younger generations swim in a world of information. We are becoming experts at moving electrons and data, and moving these things around is much easier and more efficient than moving liquid fuel and massive objects. My feeling is that things (self-driving electric vehicles, immersive virtual reality, solar power, etc…) will fall into place more rapidly than people expect.
Don’t think renewables could power the grid within a decade or two? Think again. A University of Delaware study has shown that it could be done by 2030 at a comparable cost to what we pay for maintaing and powering our current power grid. The technology already exists. The key is to pair renewable sources with proper storage to eliminate the problem of intermediate power outpout from solar panels and wind turbines. Of course, if technological progress continues, maybe it (renewable power grid) could be done before 2030.
As you know, I am not a big fan of covering the earth with millions of wind turbines, but solar panels are a different story. There is plenty of “already used” space (rooftops) for solar panel deployment. SolarCity is one company aiming to secure that productive real estate. In a positive sign for the solar business, they are expected to offer an IPO this week. Now even though I a proponent of solar power, and I missed a good opportunity to invest in FirstSolar in the beginning, I am not so sure I would perosnally buy stock in SolarCity. They have not turned a profit thus far and they are somwhat dependent upon government subsidies. If you were thinking about installing solar panels, maybe give them a ring. I am unsure if SolarCity installs here in Wisconsin (if not now, then maybe after the IPO), but they do really bring down the cost of panel installation – and solar panel prices are currently the lowest in years. It might be a good opportunity to get off the grid.
Even though the market for solar power has been rough over the last couple of years (due to the ongoing recession), science continues to advance and panels should continue to improve. The tough market is not stopping Silevo from ramping up production of their more cost-conscious solar panels. Just last week, Sharp announced a new efficiency record for triple junction compound solar cells at 37.7%. Wow! Princeton researchers have used the properties of plasmonic cavities to triple the efficiency of typical organic solar cells (the process reduces reflections off the surface). In more speculative research, computer simulations show that integrating nano-sized semiconducting funnels into solar panels could allow them to more easily absorb light from more of the electro-magnectic spectrum. In a more here-and-now story, Google has thus far been able to fend off rather extreme environmental regulations in order to build the giant Ivanpah solar “farm” in southern California (cool pictures). I could go on. We might have some troubling things going on in the world and economy right now but there are good things happening as well. Progress continues.
Have a fine Tuesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew.
Posted under AGW, Alternative Energy, Peak Oil, Technology
This post was written by jloew on December 11, 2012