The Ergosphere
Wednesday, June 22, 2005
 

A post-oil vacation

Scenario:  It's the year 2025.  Oil has become effectively unavailable.  Bio-fuels are $8/gallon equivalent, and the product of all thermal depolymerization plants is fully subscribed for lubricants and chemical feedstocks.  But we have wind power at 3¢/kWh and solar PV from micron-thick polymorphous cells at 7¢/kWh (adjusted for inflation).  We have Toshiba-style Li-ion batteries at $100/kWh storage.  They can be recharged in 5 minutes; modern vehicles are full of them.

The high expense of motor fuel has led a resurgence of rail.  Steel has gone back into abandoned rights of way, and the lines which were stripped to single tracks have gone back to doubles and triples.  Yet for all the rail, most of what rides on it is not conventional trains; the Bladerunner dual-mode truck led this as a fuel-saving measure, and it snowballed.  As rail grew beyond the old rights of way into the medians of divided highways, more types of vehicles became rail-capable.  The California Air and Noise Pollution Initiative of 2011 forced most trucks onto the rails, and electrified the rail system with overhead power wires; the program spread to the entire east coast by mandate, and then nationwide as truckers demanded to be able to run on the cheaper electric power.  Diesel roar and clatter has become rare, reserved for high-value oversize loads, the military and routes far from the beaten (or hot-rolled, in this case) path.

Such a high investment in infrastructure needed users to pay for it.  After the freight haulers, private vehicles took to the rails in droves, drawn by the combination of low energy costs, quiet operation and no need to actively drive.  Electric power and automatic cruise control meant a peaceful journey between any two points on the network; this pulled in customers driving vehicles from buses down to pickup trucks.  Among these came thousands of motorhomes:  creatures of summer holiday weekends, streamlined and electrified descendants of Winnebagos and Airstreams, most black-topped with solar panels.  Somewhere along the way, you joined them.

One summer evening you pull out of your driveway in your Ecostream Sunflower.  You and the kids are packed, the fridge is stocked, and its 100 kWh battery [corrected, see comment 3] is fully charged; that's enough for 100 miles of off-network cruising[1], and charging stations are not hard to find.  The drive to the rail terminal 20 miles away doesn't take long.  After a short wait while you confirm your route reservation with the network, you pull onto a rail siding, lift the mast for the overhead brush and engage the bogie jacks; you start drawing power from the overhead as steel wheels lift most of the weight off the road tires.  Electricity flows from the wire overhead through the brush to the rail below, charging the battery; you serve dinner.

After a wait for scheduling and blocking, your motorhome gently starts up and slips into place in a train of vehicles moving nearly nose to tail.  None of them are running engines; there is the click-click of metal wheels, the hum of motors and the buzz of air conditioning fans.  You start a video for the kids as the landscape slides by.  It gets dark; you put the kids to bed.  The train cruises 50 MPH most of the night, slowing gently for termini where some vehicles drop onto their tires and slip out of line like cars going off an exit ramp.  During the night you go through a couple of "exchanges" where your motorhome splits off one line and gets onto another.  The cruise control, auto-steer and network manager handle this; you don't even wake up.

7 AM, and dawn finds you 550 miles from home.  You've had a good night's sleep and not burned a drop of liquid fuel; every kWh you've used has come from wind farms and waste-to-energy plants, and it's cheap because you've been travelling at night during off-peak hours.  Your cost is less than you would have paid for regular no-lead in 2004[2].

At 10 AM you've covered 675 miles and you're nearing your exit.  The train slows over a section where the steel is flush with pavement; you pull up your rail wheels, slide to the right and disengage the cruise control.  The mast for the overhead brush folds itself against the roof.  An hour of driving on back roads puts you at the campground on the lake with a quarter of the battery left, and you're fully rested.  During your week at play, the panels on the roof recharge your batteries; when time comes to go home, you slide out with a soft hum and a crunch of gravel.  In a minute it's as if you were never there.

This is just a mental image with some supporting numbers, but it ought to put the lie to the idea that the end of oil has to mean the end of fun, let alone everything.  Who says we have to choose between living cleaner and living better?  We can have plenty of both... if we decide to do it right.

Footnotes:
1.  A motorhome might get 10 MPG at 50 MPH; if the engine is 25% efficient, this is roughly 0.84 kWh/mile at the wheels.  A 100 kWh battery would allow 100 miles of driving plus some extra for accessories and such. [Note:  Original, erroneous numbers were 1.7 kWh/mile.]
2.  0.84 kWh/mile * $0.10/kWh retail = 8.4¢/mile.  A vehicle getting 10 MPG on $2.20/gallon fuel burns $.22/mile.  With the added value of cruise-while-you-sleep and other features, rail operators could probably command a substantial premium in tolls over and above the markup on electricity.  [Note:  Numbers also corrected.]

2010-06-09:  Comments closed to prevent further spam. 
Comments:
hmm. At 9.2 KWH per gallon (@25% efficiency), I get 46 KW and .9 KWH per mile. Add 20 M^2 of 50% efficient solar cells integrated into the RV's paint, putting out 10KW, and you've got 3/4 of your battery left at the campground!
 
hhhmh. well, maybe 25% efficient, to be conservative, leaving 70% of your battery (including accessories)...
 
I was using some old Ford numbers:

18640 BTU/lbm (lower heating value)
6.167 lbm/gallon

1054.4 J/BTU and 3.6e6 J/kWh yields 33.67 kWh/gallon; 8.42 kWh/gallon out of the engine...

Goodness, you're right.  I divided by 5 somewhere instead of 10 (I've driven vehicles which got about 5 MPG... hated it).  Okay, you can cut the size of the RV battery in half, or double the range.
 
The Oil Drum at http://theoildrum.blogspot.com/ suffered your same formatting problem and decided to abandon the template for a new one. It seems that blogger was inputting some code in their posts that was causing the big space! Going to a new template seems to have fixed it.
 
I loved reading this! You gave me some optimistic hope for a fossil fuel-less future. :-)
 
This is just one possibility among many; it could be modified substantially by technical developments or aborted by political opposition.

The core technologies in this are the Bladerunner dual-mode truck and the plug-in hybrid vehicle.  If you like this concept, the best thing you can probably do right now is to call your Senator in support of the Oil Security Amendment.  Make specific mention of plug-in hybrid cars.  Better yet, write a letter.  (There appears to be no constituency for the Bladerunner in the USA at the moment - this may change.)

Also work to preserve rail rights-of-way for future use; using them as trails may be okay, but try not to let anything get built on them.
 
Sailing makes a nice vacation ;-)
 
These are quite ridiculous numbers. Biodiesel made from palm is already much cheaper today than regular diesel. A barrel of palm oil costs US$ 54 today. So there.
 
That's good, but it doesn't answer all the questions:

1.  How much land is suitable for growing oil palms?  (If you can't grow enough to replace petroleum, you need other things and you are still subject to high prices if supply of any of them is short.)
2.  What's growing there now?  Easily displaced or essential?
3.  Can you make the gel point low enough to use as fuel in cold areas?
4.  What diseases and pests affect oil palms?  It wouldn't do to invest huge amounts of time, money and land in energy security just to find that some insect, fungus or bacterium is running through your plantations and destroying your supplies for the next several years.

I don't like to bet everything on just one prospect, but if we're going to do the "eggs in one basket" scheme I'd prefer that it's not one that's subject to the energy equivalent of either the Irish potato famine or sabotage.
 
Ok, I see you use the totalitarian logic of the average peak oiler here: if the alternative in question doesn't replace all petroleum, all at once, it's not worth bothering. Many alternatives combined can offset the decline in oil production.
But I'll try to answer your questions:


"" That's good, but it doesn't answer all the questions:
1. How much land is suitable for growing oil palms?""

New high yielding drought resistant varieties can be planted almost anywhere between the tropic of cancer and capricorn. Land suitability maps and AEZ maps show there's approximately 6 million square kilometres suitable. Say you recover 500.000km² of this, you are able to produce around 6.8 million barrels of oil per day. (50 million hectares, 50 barrels per hectare, around 2.5 billion barrels per year, which is around 6.8 million bpd).
Not nearly enough. But enough to bridge the decline of petroleum and jump to a hydrogen economy.


""2. What's growing there now? Easily displaced or essential?""

The bulk of the land we're talking about is brousse and secondary forest.
The word "essential" is too subjective: the integrity of a tropical rainforest is essential for Western scientists and ecologists; for people who have nothing to lose, it's basically a source of food, fuel and land. I don't see why, e.g., the Congolese wouldn't have the right to cut all their forest, and to use the land to plant cashcrops.
If it's essential for Westerners, they have to put their money where their mouth is, and pay the Congolese to preserve their forests.

""3. Can you make the gel point low enough to use as fuel in cold areas?""

That's not necessary, since the bulk of the economic growth is going to happen in countries where you can poor palmoil straight into a diesel engine; the south.
For Europe and the US, use jatropha.
If necessary, there are easy methods to heat oil, before you pump it into your engine. That's no biggie.

""4. What diseases and pests affect oil palms? It wouldn't do to invest huge amounts of time, money and land in energy security just to find that some insect, fungus or bacterium is running through your plantations and destroying your supplies for the next several years.""

True, that's always a problem, just like geopolitics and terrorists are fungi for oil wells. But then, there's enough phytopathological research to protect these crops. Moreover, if you think of the billions upon billions of profits palm plantations generate, you can easily hire a team of good biotech scientists to create either pest-resistant varieties or to devise great bio-pesticides.

""I don't like to bet everything on just one prospect""

Of course palm oil is just one of many sources. But it's the best, and it will allow us to stretch peak oil for a few more years. It will also allow those poor people in the south to make an extra dollar.
 
"Ok, I see you use the totalitarian logic of the average peak oiler here: if the alternative in question doesn't replace all petroleum, all at once, it's not worth bothering."

I never said that.  You probably tried to put words in my mouth because you don't want to admit an uncomfortable truth:  sources with small yields can only go so far to offset declining yields of oil, and can do nothing to prevent prices from soaring.

Palm oil may be profitable, but it's not going to provide the energy basis for industry.  It's just going to cost too much.

"New high yielding drought resistant varieties can be planted almost anywhere between the tropic of cancer and capricorn. Land suitability maps and AEZ maps show there's approximately 6 million square kilometres suitable. Say you recover 500.000km² of this, you are able to produce around 6.8 million barrels of oil per day."

Current world oil production is about 84 million barrels per day.  Looks like 50 million ha of oil palms could compensate for perhaps an 8% decline in other supplies.  That's not going to do it for long.

Palm oil sounds like a great low-tech scheme where the available skills and parts won't support anything more.  As an efficient use of land, forget it.

"If it's essential for Westerners, they have to put their money where their mouth is, and pay the Congolese to preserve their forests."

Or find an energy source that's cheap enough to make palm oil fuel uneconomical.  If the rain forest is worth more as rain forest, that deals with the problem at the source.
 
Current world oil production is about 84 million barrels per day. Looks like 50 million ha of oil palms could compensate for perhaps an 8% decline in other supplies. That's not going to do it for long.

Well, it might give us a few years extra.

I'm the first to admit that palm oil (or indeed biomass in general) won't have any globally significant impact. But locally, it may make a tremendous difference.

Take Congo (where my expertise is); this is one of the poorest countries on the globe; but it's growing at 7% a year, and it needs more and more petroleum. Its economic growth is being hindered by high oil prices. (As you know, experts have warned that the G8 committment to Africa, has already completely been offset merely because of high oil prices).
And high tech developments (like hydrogen vehicles) take years to arrive in Africa.
So in the case of Congo, relying on old world diesels fuelled by locally produced palm oil, is a realistic and extremely interesting proposition. The country can also export excess palmoil to other developing countries, in a South South transaction.

So you're correct when you state that such a scheme will not have a major impact in the global flow of things. Locally, it will, I think.

As an efficient use of land, forget it.

Palm oil is still the world's most productive energy crop, converting more solar energy in useful energetic products than any other species known to man. So I beg to differ here.

But I assume you're referring to the global picture, where land must also grow food. Then again, you have to look at things locally. According to the FAO, a country like Congo has enough land to produce both food for the entire African population (Congo can sustain 1.5 billion people) and at the same time produce a few million barrels of palm oil a day. It's a big country. ;-)

So we're dealing with different perspectives here; you're looking at things in the abstract, from a global perspective; I look at things concretely, from a local perspective.
 
Or find an energy source that's cheap enough to make palm oil fuel uneconomical.

No! You have to change that sentence into the following one: "Or find an energy source that's cheap enough and that reachest the poorest of the poor in the poorest countries on the planet, like Congo, Angola, Mozambique, Brazil, Gabon and the Central African Republic."

That's a crucial difference. If your cheap technology does not reach these people, there's no chance they will ever give up using rainforests as food and fuel; or they won't give up burning them to plant cashcrops.

That's the challenge.
 
"Palm oil is still the world's most productive energy crop...."

Not as productive as algae.  And as a higher plant, it is not productive enough to replace petroleum.

"If your cheap technology does not reach these people, there's no chance they will ever give up using rainforests as food and fuel; or they won't give up burning them to plant cashcrops."

I think you're missing the point, on 3 accounts:

1.  The technology doesn't have to reach them directly to make palm oil not worth growing for export.  Remember, it's exportable beef and soybeans which are Brazil's rationale for clear-cutting the Amazon.

2.  If the global energy economy moves away from petroleum and its equivalents, eventually so will the vehicles available to the Congolese.

3.  People will stop cutting down rainforests for fuel when other fuels are cheaper.  The best way to do that is to make other avenues more productive; fortunately, it's not hard to make things much more productive than oil palms.  A solar-zinc plant per "going negative" producing 149 MW average and fed with switchgrass at 10 tons/acre/year would consume the biomass from ~28000 acres (11,400 ha) and produce 115 MWh/ha/year; the palm oil plantation producing 50 bbl/year @ 6.1 GJ/bbl yields 85 MWh/ha/year raw energy (a piddling 26 MWh/ha/year if used in engines yielding 30%), and you can't produce other products from the oil palms while the zinc system can use byproduct biomass from anything.

Oil palms might be a bridge or a system for the extreme back woods where needs are small and land is cheap, but I don't think we should be concerning ourselves about how many million bbl/day they can produce; as you said, the solutions suited to oil palms are strictly local.
 
"Palm oil is still the world's most productive energy crop...."

Not as productive as algae. And as a higher plant, it is not productive enough to replace petroleum.


Oh no! Not the algae fantasy again! The American "Aquatic Species Program", as many other similar programs in Europe and Japan, have consistently shown that algae cultures are unstable and uneconomic. I've had countless discussions about this topic before, with experts, and most are convinced that only very expensive photobioreactor systems work, but at a cost that is far higher than oil prices will ever go. Algae is a no go. And in open pond systems, their yields are extremely disappointing (less than 8grams per square metre per day - under the best conditions). In real life, oil palms beat them hands down.

I think you're missing the point, on 3 accounts:

1. The technology doesn't have to reach them directly to make palm oil not worth growing for export. Remember, it's exportable beef and soybeans which are Brazil's rationale for clear-cutting the Amazon.


The point is, you need to come up with a technology that consistently produces liquid fuels that can be used in mass adopted technologies (the combustion engine being the only one so far).
Else, (e.g. with hydrogen) you have to change the entire infrastructure, have an entire new market penetration cycle (which takes decades).

I doubt whether you'll be able to come up with such a technology. All signs are there that you won't. :-)

So as long as you can make profits by growing oil palms which provide a direct substitute for petroleum, you won't stop people from growing them.

About the beef and the soy in Brazil. First off, Brazil grows millions of tonnes of sugarcane with the sole purpose of deriving ethanol from it.
And the forests of Malaysia and Indonesia, the world's biggest palm oil producers, were all cut for palm plantations.

In short, I don't see any technology which will replace the simplicity of the internal combustion engine anywhere soon. And knowing that oil prices are only going to rise, palm oil will be grown en masse for biodiesel.

In fact, Malaysia and Indonesia are already creating new plantations, with this sole purpose in mind.


2. If the global energy economy moves away from petroleum and its equivalents, eventually so will the vehicles available to the Congolese.

Sure, but "eventually" in this case is very much undefined.
And I don't think you have any idea of how big the difference is between the West and the rest, when it comes to the the market penetration of new technologies.

And then, do you think hydrogen vehicles (if they're ever adopted en masse in the West) will be cheaper than ordinary old world diesel engines? I doubt it.

"Eventually", yes, even the Congolese will use some futuristic technology. Eventually.


3. People will stop cutting down rainforests for fuel when other fuels are cheaper. The best way to do that is to make other avenues more productive; fortunately, it's not hard to make things much more productive than oil palms. A solar-zinc plant per "going negative" producing 149 MW average and fed with switchgrass at 10 tons/acre/year would consume the biomass from ~28000 acres (11,400 ha) and produce 115 MWh/ha/year; the palm oil plantation producing 50 bbl/year @ 6.1 GJ/bbl yields 85 MWh/ha/year raw energy (a piddling 26 MWh/ha/year if used in engines yielding 30%), and you can't produce other products from the oil palms while the zinc system can use byproduct biomass from anything.

How do you drive a car on solar-zinc-switchgrass? I don't see it. Not using batteries, I hope?

Oil palms might be a bridge or a system for the extreme back woods where needs are small and land is cheap, but I don't think we should be concerning ourselves about how many million bbl/day they can produce; as you said, the solutions suited to oil palms are strictly local.

Well, yes, "local" is a flexible term, of course. I think economies like Malaysia, Indonesia and Brazil would be quite interested to know how much their oil palm plantations yield. In fact, the EU and Japan and China are closing deals with both Brazil, Congo and South-East Asia with the same purpose of importing the only substitute to petroleum available on the market today.

So it's a local solution with brilliant prospects for the next two decades, and long after that in the least developed world, where, after all, the bulk of the world's economic growth will occur.
 
"The point is, you need to come up with a technology that consistently produces liquid fuels that can be used in mass adopted technologies (the combustion engine being the only one so far)."

Why do I need a liquid fuel?  What I want is motion at the wheels; electric motors do a much better job of this than combustion engines, and the only reason we bother with liquid fuel is because it's been cheap to pump and compact to store for the last century.

It's not going to be cheap for much longer, and you can substitute electricity for at least half of most people's liquid-fuel use.  Don't believe me?  Go read what people are doing.

"Else, (e.g. with hydrogen) you have to change the entire infrastructure, have an entire new market penetration cycle (which takes decades)."

The electrical grid has far higher penetration than filling stations (electricity goes to almost every home).  If you wanted to use zinc as the compact storage medium for electricity, you'd have a similar amount of work to do as hydrogen would require but with fewer technical difficulties and much lower levels of hazard.

"I doubt whether you'll be able to come up with such a technology."

I didn't have to; someone else already did it.

"So as long as you can make profits by growing oil palms which provide a direct substitute for petroleum, you won't stop people from growing them."

Oh, certainly.  And as soon as it becomes cheaper to power a vehicle with electricity than with oil from whatever source, the economic basis of the plantation disappears like the abandoned dairy farms in Vermont.  Pity for the dead rainforest, really.

"I don't see any technology which will replace the simplicity of the internal combustion engine anywhere soon."

This looks pretty simple to me.

"do you think hydrogen vehicles (if they're ever adopted en masse in the West) will be cheaper than ordinary old world diesel engines?"

I think hydrogen is a boondoggle, a deliberate and cynical diversion.  There are much better ways to get electric energy into a vehicle, including several varieties of rechargeable batteries and zinc-air cells.  If you had read the links I gave you, you would already know this.

It's becoming painfully obvious that you have read neither my thoughts and opinions as stated in plain language on this blog, nor the information to which I've pointed you.  If you aren't going to try to hold a discussion, I'd appreciate it if you'd post elsewhere.
 
Ok, I've read your posts on "solar-zinc-biomass" for electricity. You are then referring to two different technologies with which to use this electricity in a car (nothing new here really):
1. an ordinary hybrid vehicle that has been enhanced to become a plug-in hybrid. The usual comment: batteries are still way too expensive (you need to replace them every two years or so), and recharching takes too long to be practical (the prius+ brochure says 3hours).
2. zinc air batteries require an entire new infrastructure with containers for the replacement and recharging of the batteries (that's the present configuration). As of today, zinc air is still far more expensive than either ordinary petrol or biodiesel. And many times more expensive than palmdiesel. I don't see a change here anywhere soon (and neither do zinc air manufacturers).

So in short, you refer to old technologies that are bulky, heavy, expensive and not very practical to use, compared to an ordinary combustion engine + a liquid fuel.

If there's a breakthrough in battery technology, this may change, but nobody really knows when such a breakthrough will arrive. Even Toyota's new fast recharge li-ion batteries will still be way too expensive for use in automobiles.

So I wish you good luck with the batteries. I just don't think we'll see them in mass produced cars anywhere soon.

Finally, let's not forget that at over US$60 a barrel, many non-conventional oil sources become competitive, keeping batteries out of the running for a long long time.
 


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