Fuel for the future
Fuel for the future
By Georgina Ker
Every day we are told to conserve energy. Most of these messages focus on the environmental degradation caused by fossil fuel usage. This is a very real problem. However, another, perhaps more urgent, danger is being overlooked — the possibility that we may exhaust the supply of fossil fuels before our planet manages to choke on their by-products. To put the problem in perspective, experts estimate United States oil reserves will last only 12 years (University of Oregon).
These figures are calculated using the ‘Hubbert Curve’ (defined by M. King Hubbert in 1956). According to this model, world oil production will peak when half of the supply has been found, and will then decrease rapidly, as the less oil there is left in a field, the more difficult and more expensive it is to extract.
L.F. Ivanhoe (1996) claims this peak has already been reached, and that we will face an oil crisis between 2000 and 2010 — only 10 years from now. Ivanhoe’s claims are based on the 1973 oil crisis, when supply dipped and oil prices rose steeply. This was fortunately shortlived; but this time there is little oil left to be found.
The University of Oregon estimates that coal reserves will last 86 years, if energy use grows at a rate of 5% per year. This growth rate allows for projected population growth, but does not take into account Ivanhoe’s projected oil crisis. And even without this, 5% may be slightly optimistic. In New South Wales (NSW), Australia, energy consumption increased by 21% between 1995-95 and 1996-97 (Environmental Protection Authority of NSW 1997). With higher oil prices, more and more people will turn to coal.
Natural gas resources are estimated to last 50 years, but these figures, too, do not take into account a sharp decline in oil supply.
If we are going to run into an energy crisis, what can we do about it? Firstly, we could do nothing: wait 10, 20 or 50 years and see if the crisis eventuates. Obviously, this would be foolhardy. Secondly, we could try to reduce energy usage. However, even if we manage this, fossil fuel supplies are finite, and will run out eventually. Do we want to pass this legacy to future generations?
The world needs to find viable new energy sources and technologies. The problem is, if there was a cheap and efficient alternative, scientists would surely have discovered it by now.
In order to determine the viability of an energy source, three factors need to be considered: sustainability, “renewability” and pollution reduction (University of Oregon 1999). Youngquist (1997) assesses the sustainability of energy sources by the ratio of energy out to energy in. To be sustainable, the ratio must be greater than 1.0. Oil has a ratio of around 5.0. According to Youngquist, most renewable energy sources hover at just above 1.0; some are even lower.
Alternative energy sources include solar, wind and hydro-electricity — which have been used in conjunction with fossil fuels for decades but account for only around 10% of energy consumption (EPA NSW 1997) — and more recent technologies including fuel cells, geothermal energy and ocean thermal energy conversion.
None of these seem to present a truly viable alternative. For example, solar energy is only 15% efficient (it takes 400 square metres of solar panels to run an average American house), produces lots of waste heat and is expensive. Hydro-electricity is low cost, 80% efficient and causes no pollution. However, the dams used for producing it harm fish populations, cause sediment buildup and alter the hydrological cycle (University of Oregon 1999).
New ideas are being raised all the time. An American company has created hydrogen ‘powerballs’ which are “clean, safe and 100% recyclable” (Powerball 1998). One major advance is the solar-powered Sydney Olympic village, which will be “the largest solar photovoltaic residential development in the world” (SEDA 1997). Solar energy is certainly a resource that can be used in Australia; according to the EPA, the average amount of solar energy that falls on Australia is about 15,000 times what we require.
As online author Gary Harding concluded, there is no miracle solution to the world’s energy problems; it is up to us to make the most of the alternatives that are available. Although, Harding also points out that a government subsidy is necessary to encourage use of alternative fuels, the onus is clearly on us, as consumers of energy, to use it wisely and not take it for granted. Otherwise, we may wake up in 10 years and find ourselves in darkness.
Anonymous. The Coming Global Oil Crisis. Accessed 8/8/99.
Environmental Protection Authority of NSW. New South Wales State of the Environment 1997. Accessed 9/8/99.
Harding, GW (1998). The Way Things Are Going to Be. Accessed 8/8/99.
Ivanhoe, LF. “Updated Hubbert Curves analyze world oil supply” World Oil, November 1996, p 91-94.
Powerball Technologies (1998). Powerball Technologies. Accessed 9/8/99.
Reese, Richard (1997). Oil and the Future. Accessed 1/10/99.
Sustainable Energy Development Authority (1997). Renewable Energy and Co-Generation – Index page. Accessed 10/8/99.
Youngquist, WL (1997). Geodestinies: the Inevitable Control of Earth Resources over Nations and Individuals. National Book Co., Portland, Oregon, USA.
University of Oregon (1999). Fossil Fuel Consumption II. Accessed 8/8/99.
Georgina Ker was a Mass Communication student in the School of Communication and Cultural Studies at the Curtin University of Technology, Australia.
Originally Filed on: 7th October 1999