Peaking oil and rising renewables – Part 1
By Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl, President and Vice President Illinois Renewable Energy Association
Peak oil is a simple concept with a long history. Until the 1950s, the United States was the worlds leading producer and exporter of oil. In 1956, Dr. M. King Hubbert, a Shell Oil scientist, predicted oil production in the lower 48 states would peak in the 1970s and continue to decline thereafter. He documented that oil discoveries in the lower 48 states actually peaked in the 1930s.
While his views were criticized, declining oil production from 9.6 billion barrels per day in the 1970s to around 3 billion barrels per day by 1981 verified his prediction. Today, we import 60 percent of the oil we use.
Using the same analytical approach, Colin Campbell predicted that global oil supplies will peak around 2010, and claimed that global oil discoveries peaked around 1964.
Peak oil will lead to declining oil supplies and rising oil prices. When about half the reserves of an oil field are extracted, it becomes more difficult and costly to extract what is left and production gradually tapers off.
Global natural gas supplies are following a similar curve and are expected to peak around 2020.
The term peak oil refers to conventional oil sources that were secured by driving a pipe into the ground and using pressure within an oil field itself to propel oil out of the well. As wells were driven deeper, oil had to be pumped from the field. Eventually, more energy is required to pump the remaining oil than is contained in the oil itself.
The oil economy has been built on the presence of cheap oil, which supplied up to 400 times the energy used to find and produce it. Todays oil resources deliver only 30 times the energy used to find and produce it. The era of cheap oil has been extended by federal subsidies that obscure the true costs of our fossil fuel economy.
None of our energy alternatives match oils favorable production-to-use ratio, so the cost of producing electrical, processing, and transportation energy will continue to rise.
More than 25 percent of our energy needs would come from renewables now if a 1980s federal study had been implemented. Instead, federal subsidies continued to favor fossil fuels and nuclear power over renewables by a margin of four to one. Additionally, the United States convinced Saudi Arabia to flood the market with oil, driving its price down to $10 per barrel and undermining the transition to renewables.
With control of Iraqi oil and partial control of Caspian Sea oil, we could again drive oil prices down to $10 a barrel. Peak oil suggests such an event would be short-lived.
A new target, supported by a Shell Oil scenario, suggests renewables should provide 20 percent of our energy by 2020.
State and federal mandates, supported by citizens, requiring a renewable energy portfolio standard and a renewable fuels standard could help us reach the goal.
The second part of this article will explore the role that renewable fuels can play in our energy future.