Friday, June 6, 2008

The End of Oil and the Next Energy Economy

Modern industrial society is dependent on oil. A partial list of products derived from oil includes gasoline, heating fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, lubricants, plastic, paint, synthetic fabrics, asphalt, and pharmaceuticals. Oil is also crucial to manufacturing, transportation, agriculture, mining and electricity.

Oil used to power combustion engines generate the most emissions. The tar sands generate even more emissions than traditional fossil fuels and natural gas is responsible for signficant methane emissions. One of the dirtiest and most inefficient fuels is coal which is the primary power source of the world's two largest economies.

Alternatives to oil are the future but as with all things in the real world, each alternative comes with its own set of problems. Renewable sources of energy must address the problem of net energy. Energy output from alternative sources must be measured against the amount of energy input.

Fuel cells are a problem as long as they require hydrogen derived from hydrocarbons. Biofuels require enormous amounts of land and offer questionable quantities of net energy. Even energy from solar and wind power is imperfect when partnered with disposable batteries.

The world uses 15 terawatts of power every year. The peak of world oil production is about 30 billion barrels a year. Remaining world oil resources are approximately one trillion barrels. By 2030, annual oil production will be less than half of what it was at its peak. The trend is inescapable and this is leading many to conclude that the fossil fuel driven industrial age is drawing to a close.

The ever increasing cost of oil is an incentive for research and innovation. But the widening gap between domestic consumption and global production shows that price alone is insufficient to induce required changes within reasonable timeframes. Government needs to radically increase Green research funding, promote Green legislation, and implement standards.

Solutions may come from entirely new innovations, from refinements of current technology or from novel technological combinations. However, according to Paul Roberts, author of The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World, "The next energy economy will be built by the market, at a profit, or it won't happen at all."

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