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Can fossil fuels be replaced?

The following is from a larger article, "Peak Oil and the Preservation of Knowledge" by Alice Friedemann (Link to was broken. Now changed to -  Ed, 14 Jun 11) from An abridged version "The fragility of microprocessors" (Link similarly fixed) can be found on the same site. This article refutes the kind of argument frequently put by people who argue against the urgency of taking action to preserve our world's stock of fossil fuels. A typical example can found in a discussion on Peak Oil on John Quiggin's blog site of November 2005:

Plenty of options exist. Solar and its derivatives (wind, wave, tidal etc) all have good chances and, with some serious work, could answer the problem. If a more immediate need is there, nuclear is already there. For cars, hydrogen is a suitable energy storage mechanism in the medium term and batteries or hybrids will work now. There is no major crisis, nor will there be.
The important thing now is not to panic and start forcing solutions - let the market signals work their way through and sort it out. It has worked in the past and will in the future.

It is often difficult, without the hard facts and sound, such as are to be found in the article below, to refute these kinds of cock-sure assertions that technology, particlarly technology operating in a world in which market forces are unfettered, will solve all of our looming problems of overpopulation and resource scarcity.

Please refer to original document for footnotes.

Published on 7 Jan 2006 by Energy Bulletin.

Replacing fossil fuels with some other energy source

by Alice Friedemann

At one time, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROI) for oil was at least 100 to 1.1 We are reaching the point where the EROI of oil will be 1 and no more drilling will take place.17 It was while the EROI of oil was high that most of our current infrastructure was built.

Evidence suggests that the EROI of corn ethanol is less than one, which means it takes more energy to make than you get out of it – an energy sink.

Pimentel and Patzek have shown that it takes twenty seven to fifty seven percent more fossil fuel energy to create ethanol or biodiesel than you get in the energy returned. Worse yet, this is done at a tremendous environmental cost, since biofuel crops harm soil structure and remove the nutrients, deplete groundwater, pollute water with pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides, cause eutrophication of water via nitrogen runoff, increase soil erosion, and contribute to air pollution and global warming at the ethanol plant and when burned in cars.18

Even if the highest claim of a net energy for ethanol of 1.67 were true, a much greater EROI than .67 is needed to run civilization. The 1 in the 1.67 is needed just to make the ethanol. An EROI of .67 has 150 times less energy than oil when we started building American infrastructure.

Charles A. S. Hall, who has been studying net energy for decades, believes that you’d need an EROI of at least 5 to run civilization, because you need to include the energy to make the machines, mitigate environmental damage, feed and house the workers, etc.19

For example, consider a windmill composed of steel and concrete. A windmill farm in the Escalante desert, built to produce 5.55 TWh of power, would require 13.8 million pounds of aluminum, 2.8 trillion pounds of concrete, 639 billion pounds of steel, etc. The wind farm would occupy over 189 square miles.20 Pacca & Horvath don’t give the capacity factor for these windmills, but an often used number is 30% (i.e. wind blows hard enough 30% of the time), so a 5.55 TWh wind farm might serve around 175,000 to 350,000 people, depending on the wind speed and how close people were to the windmills, since power is lost via transmission over long distances.

In 1992 such a wind farm would cost 200 million dollars, which doesn’t include labor and maintenance costs, and would serve less than one percent of the United States population. It would cost over $200,000,000,000 to build enough windmills to generate electrical power for everyone (though of course, you couldn’t, since not all areas have enough wind). With energy prices many times higher now than in 1992, the cost would be far more expensive.

After fossil fuels are gone, the windmills must be able to generate enough energy to maintain themselves and build new windmills, including all of the equipment used to mine the metal and concrete components, forge metal into blades and towers, and build the trucks and roads that enable windmills to be delivered to their sites. Windmill energy must also provide the energy to build and maintain the electric grid and storage battery infrastructure, and all of the people involved in the process. Any extra energy could now be used to run civilization.

It’s often said that once oil goes to “x” dollars a barrel, alternative energy will become economically viable. But this will never happen, because the alternative energy infrastructure is built with fossil-fuel inputs, so alternative energy sources will always cost more than oil. To even talk about energy using dollar figures makes no sense -- you can’t stuff dollar bills down your gas tank.

Energy can be reduced to physics, to the laws of thermodynamics and other rules that the Big Bang bequeathed our universe. Oil has been a free lunch, one that nature spent hundreds of millions of years making, reducing 196,000 pounds of plant matter into one gallon of gasoline – pure, unadulterated solar power that no alternative energy source but fusion could possibly hope to replace.21 Oil is also incredibly easy to use, ship, and store.

The number of scientists who insist that alternative energies can substitute for fossil fuels, and ignore or deny the basic laws of physics and thermodynamics is frightening. It’s reminiscent of Lysenkoism.