About a week ago, I turned on a television and flipped channels. I came across the evening’s installment of The Kudlow Report on CNBC, where people tune in to get their daily dose of chatter about the world of business and finance while bathing in a barrage of scrolling data. I normally have no interest in watching this stuff, for a variety of reasons. Among those reasons is the way that this kind of stuff seems more and more detached from reality. That’s a subject all its own. In this case, though, my attention was caught and I stuck around for the duration of the segment I’d stumbled upon.
The basic premise was one that isn’t new, you can find the same basic thing all over, it’s ubiquitous. The theme of the segment was, in summary, that Big Gummint regulation and restriction of oil drilling is driving oil prices too high; if only all these pesky rules and restrictions were gone, the free market would cure all and we would have plenty of cheap oil. It wasn’t especially surprising in a context where the absolute principle above all else is “we want to pay as little as possible for everything, while we’re paid as much as possible for everything”.
This theme is nothing new in talk about “energy issues”, especially where economists are involved. It’s also delusional fantasy. It’s thoroughly disconnected from reality. Unfortunately, it’s also an idea that takes hold among many people who are more focused on wishes of how they want things to be than they are on how things are in reality.
There were two guests, both members of the U.S. Congress. They were congressional Representative Jay Inslee and Senator David Vitter. It was noteworthy, really profound, to see the differences in what the two men said. I won’t bother trying to recall and summarize what Vitter said. I mainly discarded it from my mind once I had given it a hearing, because it was an unfortunately typical example of superficial clichés and far too common avoidance and denial. What mattered was that Inslee had a chance to speak, however briefly, and despite the chatter of Vitter and the show’s host interfering.
He did manage to point out a few basic, fundamental, matters of fact that got right to the biggest and most relevant points about oil and the matter of oil prices. These things he managed to get out among the chatter were: the increasing demand and consumption of oil by China, the current ongoing state of things looking very much like the worldwide peak of oil production may have been reached, and the physical reality that, despite a very popular (and simply ignorant) misconception about oil resources within U.S. territory, we could drill oil wells on every piece of real estate in the United States and we simply will not raise U.S. national oil production rate levels to what people wish.
He was simple, concise, right to the point, and absolutely right on all counts. These things were topics that should have been discussed honestly and rationally and realistically for the full duration of the show. As it was, I was impressed that Inslee even managed to get these points in at all, and even then, I suspect that for the huge majority of the viewers watching this, it was lost in the flow of bullshit.
There are many people who understand our situation regarding petroleum and the broad subject of “energy”. The stuff is not secret, and it does not require some kind of genius insight and deep professional specialist levels of education and knowledge. The bad news is that to find yourself in this group of people clearly seems to put you in a terribly small minority group. It’s a small enough segment of humanity that whenever anybody talks about this subject based in actual reality of things like the resources involved and how the physical universe actually works, it’s probably just dismissed most of the time. You’re a crackpot. A “doomsayer”.
One problem is that this is a complicated subject. On the other hand, there are a few basic concepts that need to be understood, but for anybody with reasonable intelligence and a decent basic education (I’m talking about high school level science here), it’s possible to get your head around some basics without making it into a major study. With that, you can look at a lot of things and be able to figure out quite a bit on your own and sort out many things for yourself.
The most important basics:
The general concept of the pattern over time of oil production, laid out by geologist M. King Hubbert over 50 years ago, generally referred to in short form as “Hubbert’s Peak” or “Peak Oil“. This is absolutely fundamental and critical to understand. Seriously, there is no overstating the importance of grasping this. It’s this simple; if you don’t understand the idea of this, you literally cannot deal with any real serious consideration of any questions or issues about petroleum. You just can’t. This is one of those things where once you wrap your head around it, you’ll see why.
The concept of what is often crunched down to acronym form as “EROEI“, energy return on energy investment. How much energy has to go into a process to get energy in return? Subtracting the amount of energy put into a process from the amount of energy you get out of it leaves the amount of “Net energy”. This is crucial, and that should be obvious, but it’s pretty astounding how much chatter there is about various topics under the subject of “energy” in public discussion and private conversation that never even considers that this is a factor.
- The Laws of Thermodynamics.
I’ll recommend again books I’ve mentioned before. I point to pair of books that cover an introduction to all of this, and do it extremely well at a layman’s level (you don’t need a science or engineering degree for these). These are “The Long Emergency” by James Howard Kunstler, and “The Party’s Over” by Richard Heinberg.
It is not unusual to see or hear something where somebody poses the question “are we running out of oil?”.
The big, serious, fundamental problem with that is this. It’s completely the wrong question. It’s not until you actually learn about what Hubbert pointed out, and get the whole basic concept of the pattern of oil production he laid out, that you can realize and understand that it’s not about “running out”.
It’s about this. The problem is when we reach the point where the rate of oil production can no longer be increased. That’s the whole ball game in simplest form.
Once you’ve had a short read and get the idea of the curve of Hubbert’s Peak, then you can start looking at actual real world data and understand, and start thinking through the implications and repercussions yourself, and more importantly, comprehend and digest what you come across from other people. It’s worth noting, this is very important, that when you view the subject of petroleum, you can find a lot of talk from economists and politicians and assorted business people that differs radically, fundamentally, from what you read and hear from geologists with decades of experience specializing in petroleum matters. Take a guess which group I regard as more credible.
By coincidence, just today I happened to see a copy of a book by Newt Gingrich, titled “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less”. It’s right in line with the position presented by Kudlow and Senator Vitter on the television show I mentioned. It’s a view almost completely detached from reality. I’ll tell you that I didn’t grab the book and read it. I spent a little time flipping through it and reading extracts, and every portion I read had serious problems. It’s a book that presents itself as a serious study, with lots of data thrown in, and yet stands as a perfect example of how something can include assorted facts (and much of the facts might actually be true) and manages to just get it thoroughly wrong. In this case, this book, it didn’t take long to see that the premise and assertions of Gingrich meshed perfectly with the premise of the TV segment on the Kudlow Report; that if only we swept away government regulations and restrictions here in the United States, we would be all set and free of “dependence on foreign oil”.
In short: bullshit.
The United States reached its peak of oil production around 1970-1971. Grasp this firmly. Oil production in the U.S. peaked and went into permanent decline forty years ago. That ship sailed a long time ago, and yet, still, decades later, somehow, only a relatively tiny number of Americans understand what actually happened.
This isn’t a detailed report here, but stay with me for a bit of specific information (and please read about the idea of Hubbert’s peak first if you have not done that and don’t already understand it).
The all time peak of crude oil production in the United States was in 1970. In 1970, crude oil production averaged 9.64 million barrels per day. The highest ever, the peak. It hung around a similar level, a brief plateau, for another couple of years. After that, production rate went into decline.
If you look at the data, you can see that the graph turned and the slope went positive again starting in the late seventies, the result of Alaskan oil coming “on line” through the new Alaskan pipeline. Then that bump in the graph had its own peak. To elaborate and explain, this reflected a localized peak, Hubbert’s Peak related to a particular region, within the larger domain of the United States as a larger oil producing region. Then, as the Alaskan oil had its own regional peak and went into decline after just a few years, the overall graph of oil production for the United States as a whole turned back down into a downward decline slope, which has continued ever since.
This is really important, wrapping your head around this fully. As you understand if you’ve understood what Hubbert found and explained, oil production follows a pattern. It starts slowly, increases, reaches a peak plateau, and then goes into permanent decline, a classic example of the idea of “diminishing returns”, more or less following a kind of bell curve. It is important to note that the real world events are complicated, and involve not just the physical realities of geology and engineering, but also human economic factors, so you never find an actual theoretically perfect “bell curve”, but that is the overall pattern. That’s how it works.
Determining the actual peak is something that can only be possible in retrospect some time after the peak occurs, obviously, simply because you have to have data over a long enough time after the peak to see that the peak has, in fact, occurred, and the curve is on the downside slope of decline. In this case, United States oil production, it was apparent to anybody paying attention that the peak did occur around the beginning of the seventies.
The peak year of 1970 saw an average of 9.64 million barrels per day.
The U.S. production for 2009 was an average of 5.31 million barrels per day.
That, incidentally, was about what U.S. oil production was around 1950. It should be extremely obvious that our oil consumption today, in the early 21st century, is beyond what we were using in 1950.
Over the recent few years up to the present, the rate of U.S. oil consumption has been floating around between 18 to 20 million barrels per day. Do the math.
It’s pretty clear, stark, even. You don’t have to be a wizard in statistical math to get the picture almost instantly. Ponder this. Even if we somehow magically got U.S. oil production back up to a level equal to the all time peak of 1970, how does that compare to our current rate of consumption. To get back to a level equal to the peak production of 1970, we would have to almost double current crude oil production. That isn’t going to happen. It doesn’t matter how much and how hard anybody wishes for this to happen.
It’s worth taking a second to look again at Hubbert’s Peak. The general concept is a pattern that holds true, whatever the complexities of the wiggles in the real world graph, at whatever scale of reference we look at, from an individual well, to a particular pocket of oil, to a region, to a nation’s territory, right up to the entire planet as a whole. Why and how any particular domain goes into the irreversible decline phase on the down side of Hubbert’s Peak is a complicated subject, but the main thing is just to grasp that it does. It involves the geology, engineering, and economics that are all factors.
The chatter from people saying things like what I’ve already mentioned about “America’s oil” ignores what I’ve just laid out. The curve of U.S. oil production has been declining for a long time, and I just showed you some key numbers. Consider this basic element in evaluating what people say about things phrased like “exploiting America’s own oil to eliminate foreign oil dependency”. Whatever you might do in terms of new oil drilling and production within the U.S. (and what you can actually do is a question of its own, regardless of restrictions or regulations) there is something fundamental to understand here.
Whatever added new oil production you might get going, the volume of oil coming from that has to, first, be enough to just offset the rate of decline, before it can ever begin to increase production rates of the U.S. oil, at all. Never mind any ideas of getting production volume rates back up to the level of the U.S. peak of 1970, and even that would be about halfway (or less) to the production rate needed to meet the current rate of U.S. oil consumption. Then, even if that whole series of miraculous things happened, this doesn’t even address any notions of even more increase in oil demand involved in “growth”.
Let’s dwell on this for a moment. When U.S. oil production peaked 40 years ago and is steadily declining, there are people who seriously assert the idea that we can just start punching wells in the ground and not only stop the decline in production, but then also raise it to at least four times current production levels.
I do hope by now that it’s crystal clear. Anybody telling you that simply eliminating government regulations and restrictions on the oil business in the United States is the road to America being self sufficient in energy is, quite simply, completely full of shit. Whether they’re just flat out lying, or they’re operating with some sort of mental dysfunction and detachment from reality, is another issue. The important thing to understand, whatever their problems and motivations, these people are just not operating in the realm of physical reality. It’s that simple. This is exactly what Inslee was talking about on television, while on a show talking with two other people who just are not facing this.
Let me restate. The problems are not about “the oil running out”. It’s important to get ahold of this idea, that is easy to state with confidence, however surprising it might seem, whatever instinctive reaction might prompt people to say “that’s just doom and gloom pessimism”, or “that ignores human innovation and creativity in technology”. The oil never will run out, and this does not mean that we have an infinite endless bounty of oil. This means that there will always be some oil left beneath the surface of the Earth, for a combination of reasons, technical and economic. We will simply never extract every drop that’s there. Why this is, is a large subject left to people better able to address it at length. You can do your own homework and research this yourself.
The concept of EROEI is a major part of this. To boil it down to an oversimplified example to get the idea: if you examine the whole process of extracting, processing, and transporting to where it needs to go to be used, if you have to use one barrel of oil to get the end product results of one barrel of oil, your net energy is zero. You used one barrel of oil up to get one barrel of oil. That doesn’t count the economic costs and so on, either. But in this situation, it’s even worse than starting with a barrel of oil and ending up with the same amount. It’s not only that, but now, you don’t just have the same amount of oil in hand, you also have removed one barrel from the remaining resources in the Earth. In short, you would have been better off if you left that in the ground and simply taken the barrel you used to extract another barrel of new oil, and used it for whatever purpose you needed oil for to begin with. This is an extremely simplified example to get the idea across, but you get the idea. You can’t just look at there being X amount of oil left underground, you have to consider what is needed to extract it.
We use petroleum as we have been over the past century and a half not just because of all the various ways it has been useful, but also because of the kind of high energy return you get compared to the energy put into the process of getting it. Once upon a time, the EROEI was extremely high. In some places on the Earth, high quality light sweet crude (the “good stuff”) was literally seeping out of the ground and forming ponds of the stuff. This is a good point to mention that quality of petroleum is not all the same.
It makes obvious sense that when humans began going after oil resources as the usefulness of the stuff became apparent, the people doing it went after the highest quality oil, that was easiest to get out of the ground, preferably in the largest collected deposits that could be found (i.e., the more oil you could extract by drilling one well, the better). Over time, we’ve used that stuff up. This puts us more and more into a situation where what’s left is the lower quality, harder to get out of the ground, in more scattered and small pockets. It’s not hard to understand that given this, as we use it up, the EROEI keeps going down, less “net” energy gained from what goes into the process, and a similar situation in economic terms. As what remains gets into the stuff that’s more difficult to extract, in more physically, technically difficult places, and more difficult circumstances, the economic costs to get a given amount of oil get higher.
This all comes into play. What adds to my amazement is how little of the superficial chatter flying around takes this into account. Look at these things.
A couple of quick notes about this while I’m at it, though. One item, you will find people saying something like “there is a lot of oil that’s still in the ground that hasn’t been extracted because it was not economical, the market will take care of oil shortages, because as demand makes the price of oil rise, these deposits will then be viable and will be usable”. This sounds sensible if you don’t really think it through. The missing question in that is then, alright, when the price rises to X dollars per barrel, who will be able to pay that price? What economic effects result from a price that makes this extraction not a money losing proposition?
Address this question, and you start to get a whiff of what the problems are with the arrival of oil peaking.
This is where it’s awfully frustrating to hear all the assorted chatter about oil from people who aren’t really looking at the full picture, including high level professional economists who look at the subject without rational consideration of physical reality, and think in terms of their favorite economic theories of how they think things ought to work, or wish they would work. Take as an example, if you looked around and did a study and collected a list of oil deposits around the world and found a collected batch of deposits still under the ground, unexploited, that have been untouched because they would be a money losing project for oil companies. However, you collect a list of oil deposits that would be financially viable to extract if the price of crude oil were $250 per barrel. Some people would look at this, add up the estimated quantity of oil in all those places, and say “see! there’s all kinds of oil left!”. The question is, what happens in broad economic terms when the price of crude oil is $250 per barrel? What good is it to have that oil when a price of $250 would be an economic trauma for everybody using oil, from individuals and households to businesses to government at all levels?
Some of the numbers I see tossed out are astounding, when compared to numbers offered by people I would consider as credible. I look at things I see occasionally and it looks like pure fantasy fiction, with nothing substantial to justify them. Who knows what the explanation is for every case of this? I do suspect, in many cases like this, that people might be getting this kind of stuff from a particular kind of confusion and misunderstanding (giving people the benefit of the doubt and not assuming they’re simply liars). What I suspect is that some people are looking at estimates (or pure speculative and optimistic guesses) about possible quantities of oil sands and oil shale.
Here’s the thing. Neither oil sands nor oil shale are crude oil. Worse, the resulting products from oil sands and oil shale are not what we have been using for decades, generally being light sweet crude. With quite an involved process, you can get some products with some resemblance to what we have normally regarded as “oil”. Follow the links and read about them. Pay special attention to all the aspects of these raw sources. For a start, they’re both ecological nightmares when you look at what it takes to make use of them. Beyond that, related to that aspect, is the very important issue of what goes into it. Massive amounts of water (coming out horribly polluted at the end), plus air pollution, and the massive energy inputs needed in any form of processing, for heating processes, with the general method of dealing with that appearing to be burning massive quantities of natural gas, another finite fuel resource. People thinking these are magic new oil substitutes are either just uninformed and dazzled by hearing about these new wonder energy sources (without looking into them), or just mad as hatters.
I look at those two things, and think that if this is the way people think we ought to go to avoid changing how we live and do things, we have just about reached the point of becoming a society of people of the sort that would happily sell their grandmother into slavery to continue a crack cocaine habit.
An edit note here. I’m writing this bit by bit between other things over a couple of days. I’m coming back to this point because, by chance, I happened to come across an episode of “The Nature of Things” with Ken Suzuki on CBC television, this evening. The subject was the Alberta oil sands. In short form, the environmental damage of this is even worse than I had known before. If that isn’t bad enough, it prompts me to reflect a little on this item. From what I gather, with oil shale, it’s much worse than oil sands, so seeing how much more grim the consequences are of oil sands processing, I hate to even think about oil shale.
Going back to petroleum in the form of crude oil again, here are some things to consider.
This past year, we all saw the gigantic disaster in the Gulf of Mexico when the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and sank. The repercussions of the damage to the Earth might not be fully comprehended for some time, I suspect. For what?
The deposit that the Deepwater Horizon rig was tapping into is known as the Macando Prospect. Estimated recoverable oil reserves are, by the estimate I saw, about 50 million barrels of crude. In other words, an amount of crude oil enough to supply the oil consumption of the United States for about two and a half days.
Glancing through that Gingrich book I mentioned, I saw a figure that said something like 19 billion barrels of crude are available under the oceans, offshore from the United States, but declared off limits by U.S. government drilling restrictions. I’ll assume that number is true for the moment. So, do the math. The total of all that oil said to be there, but off limits, would be enough to supply U.S. oil consumption, at the rate we’ve been going through it, for about two and a half years. Is this really going to be our miracle solution that’s going to lower gasoline prices at the pump and be our plentiful and cheap oil, free from dependence on foreign oil sources?
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is another example of a political squabble from the same sort of people. I’ve read that the region is estimated to hold about 10.4 billion barrels of crude oil. So, again at current consumption levels, that gives the U.S. a total of about one and a half years supply.
It probably occurred to you by now that when I calculate the amount of time a given resource would supply the U.S. with crude, it doesn’t mean that, say, a valve would open and the Macando Prospect would supply all our oil for two or three days and then stop. Obviously, there would be some amount of oil production volume at some flow rate as a constraint, that would supply some small portion of the oil supply for the U.S., along with innumerable other sources at the same time, and each resource (e.g. about, Macando Prospect, all the offshore sources collectively, ANWR) would last for whatever length of time. That’s part of the point, though, that none of these, even if fully exploited, would suddenly eliminate the need for all the sources already drawn from, wherever in the world those might be. They would just be a new minor blip in worldwide oil trade.
M. King Hubbert observed, and explained, that when examining oil deposit resources, whether at the scale of an individual pocket of oil, a particular region, or all of the oil of the planet as a whole, the rate of extraction will reach a peak somewhere more or less around the point where half of the available volume of oil has been pumped and half is still left, and after that peak, by definition, the rate of flow starts decreasing, into decline. That’s the nature of passing the peak of the curve. The United States passed peak for the oil in our territory forty years ago, while only a small minority of people seem to even be aware of this. The recent data shows signs that the world as a whole might have reached all time peak. Crude oil production has been in a plateau since around 2004-2005. Specifically, it has been showing what experts in the subject call a “wobbly plateau”, which is kind of a complicated subject of its own.
As I understand it, the “wobbly plateau” phenomenon is a complex interaction between hitting the limits of possible oil production volume and the economic factors. Apparently it goes something like this. Demand for oil hits the limit of production rate that’s possible, production simply can’t be increased to fill the demand. This drives up the price of oil. That causes economic distress resulting from the effects of the higher oil costs through everything, from individuals and families to businesses. Activities slow down or shut down completely. That reduces the demand for oil. This causes the price of crude to drop. The reduction in costs prompt activities that had been stifled by the higher oil prices to get going again, which drives up oil consumption and demand, which causes oil production to hit the limits again, driving up the price of oil… and around it goes.
Look at what happened to the economy, look at oil price history over the last few years, and see if you find anything interesting between timelines.
We can’t really know yet if we have actually reached the all time world peak of oil production. This will take time, since the peak won’t be definite until we have enough data beyond it to show that, yes, in fact, that was the peak, right there. We could be there now, with the question, if that is the case, being how long the wobbly plateau will carry on before oil production at the worldwide level goes into decline.
The trouble is, when the peak has passed, and all oil production is into the down slope of permanent decline, that will be a little bit late to start preparing to deal with the repercussions. It must be dealt with, whether we like this or not, whether we’ve prepared for this or not, whether we’re even aware of it or not. Right now, that might be the biggest problem of all. Few people are even aware of what’s involved. So, I say, “hey, look!”.
The sleepwalking trance is not only among the “drill, baby, drill!” crowd, as I’ve been talking about here and have written about before. The counterpart in the general noise and chatter evading reality is a different form. This takes the form of “green renewable energy” or “alternative energy sources” magical wishes.
There is so much babbling noise around about everything happening, with aggravated chatter making everything out to be a political issue, that all of the stuff I’m writing about here, for anybody addressing it, can get lost in the noise.
It’s not unusual to hear something like this: “we need to develop green energy sources like wind and solar to free us from our dependence on foreign oil”. The biggest problem, first and foremost, is exactly the same problem as I’ve been writing about above. That is, some quick easy superficial answer to complex problems involving the need of many people to believe that large complex problems can be addressed in a one sentence sound bite.
Many people throw around phrases like “green energy” and “renewables” and “alternative energy sources” without showing much sign of careful and realistic and rational examination and thought about what’s involved. Often, I get the distinct feeling that people speaking about this really broad and complicated subject are operating on some vague premise that all forms of energy (and fuel, potential energy held in chemical form) are somehow all equivalent and interchangeable.
There is no magic substitute for petroleum. There really isn’t a substitute for petroleum. The only thing like petroleum is petroleum. The implication of this is obvious. A functional future for human civilization is going to require large scale fundamental changes to what we do and how we do things. It’s just unrealistic fantasy and evasion of big and difficult problems and tasks to think that, somehow, everything will be exactly as it has been, but we’ll just suddenly and easily swap out petroleum and replace it directly with something else. It’s not that simple.
Much of the kinds of problems here kind of boil down to people just not thinking it through and doing the math.
Things like ethanol and hydrogen are the biggest, worst examples. This is where EROEI, the energy returned for the energy invested, comes in, and whenever you get into examining these things, you have to basically work the whole equation. You have to look at everything involved, all the way through.
Let’s get back to hydrogen later and look at ethanol for a minute. Ethanol sounds great on the surface, and does work as a fuel for internal combustion engines, but turns out to be a horrible idea as a way to replace petroleum fuel to power motor vehicles on a large scale. It comes down to EROEI for a start. Added to that, every acre of farmland devoted to growing plant matter to turn into ethanol is an acre of farmland not growing food.
Photovoltaics and wind turbines for electrical power generation are great ideas. They have their limits, and these things need to be thought through. They certainly are not anything like a replacement for petroleum. Electrical power is not petroleum fuel. If we look at motive power for vehicles, electric cars are very interesting. They have advantages and problems and limits.
One obvious major factor in electric cars is that it’s a drivetrain completely different from internal combustion engine powered vehicles. It’s a different system. Many things come with this. Batteries have always been the big issue, as anybody who has spent any time looking at this knows. There are improvements happening in the technology of batteries, but what comes along with this? For example, what are the materials needed for newer improved batteries? If the process of making the better, lighter, batteries capable of holding more charge includes somewhat exotic materials (e.g., lithium), this can be an issue that has to be thought through and examined over the long term, questions such as, are we looking at something where we’ll have a shortage from depletion of those materials?
Another obvious issue that always comes up with electric cars is the range, and then, the problem of recharging. You can’t just pull in to a service station and recharge along the way on your journey in a few minutes the way you fill a tank of liquid fuel, and the range is limited compared to an internal combustion engine in a vehicle with a suitable size fuel tank.
There is, also, hydrogen. One approach to this that’s been around a while is the idea of replacing batteries storing electrical charge with a chemical fuel cell generating electricity from the chemical reaction of mixing hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen fuel cell! It sounds great. Instead of the large array of expensive and heavy batteries, with limited range, and long recharging periods, use a hydrogen fuel cell to generate electricity right on board, its own little power plant in the car. When the hydrogen supply gets low, stop somewhere and fill the tank again. Hey, presto!
It’s not that simple. You probably saw that coming. It seems almost a sure thing that if this comes up in discussion, somebody will say that it’s the answer to not just the problem of fueling cars, but all our energy needs, because, “hydrogen is the most abundant substance in the universe, it’ll never run out!”. Alright, if that’s true, go for it. Do it. Gather the hydrogen and do it.
That’s where it stops and gets tricky. Where’s your hydrogen supply? You don’t find pure hydrogen anywhere. It’s a gas, of course, except at extreme low temperatures. To actually obtain hydrogen, it has to be stripped from some compound. You can look into this and find various processes that people have figured out to pull hydrogen from something, the best known process being electrolysis. In electrolysis, you use electrical charge to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. In a fuel cell, then, combining hydrogen with oxygen generates electricity, with an end product of water. Sounds good, then? A supply of hydrogen and oxygen, maybe just pulling oxygen from the air and having a hydrogen tank in the car, and you have an electrical generator to power the electric motors in your car, with a waste exhaust of water.
The problem? Besides any of the difficulties of producing large enough volumes of hydrogen to be the fuel supply for millions of cars as the new way of doing things in our new renewable clean energy motoring (a big issue all by itself), hydrogen cannot be considered an energy source. This might sound odd, but it goes right back to the basic concept of EROEI, energy return on energy invested. Hydrogen must be regarded as an energy carrier, not an energy source, because you have to put more energy into generating the hydrogen from compounds than you can get back by using the hydrogen. It’s not an energy source, then, strictly speaking, it’s effectively an energy carrier, like a battery, essentially. You have to pump energy into a process to produce the hydrogen and lose energy in the process.
That’s just the starter problem. Then there’s everything involved in actually using it. The energy density of hydrogen is so low that you need enormous amounts of it, and that ends up presenting you with a situation where you have to have the stuff under insane pressure at low temperature to get enough of it into a tank of any sort of reasonable volume to fit in a car… and it’s extremely flammable. Extremely flammable, explosive gas, under gigantic pressures, what could possibly go wrong? Top it off by the tiny size of the hydrogen molecules meaning that it’s a real challenge to keep it contained, and this is looking beyond difficult and problematic and into just crazy. Read the links presented at the end here.
Basically, at a glance, a hydrogen fuel cell to generate electric power in an electic car sounds like a fantastic idea, easily seen as the way of the future for automobiles. Upon looking more closely at it for just a short time, it rapidly turns into “oh my god, this is nuts”.
But an electric car, for a short distance local travel vehicle, it’s brilliant. Here’s where we get into topics that go beyond any technical matters, and get into how we do things.
Recently GM introduced the Chevrolet Volt electric hybrid car.
The quick needed background on the Chevy Volt is that it’s a hybrid electric car with the wheels driven only by electric motors. The electric motors are driven by batteries, and then to augment the battery charge it carries a gasoline fueled internal combustion engine that drives an electrical generator to power the electric drive motors and/or recharge the batteries.
According to Chevrolet, the driving range on a full charge operating only on battery power is about 40 miles. When the Volt has a full tank for the engine driving the electrical generator, this extends the range to a little under 200 miles or so.
A while back, online, I saw somebody put up a link to a story on the web, about the new Chevy Volt hybrid. Comments followed. The commentary had some disturbing and sad surprises. For a start, first was a comment that was just sarcastic ridiculing; it went something like “oh, great, so it can get you to work and then get you halfway back home…” with something about being a chance to spend more time stopping at a bar on the way home while the car recharges.
The first thing about that, obviously, is that the comment completely ignored the basic design and specifications of the car where it’s said that the gasoline powered internal combustion engine driving a generator extends the driving range to a couple hundred miles or so. The disturbing thing about that is that the person posting that online comment happened to be someone I used to know, who simply should have known better, somebody whose background and general intelligence made it completely inexcusable and inexplicable for them to have missed or ignored such a basic item. Later events got even more disturbing, and that gets into a whole separate story, as it became apparent that the man had, somehow, over time, become seriously irrational in general. That in itself is back to the basic theme here. The theme being, we don’t just have big and complex problems to get a grip on, it’s being compounded by some kind of epidemic of mental illness. I think many people are responding to the array of major problems of the time with some mix of things along a spectrum running from freaked out panic to almost catatonic shutdown.
But getting back to this specific item, there’s something in that event that I think is really profound. Look at that specific comment, given the “battery power only” range of the Volt being specified as 40 miles. If you take that comment exactly literally, and say that this operating range would get somebody to work and then, at the end of the workday, would get them exactly halfway back home, the math tells you that the distance between their home and work would be about 27 miles (26 and 2/3 miles to be exact). And here is the most striking element of this.
The noteable thing here is that somebody would mock the Chevy Volt for its (incorrectly assumed) range limit of 40 miles, and not stop to even consider the thought: maybe the more fundamental problem here is that they live 27 miles away from where they work and travel this distance each and every working day.
Let that thought circle around in your mind for a while.
In a very real way, that’s kind of the whole enchilada right there.
Compound the problem by noticing how many people are doing it in some jumbo truck, maybe an SUV, maybe a pickup truck.
Let this soak in your mind for a while and you can begin to get a grip of the most fundamental reasons why the present day United States devours about ¼ of all oil production in the world with somewhere around 5% of the world’s population. It’s not hard to understand, it’s not even close to subtle. But instead of looking straight at the most fundamental factors and getting to grips with dealing with it rationally, we have a storm of noisy squabbling and chatter and some mad contest between people saying we have plenty of oil for centuries if only annoying restrictions were out of the way, and people who believe that one day magical techno-fairies will come around and next month we’ll be doing everything as we have, but now powered by swapping in “green renewable energy”.
A good way to close here might be to suggest watching an online video, part of a series on the problem of oil peaking. In one segment, an interview with writer James Kunstler, he says a great deal, but maybe the simplest and most important point is near the end of the segment. We need to develop a general consensus of view of reality that fits the way things really are.
Otherwise, we’re sleepwalking right off a cliff, with people completely baffled about what’s happening.
Hubbert peak theory – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubbert_peak
peak oil-an introduction -http://www.powerswitch.org.uk/Downloads/pos.pdf
EROEI – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EROEI