Alternate Energy Sources
For the sake of simplicity, I have been looking at the state of conventional oil. But what of unconventional oil (whatever that is)? Or gas and coal, or nuclear, or renewable fuels such as wind and solar? You may have heard that hydrogen is the answer for the internal combustion engines. Unfortunately, all of these sources have problems which prevent them being the panacea we need. Some are running out like oil, others are unsuitable, and some are not usable within the period that we are looking at. They are all important aids in the effort to avoid disaster but aids only. I shall look at each and explain.
The Other Fuels
The graphs below show some of the reasons why oil is so difficult to replace. E2 shows one reason why coal and other solid fuels are unsuitable replacements: to replace your petrol tank with plant biomass, for instance, it would require two and a half times the mass (rather simplified, of course).
E3 shows one of the problems we would face if we switched to producing our electricity from coal instead of natural gas – nearly 70% more carbon dioxide emissions with all the pollution and cleansing costs.
The main problems with the alternatives to oil and gas are that:
This last point is shown in Chart E4. Taken from Janet Ramage's book "Energy: a Guidebook" (1997), it shows that the alternative fuels would only just match the present fossil and nuclear fuels if they were expanded to their maximum. But this would involve many decades and enormous costs (wind power, for instance, would have to increase by 900,000 per cent!)
As noted above, all of the alternatives have their own pollution problems and this is summarised below (again from data in "Energy: a Guidebook".
EROEI and EPR
An important element in comparing fossil fuels with other forms of energy generation goes by the unfortunately unmemorable acronym of EROEI – "energy returned on energy invested". An alternative version of this is the EPR – Energy Profit Ratio. To produce any energy, whether it is pumping oil out of the ground, or building and operating a wind turbine, you need to use some energy in the process. If the energy returned is less than the energy you produce, it is generally not worth producing it (but see below).
As a simple example, imagine a (very small) car whose fuel tank holds 1 liter of petrol. The car's fuel efficiency is 20 km per liter. If the nearest petrol station is 5 km away, fine – you wait until the tank is quarter full then drive there to refill (positive EROEI). If it is 10 km away, you have gained nothing (and lost money) – by the time you have refuelled and driven home, you only have enough fuel left to return to the station to fill up again. And if the station is 15 km away, once you have filled up and reached home, you would not have enough left to get back to refuel again. You would be better off staying at home and simply using up the existing petrol for other journeys (negative EROEI).
This example is mainly about fuel consumption rather than EROEI but the analogy holds: if you think of taking petrol from the station as extracting oil from a well, and the petrol used to drive to and from the station as the combined energy used to extract oil (manufacturing materials, building roads and pipelines, operating the well), you can see the principle.
The EROEI is calculated by taking the energy content of your energy (in whatever units you wish) and subtracting the energy used in producing the energy. The result will be a number either negative, positive or zero. The higher the number, the better.
The EPR is similar but the energy content is divided by the energy to produce: the answer will be a ratio where 1 is equal to the zero if EROEI, and less than 1 is equal to a negative.
As an example, if it takes the equivalent of 1 MJ of energy to extract oil which, when burnt, can produce 10 MJ, then the EROEI is 10–1 = +9 and the EPR is 10/1 = 10. If it took 15 MJ of energy to extract the oil, the answers would be –5 and 0.7.
The only time when negative EROEI can be worthwhile is if the energy produced is in a more useful form than the energy used. For example, oil can be used not only for energy generation but to make petrochemicals whereas wind-generated electricity cannot. So it could be more worthwhile using some wind-electricity to pump oil-energy out, even if the EROEI is negative. Using the car analogy above, if the journey to the 15 km petrol station was also used to deliver some goods to sell, you would gain elsewhere even if you lost out on the petrol. But negative EROEI is only acceptable if you have ample supplies of the one form and it looks likely in the future that we will be struggling for all.
Individual Fuel Links
For more information on individual fuels, click the links below. EPR values (see above) are given on the pages according to information in Richard Heinberg's book "The Party's Over". For comparison oil and gas has dropped from 100 (in the 1940s) to 8 for discoveries in the 1970s.