Part II. Alternatives to Oil: Fuels
of the Future or Cruel Hoaxes?

I have designed the following passages with somebody new to the issue of oil depletion in mind. If you would like more in depth explanations, with graphs, charts and the like, please consult The Oil Age Is Over:  What to Expect as the World Runs Out of Cheap Oil, 2005-2050.

What about alternatives to oil? Can’t we just switch to different sources of energy?

Unfortunately, the ability of alternative energies to replace oil is based more in mythology and utopian fantasy than in reality and hard science. Oil accounts for 40 percent of our current US energy supply and a comparable percentage of the world’s energy supply.  The US currently consumes 7.5 billion barrels of oil per year, while the world consumes 30 billion per year.

None of the alternatives to oil can supply anywhere near this much energy, let alone the amount we will need in the future as our population continues to grow and industrialize.

When examining alternatives to oil, it is of critical importance that you ask certain questions:

1.  Is the alternative easily transportable like oil?

2.  Is the alternative energy dense like oil?

3. Is the alternative capable of being adapted for transportation, heating, and the production of pesticides, plastics, and petrochemicals?

4. Does the alternative have an Energy Profit Ratio (EPR) comparable to oil?

Oil used to have an EPR as high as 30. It only took one barrel of oil to extract 30 barrels of oil. This was such a fantastic ratio that oil was practically free energy. Some oil wells had EPRs close to 100. In fact, at one point in Texas, water cost more than oil!

Cheap (high-EPR) energy has formed the basis upon which all of our economic, political, and social institutions and relationships have formed. Live in the suburbs and commute to work? You can only do so as long as we have cheap energy to fuel long-distance transportation. Met your spouse at a location more than a one hour drive from your home or work? Never would have happened without cheap energy. Eat food shipped in from all around the world? Can’t do it without cheap fossil-fuel powered transportation networks.

None of the things we have become accustomed to in the industrialized world would have existed if the EPR of oil had been as low as the EPR of the alternatives we hope to replace oil with.

5. To what degree does the distribution, implementation, and use of this alternative require massive retrofitting of our industrial infrastructure? How much money, energy, and time will this retrofitting require?

6.  To what degree does the distribution, implementation, and use of this alternative require other resources which are in short supply? Do these other resources exist in quantities sufficient enough that the alternative is capable of being scaled up on a massive level? Are these resources located in highly unstable parts of the world? To what degree are the discovery, extraction, transportation, refining, and distribution of these resources dependent on cheap oil?

7. To what degree does the distribution, implementation, and use of this alternative require massive upfront investments in money and energy, both of which will be in short supply as the world begins to suffer from severe oil shocks?

8. What are the unintended consequences of the distribution, implementation, and use of this alternative? 

We have an energy infrastructure which is incredibly mammoth, intricate, and volatile. It is inextricably intertwined with economic, political, and social systems equally mammoth, intricate, and volatile.

When you are dealing with systems this complex, even a minor change can set off a ripple of unintended and destabilizing effects. Attempting to make fundamental changes, like where you get energy from and how much you pay for it, can have disastrous effects, regardless of how well-intended the attempts are.


Basic Choices and Constraints on Long Term Energy Supplies

Facing Some of the Hard Truths About Energy

Nine Critical Questions to Ask About Alternative Energies

Green Energy May be Free, But It Ain't Gonna Be Cheap

Why No Alternative Energy Sources Compare With Oil

The Oil Crash and You

Titanic Sinks: Can Our Civilization Survive a 70% Reduction in
Energy Supply?

Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies


Can’t we use coal to replace oil?

Like oil, coal is a fossil fuel. It accounts for 25 percent of current US energy supply.  While coal can be substituted for oil in some limited applications, it will only be able to cover a small percentage of the coming energy shortfall due to the following reasons:

1. It is 50 percent to 200 percent heavier than oil per energy unit. This makes it much more expensive and energy-intensive to transport than oil.

2. Coal-mining operations run on oil fuels as do coal-mining machinery and transportation. As oil becomes more expensive, so will coal.

3. Pollution is also a major problem. A single coal-fired station can produce a million tons of solid waste each year. Burning coal in homes pollutes air with smog containing acid gases and particles. If coal use is expanded enough to cover the shortfall in energy supply brought on by Peak Oil, we can expect global warming effects so severe the Earth would become inhospitable to human life.

4. Contrary to popular belief, the world is not endowed with enough coal to replace much more than a fraction of the energy we get from oil. If demand for coal remains frozen at the current rate of consumption, the coal reserve will last roughly 250 years. Population growth alone reduces the supply to about 100 years worth. If coal is substituted for other fuels, the supply is reduced to about 50 years’ worth.

As with oil, the production of coal will peak long before the supply is exhausted, most likely within 25 years.

5. Coal used to have an EPR of about 100. Currently, coal’s EPR is about 8 and dropping rapidly. At its current rate of decline, Coal’s EPR will drop to .5 by the year 2040. In other words, it will be an energy loser: it will take two units of coal to extract one unit of coal.  When any resource requires more energy to extract it than it contains, it ceases to be an energy source.  


Basic Choices and Constraints on Long Term Energy Supplies

The Peak in US Coal Production

Coal to Fuel Big Jump in Energy Bills

Foregt Terrorism: China About to Flick the Switch on Global
Energy Crisis

Crude Awakening/Out of Gas by Dr. David Goodstein

US Coal Prices Soar as Output Declines


What about substituting natural gas for oil?

Like oil and coal, natural gas is a fossil fuel. It accounts for 25 percent of current US energy supply. As a replacement for oil, it is unsuitable for the following reasons:

1. US natural gas production peaked around 1970. By the year 2000, US domestic production was at 1/3 of its peak level. While natural gas can be imported in its liquefied form, the process of liquefying and transporting it is extraordinarily expensive and very dangerous. Demand for natural gas in North America is already outstripping supply, especially as power utilities take the remaining gas to generate electricity. Within a few years, we will be dealing with a natural gas crisis as severe, if not more so, then the oil crisis.

2. Gas is not suited for existing jet aircraft, ships, vehicles, and equipment and heavy agricultural equipment such as tractors.

3.  Conversion consumes large amounts of energy as well as money.

4. Natural gas cannot provide the huge array of petrochemicals for which we depend on oil.


Basic Choices and Constraints on Long Term Energy Supplies

How is Natural Gas Different From Oil and is it a Substitute?

The Gathering Storm: Our Natural Gas Crisis (PDF)

The Story of US and Canada's Natural Gas (PDF)

A Study on Peak Energy: The US's Natural Gas Crisis (PDF)

Revealing Statements From a Bush Insider About Peak Oil and
Natural Gas Depletion

Natural Gas Crisis: The Single Biggest Threat to the United States

Leaping Off the Natural Gas Cliff

America Jumps Off the Gas Gliff With No Parachute

High Noon for Natural Gas

Debate Rages Over Rewards, Risks of Liquified Natural Gas Ports


What about using methane hydrates from the ocean floor as fuel?

Methane hydrates are deposits of ice-like crystals that trap natural gas under conditions of high pressure and low temperature such as those found in sea-floor sediments or in permafrost. They contain huge quantities of natural gases and are often promoted as an alternative to oil. Unfortunately, hopes of exploiting methane hydrates as a fuel source are little more than pipe dreams for several reasons:

1.  It is difficult to accumulate in commercial quantities.

2.  Estimates of methane hydrates fell steadily in the last 30 years due to growing knowledge of the fashion in which they are destroyed in ocean sediments.

3. Recovery is extremely dangerous and about six times more expensive than the exploitation of oil and other gas sources.  


Ocean Methane Stocks Overstated

Ocean Hydrates: An Elusive Energy Source

Ocean Hydrates: More Questions Than Answers

Worst Case Scenario of Methane Hydrate Release

Release of Ocean Hydrates Nearly Caused the End of Earth

It Came From Beneath the Sea


What about Geothermal Energy? Could we get our energy from things like volcanoes?

Less than 1 percent of the world’s electricity production comes from geothermal sources. As a replacement for oil, it is unsuitable due to the following reasons:

1. Geothermal power is dependant upon geography. Plants must be near hot springs, volcanoes, or geysers.

2. Can’t be adapted for cars, boats, airplanes, tanks, and other forms of transportation.

3. Can’t be used to produce petrochemicals.


Alternative Energy Sources: Myths and Realities

The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Civlizations
By Richard Heinberg (Page 151)


What about hydrogen? Everybody talks about it so much; it must be good, right?

Hydrogen accounts for 0.01 percent of the US energy supply. As a replacement for oil, it is unsuitable for the following reasons:

1. Hydrogen must be made from coal, oil, natural gas, wood, biomass or water. In every instance, it takes more energy to create hydrogen than the hydrogen actually provides. It is therefore an energy “carrier,” not an energy source.

2. Liquid hydrogen occupies four to eleven times the bulk of equivalent gasoline or diesel.

3. Existing vehicles and aircraft and existing distribution systems are not suited to it.

4. Hydrogen cannot be used to manufacture petrochemicals or plastics.

5. The cost of fuel cells is absolutely astronomical and has shown no downtrend.

6. A single hydrogen fuel cell requires 20 grams of platinum. If the cells are mass-produced, it may be possible to get the platinum requirement down to 10 grams per cell. The world has 7.7 billion grams of proven platinum reserves. There are approximately 700 million internal combustion engines on the road.

10 grams of platinum per fuel cell x 700 million fuel cells = 7 billion grams of platinum, or practically every gram of platinum in the earth.

Unfortunately, the average fuel cell lasts only 200 hours. Two hundred hours translates into just 12,000 miles, or about one year’s worth of driving at 60 miles per hour.  This means all 700 million fuel cells (with 10 grams of platinum in each one) would have to be replaced every single year.

Thus replacing the 700 million oil-powered vehicles on the road with fuel cell-powered vehicles, for only 1 year, would require us to mine every single ounce of platinum currently in the earth and divert all of it for fuel cell construction only.

Doing so is absolutely impossible as platinum is astonishingly energy-intensive (expensive) to mine, is already in short supply, and is indispensable to thousands of crucial industrial processes.

Even if this wasn’t the case, the fuel cell solution would last less than  one year. As with oil, platinum production would peak long before the supply is exhausted.

What will we do, when less than 6 months into the “Hydrogen Economy,” we hit “Peak Platinum?” Perhaps Michael Moore will produce a movie documenting the connection between the President’s family and foreign platinum companies? At the same time, presidential candidate will likely proclaim a plan to “reduce our dependence on foreign platinum,” while insisting he will “jawbone the foreign platinum bosses,” and “make sure American troops don’t have to die for foreign platinum.”

If the hydrogen economy was anything other than a total red herring, such issues would eventually arise as 80 percent of the world’s proven platinum reserves are located in that bastion of geopolitical stability, South Africa.

7. It’s possible to use solar-derived electricity to get hydrogen from water, but a renewable, hydrogen-based economy will require the installation of 40 trillion dollars worth of photovoltaic panels.  That’s 400 percent of the US GDP

This is on top of the cost of mining every single ounce of platinum in the earth, building the fuel cells, and constructing a hydrogen infrastructure. All of which would have to completed in the midst of massive oil shortages and economic dislocations.

8. Because hydrogen is the simplest element, it will leak from any container, no mater how strong and no matter how well insulated. For this reason, hydrogen in storage tanks will always evaporate, at a rate of at least 1.7 percent per day.

Hydrogen is such a poor replacement for oil that “Hydrogen Fuel Cells” should be called “Hydrogen Fool Cells.” This could explain why the “governator” of California has proposed a hydrogen-highway.


Why Hydrogen is No Solution: Scientific Answers to Marketing

Fuel Cell Folly

Hydrogen Fuel Cells Burn Cash

Lots of Hot Air About Hydrogen

Drunk on Hydrogen

Celebrated Fuel Cells Hit Bumpy Road

Manufacturer of Fuel Cells Warns They Won't Solve Crisis


What about Nuclear Power?

Nuclear power accounts for 8 percent of US energy production.  As a replacement for oil, it is unsuitable for the following reasons:

1. Nuclear power is extremely expensive. A single reactor costs between 3 and 5 billion dollars, not counting the costs associated with decommissioning, scarcer nuclear fuels; safeguarding nuclear facilities and materials from sabotage, terrorism, and diversion; increased likelihood of major, multi-billion-dollar accidents and their disrupting economic effects.

2. Number of reactors needed in the US alone: 800-1000. Current number: only 100.

3. Retrofitting current vehicles to run on nuclear-generated electricity would further increase the expenses related to a nuclear solution.

4. Nuclear power cannot be used to produce plastics, pesticides, or petrochemicals.

5. Uranium requires energy from oil in order to be mined. As oil gets more expensive, so will nuclear power.

6. All abandoned reactors are radioactive for millennia.

7. A nuclear power plant requires tremendous amounts of energy to construct. Nuclear power has only existed because the oil used to construct nuclear power plants has been so cheap.

8. Even if we were to overlook these problems, nuclear power is only a short-term solution. Uranium, too, has a Hubbert’s peak, and the current known reserves can supply the Earth’s energy needs for only 25-40 years at best.


The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Civlizations
By Richard Heinber (P. 132-137)

High Noon for Natural Gas by Julian Darley (P. 169)

Crude Awakening/Out of Gas by Dr. David Goodstein


What about solar power?

Solar power currently supplies less than one-tenth of one percent of the US energy supply.  As a replacement for oil, it is unsuitable due to the following reasons:

1. Unlike energy derived from fossil fuels, energy derived from solar power is extremely intermittent: it varies constantly with weather or day/night. If a large city wants to derive a significant portion of its electricity from solar power, it must build fossil-fuel-fired or nuclear-powered electricity plants to provide backup for the times when solar energy is not available.

2.  Solar power has a capacity of about 20 percent. This means that if a utility wants to install 100 megawatts of solar power, they need to install 500 megawatts of solar panels.  This makes solar power a prohibitively expensive and pragmatically poor replacement for the cheap and abundant fossil fuel energy our economy depends on.

3. Oil provides 90 percent of the world’s transportation fuel. Unfortunately, solar power is largely incapable of meeting these needs. While a handful of small, experimental, solar-powered vehicles have been built, solar power is largely unsuited for planes, boats, cars, tanks, etc. As mentioned previously, it is possible to use solar panels to get electricity from water, but a solar-hydrogen economy would require the installation of 40 trillion dollars of solar panels.

4.  That solar energy is nowhere near as fossil fuel energy is illustrated by the fact it would take 84 square miles of solar panels to replace the energy that a single gas station sells on a single day. Likewise, it would take solar panels covering all of New Jersey to replace the energy dispensed by just 100 gas stations in a single day.

5. Solar power cannot be adapted to produce pesticides, plastics, or petrochemicals.

6. Solar is susceptible to the effects of global climate change, which is projected to greatly intensify in the decades to come. Even typically sunny places, such as Florida, may not be able to count on having weather patterns conducive to the the use of solar energy.

7. Energy from solar power is extremely dilute. Estimates are that about 20 percent of US land area would be required to support a solar energy system that would supply less than one-half of our current energy consumption. To develop such a system would require a phenomenal level of investment and new infrastructure. This land requirement can be expected to diminish arable, pasture, and forest lands to some extent, with the most critical loss being arable land.  As explained previously, by 2050, the US will only have enough arable land to feed half its population. 

8. The geographic areas most suited for large solar farms are typically very warm areas, such as deserts. This requires the energy collected by the panels to be converted to electricity and then transmitted over large distances to power more densely populated regions.

Unfortunately, heat makes electricity extremely difficult to transmit. The benefits of setting up solar farms in sun-drenched areas like the  desert are largely offset by the additional costs of transmitting the electricity. The only way to overcome this problem is through the use of superconducting wires, which require copious quantities of silver, a precious metal already in short supply.

9. Virtually all solar panels currently on the market are made with silver paste. The world, however, is in the midst of a massive silver shortage that is likely to be greatly exacerbated in the years to come.

Of all metals, silver is the best conductor of electricity. This has made it a crucial component of all computers, communications, and electrical equipment. As technology has spread, silver reserves have plummeted. The current shortage of silver is so severe many experts feel the price of silver will skyrocket from its August 2004 price of $6.50 per ounce to as high as $200 per ounce.  This will drive up the cost of solar power.

To make matters worse, the only silver left is very difficult to extract and requires the use of heavy-duty, energy-intensive, oil-powered machinery. As oil becomes more expensive, so will the discovery, mining and transporting of silver, which will drive up the price of solar power even more.

Furthermore, much of the world’s silver reserves are located in highly unstable and unfriendly parts of the world such as the former Soviet Union.

10. Finally, as fossil fuels become increasingly scarce and expensive, we will have less energy to do everything, including obtaining replacement parts for things like solar panels. Even the most durable of solar panels, like all forms of technology, will require replacement parts and maintenance at some point in the future. Consequently, many of the solar panel systems in use today will likely be inoperable 40-50 years from now due to the collapse of oil-fueled manufacturing, transportation, maintenance, and distribution networks.


Facing Some of the Hard Truths About Energy

Solar Power City Offers 20 Years of Lessons

Alternative Energy Sources: Myths and Realities

Basic Choices and Constraints on Long Term Energy Supplies

The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Civlizations
By Richard Heinberg (P. 142-146)

The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World
By Paul Roberts (P. 192-195)

Silver Profits in the New Century
By Theodore Butler


What about Water/Hydro-Electric power?

Water, i.e. hydro-electric power through building dams, currently supplies 2.3 percent of global energy supply. It is a time-tested, reliable and clean form of electricity creation. As a replacement for oil, however, it is unsuitable due to the following reasons:

1. It is unsuitable for aircrafts and the present 800 million existing vehicles.

2. It cannot be used to produce pesticides, plastics, or petrochemicals.

3. Most of the obvious dam sites in many parts of the world have already been erected. In other words, we can't really exploit it much more than we already are.


Alternative Energy Sources: Myths and Realities

The Oil Crash and You

The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Civlizations
By Richard Heinberg (P. 149-150)


What about wind power?

Like solar, wind power accounts for about one-tenth of one percent of the current US energy supply.  As a replacement for oil, it is unsuitable due to the following reasons:

1.  As with solar, energy from wind varies greatly with weather, and is not portable or storable like oil and gas.

2. Wind cannot be used to produce pesticides, plastics, or petrochemicals.

3. Like solar, wind is susceptible to the effects of global climate change.

4.  Wind is not appropriate for transportation needs.

Despite these limitations, wind power is one of the more promising alternatives to fossil fuels. According to a 1993 study done by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, wind could generate about 15 percent of US energy, if heavy and immediate investments are made.  In order to supply just 15 percent of the current US energy supply, wind would need to be upscaled by 150,000 percent.

The fact that wind is one of our most promising alternatives is what makes our situation so disturbing. For instance, in order for wind to be used as hydrogen fuel, the following steps have to be taken:

1. Build the wind farm. This step requires an enormous investment of oil and raw materials, which will become increasingly expensive as oil production drops.

2. Wait for X number of years while the original energy investment is paid back.

3.  Construct an infrastructure through which the wind energy can be
converted to hydrogen. This requires an enormous investment of oil and raw materials, which will become increasingly expensive as oil production drops. As explained previously, the development of a hydrogen infrastructure has its own set of physically insurmountable obstacles.

4. Retrofit our current infrastructure to run on this fuel. This requires an enormous investment of oil and raw materials, both of which will become increasingly expensive as oil production drops.

5.  Deal with enormous political and industrial resistance at each step.

6. Pray that we can repeat this process enough times before anarchy and war completely cripple our ability to do so.


Alternative Energy Sources: Myths and Realities

Basic Choices and Constraints on Long Term Energy Supplies

The Oil Crash and You

The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Civlizations
By Richard Heinberg (P. 139-142)

The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World
By Paul Roberts (P. 196-202)

Fluky Wind Calls For Big Back Up

Wind Power Buffeted by Technical and Economic Challenges


What about plant-based fuels like methanol and ethanol?

Plant-based fuels will never be able to replace more than a fraction of the energy we currently get from oil for the following reasons:

1. Depending on who you consult, ethanol has an EPR ranging from .7 (making it an energy loser) to 1.7. Methanol, made from wood, clocks in at 2.6, better than ethanol, but still far short of oil.

2. As explained previously, by 2050, the US will only have enough arable land to feed half of its population, not accounting for the effects of oil depletion. In the years to come, there won't be enough land for food, let alone fuel.

3. It takes 11 acres to grow enough corn to fuel one automobile with ethanol for 10,000 miles, or about a year’s driving.  If we tried to replace just 10 percent of the gasoline the U.S. will use in 2020 with corn-based ethanol, we would need to plant an area equivalent to Illinois, Indiana and Ohio solely to grow the grain needed as feedstock. The difficulty of that can be appreciated when you realize that this area is about one-sixth of the land we currently use in the United States for growing all our crops.

4. Current infrastructure, particularly manufacturing and large-scale transportation, is adaptable to plant-based fuels in theory only. In reality, retrofitting our industrial and transportation systems to run on plant fuels would be enormously expensive and comically impractical.

Finally, when evaluating claims about plant-based fuels, be aware of who is providing the data. The company which makes 60 percent of US ethanol is also one of the largest contributors of campaign money to the Congress. Were it not for subsidies provided by taxpayers, the continued production of ethanol would be severely jeopardized.


Alternative Energy Sources: Myths and Realities

The Oil Crash and You

The Post Petroleum Paradigm

The Party's Over: Oil, War, and the Fate of Industrial Civlizations
By Richard Heinberg (P. 156)

Facing Some of the Hard Truths About Energy


What about biodiesel?

The good news is biodiesel may be the best alternative we have. That’s also the bad news.

A diesel-powered machine can be adapted to run on biodiesel with relative ease. This does not mean, however, that biodiesel can provide us with enough affordable energy to do more than slightly soften the coming collapse. As with all the alternatives, the issue is not one of technical feasibility, but rather scalability.

US biodiesel production currently has a ceiling of 100 million gallons per year. This is the equivalent of about 2.5 million barrels of oil, or the amount the US currently consumes in less than 3 hours.

Although the ceiling is 100 million gallons (or about 2.5 million barrels), only 25 million gallons (or about 600,000 barrels) were actually produced last year. This was enough biodiesel to power the US economy for about 45 minutes.

By 2020, US demand for oil may be pushing 30 million barrels of oil per day. Even if US biodiesel production is scaled up by 40,000 percent, it will not provide us with more than a week’s supply of fuel.

Unfortunately, it is not physically possible to scale up biodiesel production enough to provide us with even this comparatively meager amount.

Typically, biodiesel is typically produced from vegetables such as soybeans. This is problematic for two reasons:

1. As explained previously, the US population will soon outstrip our ability to produce food. Within a few decades, we won’t have enough arable land on which to grow food, let alone fuel.

2.  Given the petroleum-intensive nature of modern agriculture, the use of vegetable oil as fuel is typically an energy loser, although according to some studies, a positive EROEI might be achievable if certain plants are used.

One proposal making the rounds on the Internet involves building 11,000 square feet of shallow concrete pools in which to grow biodiesel-producing algae. The amount of energy required by such a project is truly breathtaking. To pave 11,000 square miles with concrete four inches deep would require 3,785,955,556 cubic yards of concrete. This is enough concrete to build 25 cities the size of San Francisco.  To make matters worse, acquiring this amount of concrete would require massive investments in fossil fuel-powered construction and transportation. The plan is rife with numerous other problems of scalability such as the logistics of maintaining 11,000 square miles worth of plastic or glass roof sheeting.

Keep in mind this mammoth project would have to be completed in the midst of ever-worsening oil shortages and rapidly deteriorating economic conditions.

Amazingly, many intelligent people actually feel such a plan is a pragmatic solution to the coming oil shocks. This is a startling indicator of the degree to which many people are unable to appreciate to complex and mammoth relationship of oil to the world economy.

As usual, however, most people don’t want to be bothered with facts. Consequently, you can expect to see more and more articles in the mainstream media about the wonders of biodiesel. The peasantry is easily duped by such puff pieces, as we desperately want to believe alternatives like biodiesel can allow us to continue business as usual.

We’ve got 700 million internal combustion engines on the road. The world uses 30 billion barrels of oil per year. By 2020, the world will need as much as 45 billion barrels of oil. Converting a few thousand, or even 50-60 million, vehicles to biodiesel is not going to stop the collapse of petrochemical civilization.


What about Hemp?

Everybody’s favorite biofuel suffers from the same limitations as other biofuels: lack of scalability, lack of arable land on which to grow enough of it, and a poor energy profit ratio.

Even if hemp production could be scaled up to produce a fraction of the energy provided by fossil fuels, we would just be trading “Peak Hemp” for Peak Oil. What do you do when hemp production peaks?  Once it does, we’re back in the same situation we are now.

In truth, the discussion of Peak Hemp is a moot point, as there is no way hemp production can be scaled up to provide more than a minuscule fraction of the energy provided by fossil-fuels. I mention Peak Hemp merely to illustrate a point discussed further in Part IV: so long as we have an economy that requires growth, it doesn’t matter what our primary energy source is, as production of all energy sources eventually peak and decline.

Hemp, however, has many properties that would make it an almost ideal food crop for post-petroleum agriculture. Unfortunately, the likelihood of widespread legalization of hemp farming in the US is, at this time, practically zero.


What about Thermal Depolymerization?

Thermal Depolymerization (TD), which can turn many forms of waste into fuel, is another false messiah, albeit a fascinating one:

1. Currently, only one TD plant is operational. The plant is currently producing a whopping 100-200 barrels of industrial heating oil per day.  That’s enough to power the US economy for about half of one second and the world economy for about one-tenth of one second. 

2. TD is really nothing more than high-tech recycling. Most of the waste input (such as plastics and tires) requires high-grade oil to make it in the first place.  As we slide down the downslope of oil production, we will have less waste to put into the process.

3. According to the company itself, the TD process has an efficiency of 85 percent. You stick 100 units of energy into the process to get out 85. This means TD has a negative net-energy profile. Thus, it’s not an energy source, folks!

Simply physics dictates that TD will never have a positive or even break even net-energy profile. The process requires energy to turn garbage into oil. The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states energy cannot be created or destroyed. Thus, the energy obtained from the TD process will be less than the energy used to create it.

4. TD was “announced” in an article that ran in the July 2003 issue of Discover magazine. Virtually nothing has been written in the press since then. That should tell you something. Given the fact oil is pushing $50 per barrel as of mid-August 2004, if TD was as great as so many techno-worshippers think or hope it is, don’t you think we would have heard a bit more about by now?

The biggest problem with TD is that it is being advertised as a means to maintain business as usual. Such advertising promotes further consumption, provides us with a dangerously false sense of security, and encourages us to continue thinking we don’t need to make this issue a priority.

You may find it interesting that if a 175-pound man falls into one end of the TD machine, he comes out the other end as 7 pounds of gas, 7 pounds of minerals, 123 pounds of sterilized water, and 38 pounds of oil. 


The Petroleum Plateau


What about free energy? Didn't Nikola Tesla invent some machine that produced free energy?

While free-energy technologies such as Cold Fusion, Vacuum Energy and Zero Point Energy are extremely fascinating, the unfortunate reality is that they are unlikely to help us cope with the oil depletion for several reasons:

1. We currently get absolutely zero percent of our energy from these sources.

2. We currently have no functional prototypes.

3. We’ve already had our experiment with “free energy.” With an EPR of 30 to 1, oil was so efficient and cheap an energy source that it was practically free. In some locations, such as Louisiana, oil had an EPR of 100 to 1!

4. The development of a “free energy” device would just put off the inevitable. The Earth has a carrying capacity. If we are able to substitute a significant portion of our fossil-fuel usage with “free energy,” the crash would just come at a later time, when we have depleted a different resource. At that point, our population will be even higher. The higher a population is, the further it has to fall when it depletes a key resource. The further it has to fall, the more momentum it picks up on the way down through war and disease. By encouraging continued population growth, so-called “free energy” could actually make our situation worse.

An analogy may be useful here: I live in a one-bedroom apartment. Let’s pretend that tomorrow the energy fairy comes along and installs a free-energy device in my apartment. With the device running, I can use all the energy I want for free. Not only that, but it magically pays the rent and keeps the refrigerator full of food. Time for me to have all my friends move in with me?

No, because my apartment still has only one bathroom. If 15-20 people move in with me, there’s going to be shit all over the living room, free-energy device running or not.

5. Even if a functional free-energy prototype came into existence today, it would take at least 25-50 years to retrofit our multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure for such technology.

6.  One can only wonder what damage we would do to ourselves if given access to free energy. We discovered oil, an amazingly powerful source of energy, and 150 years later we are closer to destroying ourselves than ever before. What do you think we will do to ourselves if we gain access to an even more powerful source of energy?

Another analogy may be useful here: say you give a young man access to a one-million-dollar bank account on his 18th birthday.  Do you think he is going to handle it responsibly? My guess is no. If he’s anything like I was at 18 (or even today), he’s going to blow it all on expensive liquor, wild strippers, and fast cars.

In other words, he’s going to consume and screw himself into oblivion, which is exactly what the human race has been doing to itself since discovering oil.

What do you think will happen if, upon depleting his one-million-dollar bank account, the young man gains access a bank account with one billion dollars in it? Most likely, he will continue consuming and screwing until he completely destroys himself and all those around him.

We will likely do the same thing if we ever gain access to an energy source even more abundant and powerful than oil.


What about using a variety of alternatives? If we use a little of this and a little of that, can’t it add up?


If we find a massive amount of political will, unprecedented bipartisan cooperation, gobs of investment capital, a slew of technological breakthroughs, and about 25-50 years of peace and prosperity to implement the changes, we can do the following:

1.  Scale up biodiesel production to provide 4-6 days worth of energy.

2.  Scale up thermal depolymerization to provide 3-4 minutes of energy.

3.  Scale up solar and wind to provide 2-3 weeks of energy.

4. Scale up nuclear to provide 4-6 weeks of energy. (And pray for no accidents)

It all ads up, and actually to a quite a bit: it may be possible to get the energy equivalent of 3-4 billion barrels of oil from alternative sources. That is about as much oil as the entire world consumed per year prior to World War II! But it is only about 10 percent of what we need currently, and an even smaller percentage of what we will need in the future.


Are these alternatives useless then?

No, not at all. Whatever civilization emerges after the crash will likely derive a good deal of its energy from these alternatives. All of these alternatives deserve massive investment right now. The problem is no combination them can replace oil, no matter how much we wish they could. All the optimism, ingenuity, and desire in the world doesn’t change the physics and hard math of energy.

None of the alternatives can supply us with enough energy to maintain even a modest fraction of our current consumption levels. Even in the best-case scenario, we will have to accept a drastically reduced standard of living. To survive, we will have to radically change the way we get our food, the way we get to work, what we do for work, the homes we live in, how we plan our families, and what we do for recreation.

Put simply, a transition to these alternatives will require a complete overhaul of every aspect of modern industrial society. Unfortunately, complex societies such as ours do not undertake radical changes voluntarily or preemptively.  Nor do they attempt to solve their problems by simplifying or downsizing things. Instead, complex societies tend to gravitate towards increasingly complex solutions, which ultimately make the original problems much worse.

The fact that alternative energies are incapable of replacing fossil fuels seems to be an extremely tough pill to swallow for almost everybody except physicists and engineers. In my experience, everybody else insists that with enough political will, ingenuity, and elbow grease, we can somehow make the transition to alternative fuels.

I’m sorry, folks, but we can’t. Without mammoth amounts of fossil fuels, there is simply no way we can run a society that even comes close to resembling what we are accustomed to for more than a handful of (super-rich) people. The physics of renewable energy are absolutely pathetic compared to the physics of fossil fuels! The numbers just don’t add up, no matter how much we wish they would.

If you’re thinking of sending me an email telling me to “go to hell” because you’re positive that, with enough “American ingenuity,” alternative energies can take the place of fossil fuels, don’t bother. Filling my inbox with hate-filled vitriol is not going to change the laws of thermodynamics.


Fine, but what if space aliens or angels come down and give us a miraculous alternative source of energy that easily replaces oil and can supply a constantly increasing amount of energy? Wouldn’t that prevent a collapse?

Not for those of us living in the US or for anybody who attempts to make use of this new energy source.

The US dollar is the reserve currency for all oil transactions in the world, hence the term “petrodollar.” In short, this means that whenever anybody buys oil, anywhere in the world, they have to pay with dollars. Thus, the wealth from all oil transactions cycles into the US economy. The strength of the US economy is now entirely dependant on the strength of the petrodollar as the US manufacturing and industrial base has been dismantled and shipped to China, India, Mexico, and the Philippines. The petrodollar is one of the few things we have left with which to support our economy.

If such an alternative source of energy came online, oil purchases would drop, the petrodollar would collapse, and the US would descend into economic anarchy. The US would react (probably preemptively) to the widespread implementation of this alternative by plunging the world into a series of wars unlike anything we have ever imagined.

The US is truly wedded to oil, with no possibility of an annulment or divorce. As they say: “till death do us part.”

A full blown collapse of petrochemical civilization is coming. There is no way to stop it. There are no alternatives that will do more than slightly ameliorate it. The best we can do is prepare and adapt to it.
Copyright 2004, Matt Savinar: All Rights Reserved
This is an introduction, for further reading on this subject please go to: