Peak Oil and Energy Technologies

(this is an old post that I hadn't yet published on this blog)

The Peak Oil thesis predicts that the rate of oil production will peak soon and start to decline, not keeping up with basic demand. However basic economics argues that in the event of a supply shortage, the price of oil would rise. The consequences of an increase in price are that the demand for oil would fall, and new forms of supply would be found.

Nevertheless, since both oil demand and oil supply are not particularly responsive to price, a peaking of conventional oil production could lead to quite severe price increases, with consequent economic effect.

Supply shortages are gaining credibility with articles like the one above. So perhaps the oil price is going to go much higher than expected.

However, in this case, the high oil price (even at current levels of over at over $50/barrel) would accelerate the technological development of oil shales, tar sands and even coal-to-liquids too.... All of these have even higher greenhouse gas emissions than oil. :(

Of course if oil/gas prices go high enough there might be a switch to electricity. But sadly again coal (for electricity) might benefit, since it is largely cheaper than cleaner alternatives. :(

Unfortunately there's no shortage of coal. Since China is the biggest growing market we may need a electricity technology that's cheaper than coal IN CHINA...

That's a hard task, but it may be the only way the world can be saved.

There are few technologies which are even close to being cheap enough.

Wind is cheap enough in certain positions, but it's intermittency makes it unattractive.

Concentrated solar energy has been argued to be potentially economic with conventional ways of producing electricity. Yet it is suitable only in equatorial regions with large areas of deserts. There is unlikely to be enough space in Eastern china, and unlikely to be enough water in western china.

It is a similar story with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) Technology. Noone is doing CCS on a large scale yet either (a large-scale pilot by BP in Peterhead was recently abandoned due to lack of government support). If you have optimistic assumptions about altruism (i.e. that countries will pay extra to save the planet) then this is a a crucial technology too.

Nuclear is generally more expensive than coal, but it is not inherently so. Given the severity and all-encompassing nature of climate change impacts, it might be risk-efficient to eliminate some safety systems/shielding on nuclear reactors, reducing the cost below coal. The benefit of carbon emissions would outweigh the slightly-increased risk.

However, now we may not have to make such a difficult choice. Modern reactors such as the AP1000 have passively safe modular designs which are safe without expensive backup multiple safety systems. But we're not yet building these types of reactor on a large enough scale for them to be really cheap. Perhaps we should.


Adrian Wrigley said...

"Nuclear is generally more expensive than coal, but it is not inherently so."

Exactly. Nuclear power's priorities have usually been to make material for weapons, without regard to cost or waste. That's no reason to reject new nuclear development with economic and environmental goals. Thorium seems to be an ideal and abundant fuel, but rarely used. The key to all this is scale and innovation, of course - the same arguments as used for solar and wind subsidies. In the longer term, there's Boron-11/proton fusion into 3 x helium - an amazing reaction. Why aren't we developing this?