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Energy Voices: Insights on the future of fuel and power

Our energy future: 'They'll think of something'

Concerns over future supplies of oil and gas are often met with a 'They'll-think-of-something' mentality, Cobb writes. But the only sensible response to the looming possibility of depleted resources is to begin reducing our energy use now in earnest. 

By Kurt CobbGuest blogger / September 9, 2013

The sun sets behind an drilling rig in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Advancements in technology designed to extract more oil, natural gas, coal and uranium from the ground are in a race with geological constraints, Cobb writes.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters/File

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With oil prices hovering near historic highs and coal, natural gas and uranium prices yo-yoing during the last several years, concerns about the future of fossil fuel and uranium supplies often elicit the response: "They'll think of something. They always do."

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Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, 'Prelude,' and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. He is a founding member of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas—USA, and he serves on the board of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. For more of his Resource Insights posts, click here.

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This kind of thinking is usually premised on the idea that the future will look like the past, only bigger and better. It does not even admit the possibility that we may need to reduce our energy use. We'll come back this issue later.

The pronoun "they" in the generic quote above is vague, and the speaker does not know that he or she is actually referring to two distinct technological approaches to our energy future. Each technology progresses amid a different and highly consequential backdrop.

Let me cut to the chase. Advancements in technology designed to extract more oil, natural gas, coal and uranium from the ground are in a race with geological constraints. The more of each type of fuel we extract, the more difficult it is to wrest each subsequent barrel, cubic foot, or ton from the Earth's crust. The deposits become leaner, that is, there are fewer units of what we want per ton of earth--and more refractory, that is, more challenging to process in order to separate the stuff want from the stuff that isn't oil, natural gas, coal and uranium. The empirically established principle is that we go after the easy deposits first and save the difficult ones for later. 

So now, we are arriving at the difficult ones: shale gas, tight oil, tar sands and low-grade uranium deposits. Rather than debate the future supplies of each which cannot be known with any certainty, let me turn to the the backdrop for what we call renewable energy.

The technological progress we make in solar and wind occur against a dramatically different backdrop. The light from the sun is not becoming less and less intense over the long run forcing researchers to think of ways to capture more and more of the diminishing intensity of sunlight. Instead, even though there are cycles to the sun and cloudy days, the light from the Sun that hits the Earth is remarkably steady. In fact, over the next 5 billion years, the Sun will actually increase in brightness before starting its transformation into a red giant.

Unlike researchers who experiment with methods for extracting ever more lean and refractory deposits of fossil fuels and uranium, solar energy researchers are not fighting a depleting Sun in any time frame meaningful to humans. Their task is to find ever more efficient ways to capture sunlight and turn it into heat and electricity, sunlight that is so ubiquitous and so plentiful that the equivalent of 7,000 times the current human usage of all forms of energy is absorbed by the Earth's land, oceans and atmosphere each year. With solar we are not and will never be in a race against depletion (unless the human species lasts for 5 billion years--which is unlikely since the lifespan of mammalian species averages about 1 million years, though some may persist for up to 10 million years).

Wind, of course, is a derivative of solar power since it merely represents air currents which form in response to the uneven heating of the atmosphere. Given existing technology, there are, naturally, only certain places that are suitable for wind generators. But, as the technology improves, more places will be practical for the placement of wind towers and small household wind devices.

I suppose it is theoretically possible to place enough wind generators on the surface of the Earth to dissipate all the winds. But we are so very far from that, that I think it will likely never become anything but a sporadic local issue far into the future.

Geothermal energy has vast potential, but low efficiency given the costs of extracting it from deep in the Earth. I still see a role for geothermal, but I can't make the claim that it is as a practical matter ubiquitous or, on a local scale, inexhaustible.

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