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Climate Change and the Peak Oil Flip-Flop

Bill Chameides's picture
Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University
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  • Apr 12, 2013 11:30 pm GMT

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There’s a new twist in the “peak oil” debate. Is it good news for the climate?

Peak Oil Question Remains, Debate Continues

Ever since M. King Hubbert advanced the theory of peak oil in 1956, experts and non-experts alike have been debating about timing and relevance. (See herehere, here and here.) Hubbert’s argument seems like a no-brainer. Oil is a finite natural resource, so there must come a time when oil production peaks and begins to decline. The question is, when? And for a world economy that is largely fueled by oil, that “when” question is quite germane. If peak oil hits while oil demand is rising, it could spell worldwide economic disaster.

The world of oil punditry is replete with predictors of an imminent arrival of peak oil. (See hereherehere and here.) Folks bullish on oil, on the other hand, have long held that that time is way in the future, that there is plenty of oil in the ground and that whenever supply begins to be outstripped by demand, new technologies will be developed to get at what had been deemed to be economically unrecoverable.

History Shows That When Oil Prices Rise, Oil Production Responds

The historical verdict, so far, seems to be in favor of the oil industry bulls. Each time dwindling supplies and/or surging demand have caused oil prices to rise, the economics of high oil prices have spurred the development of new sources to quell the imbalance.

The latest ups and downs in the economy and the oil industry seem to follow that scenario. Remember the skyrocketing gasoline prices of 2005 and 2006 before the July 2008 peak? As in previous oil shocks, there were warnings that peak oil had arrived and that we should all get ready for even higher prices at the pump.

But that didn’t happen. First we were “saved” by the economic crash of 2008 — which some argue was actually “a direct result of peak oil.” The crash caused demand for oil and therefore prices as well to fall. Lots of folks, myself included, assumed that the reprieve from the economic slowdown was temporary and that oil prices would rise, possibly even more sharply than before once the global economy got going again.

Crude Oil Prices 1986-2013) (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Fortunately that hasn’t happened. The economic recovery, while tepid, is underway. And while oil prices have recovered somewhat, they have not hit the July 2008 peak, let alone shot above it. (See related: “Outlook for U.S. Gas Prices: A Bit Lower This Summer“)

So what’s going on? As you might expect, there are a variety of opinions. Some continue to warn that a spike in prices at the pump is just around the corner — for example see these predictions (here and here).

Others claim that we are seeing the same demand-and-supply response that we’ve seen in the past. The runup of oil prices in 2007 and 2008 sparked new investments that have increased production and moderated prices. And this argument is supported by data showing an approximate 10 percent uptick in world oil supplies since 2009.

A New Paradigm Proposed

But now two new reports — “Global Oil Demand Growth — The End is Nigh” by Seth Kleinman et al. of Citigroup and “The End of an Era: The Death of Peak Oil” [pdf] from Robin Wehbé et al. of the Boston Company — argue that something entirely different and rather unprecedented is underway. Both reports argue that we have entered a new era, one characterized not by the spectre of a supply peak, but by a demand peak that will assure that demand will not outstrip supply for quite some time to come.

The reasons for peak oil demand:

  1. Fuel economy. Recall the new fuel efficiency standards (known as CAFE, short for corporate average fuel economy) promulgated by the Obama administration with the support of the automotive industry? They will certainly have a moderating influence on U.S. oil demand. But the United States isn’t alone. Fuel economy standards are tightening throughout the world, including in China, the European Union, Japan and Canada. Fuel efficiency is expected to rise for trucks as well. The net result — global fuel efficiency on cars and trucks, which has languished for decades, will increase annually by about 2.5 percent.
  2. Substitution of natural gas for oil. The authors project that the revolution in natural gas supplies wrought by shale extraction will have a major ripple effect on the oil industry. Huge new supplies of natural gas [pdf] will continue to lead to low prices in natural gas and that in turn will lead to substitution of natural gas for oil. (Indeed this has already begun.) As a result. we’ll see a shift in the following:
    • Transportation, especially for trucks and other large vehicles currently powered by diesel.
    • Power generation. Though not very common in the United States, oil is still used to generate electricity. For example some 8 percent of New York State’s electricity is generated from oil, and in 2008, worldwide, about a trillion kilowatts of electricity (out of a total of 19 trillion kilowatts) was generated from oil. Kleinman et al. predict that is about to change as old oil-fueled power plants are replaced by gas-fired ones.
    • Petrochemicals too. Currently the petrochemical industry primarily uses oil as a feedstock. But natural gas, especially so-called wet gas, contains ethane, which can also serve as a feedstock for chemical synthesis. Low natural gas prices have already begun the substitution that the authors predict will accelerate into the future.

Of course for this to happen on a global scale, natural gas must become a global commodity that can be traded and transported from producing regions to consumers. No problem, say Kleinman et al. — the answer will be liquid natural gas (LNG). They opine:

“[O]nce the next wave of LNG export projects comes to market … global LNG markets should loosen materially. This raises the prospect of lower spot prices, and a greater incentive for gas for oil substitution to spread and accelerate globally. Hence, the assumption that substitution outside of the US starts to accelerate post 2016.”

But that’s not all. The Boston Company goes even further, arguing that the emergence of peak oil demand is being also driven by an unprecedented shift in consumer behavior. For years the accepted wisdom has been that consumer demand was inelastic with respect to price — in other words, even if prices change, demand remains much the same. The Boston Company report points to data since 1970 showing that each time the price of oil rose above 3 or 6 percent of gross domestic product, demand was reduced or quickly curtailed. Thus, they argue, price, not supply, now limits demand.

Suffice it to say — and I’ll note this is par for the course when it comes to the peak oil debate — not everyone agrees with these predictions (see chart).

Oil Demand Forecasts

Citigroup forecasts a very modest increase in demand that plateaus near 2020 (see also Fig. 1, page 2) while BP and the International Energy Agency (IEA) project a larger, steadily increasing demand of 0.7-0.8 percent. I expect the projected demand growth in the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecast will be revised downward in the report due out this spring. ExxonMobil projects a 1.5 percent annual increase in demand from 2010 to 2025. (See End Note for sources.**)


Could Climate Be a Winner?

At least on the face of it, the projections of Citigroup and the Boston Company if they pan out would be good news for the climate. The world is replete with hydrocarbons and it may very well be true that, as the oil bulls have been telling us, technological innovation will make it possible for us to economically pull all the hydrocarbons in their various forms out of the ground to burn them if we so choose. And it certainly seems like advances in fracking and horizontal drilling have moved us a big step closer in that regard.

The questions we should be asking ourselves are: Do we want to pull all this stuff out of the ground, and How much is too much before the climate price is too dear to pay for cheap oil?

The fact that oil demand may be flattening out is a positive sign for the climate; at least the near-term pressure to pull all the oil out of the ground as fast as possible has lessened. (A caveat here: some of the oil demand flattening is due to switching from one fossil fuel — oil — to another — natural gas, which while cleaner than oil, still puts carbon dioxide in the atmosphere when burned.)

Interestingly enough, this peak oil demand phenomenon, if it comes to pass, will have occurred of its own accord without a global accord on carbon emissions. Is the system somehow correcting itself on its own? If so, the “system” better get busy because there’s a lot more to do — not just flattening demand but actually turning the demand curve downward, and not just for oil but for all hydrocarbons. Tall order. Maybe the “system’s” response will be to engineer a global climate treaty. And if that happens, who gets the credit?

End Note
** Sources for chart: “Global Oil Demand Growth — The End is Nigh,” Seth Kleinman et al., Citigroup, March 2013. Energy Outlook 2030, BP, January 2013 (data [xls]). North America leads shift in global energy balance, IEA says in latest World Energy Outlook, International Energy Agency, November 2012. “International Energy Outlook 2011,” U.S. EIA, September 19, 2011. “The Outlook for Energy: A View to 2040,” ExxonMobil, 2013.

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John Miller's picture
John Miller on Apr 12, 2013

Peaking of world oil demand would be positive towards associated petroleum carbon emissions.  The problem statement, however, is rapidly becoming coal demand, particularly in developing countries.  World coal consumption is increasing and projected to increase for many decades.  

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Apr 12, 2013

As I understand it, the primary reason for the steady plateau both in oil price and supply is the great gulf in economic growth that has opened up between developed and developing nations. While economic growth was similar in developed and developing nations up until about a decade ago (when China joined the World Trade Organization), a consistent (and rather enormous) 4-5% gap has now opened up.

Developed world growth is fuelled primarily by oil while developing world growth is fuelled primarily by coal. Thus, as a result of this great growth division, global oil consumption flatlined from 2005 to 2011, while coal consumption increased by a staggering 27% over this same time period (BP statistical review). This is a very natural resource substitution response to the quadrupling of the oil price by the global free market economy.

Thus, I’m afraid the permanent quadrupling of the oil price will have very limited climate benefits. Fossil fuel-driven economic growth will just continue to shift from highly indebted oil-importing developed nations to developing nations such as China (which gets 70% of its primary energy from cheap coal).

If the developed world could afford further oil-driven economic growth, it would do so, but the high prices obviously suppress demand. By 2011, OECD oil consumption had dropped 7.5% from its peak in 2007 (BP), primarily as a result of very meagre growth in that period. Actually, when measured by indicators such as median wages and unemployment (which filters out some of the GDP distortions created by central banks), the developed world has contracted in line with its oil consumption. One can only guess at what the oil price would have been if not for this decline in purchasing power in the west following the crash in 2008.

Elizabeth Woodwoth's picture
Elizabeth Woodwoth on Apr 12, 2013

Good article.  No, we should not pull all this stuff out of the ground and transfer it to the heavens and the oceans.

On December 3, 2012, The Global Carbon Project, comprised of 35 climatologists from 10 countries, reported that under “business as usual,” “emissions are heading to a 4.0 to 6.1 degree C ‘likely’ increase in temperature.”

The public has not been properly informed by the media about global warming so the problem has been incorrectly framed for decision-making.

Ralfy Mann's picture
Ralfy Mann on Apr 13, 2013

In capitalist systems, fuel economy leads to continued demand as underutilized resources are used elsewhere for profit.

Manufacturing and mechanized agriculture are heavily geared towards the use of crude oil. Meanwhile, other energy sources may be low energy returns.

Finally, demand worldwide for resources to meet just basic needs is high.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 14, 2013

Peak Guano?

The world was running desperately short of fertilizer until Fritz Haber developed nitrogen fixation in 1911. Suddenly the Western world was no longer dependent on ships running to South America for fertilizer made from nitrogen-rich bat dung.

With one tech breakthrough, a perceived global dependence becomes irrelevant. It will happen again.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Apr 14, 2013

Schalk Cloete,

We have had a shair of intollerant folks looking to shout down, intimidate, and disparage others here too. Everyone that appreciates this site needs to be vigilant and to boldly and politely  tell intolerant folks that their behaviour is not appreciated.

There is a broad line between passionately disagreeing with a poster’s opinion, and launching personal attacks at them. I do hope that the Admincontinue to take note, and do due dilligence to caution those who would prevent others from speaking freely and without intimidation.

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Apr 15, 2013

Peak oil will flip-flop but the reality is that Big Dirty Fossil is trying to block the upcoming renewables, in other words, these ups and downs are typical for a struggling fossil fuel energy industry trying desperately to keep its ugly head above the waterline.

I’m confident that in the end most of us will understand that fossil fuels are NOT the way to go and stop these dangerous climate attacks that currently happen.

I hope to be still alive when the day comes that renewables will surpass fossil fuels… and most of all that my children will still be able to enjoy nature as much as I have been able to sofar.

Only when we are able to leave fossil fuels in the ground, then our economies can really grow without being dependant on fossil fuel industries which only cause death, cancer, war, severe climate change, and who knows what other misery.

Tell me, who wants a future like that?


Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Apr 15, 2013

Pieter, I agree that climate change is a very serious problem, but I would like to challenge your implied notion that a shift to renewables would have negligible adverse effects and allow for perpetual exponential economic growth. 

The average American today consumes primary energy at a rate of roughly 10 kW. Getting this energy equivalent from a 100% renewable energy society will require roughly 100 kW in installed solar/wind capacity (accounting for the low capacity factor, low EROEI and the wide range of intermittancy issues together with the seasonal/geographical variability). If this energy came from solar panels only, each person would require about 500 200 Wp panels together with a share in a wide range of truly enormous energy storage facilities. Although it is still poorly quantified, it is safe to say that the material, energy and land required by such a massive renewable energy rollout together with the vast quantities of waste generated will have a very large impact on the environment. 

In essense, people see and experience the problems created by fossil fuels only because they provide almost 90% of our energy. Similar problems with renewables are not yet visible simply because renewables other then hydro supply only about 1.5% of our energy needs and the intemittency issues are still completely compensated for by fossil fuels. If the roles were reversed and fossil fuels supplied only 1.5% of our energy needs, coal, oil and gas would suddenly appear to be a lot cleaner.

Fossil fuels are not the problem. In addition to all the negatives you mentioned, they are also direclty responsible for almost every material comfort you and I enjoy today. The problem is the humungous rate at which we burn fossil fuels, and this problem is created solely by our addiction to the fundamental impossibility of perpetual exponential economic growth on our finite planet.

For this reason, I really think that renewable energy PR promising free and limitless energy which can support continued exponential economic growth is very dangerous. The higher we drive our numbers and material expectations, the more vulnerable we become as a global civilization, regardless of where our energy comes from.  

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Apr 15, 2013

Thanks for your comments, Schalke!

You’re of course free to challenge my wish to change to renewables in addition to better existing products by increasing their efficiency (just like the fossil fuel industry is finally trying to accomplish nowadays).

First of all, you mention this:

“The average American today consumes primary energy at a rate of roughly 10 kW. Getting this energy equivalent from a 100% renewable energy society will require roughly 100 kW in installed solar/wind capacity”

Well, if I understand you correctly, you say that for 10kW per day on a average basis you need 100 kW installed? I think that is not the case at all.

For one day to generate the 10kW of energy plus say 2 kW for losses, assuming there are only 4 hours of effective solar / wind power, you only need (10 + 2) / 4 = 3 kW installed. Preferrably we do it using net metering so we do not have to buy batteries to store power, or if you rely on it then batteries and an UPS would of course provide continuous energy flow, even when the grid says ‘goodbye’.

It may be so that today our roofs will not directly allow for this type of installation, but technology advances quickly especially in times of dispair (which creates high demand). Besides, there are already many projects for comunitairy solar / wind installations if roof space is an issue.

Solar/wind are great solutions for decentralised energy production, and will continue to grow fast, if not exponentially.

Then of course there is inefficiency of current appliances. I have seen a refigerator made in France that consumed only 30-40W in a hot environment of about 100°F, something that is easily accomplished using the right (insulation) materials. Current ones do consume a lot more and it is not necessary.

Letting the fossil fuel prices increase to a fair level and installing a carbon tax will help a lot to let people recognize but above all force them to search new ways of using energy.

Doing so, the industry has no other option than to follow and innovate at a much higher pace, which is needed urgently.


Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Apr 16, 2013

Hi Pieter,

It seems like we are not quite on the same page with regard to energy calculations. But this is a rather specialized area, so I’ll refrain from waffling on about the technicalities. 

It might be more useful to recommend some videos. The first is from Prof. David MacKay on the physical limitations of renewable energy caused by their diffuse nature. Prof. MacKay really likes renewables, but encourages people to be realisitic and go for a “plan that adds up”. The video is long, but Prof. MacKay is an excellent and very engaging speaker.

It should also be pointed out Prof. MacKay does not account for the energy costs of balancing large renewable energy variations over a wide range of time- and length-scales – something which can easily triple the necessary installed capacity. It should also be pointed out that economic and political limitations will probably be at least one order of magnitude stricter than the physical limitations discussed in this talk. 

Another respected energy expert who urges realism when it comes to the great energy transition is Prof. Vaclav Smil. He also makes some valid points about the scale of the challenge. Here is a good summary:

Finally, when talking about something as large and as complex as the transition away from fossil fuels, it is important to understand the economic and societal challenges brought by our addiction to perpetual exponential growth on our finite planet. Take a look at Richard Heinberg’s End of Growth thesis:

In summary, it is great to advocate the use of more efficient fridges and all other energy efficiency and conservation mechanisms, but I think it is very dangerous to advocate the use of renewable energy to sustain economic growth. Both renewable energy and economic growth are ideologically extremely attractive concepts, but if you really delve into the details, both systems simply don’t add up, especially if you make them mutually interdependent. 

I K's picture
I K on Apr 16, 2013

The computer driven vehicle will reduce transport oil demand by at least 80 percent. Cant come soon enough

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Apr 19, 2013

Just because a bunch of politicians decree higher gas mileage cars and trucks does not make it so. There are thermodynamic and practical limits on how far you can actually go on a gallon of gas. I suppose we could all move about on motorized skate boards while the political elite are driven about in their Escalade limos.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Apr 19, 2013

Just because a bunch of politicians decree higher gas mileage cars and trucks does not make it so. There are thermodynamic and practical limits on how far you can actually go on a gallon of gas. I suppose we could all move about on motorized skate boards while the political elite are driven about in their Escalade limos.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on Apr 19, 2013

Just because a bunch of politicians decree higher gas mileage cars and trucks does not make it so. There are thermodynamic and practical limits on how far you can actually go on a gallon of gas. I suppose we could all move about on motorized skate boards while the political elite are driven about in their Escalade limos.

Charles Weber's picture
Charles Weber on Apr 19, 2013

         It is a fallacy that gas prices are high. Gas is probably selling for one quarter what it would cost to make it out of limestone. It is stupid to be using our petroleum for trivial purposes such as keeping warm or surface transportation. It should be confined to making lubricating oil and plastic or aerial transportation. Burning oil is like burning your furniture to keep warm.     

        A moratorium had been imposed on ocean drilling, It is not ocean drilling that should be stopped, it is terrestrial drilling and even pumping. Ocean wells are too easy to sabotage in a war. So it is poor policy to suck our terrestrial oil dry during peacetime. Of course we should have floating steel barriers standing by in the case of Gulf oil. It is insane to allow oil to flow out across the ocean unimpeded.

       Everyone is stressing excessive use of fossil fuels as causing a green house affect on climate. However, that is the least of our problems. Sucking our petroleum reserves dry, even our oil shale, will have disastrous consequences in the future on our economy (USA) and our security, especially military security. We should use foreign fuel as much as possible as long as they are selling it for one fourth of what it would cost to synthesize it out of limestone.. If we lose our freedom to the likes of Hitler, Osama Bin Ladin, or Stalin it will not make any difference what the temperature outside is. Life will not be worth living anyway.

      As for using food to make liquid fuel in a world where people are starving to death, goes beyond stupidity and starts to nudge against insanity.

      Increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is undoubtedly increasing climate warmth somewhat. However I suspect that at least as great an affect on warmth is the baring of soil by increase in annual crop acreage, roads, buildings, grazing, and desertification currently. You may see an article that briefly discusses this and gives some solutions in more detail in  .

             Sincerely,  Charles Weber



Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 19, 2013

Jim, consumption has indeed accompanied tech advancements and population in the past. However, it’s not energy consumption that’s wreaking havoc on our biosphere but the waste products from generating that energy.

If we want to guarantee a liveable future for our progency we’re going to have to take a hard look at our impact and at population control. From a practical standpoint, we’ll also have to admit that we’ll have no cooperation from the rest of the world if we expect them to continue using 1/5 the energy we do.

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Apr 19, 2013

Thanks for the links, unfortunately I’m not allowed to visit youtube so I’ll have to wait until I’m able to do so.

In the meantime, yesterday I saw an amazing talk from Allan Savory on which actually highlights a subject that is hardly talked about in these forums: desertification.

Mr. Savory states that this is nearly the biggest threat to mankind, and explains in a very understandable way how he has come to discover throughout his life.

Really impressive and something to think about while fighting climate change.

In the meantime all I can do, as a simple human being is to change my lifestyle each day to a more sustainable one, and as a father who loves his kids to teach them to follow me in that.

We all should be doing just that and the world will change accordingly.


Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Apr 21, 2013

This essay and some of the comments here illustrate again that ‘peak’ theories seem obvious in the abstract; but they continually falter by failing to consider the role of technology. Technology not only determines how a resource is developed and used but even what constitutes a ‘resource’ at all.

As Luft and Korin point out in their book “Turning Oil Into Salt,” sodium chloride was a precious resource over centuries of human history — because it was about the only practical means to preserve food. The invention of refrigeration drastically changed the status of salt from a resource worth fighting wars over to a trivial commodity.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Apr 21, 2013

Thanks for the link Pieter. It was very interesting indeed. My dad is an agricultural researcher focussing on livestock and I also sent the link to him to see what he thinks. 

I’m definitely with you about the lifestyle change. From my experience all that is needed is a mindset shift from chasing happiness through consumption to finding happiness in creation/contribution. Since I got that right, I simply don’t desire stuff anymore. As a natural result, I have a sustainable carbon and ecological footprint and have never been happier, healthier, more financially secure or more productive in my life. Sad that almost the entire world is still chasing the fundamental impossibility of happiness-through-consumption and destroying our planet and our future in the process…

Pieter Siegers's picture
Pieter Siegers on Apr 23, 2013

Thanks for your comments Schalk I couldn’t agree more with you.

Please let us know what your dad thinks about it!


Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Apr 24, 2013

He says that he knows about it, but that the idea of such intensive grazing is still somewhat on the fringes. Like all other ideas of the sort, this one will probably also require decades rather than years to implement on any meaningful scale. 

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Apr 24, 2013

Here is one of a few key rules of thumb I offer to develop practical policies:

Any solution that depends on ignoring or transforming human nature is not a solution.

What you call ‘lifestyle change’ is an option that appeals to a very limited, generally privileged elite. According to the IEA, well over a billion of the world’s people are “energy poor.” The lifestyle changes you prefer are not appealing to the billions of people in developing countries — as well as the growing number of poor in supposedly rich countries — who aspire to a higher standard of living.

The solution for the great majority is not perpetual austerity but better, more efficient technology that can provide higher incomes with less burden on resources and the environment.

Schalk Cloete's picture
Schalk Cloete on Apr 24, 2013

I am under no illusion that lifestyle changes such as those I described above will magically sweep the globe, causing everyone to willingly reduce their carbon and ecological footprints to sustainable levels and seek happiness from creation instead of consumption. However, as a chemical engineer, I am also not under the illusion that technology will come to the rescue and grant western consumer lifestyles to 10 billion people.

Sustainable prosperity will not be possible without widespread behavioural change, be it proactive through so-called lifestyle change or reactive in response to various envrionmental, economic and societal problems (as is happening in the west already). Our long-term future probably depends quite strongly on the income-weighted distribution of proactive and reactive responses within the general population. 

When looking at the numbers, the World bank estimates that the top 10% of the global population are responsible for 60% of global resource consumption. Credit Suisse estimates that this top 10% controls almost 90% of global wealth. Thus theoretically at least, proactive behavioural change among these “elites” could have a very real impact. 

I K's picture
I K on Apr 25, 2013

As a chemical engineer, I am also not under the illusion that technology will come to the rescue and grant western consumer lifestyles to 10 billion people.

Well as a anything engineer you should know that energy is not used for the sake of it but to do work.

Transport: minus 80-90% energy demand from computer vehicles

Heating: minus 80-90% from insulation and proper building

Electricity: PV and a global grid, (plus there is plenty of coal/gas/nuclear and hydro)

Electricity can also feed what remains of the minus 80-90% heating/transport

Also the only thing limiting the number of people who can live like us is the number of people living in mechanised countries. The route to wealth is industrialisation and mechanisation. Most the world has figured this obvious fact out and as a result worldwide we are industrialising at a pace much faster than ever before.

For some odd reason many people believe that for someone else to have more, another person needs to have less. That is not the case

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Apr 25, 2013


I really love your thought processes, but let me add some of mine. For us humans, our future is nothing if not tied inextricably, intricately, and intimately to technology. Berating Technology is pointless and useless, wanting to go back to nature and living a simpler lifestyle is wishfull thinking at best.

We humans will forge a way forward with Technology. We will increase our knowledge, we will learn how to make/use new materials and to be far more efficient with what we have, and we’ll apply energy from the atom and the sun (the two ultimate sources of energy if you want to ignore the true source of solar power) to materials, using our knowledge, feeding energy into our creations, and carve out for our progeny a future far better than those of our forebears.

But let me also say for the benefit of others that as we bring technology to bear on the lives of our poorer fellows, and as their lives improve, the social and cultural transformation would be quite beneficial. For one thing, the population would probably decrease naturally without any China style draconian measures. First world nations tend to have lower populations than 3rd world countries in spite of greater longevity. There will be less strife/wars except perhaps for ideological reasons, and even those would be hard pressed to gain traction in a more enlightened and advanced world.

I am a great believer in the ability of 4th gen Nuclear power to help our peoples and our world. I am also intrigued by OTEC, if it can be shown to be safe for the oceans to transfer surface heat to the depths. I have also come to appreciate that a globaly connected PV grid could indeed be a fantastic source of power.

What really bothers me and turns me off totally is the often Obtusely beligerant and falsely superior tone and attitude of  people I call GW/Renewables Enthusiasts. 

These are people whose goals are not trully that of Finding Clean energy for our people. If it were, they’d be open to any source of none Carbon/Methane Energy. Their outright flat out Hate on anything that is not Wind or PV puts the lie to their pretense. To me they seem more like Cultists who want to push an agenda, rather than calm logical thinking people whose only interest is in finding safe none carbon energy sources.

A last word or prediction. the transportation sector will get a huge boost from the next generation of batteries wich come close to the energy density provided by gasoline (subtract the wasted heat). These changes are only 5-10 years away.


New Revolutionary Water-Metal-Air Powered Car – 1600 km Range on 1 Battery! – YouTube

Ralfy Mann's picture
Ralfy Mann on May 3, 2013

The drop in consumption for the US, EU, and Japan is being replaced by increasing demand for the rest of the world:


Bill Chameides's picture
Bill Chameides on Jun 12, 2013

That energy is coming from excess warming from greenhouse gases. Capturing that energy and using it to do work will be quite a “2nd law of thermodynamics” feat.

Bill Chameides's picture
Bill Chameides on Jun 12, 2013

Consider this point from Amory Lovins: the vast majority of energy expended in an automobile is used to move the vehicle and not the passenger(s). Yes, we can save a lot of energy through efficiency when we bear in mind the real purpose of transportation is people. (See .)



I K's picture
I K on Jun 12, 2013

We have had this discussion before, a heat pipe is not a magic devise it doesnt improve the heat engine equation which is simply

max efficency = 1 – (temp hot / temp cold)

So the very max efficency you will get from a 20 centigrade temp differential from the hot 290k source and cold 270k source is going to be

Max efficency = 1 – (290/270) = 7.4%

However that is a virtually impossible figure to reach becuase in practise your temp differential is not your hot or cold source but your working fluid. In this case if you knock 3 kelvin difference off from each side you get

Max realistic efficency = 1 – (287/273) = 5.1%

And that is gross, you need to take away the energy used by the devise itself in moving huge quantities of water huge distances. You also need to consider that moving so much heat is going to invariably impact the temps of your sources potentially further redcuing your differential.


Anyway the biggest challange is going to be your heat exchanger. It needs to exchange heat at a temp differential of only 3 centigrade. So imagine a 1GWe gross devise. You need to move 20-40GW of heat through 3 centigrade differential.

By comparision a 1GW coal plant moves just 2.5GW of heat through a 500 centigrade differential.

In short your heat exchanger needs to be some 2000 x larger than the equivlant coal plant heat exchanger. And you need two of them.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Jun 13, 2013

For simply moving people from place to place, a motorcycle has long been an effective option. Its fuel economy is much greater than that of most automobiles. But the casualty rate is much higher too. And many people either can’t or don’t want to be fully exposed to the elements while traveling.

The mass of automobiles serves to protect the passengers from weather and harm. So it is not irrelevant to the purpose of safe transportation.

Motor vehicles also need to able to haul cargo in addition to just people. That in turn requires more power and sturdier construction that what might be required to move people only. Those necessary functions also add weight. More weight might be saved by eliminating seats and having passenges kneel or sit on the floor. But at some point austerity becomes onerous.

However, some of Amory’s ideas about how to make automobiles lighter, without compromising safety and utility, are starting to become feasible to implement in manufacturing.

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