the energy dilemma

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An analysis of the massive world conflict over the burning of fossil fuels and emissions of carbon dioxide as related to global warming.


The Energy Dilemma

James A. Cunningham, Ph.D.

May 2015

Introduction. The Dilemma

In our many industrialized economies around the world, no commodity of greater importance than energy can be named. And yet a problem dealing with energy of appalling consequences may now face the human race. If global warming is indeed strongly driven by the combustion of fossil fuels, then massive essentially unwelcome changes must soon occur, especially within the existing fossil-fuels industry. This essay explores this critical subject.

According to Scientific American, the combustion of coal, natural gas and oil accounted for 87 percent of the world's primary energy source-material in 2012. We have barely made a dent in its reduction, indeed, its use is still rising.

However, we presents an argument that due to a saturation effect, the global temperature increase of about 1C seen since around 1920, has leveled off. However, this position is not supported by the community of climate scientists. See quote below from the IPCC

Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change would require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks. From the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate (IPCC) change. 2014

The debate offered here is not presented by arguing for or defending todays well known Left / Right polarization on the subject of energy. However, it may be appropriate to briefly summarize these general positions at the outset. The first paragraph is quoted from the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The Political Right"The United States should adopt a free-market energy policy that opens access to our resources, removes onerous and duplicative regulatory roadblocks, and removes subsidies for all energy sources and technologies. Allowing the market to determine our energy future will power America with affordable, reliable energy and be a tremendous boon to our nations economy. Congress and the Administration should increase access to publicly held lands and federal waters, allow states to manage the environmental review and permitting on those lands, and position America to trade energy resources and technologies more freely with other nations. Congress should also eliminate market-distorting grants, loans, loan guarantees, and preferential tax treatment and mandates and prevent any federal agency from imposing regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental regulations that come at a huge cost to American families and yield little if any environmental benefit."

The Political LeftThe Democrats largely accept the CO2 driven theory of global warming and thus are supportive of most alternative energy methods. They generally favor greater efficiency for autos and electric power for them. Energy sources such as wind and solar power are supported, but they are fearful of nuclear power and appear ambivalent about the fossil fuel industry. Fracking technology may contaminate ground water and may even cause earth quakes, and thus needs sensible regulation. All sources and uses of energy must not degrade the environment. The Left favors a national plan for all energy resources and subsidized alternative energy research and production, but the details of such a plane are not clear.

Opening Statement

Energy may be the most important commodity in all of human history. It enables our rapid means of transportation, and our various means of high speed communication at great distance; it allows our numbers to grow; it winnows minerals, water, oil, coal and gas from the ground; it powers our diagnostic devices and the tools of science; it automates our factories; it brings us fresh water and takes away our waste and filters the air; it harvests our grain; it provides entertainment and gives us music; it illuminates the dark and takes away the cold; it allows us to fly; it desalinates sea water; it welds together our cars and our tall buildings; energy preserves our food and then cooks it; it took us to the moon; energy enables making films without the need of film.

Without abundant energy our wellbeing shrinks away, and we die early. The world needs more energy, not less.

For confirmation of these last two points, see the charts below

The Sources and Methods of Energy Production

Carbon Based Fuels Fossil FuelsMany Americans are near the point of hysteria about CO2 and its contribution to global warming. So what about alternative energy methods? In this area, the Right prefers to let market forces work. And of course they probably will, no matter what you or I say, and carbon fuels will remain king of Energy Mountain. But cannot we make other good arguments for wider use of alternative energy sources? And then proceed?

A higher order useDonning my very-long-term hat, I submit that burning fossil fuels is a waste of a finite and precious resource. Any carbon based fuel combined with energy can be chemically synthesized into a myriad of highly useful products: pharmaceuticals, paint, plastic, lubricants, adhesives, rubber, detergents, roofing, cosmetics, tableware, gaskets, solvents, containers, macadam roads, filters, insecticides, hormones, insulation, fibers, toys, inks, oil colors, and so forth..

On the other hand, considerable gasoline is necessary, due to its extraordinary energy density, for powering certain machines such as farm equipment and various heavy earth moving and mining equipment. Ideally, electricity should be mainly generated using renewable methods: hydro, geothermal, nuclear, wind, solar, breeder and fission reactors, and biomass combustion.

Autos could be, in time, powered using batteries, gasoline and batteries as in hybrids, compressed natural gas or hydrogen, or liquid butane and propane under pressure. Near term, hybrids may be more viable.

Our reservesSome claim America has enough coal, oil and natural gas for several hundred years into the future. Lets look at the numbers and see if we can confirm that position. The US Dept. of Energy lists all fossil fuel reserves and their energy per unit volume or unit weight when burned. In terms of total energy stored, below are the US Reserves: Coal..5X1018 BTUPetroleum .. 2X1020 BTUNatural gas. .3.5X1017 BTU

If you have something against the British, you can convert BTUs to kWh by multiplying by 0.000293 or to joules by multiplying by 1055.

What if we said to hell with global warming, and all forms of alternative energy? We have plenty of fossil fuels. Let market forces work. Assume Ted Cruz is elected President in 2016 and Huckabee is VP and they also have control of Congress. Convinced global warming is probably little more than a liberal conspiracy anyway, and most government controls are linked to Satin himself, we most likely would turn to our domestic fossil fuels and let ye old market forces go to work. Now we can calculate how long our fossil fuels will last.

The total energy consumed in the US in 2010 was about 1.2 X1017 BTU. Assume we maintain this rate. Lets add together all the reserves listed above and assume we get all our energy from these sources. Assume we only need 85% of our hydrocarbons for fuel. The rest for various synthetics products. It will be all be depleted in about 1500-years. But this assumes we dont discover new reserves or start using more energy. Thus, we have two bad assumptions. But still, most people have it right. We do have enormous supplies of fossil fuels.

The new horizontal drilling and franking technology has done wonders for our fossil fuel reserves. See graph below

The above graph shows oil reserves declining at about 1.2% per year until about 2008 when fracking was accelerated. If this decline had continued, oil reserves would have dropped by factor of 25 in another 300 years, and that would have been the end of US-based petroleum.

Coal reserves in the US are very large and reported in two ways. (1) The recoverable reserves at producing mines at about 19X109 short tons, and (2) a grand total value including sites not yet developed, this value being 480X109 short tons. Production rates are now only about 109 short tons per year, an amount which is only about 0.2% of the larger reserve number. Thus, the rate of decline in total coal reserves is currently negligible.

The percent use of various means of energy consumption in the US may be seen in the graph below. The changes in slope following about 2008 include more use of gas instead of coal for generation of electric power and improved mileage for autos.

The US remains the major user of petroleum in the world. But Asia is very close. See chart below. The trend remains upward.

THE DILEMMA ABOUT GLOBAL WARMINGThe future use of fossil fuels depends strongly on what we conclude about CO2 and Global Warming. Thus, before we go further with the subject of energy, this is a good place to discuss global warming as driven by CO2. The good news is the earths temperature rise may be leveling off, that is, no longer rising. This may be seen below in a plot of temperature vs time starting in 1970.

But some insist such curves are cherry picked, and the temperature is still rising. Many dismiss the idea of leveling completely.

So who or what do you believe? Lets start with data showing a leveling off of temperature.

Here, a composite ocean-land temperature has not risen since about 1998 some 16 years.

Below is another chart showing temperature leveling. It also suggests that this happened despite the rising concentration of CO