Monday, August 31, 2009

The Oil Intensity of Food

Lester R. Brown has posted a guest blog entry to The Oil Drum on The Oil Intensity of Food. The author of Plan B 3.0 provides us a perspective on the American food system which rests on an unstable foundation of massive fossil fuel inputs.

Today we are an oil-based civilization, one that is totally dependent on a resource whose production will soon be falling. Since 1981, the quantity of oil extracted has exceeded new discoveries by an ever-widening margin. In 2008, the world pumped 31 billion barrels of oil but discovered fewer than 9 billion barrels of new oil. World reserves of conventional oil are in a free fall, dropping every year.

This prospect of peaking oil production has direct consequences for world food security, as modern agriculture depends heavily on the use of fossil fuels. Most tractors use gasoline or diesel fuel. Irrigation pumps use diesel fuel, natural gas, or coal-fired electricity. Fertilizer production is also energy-intensive. Natural gas is used to synthesize the basic ammonia building block in nitrogen fertilizers. The mining, manufacture, and international transport of phosphates and potash all depend on oil.

The Energy use and economical analysis of wheat production in Iran: A case study from Ardabil province has details about the energy efficiency of food production. In terms of total energy equivalents the following table summarizes the production of wheat in the study:

Inputs (MJ/ha) - 47,078
  • Human Labour - 317
  • Machinery - 4,574
  • Diesel fuel - 12,267
  • Chemical fertilizers - 14,654
  • Farmyard manure - 4,575
  • Chemicals - 260
  • Water for irrigation - 4,230
  • Seeds - 6,201
Outputs (MJ/ha) - 92,786
  • Grain - 66,368 (4,515 kg)
  • Straw - 26,418 (2,113 kg)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Do Fossil Fuels Have A Sustainable Future?

Check out these recent speeches and papers on the Energy Crisis by Matthew R. Simmons on the web site of Simmons & Company who is the only independent investment bank specializing in the entire spectrum of the energy industry. Some examples:
  • How Did Our Energy Hole Get So Deep?
  • Two Energy Oxymorons: 1. Energy Independence 2. Energy Security
  • Have We "Peaked?"
  • Is There Light At The End Of The Dark Tunnel?
  • Investing During A World-Class Crisis
  • Do Fossil Fuels Have A Sustainable Future?
  • Planning In A Most Uncertain Environment: The Energy Challenges In 2009 And Beyond
  • The Oil Pricing Roller-Coaster: How It Impacts Energy Investment
  • The Risk Of Misjudging Peak Oil: A Real Physical Crisis
  • The Era Of Cheap Oil Is Over

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Oil - The Long Goodbye

The Foreign Policy has published a special report on Oil - The Long Goodbye.

It's Still the One (by Daniel Yergin)

Oil's very future is being seriously questioned, debated, and challenged. The author of an acclaimed history explains why, just as we need more oil than ever, it is changing faster than we can keep up with.

Subpriming the Pump (by Mahmoud A. El-Gamal and Amy Myers Jaffe)

Oil wealth used to hurt only those who had it. Now, it’s hurting everyone.

Don't Be Crude (by Prince Turki al-Faisal)

Why Barack Obama's energy-independence talk is just demagoguery.

Scenes from the Violent Twilight of Oil (by Peter Maass)

It succors and drowns human life. And for the last eight years, oil—and the people and places that make it—was my obsession.

The Great Pipeline Opera (by Daniel Freifeld)

Inside the European pipeline fantasy that became a real-life gas war with Russia.

Seven Myths About Alternative Energy (by Michael Grunwald)

As the world looks around anxiously for an alternative to oil, energy sources such as biofuels, solar, and nuclear seem like they could be the magic ticket. They're not.

Is a Green World a Safer World? (by David J. Rothkopf)

A guide to the coming green geopolitical crises.

The Devil's Excrement (by Moisés Naím)

Can oil-rich countries avoid the resource curse?

Monday, August 24, 2009

World Energy Use by Fuel

New Scientist has a topic guide on Energy and Fuels. Their nice infographics shows World Energy use by fuel type (oil, coal, gas, biomass, nuclear, hidro) and usage (transport, electricity, industry and residential/other).

The Energy and Fuels instant expert article discusses the coming energy crisis, and the new technologies that could save us from it, in New Scientist's beginner's guide.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Sustainable Nanocity in India to Use Renewable Energy

The vision of NANOCITY in India is to develop a sustainable city with world class infrastructure and to create an ecosystem for innovation leading to economy, ecology and social cohesion.

Nanocity spans 11138 acres of flatland located just beyond the foothills of the Himalayas. It is less than 25 kms east of Chandigarh and just over 200 kms north of Delhi. Two seasonal rivers form the eastern and western borders of the city and two streams trickle within its boundaries. It is a public/private partnership between Sabeer Bhatia Group and the Haryana State Government promoted by Sabeer Bhatia.

Green City

NANOCITY has been designed to be a green city. It uses context as opportunity, promotes a lush and shaded climate-sensitive environment, encourages the expansion of local natural systems, and advances ecologically intelligent and sustainable design. Half of the land will thrive as a green open space. Grassy frontages, green belts, courtyards, walking trails and public parks will contribute to the all – natural vibrancy of the city. Tree lined boulevards will offer shaded, climate sensitive environments. The urban infrastructure will be ecologically intelligent and sustainable by outfitting the buildings with energy efficient systems and renewable energy sources.

Sustainable City

Global warming and climate change make the contemporary urban agenda a global one. Nanocity will preserve the naturally existing resources of the land. During monsoon, water will be harvested for retention and use throughout the year. The water reclaimed from the rivers and other natural sources will undergo intensive bioremediation to make it safe for consumption. The city will be outfitted with a dual distribution piped water system to separate drinking water from reclaimed greywater used for non-potable purposes. Living machine technology will provide Nanocity with the capacity to convert wastewater into odor-free drinking water. Half of the energy used in the city will come from renewable sources viz: wind, solar and photovoltaic technologies. Buildings will use climate responsive design techniques such as sun shading, cross ventilation and direct evaporative cooling. At least 70% of the city’s waste will be recycled or composted.

State of the art city transit

The pedestrian has priority in Nanocity. Tree-lined streets, green store fronts and narrow, shaded sidewalks will ensure a pleasant walking environment. To dissuade "car culture", a state of the art public transit system has been envisaged. on the move. Nanocity’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system will consists of a main loop connecting the entire city. There are secondary loops, neighbourhood loops with transferstops and regional transit centres to increase the efficiency of mass transport. Each residence will be within a five minute walking distance from every starting point in the city. If one has to journey by car, two wheelers & other automobiles, there are lanes that are specifically meant for them thereby making the journey safe and comfortable.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

There is no such thing as a Sustainable Biofuel

"Even capitalists now admit the oil crisis is real. But their solutions border on lunacy as they avoid the obvious answer" - based on an article in The Guardian by George Monbiot


Many people believe that by making biofuels not from the crops themselves but from crop wastes - if transport fuel can be manufactured from straw or grass or wood chips, there are no implications for land use, and no danger of spreading hunger.

Unfortunately most agricultural "waste" is nothing of the kind. It is the organic material that maintains the soil's structure, nutrients and store of carbon. A paper commissioned by the US government proposes that, to help meet its biofuel targets, 75% of annual crop residues should be harvested. According to a letter published in Science last year, removing crop residues can increase the rate of soil erosion a hundredfold. Our addiction to the car, in other words, could lead to peak soil as well as peak oil.


All these convoluted solutions are designed to avoid a simpler one: reducing the consumption of transport fuel. But that requires the use of a different commodity. Global supplies of political courage appear, unfortunately, to have peaked some time ago.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Biophysical Economics

The Biophysical Economics Workgroup is composed of academic and industry leaders from different parts of the world, all hailing from various fields of both the natural and social sciences. The workgroup seeks to advance a new paradigm in understanding the properties, structures and processes of economic systems and to offer an alternative to the neoclassical economics model our global system is currently dependent on.

The workgroup is currently coordinated by Dr. Charles Hall of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

Biophysical economics is a system of economic analysis that is based on the biological and physical (as opposed to social) properties, structures and processes of real economic systems as its conceptual base and fundamental model. It acknowledges that the basis for nearly all wealth is nature, and views most human economic activity as a means to increase (directly or indirectly) the exploitation of nature to generate more wealth. As such, it focuses on the structure and function of real economies from an energy and material perspective, although it often considers the relation of this structure and function to human welfare and to the money (i.e. dollar) flows that tend to go in the opposite direction to energy.

Biophysical economics deals with
  • the energy sources (principally, the Sun) that are essential for any economy;
  • the material that circulates upon the earth’s surface through natural and semi-natural ecosystems;
  • the human-dominated steps of exploitation, processing, manufacturing and consumption.
According to this Deep Green post at Greenpeace:

This year, 2009, will signal the birth of a genuinely innovative economics that will eventually displace the patchwork rationalisations for greed. The new ecological accounting is variously called 'dynamic equilibrium', 'steady-state' or 'biophysical' economics.

In the 21st century, human enterprise has reached the scale of the planet. We have to account for ourselves on nature's balance sheet. This is biophysical economics. It appears inevitable. Biophysical culture is what we will make of it.

The Question Everything blog has a whole category dedicated to Biophysical economics:

Neo-classical economics is a theory looking for support and it is basically a bad one. It doesn't take physical reality into account, like when you used up finite resources (its theory of substitutability says so what!) there will always be a substitute. But this is proving to be wrong. Ecological economics does a better job. It embeds the human economy within the ecological systems of Earth. You have to pay nature a price for its services like raw energy supply and absorbing our wastes. Then the market will play its role in allocating resources appropriately.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Peak Oil for Dummies

Peak Oil for Dummies is a new post on Seeking Alpha by Lionel Badal. A short overview:


Over the past decade, a fierce debate has emerged amongst energy experts about whether global oil production was about to reach a peak, followed by an irreversible decline.

This event, commonly known as “Peak Oil” far outreaches the sole discipline of geology. From transportation to modern agriculture, petrochemicals and even the pharmaceutical industry all of them rely on one commodity: cheap and abundant oil. In order to sustain the needs of an ever globalized world, oil demand should double by 2050.

Nonetheless, geological limitations will disrupt this improbable scenario. In fact, a growing proportion of energy experts argue that Peak Oil is impending and warn about the extraordinary scale of the crisis.

42 Years of Oil Left?

According to the 2009 BP Statistical Review, the world has precisely 42 years of oil left. Those numbers come from a very simple formula, the R/P ratio, which consists of dividing the official number of global oil reserves by the level of today’s production.

Nevertheless, this methodology is dangerously defective on several key points as it ignores geological realities. Oil production does not consist of a plan level of production that brutally ends one day; it follows a bell-shaped curve.

Indeed, the important day occurs when production starts to decline, not when it ends. As it is a non-flexible commodity, even a small deficit in oil production can lead to a major price surge.

Finally, the R/P ratio does not acknowledge that production costs increase over the time; the first oil fields to be developed were logically the easy ones and so the most profitable. It is well recognized that remaining oil fields consist of whether poor quality oil or remotely located fields which need high technologies and expensive investments.

Therefore, relying on the R/P ratio gives a false impression of security while the actual situation is critical.

Global Oil Reserves: Lies and Manipulations

Oil is a strategic resource; therefore having oil is a key political and economical advantage for a state. This is why politics interfere in the evaluation of oil reserves, especially in countries with poor accountability records; that is, the majority of OPEC countries.

At this point, we should not forget that oil reserves reported by these countries are not audited by independent experts. In 2006, the notorious Petroleum Intelligence Weekly said it had access to confidential Kuwaiti reports which stated that reserves were half the official numbers.

The question of oil reserves is most relevant. As oil exporting countries have less oil in their ground, Peak Oil will arrive faster. Oil optimists who argue Peak Oil is still decades away rely on these same erroneous data.

In addition, if importing countries assume oil reserves are abundant as they do, the crisis will be unexpected, unprepared and misunderstood; in one word: overwhelming. Similarly, once oil shortages occur, oil importing countries may assume that exporting countries are deliberately reducing their oil exports to harm their national interests.

Such a flawed assumption from oil importing countries is likely to have serious repercussions, and eventually lead to new oil wars.

The Imminent Decline of Global Oil Production

By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 MBD… The implications for future conflict are ominous...

At this pace, global oil production could decline by 50% from its current level, as soon as 2030.

A Contested Reality: By Whom and Why?

For many years, Peak Oil was ignored by officials from oil companies and governmental agencies such as the IEA. They negligently repeated that production was not at risk.

Any Viable Alternative Energy?

There is no easy, present, solution to the crisis. Alternatives to oil are still far from being a feasible replacement; hydrogen for example would require 30 to 50 years to replace oil economies.

Meanwhile, the automobile industry is now planning to develop electric cars in the near future. While the first electric cars are expected to come on line in 2010-12, in order to replace 50% of the car fleet, the world would need between 10 to 20 years.

Besides, as manufacturing a single car requires at least 20 barrels of oil, once oil production starts to decline, in 2011-2013, it will increasingly become difficult to develop the electric car on a massive scale.

In fact, the closer we get to Peak Oil, the more difficult a massive and costly emergency plan to develop alternative energies will become.

The Industrial Civilisation at a Turning Point

A former director at the IEA, who used to be the superior of Dr. Fatih Birol, told me during a discussion that,

The current (economic) crisis was caused by the insufficiency of (oil) supply from 2007 onwards, an avatar of Peak Oil.

This extract from the Energy Watch Group study on oil production provides useful additional information:

The world is at the beginning of a structural change of its economic system. This change will be triggered by declining fossil fuel supplies and will influence almost all aspects of our daily life... The now beginning transition period probably has its own rules which are valid only during this phase. Things might happen which we never experienced before and which we may never experience again once this transition period has ended.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Temporary Recession or the End of Growth?

This is a guest post on The Oil Drum by Richard Heinberg. Richard is a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute and author of five books on resource depletion and societal responses to the energy problem. He can be found on the web at and Here is a short overview of his new post:

Everyone agrees: our economy is sick. The inescapable symptoms include declines in consumer spending and consumer confidence, together with a contraction of international trade and available credit. Add a collapse in real estate values and carnage in the automotive and airline industries and the picture looks grim indeed.

But why are both the U.S. economy and the larger global economy ailing? Among the mainstream media, world leaders there is near-unanimity of opinion: these recent troubles are primarily due to a combination of bad real estate loans and poor regulation of financial derivatives.

This is the Conventional Diagnosis. But what if this diagnosis is fundamentally flawed? The metaphor needs no belaboring: we all know that tragedy can result from a doctor’s misreading of symptoms, mistaking one disease for another.

In short, I am suggesting an Alternative Diagnosis. This explanation for the economic crisis is not for the faint of heart because, if correct, it implies that the patient is far sicker than even the most pessimistic economists are telling us. But if it is correct, then by ignoring it we risk even greater peril.

Economic Growth, The Financial Crisis, and Peak Oil

For several years, a swelling subculture of commentators has been forecasting a financial crash, basing this prognosis on the assessment that global oil production was about to peak.

Continual increases in population and consumption cannot continue forever on a finite planet. The unfairly maligned Limits to Growth studies, published first in 1972 with periodic updates since, have attempted to answer the question with analysis of resource availability and depletion, and multiple scenarios for future population growth and consumption rates.

Energy is the ultimate enabler of growth. Industrialism has been inextricably tied to the availability and consumption of cheap energy from coal and oil (and more recently, natural gas).

About 85 percent of our current energy is derived from three primary sources—oil, natural gas, and coal—that are non-renewable, whose price is likely to trend sharply higher over the next years and decades leading to severe shortages, and whose environmental impacts are unacceptable. While these sources historically have had very high economic value, we cannot rely on them in the future; indeed, the longer the transition to alternative energy sources is delayed, the more difficult that transition will be unless some practical mix of alternative energy systems can be identified that will have superior economic and environmental characteristics.

My conclusion from a careful survey of energy alternatives, then, is that there is little likelihood that either conventional fossil fuels or alternative energy sources can be counted on to provide the amount and quality of energy that will be needed to sustain economic growth—or even current levels of economic activity—during the remainder of this century.

In essence, humanity faces an entirely predictable peril: our population has been growing dramatically for the past 200 years (expanding from under one billion to nearly seven billion), while our per-capita consumption of resources has also grown. And yet all of this has taken place in the context of a finite planet with fixed stores of non-renewable resources (fossil fuels and minerals), a limited ability to regenerate renewable resources (forests, fish, fresh water, and topsoil), and a limited ability to absorb industrial wastes (including carbon dioxide). If we step back and look at the industrial period from a broad historical perspective that is informed by an appreciation of ecological limits, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are today living at the end of a relatively brief pulse—a 200-year rapid expansionary phase enabled by a temporary energy subsidy (in the form of cheap fossil fuels) that will inevitably be followed by an even more rapid and dramatic contraction as those fuels deplete.

If humanity has indeed embarked upon the contraction phase of the industrial pulse, we should assume that ahead of us lie much lower average income levels (for nearly everyone in the wealthy nations, and for high wage earners in poorer nations); different employment opportunities (fewer jobs in sales, marketing, and finance; more in basic production); and more costly energy, transport, and food. Further, we should assume that key aspects of our economic system that are inextricably tied to the need for future growth will cease to work in this new context.

Is it too late to begin a managed transition to a post-fossil fuel society? Perhaps. But we will not know unless we try. And if we are to make that effort, we must begin by acknowledging one simple, stark reality: growth as we have known it can no longer be our goal.


Richard Heinberg is the author of the following books about the energy crash and resource depletion:

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Wind Energy Grows by 25%

Wind power is the conversion of wind energy into a useful form of energy, such as electricity, using wind turbines. At the end of 2008, worldwide nameplate capacity of wind-powered generators was 121.2 gigawatts (GW). In 2008, wind power produced about 1.5% of worldwide electricity usage; and is growing rapidly, having doubled in the three years between 2005 and 2008.

World Wind Energy Association forecasts a total installed capacity of 152,000 MW worldwide by the end of 2009, which will mean a new record of over 30,000 MW newly installed capacity within one year. This represents a market growth of 25% compared with last year. Several countries have achieved relatively high levels of wind power penetration. As of May 2009, eighty countries around the world are using wind power on a commercial basis.

United States

As of April 30, 2009, wind power in the United States had reached 28,635 megawatts (MW) of installed capacity, and in 2008 the U.S. surpassed Germany as the country with the largest amount of installed wind power capacity. The American Wind Energy Association has reported that wind projects installed through the end of 2008 were expected to generate 52 million megawatt-hours/year (MWh/yr), representing 1.26% of the nation’s electricity in 2008.


Wind power in Germany produces about six percent of its total electrical power and it is said that no other country has more technological know-how in this area. Wind power in Germany provides over 70,000 people with jobs and German wind energy systems are also exported. Repowering, the replacement of first-generation wind turbines with modern multi-megawatt machines, is occurring in Germany. Modern turbines make better use of available wind energy and so more wind power can come from the same area of land.


Spain is the world's third biggest producer of wind power, after the United States and Germany, with an installed capacity of 16,740 megawatts (MW) at the end of 2008, a rise of 1,609 MW for the year. On particular windy days, wind power generation has surpassed all other electricity sources in Spain, including nuclear. On April 18, 2008 the all time peak for wind generation was seen (10,879 MW, 32% of Spain's power requirement), and on November 24, 2008 wind energy produced 43% of demand.


At the end of 2008, wind power in China accounted for 12.2 gigawatts (GW) of electricity generating capacity and China has identified wind power as a key growth component of the country's economy. China is the fourth largest producer of wind power, after the United States, Germany, and Spain. By the end of 2008, at least 15 Chinese companies were commercially producing wind turbines and several dozen more were producing components.


Wind power in Denmark provided 19.7 percent of electricity production in 2007, a significantly higher proportion than in any other country. Denmark was a pioneer in developing commercial wind power during the 1970s, and today almost half of the wind turbines around the world are produced by Danish manufacturers such as Vestas.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Warning: Oil supplies are running out fast

Catastrophic shortfalls threaten economic recovery, says world's top energy economist Dr Fatih Birol, the chief economist at the respected International Energy Agency (IEA).

In an interview with The Independent, Dr Birol said that the public and many governments appeared to be oblivious to the fact that the oil on which modern civilisation depends is running out far faster than previously predicted and that global production is likely to peak in about 10 years – at least a decade earlier than most governments had estimated.

"The market power of the very few oil-producing countries, mainly in the Middle East, will increase very quickly. They already have about 40 per cent share of the oil market and this will increase much more strongly in the future,"

"There is now a real risk of a crunch in the oil supply after next year when demand picks up because not enough is being done to build up new supplies of oil to compensate for the rapid decline in existing fields."

The IEA estimates that the decline in oil production in existing fields is now running at 6.7 per cent a year compared to the 3.7 per cent decline it had estimated in 2007, which it now acknowledges to be wrong.

"What we need to do is accelerate the mobilisation of renewables, energy efficiency and alternative transport. Read the full interview on the above link."