Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Getting There from Here

I'm embarrassed to admit that it took an article in MIT's Technology Review to introduce me to a name in the "peak oil" world that I should have already known, James Howard Kunstler. His book, "The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century", has apparently gathered quite a following for its pessimistic portrayal of our energy future, among other looming problems. TR's skeptical review suggests that his predictions can be boiled down to an assertion that the alternative energy future is a sham, and that we can't get there from here. Without getting into detailed arguments about a book I haven't read, these points function as a rejoinder to my argument last week about the new choices that weren't available in the last energy crisis.

Mr. Kunstler's concerns seem to fall into two main categories, starting with the superiority of oil as a fuel and the absence of anything else combining its low cost, high energy density, and ready availability, to serve as a replacement when the global oil supply reaches its inevitable peak. The second area deals with the availability of energy sources and technologies that could bridge us into an alternative energy future from the "cheap oil" world we inherited.

Let's think about the first point. Oil is a truly remarkable substance, and the geological circumstances that dispersed enough of it in deposits close to the surface, where it could be tapped using 19th century technology--imagine giant post-hole diggers--played a major role in the creation of our mobile, industrialized world. But when you consider how much we've learned about the universe since the first oil well was drilled in 1859, it's nearly inconceivable that we can't find ways to live--and even prosper--without it, eventually.

Without being a Pollyanna, the diversity of possible energy sources that could fill that bill, at least for the next century or two, makes me confident that there is a good energy future ahead. In terms of sheer magnitude, the ultimate potential of things like orbital solar power, dry-rock geothermal power and nuclear fusion (hot or cold) dwarfs what we currently receive from all hydrocarbons combined, to the point of raising concerns about the environmental impact of waste heat on the scales that would be possible. Energy is out there in abundance, if we can figure out how to tap it.

That takes us back to the problem of getting there from here, which is certainly non-trivial. Again, work is underway on enough different paths to provide reassurance that the world won't end on the day that oil demand permanently exceeds the supply. Some of these paths involve new chemical fuels, including hydrogen, that work in tandem with various kinds of fuel cells or advanced engines. Others involve electricity, either in combination with new battery technology, or in conjunction with hydrogen. And in the shorter term, there are proven methods of extracting natural and synthetic petroleum from other hydrocarbons that are much more plentiful than oil. The key to all of this will be marshaling the necessary capital and technical resources far enough in advance of the need.

None of what I’ve described above will be easy. That does not mean, however, that we can’t get there. Rather, it’s an argument for getting off our butts, banishing complacency, and making it happen by voting for it, investing in it, and encouraging our children to choose careers in science and engineering so they can contribute to it.

While you can make a very strong case that it took oil to get our industrial civilization off the ground--literally--it does not follow that the gradual disappearance of oil, whenever that might start, will lead to the end of life as we know it. We have the ingenuity, motivation, and resources to overcome this challenge, however just-in-time and nerve-wracking the result may be. Betting against that is tantamount to writing off the last 150 years of human development, and attributing it solely to a geological accident.

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