A civilization built on fossil fuels
In this year, 2011, we are enjoying a lifestyle beyond the most optimistic dreams of past generations. We are benefitting from the whirlwind of achievements in science and technology during the last hundred years. There has never been a century like the one just passed, and there will never be another like it. Lifestyles will be very different when oil and gas are depleted.
In 1910 persons who were separated by more than a few miles corresponded by handwritten letters in envelopes with two cent stamps, or by penny postcard. An exchange of information usually took several days. If a message was urgent it was sent as a telegram, ten words for thirty five cents. Thirty five cents is about seven dollars in today’s money. Today a person with a handheld device can communicate by voice, text or pictures with almost anyone, almost anywhere in the world.
The first radio broadcasting station was licensed in 1921. The first radio broadcast heard by the author was in 1927, the Dempsey – Tunney prizefight. He heard it with earphones on a crystal set built by his father and brother. In 1991 he and his wife were in a hotel in Shanghai. They saw on TV what was happening in Moscow. Yeltsin stood on a tank and addressed the army and the crowd in an action that ended an attempted coup by some soviet hardliners who were trying to remove Gorbachev from office.
In the 1920’s air travel for an ordinary person was a few minutes ride in a wood and fabric airplane with a barnstorming pilot. In 1927 Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris in thirty three hours. It made him an international celebrity above all others. Now, thousands of people every day fly across the Atlantic in six hours.
In 1910 astronomers peered through telescopes at fuzzy images and learned what they could from their observations. They thought they saw canals on Mars. Now roving vehicles on Mars send pictures and soil analyses from the surface of Mars. Giant telescopes on earth, telescopes in space, satellites around the earth and around distant planets give us an ever increasing knowledge of our solar system and the universe.
The greatest achievement of the century is the acquisition of a vast quantity of scientific and technical knowledge and the application of that knowledge to the improvement of our lifestyle. The knowledge exists in the minds of the scientists who pursue the knowledge and the minds of the technicians who apply it. It also exists in perishable recoded media; print materials and electronic devices.
The ever improving lifestyle resulted in a population explosion. In 1910 the world population was 1.8 billion. In 2010 it was 6.9 billion. It is expected reach about nine billion by 2050 and 10.1 billion by 2100.
Most of us see the progress of civilization as it has been in our lifetime and assume that it will continue as it has in our experience. Our civilization is powered by fossil fuels. There is great concern about the damage to the environment caused by the use of fossil fuels and there are developments underway to replace fossil fuels with “renewable” sources of energy. It is generally believed that renewable sources and nuclear power can provide enough energy in quantity and form to sustain and grow our civilization.
Why fossil fuels sources are peaking
The energy in fossil fuels is solar energy. For three billion years the sun shone on the earth’s life forms. Photosynthesis converted the solar energy into physical forms that fossilized into coal, oil and natural gas. About 1800 the invention of the steam engine started the industrial revolution and mankind greatly increased the use of fossil fuels. In three hundred years mankind is consuming the fossil fuel energy that took nature three billion years to produce.
The first chart, from the Energy Information Agency, shows American fuel use in percentages from 1850 to 2040. It took fifty years to convert from wood to coal and fifty years to convert from coal to oil and gas. The first productive oil well was drilled in 1859. From that time until the 1910 decade the main uses for oil were kerosene to replace whale oil for lamps, and lubrication. The automobile became affordable to the middle class in the 1910 decade and the demand for gasoline started the transition from coal to oil and gas. The anticipated sources in 2040 are shown in yellow for modern renewables, blue for hydro, gray for nuclear, black for coal, red and green for oil and gas. Oil and gas will be the largest sources by far. If oil and gas production is not adequate to support the current lifestyle, the other sources may not be sufficient to replace them.
- Globally, energy demand will rise by 1.2 percent a year on average.
- Energy demand trends will be dominated by growth in China, India and other non-OECD countries.
- We will need to expand all economically viable energy sources.
- Oil will remain the largest energy source, while natural gas will be the fastest-growing fossil fuel.
- One of the most important “fuels” of all is energy efficiency.
- Technology is essential on all fronts.
- The outlook predicts that wind, solar and biofuels will contribute about three percent of world energy demand by 2030.
An article in the March 25, 2011 issue of Science magazine by Richard A. Kerr entitled Peak Oil Production May Already Be Here
includes a chart from an ExxonMobil outlook. It presents the world’s production of oil-equivalent barrels per day from 1980 to 2030. Production to meet demand was 60 million barrels per day in 1980, more than 80 million per day presently and 100 million barrels per day in 2030. Non-OPEC production has not increased since 1980. Canadian oil sands and biofuels make a small contribution. Natural gas derived liquids and OPEC must supply the increased production to meet demand.
Science Magazine had a special section in its thirteenth of August, 2010 issue. The first sentence is “The end of the age of fossil fuels may be in sight, but what comes after is a bit of a blur.” “Up to now we’ve always gone to a better fuel, and oil has proved the best of the better” (Robert Kaufmann). “We are confronted with a society built on high-quality energy, dense forms of energy, fossil fuels especially. Could you have the same standard of living with renewables? I don’t think we really know. Things might have to change very fundamentally” (Cutler Cleveland) “Coal and oil production likely won’t “peak” until something like 2030, give or take a decade. Natural gas production could keep pace with rising demand until 2050.” (Richard Nehring)
The American Petroleum Institute rightly emphasizes the importance of oil and gas to our lifestyle and economy in their website EnergyTomorrrow .org
. Oil and natural gas fuel more than 97% of our nation’s vehicles, land sea and air. As chemical feedstock they are key components of a vast majority of manufactured goods; surgical equipment, fertilizers, phones, CD’s paints…..wind power generators… (a long list follows).
Renewable and nuclear energy sources provide only electricity. The key components for manufacture will not be provided by them.
In 2008 North America used 23.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. It produced 20.6 trillion cubic feet, 88% of its consumption. Its reserves were 244.7 trillion cubic feet. These numbers suggest that North America has about ten years supply. The world reserves were 6,254.4 trillion cubic feet.
In 1901 a simple drilling rig struck oil at a depth of 1,139 feet. The initial production of the Spindletop gusher was 100,000 barrels a day.
The large and expensive off shore drilling rig, Deep Water Horizon, could work at 8000 feet water depth, then drill 30,000 feet below the seabed. In 2010 it struck a gusher several miles below the Gulf of Mexico. It produced 62,000 barrels per day.
Spindletop and Deep Water Horizon illustrate the rising cost and declining production of oil and gas. When it takes the energy in a barrel of oil to recover a barrel of oil, available oil will be depleted.
We have built a civilization that depends on oil and gas. They will be depleted by 2100. When they are gone we cannot maintain our civilization at its present high level. Renewable sources cannot provide the quantity or forms of energy needed to replace oil and gas.
2009 proven reserves of fossil fuels:
Oil 51 x 1014 kWh
Gas 43 x 1014 kWh
Coal 54.5 x 1014 kWh
Source – Energy Information Administration
An estimate of the potential to maintain our civilization at its present level requires that we must know how much energy we use and how much energy we will need as demand grows. For this estimate we assume our present civilization level is the way we lived in 2005. This presentation expresses energy in kilowatt hours for all applications.
The world energy supply in 2005 was 5.14 x 1020
joules = 1.427 x 1014
China, India and developing countries will increase the demand for oil and gas. It is estimated that by 2050 world demand for oil and gas will be double the 2005 demand.
When oil and gas are depleted the lifestyle of 2005 would require 1.5 x 1014 kilowatt hours per year from other sources.
Energy sources for the 21st century
The outlook for the twenty first century starts with the energy sources in the year 2005. The need grows. Coal will be quickly depleted if it is used to compensate for declining oil and gas. Coal cannot be strip mined or transported from the mines without oil to power mining machinery and trains. There is not sufficient time to make a useful transition from oil and gas to coal. Coal cannot make a significant contribution to energy need at the end of the century. Energy from renewable sources will increase, but without fossil fuels the energy available will be only ten to twenty percent of the need.
A simple calculation shows that it is not feasible to build enough nuclear power plants to meet the need. A 1000 megawatt power plant generates 106 kilowatts. There are 8,760 hours in a year, thus the power plant generates 8.760 x 109 kWh per year.
The need, 1.5 x 1014 divided by 8.760 x 109 = 17,900 power plants.
The energy produced by the 17,900 power plants is needed to power the lifestyle. Additional energy and material must be supplied to build, operate and maintain the power plants.
It takes 1000 one megawatt wind power generators operating all the time to equal the power of one 1000 megawatt power plant. Wind is intermittent. Thirty to forty million one megawatt wind generators would be needed to generate 1.5 x 1014 kWh per year.
The solar constant, the power in sunlight above the earth’s atmosphere, is 1.336 kW/m2. The atmosphere absorbs some of the energy so that a commonly used approximation is 1.0 kW/m2 on the earth’s surface where the sun is directly overhead.
Solar intensity varies with latitude, time of day and season. We consider the solar intensity at 40 degrees latitude where there is the greatest demand for energy.
In late June the average power is 0.609 kW/m2 The day is 16 hours. The energy delivered by the sun in mid-USA is 9.78 kWh/m2 per day.
In late March and September the average power is 0.488 kW/m2 The day is 12 hours. The energy delivered by the sun is 5.8 kWh/m2 per day.
In late December the average power is 0.289 kilowatts and the day is eight hours. The energy delivered by the sun is 2.31 kWh/m2 per day.
Solar cells and parabolic solar collectors that are 20 % efficient must intercept the all the sunlight that falls on 92,000 square miles in June, 455,000 square miles in December. For year round service the December area applies. Additional area must be added to compensate for cloudy days and snow or other obstruction of the collector surface.
Bio-fuel energy is solar energy from the photosynthesis of plants. Sustained availability of bio-fuel energy depends on the amount of energy that can be derived from the annual growth of biomass that can be produced beyond the essential uses of biomass for food, clothing, wood products and preservation of the natural environment.
The low productivity of biomass is confirmed by experience. In 2007 seven billion gallons of ethanol were produced from 2.88 billion bushels of corn raised on 18.7 million acres. Corn for ethanol was 22% of the total crop of 13.1 billion bushels on 85 million acres 
. The yield was 154 bushels per acre raised with fertilizer made from fossil fuel.
The solar energy on the 1.87 x 107 acres was 5.5 x 1017 Btu (British thermal units) = 1.611 x 1014 kWh
The energy in the seven billion gallons of ethanol was 4.8 x 1014 Btu = 1.406 x 1011 kWh.
The solar energy on the 2007 ethanol crop land was 1,146 times greater than the energy in the ethanol produced from the crop.
Biomass can grow on most of the earth’s land area except Antarctica and Greenland. That area is 1.335 x 108 km2.
Worldwide average incident solar energy is 6 kWh/m2 per day, 2.19 x 109 kWh/km2 per year.
Total annular solar energy on land where biomass can grow is 1.33 x 108 x 2.19 x 109 = 2.924 x 1017 kWh.
Corn grown on fertile land is a highly productive source of bio-fuel. The average productivity of all biomass is much lower than corn. Considering that much of the land area produces little or no biomass, it is reasonable to estimate that one part in 4000 of the solar energy on the land area would be in bio-fuel if all the biomass were converted to fuel. Preservation of the natural environment and mankind’s other needs for biomass limit the portion that can be used for fuel to less than one percent. Thus one part in 400,000 of the solar energy on the land will be in the fuel that can be made from biomass.
Annual bio-fuel potential = (2.924 x 1017) / (4 x 105) ~ 5.4 x 1011 kWh.
The fossil fuel used in 2005 was 1.156 x 1014 kWh. The world production of bio-fuel energy is thus 0.42 percent of the fossil fuel energy used in 2005. Bio-fuel can not contribute significantly to the world’s energy needs when the fossil fuels are gone. Mankind cannot do in one year what took nature millions of years to do.
Fossil fuels can be used directly or with little refinement. Renewables cannot. Uranium, sunshine, wind or biomass cannot be put directly into one’s gas tank. It is obvious that no renewable source or combination of sources can harvest enough energy in quantity or form to sustain our current lifestyle.
Fossil fuels are combustible fuels. Except for the direct burning of biomass, renewable fuels are in the form of electricity. Combustible fuels are needed for essential uses: airplanes, ships, metal working, cement making…. Except for biomass renewables cannot provide chemical feed stock for manufacture.
A global food system built on fossil fuels
As the world population has grown from two billion to seven billion during the past century agricultural production and food distribution have expanded to match the population growth and provide better nutrition. The expansion is dependent on fossil fuels.
When fossil fuels are depleted agricultural production will revert to the pre-industrial level, and there will be insufficient bulk transportation for distribution of its products.
Until the middle of the twentieth century America depended on family farms, typically 160 acre farms in the agricultural heartland. The farms produced a wide range of products; grain, fruit, vegetables, chickens, eggs, milk … mostly for local or regional consumption. Seasonal products were canned or otherwise preserved for off season consumption.
Now farms extend thousands of acres and produce only one crop. Big machines apply fertilizers made from gas and oil and plant hybrid seeds treated for specific soil conditions. Corn production on family farms produced less than fifty bushels per acre. Production augmented with fossil fuels produces more than 150 bushels per acre.
Fruit and produce are imported from distant lands, other continents. Almost every item in the super market has travelled several thousand miles. Long distant bulk transport and refrigeration are vital to our food supply.
Breeding, feeding and processing of animals for food have undergone great changes. Until the middle of the twentieth century the animals ate their natural food and lived in their natural environment. When they reached market size they were sent to a place like the Chicago stockyards where they were slaughtered, halved and quartered and sent to local butchers who made the cuts requested by the customer.
Now beef cattle are bred for efficient food production and spend much of their lives on feedlots eating grain and other food that is not natural to them. Meat production is similar to mass production of automobiles. They eat their natural food on ranches until they reach about 650 pounds. They are sent to feedlots where there are tens of thousands of animals. They are fed grain and other food to promote weight gain. They spend the last 45 to 48 days in a “Concentrated Animal Feed Operation”, standing shoulders to shoulder in a long line, eating from a trough. Feedlot gain is about 400 pounds. They are sent to a processing plant where they are slaughtered and processed into final meat cuts and products, packaged in plastic, and sent to the supermarkets.
Other meat animals are raised in similar fashion. A chicken farm my have 300,000 chickens. From hatch to slaughter are in crowded, windowless sheds. They are bred and fed to achieve twice the weight in half the time of range fed chickens. Laying hens are caged side by side so closely they cannot spread their wings. They eat from a moving belt. Each hen drops an egg on to a different moving belt about every thirty hours. Hogs spend their lives in confinement similar to the chickens.
Appreciation of the importance of oil and gas to our food supply may be gained by looking around in a supermarket. Where did all this come from? How was it produced? How did it get here? How is all this plastic made?
Where do we go from here?
The ever increasing costs of oil and gas are due to the ever increasing cost of recovery from reserves of ever decreasing productivity. Within the next few decades air and sea travel and transport will decline as costs go up. Industrialized agriculture will be phased out with rising costs of fertilizer, farm machinery operation, and transport of agricultural products. Manufacture of products that require chemical feed stocks from oil and gas will decline. The growth in Gross National Product is a measure of the increase in energy consumption. The GNP cannot continue to grow as the availability of oil and gas decreases. There will be increasing, permanent unemployment.
By the end of the century the fossil fuels that sustain our civilization will be depleted. Past civilizations built on a single resource have not survived. Past civilizations depleted their resource in a region. Ours has depleted it essential resource from all the earth, a resource that can never recover. By the end of the century energy resources will total only ten to twenty percent of the amount needed to provide the current lifestyle for the large population. The world’s ten billion will face daunting problems;
- Feed them without nitrogen fertilizers and bulk transport
- Clothe them with only natural fibers
- House them without oil or gas heat
- Sustain and satisfy millions of permanently unemployed
- Provide water in a changed environment
- Build structures without oil and gas to harvest energy from renewable sources
- Provide adequate information recording, processing and distribution
These problems and others must be solved within the lifetime of a person born today.
If people of the 21st century can apply ingenuity to a declining lifestyle as they did to the improving lifestyle of the 20th century, perhaps the inevitable changes can be made in an orderly way.
Our unrestrained use of the world’s resources of energy is producing a vast quantity of scientific, technical, cultural and artistic knowledge. It is our responsibility to insure that the knowledge we gain is preserved and available to future generations. It is now contained in the minds persons who work in the various fields of knowledge and in perishable forms. Printed information is on degradable materials like paper. Machine readable forms are on computer chips. It is not conceivable that the means to read information on the chips will survive for many future generations. It is important to develop some indestructible method of recording vast amounts of information in a form and language that can be read directly.
John P. Holdren, “Science and Technology for Sustainable Well-Being”
Science, Vol. 319, 25 January 2008, pg.424