Friday, July 30, 2010

Beyond the Limits to Growth

An excerpt from the Post Carbon Reader Series: Foundational Concepts
Beyond the Limits to Growth by Richard Heinberg

In 1972, the now-classic book Limits to Growth explored the consequences for Earth’s ecosystems of exponential growth in population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion. That book, which still stands as the best-selling environmental title ever published, reported on the first attempts to use computers to model the likely interactions between trends in resources, consumption, and population. It summarized the first major scientific study to question the assumption that economic growth can and will continue more or less uninterrupted into the foreseeable future.

The idea was heretical at the time, and still is: During the past few decades, growth has become virtually the sole index of national economic well-being. When an economy grows, jobs appear, investments yield high returns, and everyone is happy. When the economy stops growing, financial bloodletting and general misery ensue. Predictably, a book saying that growth cannot and will not continue beyond a certain point proved profoundly upsetting in some quarters, and soon Limits to Growth was pilloried in a public relations campaign organized by pro-growth business interests. In reality, this purported “debunking” merely amounted to taking a few numbers in the book completely out of context, citing them as “predictions” (which they explicitly were not), and then claiming that these predictions had failed. The ruse was quickly exposed, but rebuttals often don’t gain nearly as much publicity as accusations, and so today millions of people mistakenly believe that the book was long ago discredited.

In any case, the underlying premise of the book is irrefutable: At some point in time, humanity’s ever-increasing resource consumption will meet the very real limits of a planet with finite natural resources.

The co-authors of The Post Carbon Reader believe that this time has come.

The Pivotal Role of energy

During the past two centuries, an explosion in population, consumption, and technological innovation has brought previously unimaginable advances in health, wealth, transport, and communications. These events were largely made possible by the release of enormous amounts of cheap energy from fossil fuels starting in the mid-nineteenth century.

Increased consumption of fossil fuels has produced both economic growth and population growth. However, a bigger population and a growing economy lead to more energy demand. We are thus enmeshed in a classic self-reinforcing (“positive”) feedback loop. Crucially, the planet on which all of this growth is occurring happens to be limited in size, with fixed stores of fossil fuels and mineral ores, and with constrained capacities to regenerate forests, fish, topsoil, and freshwater. Indeed, it appears that we are now pushing up against these very physical limits:
  • The world is at, nearing, or past the points of peak production of a number of critical nonrenewable resources—including oil, natural gas, and coal, as well as many economically important minerals ranging from antimony to zinc.
  • The global climate is being destabilized by greenhouse gases emitted from the burning of fossil fuels, leading to more severe weather (including droughts) as well as melting glaciers and rising sea levels.
  • Freshwater scarcity is a real or impending problem in nearly all of the world’s nations due to climate change, pollution, and overuse of groundwater for agriculture and industrial processes.
  • World food production per capita is declining and the maintenance of existing total harvests is threatened by climate change, soil erosion, water scarcity, and high fuel costs.
  • Earth’s plant and animal species are being driven to extinction by human activities at a rate unequaled in the last 60 million years.
[via the Post Carbon Institute]

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Fossil Fuel Production with Supply and Demand Interactions

Steve Mohr has published his Thesis at the University of Newcastle, Australia:
Projection of world fossil fuel production with supply and demand interactions


Historically, fossil fuels have been vital for our global energy needs. However climate change is prompting renewed interest in the role of fossil fuel production for our energy needs. In order to appropriately plan for our future energy needs, a new detailed model of fossil fuel supply is required. It is critical to know if fossil fuels will still be able to supply most of our energy requirements and meet the ever increasing energy demand in the future. Answering these questions is critical in order to identify potential periods of energy shortages; so that alternative energy resources can be utilised in a timely way. The aim of this study was to develop a model to predict fossil fuel production for the long term based on historical production data, projected demand, and assumed ultimately recoverable reserves for coal, gas and oil. Climate change is an important issue confronting society, and it is hoped that the work contained in this thesis will aid climate change modeling by focusing attention to realistic fossil fuel production projections. Fossil fuels are currently an essential component in the global economy and the growth of the human population. The fossil fuel production projections from this study suggest that many of the IPCC fossil fuel projections appear overly optimistic. Based on the assumed URR values, it is predicted that global fossil fuel production will peak before 2030. For this reason, it is imperative that appropriate action be taken as early as possible to mitigate the effects of fossil fuel decline, to avoid energy shortages in the near future.

Conclusions (excerpt)

The combined supply and demand model includes the capability that demand and production could be influenced by each other, i.e. if production could not meet demand then future demand for that energy source was reduced. In this study, three options were considered. Firstly, the STATIC option resulted in demand and production acting independently of each other at all times. Secondly, the DYNAMIC option allowed both total demand and total production to change from the STATIC situation when there was a difference between the two. Finally, the INDEPENDENTLY DYNAMIC option was an extension to the DYNAMIC situation, but treated each fuel source individually when applying the supply and demand interaction, with both demand and production being able to vary.

The model requires estimates of Ultimately Recoverable Resources (URR) for coal, gas and oil. Following a critical review of the literature, included in this study, three cases were adopted. CASE 1 and CASE 3 being lowest and highest recent estimates, respectively, and CASE 2 being author’s best guess based on the information available. The URR values for CASE 2 were, total (60,800 EJ), coal (19,350 EJ), gas (17,680 EJ) and oil (23,780 EJ).

Oil: For CASE 2, peak production year remained almost constant at 2011-12 for STATIC, DYNAMIC and INDEPENDENTLY DYNAMIC options, with peak production varying only marginally between 179–188 EJ/y. Similarly, for CASE 1, peak production year was the same at 2005 for all three supply and demand interaction options. For CASE 3, peak production year varied only slightly at 2019, 2011 and 2016 for STATIC, DYNAMIC and INDEPENDENTLY DYNAMIC options, respectively. The important outcome was that for all scenarios the maximum peak year was 2019.

Combined fossil fuels: For CASE 2, peak production year remained almost constant at 2016–18 for STATIC, DYNAMIC and INDEPENDENTLY DYNAMIC options, with peak production varying only marginally between 509–525 EJ/y. Similarly, for CASE 1, peak production year was essentially same at 2012–13 for all three supply and demand interaction options. For CASE 3, peak production year varied from 2021 to 2029 across the three supply and demand options. In all scenarios it was found that natural gas offers the biggest future potential, and not coal.

[via Energy Bulletin]

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ocean Energy Institute and Energy Systems

The Ocean Energy Institute, founded in 2007 by Matthew R. Simmons, is a think-tank and venture capital fund addressing the challenges of U.S. offshore renewable energy. OEI approaches energy R&D and investment from a systems point of view; not just generation, but usage, storage and transmission all together as an interdependent set of opportunities and the next driving force of the international economy.

Grand Opening - Ocean Energy Institute Offices

Rockland, Maine (July 20) -- The Ocean Energy Institute will be hosting a VIP celebration today for the grand opening of its new office headquarters.

Energy as a Complete System

OEI's "GUST" model (generation, usage, storage and transmission) proposes how the offshore wind resource can be efficiently tapped into and used, and the electricity intelligently stored and transmitted.

This model addresses two of the biggest challenges to the reliability of wind power: seasonality (the wind blows strongest in the winter, when energy demand is historically lower) - and intermittency (the wind blows less strongly during the daytime, when energy demand is highest).

The System Solution
  1. Use the energy in a way that the seasonal match is great (e.g., winter heating)
  2. Use the energy for the 90% of the family energy budget that is NOT "electricity"
  3. Use the energy in applications where energy storage is easy
  4. Construct a North American Supergrid to balance out intermittency
  5. Develop NH3 (ammonia) fuel as a way to seasonally shift energy generation vs. use
  6. Exploit Smart Grids to dynamically balance generation and demand
  7. Stop handcuffing ourselves to a 20 percent renewable "penetration" limit
The "Pickens Plan Plus" a.k.a the Simmons Plan

The Ocean Energy Institute has published an updated version of the original Pickens Plan. The Simmons Plan is outlined in a pdf presentation here.