Energy: future prospects
An American friend and I were talking recently, as we usually
do, about Free Flight model design and flying, when out of the
blue he wrote:
And I'm concerned about the economy. There doesn't seem to be
any top end in site for the price of oil...not with China
growing and consuming at its extra-ordinary rate. I've got a
feeling that the USA is caught in a deadly stranglehold. We are
going into debt 2 billion a day! Gas is over $2.00 and it looks
as if it might hit 4 bucks by next spring. Past that price the
reprocussions will be drastic with the economic structure
crumbling worse than it did in the great depression of the
I replied with the following unedited, apart from
turning it into a Web page, rant:
Indeed. Its not going to improve either. New Scientist,issue 2406,2nd
August, 2003 did a piece on energy futures. Bleak prospects.
Basically it said that:
- The real crunch time for oil is not when it runs out, but
when the rate of new discoveries falls below the rate of
consumption. Industry analysts expect that in 10 years +/- 5
and expect prices to go ballistic at that point. I don't know
how China will affect that timing: it wasn't mentioned in the
- Forget the hydrogen economy. The technology isn't ready yet
(look at what Bob  said about
fuel cells) and even if it was, 15 years isn't enough time to
build both hydrogen plants that don't run off fossil
fuel and a distribution system.
To this I'd add:
- Nuclear? Won't run cars & trucks interstate and it
takes more than 10 years to build a new nuclear plant from the
start of the planning process. I think this is another nail in
the Hydrogen coffin because I can't see any other energy source
that could produce enough hydrogen to replace the oil used for
transport. No new nuke generators are even being talked about
in the UK.
- North Sea gas is used up and natural gas is already being
imported from somewhere - the Middle East I assume. The stuff
is being wasted in electricity generation (40% efficiency) when
it should only be reserved for direct heating and cooking (up
to 80% efficiency). Wait till the first tanker explosion - at a
guess not far short of an A-bomb in energy release - and listen
to the public demand it stops. IIRC the US is about on the
verge of importing gas too.
- Fusion power. I think what I said above probably applies to
fusion as well as fission. Even if a clean, safe fusion plant
could be built, and its not even on the horizon right now, do
you really think the average NIMBY could tell it from a fission
plant and would let one be built next door?
- Wind and solar. Possible for stationary use provided the
eco-warriors allow sufficient acreage to be installed to handle
the total electricity and heating requirements of domestic and
commercial buildings. Doesn't touch transport, apart from
shipping. There's significant effort going into reviving
sailing ships right now.
- Hydro? As far as I can tell all the suitable US dam sites
are up and running. Ditto in the UK. NZ (and Norway?) are about
the only places that have a hope of handling most of the
electricity demand with hydro.
- Forests? Judging by the rate that US forests are vanishing
there's no spare capacity there for energy generation,
renewable or not. Besides, from what I hear the forestry
companies are making no attempt to replant what they cut. UK
forests are more or less static and trees are pretty slow
growing here. Scratch this one too.
- Burning shit and garbage. It happens, but the NIMBYs are
against it in the UK, so it doesn't look like a goer here. I
guess that's the same in the US.
- What's left? Oh, yeah. Coal. Produces lots of CO2: I'm not
at all convinced that the current plot for burying it in
disused coal mines and oil wells is a safe or permanent
solution. It's being hyped by the oil companies who smell a
revenue stream from dead oil wells. If the CO2 can't be gotten
rid of coal may be good for steam trains but not much
- Synthetic petrol. The Germans and South Africans tried like
hell to make petrol from coal but the result was just expensive
and inefficient. For inefficient read "burns lots of coal to
make a bit of petrol". Think lots of CO2 again.
Basically I think that the US and the UK are stuffed, maybe
the US more than the UK due to its greater transport
requirements. Both should be actively seeking to reduce use of
all forms of transport but that won't happen with those powerful
transport industry lobbies or with the way bosses like their
minions to be in the office under their eye instead of working
from home over broadband. Ditto a more concerted attempt to
switch away from oil ASAP, but Bush is an oilman and Blair talks
a mile but doesn't actually do anything. Nobody here is pushing
energy saving at all.
The UK probably can't feed its current population without
importing food. Horse-drawn transport too is impossible here
without a return to 19th century population and city sizes. The
US doesn't have the farmland to feed the required horses and
hasn't since the '60s. Thats even assuming that farms are not
needed to feed people. Now knock off all the areas that require
major pumped irrigation and other energy inputs for farming or
for people to live there: much of the Californian farmland,
virtually everybody living in Arizona, the Columbia Valley. None
of the latter are show stoppers but would cause major problems,
like mass resettlement of the blue-rinses and/or another Dust
Why do you think I'm reckoning on moving to NZ sooner rather
than later? It will take a big hit too, but at least there's
enough farmland (I think) and a small enough population to use
horses for transport as well as feed people. In addition there's
local coal to run the railway and, as I said above, the country's
power supply is still largely hydro. Its even got enough oil,
maybe, for lubrication but certainly none for anything else. Roll
on the bicycle economy.
Sorry to let fly with such a depressing diatribe, but you
pressed the GO button on something I've been thinking a lot about
Here's to the New World Order! America... just another third
We'll all be third world countries soon. Its just that the
current crop have rather more recent practise at doing it.
Martin Gregorie, May 2005
||Bob is an aerospace engineer who pointed out that high
output fuel cells, meaning 40 kW or more, have shown little
or no change since the Apollo space program. In other words
they are still essentially mid 1960s technology.