Peak oil is going to happen soon but it’s not happening because we’ve extracted half of what is obtainable, not even close. It’s happening for the same reason most of us don’t heat our home with coal today. There are better, cleaner, less expensive alternatives available as the result of technological progress.
What will drive peak oil, is not an exhaustion of supply but an exhaustion of demand fostered by the availability of better alternatives. The cost of alternative energy sources has fallen so rapidly that this change is going to be disruptive not gradual. Because this will shift jobs in many sectors, it will require massive retraining of the adult work force and we must be willing to invest in this if we want to avoid the huge unemployment of those without the necessary skills with simultaneous worker shortages for those with the necessary skills.
A lot has been made of the base load problem, the sun only shines in the day and wind is intermittent. Utilities have said that it would be difficult to accommodate more than 15-20% renewable power on the grid.
This is really an exaggerated argument. Germany has at times had a 60% contribution to their power grid by renewables and it has handled it just fine. There are several factors that can mitigate the intermittent nature of renewables.
First is to know that the electricity demand at night, when the sun isn’t shining, is about 10% of the daytime peak, when it is. Solar can contribute then to a very large percentage of the load because the load tends to vary in the same way that power production from solar does.
Wind power production tends to be higher at night, and can contribute when the sun isn’t shining. Further, while wind is intermittent, it isn’t blowing or not blowing at every location simultaneously.
Germany has found that the amount of geographical diversity they have, and Germany is small compared to the US land area, greatly evens out the power from wind production. Germany still at times buys power from France but as installed capacity continues to increase this will become less necessary. Here in the US we have many untapped geothermal resources that provide 24 hour base load capacity. Yellowstone is so far off-limits to geo-thermal developments, in part because of a fear it might de-power the geysers, however, when you consider there is enough magma under Yellowstone to fill the Grand Canyon 15 times, I think these fears are unfounded. There are also many good geo-thermal prospects on the West Coast where subduction melt provides heat sources.
2014 was the first year that we saw economic growth without a corresponding increase in carbon dioxide emissions. In 2014, the global economy grew by 3% while carbon dioxide emissions remained steady. I believe that we’re going to see a rapid increase in this trend as our economy rapidly becomes less dependent upon fossil fuels and more reliant upon scalable sustainable energy sources.
Another solution to variability of sustainable resources that is becoming viable as the costs continue to drop is to install additional capacity above and beyond what is needed during peak production and then use the excess capacity to synthesize hydrocarbons from electricity, water, and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, desalinate water, and drive other chemical processes such as aluminium electrolysis.
Battery costs continue to decline at the rate of 10-15% per year as well, and some battery technologies are scalable to utility level applications today.
I don’t think we’re on the verge of utopia, but I think we are close to solving one fundamental constraint that has plagued our economy and wrought havoc on our environment, that of energy production.
The problem of water supply isn’t really one of supply but one of purity. All the water we could ever need exists within our oceans, but we can’t drink it or irrigate with it because of dissolved salts. Desalination plants can remedy that, but they require massive amounts of energy. When energy is abundant this ceases to be a problem. When water availability ceases to be a problem, food ceases to become a problem. Much of the worlds land that is not arable lacks only water to make it arable. Better use of existing water supplies could help alleviate this problem now. Drip irrigation doesn’t lose water to evaporation as does sprinklers, and by only supplying enough water to moisten soil to root depth, prevents leaching of valuable minerals and nutrients from soil. This in turn greatly reduces pollution of the watershed.
I believe in the next 15 years, we’ll see a great reduction in scarcity, and our primary problem that remains will be that of addressing fundamental problems of our human nature, power hunger and a desire to control and exploit one another is something we’ll have to face head on. Now we can use the excuse that it’s either us or them because there aren’t enough resources to go around. When that excuse is gone we’ll have to face our nature head on. I am excited by the prospect that this will happen within my lifetime.