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October 06, 2011

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Excellent summation of this issue.

I always find it interesting how Americans get used to the new "normal" gas price. "It's a dollar more than I paid last year, but hey, it's 10 cents lower than I paid last week."

I also find it interesting at what price point people start to change their driving habits. A few years back the $4.00 price point had people in the bus, ride sharing, bicycling, etc.

Recently, the $4.00 price point had no effect at all. Is the new number $5.00 ??

The ebb and flow of the minds of the sheep are hard to gauge.

I am not as dumb as i imagined. I actually understood this excellent commentary. Its good to have Jon around helping folks like me catch the drift of the intellectual river.

Peak oil, like climate change, is an issue that is controlled by the industry giants most affected by it. So, we won't seriously address it simply because it hurts their bottom lines. If it's good for ExxonMobil, it's good for America. Especially since they're hardly paying any taxes, their excess revenue can pay for the disinformation campaign that keeps people voting for right-wing interests.

We've seen this movie before. Once Reagan became president, fuel-efficiency standards were compromised, alternative energy research slashed, and the goal of energy independence quietly buried. Now, 30 years later, we're at a similar crossroads except there's no new Jimmy Carter to mock and blame. The old one will have to do.

We don't hear much about monkeywrenching anymore, which is a shame. At least when Earth First! was around, we could imagine a different world where the most powerful simply didn't stomp out competing visions. Once the romantic anarchists were slapped down, we learned something about the nature of power: it's much better organized than we are.

I've got about 20 years to go before I exit this vale of tears. I'm not particularly thirsty for more life although I'm still curious about the future. But why? We know this isn't going to end well, that Big Oil will simply bulldoze its preferred expressway to greater wealth and power. For all our vaprous notions of liberty and Founding Fathers and the Constitution and the American Way, this is the harsh and rock-hard reality we live with.

They own us.

Amen to that soleri.

From here on out they're going to whip us like a rented mule.

soleri,

why would anyone want to know about this stuff? Sometimes even I think it'd be better to handle things as they come and not to load my mind with paralyzing worries about the future. But we can't let it go, can we? Morbid curiosity wins: "I just want to read one more page of the novel."
I don't feel dread as I used to -- maybe I'm just callous. Instead, sometimes I feel 'privileged' to witness one of the major turning points of human history.

Well, about that doom and gloom:

For those of us who have always felt that growth-oriented economies, populations, life-styles, acquisitions, attitudes, etc. carried within them an inherently corrupting aspect, even *if* they were able to infinitely expand...

For those of us, this can be seen as a welcome correction, and an opportunity to mature our relationship with the mother Earth. To re-discover the joy of simply *being*, and not be locked into ambitious "production" of bread and the distractions of circus.

(Keeping in mind that "bread" was provided to us long before we became "smart" enough to cultivate it, exploding populations, creating territorial and resource wars, depletion collapses - things that we keep repeating throughout our modern history so far.)

If we survive it all, of course. ;)

@AWinter

"major turning points of human history."

Actually, there's only been one major turning point.

It's when Adam said to Eve, "You better stand back, we don't know how big this is going to get."

7,000,000,000 souls later, it is the only thing we do well and do often. Everything else that we do is just to kill time in between doing that which we do best.

Meanwhile, back at the sprawlmeisters' workshop, Grady Gammage and the Morrison Institute are trying to cook up yet another version of the "Sun Corridor" that would accommodate maybe 9 MILLION souls in a megalopolitan area encompassing Phoenix and Tucson and God knows what. No doubt they'll come up with some scholarly obfuscation that explains how there'll be enough water and CLEAN AIR! Time for us to push back and tell them they're full of crap and we're not that stupid!

"Everything else that we do is just to kill time in between doing that which we do best." - azrebel

I finally found a moment to read this blog. Interesting thought. :)

Regarding azrebel's early comment, there does seem to be some evidence for the total number of miles driven decreasing as the price of gas decreases. This shows up, for instance, in decreased accident and fatality data. There are also academic and government studies:

http://www.apta.com/resources/reportsandpublications/Documents/APTA_Effect_of_Gas_Price_Increase_2011.pdf

That said, there does seem to be some elasticity regarding so-called "tipping points". For instance, in December 2005 when gas cost a little over $2.00 a gallon, trucks and SUVs and such things outsold cars , accounting for 56 percent of sales. In November 2010 when gas cost $2.80 they accounted for 56 percent of sales. And in September 2011 when gas cost $3.50 a gallon they accounted for...54 percent of sales. Here's how they explained it most recently (in addition to a shortage of Japanese cars due to recent calamities there):

"But other factors boosted truck sales. Small businesses must eventually replace aging fleets of work trucks, and auto companies offered some good deals to clear out 2011 model trucks. They also stepped up their marketing. And consumers are learning to live with economic uncertainty."

Of course, it may be a mistake to consider auto sales statistics a month at a time...

"The oil industry and our leaders know that we are headed for, or have reached, global peak. As with climate change, the debate is over details: Essentially when and what next."

And yet, details matter. They matter for policy, for a sense of urgency, and for concrete plans by governments, private industry, and private citizens. Canada alone has from 1.8 trillion to 2.3 trillion barrels of tar sands oil in place, about 80 percent of which may be accessible by means of enhanced recovery methods yielding recovery rates from 40 percent upward, with technological improvements steadily increasing recovery rates and decreasing the cost. The U.S. already gets about a fifth of its imported oil from Canada -- scarcely a hostile power -- and 99 percent of Canadian oil exports thus far go to the United States.

A peak in 2044 is scarcely the same thing as a peak now or in 2018. Who's right?

http://www.eia.gov/neic/speeches/Caruso061305.pdf

"When applied to a nation or world, peak means the "easy" oil is gone, and the remainder will be more difficult and expensive to recover and refine."

Well, the days of $1.00 per gallon gas vanished 30 years or more ago. Did the world go to hell in a handbasket? How much do they pay for gas in Europe, with all the additional taxes? How's Germany doing, where gas runs around $7.50 per gallon?

"This inconveniently coincides with a sharp rise in global demand as emerging nations industrialize and want an American-style supersized 'lifestyle'."

Well, assuming that there won't be enough oil to go around, there won't be that demand, because there won't be that additional level of economic development. So, the oil lasts longer, doesn't it? Or if unconventional oil resources combined with dwindling conventional resources suffice, the additional economic development pays for the oil: it just takes a larger bite out of profits and shareholder dividends.

"Thus we are left with the remaining half, including heavy sour crude, tar sands, etc. All are high in impurities and costly to refine."

Canada's tar sands already account for 40 percent of its oil production, and the resource and its exploitation are only in the nascent phase. The sky hasn't fallen, has it?

"What matters is actual production. Do not be distracted by media claims of XX million barrels being suddenly discovered. Can that oil be recovered and at what cost? "

Actual production of new, unconventional resources always starts out small. It's growing by leaps and bounds, so what DOES count are reserves in place. Admittedly, recovery cost and recovery rates do count also, but the former is rapidly falling (enhanced recovery of tar sands that once was practical at $75 a gallon is now practical at $50 a gallon) and the latter is rapidly increasing (primary recovery methods that yielded 10-20 percent recovery rates are being superceded by enhanced methods that yield 40-80 percent recovery rates). True, vast amounts of water are required and the potential for environmental hazard remains to be definitively determined (risks appear to be great) but those are different issues and the former is, I think, scarcely insurmountable.

"As I've written before, we could have used the recession as a gift to retrofit the economy for this future"

Economic factors are already driving the exploitation of unconventional resources (including tar sands oil) as well as a great deal of research and development that would never have occurred without the practical impetus of threatened profits. As conventional resources become more expensive (whether because of purely economic or also political causes) and alternative resources look increasingly attractive, you'll see this accelerate, with entire economies and professions bent toward the solutions. The idea that the oligarchs are sitting on their duffs complacently awaiting the meltdown of society in the faith that they can move to private islands, is simply absurd.

"But even if the "deniers" are right and we have enough oil for 300 years!!...That just moves us into the express lane of planetary destruction from greenhouse gases."

Good point. Maybe a little "go slow" in terms of developing economies (due to rising oil prices) isn't altogether a bad thing. Of course, we could accomplish the same thing with environmental tariffs for "dirty" producers like China (whose cheating is so far from a free market anyway that it doesn't bear repeating), but that isn't likely.

It doesn't fit on a t-shirt, but my summary is that our delusional culture of entitlement (aka MORE) has collided with a resource-mandated culture of conservation (aka LESS). With apologies to Ezra Pound: the impact was more a whimper than a boom.

Most of us fear the increasing cost of pollution rather than the increasing cost of energy (especially that for transportation): at least on this blog and in the leftist political population. While some of you may wish for, or foresee a fall of American civilization due to an eventual "energy shortage" or skyrocketing energy costs, that may be unlikely. The American standard of living, especially now and in the near future will continue to decline at a slow rate, but an apocalytic collapse is unlikely. What is more conceivable is that our society will be forced to rethink how to consume and fuel our energy needs due to environmental degradation.

It seems that those most likely to prefer the status quo are right-wing ideologues who will not be able to afford their lifestyles as energy cost rise, even at a slow rate. They may be forced to rethink how they live including how far they drive as their social security (I mean "entitlement") checks affords them less. We should begin adding the cost of externalities to our gas and energy sources derived from coal. How much longer we continue to ignore the issue of pollution will determine how much society will pay in the future to address those issues.

As to why Germans can afford gas that is at least double the cost of our fuel, largely falls on driving habits and mass transit's reach in German cities (even medium to small sized cities). Germans drive much smaller cars to destinations that are dramatically shorter compared to their American counterparts. Germany is also an uber-urbanized population with superior transit networks compared to American cities.

I subscribe to the "slow squeeze" variant of Peak oil. That doesn't preclude sudden shocks and severe crises. It's a slow-turning vise that will crack bones now and then. An overall civilizational collapse is something for the 22nd century.

Fortunately, the US has done its part in tackling the problem by engaging in a quasi depression. What happens when the production decline comes? Declining net exports, declining energy returns, first- and second-order effects on the economy will probably render a slow steady decline impossible. Then there is the handicap of a financial system that is patently unsustainable. It could turn this situation into the mother of all depressions.

As to peak pollution, global warming is the perfect problem: it's a very long-term problem, actions and consequences are very far apart, our individual contributions are miniscule, and it's a problem of abundance. Peak oil, however, is a problem of scarcity and is a near-term concern. I don't think the global warming problem will be solved. Everything that can [easily] be burned will be burned. The only 'hope' is that there isn't as much coal left as predicted.

The Germans have a trade surplus which makes it a lot easier to import 98% of their oil needs.

Just watched a couple of hours of public testimony on the proposed pipeline.

Looks like there are a million reasons not to build the pipeline.

Wonder which way the government is going to decide??? (:-O)

The sky is not falling.

It's not a movie apocalypse.

It's a high-cost energy future, and we're unprepared -- perhaps most importantly, unprepared intellectually and psychologically.

phxSUNSfan wrote:

"As to why Germans can afford gas that is at least double the cost of our fuel, largely falls on driving habits and mass transit's reach in German cities (even medium to small sized cities). Germans drive much smaller cars to destinations that are dramatically shorter compared to their American counterparts. Germany is also an uber-urbanized population with superior transit networks compared to American cities."

So, what the Germans (and most of Europe) accomplished by means of deliberate policy (including high taxes on gasoline to encourage exactly those practices), the U.S. will accomplish by necessity, in the event that gas prices here rise dramatically due not to politically levied taxes and fees but to higher oil prices.

Americans may be "unprepared intellectually and psychologically" for small cars, shorter commutes, and a greater reliance on mass transit, but this is scarcely cause for alarm.

"Most of us fear the increasing cost of pollution rather than the increasing cost of energy (especially that for transportation): at least on this blog and in the leftist political population."

The number of cars in America has more or less reached its peak, according to industry analysts, whereas the number of motor vehicles in China is exploding. In 2001 there were 18 million motor vehicles; at the end of 2009 there were 76 million; and by 2020 it is expected to more than double to 200 million. Emissions standards (regulation and enforcement) in China are lax by western standards.

http://www.spacemart.com/reports/China_to_have_200_million_vehicles_by_2020_state_media_999.html

Despite China's admirable investment in alternative energy sources, it relies chiefly on dirty coal-burning plants for the generation of electricity, and will continue to do so. Factory emission standards are also low, as the country's leadership and capitalist segment is more interested in fast economic growth than environmentalism (which was also held in low esteem during the country's Communist days).

The country's consumer class is also growing by leaps and bounds, and even though the number of middle class is a small percentage of the population, the population is very large, so that increases domestic consumption, which in turn requires greater use of polluting manufacturing processes.

This increased consumerism (rather than peak oil) drives up the costs of commodities, as Chinese eat more meat and cattle and other animals need more grain and feed; as more minerals, water, oil, and timber, and other production inputs are needed to build more stuff not just for existing consumers in the West, but in addition for a burgeoning new consumer population in China, India, Brazil, Russia, and elsewhere.

The additional energy consumption (from non-green sources) required for all of this additional transportion, production, and consumption, as well as the extremely dirty production methods and (vehicle and factory) emissions standards in developing countries, bodes ill for global warming, and in a big way.

One of the best books on oil in general:
"Oil 101" by Morgan Downey. Neutral in terms of Peak Oil but he acknowledges the large gap between consumption and new finds. "There will be transportation energy in the 22nd century. It won't come from conventional oil."

I'm waiting for my copy of:
"Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma" by Tad Patzek and Joseph Tainter. Preview here:
http://www.springerlink.com/content/n3h666/
This one should make clear the connection between complexity and energy, how one requires the other - until "A trend that can’t continue, won’t."

Patzek has recently become a board member of ASPO USA. Read his first commentary in which he eviscerates the 'latte-drinking eco warrior set' and Daniel Yergin at the same time:
http://www.aspousa.org/index.php/2011/09/the-bearable-weight-of-not-being-by-tad-patzek/

"A Winter" wrote:

"As to peak pollution, global warming is the perfect problem: it's a very long-term problem, actions and consequences are very far apart, our individual contributions are miniscule, and it's a problem of abundance. Peak oil, however, is a problem of scarcity and is a near-term concern."

I think it's just the opposite: peak oil is something that won't occur until mid century and the decline after that will be slow, and by that time alternative energy resources (and/or synthetic oil from algae) will have made the problem increasingly irrelevant.

Global warming on the other hand is something that will be accelerated by short to medium term increases in global consumerism as well as the replacement of relatively clean Western production by outsourcing to developing countries like China.

And though the phenomenon of global warming is poorly understood, two things are clear: previous estimates of the rate of global warming have dramatically understated the problem, and that rate will only increase for the aforementioned reasons; and there may be a tipping point in the global climate beyond which even aggressive man-made remedies can do little or nothing.

We're playing with fire, and all because a very greedy class of international capitalists wanted to cut labor and overhead (e.g., environmental) costs by moving production to China and elsewhere, where ramped up domestic consumption will further aggravate dirty production methods and low vehicle and factory emissions standards.

"The Germans have a trade surplus which makes it a lot easier to import 98% of their oil needs."

I don't follow this. Surely what makes it easy to import oil is the money to buy it. In 2010, the U.S. domestically produced 5.5 million barrels per day; it used 19.2 million barrels per day total. Even if all domestically produced oil went to domestic use (i.e., zero U.S. oil exports) that means the U.S. imported 71 percent of the oil it used.

Incidentally, according to the Houston Chronicle, in 2010 Canadian tar sands oil became the number one source of U.S. oil imports. By 2030 the share could increase to 36 percent.

http://blog.chron.com/newswatchenergy/2010/05/canadian-tar-sands-set-to-be-top-u-s-oil-import/

I think there will be a "Shoot!" moment, rather earlier than later, when the last dolt realizes that global warming is not an invention of the liberal media. Better later than never but the ability to influence the trajectory will be greatly diminished. When there is a complex economy that needs energy people don't care about where the fuels come from. Tar sands, food-to-fuels are just a symptom of that. In reality, the (formerly) middle-class care about the impact of their lifestyles on others just as much as the plutocratic overlords care about the middle-class. Not very much.

Also, no chance that the alternatives will replace fossil fuels in terms of quantity and quality and in the time frame needed. E.g. algae don't live on sunshine, CO2, and water alone. They need nutrients like every other plant which is why the only algae schemes of some scale, that have been proposed, have to use sewage or agricultural runoff (based on oil/gas) as input. It seems unlikely that biofuels will satisfy a big part of our increasing energy appetites when one year's consumption of oil is energy-equivalent to hundreds of years of total biomass production of the earth.

The scale of the difficulty is apparent if you look at page 42 of BP's statistical energy review. Notice the orange sliver of renewables.
http://www.bp.com/assets/bp_internet/globalbp/globalbp_uk_english/reports_and_publications/statistical_energy_review_2011/STAGING/local_assets/pdf/statistical_review_of_world_energy_full_report_2011.pdf

There is this wonderful new blog called "Do The Math", written by a physics professor:
http://physics.ucsd.edu/do-the-math/
It's latest post says:

"The basic point is that we are entering uncharted territory. This toothless statement has been true at every point in history. But I believe that this century is the one in which we must confront the thorniest issue ever presented to the human race. This moment is special because we have dramatically built up our population, technology, science, medicine, and democratic institutions as a direct result of vast amounts of surplus energy stemming from a one-time resource. The fossil fuel experience has made us dangerously confident about our cleverness and dominance over nature."

This is a truly excellent analysis. But it isn't going to matter to people who are starving now. They will be long gone before high-cost energy will matter.

We have a bigger problem than peak oil. There are no jobs in the United States. That is the elephant in the room.

Suburban Sprawl = Ponzi Scheme

http://www.strongtowns.org/companion-booklet/

"There are no solutions, just rational responses:
- Dead Idea: We can continue to grow without considering the Return on Investment
- Dead Idea: We can solve our local financial problems by bringing in more growth
- Dead Idea: Attracting a large employer
will solve our problems
- Dead Idea: Property owners have a right to develop their property and the public has an obligation to maintain the infrastructure"

A tolerable level of employment can't return unless some dead weight (excessive amounts of private debt, unproductive infrastructure) is shaken off. There has to be large-scale debt forgiveness for a fast resolution.

Awinter, thank you for your excellent posts.

"A Winter" wrote:

"Also, no chance that the alternatives will replace fossil fuels in terms of quantity and quality and in the time frame needed."

The time-frame *I'm* talking about is about 50 years from now, assuming mid-century for peak oil production and a slow decrease from there. I don't see how you can possibly make handwaving generalizations about what will be possible in the field 50 years from now, or even 25.

In fact, ASU researchers claim that they are 3-5 years from "large scale production". That doesn't mean, of course, the wholesale replacement of fossil fuels, but it does suggest that the technology is relatively advanced; and what is more the history of development suggests that it will continue to advance as more money is put into it (something that should occur when it demonstrates itself in a practical way).

http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/2010/08/27/20100827arizona-biofuel-industry-research.html

"[Algae] need nutrients like every other plant which is why the only algae schemes of some scale, that have been proposed, have to use sewage or agricultural runoff (based on oil/gas) as input. It seems unlikely that biofuels will satisfy a big part of our increasing energy appetites when one year's consumption of oil is energy-equivalent to hundreds of years of total biomass production of the earth. "

The nutrients needed by algae are very primitive since algae assemble their own inorganic molecules from precursors: we're talking about nitrogen, sulfur and phosphorus, magnesium, calcium, potassium, and small amounts of iron, copper, zinc, molybdenum and boron. Much of this is present in agricultural wastewater runoff (from dissolved fertilizers, etc.), and the rest can easily be provided.

ASU's researchers have found a strain with a biomass that is 55 percent oil. Most of the rest is water. About 16 pounds of dried algae can produce a gallon of oil. Bearing in mind that alternative fuels do not have to totally replace oil to mitigate declining production or postpone peak, if we could replace the United States' roughly 20 million barrels per day with synthetic oil from algae, it would take 160,000 short tons per day or about 58 million short tons per year. In 2009, world production of wheat alone was 750 million short tons. So, you're WAY off when you talk about "hundreds of years of total biomass of the Earth". If you assert otherwise, "do the math" and show me explicitly.

The supplies of suitable agricultural, municipal, and industrial waste sufficient to grow algae are vast on both a national and a global scale. There is no shortage of nutrients.

"The scale of the difficulty is apparent if you look at page 42 of BP's statistical energy review. Notice the orange sliver of renewables."

That graph doesn't extent beyond 2010. Obviously a graph showing the current proportion of renewables says nothing about the scale of difficulty of future production in a nascent technological field. If it did, then old graphs showing Canadian tar sands oil as a near-zero proportion of total Canadian oil production would have suggested the impossibility of their current 40 percent share of Canadian oil production.

One of the biggest logical errors I see repeated by peak oil fanatics is the tendency to take current circumstances, assume no change (contrary to both history and recent developmental trends) and then extrapolate the continuation of such circumstances indefinitely into the future.

Damn. Sorry, more than a gallon a barrel. And I don't have the online time to correct myself today. Will do so tomorrow. This is the problem with rushing to research and solve such issues in 90 minutes a day.

No problem: 16 pounds/gallon * 42 gallons/barrel * 20,000,000 barrels/day * 365 days/year
= 4.9056*10^12 pounds/y = 2,452,800,000 short tons/year.

I still think that algae has got the best chances for larger-scale production among all the biofuels. I just don't think the chances are good for millions or dozens of millions of barrels per day.

It's not just the energy embedded as primitive heating value. It takes a lot of energy to derive concentrated forms of energy from low-concentration sources such as biomass. That's where 'hundreds of years of biomass' claim comes from (can't remember where I picked it up - I should do my own calculations). Is there a net energy benefit for the whole cycle? That's where the "engineering issues", alluded to in the article you cited, come into play. Those are not trivial but central. It's not a new insight that algae can be grown fast, on relatively little land (compared to ethanol) with high liquid contents. Those things have been studied for decades. But to find a scalable process with minimal energy input has always been a problem. Closed systems such as the one studied by the ASU suffer from high cost in capital and operation. Open systems (ponds) are open to invasion by other species and also need a lot of energy for circulation, cooling, pumping. It's still not clear whether it's possible to go from lipids to actual fuel with a high energy return and acceptable prices. The ocean system studied by NASA probably has more legs to stand on because it removes a few problems. Generally, it's just a world of difference between high-quality high-flow conventional oil (prepackaged, precooked and everything) and synthetics where virtually everything is a DIY job requiring energy subsidies, mostly fossil fuels. As a doubting Thomas I'll believe those "millions of gallons per day in a few years" claims when the gallons materialize. Otherwise it's just another instance of energy vaporware vying for grants. For how many times have we heard similar claims?

This touches on a larger point about beliefs and logic. Of course I can't disprove algae's future viability as a large-scale replacement of current levels of oil production. But that makes us veer into the region of argumenta ad ignorantiam. Just because I can't disprove it, doesn't mean it will become true. The coming energy miracles -at least for liquid fuels- are not actually here for examination. Lab experiments are not existing industrial-scale, cost-effective solutions. Those Jules Verne stories (regularly hyped in the media) prevent a sober discussion of energy realities. The eagerness with which they're eaten up again and again stem from a seemingly unshakeable belief in endless technological progress, instilled by culture, the mythology of the Enlightenment, education and experience. The symptoms are apparent. A failure to distinguish between questions of technology and energy (two very different things). Or in general 'paralogic'. As Jon said, those are mental and cultural problems. The technical problems could have been solved a long time ago. Ratcheting down energy use is possible. But we're not doing it, partly because we're stuck with our investments in outdated infrastructure, lifestyles, and belief systems.

Anyway I hope I'm wrong (better yet, dead wrong) and you're right. Best of health.

Thanks Awinter. It seems bowing blindly faithfull to technology can be as bruising to your head as bowing to organized reigion. I am of the camp that there is advantage to negativity. "My last wish was that there should be a crowd of spectators at my execution and that they should greet me with cries of hatred." Meursault.
So now we must learn how to die.

AWinter, you were incorrect in asserting that it would take "hundreds of years of total biomass of the Earth".

Emil was correct in stating that wheat, which is much more intensive to grow than algae, yields approx. 750 million short tons a year globally. Algae could theoretically be produced in greater quantity in a year than wheat. 2.5 billion short tons? Perhaps not, but as Emil stated, energy in the in the future will not be harnessed from only one "alternative" source.

This is OT, but Tom's Tavern has reopened downtown. I have not yet sampled the menu or been inside the establishment, but from the outside it looks classy but not stuffy:

http://downtowndevil.com/2011/10/06/14344/toms-tavern-phoenix-restaurant-reopens/

"A Winter" wrote:

"No problem: 16 pounds/gallon * 42 gallons/barrel * 20,000,000 barrels/day * 365 days/year
= 4.9056*10^12 pounds/y = 2,452,800,000 short tons/year."

Thanks for that. Easier still: just multiple my earlier answer (58 million short tons) by 42, to get 2,436 million short tons per year.

AW: "Is there a net energy benefit for the whole cycle?"

From the article: "[ASU Senior Vice President Rick] Shangraw said that, unlike with ethanol, growing and harvesting algae results in an energy gain "because you get more energy out at the end of the process than you put in." In addition, the byproducts from algae can be turned into fertilizer or feedstock for animals."

AW: " It's still not clear whether it's possible to go from lipids to actual fuel with a high energy return and acceptable prices."

If I understand correctly, high energy return has already been accomplished: it's now a question of acceptable prices. That's a function of two things: (1) efficient bioreactors to grow the algae; (2) the economies of mass production. Note that in addition to accelerating algal growth, the bioreactors also avoid the problems associated with open ponds.

From the article: "Qiang Hu, Sommerfeld's fellow scientist and colleague in algae production, is a specialist in designing the algal bioreactors in which the plants grow. At ASU's Laboratory for Algae Research, a large greenhouse complex contains vertical Plexiglas panels within long banks of Hu's newly designed and fabricated bioreactors. . . Hu said creating larger and better bioreactors is just a matter of time, money and design. "We will make better and better bioreactors, and we'll keep cutting the cost of producing fuel," he said. . .

"ASU Senior Vice President Rick Shangraw said that although solar energy and hydrogen power hold great promise, algae will "deliver soon" because, in the past few years, "most of the hard science problems regarding algae have been solved. . . Shangraw said that as research-and-development advances reduce the price of algae fuel from its current cost of about $20 a gallon to more like $3 or $4 a gallon, we need to look carefully at the "true costs" of fossil fuels vs. biofuels..."

AW: " As a doubting Thomas I'll believe those "millions of gallons per day in a few years" claims when the gallons materialize. Otherwise it's just another instance of energy vaporware vying for grants. For how many times have we heard similar claims?"

Good point. One reason I was a little more impressed with this story is that rather positive claims were made by experts in the field and by administrators of the program, both willing to commit themselves and their reputations publicly rather than in a grant proposal, along with a fairly specific timetable ("mass production within 3-5 years").

That said, I suspect it will take considerably longer before bioreactor engineering and true economies of scale (the latter, perhaps, being a different proposition than mere "mass production") reduce the price to make it competitive; and I'm enough of a cynic to conclude that in the absence of strict government mandates, the environmental advantages of algal fuels won't outweigh the profit-seeking of corporations and their shareholders.

Even though Shangraw says that algal fuel will deliver soon because "unlike solar and hydrogen power...most of the hard science problems have been solved" it might be worthwhile to look at the history of solar prices.

In 1953 when Bell Labs created the first silicon-based solar cell, the cost was $300 per watt (compared with 50 cents per watt to build a conventional power plant). Dr. Elliot Berman designed a solar cell in the 1970s that brought the cost down to $20 per watt.

In 2004 First Solar's manufacturing costs for solar panels was $2.94 per watt. In 2009, First Solar announced that it had brought the manufacturing cost of its thin-film solar panels down to under $1 per watt for the first time. In 2011 that dropped to 75 cents per watt. It's shooting for 64 cents per watt by 2014. Obviously there are other costs to be considered but panel manufacturing cost is the foundation for photovoltaic solar power generation.

What this shows is that the rate of technological development is slow while the base (foundation) of the technology is being laid, but building upon that base becomes progressively faster because each development adds to the breadth and depth of the foundation.

You can see the same thing looking at the history of computers, from WWII to the present. Slow going at first (and only government subsidized partnerships with research universities and private designers made advancement possible, since commercialization was decades away and profits were nowhere to be had); then an increasingly fast rate of development once the foundations had been adequately laid, and this faster development rate generated commercial viability and in turn attracted further interest and funding (including private funding) that increased the rate of development still further.

Geothermal and nuclear aside, all energy sources are solar. Period. Solar is the only effectively renewable energy source.

Biomass sources of solar capture do the important task, among others, of sinking carbon - i.e. - governing atmospheric levels. Using algae or corn or hemp or whatever for energy is merely using solar energy and releasing carbon.

Our yearly dole of solar energy is just that (we are already dealing with the catastrophic effects from tapping the solar "battery" of fossil fuels - depletion, carbon release.) Any solar energy diverted from its current uses (life, the "pulse" of the climate, etc.) will be noticed by the ecosphere.

We simply have to learn to live with that. There is no magic. There is no techno-solution. This is simple physics, simple entropy.

Peak fossil fuels
Global peaks
How about the five steps of the
"Third Industrial Revolution"?

I went back and took another look at what "A Winter" wrote about "hundreds of years of the total biomass of the Earth". I now understand this to mean that every day the world uses 70 million barrels of crude oil derived from fossil sources, and those buried organisms represent hundreds of years of biomass converted to the petroleum. That seems perfectly plausible in a general sense. So, my mistake when I said that he was "way off".

That said, it doesn't seem strictly relevant, because fossil fuels are produced by a very slow process of rotting, earth-churning, and pressure-heat.

The algae are energy-efficient because each alga is a tiny chemical factory powered by solar energy, which does the work of assembling complex molecules (i.e., synthetic oil) from very simple inputs. It's an automated biofactory developed by nature to construct what the algae colony needs for growth, refined by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. The main problem (solved) was finding an algae strain with a sufficiently high natural lipid (oil) content.

Petroleum products (generally benzene, ether, or hexane) may used in the process as a solvent to efficiently separate the natural lipids (oil) from the other parts of the algae, but that boils off and can be reused (see the Arizona Republic article linked to previously) so the energy investment is manageable.

Regarding the plausibility of growing 2.5 billion short tons of such algae per year worldwide when total world wheat production is less than 1/3 of this, first, I should note that this is entirely my suggestion. That said, wheat is only one grain, and it's much easier to grow algae than crop plants, especially under controlled conditions where temperature and moisture content are fixed at optimum levels, sunlight is concentrated by means of plexiglass lenses to maximize growth, predatory pests are generally excluded, and a constant, measured stream of nutrients from low cost sources (e.g., agricultural runoff) are delivered to the algae. It is also the case that algae takes much less time to grow than crop plants, so that the same bioreactors can be reused many, many times instead of once in a season.

Incidentally, I quoted the Arizona Republic story, saying that the spent algae could be used as animal feed after the natural oil is harvested. A little more investigation suggests that's only true if the oil is removed via centrifuge and an oil press. The Arizona Republic story mentioned only that the "usual method" of separating the oil was the use of an unspecified solvent.

A solvent is more efficient and recovers more of the oil than mechanical methods, but substances such as benzene are highly toxic and would, I believe, render the algal residue unfit for animal consumption.

So, already a whiff of flummery emerges from the article.

OK you armchair scientists,

Why did the algae and fungus get married?


They took a lichen to each other.

Badda Boom.

End of thread.

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