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The Energy Landscape of 2041
June 30, 2011 5:15 AM   Subscribe

Energy: the new thirty years' war; we are heading for a global succeed-or-perish contest among the energy big hitters – but who will be the winners and losers? Michael Klare; (via )
posted by adamvasco (60 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
but who will be the winners

Rich people.

and losers?

Everybody else, including me and you.
posted by Faint of Butt at 5:21 AM on June 30, 2011 [8 favorites]


Oh, we're so screwed. The worst feelings I've had recently were when all of the new natural gas deposits were discovered at a time when we're coming close to mass methane release from the Russia permafrost. It's like putting an alcoholic back in the pub.

This article also doesn't really address the fact that coal (although environmentally awful) is not in short supply at all. If we really don't care about the atmosphere, we can use coal for decades. I really wish I wasn't cynical enough to think this will happen, but personally I think it's algae, fusion, mass nuclear or bust.
posted by jaduncan at 5:29 AM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


I saw some truly appalling ads for a coal mining company recently. Apparently the new industry line is that if China can do coal cleanly and safely, why can't the US? Which makes perfect sense until the fact that the whole thing is premised on a lie hits you. With guys like Massey in charge, I totally trust them to do the right thing.

You're right, it is hard to think we aren't totally screwed.
posted by feloniousmonk at 5:42 AM on June 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


All energy sources that are not solar or immediately derived from solar are ultimately limited. It is true that it's hard to get enough output from solar power, but that doesn't change the fact that it will be what we're left with.

I don't know what the world that has to face that fact will look like, but the effort we put into recognizing and accepting it now will possibly reduce how much it will suck then.
posted by JHarris at 5:46 AM on June 30, 2011 [6 favorites]


This is certainly the issue of the near future.

I don't pretend to have any answers, but I do believe that continuing to search for large-scale, centralized options will not provide the ultimate answer.

Local solutions (think neighborhood-sized) seem much more viable to me. Smaller-scale, more efficient, less transportation waste and loss. (Transporting electricity across huge distances is incredibly wasteful, for instance.) Solar power may not be a large-scale answer very quickly, but it already works passably well on a single-house level. It will only get better.

In other words, think small, local, and efficient.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 5:53 AM on June 30, 2011 [7 favorites]


I told the block association that we needed to get started on the tokamak. But nooooooo, lets have another block party. Bouncy castle my ass! We need energy independence, not sausage heroes!
posted by Splunge at 6:01 AM on June 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


No disrespect to Benny Andajetz intended, actually I agree. I'm just joshing.
posted by Splunge at 6:02 AM on June 30, 2011


In other words, think small, local, and efficient.

That's no way to get rich, son.
posted by notyou at 6:20 AM on June 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


We can do fine without the current copious consumption of energy. The problem is that we are all junkies in love with gadgets and sprawl. But what happens when a big storm comes and blocks the roads and knocks out our internet and TV? We go outside and talk to the neighbours, or we read a book or have an all to rare moment of quiet, making us feel better in the end.

As for our food systems, the smart ones will do like me and grow our own. And given the choice between spending thousands a year on lousy imported food with at least an hour dedicated to each supermarket trip or a few minutes per meal on fresh food (including meats) from my own garden, I'll go with the healthy, time-saving option of growing my own.

Don't know how you'll do all that? Join your local Transition movement or start one if it doesn't exist. And if you still don't have enough info, my inbox is always open to help anyone looking to move in a sustainable direction.
posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 6:28 AM on June 30, 2011


I'd rather die fighting in the energy wars than do any of that crap.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 6:40 AM on June 30, 2011 [10 favorites]


I'll be 56. Just old enough for the 20-somethings to despise me for my terrible earlier choices and say that I ruined their lives. In their defense, they're right.
posted by codacorolla at 6:55 AM on June 30, 2011 [7 favorites]


This discussion reminds me of an excellent documentary from 2009 titled Collapse and how current financial instability coupled with energy resource depletion is going to cause an imminent collapse of human population growth. I really recommend it. Of course, we might all be too busy fighting over fresh water to give a damn about depleted energy resources. Whatever happens, I think this century is going to be a lot more exciting than the previous!
posted by Renoroc at 7:03 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


But what happens when a big storm comes and blocks the roads and knocks out our internet and TV? We go outside and talk to the neighbours, or we read a book or have an all to rare moment of quiet, making us feel better in the end.

...and we don't get anything done. I'm not sure that's the best analogy. A power outage is a break and perhaps a welcome relief, it's true, but I still need to consume a fair amount of energy to live my daily life. Most people do not (and probably cannot) work within walking distance. The trade off I make for working within walking distance is living in a city and therefore I am not able to grow my own food - and agriculture, small or largescale, is certainly not energy free.

Even with the land, it's harder to grow food year round when you live somewhere where it snows. I need to heat my home in the winter and while I do think A/C is overused, it does have it's place (for example, people with heart conditions like the elderly don't do 90 and humid well). I don't know about you, but I'm not going back to the pre-washing machine era. Hell, it's a significant factor in what allowed women to work outside the home.

I make the best choices I can - I take public transportation, I keep lights on timers, I wear sweaters in the winter to keep the heat lower - but I'm not going to step 150 years back in time.
posted by maryr at 7:08 AM on June 30, 2011


There is no energy shortage. Modern society is not about to collapse. We will not all be living in caves in twenty years time and burning leaves to stay warm. It's strange how religious visions of armageddon are endlessly ridiculed here when people compete to post and applaud apocalyptic environmental predictions which are just as ridiculous. There are hundreds of years of proven coal reserves left, a lot more oil and gas than many here seem to think and nuclear power is held back only by political timidity. These same predictions of imminent disaster have been made for decades and never eventuate but their dismal record of actual prediction doesn't dim people's faith in them, any more than the failure of Jesus to actually turn up again at some point erodes the faith of Christians. Technology is the reason humans don't die of old age at 40 as we did without it, it isn't the enemy, it's the answer.
posted by joannemullen at 7:30 AM on June 30, 2011 [6 favorites]


In other words, think small, local, and efficient.

In power generation, you can either go small & local, or efficient. If you want to make any energy production system more efficient, you start by making it bigger. My city has one big power plant with huge expensive gas turbines supplying electricity to everyone here. It's run by full-time employees who are experts in the field. It would be vastly less efficient if everyone had some kind of consumer-size turbine running in their basement - less efficient in terms of usable power produced per unit of fuel, less efficient in terms of the operator time taken to run & maintain the generators, and less efficient in terms of the total cost of the system. Not to mention much more prone to accidents.

Small and local is good for some particular applications in particular areas, but if efficiency is really a goal (and it should be), then centralized power generation is a must.
posted by echo target at 7:54 AM on June 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


but who will be the winners

Rich people.


Yes, but only the ones who are smart enough to invest in infrastructure rather than pushing for bullshit like deficit reduction in order to maintain some miniscule short-term selfish gain and score points with a brain-washed public that has no concept of economics.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:54 AM on June 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


> Technology is the reason humans don't die of old age at 40 as we did without it, it isn't the enemy, it's the answer.

Technology is not a religion. It won't save you if only you believe in it hard enough.
posted by 0xdeadc0de at 7:57 AM on June 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


Technology is the reason humans don't die of old age at 40 as we did without it, it isn't the enemy, it's the answer.

Technology is also the reason why we have more humans than the system can support. Technology is never an un-alloyed good. If I wanted to use your own weird analogy against you, then I could say that your faith in technology is like faith in religion: a constant prayer to save humanity from itself through miraculous outside intervention.

Fear for the future is what drives us to invent, and also what drives us to conserve. Placing faith in technology to save us is just as imprudent as placing faith in Jesus Christ to return to Earth and negate the need for saving.

Technology also doesn't spring to life free of problems, bringing nothing but good. Atomic energy shows us as much. It's not a black and white answer, and if we didn't have people reminding us of the precarious position that our species and lifestyle survives in, then there's no drive for change.
posted by codacorolla at 8:00 AM on June 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


There is no energy shortage.

There is a cheap energy shortage, which is the practical result of peak oil. Peak oil concerns are really about running out of $6--$12/bbl-production-cost light, sweet crude oil. As a result of that depletion, electrical and fuel prices have risen at twice the level of general inflation for at least a decade now (in NA at least). Some of those costs have been absorbed by better vehicle and electrical use effiicientcies, but that padding only goes so far. Many of the "unconventional" energy sources you list (heavy oil fields, NG fracking, nuclear) only make sense economically if the costs of energy continue to rise.

In other words, think small, local, and efficient.

The thermodynamics of power generation disagrees with you.
posted by bonehead at 8:01 AM on June 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


but I'm not going to step 150 years back in time.

I don't think you will get to choose when the time comes.
posted by fuq at 8:03 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is no energy shortage. ...
posted by joannemullen at 7:30 AM on June 30 [+] [!]


I don't think many people have seriously suggested that we will be "living in caves...and burning leaves to stay warm". Nor really do that many people regard the future as an apocalypse. It's quite insulting to equate concern over resource depletion with millenarianism, especially when many governments and their policy advisers have taken such issues very seriously. Flat statements of how much of a given resource exists ignores both the political and economic processes required to realize it. You seem to recognize that nuclear is politically unacceptable, but what about the economic acceptability of $200 oil?

I've read some of Klare's work from a decade or two ago, and his insights seem to contain a good deal of truth years down the line.
posted by Jehan at 8:04 AM on June 30, 2011 [6 favorites]


It's interesting - a few days ago, there was a similar post on the 2007 movie "What A Way To Go" which brought out some very similar responses - including mine, I suppose.

I don't know about you, but I'm not going back to the pre-washing machine era.

I make the best choices I can - I take public transportation, I keep lights on timers, I wear sweaters in the winter to keep the heat lower - but I'm not going to step 150 years back in time.

I don't think that's up to you. I think the mistake you're making is assuming that energy constraints are a lifestyle choice. I don't think I'd get very far with the guy who runs the corner gas station by telling him that he should sell me gas at $1 a gallon because it fits my lifestyle better than selling me gas at $3.89 a gallon.

I like my iPod. I like my (gracefully-aging) automobile. I like eating bananas in December and wonderful California oranges trucked across a continent. But my like of these things does not guarantee that Reality will conform itself to my desires and continue to provide them at my convenience. It would be nice of Rhonda Byrne was right about "The Secret", but I think it's highly unlikely.

There is no energy shortage. Modern society is not about to collapse. We will not all be living in caves in twenty years time and burning leaves to stay warm.... Technology is the reason humans don't die of old age at 40 as we did without it, it isn't the enemy, it's the answer.

Again, I wonder why these anti-organic or anti-resource constraint arguments so often involve these absolute statements of faith. It's like a catechism.
posted by jhandey at 8:20 AM on June 30, 2011 [7 favorites]


There is a cheap energy shortage

No, no, no. Energy is free. We get 1.3 kW of clean, efficient fusion energy per m2 per second all day every day, without having to lift a finger as to dig a hole or burn a damn thing. What we do have is a shortage of ways to STORE energy cheaply. Plants have known this since there have been plants. Even animals that for whateder reason decided to "evolve" away from something as efficient as photosynthesis figured out ways to cope by powering down in the off-peak or coming up with better ways to store the energy (eg. feathers and fur). But it's us naked, moronic, masters of the universe that have to keep ourselves warm, have to make tools to do what others do with teeth and claws, and we who are constantly searching for ways to improve on something that has been freely irradiating us since we first stood erect and decided that we were somehow superior.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:24 AM on June 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


In power generation, you can either go small & local, or efficient.

...but if efficiency is really a goal (and it should be), then centralized power generation is a must.

The thermodynamics of power generation disagrees with you.


Efficiency is extremely important, but we're at the point where sustainability is paramount. If the power source is correctly sized, where is the issue - especially if it can be run on more readily available inputs?

I'm just spitballing, of course, but how about very small (regional) biomass facilities, or very,very small pebble reactors along with exploiting wind, solar, geothermal, or tidal power where you can? The solution doesn't have to be the most efficient, but it needs to be as efficient as we can make it.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 8:24 AM on June 30, 2011


I declare war on articles that don't have anything new to say other than saying war.
posted by storybored at 8:27 AM on June 30, 2011


All energy sources that are not solar or immediately derived from solar are ultimately limited. It is true that it's hard to get enough output from solar power, but that doesn't change the fact that it will be what we're left with.

No, this isn't really true. Geothermal/wave power are effectively lunar (it can, of course, be argued that the gravitational well of Sol is responsible for holding the Earth in place and forming the dust clouds etc., but this isn't solar as it is conventionally defined).
posted by jaduncan at 8:50 AM on June 30, 2011


*lunar and earth core based
posted by jaduncan at 8:50 AM on June 30, 2011


jaduncan, you mean tidal power, not wave (which is 3rd hand solar energy). But yes, point taken.
posted by Bangaioh at 9:00 AM on June 30, 2011


Getting electricity to your wall plug is not free. Indeed, it is increasingly more expensive. Energy storage and coversion, even photosynthesis, is actually quite inefficient, compared with compact and energy dense sources like hydrocarbons and nuclear isotopes. It's not just cost-inneficient, but also in terms of land-area and water resouces used too.

Light may come down from the heavens free, but harvesting it and living sustainably on that harvest will cost use several multiples more that we pay for energy right now. Ontario currently has to pay 4-5 times more than conventional hydro-nuke-coal-gas generation to make "sustainable"solar and wind sources cost-effective choices.
posted by bonehead at 9:06 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've always figured that we'll either keep advancing technologically, or we'll mostly all die. And no, I'm not trying to be melodramatic with that last part.

Our current technology is unsustainable. That's not precisely a bad thing, but it does mean we can't just cruise along doing nothing and assuming that the future will be pretty much like today.

It can't be. It isn't that it's undesirable for the future to be like today, it's that whether we want that or not it can not happen. Either we advance technologically, or we fall back to a Medieval/Renaissance tech level. And with a world population of 7 billion and growing, falling back to a prior tech level is going to involve the death of close to 90% of the human population. We can't feed our current numbers with Medieval/Renaissance technology.

Which means we must either advance, or die. I'm not possessed of enough hubris to imagine that in the event of a collapse I'll be one of the lucky few who live so I'm pretty much entirely invested in the advance option.

The worst part is that "simply" generating electricity isn't enough. All the solar power in the world won't save our current agricultural model. We are, literally, eating oil. The fertilizers that make modern crop yields possible are all fossil fuel derived. Even completely ignoring the transportation problems, no more oil means no more food. Or, rather, not nearly as much food as we need. Solar power won't solve that, or at least not without massive overkill solar to break down wastes and reprocess them into fertilizers.

Survival means changing the whole way we live. I'm not at all sure that means giving up personal electronics and living in comfort, in fact I'm pretty sure it doesn't. Electricity is, if not an easy problem to solve, actually among the easier ones. If all else fails we can limp along on fission after it becomes economically impractical to keep using coal, oil, natural gas, etc.

What worries me is transportation, especially here in the USA. We've let our rail infrastructure crumble, and it was never all that great to begin with. We've built cities based around cars, and that's not going to keep working without an unexpected breakthrough. Batteries suck, massively. The efficient ones are expensive as hell, and that's not likely to go away soon. They all depend on rareish elements and that's the cause of expense. Electric cars probably won't be the future, not without a genuine breakthrough in electric storage.

We'll have to redesign and rebuild many of our cities, and that's expensive even in good times.

But what terrifies me isn't transportation so much as food production, we can figure out transportation somehow, but production I'm not so sure of. While I'm absolutely in favor of reducing the population, I'm not in favor of accomplishing that via starvation. Someone will have to figure it out, and that's a problem that is somewhat decoupled from energy production. We are in dire need of either farming techniques that match or exceed current crop yields without the sort of fertilizer/pesticide paradigm we use today, or in need of non-fossil fuel replacements for that fertilizer/pesticide paradigm.

Regardless, we've got to start investing trillions of dollars into research now, as in right this second, as in every second wasted is bringing us closer to genuine disaster. All those trillions squandered on middle east adventurism are not merely harmful from an economic standpoint, but from the longer term they're a disaster. That represents not merely money that wasn't invested in the desperately needed research and infrastructure changes, but since it's out of the economy and wasted it represents a dire shortage of money for either of those absolutely essential expenditures.
posted by sotonohito at 9:07 AM on June 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm just spitballing, of course, but how about very small (regional) biomass facilities, or very,very small pebble reactors along with exploiting wind, solar, geothermal, or tidal power where you can?

How much more are you willing to pay to your local electric company per kW/hr? Four times? Six?
posted by bonehead at 9:08 AM on June 30, 2011


How much more are you willing to pay to your local electric company per kW/hr? Four times? Six?

Compared to no current at the plug? Yes, very much so. I'm not sure how elastic you imagine electricity use is, but I'd guess really not that much. People will want lights, heat/cooking, internet, and refrigeration at a minimum.
posted by jaduncan at 9:14 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


How much more are you willing to pay to your local electric company per kW/hr? Four times? Six?

One, you're making an assumption that energy as a product supplied by private for-profit companies is a sustainable concept. Maybe that needs to go, too. Local power could lead to local ownership.

Two, severe increases in cost are inevitable if we keep going down the road we're on.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:15 AM on June 30, 2011


Since it will be political and culturally unacceptable to change the way the developed world's lifestyle, there needs to be a short, medium and long term strategy.

In the short term, natural gas and oil production outside the Middle East needs to be ramped up. Those are things we can do relatively quickly and with existing technology.

In the medium term, we need modern nuclear plants to come on line to help us bridge the gap between fossil fuels and "alternative" energies. Nuclear takes a big investment in time and money, but the basic technology is here. The research component needed is how to improve saftey.

The long term solution is not yet clear, because it's going to depend on technologies that are not ready for widescale use today. It will probably be a mix of advanced solar and wind energy, perhaps (in the case of solar) with space-based collection methods. Depending on where research takes us, it could be things that are totally beyond our reach today.

The problem with doing it this way, is that the first step will take away the short-term incentive for doing the later steps. Energy companies want to find more reserves of oil, and paying for basic research that might not lead anywhere for decades does not help next quater's numbers.

I wouldn't even call this a market "failure", it's simply not what the market does. That's because joannemullen is right- there is not energy shortage, right now. There's plenty of coal. But that leads us back to doubling down on antiquated technology (not to mention envrionmental devestation, which makes the probelm of energy use even worse). We won't develop fusion or truly widescale solar energy overnight.

This is a logical and proper role for government action- the development of and direction of funding for new technologies that have little to no profit potential today. Later on, it will become profitable and the private sector can join in. This model works- it directly lead what I'm using to post this.
posted by spaltavian at 9:17 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Small and local is good for some particular applications in particular areas, but if efficiency is really a goal (and it should be), then centralized power generation is a must.

Your argument is based on efficient fuel use, but this is irrelevant to renewable energy sources. Having a lot of small, distrbuted RE systems can push up the cost due to the need for more inverters and very local infrastructure but at the same time having lots more distributed generation means less need to spend billions on strenthening local grid capacity, and generating electricity locally means less losses in the lines, which can account for up to 15% of electricity (UK stats) at peak times.

Geothermal/wave power are effectively lunar

I've been beaten to it on pointing out waves are wind generated, which is solar power stimulated. IIRC tidal is about 2:1 lunar:solar gravity. While true geothermal isn't solar, ground source heat pumps (which is probably the underground tech with the biggest promise) is actually solar; unless they go below about 10m then the energy comes from irradiation of the soil.
posted by biffa at 9:20 AM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


you're making an assumption that energy as a product supplied by private for-profit companies is a sustainable concept

No, these numbers are set by our provincial governor. Most of our electricity is produced by a crown corporation (a publically-owned company).

I'm not sure how elastic you imagine electricity use is, but I'd guess really not that much.

We're about to find out via a provincial election in the near future. I strongly suspect that the government will fall. Energy costs, which are mandated by the provice (remember, we're socalists) are a primary election issue.
posted by bonehead at 9:24 AM on June 30, 2011


Looks like there's no avoiding a derail here, so I'll see if I can get the thread back on track with a little deconstruction using some lines of reasoning with more than an emphatic tone to back them up.

There is no energy shortage. Modern society is not about to collapse.

"Current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable – environmentally, economically, socially." The source of that firebrand eco-terrorist quote? The International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook 2008.

There are hundreds of years of proven coal reserves left

Global coal reserves-to-production ratio dropped from 277 years in 2000 to 144 years in 2006 - not because we burned through 133 years worth of coal in those six years but because we stoppped relying on 1970s approaches to estimating proven reserves. This is the same reason why, after years of decrying peak oil as doomsaying, the IEA acknowledged its reality in 2008.

a lot more oil and gas than many here seem to think

Unconventional sources to replace conventional ones. Profitable, yes, because energy is expensive. If you don't know the acronym EROEI, you don't understand the parameters of our energy system. Stands for Energy Return On Energy Invested. For Saudi oil fields, it was 100 to 1. For Alberta's tarsands, it's between 3 and 6 to 1. To meet the conventional forecasts for oil demand in 2025 - about 105 million barrels per day, up from 86 million today, as conventional sources come offline at an accelerating rate - we would have to add a Saudi Arabia's worth of production, all from unconventional sources. Shale gas faces similar hurdles. It's the bottom of the glass no matter how sophisticated your technology.

nuclear power is held back only by political timidity

Well, timidity and the fact that, as The Economist put it awhile back, "not one, anywhere on earth, makes commercial sense." Even before we get into the billions in subsidies to a generation of nuclear plants that came in late and overbudget and needing overly expensive refurbishments well ahead of schedule, renewables are cost competitive with new nuke builds, quicker to the grid, and they're on the downward slope of the cost curve. Angela Merkel, Germany's conservative chancellor, is not phasing out nukes in favour of renewables because she's a treehugger. The economics and rapidly improving technology of renewables are winning the game.

And that's without addressing the mounting environmental costs of all of this. (Google "ocean acidification" if you're under any delusion that human beings have not already fundamentally and permanently altered the planet's climate. We're on a trajectory to guarantee our grandkids never see a healthy coral reef.)

These same predictions of imminent disaster have been made for decades and never eventuate

You really ought to try out that line in New Orleans. Or Fukushima. Or the Indus plains of Pakistan. Or the wildfire-ruined wheatfields of Russia. The drought-wrecked wheatfields of China. Really anywhere now already feeling the catastrophic effects of the first phase of anthropogenic climate change - more intense and more frequent extreme weather events - long predicted by climate scientists.

Bet you don't want to bother with that, though. The facts of the case - on both the energy and climate side - don't really support you're soothing twas-ever-thus thesis.

Are we back on track for a grown-up discussion of the defining challenge of the 21st century yet?
posted by gompa at 9:25 AM on June 30, 2011 [9 favorites]


How much more are you willing to pay to your local electric company per kW/hr? Four times? Six?

In Germany, it has cost about $0.01-0.02 per kwh, gridwide, to go from less than 5 percent renewables to 17 percent with a bullet in 10 years. It has created 300,000 jobs, a $50-billion industry, and empowered hundreds of thousands of homeowners to make their own power and not only offset the price hike but actually make money off their investment.

For your average German homeowner, it amounts to four euros per month. A cup of coffee at a good Berlin coffee shop. In exchange for pole position in the Second Industrial Revolution. Seems worth the price to me. To most Germans too.
posted by gompa at 9:28 AM on June 30, 2011 [8 favorites]


No, these numbers are set by our provincial governor. Most of our electricity is produced by a crown corporation (a publically-owned company).

Sorry, bonehead, I didn't realize you were in Canada. I'd bet my last dollar that your government figures out a better approach before mine does.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:30 AM on June 30, 2011


Klare was briefly on the Daily Show recently.
posted by homunculus at 9:38 AM on June 30, 2011


In Germany, it has cost about $0.01-0.02 per kwh, gridwide.

this certainly doesn't seem to be working out in Ontario. Wind costs 13.5 to 19 cents per kWh, and solar even more. The province having getting wind farms at even built at those rates.

Conventional prodcution is about 7.5 cents per kWh. Even with a 2 or 3x premium, wind power uptake has been minimal because start-up and, especially, on-going maintenance is a killer.

OPG (the provincial power company) estimates that it will cost $14billion to add roughly 10% wind to the Ontario grid. By contrast, estimates I've seen for the refurbishment of the Pickering reactors (15% of the grid) are in the $4-5 billion range. A new natural gas plant or even restarting Nanticoke coal would be much, much cheaper.
posted by bonehead at 9:47 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Unless you're talking about the tides that the moon causes within a humongous block of solid ice, tidal power is solar powered, too.
posted by Flunkie at 10:13 AM on June 30, 2011


Wind costs 13.5 to 19 cents per kWh, and solar even more.

Wind costs the grid operator that much, not the ratepayer. As in every other feed-in tariff regime, the added costs of the feed-in rates are distributed across the system. My understanding is that Tim Hudak, who in my limited experience makes Rob Ford almost look wise, is working very hard to blur the line between grid operator and ratepayer. He also has flat-out lied, repeatedly, about the Samsung deal - which, for the nth time, receives no Ontario tax dollars.

Furthermore, the whole system is tipped strongly in favour of conventional fuel sources. Conventional production rates are lifetime levelized costs that have taken into account all of the preferred economics of centralized power generation. The energy bureaucracy in Ontario - as in most jurisdictions - is so deeply intertwined with industry that they are for all practical purposes one big industry (or one big bureaucracy, if you prefer).

OPG doesn't understand renewables and does not really want them on its grid so I can't possibly trust its cost estimates, Hydro One is by most reports actively impeding application approvals, and if maintenance is "a killer" in Ontario, it's damn near the only jurisdiction on earth where maintenance costs have hobbled wind energy development. Which makes me highly skeptical of your source on that point.

And all of this still suggests that there's a basic equivalence between nonrenewable and renewable power sources - in other words, that the fact that one power source creates climate change and another 10,000 years of radioactive waste and another no waste at all should have no bearing on their relative affordability. That the fuel sources for some of these are limited and uncertain in cost and the other limitless and free. Factor just the risk involved in a bunch more conventional gas plants relying on a finite and high-demand fuel source - before even getting into emissions - and the economics begin to tip toward green. The entire point of Ontario's feed-in tariff is to balance that scale without taxing carbon dioxide emissions (which politicians in most regimes are simply unwilling to even consider, viewing it - perhaps correctly - as a career suicide machine).

What's more, Ontario also has one of the most impenetrably opaque energy billing systems I've ever seen. Near impossible to get anything like an objective assessment of what renewables are actually costing overall, how much of the various line items on those bills is due to cost overruns for nuclear, etc. If you've got a source, I'd love to see it.
posted by gompa at 10:15 AM on June 30, 2011


Wind costs the grid operator that much, not the ratepayer. As in every other feed-in tariff regime, the added costs of the feed-in rates are distributed across the system.

I fail to see the difference. If we need to add 10% to the grid and and one option costs twice that of the other, that's a 5% increase in rates. The grid operator doesn't cover the costs out of pocket. They get passed on to the users. The rate paid by the grid is still important. Not that I disagree with your assesment of Hudak, by the way, but that's just arithmatic.

Which makes me highly skeptical of your source [for wind turbine maintenance costs].

It's an aerospace company specializing in turbine wear and repair looking to expand their business model, someone who would, in all likely-hood sub-contract to a builder like Samsung.

I'm not trying to argue that OPG is a great company btw, I'm trying to say that in a single big market (Ontario would be about the 5th largest state, were it in the US), the transition to clean energy generation is turning out to be really, really challenging. The conventional alternatives look really atractive considering capital and other costs. Clean energy may be coming, but it's coming at a price higher than a lot of rate-payers are willing to bear. A no-hoper like Hudak only has a chance because of issues like this.
posted by bonehead at 10:29 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can't possibly trust its cost estimates.

From your link, the Samsung deal is $7b for 2000 MW, about 7% of capacity. In round numbers that would reduce the OPG estimate from $14b to $10b or so. The $4-5b for the nuclear option is my rounding-up from the Bruce Power numbers.
posted by bonehead at 10:34 AM on June 30, 2011


bonehead, I could try to explain how the $7b Samsung deal (like the feed-in itself) offers myriad ancillary benefits (job creation, industrial renewal, emissions reduction, decentralization of the grid, energy security, and so forth) but probably the best thing to do would be to quote the man who in a real sense wrote Ontario's feed-in tariff by writing Germany's: the late Hermann Scheer, "father of the feed-in tariff."

Here's Scheer:
There is no system of energy supply with its infrastructures, power stations and refineries which could be neutral face to face diverse sources of energy: the particular energy source determines the technical, organisational, economic and political prerequisites to make it available for the consumer. All we can do is decide which particular source of energy we want to harness – this choice then determines every subsequent step that follows thereafter: from the mines and wells to the customer. Each source of energy has its own prerequisites, determining in turn conversion technologies, infrastructures and the like. It is technologically impossible to maintain the current system, which is tailored to the needs of fossil and nuclear energy, and just exchange the energy sources.

Many so-called energy-experts have not understood this till now. The transition to renewable energy is a switch from imported energy to indigenous energies, from commercial fuels to non-commercial fuels, from large power plants to small and medium production facilities and to new conversion technologies – and not just the avoidance of emissions and nuclear waste. The totality of expenses for renewable energies – except for bio fuels – results from technology costs. This is a transition from fuel business to technology business, from energy dependence to energy autonomy. I call this the techno-logic of energy sources. That is why we need a global technology market for the deployment of local and regional renewable energy resources. Many have misunderstood this concept – even advocates of renewable energy. The manifold mental barriers result from this misconception.
This is a difficult point to represent econometrically. It's the true definition of a paradigm shift. You either see the value in it - and the necessity of it - or I guess you don't.
posted by gompa at 10:42 AM on June 30, 2011 [7 favorites]


We've let our rail infrastructure crumble, and it was never all that great to begin with.

This is not really true. Passenger rail service became unpopular, and as a result the facilities associated with it have not been well-maintained, but that's a very small part of the nation's overall rail network.

The actual infrastructure is not bad. The freight railroads haven't been sitting with their thumbs in their asses. The actual rail that's laid down today is better—made from better steel, more flexible, more resilient, heavier—and it requires much less maintenance. It's welded rather than bolted together. On new rights of way, ties are concrete rather than wood, and last longer. The rail is affixed to them better, leading to less chance of derailments. Rolling stock itself is bigger, heavier, and far less maintenance-intensive. The logistics, the art and science of moving stuff around, is light-years ahead of where it was 50 years ago, and frankly much better than in most other countries. (In Europe they still couple cars by hand. That was a solved problem in the U.S. in 1873.) More ton-miles of stuff moved more safely, with less labor. That doesn't say "crumbling" to me.

What we haven't done, and we need to do if we want to progress any further, is separate out the passenger rail from the freight rail system.

You can't just turn back the clock to the halcyon days of passenger rail, 60+ years ago. To do so would be to throw away generations' worth of developments on the freight side, and which I suspect probably save nearly as much energy as passengers waste by flying when they could be taking inter-city trains up and down the coasts. In the past, it was standard and accepted practice for freight trains to give way and wait on sidings while passenger trains blew through; that's not going to happen anymore.

The freight system, which is to say basically the entire US rail system, is a finely-tuned machine—the containers riding on that double-stack box train are bound for a ship that isn't going to wait for them if they're late, and the railroad isn't going to be the one who screws that particular pooch if they can avoid it. They're also not going to spend a lot of money banking up the curves on their rights of way to allow lightweight passenger trains to go around them at a hundred miles an hour, when it doesn't make a damn bit of difference to the 100-car, 10,000-ton ore train that pays the bills. In short, both passenger and freight rail have become more specialized, and as they've done that they've diverged from each other in terms of their infrastructure requirements.

Other countries developed passenger rail seemingly at the expense of freight. In the U.S. we went the other way around, and allowed the railroads to slough off passenger service, consolidate, and continue onwards without it. They have been very successful in doing so, and with the exception of relying exclusively on diesel rather than electric traction, I don't think you can find much fault with them.

What we need to do is build a new rail network, one that may not bear much resemblance to the freight one, for passenger service. With the exception of the actual stations and terminals, it won't be a rebuilding, it'll be something completely new.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:57 AM on June 30, 2011 [8 favorites]


You either see the value in it - and the necessity of it - or I guess you don't.

That's the heart of the political problem. Hudak, the conservative running on an anti-green platfrom, is focusing on one thing only: the rate-payers' mothly bills. Like it or not, he's getting a lot of traction for that one issue alone. Of course he's not counting any of the externalities you raise by Scheer (a nice summary, btw).

If the general public is going to be convinced to make the jump to renewables, with their high capital costs and rate hikes, the benefits need to be communicated in a much more effective way than the present. That message is not happening right now.

I think that if the government wants to go this way, we need tax incentive like a carbon tax or cap-and-trade market. Or it should have been sold as an industrial/jobs stimulus. As it is, the direct economics, in the brown envelopes delivered bimonthly, are slated towards non-renewables. When even nuclear looks like a good deal price-wise...

I suspect too that Germany is going to mostly fill the nuclear generation gap with natural gas also, at least in the short-to-medium term. The Russians were quite happy with Merkel's announcement.
posted by bonehead at 11:09 AM on June 30, 2011


I know if feels good to prophesy doom, and mock the willfully blind sheeple who try to deny the inevitable, but this article is horseshit. A taste:

Even attempting to preserve this level of energy output in 30 years' time, using the same proportion of fuels, would be a near-hopeless feat. Achieving a 40% increase in energy output, as most analysts believe will be needed to satisfy the existing requirements of older industrial powers and rising demand in China and other rapidly developing nations, is simply impossible.

I mean, has this guy been reading the papers? There are massive new energy discoveries happening. The newfound accessibility of shale gas in the United States has eliminated any medium-term supply concerns regarding natural gas. There is enough coal in the world to power China's industrial revolution for well over a century. Are these sources of power particularly clean? No, but they're there, and they're abundant enough that there sure as hell isn't going to be a war over them. What about oil? There's been a huge new find in Israel, which is not going to be invaded by anybody for its oil so long as it has its nuclear weapons (i.e., forever). And then there's methane clathrate, which could contain twice as much energy as all other fossil fuel reserves.

Fossil fuels are simply not as scarce as the neo-Malthusians would have believe, and as prices rise, so do reserves, as more and more fossil fuels become recoverable economically. If you're worried about global warming, this may not be heartening, but the idea that we're about to run out of fossil fuels to power our growth is wrong, and this sort of writing is predictable and lazy.
posted by Dasein at 11:17 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I guess the real challenge is to keep the climate from going past a tipping point and turning the Earth into a clone of Venus. Doing that with renewable energy sources while still industrializing China and India and retaining our current prosperity are the parameters of the problem.
posted by Kevin Street at 11:24 AM on June 30, 2011


I know if feels good to prophesy doom, and mock the willfully blind sheeple who try to deny the inevitable

Sigh.

Natural gas: Insiders Sound The Alarm Amid A Natural Gas Rush, New York Times, June 25, 2011.

Coal: China's Coal Crisis, Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2010.

"State-run media reported that Beijing is considering capping domestic coal output in the 2011-2015 period, partly because officials worry miners are running down reserves too quickly to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding economy.

"China accounts for around 14% of global coal reserves but its share of global coal consumption is already over triple that at 47%, which is unsustainable," Hong Kong-based brokerage CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets said in a report last month.

Imposing a cap would be significant as China's mining sector is already finding it hard to keep up with domestic coal demand, which has grown around 10% annually over the past decade..."


Also, from your Wikipedia link,

BP, in its 2007 report, estimated at 2006 end that there were 909,064 million tons of proven coal reserves worldwide, or 147 years reserves-to-production ratio. This figure only includes reserves classified as "proven"; exploration drilling programs by mining companies, particularly in under-explored areas, are continually providing new reserves. In many cases, companies are aware of coal deposits that have not been sufficiently drilled to qualify as "proven". However, some nations haven't updated their information and assume reserves remain at the same levels even with withdrawals. Collective projections generally predict that global peak coal production may occur sometime around 2025 at 30 percent above current production in the best case scenario, depending on future coal production rates

Israel's huge new find: I think I'd wait to get something a little more solid than an opinion piece on the Financial Post's website before running out and buying that new SUV. From a casual search, there's a similarly-toned RAH RAH ISRAEL!!!1!! article about this on the Globe and Mail's website. The comments, however, are pretty interesting.

Here's the first one, by Shale Watcher:

I appreciate the article, but you have mistaken oil shale with shale oil. The two are very different.

Shale oil (as exampled by the Eagle Ford play) is a hydraulic fracturing extraction process for what is ultimately conventional petroleum. The situation in Israel and within the Shfela Basin is not the same.

The Shfela Basin contains oil shale (also found in the Green River Formation in the western United States). There is no oil in oil shale, rather, it is Kerogen. The Oil Shale has to either be physically mined (like near surface oil sands) and then retorted via a heating process that 'cooks' the kerogen into a synthetic crude...or, if the oil shale is deep, an in-situ process of heating the shale and then extracting the 'cooked' kerogen (now petroleum) takes place.

So, to reiterate.

Shale Oil = horizontal drilling/hydraulic fracturing
Oil Shale = kerogen rich rock - mined first and 'cooked' into oil

Similar sounding, but completely different


Methane clathrates: from your own Wikipedia link:

The sedimentary methane hydrate reservoir probably contains 2–10 times the currently known reserves of conventional natural gas. This represents a potentially important future source of hydrocarbon fuel. However, in the majority of sites deposits are likely to be too dispersed for economic extraction. Other problems facing commercial exploitation are detection of viable reserves; and development of the technology for extracting methane gas from the hydrate deposits. To date, there has only been one field commercially produced where some of the gas is thought to have been from methane clathrates, Messoyakha Gas Field, supplying the nearby Russian city of Norilsk.
posted by jhandey at 11:47 AM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


More regarding shale gas hype:
Shale gas is characterized by high-cost, rapidly depleting wells that require high energy and water inputs. There is considerable controversy about the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on the contamination of surface water and groundwater, as well as the disposal of toxic drilling fluids produced from the wells. A moratorium has been placed on shale gas drilling in New York State. Other analyses place the marginal cost of shale gas production well above current gas prices, and above the EIA’s price assumptions for most of the next quarter century. An analysis of the EIA’s gas production forecast reveals that record levels of drilling will be required to achieve it, along with incumbent environmental impacts. Full-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from shale gas may also be worse than previously understood, and possibly worse than coal.
The whole report is well worth reading.
posted by Bangaioh at 11:55 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


In power generation, you can either go small & local, or efficient.

That depends on how you reckon efficiency. Sure, there are some serious economies of scale to be had, but there's also a lot of loss in transmission, and the technology to buffer power has been slow in coming.

So, efficiency in terms of amount of power generated per unit of fuel -- scale will win every time. But if efficiency is reckoned in terms of using the greatest amount of the power you generate, it's a different calculation.

There's a similar issue with cost. As long as energy is plentiful, efficiency matters a great deal because the margins are narrow. If energy is more scarce, cost matters less, so you don't need to think as much about getting that large-scale efficiency as you do about just not using as much fuel.
posted by lodurr at 5:55 PM on June 30, 2011


Banking on shale oil and shale natural gas is analogous to reckoning that your problems are solved because you've figured out a way of making meth by cooking toothpaste with chloroform: Your raw materials are still pretty expensive, you're liable to do yourself and your neighborhood some serious long-term damage in the process, and all it does it put off the inevitable crash.
posted by lodurr at 6:02 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'd like to thank jhandey, gompa + others for their sane, fact-based contributions to this thread. I for one appreciate them mightily.
posted by smoke at 6:23 PM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


but the idea that we're about to run out of fossil fuels to power our growth is wrong, and this sort of writing is predictable and lazy.
posted by Dasein at 4:17 AM on July 1 [+] [!]


I'm kind of embarrassed for you to be posting this nonsense, as I think your comments are usually fairly well thought out.
Simply, easy oil is running out. If we replace it with coal or gas, that replacement resource will run out very quickly (assuming we could wave a wand to easily replace oil with coal or gas).
If we attempt to replace it with tar sands or other unconventional oil we will need to use vast amounts of energy to convert those into usable forms.
The infrastructure do this, effectively burn energy equivalent to 15% (or more!) of our global energy to replace the 30% that oil provides is such an out of this world engineering feat that we may as well build space based solar - it isn't going to happen.
So we are in a very difficult position just trying to make up for declining oil reserves. Economic forecasts, however, project us needing substantially more energy in coming decades. We have no sources to supply this energy (clathrates, fusion, cellulosic ethanol etc. are not energy source alternatives yet. I hope they might be one day, but nobody knows if that day will come).
You could argue that we will just have to get by on lower or flat energy growth. Unfortunately, the global economy is dependent on substantial, continual growth to keep it going. This filters all the way down to you paying off your mortgage over 30 years.
Slow, flat or negative energy growth is likely to lead to real economic pain. This article suggests wars, and I don't think that sounds particularly far fetched. Where I live we have already had a government official admit control of oil was one of the motivations for invading Iraq.
posted by bystander at 1:22 AM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Daniel Yergin wrote a great book about this: The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power. I highly recommend it. Also

http://www.amazon.com/Prize-Epic-Quest-Money-Power/dp/1439110123/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1309530911&sr=8-1

Also Prof. Smalley presents "Our Energy Challenge"
http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4626573768558163231
posted by edmo at 7:37 AM on July 1, 2011


We've already been using the oil sands, starting in the late 1960's. They've expanded enormously since then and there's no reason that usage will slow down. The mines have been dug and the infrastructure built, and they'll be a going concern for as long as they're profitable, which will be at least a couple of generations to come. And there are oil sand deposits in many other places around the world, like Venezuela, Russia and Africa. Those other deposits are undesirable at the moment for various political and economic reasons, but as the price of oil continues its inevitable rise and industrialized nations become more desperate, those problems will melt away. It's easy to imagine the US finding some pretext to occupy Venezuela, for instance. Then there's deep water drilling off Brazil, all the resource wealth of the north and south poles...

There's enough oil and coal and gas to keep things running for at least another fifty years. It will get more expensive, which will slow down economic growth and provide opportunities for renewable technologies, but the simple laws of supply and demand indicate that we will not stop until every drop of hydrocarbon has been extracted from the ground, as long as someone is willing to pay for it. Then, if we can get to the methane clathrates (assuming they haven't already started melting away), we'll be directly hacking into the temperature controls of the Earth, all in pursuit of cheap energy.

The real problem, imo, is the amount of greenhouse gases we're going to keep pumping into the atmosphere. Especially since these alternative hydrocarbon sources require large amounts of energy to extract (hence, more carbon emissions overall).
posted by Kevin Street at 2:44 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


There's enough oil and coal and gas to keep things running for at least another fifty years. It will get more expensive, which will slow down economic growth and provide opportunities for renewable technologies

Well, yes. But seeing the fallout from $100 - $150 oil, it seems pretty clear that while it may be technically possible to build oil from keragen at $200 a barrel, the death toll it will exert on the economy in terms of reduced (or negative) growth is such that it becomes pointless.
There are plenty of Faberge eggs available if you want to buy one, but be prepared to pay up, because the supply can't grow to satisfy additional collectors. Similarly, there will still be vast quantities of oil, just not enough to grow our energy use or sustain our current approaches to suburban life in the west, and industrialisation in China, causing the prices to stay high.
If the prices for oil get high enough to thoroughly break the economy, with even higher unemployment than today, then I fully expect people to say the problem is not oil availability, it is the shitty economy.
I don't doubt oil will be available at a price for generations to come. The problem with a growing global population and a shrinking resource base results in less for most, on average. This crumbling oil supply *will* cut down economic recovery.
I don't really see the difference between no oil, and oil I can't afford to buy. Just because Bill Gates will theoretically be minimally effected by peak oil doesn't mean it isn't a huge issue.
posted by bystander at 11:35 PM on July 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, yes. But seeing the fallout from $100 - $150 oil, it seems pretty clear that while it may be technically possible to build oil from keragen at $200 a barrel, the death toll it will exert on the economy in terms of reduced (or negative) growth is such that it becomes pointless.

I think that was part of kevin_street's point.

The problem with "end of oil" predictions is not usually that they're too optimistic, but the opposite: People envision Mad Max, when the reality looks more like some '90s-era Bruce Sterling novel, with average quality of life declining and civilization floundering as structures of control based on cheap energy fall away.

I think the important point is that we have the apocalyptic scenarios in the popular vision, which look goofy when you look at them in the light of what didn't happen at y2k, and on the other extreme you have people saying 'we'll always be able to have oil' or, alternately, 'we have enough time to figure out how to live without oil.' The middle ground -- the truth, as far as I've been able to determine -- is that oil will run out in such a way that we probably won't be properly stimulated to create an alternative before everything starts to go to hell.

That seems to me to be where you're at. So then the next question is, does that quicker shock give us enough stimulation to do something meaningful about it.
posted by lodurr at 5:24 AM on July 3, 2011


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