If there is a way to get through the loss of fossil fuels, it lies in developing new and more efficient ways to generate renewable energy and more efficient ways of utilizing the fossil fuels we have left. Renewable sources currently provide only 16 percent of our energy in the U.S. and 11 percent of our electric power. Unless the production of these renewables can be increased substantially in the next 50 years and the efficiency with which we use energy increased many fold, then the world is going to become a very dark and stagnant place.
There is running debate going on between people who believe all is lost without copious supplies of fossil fuels to power the global civilization and those who believe that the conservation and efficiency that will come with very high fossil fuel prices will provide a recognizable future for civilization. The great unknowns in all this is whether there will be sufficient financial and other resources available to effect the transition and whether or not the damage wrought by a changing climate will be so serious that a global transition to renewable energy will be difficult if not impossible.
For the immediate future, however, much of what life in the future will be like will depend on the technologies that will enable civilization to continue while using only a fraction of the energy that is consumed today and to develop the technology to produce large quantities of cheaper renewable fuels. The manner in which our fossil fuels are being used is so wasteful of the energy contained in fossil fuels that major reductions can be made with little real impact on the activities that consume energy. The prime examples of this waste is the internal combustion engine which uses only 14 percent of its fuel to turn the wheels while wasting most of the rest. Huge central power plants waste most of the energy that devours coal and natural gas, and produce much waste heat that is dumped into the air or local water bodies or in line losses. Without the massive waste, the fossil fuel age could last a lot longer.
Announcements of new technological discoveries and developments that may prove to be important to the post carbon era are being made constantly. Some of these technologies are likely to have a significant impact on future decades if not centuries – just as steam wrought massive changes to the 19th century and internal combustion did to the 20th. Keeping track of all the changing technology that may impact the way we live is not easy. Some developments make it into the media and receive widespread attention; other equally significant developments are so technical or are still unproven laboratory experiments that few ever hear of them or appreciate the significance they could have. As these emerging technologies are likely to be an important part of our future, I will make an effort to keep track of those that could have much potential and discuss them periodically.
There were two major developments recently that appear to have major importance to our future. The first of these is the development of workable light-emitting-diode bulbs. These are workable in the sense that they now can be made to glow in human-friendly warm white light, last 25-50,000 hours, use only about 15 percent of the electricity used by the incandescent bulb, and are falling in price to the $20-40 range. Even at these prices the payback time is 4 to 10 years considering the energy savings, and decades-long life but price cuts are likely as incandescent bulbs are phased out. Widely unrecognized but of more importance is that fact that electricity prices are going to go up rapidly during the life of these bulbs. Smart electric meters that charge more for electricity time could easily double the cost of electricity during the hours lights are most used.
The Energy Independence and Security Act will effectively ban 100-watt incandescents starting in 2012. Seventy-five-watt bulbs will depart in 2013, followed by 60- and 40-watt lamps a year later. During August the Department of Energy announced that Phillips Lighting had been awarded the $10 “L” prize for the best LED light bulb. This 60 watt light bulb will be available next year as will others. The Indians who are about to be faced with endemic power shortages expect to be marketing a $15 LED shortly. A start-up called Switch expects to be selling a 60 watt bulb in the fall that draws 13 watts, creates light indistinguishable from an incandescent, and will sell for around $30.
Without the massive waste, the fossil fuel age could last a lot longer.
The EIA says that lighting now only consumes about 13.5 percent of the energy in residential and commercial buildings in the U.S. Converting from incandescent to LED in residences should not take more than a few years, given the short life of incandescent bulbs. Commercial space which has been lit with fluorescent tubes for decades will take longer but there again, the savings will be substantial.
The people at Volkswagen will announce a single seat electric powered car. A preview given last week reveals that the car will have a relatively small 5.3 KWh lithium-ion battery and be made mostly of aluminum. The car will have a range of only 40 miles, but given its size and battery size, which is only a third that of GM’s Volt, should be relatively inexpensive to buy and operate. The important message is that Volkswagen, with government backing, could soon be producing a relatively inexpensive car that will handle the commuting and shopping needs for most of us while using very little petroleum and not much electricity either.
Most of us recoil at the notion of a single seat car that does not have the flexibility to drive everybody, everywhere, at any time. Cheap gasoline has so conditioned us to this mindset that we do not acknowledge the massive waste involved in large cars moving only one person most of the time. If 75 percent of our travel was done without the waste of the single person in a multi-person automobile, the fossil fuel age would last a lot longer.
Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.