II. Alternatives to Oil: Fuels
the Future or Cruel Hoaxes?
alternatives to oil? Can’t we just switch to different sources of energy?
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
alternatives to oil, it is of critical importance that you ask certain
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!
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What about using
methane hydrates from the ocean floor as fuel?
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
1. It is
difficult to accumulate in commercial quantities.
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.
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
2. Can’t be
adapted for cars, boats, airplanes, tanks, and other forms of transportation.
3. Can’t be used
to produce petrochemicals.
Richard Heinberg (Page 151)
hydrogen? Everybody talks about it so much; it must be good, right?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
Richard Heinber (P. 132-137)
What about solar
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Richard Heinberg (P. 142-146)
Paul Roberts (P. 192-195)
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.
Richard Heinberg (P. 149-150)
What about wind
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
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.
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
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.
an infrastructure through which the wind energy can be
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.
Richard Heinberg (P. 139-142)
Paul Roberts (P. 196-202)
plant-based fuels like methanol and ethanol?
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.
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.
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
Richard Heinberg (P. 156)
The good news is
biodiesel may be the best alternative we have. That’s also the bad news.
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
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.
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.
is not physically possible to scale up biodiesel production enough to provide
us with even this comparatively meager amount.
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.
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?
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.
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!
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.
What about free
energy? Didn't Nikola Tesla invent some machine that produced 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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Matt Savinar: All Rights Reserved