A Nov. 8 report in Environmental Science & Technology, based on a study by UC Davis researchers, suggests that the amount of oil available globally will hit zero less than a century before alternative energy technologies can fill the gap.
The caveat is the current level of oil extraction and refining technologies, and the study is based on the curious (but perhaps entirely accurate) premise that long-term stock market investors are a surprisingly accurate barometer of when new energy technologies will enter the mainstream.
Study author Debbie Niemeier, a UC Davis professor of civil and environmental engineering, and co-author Nataliya Malyshkina, a UC Davis postdoc, collaborated to create this predictive tool to help policy makers construct “realistic” targets for environmental sustainability, and the ambition is noble.
I have only one complaint; realism never drove dreams. The Wright brothers were not being “realistic” when they imagined flight as a means of transportation. Yet today there is not an individual on the planet (with the possible exception of indigenous people hidden deep in the Amazon) who doesn’t see commercial jets as a perfectly viable (if somewhat embarrassing and occasionally frightening) means of getting from one end of a continent to another.
Neimeier and Malyshkina used two key parameters – share prices and dividends – to formulate their theory and evaluate the condition of alternative energy resources, and concluded that existing renewable-fuel targets are not “ambitious enough”.
According to Neimeier, the U.S. and developed nations need stronger policy measures to push these alternative energy technologies into the mainstream. It seems like a logical mandate, and certainly one that would spare the already fragile ecosystems of the Artic Ocean, where oil hungry corporations like Royal Dutch Shell expect to reap their next big harvests.
In fact, the Arctic has become so front- and-center, in terms of oil, that plans to clean up oil spills are already part of oil companies response plans, filed with the U.S. Department of the Interior – plans which the Pew Environment Group are already calling inadequate in view of the “extreme” Artic terrain and prevailing weather conditions.
Before we leap into the Arctic in a panic about the possible demise of oil, though, we (as humans on a fragile planet) would do well to consider the fact that “Peak Oil” has been with us since the first energy crisis in the 1970s (closely followed by the 1979 energy crisis, in the wake of the Iranian Revolution), and raises its ugly head every time oil companies sense the threat of any kind of regulation.
In fact, the cries of Peak Oil were heard most stridently immediately following the BP Gulf oil well blowout – which was never a spill in the classic sense of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. Thus leading this writer to conclude that Peak Oil is the rallying cry of the global energy masters and their minions, and one used to move the eye (and the world’s attention) from the recent advances in energy technology, like vastly improved solar efficiencies and algal biofuels, to Big Bad Wolf scenarios of starving, freezing millions.
Do we need to go there? A resounding no! Even though UC Berkeley researchers at the Energy Biosciences Institute now agree we’re about a decade out from plentiful, cost-effective algal biofuels, a decade is not a century, and Peak Oil at worst is either at – or just over the hill from – the apogee of a slippery, downward slope.
Other energy sources, from solar for example, are moving equally fast toward reliable and affordable efficiencies that will allow the technologies to replace fossil fuels. For example, 500 megawatt concentrating solar thermal plants with molten-salt storage could, according to renewable energy advocates, be competitive with natural gas in cost per kilowatt-hour.
Solar photovoltaic (PV) energy, though considerably less efficient than gas-fired peaking plants delivering electricity, is seeing its average efficiency (14 percent) rise with every month, and its average cost fall from 80 cents in 2009 to an estimated 54 cents in 2015. In fact, it won’t be long before thin-film BIPV (building integrated photovoltaics) offer energy options that gas, oil and coal never could, from energy-generating windows and wall claddings to roofing tiles that look like asphalt and deliver kilowatts of power daily.
And wind energy, which is eminently more efficient and cheaper than solar, is finding its own adaptations, from the style of wind turbine (horizontal or vertical axis, bladed or barrel-shaped, even wind generators without an actual turbine) to installed costs, that the industry swelled by 16 gigawatts, or 16 million kilowatts, just in the first half of 2010.
The next time you hear an oil executive or oil-funded politician talk about the failure of alternative energy technologies to deliver the standard of living the developed world has become accustomed to, look up at the sky, or down at the soil around your feet, and imagine how many pollutants will be eliminated by alternative energy technologies.
All oil ever gave us, really, was child labor, endless commutes, air, water and soil pollution, and wealth for a very few. We can all live without those.
Read more great articles on Celsias: