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Peak Oil – Peak Technology

As the energy crisis intensifies, a myriad of technical solutions are being proposed. Most were investigated in depth during the first two energy crises of the 1970s. There is a wealth of information available from that period, plus all the results of research in the ensuing 25 years.

A serious societal problem is the lack of understanding of the energy options, their history and their limitations. History gives a sense of the possible speed and cost of implementation, as well as the limits of the technologies themselves. Governments, corporations and scientists are not offering new creative solutions, not because they are failing to make strong efforts, but because energy itself is a very mature industry.

It would seem that – in addition to Peak Oil – we are at a time of Peak Technology... there are no new technologies we can look to for solutions to the end of fossil fuels.

Finding a New Source of Energy

It is frequently stated in the press that “we must find a new source of energy,” preferably one that is both clean and inexhaustible. Although this seems to be a reasonable statement, it is somewhat equivalent to saying that we must find a new continent – it is no more likely that we will find some new mineral or mineral combination to replace the vast volume of hydrocarbons we have consumed. Minerals exist in the earth and water and new ones were found over the course of several centuries. But like the continents, there are a fixed number of them.

It is useful to review the discovery history of the basic elements of our planet. Within the Periodic Table of Elements, it appears that 12 elements were known since ancient times. The number of elements discovered every 50-year period since 1650 is as follows:

1650-1699: 1
1700-1749: 3
1750-1799: 15
1800-1849: 25
1850-1899: 24
1900-1949: 14
1950-1999: 16

But this does not tell the whole story. The web site www.chemicalelements.com shows that 20 of the 30 elements discovered in the 20th century are man-made.

Of the remaining six, most require complex manufacturing processes. The great majority of the 20th-century discoveries were from nuclear research and the use of high-speed particle accelerators of various types. Many of these elements only exist for a fraction of a second.

Some of these man-made elements (rutherfordium, dubnium, seaborgium, bohrium, meitnerium, ununnilium, unununium, neptunium, plutonium, americium, curium, berkelium, californium, einsteinium, fermium, mendelevium, nobelium, lawrencium) include those of which only a few atoms were ever made and, if used, they are created in quantities of a few grams per year.

A few are made from exotic materials such as hafnium (from zircon), rhenium (from gadolinite and molybdenite), francium (from decay of actinium), ununbium (from fusion of zinc and lead), neodymium (from electrolysis of salts), promethium (from fission products of uranium, thorium, and plutonium), lutetium (from gadolinite, xenotime), and protactinium (from fission products of uranium, thorium, and plutonium).

Although most last only a few seconds or minutes, one – plutonium (possibly the most deadly material known to man) – will last centuries.

Have there been any fundamentally new elements (other than those made in nuclear processes) discovered in the past 100 years or, like the continents, is the age of material discovery long past?

Our brief review leads to the conclusion that the discovery age is definitely past. The hope that we can discover new elements that could be sources of power is as naïve as wishing we could discover new continents to resolve the population crowding on the existing ones.

The Solar Photovoltaic Option – A Brief History

It is also useful to review the histories of the main options being proposed as replacements for fossil fuels, beginning with the solar photovoltaic option. The following section (*) is excerpted from pvresources.com, an independent web site devoted to promoting photovoltaic applications and technologies. (http:// www.pvresources.com/en/history.php)

*In 1839 the French physicist A. E. Becquerel discovered that conductance rises with illumination. Willoughby Smith discovered the photovoltaic effect in selenium in 1873. In 1876, William Adams discovered that illuminating a junction between selenium and platinum has a photovoltaic effect. These last two discoveries were the foundation for the first selenium solar cell construction....

[ See original PDF document for the complete history ]

The Solar Photovoltaic Option – Prognosis

Solar power is not a new concept. It does not represent a new dynamic and technically innovative industry. Progress has been decades in the making. Costs have dropped significantly, but at a far slower rate than comparable technologies that existed in the same time period such as computers chips and cell phones.

The solar cell is almost a century old in concept and half a century in implementation. There is little reason to expect a dramatic improvement or cost reductions of the type seen in electronic products.

The Wind Turbine Option – A Brief History

The following is excerpted (*) from Telosnet, a Colorado web site which includes a focus on alternative energy, telosnet.com/wind/20th.html and a Danish Wind History Site, http://www. vindhistorie.dk/English.htm. Wind turbines are more successful and have been deployed in much larger numbers than solar PV systems; thus their history is more detailed.

[ See original PDF document for the complete history ]

Future Projections

In the future, when we deplete fossil fuels, wind energy may be the most costeffective source of electrical power we have. But we will certainly be paying a great deal more per kW than we are now. The major technology developments in wind power commercialization have already been made, and although there will be many refinements and improvements, it is doubtful any significant advancements can be made which would dramatically reduce costs.

Danish Wind Power and Hydrogen

Denmark has been a leader in windmills of all kinds for centuries. In the late 1800s, systematic and scientific tests of wind turbines were conducted at the Askov Folk High School in Southern Jutland in Denmark by the meteorologist and teacher Poul la Cour. His work was revolutionary for understanding the aerodynamic conditions of wind turbine blades.

La Cour performed experiments with blade models in a wind tunnel as early as 1896-99. He worked with the windmillmanufacturers of the time to develop the “ideal turbine,” and his work was supported by the Danish government. He built two test turbines, the first one in 1891 and the second in 1897.

His most significant work was his experiments with electrolysis of water to make hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen was used for lighting at the school. When we speak of a new “hydrogen economy” it is important to remember that hydrogen was being generated by electrolysis from wind turbines and used in a practical application over a century ago. In 1902, La Cour started training electricians to erect and operate rural wind power plants. By 1908, there were 30 rural power plants using wind turbines.

The Wind Turbine Option – Prognosis

Like solar photovoltaics, wind generation of electricity has a long history. Billions of dollars of investment have been made. The wind turbine industry has reached a level of maturity where its future costs can be projected. Furthermore, enough installations have been made on a worldwide basis to accurately measure wind availability and the effectiveness of various wind speeds.

Wind power has a major disadvantage in that wind is intermittent and thus cannot be counted on to produce a constant level of electricity. The term that describes the variable nature of wind used in the electricity generating industry is dispatchability; that is, wind electricity cannot be dispatched with the same consistency of a coal or natural gas powered turbine. Wind turbines require back up fossil fuel plants which must always be running so that they can be brought online quickly if wind speeds decline. As a result, wind experts suggest that wind electricity can never completely replace fossil fuel plants to meet the world’s electricity needs.

Wind Electricity and Hydrogen

As previously noted, wind turbines were generating electricity used to make hydrogen from water via electrolysis 100 years ago. An astute observer might be concerned that the future of wind energy is based on old technology. This concern is legitimate and reflects the main thesis of this article, which is that the technologies that deal with sources of energy have passed their development peak. From this point on, major improvements are unlikely.

This does not mean there will be no improvements. Other mature technologies, such as passenger jets, show consistent improvement in performance (about 1 percent a year in efficiency). But these improvements can’t compare with the increases in power and speed and rapid price reductions we’ve seen in the electronics industry over the past 20 years.

Because the characteristics of wind turbine electricity generation are well known, as is the manufacturing of hydrogen by electricity from wind turbines, it is not difficult to establish a storage system for wind based on hydrogen. Although this has been discussed for decades, there has been little effort to model a system. Ulf Bossel1 has examined the risks and costs of a wind turbine/hydrogen system in various papers. Ted Trainer2 has provided a model of wind turbine/hydrogen systems for Australia as well as the United States. Both note the impracticality of basing an energy strategy on a solar- or wind-based hydrogen system.

These practical analyses bring a balance to the almost hysterical reference to the socalled “Hydrogen Economy,” a projected way of life based on supposedly infinitely clean renewable energy. Certainly hydrogen can be generated from wind-driven electricity and there is no doubt that hydrogen can be shipped through a pipeline; these capabilities have been available for decades.

Nor is there any doubt that hydrogencan be burned in an internal combustion engine. The first automobile that burned hydrogen in a conventional internal combustion engine was demonstrated by a 22-year-old college student in 1972. And a fuel cell-driven tractor (developed by Harry Ihrig of Allis-Chalmers) was demonstrated in 1961.

These examples further illustrate the maturity of the technology. More complex examples are available. Both the U.S. and Russia have flown airplanes short distances using hydrogen fuel. Why then have we not already converted the world to hydrogen powered by wind turbines and solar cells? One answer is that these technologies show no promise of being able to provide energy in an amount at all comparable to that of fossil fuels. The technologies are not complex and their possible ranges of improvements are fairly well proscribed. It’s clear to scientists, however, that there are limitations.

More research money will not change the situation, just as more research money will not find new mineral elements or continents. Of course, some scientists are quick to claim the opposite. Often, however, their incomes are derived from government and industry funding. For those pointing out possible limits, such funding is in short supply.

The Limits of Technology

It is vital that we understand the limits of technology. Although science has provided an amazing variety of new products, it has also shown the associated limitations. And these limitations are not simply a matter of political will but include limitations of technology itself or of natural barriers that apparently cannot be overcome.

Science is also limited by the problems that science itself causes. Treatment of cancer has progressed significantly since Richard Nixon declared a “war” on cancer in the 1970s. But overall cancer has increased rapidly on a worldwide basis.

One reason is that while one set of scientists are trying to cure cancer, another set are busily developing new products (mostly based on some version of fossil fuels) that are extremely toxic and which probably cause cancer. Oddly enough, the cure for cancer may be to stop certain scientists from continuing their work.

Similarly, scientists have been unable to develop defenses against nuclear missiles. Should other scientists who design the missiles stop their work, then possibly a defensive weapon could be built. But offensive weapons scientists seem to outdo defensive weapons scientists.

In terms of fossil fuels, one set of scientists have discovered a wide variety of new technologies which allow the extraction of fossil fuels faster and more completely than ever before, while those scientists looking for new sources lag far behind.

The probability of a “technofix” becomes less and less as time goes by. And, as always happens with technologies that are oversold, unforeseen problems begin to arise, tarnishing the “miracle.”

The limitations of wind power, as it becomes more widely distributed, also become more apparent. Two recent papers illustrate this. One paper3 suggests that wide distribution of wind turbines in the U.S. could cause a temperature increase. The other paper4 is a summary of the experiences of a large German power company which is a heavy user of wind turbines, pointing out major implementation difficulties.

Many writers suggest that the “hydrogen miracle”, and its fuel cell partner, are fading rapidly. It is becoming apparent that the electric car is a better option than the fuel cell car.5 California’s decision to replace electric cars (developed in partnerships with car manufacturers) with fuel cell vehicles looks more and more questionable. And the misleading idea that hydrogen will benefit the environment is now being challenged.6 Fortunately, the media are no longer following the hydrogen herd but are beginning to articulate the serious problems.7

Summary – Post-Peak Technology

Sometime in the mid-20th century, the Western world became increasingly fixated on technology. World War II is often selected as the point at which technology became something separate from human experience. The post-World War II period was a time of tremendous growth in per capita fossil fuel consumption that resulted in the deployment of hundreds of millions of innovative machines.

This technical euphoria continues today, even as Peak Oil illustrates the shaky foundation on which modern technological society is built. Prudence of any kind has been rejected. Sustainability as a concept has fallen into disrepute. But now we must deal with our infatuation and consider the possibility that technology may well have caused more problems than it has solved.

Western man can continue a few more decades on this path. Worshiping the god of technology has blinded us to the reality of our situation and the hugely negative consequences that have come from this intoxication, including degradation of soil, air and water as well as the diminishing of biological diversity.

It is vital that we recognize the limitations while there is still time. It is equally vital that we begin to look upon institutional science not as simply the creator of miracles but as representative of a world view that has always argued for technological advance no matter what the cost to planet and people.

Wisdom is now needed to overcome the ignorance caused by an almost religious fixation with science and technology.

Editorial Notes: It's hard to keep up with the stream of writings from Community Solutions. This article was published in the Number 4, January 2005 issue of New Solutions, their online newsletter (PDF). We just ran across their webpage on the Peak Oil conference the group sponsored in Yellow Springs, Ohio, last November. This page contains links to transcripts of all the talks: www.communitysolution.org/pconf1.html . -BA

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