>The Coming Energy Famine
>Richard Heinberg is the author of six books including The Party's
>War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (New Society, 2003), and
>Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World (New Society, 2004). He
>journalist, educator, editor, lecturer, and a Core Faculty member
>College of California, where he teaches a program on "Culture,
>Sustainable Community." His monthly MuseLetter (www.museletter.com),
>was nominated in 1994 for an Alternative Press Award and has been
>in Utne Reader's annual list of Best Alternative Newsletters. His
>articles have appeared in many journals including Z Magazine, The
>Earth Island Journal, Wild Matters, Alternative Press Review, and
>Richard will discuss his latest book, Powerdown: Options and
Actions for a
>Post-Carbon World, an analysis of the options available to a
>facing resource depletion, biosphere collapse, and financial
Richard began his talk by showing us a chart of energy sources for the
US economy vs. time from about 1850 to the present. Back in the Civil
War time frame, most of the energy used was provided by domestic
animals, maybe a fifth of it was provided by human beings, and the rest
(less than 20%) was provided by burning fuels. Since then the situation
has changed to the point where almost all of the energy we use is
provided by consuming fuels. Not only that, but the fuels have gone
from being wood and whale oil to rock oil (the literal translation of
the Latin petroleum) because whale oil was becoming a depleted resource.
He then explained that there is usually a forty or fifty year time lag
from the time from the time a country's oil discovery peaks to the time
its production peaks. He gave the example of the Lower 48 States of the
USA, where oil discovery peaked in the 1930s and oil production peaked
in the 1970s. Showing us the graph, he pointed out that the numbers it
came from the US Government, an authority that is usually fairly on
reliable when it's talking about what has already happened.
He then pointed out that figuring out the global picture is a little
more difficult. One reason is that many countries tend to overstate
their proven reserves. He pointed out that there is no Global Energy
Resources Board that goes around and sticks a dipstick in the ground to
check the supply situation out in places like Saudi Arabia. However,
his best guess is that global oil production will probably peak in or
near the 2007 time frame.
Then he showed that a similar kind of fall in production is likely to
happen in natural gas supply, except that the falloff in supply will be
much steeper and peak production may already be behind us for that fuel.
As evidence that we may really be dealing with a supply issue, he
showed us a chart of wildcat well drilling vs. time superimposed on a
chart of oil well discovery. For a few years after US production peaked
a huge number of wildcat wells were drilled, but the oil companies
stopped doing that after it proved to not be cost effective. Richard
showed last year as an example, where they invested $8 billion in
exploration, but found $4 billion in new reserves.
Heinberg is unconvinced that some of the technohype solutions on the
horizon will work. He pointed out that old fashioned car batteries give
you better energy storage efficiency than Hydrogen. Most of the
available hydropower resources in the USA have already been developed.
He recommends using less energy. We need to be careful about getting
more energy from wood because while it is a renewable resource it is
also a depletable resource. He showed us a pie chart of American energy
resources, and at least 3/4 of our current consumption comes from oil,
coal, and natural gas. Reasoning from there, he thinks we need to
figure out a per capita lifestyle that uses a quarter of the energy we
During Q&A a number of other points were discussed:
Solar power is a good part of the solution, but we are having
difficulty getting them because a lot of the worlds production is being
bought by Germany and Japan at this point in time. Heinberg thinks that
one of the good things about getting solar is you learn that there are
large investments required in the energy industry.
Wind power is also a good alternative. Germany is currently the world
leader in wind, and they have concluded that the intermittent nature of
the supply makes it imprudent to rely on it for more than 20% of supply.
After the fossil fuel wave has passed, the best place to live is
probably somewhere with a mellow climate and not much in the way of
natural resources. The problem with natural resources is that greedy
foreigners have a tendency to come fight for them.