The Alternatives – Part I

TheAlternativesPart1The oil price went over $100 a barrel this week. Don’t believe anything about it’s speculators. It’s plain and simple; demand is outstripping supply. Perhaps Japan requiring more oil to make up for lack of nuclear power also has something to do with it. When thinking about oil if you’re worried about when it will run out then you probably just don’t get it. At the point it’s running out none of us will be driving cars. The issue is when we can’t supply all that is demanded. This will push up prices. When there’s not enough to go round it means a barrel used in a car is a barrel not used elsewhere (eg – to fertilize fields used to feed the worlds poor). When there’s not enough to go round and the amount available is reducing how will we decide who gets what ? Through price – richest get it first ? through war – those willing to inflict most harm will get it first ? or through agreement and co-operation – the world as a whole decides how to reduce their use in an orderly manner ?

Given the world currently consumes ~85 mbpd (million barrels per day) then every $1 increase in a barrel is $85,000,000 not spent on something else (or more debt!) every day. Thats ~$31,000,000,000 per year. So $10 increase is $310 billion and a $30 increase is about $1 Trillion. Scary numbers especially given the amount of debt around thats meant to be getting paid off somehow. Scary numbers when you think our whole economic paradigm requires growth to work.


I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching the alternatives we have to fossil fuels. Remember this is not just an oil problem since gas and coal will peak. Gas almost certainly sometime in the next decade and coal not much longer. Don’t believe these ridiculous claims about how much coal is left as they all state it at TODAYS consumption. Given consumption is growing and given as oil and gas decline coal is expected to take up the strain. Consumption will increase. To illustrate how growth will massively reduce the lifetime of a fixed resource look at this graph which shows a quantity that will last 50 years at todays consumption together with graphs showing years left with different growth. 2.5% growth means ~ 35 years, 5% ~ 26 years, 7.5% ~ 22 years and 10% ~19 years. Please when you see these optimistic predictions of how much resource we have left think about precisely what they’re telling you.

When thinking about alternative energy I will split this in to two:

  1. Transport energy – so what drives out cars, trucks, ships, aeroplanes
  2. Electricity Generation / Home Heating / Cooling

The latter will be covered in the next post.

TRANSPORT ENERGY – This blog focus’s on cars

It’s important to appreciate just how good oil is for fuelling transport:

  • it is liquid and stable at normal temperatures and pressure which allows it to be pumped around and carried in vehicles with minimal technology
  • it’s got massive bang for the buck ie lots of energy by volume and by weight. For example a gallon of petrol represents about 33 kilowatt hours (kWh) which is 33,000 watts for an hour. Given my best 1 hour watts are about 330 you get the idea. Or just imagine pushing your car the distance it could cover with one gallon of fuel. It’s the equivalent of leaving a 60 watt light bulb on for 23 days continuously.

The alternative

Liquid Natural Gas (LNG)

I will say no more than this is not an alternative as it’s a fossil fuel as well.

Bio Fuels

By this I refer to biodiesel and bioethanol which are fuels made from plant material. The big advantage of these are that they can be use with existing infrastructure and be used in current engines with little or no modification. Currently these fuels are often mixed with regular petrol / diesel though that is the least of the problems of which there are two main ones.

Firstly using these fuels puts fuelling your car in direct competition with food (feeding the 7+ billion people is a topic for another post). To put this in perspective I will give you some stats from “The Long Descent” by John Michael Greer (pg 17).

The USA uses about 146 billion gallons of petrol per year. Bioethanol yields about 75% the energy so we would require 194 billion gallons of bioethanol. An acre of corn will yield about 365 gallons thus requiring over 531 million acres to supply the gas. it is estimated that the USA has 302 million acres of arable land. I hope you see the problem and thats without taking account of predicted demand growth.

The second problem is the energy return on energy invested (EROEI). Simple put this is how much energy you expend for the energy you get. Oil is great for this as you just pump it out of the ground (lets ignore Tar Sands which have a terrible EROEI and environmental cost). Initially it had EROEI of about 200 when it was seeping out of the ground now it’s about 40. Biofuels are under 2 generally – ie you invest 1 unit of energy for every 2 returned. See here for other fuels. When you consider the yields I quoted earlier are based on massive fossil fuel inputs (in fuel and fertiliser) you see the picture is even worse and we only considered petrol but we’d need diesel as well.

Biofuels at best will be some niche. Encouraging it through subsidies is insanity and pitching it to the public as the solution just makes matter worse as it gives the feeling there isn’t a problem. It should be noted that the EROEI can be as high as 8 creating bioethanol from sugar cane and is much used in Brazil. We should be careful about viewing this as a solution since it may well put even more rain forest at risk and of course given the maths above for just US consumption it clearly would not provide for the whole world.


I promise you this is even worse. Bush’s ‘Hydrogen Economy’ is complete dreamland. Here we go…

Firstly there are no wells of hydrogen we can just pull up out of the ground. You hear there’s loads of hydrogen – well there’s hydrocarbons (ie fossil fuels) and H20 (ie water) – yes lots of hydrogen but it’s nicely chemically bonded to some other element. Thus to get the hydrogen we have to split those bonds (using energy) and we then start battling against the laws of thermodynamics. It takes about 1.3kWh of electricity to produce 1kwh of hydrogen (see here.)

Hydrogen is an energy STORE not a source.

As if this wasn’t enough then there’s secondly the ways to get hydrogen. The first is using natural gas. Clearly this isn’t a solution since it uses fossil fuels. The second way is using electricity. This means we have to increase the grid capacity to produce all this hydrogen. So lets see what we need:

Firstly we take current daily UK fuel consumption of 1,700,000 barrels per day which is 71 million gallons which in turn is ~2,343 GwH (giga watt hours). Per above we need 1.3KwH for each 1KwH of hydrogen so we have to generate ~3,000GwH per day which is the equivalent of ~ 1,000,000 GwH per year. Current generation capacity is about 384,000 GwH per year. So we’d have to triple capacity and for it to be a solution all that capacity itself has to be sustainable. If you want to keep driving a car then be prepared not to complain if someone wants to stick a massive wind turbine in your back yard.

Whenever you think about an alternative that requires using the grid remember electricity is not an energy source.

It’s already bad but we’ve not finished yet. I’ll try and rattle through the rest

  1. You don’t appear to be able to buy one now. I just tried to find one for sale and can’t find one. Given the number of cars on the road is it realistic to expect them to be all switched over in time.
  2. Hydrogen being such a small element leaks very easily. It cannot be transported in current infrastructure. It needs to be transported under pressure and / or cooled massively adding to the costs of distribution. Thus a whole new infrastructure would be required which is just mind boggling to think about. Could we ever build it now ? Honda are suggesting that hydrogen would be produced at home from natural gas. So not a sustainable future as it relies on a fossil fuel and only works if the 240 mile range on a tank is sufficient for your needs.

I would be truly stunned if we all end up driving around in hydrogen fuelled cars.

Electric Cars

Now this is not a fuel source as the extra electricity would need to be generated. The figures I gave above for the extra capacity required are indicative. Over and above that, massive, problem we also have the following problems

  1. Batteries have not been developed (despite years of research) that give decent range. I believe the lack of progress on this is what resulted in the move to hydrogen fuel cell cars. I believe there are fundamental problems with extending battery storage capacity.
  2. Batteries themselves are built using finite resources. Lithium resources are estimated as sufficient for 2 billion electric cars which may sound a lot but when there are currently ~ 700 million and the batteries need replacing periodically you can see this is not a sustainable solution. Even g-wiz cars which use a lead-acid battery require replacement every 2 years at a cost (currently) of over £2,000. I won’t even go into the environmental problems of disposing of 700+ million lead-acid batteries every 2 years.

Electric cars may be a niche market where some people choose to use some of their carbon ration (lets hope we get this idea soon) to charge up the car for short journeys.

We take cars as just part of everyday life but this won’t be the case for much longer. What can you do to mitigate this ? The only real way is to reduce your dependence on your car. If your work requires you to use your car then you seriously need to look for alternatives and if this requires either moving your home or switching jobs I would look to do it. For longer journeys get used to using public transport (trains even using diesel are by far the most efficient use of fossil fuels for transporting ‘stuff’ ) For shorter journeys do it under your own steam.

What should the government do ? I believe they should come clean to us all and get the whole population bought in to the urgency of our removal of dependency on oil. In recent days we have the usual news item at some petrol station asking the public about petrol prices and they all say how we should reduce taxes. NO WE SHOULDN”T – the last thing we need is to encourage us to use more petrol and get more dependent. These people just aren’t facing the truth – we want taxes to make you use less. I would like to see Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) introduced across individuals and businesses. The government could then actively reduce our use. Those that need more could buy from those that have surplus. For once this would produce a transfer of money direct from rich to poor. They should also call a halt to all road building and airport extensions. It’s utterly ridiculous to extend this infrastructure when car usage and air travel are clearly going to decline. The funds released from this could be then invested in extending and electrifying the railways. The railways are the only realistic method of long distance travel over land but relies on being electric and us increasing electric grid capacity.

This has been a long post already without addressing sea and air transport, electricity generation and home heating. I’ll post this and pop the rest in a follow up post.

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