Climbing Down from Hubbert's Peak
In previous posts I have discussed the need for and the logistics of weaning ourselves away from the fossil fuels that are poisoning our air and contributing to the climate disruptions we are seeing all over the world. Despite the clamor of anti-scientific and anti-intellectual disinformation coming from an administration that has been in the deep pockets of the Oil industry from the start, it is becoming clear to anyone who is paying attention (or who has not been paid to NOT pay attention), that we are reaching the End Of Oil. Since the 1970's US oil companies have known that we have passed the half-full mark on our domestic oil reserves and will soon be running on empty. There are no more American gas stations on the road ahead. Estimates vary about how soon we will be completely out of American oil, but most researchers think that we only have another 15 to 25 years of American oil left (add another week to that if we despoil the ANWR to get at the deposits there.) In some cases, it is not so much that the oil is not there, it is simply that it becomes more and more difficult and expensive to get it out and to refine it into a usable form. I know you have heard all this before. If you have not, start with Deffeves' two books, Hubbert's Peak: The Impending World Oil Shortage (2001) and Beyond Oil: The View from Hubbert's Peak (2005). Then read the first section of Kevin Phillips book, American Theocracy (2006), in which he traces the way the oil economy has controlled and doomed American democracy.
Most people are plenty frustrated at this point. The problem seems to be very clear (it is certainly clear to the residents of New Orleans' 9th ward): if we are running out of oil for energy and if continued use of fossil fuels is contributing to global climate disruption and catastrophe and putting our energy fate in the hands of Middle Eastern oil brokers who helped bankroll 9/11 and who will sell more oil to China and India in the next decade than we could possibly buy or afford, then why the hell are we not doing anything about it? The answer is just as clear: we elected (wrong word. We allowed the inauguration) of an oil patch president who has dismantled controls, safeguards and regulations on big business in general and on oil in particular, increasing government incentives, tax loopholes and windfalls for Big Oil in a careful, systematic and effective program. What happens as we run out of American oil? Take a peek at your local gas pump. Then double those prices. Then triple them. Same oil. Same cost to recover, refine and ship it, so why will it cost $8 to $12 dollars a gallon? Republicans like to blather about the free market forces that result in windfall profits because of artificially-imposed scarcity, but the fact is that there is no free market at work here. There is welfare for the corporate super-rich, a welfare system purchased with lobby dollars which ultimately come out of our pockets, yours and mine.
Again, I know you know all this. So what is new? Are there any solutions? What in God's name can we do? Alternative energy holds the key. We must replace fossil fuels as our primary source of energy. Our existence as a culture literally depends on it. Perhaps our existence as a species. The big question, of course, is WHICH alternative energy? There are lots of partial solutions out there: conservation and CAFE standards will help, of course, the less we demand, the less we need, but we are not a culture that is much into self-sacrifice and abnegation and this will come only when cheap oil goes. By that time it may be too late. Photovoltaic and wind energy have potential and should be pursued much more aggressively than they are now; nuclear can never be called "clean energy" until we figure out how to dispose of toxic waste that remains deadly for thousands of years; fusion energy would be great if we could ever figure out how to hold superhot plasma in a magnetic bottle, a problem that has eluded us for 40 year now; ethanol is expensive to produce and corrosive to the transport systems and most of the other alternatives suffer from the same flaws: too expensive to produce, even at mass-market costs, too marginal in their potential output to be considered as a replacement for petroleum. There are, finally, two co-dependent technologies that are emerging as a true solution: hydrogen fuel cell-powered engines (to replace internal combustion engines) and Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion technology to produce the massive amounts of hydrogen required to supply a transportation industry based on hydrogen as a fuel instead of petroleum. Ironically, the Bush administration has supported hydrogen fuel cell solutions because they envision producing the required supplies of hydrogen from coal-fired power plants! Talk about insanity. "Yes, ma'am, the doctor recommends that the best way to cure the virus is to cut off your child's supply of oxygen. Works every time."
Not very many people know about Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion technology and those engineers and scientists who do know a little about it are basing their evaluations of its viability on data that is least a decade out of date. There are companies out there, Ocean Engineering and Energy, Inc., in particular (http://www.ocees.com/) that are having significant success with drawing energy from the temperature differential between the warm upper levels of the tropical ocean and the much colder lower levels. Using turbines that take advantage of the thermodynamic principles that warm water rises/cold water sinks, OCEES is able to produce significant amounts of electrical power that is then used to desalinate sea water for drinking water, chill seaport buildings using the cold water from the ocean depths and, most importantly, produce hydrogen gas in abundance through electrolysis. This hydrogen can then be compressed and liquefied and shipped worldwide in tankers that are currently used to transport compressed natural gas.
Pie in the sky? Hardly. OCEES has previously constructed a working model of this technology off the Kona coast of Hawaii (the plant is currently being re-built on a larger scale to take advantage of newer construction materials). They have won a competitive bid to supply the energy needs of the US Naval base on the island of Diego Garcia, a small, British-owned island off the coast of Sri Lanka of critical strategic importance to the US Navy. The plant is currently under construction and is on time and on budget. When completed, it will supply electricity, drinking water and air conditioning to the facility, replacing an inefficient, failing and dirty diesel generation system that is on its last legs. This week, Hans Krock, president of OCEES and a former college roommate of mine, is in Taiwan discussing OTEC energy plants with the premier and his staff. His next stop is China to discuss the same issue with energy staff members there. Hans, a graduate of Arizona State University and Berkley (Ph.D.) has been working on OTEC technology for thirty years and is the acknowledged world expert on the technology. He is a professor of Ocean Engineering at the University of Hawaii, Manoa campus (Honolulu). For years, Hans has been leading the fight for the recognition of this eco-friendly energy source and for years he has been thwarted, frustrated and bullied by the representatives of Big Oil. Just as Standard Oil and the consortium of California Oil companies conspired to purchase and mothball the trolley system of Los Angeles and just as they routinely purchase and shelve independent technological innovations that would improve the efficiency of the internal combustion engine, they have routinely intimidated OCEES clients, used lobbyists to deny construction permits and falsified RFP documents to keep OTEC technology out of the hands of those who could benefit by it. That is changing. There is enough interest in and understanding of OTEC and its value that even Big Oil cannot keep it in the box. The question that we are facing now is very simple: will the US recognize and take advantage of this unique and incredibly powerful source of hydrogen for the new hydrogen economy, or will we continue to go to war over oil and wind up buying our hydrogen from China or Hong Kong just as we now buy our oil from the Middle East?
There is always a little old lady in the back of the room who stands and asks, "Yes, but sir, what can we as individuals do about all this?" And here is the answer: educate yourself. Read up. Explore the options. Ask embarrassing questions. Read Carl Pope's column on the National Sierra Club website at: http://www.sierraclub.org/pressroom/releases/pr2005-07-28.asp And perhaps most important right now, participate in the process. The National Sierra Club has mounted a project to determine the energy programs that its members want the club to focus on. They have a survey on-line at http://clubhouse.sierraclub.org/surveys/energy.asp that will allow you to express your interest in current energy solutions and which ones the Sierra Club should support. (you will need a user ID and password, which the website will provide) Unfortunately, like most energy researchers, the survey developers have marginalized OTEC energy, partly because it is frequently lumped in with drawing energy from tide and currents, a much less viable solution. So do this: take the survey. If you are persuaded that OTEC is worth a closer look, tell the Sierra Club. Your voice will make a difference and the Sierra Club can make a difference. Which means that many years down the road you may be able to look your grandchildren in the eye and say "I helped make a difference." How much is that worth to you?