Limited Resources

Our scarce resources need effective management

Resource usage is something most people never think of because they are used to a situation where everything is available whenever they need it. The main resources that power our civilisation are coal and oil then gas and a little nuclear. WWS [1] (excluding hydro-power) contribute only 2% of the global power mix. There are 2 existing problems with fossil fuels which are rarely being discussed together:

1. Fossil fuels will run out some time in the near future

2. Fossil fuels contribute to climate change

There is a possibility that by around 2030 governments around the world will push the use of nuclear power again as „the only option to reduce climate change problems“

Before we start to look at the energy situation of our civilisation, it needs to be said that every product you buy today is based on stuff that this planet had stored in some form around its surface. For everything we need, a tree had to be chopped down, a mine had to be dug, a hole had to be made, a building had to be erected on soil and some water had to be used. Every item we can purchase today has some of the earth’s resources embodied in it and when we throw it away as waste, the resources will be lost unless we recycle it. Each item has differing amounts of resources embodied in it but an overall we can say that

the costs for every resource comes down to its embodied energy.

For example copper inside an electrical appliance had to be dug out with one of these

(source:Liebherr)
(Source: Liebherr)

and then ground down into small pieces so that it could be smelted with as little rock as possible. The smelted copper was formed into bars and delivered to a factory somewhere where they made wire from copper bars. Then the wire was been shipped to the factory where it was used to make the appliance, and from there it had to be shipped to your home. All these processes consume more or less different resources but in the end the largest part of all will be the amount of energy that is embodied in the finished appliance.

It can be shown that for all the processes in our civilisation, the complexity of civilisation and the use of energy is directly related.

(source ourfiniteworld.com)
(source ourfiniteworld.com)

It can also be shown that for the growth of our civilisation the embedded energy is directly related to the release of CO2

(source: resilinece.org)
(source: resilinece.org)

There has not been any real reduction of energy usage or CO2 production for more than 200 years.

There was a slight dip after the global financial crisis in 2008 but that rose again pretty fast. Any products we can purchase resemble some sort of embodied energy. So we can say that the cheaper the energy embodied in the product is, the cheaper the product will be.

So here is a look at the worker’s income :

(source: econproph.com)
(source: econproph.com)

You see that median household income has not increased significantly since 1970. What happened in 1970? In short: from 1970 onwards the amount of net energy in a unit of energy decreased. We want to look at the amount of net energy that a unit of energy returns to our society.

Only the net energy in a resource allows us to do some work (earn money).

The broader term for this is called the Energy Return On Energy Invested or EROEI.

When the first oil well was dug in the United States, they drilled a hole some 30m deep and found a lot of oil. The amount of work needed to get that oil out of the ground was nearly zero compared to the oil that has been extracted. The EROEI was very high, probably more than 100:1. This means for every one unit of energy invested into digging holes, connecting pipelines, transporting the oil to a refinery, getting it to the end users allowed the users to run a machinery which produced 100 units of energy (work) from it.

A similar calculation can be made for the first coal fired steam engine for draining water from a coal mine, making it possible to dig deeper for coal. The first steam engine did not have an efficiency much larger than 10% but that still was enough as it made sense to pump out the water to get more coal out of the ground.

For the first people who used fossil fuels it was such a convenience compared to the horses and oxen that had been used before (of course some water mills and wind mills had also existed) that no one thought about “saving energy” because it seemed that the available energy was virtually limitless. This started to become a concern during the first and second world wars when the warring nations had to search for sources of fuels for their large war machines. Germany tried hard to build up the “Baghdad rail” to get oil from Iraq in WWI. In WWII Germany tried to connect to the oil region in Baku in the Black Sea but failed (Stalingrad). It can be said that since the beginning of the 20th century many military confrontations have more or less been related to energy problems

Some problems inside countries (The Arab Spring) may be related more to the inequality inside these countries, but inequality also involves having a rich class that can pay high energy costs and a large population that can not pay, for example, high food prices. Producing food is also related to energy costs (and more and more related to climate change).

Today the world is very well equipped with pipeline systems and the oil industry is the largest economic sector in the world. We are so much used to the fact that energy is available that we never think about a situation where these fuels may run out.

We must first and foremost examine the situation with oil as it is the base for both transportation and many of the goods being transported today. You can not eat without transportation to your supermarket. And the extraction of other resources like coal and minerals is also mostly based on oil.

Running out of oil in the media is mainly about “proven reserves” or “recoverable reserves” which are simple terms that the energy industry uses to cover up the real facts. (You can Google that and find out that there is a lot of useless discussion about these terms). What counts here is the “net energy available for a unit of product”. The unit of product in the oil sector is the “Barrel”. One Barrel of oil consists of 159 litres of crude oil. Crude oil is what comes out of the ground and this has a different “quality” depending on which well it comes from. Here is a video of a scientist trying hard to convince some members of the French parliament of that very fact.

It has been found that the oil drilled in Texas is of good quality and therefore the quality term “”WTI” (Western Texas Intermediate) was coined. The Europeans also found a lot of oil in the North Sea and for that the term “Brent” was used. As the net energy quality for these products is different, the prices for the two sorts is different. The oil from Saudi Arabia is something being called “Sweet Crude” because it has little “dirt” in it like sulphur and is easy to refine. There exists worse qualities which are termed “Sour Crude”, meaning it delivers less net energy after processing than the “Sweet” version.

Ok, so we now have a rough estimate about the net energy quality of oil. You can purchase a “barrel” but what the economy needs from the barrel is the net energy available in it. Another exisiting term related to net energy availability is that of “conventional oil”. Conventional oil more or less is oil extracted from drilling a hole where the oil is naturally ejected under high pressure, and all you need do is connect a tube which you can then tap for easy delivery. It is a globally accepted fact that the amount of “conventional oil” in the world can no longer be increased as the all wells for this quality have declining output. The date for the start of this decline is thought to have been 2005 or 2006, depending on the data you use but it is clear: The oil we have been using since 2006 is more expensive in terms of money and in terms of net energy available!

After conventional wells have produced around half their deposited oil, they need to use advanced techniques to get the other half – but this will cost you energy and machinery, so the net energy available will decline. The decline in Barrels is found to be 4 to 6 % a year depending on the deposit

(source: bbc.com)
(source: bbc.com)

But why do we not see a decline in the quantity of oil on the markets? Because oil is such a high quality product (it lets you do a lot of work for a small amount of fuel in the tank) that it makes sense to use some “unconventional oil”. Unconventional oil is mainly oil that is stored in sand or rock and needs a lot of processing (“Tar sands”, “Deep sea wells” and “Fracking”).

Fracking in the US
Fracking in the US (source: huffingtonpost.com)
tar sands in Canada
tar sands in Canada (source:pinterest)

Unconventional oil has led to the false idea that there are plenty of “Barrels” left. That is true but the net energy inside these barrels after all processing is decreasing. So it can be shown that from 1970 onwards the amount of Barrels delivered by the oil industry has been increasing but

The net energy available to our societies has been decreasing since 1970.

This has severe implications:

1. The amount of work that can be delivered by a unit of fossil fuel energy is decreasing, meaning that the profits for products using these energy products are decreasing and that the wages of the workers using these energy sources are stagnant. Profits gains can only come from increases in efficiency but we can not do this for ever. 

2. All the debt that an economy makes is a bet on the future production of goods and services. As the future net energy content of fossil fuels can only decrease it will be harder and harder to pay down debt.

After the 70’s the problem of less net energy has somewhat been glossed over by the emission of large quantities of debt. First the states took on more debt and then the private sector. Debt helped the fuel extraction process to keep on going because the deficit in net energy could be painted over by simply producing more units (Barrels). In 2008 the oil price peaked at 147 Dollars per barrel, fuelled by ever increasing debt – but the people somehow failed to earn the money to service that debt. That was an important factor in bursting the housing bubble of 2008. The net energy available in fossil fuels is simply no longer available to produce goods and services to pay down the debt.

But we have low oil prices now, is that not a good sign?

Yes, for the moment we have low oil prices and many other commodities, but the simple reason for that is that consumers can no longer afford a high price. This is because everything bought with a high price no longer produces enough revenue to pay down the investment in the commodities.

The problem of our fuel consumption has both a financial aspect and an energy aspect which are related, making it difficult to solve the problem. If we want to convert our fuel system to WWS [1] we will need a lot of investment, a sum in the region of many trillion dollars. The problem is that all these WWS [1] energy sources are significantly less energy dense than oil or coal. So if we want to pay down all that debt for the switch to WWS [1], we will really have to struggle hard to produce the goods and services to pay down the debt as WWS [1] simply do not deliver the large amount of energy needed for the investments that we are used to, and upon which our entire civilisation is built. India and China, for example, have some good locations suitable for wind and solar power. Still these countries invest a lot in the use of fossil fuels for the growth of their economies because in the end the net energy gain from fossil fuels is simply much larger than the net gain from WWS [1].

So now we see that the switch to WWS [1] energy not only is necessary because we want to stop the emissions of CO2 but also because we will need a new energy source in the future. For that future energy source we must use the maximum net energy options available so that we can at least run a civilisation similar to the one we run today.

So how do we put this all together ?

Let’s go back to some points we made before: The energy extraction process can be measured in terms of energy return on energy invested EROEI. We see from current developments that the EROI value is declining from a value of 100 in 1850 to something like 8 to 12 (depending on the source) today. Nowadays we get 8 to 12 times the energy out of one unit of energy used to extract it. It is clear that when we need to invest more than one unit of energy to get one unit of energy it will make no more sense to extract fossil fuels. So currently we are in a lucky situation that we still get some net energy gain from fossil fuels and some of this energy will have to be used to switch to a WWS [1] energy future. There only exists a small additional problem with it and that is called “complex society”. We have a very complex society and this society needs energy simply to exist. We need to maintain buildings, we must run the electric grid, we need to operate hospitals, we want to run the communications infrastructure and so on. All these things consume energy only “by their very existence”. They need energy even if they do currently not produce any value. The street must be there that you can visit your parents 7 days a week, not only on the weekend. This fact is a very disputed issue but it has been found that we need a minimum EROEI to run our civilisation between 5 and 10. The current fossil fuel extraction process is a very complex system and for that reason it is very complicated to find out where we stand at the moment – but it can be said that we are currently producing fossil fuels at an EROEI of something between 8 and 12. So you see, we are already pretty far down the line with our fossil fuel extraction process and it is an urgent problem to be solved right now! The build-up of WWS [1] energy will take maybe 30 years and it is not at all clear that we will have fossil fuels to do that for the next thirty years. So the solution would be to really build up the WWS [1] future quickly. Very quickly!

This switch to WWS [1] is one solution to the problems of CO2 and energy depletion. But there is another problem, causing many to refuse to believe the idea that WWS [1] will help us to build a better future: WWS [1] energy is not a very high net energy producer!

Production “costs” in terms of energy of a photovoltaic cell is 14% of its total production capacity (assuming a lifetime of 20 years). That means PV has an EROEI of 7. Wind power is a little better but it also only has a low EROEI of something like 16. So even if we build these in the very large quantities needed we will discover that the net energy gain is quite low and we will need to alter our civilisation from wasting energy to saving energy. That includes sort of “electrifying” every aspect of our civilisation because electricity will be the fuel for the future. (Mobility, heating with heat pumps and so on). This is another problem: We will need a lot more electrical energy in the future and still the WWS [1] are only a low net energy producing source. This makes a huge problem and it is not at all clear if this can be solved, which is why many people simply reject the fact that WWS [1] energy has any future…

So with all this being disputed, some people say we have plenty of oil left and

There will be other resources online when we need it.

Well, you will only be able to see the truth when world oil production declines. The problem is, when the production of oil starts to decline, we will get a lot of other problems that will make it even harder to switch to WWS [1]. First of all the decline will be at 4 – 6% a year. Please calculate how many years you can cut all your material needs by 5%. I would say that after a maximum of 5 years a lot of people will experience severe issues. So it is not a good idea to wait until we see a real decline in fossil fuel extraction! There exists a mathematical description of this problem here.

Even if we can overcome the thermodynamic limits to the fossil fuel extraction process by innovation and substitution, we can in no way burn all fossil carbon stores in the world as this would cause catastrophic climate change. The path for that has been laid in the Paris climate agreement, but the change will be very hard indeed. It can even be said that we must leave about 50% of carbon based energy resources in the ground. That implies that the companies invested in these fuel sources will not be able to make money on them. The loss will be between 50 and 100 trillion US$. An additional large amount of money will be needed to build a new energy future in a really short time frame. The economic stress will be enormous!

There exists a lot of talk about new GENERATION IV reactors.

Let’s have a look. In the 70’s when nuclear was built up, we were being promised that the chance of a nuclear accident was one in 10,000 years. We currently run something like 450 nuclear reactors worldwide. That makes an accident every 22 years. There have been three meltdowns in Fukushima and one in Chernobyl, making 4 in less than 88 years. Seems the statistics are right. For that reason new nuclear reactors have to be built with a high amount of security what makes them very expensive compared to WWS [1]. This means new technology needs to be invented and there has to be a huge build up of nuclear power plants to replace the fossil fuel power plants. In the end the net energy available from nuclear reactors will not be much higher than from WWS [1] and it will be much more costly per energy unit ($/kW). It simply makes no sense to wait that long because we will have some huge other energy troubles in 2030 when Generation IV reactors are said to be available on a large scale. Or we just wait until 2050 until fusion power is said to be here. There might be an option to use fusion power in the far future but currently only WWS [1] can fill the gap on a worldwide scale, something which has been proven for a long time. And of course, we must bring CO2 emissions down to zero now!

The only way to resolve all of these problems now and fast is to build an international grid to connect the best locations of WWS [1] in the Northern Sahara and Russia to the European grid, and then to exchange the energy being produced on a large distributed area so that the intermittency problems will be smoothed out. Similar solutions need to be applied in China, Australia and America. It has been shown that this is possible with current technology and at a price much lower than the prices being paid at the moment in all of these countries.

An onshore wind turbine with 2000 full load hours in Europe is not the best use for society compared to the same wind turbine on a better location that runs at 4500 full load hours. A photovoltaic cell with 950 full load hours in Europe is not as useful for society as a solar power plant in the Sahara which operates for about 6000 full load hours in a year.

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[1] WWS: wind, water, sunlight