Sunday, May 08, 2011

End the burning, Cool down and Clean up!


In our last post which was triggered by some discussions at few other blogs, we discussed the problems of consumerism. There, we found the need for some vital statistics on the effects of consumerism. Anyway, some of most interesting and widely discussed subjects these days are on global warming, oil prices, when the oil going to run out what next etc...

Come to think of it, exactly :

How much Fossil Fuel do we actually have in world reserves currently ?
What are the rate we are burning them and how long will they last ?

On the other hand, can we really afford to burn the remaining carbon fuels in the light of increasing CO2 levels and the threat of global warming?

What are the  alternatives we have?

Well, answers to those are easy to find these days! At least the part of finding the statistics, analyzing them with common sense and existing knowledge and coming up with a set of logical conclusions is not too difficult. Difficulty will be in getting people (or societies, economies) to change their current beliefs and behaviors! not to mention the policy makers.

Anyway let's have a look at the statistics first (from wikipedia) :

Currently we have around 1200 billion barrels of oil in proven reserves. Of which we use about 84 million barrels daily at current production rate. Therefore oil is believed to last 43 more years.

Similarly, about 905 billion metric tonnes of Coal is available with the production rate of about 18 million metric tonnes daily. Therefore Coal will last for 148 years.

Availability of natural Gas is about 180 trillion cubic meters, at current production rates will last till about 60 more years.

These figures haven't taken into account the fact that the demand for these resources increase steadily each year by about 2.3%. However, world production for oil have already peaked, meaning we can not produce any more daily than we are producing right now! Coal and gas too is nearing peak production.

Now to the fun job of analysis :

The reason not to take the increased demand into account (in above calculations) is that it doesn't matter! What ever the demand is, world production is now peaked. Imagine a well with water to last 43 days. Your pump or the tap has a fixed limited rate of which you are taking water out. Now you get visitors and need more water and your well have got it as well. Still, you can not get more out since your output (tap size) is limited, so the well will still last for 43 days, you will just have to manage with whatever amount of water it gives daily until 43 days, after which you will not get even that limited amount. zero! nothing!

hmm that doesn't sound good does it ?  wait.. it's about to get worse! :

Demand increases but the supply stays stable, what does that tell us ? It means more and more fuel shortages and increased price in future. It will get worse in each year until about 30 years after which oil might get too expensive for many practical usages. This will have an impact on coal and gas too as non availability of oil will increase the demand for gas and coal, their prices too will go dramatically up. So we can have following conclusions form our analysis so far :
1) In short term, higher fuel prices and shortages will slow down world economies and growth.
2) In about 30 years, oil, gas and coal all will be too expensive to make their usage impractical for most of tasks.

Only two things can stop this scenario. Let's list them down..
A) Technical advances which enable us to get the same work done by consuming less fuel. (like hybrid cars)
B) Economical slow downs and low growth rates, driving the consumption down. This second outcome is the same as conclusion 1 we stated above, one thing leads to another. Same sad story!

So our only hope seems to lie in technological advances to get more out of same amount of fuel. Remember, this is not about burning less, this is about getting more out of the amount we are already burning per year to meet the growing demand for energy. How practical is that to expect in three decades? Well, history have taught us never to underestimate the advance of science and technology. Hybrid cars and Bloom Boxes are two examples.

Problem is not much about the technical innovations, it's more about peoples capacity and readiness to change and adapt to new technologies. This means relaying of new infra structure (this is one reason why Hydrogen fuel cells vehicles didn't take off), changing attitudes and mindset of people (even after more than a decade of history, hybrid vehicles are still a small fraction of all vehicles running on roads for example), mass production of new technology and survive early periods of trial and error. It generally take time to master a new technology and evangelize it, mass produce with new manufacturing plants etc So even if a technological revolution of increasing the fuel efficiency is possible, we may be running up on time for that. Remember we have only 3 decades left, we may need to start right now!

Now what about other available main energy sources, namely hydroelectricity and nuclear energy? Obviously, Hydro electricity has a limitation imposed by available good enough natural locations. Most available such locations are already being used. Other problems are the impact man made reservoirs have on wild life, environment, soil and eventual filling up of reservoirs by mud deposits resulting from erosion of soil over time. Still, production can be increased but no where near to a level of filling the huge gap fossil fuels going to leave  us with. Currently, hydroelectricity gives us only about 6% of total energy production. That leaves us with the possibility of Nuclear energy.


Even if we discard the potential dangers of nuclear plants like the recent tragedy in Japan after the tsunami, nuclear energy too has one big shortcoming. It is non-renewable! Like fossil fuels the fuel needed for nuclear reactors, Uranium is in short supply. According to statistics current known Uranium reserves (type which good enough in quality to be used in Nuclear reactors) which are economically and technically viable to use are enough to generate power for about 100 more years AT THE CURRENT PRODUCTION LEVEL.  Currently we use nuclear energy to cover about 8.5% of global energy need. Clearly, with fossil fuels diminishing and unable to supply the increased demand, Nuclear energy has to contribute lot more if we are to meet the energy demand and to keep economical growth.

This brings us to the next dimension of the problem. Even if we have fossil fuels, we can not afford to burn them anywhere near current rates due to environmental impacts! Now, Here are the statistics for that.

Currently, fossil fuels(oil, coal, gas) amount to 85% of total energy production.
Burning of fossil fuel is producing 21.3 billion tonnes of CO2 annually.
The world eco system can absorb only half of that amount for a year. 
(from wikipedia)

We are producing 10.5 billion tonnes of more CO2 yearly and it is increasing as well! effects of these emissions (global warming, climate change, rising sea levels, floods, cyclones) are well known and we are already experiencing them.

If we are to give priority to save the world and environment (which is nearing a tipping point in terms of global warming) and avert a disaster, reducing the use of fossil fuels by around 50% is a must. With only 50% of consumption from current we can double their life to about 85-90 years! that is enough time for new technologies to come in and make use of fossil fuels much more efficiently, enabling us to keep them for even longer periods! this sounds like win-win!  However, That means only 43% of current energy requirement can be allowed to fulfill by burning of fossil fuels. Remaining 57% has to come by other sources.

Currently, other renewable energy sources (hydro, solar, wind, geo thermal) are all producing only about 7% of energy need in total. Technological advances have to be made in these sectors to grow this amount significantly over the coming decades. Specially Solar energy (more on that later) obviously, this will take time.....

Until those technical advances are made, how are we to immediately fill the gap of remaing 50% of our annual energy need (further 2.3% get added to it annually!) ? The only short term hope is to go nuclear! It's current usage of 8.5% will have to be increased  by about 6 folds! If we remember the Uranium resources statistics, at current rates it was enough for 100 years but once we increase the production by 6 folds, Uranium too will be gone in 16 years!

Hmm looks like all we have a got here is a short term solution after all. What could be a long term strategy for this problem ?

Stay tuned.. in the the next post we will pick up a possible long term solution. We have 16 years for that! (kidding, I'm just splitting my post in two at this point as this is already getting too long)

PS : Just published. To the long term solution ->