Friday, 22 May 2009

Mineral Resource Depletion

On some of the more malthusian peak oil sites there is the theme that not only are we facing peak oil, but also peak fertilizer, peak gas, peak coal etc, along with peak mineral extraction. Others rant about the "limits to growth". I started wondering exactly how much resource we really have extracted.
One way of looking at this would be to ask some questions.
For example: Is the Earths crust uniform or are there nodes where minerals or useful resources are concentrated?
In fact, history shows that we have concentrations of minerals and they are mined or extracted by wells such as is the case with oil or gas.

Which gets me to thinking? Is it reasonable to assume that even if we use up a lot of the oil and gas which cannot form at lower depths, is this true for other resources?

The answer to that is no. Other minerals and especially metals (such as for example, lithium or manganese) do not require special temperature and pressure gradients to exist. They will be found all through the Earth's crust.

So: How deep is the deepest mine we have yet drilled?
Our friend google returns the answer of 3800 meters.
That, I should point out is not the average depth of mines, it is the DEEPEST YET DUG.

So what is the depth of the Earth's crust?
40,000 meters.

Seems we haven't even reached 10% of the Earths "limits to growth".
It's quite possible that you can't have infinite growth on a finite world, but we're nowhere near the limits.

Batteries will save us

The premise is this: dieoff says technology is not a substitute for oil.
In this post I will argue not only that technology is in fact a substitute for oil but that we've been using technological substitutes for an age and a day.

In the middle ages, we reached "peak wood" where Europe's population had soared due to the invention of better farming methods, and correspondingly, the hugely increased demand for wood depleted Europes forest. Subsequently, there was the great plague and replacement of wood with coal, but was there anything else notable that happened?

Why yes there was. Since the population collapsed, there weren't so many laborers available to for example, mill flour. So what happened?
The response was technology. More specifically wind.

Windmills and river mills were invented and this renewable power freed up labor to do other things, like go off and invent steam engines.

Other times technology has saved us are the taming of fire (we could cook tough plants previously unable to be eaten raw), the invention of agriculture, the green revolution etc.

So I guess we could say there is precedent for us escaping from bottlenecks.

Now we are faced with a bottleneck of how to get our energy system off of oil before it begins it's precipitous decline.

Hubbert himself argued that nuclear would be the next big thing. I won't call him a liar, but I will say that nuclear though it could do so all by itself, is not our only solution.

Every day we have more wind and more sunlight coming into the Earth energy system than our entire world consumption for a year.

It's also worthwhile pointing out that while oil in in imminent danger of depletion during the next decade, this is not true of either natural gas or coal. So any transition period could be partially backed up by natural gas or coal.
Both of these are good substitutes for oil if a little expensive to get them into liquid form. But we have plenty for now.

In the meantime, the build rate of wind is scaling up at 35% increase in global installed base every five years and accelerating. Likewise solar. Nuclear is hardly budging in North America and Europe but China is growing it's installed base of nuclear at half the rate it's growing it's wind. It's also worth pointing out that we have several regions with large installed bases of Nuclear already. i.e. they don't need any more. France and Ontario are two such regions. Sweden is another.

What does electricity have to do with oil depletion?
Plenty as it happens. Up till this decade the closest substitute for oil powered transportation such as automobiles and 18 wheeler trucks was biofuel and natural gas.
Well we have a glut of natural gas right now so that's not such a problem.
Previously, though, that was it. Sure there were electric trains and electric streetcars and trolley buses etc, but in many regions the streetcars and trolley buses are now gone and replaced with interstate networks.

In a pinch we *could* rebuild the streetcar networks and in fact, many countries are in fact doing so. The notable laggards are the UK, Canada and the United States.
To be fair, though, most Canadian cities already have electric mass transit systems of some sort. Even Calgary which is the oil capital, has the electric C-Train. Toronto's mass transit system is electric and world class.

But what about systems that are not point to point, like bus based networks or the logistics networks of supermarkets?

Well as it turns out we have a model for the logistics networks from 1950s Britain.
They are called milk floats. 30 mile range, slow moving lead acid battery powered delivery vehicles. Using even this basic technology combined with electric trains, the logistics network of the 1950s could even then have been run off of electricity.
Sadly, though, this technology fell out of favor and was replaced by the more versatile diesel truck with a higher speed and a better range.
In a pinch, however, if need be, we could get by with a 1950s logistics network.
But we don't have to. Batteries have advanced so much in the last ten years that we now have 13 ton trucks with a top speed of 65mpg and a range of greater than 150 miles. Easily adequate to run a logistics fleet.

If we ignore for a minute that in the same time frame they used streetcars and trolley buses in place of the diesel powered buses we have now, what are our current options?
Well as it happens, we also have in recent times developed high speed, decent range elecetric buses such as Proterra buses which can be charged to 80% capacity in 10 minutes. With a range of 100 miles, a ten minute charge gets an additional 80 miles.
This can easily be adapted to virtually any modern bus service.

Now the question will no doubt arise from our doomer friends: where will we get all the electricity to do this if we have millions of electric trucks and electric buses?

The answer is simple: we will build more gas plants, coal plants, nuke plants and more windmills.

Production capacity to build all these electric vehicles will take some time to ramp up but in the meantime it's very straightforward to convert to natural gas. And like New Zealand did in the 1970s during the last oil crunch (where they converted up to 10% of their fleet to natural gas) we will likely do the same, all the while, gradually building up an all electric fleet.

Now one point that's not been adequately covered is the rate of advance we've seen in the last ten years and then a comparison of where we are now and where we will be ten years from now.
When I originally freaked out after reading all those years ago, battery tech had hardly advanced since the 1950s. Sure there were NiCad and Nickel Metal Hydride, but the energy density and the range was only 2-3 times that of lead acid batteries. That meant you had literally tons of weight for a range of, say 50-70 miles which took 10 hours to charge.
Compared with a standard automobile or truck which could be recharged at a gas station in ten minutes by filling up and then drive for hundreds of miles, clearly the existing technology at the time was a poor substitute. I've already argued that it was a "good enough" substitute to keep the lights on and food in the supermarkets, but certainly not good enough to have all electric hummers.

Are we there yet?
i.e. can we have all electric hummers with a 200 mile range?
Unfortunately with the current best-of-breed batteries (Lithium Ion) we cannot.
We have 13 ton trucks with a 150 mile range than take ten hours to charge or can charge to 100 mile range in half an hour.
Likewise we have smaller personal automobiles like the Th!nk city with a range of about 100 miles which take 4 hours to recharge or else a range of 80 miles after a fast charge of 30 minutes. The Tesla Sportscar is similar. 200 mile range in ten hours or 150 mile range with an hour fast charge.

Clearly these are adequate to keep more or less the current paradigm running. They are not, however, a complete replacement.
Is a complete replacement even possible with batteries? Well with current generations of batteries no.

But there are several breakthroughs on the horizon it has to be pointed out.

There's this:
"Air fueled battery has 10 times the energy density of current lithium ion batteries"
So we could have a small car with a range of 1000 miles. Surely acceptable.
Do you think we could maybe have a Hummer with a 150 mile range?

There's this:
"New Lithium Battery can store three times the energy of conventional lithium batteries"
So a 450 mile range on a small cheap car or else a hummer with a 75 mile range?
Acceptable to anybody? I'd say yes.

And there's this:
"MIT Lithium Battery could recharge in seconds rather than hours"
Hmmm. If we combine a 450 mile range battery with recharging in seconds, can we say that's a perfect replacement for what we have now?

And last but not least there's this:
"Project Better Place will provide a network of battery swap stations that will allow owners of electric cars to have a depleted battery swapped for a fully charged one in a drive through station like a car-wash, all in less time than it takes to fill the gas tank of a conventional car"

So unlike the opinion of the dieoff crowd that technology won't save us. I'd have to disagree. Not only will technology save us, but it will be a pre-existing old technology that will save us: the humble battery.

For those with more interest in this topic,
please also visit peakoildebunked and ghawareguzzler as well as sciencedaily, newscientist and greencarcongress.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

No Substitutes to Oil?

Over at, which is the scariest peak oil site bar none out there, one of the main tenets is that there are "no substitutes" and that renewables contribute only a little and will never contribute more than a little.

In fact, there are many substitutes and they are contributing all over the world and in many industries.

The main area where peak oil is likely to be a problem is transportation.
Do we have a substitute for oil in transportation?
Well yes we do.
Batteries and electrified transit systems.

There are at least five examples of huge electrified systems that I can think of off the top of my head (and several lesser ones). They are: The New York Subway, The Paris Metro, The London Underground , The Tokyo Subway and the Mexico City Underground. Smaller systems include the Dublin Bart, The Glasgow Underground, the Portland Light Rail system, the BART system, The Toronto Underground and Streetcar system and The Calgary C-Train among others. I'm sure others could list several more electrified systems.

Now, that's all well and good, but the electricity to power these systems has to come from somewhere. posits that when oil peaks, the lights will go out and then we will end up a few years later back at "olduvai gorge" levels of technology.

In fact, electricity doesn't come from oil in the majority of cases.
There are five main sources worldwide: coal, natural gas, hydro-electric, wind and nuclear. Others such as solar are neglible but fast growing.

The dieoff crowd, however, would try to backpedal the argument "but electricity doesn't use oil in most cases" by saying, "yes, but trucks use oil and the electric grid needs trucks to service the infrastructure. When enough parts wear out and there are no trucks to take the maintenance crews out there, the grid will eventualy fail".

Perhaps if there really were no alternatives to petroleum powered trucks. And right now, they are indeed mostly petroleum (gasoline or diesel) powered.


There are alternatives, however, especially electric trucks.
Although there are not huge volumes of them in operation or in production, they could be produced in large volumes and they certainly do work as an acceptable substitute, especially examples from outfits like Smith Electric Vehicles with 13.5 ton trucks which have a top speed of 65mph and a range of 150 miles. Not too shabby. This is admittedly a new technology and to be fair to it wasn't available at the time the original site was put up, but the technology works for sure.

That said, we have had functional electric trucks for decades. This is not a new and untested technology. In the UK, milk was commonly delivered by electric trucks called "milk floats" from the end of the second world war up until the early 80s. Hardly a novel technology that "does not work". Sure they are based on decades old lead-acid batteries, but it would be a stopgap for transporting parts from a warehouse to any sub-stations on the grid.

As for energy sources for the grid, as said we have coal, natural gas, hydro-electric, wind and nuclear.
Of coal, we have pessimistically another fifty years worth at current rates of consumption and optimistically a hundred years worth. Of natural gas, there have recently been new technology breakthroughs that permit far better utilization of stranded natural gas than was possible before. This is especially the case with shale gas. Natural gas will of course peak, but there is sufficient for at least the next decade if not globally then certainly in North America and other areas with abundant shale formations. Nuclear is a good case in point too and was actually the solution posited by Hubbert himself to the then impending global peak in oil production that he foresaw. Hydro-electric is old technology like lead-acid batteries, and significant resource is already in place and going nowhere when oil peaks. Large scale examples of this are Ontario Hydro and Quebec Hydro as well as the Hoover Dam. China is building massive new hydro resource as we speak. Wind and Solar are interesting and ultimately we must depend on them.

According to dieoff, renewables such as wind will never make much of a difference. I beg to differ.
In a handful of regions, 20% of the electric power is supplied by wind and there's no real reason it couldn't go higher. Right now wind power is on parity with new coal and new nat gas plant on a lifecycle basis which makes it both a technical substitute and a price based substitute.

The big argument against wind is that due to it's intermittency it cannot ever get higher than a 20% penetration.

In fact, this is not the case. Even though it's true that a single geographic windfarm could conceivably be without wind, this is very unlikely to be the case with many geographically dispersed windfarms. The solution to the problem is more grid connections to make sure power can move from where the wind is blowing to the centers of consumption. Recent studies by a scientist named Gregor Czisch have shown that not only can this be done, but the cost is favorable. To quote an article in new scientist magazine "The wind is always blowing somewhere, just as the sun is always shining on half the globe. So with a large enough grid, variations in generation should even out, giving a reliable supply.
The project would cost more than €1.5 trillion, of which €128 billion would go on the lines and equipment for the supergrid itself, and around €1.4 trillion on renewable-generating capacity. To put this in context, the International Energy Agency forecasts that the global power industry will have to invest $13.6 trillion on fossil-fuel-based power generation by 2030."

So sure, we are currently not in the position where we have a continental or even a global super grid capable of taking renewable power from where it's generated to where it's needed, but it roundly debunks the point that it will never be done because it cannot be done.

So the remaining argument is this: What resilience is left in the system to get substitutes online quickly if depletion sets in starting tomorrow?

Well to answer that we need to ask the following question:
Are there any regions of the world that are currently significantly supplied with either nuclear or renewable electricity that also have a reasonable manufacturing base or at least the capability to ramp up quickly.

As it happens there are.
Ontario is mostly hydro and nuclear as is Quebec. Both are heavy manufacturing regions.
France sources most of it's electricity from nuclear. Switzerland sources most of it's electricity from hydro. Germany is in a relatively weaker position, but it is the largest user in the world of both solar and wind and is also a heavy manufacturing superpower. Japan, though it has no fossil fuels of it's own, supplies most of it's electricity from nuclear and tokyo which is a huge manufacturing region, just happens to have a world class metro system. Norway, which has abundant hydro power, also has one of the world's most electrified mass transit systems in the form of a high speed electric rail network, electric streetcars in oslo and an electric metro system. It is also home to the manufacturing facilities of Th!nk Electric, one of the two well known brands of electric cars with reasonable price and performance (the other is Tesla of California).

So it seems that even if depletion comes calling and it is severe, there are at least a handful of regions that have the ability to substitute. I'd wager that in such a scenario, rather than a global collapse back to the stone age and mass dieoff we'd really be facing what would amount to a transfer of manufacturing to these regions that are powered by renewables and nuclear. From there a bright renewable future would eventually emerge. And that's the WORST scenario.

Olduvai gorge?