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Creating a Sustainable Society
January 5, 2006

Most individuals today have heard of the potential energy crisis, and that we will run short of oil some time in this century. This shortage was first predicted by M. K. Hubbert, in his 1956 article in "Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels" in which he predicted that world oil production would peak around 2000 after which the demand for oil would outstrip supply. The curve, representing the annual amount of oil produced has the classical Gaussian shape of a peaked hat with a wide brim that looks like a hill. Continued oil discoveries have pushed the maximum or peak of world oil production, now known as Hubbert's peak forward so that it will most likely occur before 2025 (See Figure 1). But oil is not the only non-renewable resource that we use. Our technological society is just as dependent upon Tantalum, Copper, Platinum, Gold, Antimony and many other elements. Shortages of these elements could be even more crippling than oil, since we know how to manufacture synthetic oil, but there are few artificial alternatives for platinum or gold. Our use and stewardship of non-renewable resources is part of the larger problem that mankind must solve over the next 25 to 100 years: that of creating a sustainable society and economy. In reality we are not just facing one peak, but an entire mountain range.

Figure 1. From Energy and Power , A Scientific American Book, 1971, pg. 39.

Oil First. Let's look at oil first, since it's the better known of the non-renewable resources. Much has also been made of the U.S. oil consumption rate. With just 4.5% of the world's population , we consume 25% of the world's oil . We are in a word, the hog at the world's energy trough. At current rates, the known world oil reserves of 1.1 trillion barrels of oil will last less than 50 years. But what would happen if the rest of the world's 6.4 billion people used it at the same rate we do, which is around 25.7 barrels per person each year? Liberally assuming that the world's oil supply is around 2.3 trillion barrels of oil , and that it can all be extracted , the world would use it all up in just over 14 years. With 10 billion people as projected by 2050, the time is reduced to just 9 years assuming that 100% of the 2.3 trillion barrels can be extracted, which will not be the case. For most fields, oil companies are thrilled if they can extract 25% to 40% of the total reserves. Even if you take the most optimistic position that 100% of the projected 6 trillion barrels of oil could be extracted, the timeframe is only extended to 33 years. This is why the dates 2025 and 2050 occur often in papers on energy independence. It will take at least 50 years to transform the world's industrial economies to use as little oil as possible. If we wait just 10 more years, the era of cheap oil will be over, and we many not be able to afford the change. The clock is ticking and we are already 25 years late.

The Other Hubbert Peaks
Using both the world and U.S. consumption rates, we can also calculate how long other critical non-renewable resources will last. Table 1 shows these calculations for the major minerals tracked by the USGS Minerals Information Team . We can see that easily accessible deposits of Oil, Helium, Uranium, Boron, Cadmium, Tantalum, Copper, Gold, Antimony, Silver, Germanium, and Indium are all projected to be nearing depletion by 2050. But those who grew up in the 70's have heard this before. In 1972, the Club of Rome published its report on sustainability in a book called The Limits to Growth which projected the impending exhaustion of many of our mineral resources by the mid 90's. This turned out to be incorrect. As world prices for these resources rose, previously low-grade deposits became profitable, new deposits were discovered, and the scale of extraction efforts increased dramatically. This has enabled supply to keep up with demand for the last 30 years. However, this process cannot go on forever and we will eventually run out of mineral deposits to mine . Many copper mines now operate on ore that is only 2/3 rd of 1 percent (.006) copper . What will happen as the rest of the 3 rd world industrializes? The scale of mining needed to meet world demand, the scale of environmental impact, energy costs and limited supplies will inexorably drive market prices beyond the reach of most 3 rd world countries. This realization leads to some very disturbing conclusions. We here in the U.S have always assumed that if other countries became democracies and everyone worked hard, then they would achieve comparable living standards. This now does not seem to be the case. Assuming we continue using current technology and consume non-renewable resources at current or accelerated rates, the following conclusions are inescapable:

- Most of the world's population will never obtain the U.S. 's current Standard of Living.

- Industrial economies that depend on or consume large quantities of non-renewable resources will begin to collapse by the middle of the century.

- The West (including the U.S. ) cannot sustain its Standard of Living past mid-century.

- Resource intrigue, conflict and wars will become commonplace as countries vie for the dwindling reserves and displaced populations can will act as disease incubators, potentially producing new plagues.

- Terrorists such as al-Qaeda and others will be able to command enormous power by threatening or attacking resource infrastructures that are the lifeblood of all industrialized countries.

To prevent these possible events, we along with the rest of the industrial nations, must start transforming our economies now so that they become sustainable. The effort to achieve this goal will be long, intensive and expensive and will require the combined efforts of all industrialized nations to achieve the scope and breadth of the needed technical breakthroughs. In addition, major social and political breakthroughs will be needed for former combatants to work together rather than wasting scarce resources on wars.

Table 1. Exhaustion time in years for known mineral reserves

The Magnitude of the Problem

To get an idea of the magnitude of the problem industrialized societies are facing, let us return to oil. Hydrogen has been touted as the fuel of the future and a way to solve the looming oil shortage because it burns cleanly and, in liquid form, comes close to oil's storage energy for the same volume. The image portrayed by our politicians is that it we will all gas up our fuel cell powered cars at service stations and run our home furnaces with it. There are four problems with this vision:

1) Amount of material in use (Installed base)

2) Embodied Energy

3) Amount of energy used and replacement costs

4) The cost of transport and handling hydrogen

1) The Amount of Material in use (Installed base)

The typical auto 70 kilowatt fuel cell currently requires 0.1 kilograms of platinum or palladium as a catalyst and while automakers feel that they can eventually reduce the amount to .0112 kilograms, when you divide 12 to 100 grams into the projected world reserves of 48 million kilograms of platinum , you wind up with only somewhere between 480 million and 5 billion fuel cells. If everyone in China wanted two cars, there might not be enough platinum in the world to support their desire. In the future, we will have to recycle 100% of non-renewable resources to prevent their eventual exhaustion and consider how products are made to prevent all of a mineral from becoming consumed in existing products. Developing fuel cells that do not use scarce non-renewable resources is also critical.

2) Embodied Energy

Embodied energy is the amount of energy used to make something. This includes everything from the energy to mine and process ore to the gasoline the employee used to drive to and from the factory that made the item. Table 2 lists the amount of oil used to make common building materials. While the amounts may seem small, when they are multiplied over 6 to 10 billion people, they become very large. This can be seen by determining how much energy is embodied in what we use every day; from your toothbrush to your clothing to the freeway you drive on. Using historical data of the energy consumed by U.S. manufacturing over the last 56 years from the Energy Information Agency we can determine that the stuff we use every day required roughly 2,200 barrels of oil per person to make . Multiplying this by 6.44 billion people gives 14 trillion barrels of oil, or between 6 and 14 times more than the world's projected reserves of 1 to 2.3 trillion barrels of oil . Thus, there is not enough oil in the world to build, let alone maintain the American lifestyle for everyone.

Table 2. Embodied energy of building materials

3) Amount of Energy used and its cost of replacement

While hydrogen has been touted as the replacement for fossil fuel, no one has really said where enough hydrogen to power our country will come from or how it will be distributed. The magnitude of the problem is easily seen by casting it in terms of 1,000-megawatt nuclear power plants, which typically cost $1 to $3 billion dollars and take 10 or more years to build. If we wanted to replace just the oil used in our economy with hydrogen by 2050, we would have to build and complete three 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plants every month from now till mid century just to generate the energy to make the hydrogen. If global warming is truly caused by fossil fuel carbon dioxide, then we would need to build six 1,000 megawatt nuclear plants every month till 2050. The cost of such an endeavor is also staggering. The power plants would cost around 4.6 trillion dollars (current value) and the distribution system to handle hydrogen, which cannot be put through standard steel gas pipes, is another 2 to 4 trillion dollars. This all will cost in excess of 275 billion dollars per year. This dwarfs any energy plan proposed by either political party here in the U.S. In truth, there isn"t enough uranium to supply so many reactors and Thorium breeders would be needed to create sufficient nuclear fuel . But they would also generate huge amounts of long-lived and very dangerous radioactive waste. The cost of storing large amounts of radioactive material for hundreds of thousands of years would also be enormous. Yucca Mountain , the DOE's current long-term radiation storage facility is projected to cost over 60 billion dollars with no end in sight. The cost to store 30 times more material could exceed 1.8 trillion dollars. The cost of building green power systems with solar cells, wind, tide, wave and geothermal plants is similar to the initial construction cost for nuclear energy, but with a fraction of the environmental impact and long term waste problems. Regardless of the generation method used, it will take decades to construct the plants and we cannot afford any delays.

4) The Cost of Transportation and Handling Hydrogen

The current vision is that hydrogen will replace gasoline and natural gas in just a few decades to provide clean energy. But handling hydrogen is much more difficult than fossil fuels. The hydrogen molecule is very small, and easily leaks through standard pipe joints that gasoline and natural gas cannot penetrate. It also seeps into microscopic cracks in steel, which can cause it to become brittle and crack like an egg shell ( hydrogen embrittlement ). Hydrogen also ignites very easily when mixed with air, and mixtures from 4% to 76% by volume can sustain a flame. Thus a hydrogen leak from a standard pipe joint could be ignited by a static spark and then burn unobserved because of its nearly invisible flame. This does not mean that hydrogen cannot be used safely. Air Products , one of the nation's largest hydrogen producers, safely produces and transports over 1.6 million tons of hydrogen each year. However, the equipment to safely handle it is far more complex and costly than is currently required by gasoline. Thus, all of the pipelines, handling and storage facilities for gasoline and natural gas would have to be completely replaced. The cost of this endeavor is above 4 trillion (see the PDF version, appendix A) dollars and would take decades to complete. This implies that electric will be the major fuel of the future, and whatever hydrogen powers, for many years it will have to be transported and stored in special tanks to avoid the cost of replacing over 2.2 million of miles of gas pipelines. Hydrogen storage is also problematic. Current methods require expensive pressure or cryogenic storage tanks and because of its light weight, hydrogen requires 10 times (liquid) to 100 times (gas) the volume to store the same energy when compared to gasoline. Liquefying Hydrogen is also very inefficient because none of the energy required to liquefy is recovered during combustion, which is 20% to 40% of the total produced.

Table 3. Cost to convert from fossil fuel to green power plants

What's to be done?

So what's to be done? How do we deal with the impact successive Hubbert Peaks of oil and other non-renewable resources? Fortunately, many of the required solutions support each other and are part of 's proposed solution to energy independence.

- Plan: Develop a comprehensive plan to handle the coming resource shortages in terms of their impacts on society, industry and world politics. First world nations are the most susceptible to the coming non-renewable resource shortages but they are also the best equipped to handle them. They, and especially the Untied States, must lead the rest of the world to prevent the potentially disastrous events that resource shortages will create.

- Conserve: If 99% of a non-renewable material, such as platinum, was recovered during recycling, then in just 30 cycles, 25% of the total would be lost. Therefore, we must modify existing processes to reduce or eliminate waste wherever possible and all future products must be designed to minimize energy, non-renewable resources used and recycling costs, and to maximize the recovery of non-renewable resources. In addition, manufacturing must also be modified to reduce the use of oil as a component or feedstock. The more oil we can remove from industrial processes the less we will have to produce synthetically.

- Recycle: Adopt a goal of completely recycling all industrial and municipal waste. The U.S. 's current oil demands could be completely satisfied by using processes such as thermal depolymerization on all municipal and agricultural waste.

- Transform: Transform how we construct what's around us to minimize both the material and energy used. For example, green buildings can consume as little as 1/100 of the energy now used by the average house. Every structure should also generate electricity through solar cells on its roof.

- Innovate: Create a list of necessary technological breakthroughs to address the shortages and time frames for each. Use tax incentives, government programs and competitions similar to the X-prize to spur their discovery. Examples include solar cells with efficiencies above 50% (they typically run at 18% today), farming without using oil for fertilizer or pesticides, use of biological agents to produce hydrogen instead of solar cell or power plants, devising methods for storing hydrogen at atmospheric pressure with energy densities equivalent to fossil fuels, developing fuel cells that use no non-renewable resources (no platinum!), and creating commercially viable fusion power plants.

- Unite: Create a global organization to formulate strategies to deal globally with the coming resource shortages. This is critical because the U.S. will not only have to transform its economy, but that of all 3 rd world nations as well. This will be necessary to avoid resource wars, terrorist attacks and the diseases that follow large-scale conflicts. It will also be absolutely necessary if Global Warming is caused by fossil fuels. It will not do the U.S. any good to become 100% green powered and carbon emission free if 95% of the rest of the world is not. Fusion is a good candidate for this. Creating commercially viable fusion power plants has been a goal for over 50 years and it would liberate the world from potentially disastrous future course. However to make it a reality will take far more money and resources than have been allocated to it and it will take the combined efforts of all of the major industrial nations to make a reality.

- Save Money and Make Money! One of the justifications for not preparing for the coming oil shortage has been that it will cost jobs. This is actually the exact opposite. If we do nothing to decrease our dependence on foreign oil, we will spend over 8.5 trillion dollars importing oil by 2025, or in simple terms we could employ 2.1 million people in high paying jobs today and over 8 million jobs in 2025. Additionally, with the largest technologically based economy in the world, the U.S. has the ability to make enormous amounts of money supplying both green energy and green technology to the rest of the world (See Appendix B).

What's next?

Time is of the essence. The clock is already ticking and we are late to the party. For every year that we delay, we create a bigger and more expensive backlog of work that must be done. Become involved. Make those around you aware of the task ahead, and let your elected representatives know the importance of these issues and the timeline that we all face.

By Stephen Hubbard
Pasadena , CA

Click here for a PDF of this editorial with a proposed timeline, complete references and other supporting links

About the Author

Stephen Hubbard works with Geographic Information Systems for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in Los Angeles . He is an ardent proponent for environment protection, energy independence and reducing our dependency on fossil fuels. His recent concern about natural resource sustainability was spurred by reading Collapsed by Jared Diamond (see above) combined with his hobby of determining why disasters occur even when they are long predicted and follow well worn patterns or The Anatomy of a Disaster.

Read/Post Comments (7)

Comments (7)

Ron Bengtson from ID
1/6/2006 9:26:04 PM

Informative article, it makes a clear statement of just serious our energy situation is.

However, I did find an error in the first paragraph: Stephen Hubbard erroneously states that Dr. Hubbert predicted world oil production would peak in 1972. Hubbert predicted U.S. oil production would peak in 1972, not world oil production.

He predicted that world oil production would peak in the year 2000. Hubbert was right about U.S. oil production, it did peak in 1972. And, we may have already hit world peak production, but if not, it doesn't matter, because what we have come to is just as bad... the growing demand for oil by China and India will cause oil prices to increase steadily from now on.

Ron Bengtson

Stephen Hubbard from CA
1/21/2006 1:41:54 AM

Thanks for catching the switch of 2000 and 1972.

Bill from IL
1/25/2006 12:16:45 PM

A very sobering article, thanks for posting it. I was reading something the other day about the idea for gathering solar power in orbit and transmitting it via microwave laser to the earth. I was wonderimg if the author of this thought that was a good idea and if the resources (raw materials) would be plentiful enough to pull of such a project in such a scale as to make a dent in energy needs.

Chris from CA
1/25/2006 1:38:48 PM

In response to Bill's comment, we were just up at UC Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory and this (orbiting microwave) idea was briefly discussed. I think everyone agreed that the potential dangers associated with potentially stray high intensity microwave transmissions due to things such as meteor impacts or sloar flares make this option a bit too risky for the foreseeable future.

Stephen Hubbard - Author from CA
1/26/2006 5:51:28 PM

Response to Bill’s comment: Building, maintaining and protecting large solar power satellites in earth orbit present enormous technical problems that would require may decades to solve at an extreme cost. The issues are:
1) Lift capacity: We currently can’t even keep a full crew in the Space Station due to problems with the Space Shuttle. We would need to build a completely new set of low cost vehicles to build such a system. Building a new lift vehicle is projected to cost $20 to $50 billion dollars and take 10 years or more.
2) Experience: We don’t know how to build such systems and keep them working in a meteorite and debris filled orbit for decades. I am an ex-astronomer. Every century, there are one or more instances of meteorite storms that literally light up the night, with thousands of meteorites per hour recorded. There was one during WWII which was so intense, it completely fogged the scopes of the primitive (read not very sensitive) radar systems in England. There has not been such a storm since the rise of satellites. One can only imagine what such a storm might do to gossamer thin power satellites that are kilometers in size. If we depended on them for most of our power, and they were taken out by such a storm, the impact would be catastrophic and it would take years to replace them.
3) Cost: Articles on building SPS (Solar Power Satellites) project the capital cost per watt to be above 1,000 per watt. This is 200 times the capital cost of most ground-based systems. There are so many ground-based alternatives that are less expensive and less risky, it seems prudent to pursue them over higher cost and more risky ones.
4) Time: We have about 50 years of oil left before we really start hitting the wall. While I never want to be negative about technical innovations, we have to keep in mind that time is short, and if we choose a very expensive path that will take decades to see if its feasible, then the risk is enormous if unforeseen problems occur. Solving the problems with SPS will take decades and hundreds of billions of dollars. Because of this, we can’t afford to peruse it solely because there are many less risky and costly alternatives.

All this being said, I would still be in favor of NASA pursuing small feasibility tests. I would never want to close the door in innovation and a possible alternative energy source.

Related Articles and Reading:

History of Solar Power Satellites – Not so optimistic

Bright future for Solar Power Satellites – Fairly optimistic article

Study mentioned in article above
An Economic Assessment of Space Solar Power as a Source of Electricity for Space-Based Activities

Wikipedia article on Solar Power Satellites

Article on new nuclear power. Nuclear power is used as the “Gold standard” for large power generation that most energy generation systems are compared to. There are several new designs for lower cost and safer nuclear reactors that don’ suffer from the waste problems of the current light water reactors. - New economics of nuclear power

Bill from IL
1/31/2006 5:26:18 PM

The problem with the concept of pushing solar power (from the ground) is that it's really only going to be feasible in some areas. In the midwest where I'm from, it's likely never to amount to much due to the lack of sun. There needs to be a solution that not only helps nationwide but globally as well. As your article states, solving the problem here doesn't end our problems. Fusion would likely be the best answer but will the breakthru happen before the current resources dry up? That's why I mentioned solar power stations in space or some have even suggested the moon. This is a potentially global fix. It's actually been studied for some time (1968)and is getting closer and closer to being possible. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the strategies that were layed out in the article, it's going to take a combination of several things including solar, proper waste management, mass transit, tele-commuting and a host of others. Hopefully this website and others will get even the smallest of "balls" rolling.

Richard Tarara from IN
4/11/2006 12:52:12 PM

The cost estimate table for converting our energy sources to 'green' are probably too low by as much as a factor of 3. Every year my Energy class models a system for the U.S. for 100 years in the future where Wind and solar provide 50% of the energy, coal 20%, nuclear 12%, geothermal 5%, biomass 10%, and hydro 3%. We figure on a population of 450 million, consider that over 100 years much of the cost involves replacing worn out plants or units--perhaps multiple times for wind generators. We figure in debt service as well. We use hydrogen as a form of storage for wind and solar energy and calculate costs for pipeline upgrades. We also attempt to improve efficiency and employ conservation to reduce per capita energy use by 25%. That is always difficult when you get to doing the numbers since popularized conservation/efficiency schemes such as compact flourescent light bulbs really don't make a dent in energy use. The other complication is that efficiency and conservation often attack the same energy use--like transportation, such that doubling the fleet mileage and forcing car pooling to an average of 2 people per car doesn't save as much energy overall as the two separate calculations would suggest.

Anyway, the end product usually suggests more like a $30-40 trillion price tag over 100 years and the use of 300-500,000 square miles of land.

Professor of Physics
Saint Mary's College

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