Energy: The Search for the Holy Grail

In this post we begin considering the first of the five “Es” that shape human destiny: Energy.  In the previous post I said that one of the key objectives of grandparents, parents and friends of children should be to encourage the young ones to work on the superordinate goal of bringing human activity on Earth back into balance with the natural world.  With that in mind we need to ask what such an objective means in relation to our choice of energy and the way we use it.  Energy is at the heart of all our human questing.  If we get this wrong, then much of everything else we do is going to be wrong.  And there is good reason to believe that for the past few generations we have made serious mistakes in our choice and use of energy.

In the brief time, geologically speaking, that human beings have walked the Earth we have continuously sought ways to use energy to our advantage.  Not so for other species, who are forced to make do with what is available to them in their own ecological niche.  But with our big brains and flexible thumbs, which have allowed us to come up with ideas and to manipulate things with our hands, we humans have always tried to find better ways of doing things, and that often meant searching for more effective and efficient forms of energy.  We did fairly well over time with wind power, which allowed us to sail the oceans; with water power for grinding grain; with heat energy from wood to keep us warm and to cook our food; and so on.  Of course, we also depended on the energy from the sun to give us an equitable climate for growing our crops and sustaining us generally, while we made good use of animal power (as well as human slave power for a time) to do work for us.  In this way we created over many millennia various outposts of human civilization.

However, I think it’s fair to say that over all the centuries we didn’t make any great strides on the energy front until in the late 18th century we found we could use coal to generate steam power.  Then in the mid-19th century we struck the bonanza of oil.  By the early 20th century the age of fossil fuels was well under way.  What had been discovered for the first time in human history was a vast supply of concentrated energy that gave people access to power in a way never before experienced.

The Holy Grail

I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to equate our physical search for energy to the spiritual search for the Holy Grail.  Though this myth comes from the Christian tradition, it none the less expresses a very powerful symbolism for all of humanity.  The actual story of the Grail is somewhat complicated, but we generally understand the myth to imply a search for something uniquely rare and powerful.  With the discovery of how to use fossil fuels to power our machines and generate electricity (another newly discovered form of power) we came very close to discovering the Holy Grail of energy. 

This was the world we grandparents were born into, and in which we have lived for the whole of our lives.  It is not easy, therefore, for us to hear from writers like Richard Heinberg (Peak Everything) that the very fabric of our modern lives is woven from illusion, held together by “one monster illusion” that the life we have known is normal, whereas, in fact, because “it is built on the foundation of cheap fossil fuels. . . future generations must and will live differently.”

Heinberg’s assertion goes to the heart of the matter.  It contains a number of assumptions, backed by evidence, though not all of it clear and unequivocal.  Assumption number one is that the supply of fossil fuels is running out, in particular, the supply of oil.  This has led to the widely discussed concept of  peak oil, which I will examine below.  Assumption number two is that continuing to burn fossil fuels is contributing significantly to the phenomenon of climate change and the potential warming of the planet beyond a point where it can provide humans and other species of fauna as well as flora with favourable conditions for life.  We will be considering this problem in a lot more detail in later posts.  The third major assumption is that we will not have available to us in the near future anything like the supply of energy from alternative sources that we have known from fossil fuels.  This, too, will be discussed in later posts.

All things considered, if we thought we had found the Holy Grail of energy, it seems sadly to have slipped through our fingers, and our grandchildren will be challenged to design a new and different way of life from what we have known.

Of Peaks, Curves and Human Folly

The concept of peak oil is receiving a lot of discussion these days, though still not much in the media where most people get their information.  It is such a critically important concept to the future of our grandchildren that I want to take time here to make sure we understand it.  A good succinct description of it is given by Rob Hopkins in The Transition Companion (pages 28-30).  I will summarize it below.

Geologists know that oil production from a single oil field follows a particular pattern.  First, production is plentiful, then starts to fall away.  This shift usually occurs about halfway through the life of the field.  In other words, production reaches a peak, then declines.  Also, before the peak, oil flows relatively smoothly, but after the peak, it is more difficult to extract. 

That is the situation with a single field.  However, the same can be said of the oil in all of the world’s known fields.  When you do this, you get a picture of world oil production proceeding smoothly and plentifully for quite some time, then things change as production from many of the fields starts to fall off.  This picture implies that at some time in the future there will be shortages of oil.

However, what makes prediction difficult is that new fields continue to be discovered, so no one is sure when the peak will be reached, but peak it will.  To people in the know this is by no means new news.  In fact, as far back as 1949 probably the best known geophysicist in the world of his time, Dr. M. King Hubbert, said that the fossil fuel era would be of very short duration. Maybe that’s why I remember my Grade 7 teacher telling my class in 1951 that the world would run out of oil around the year 2000.  I remember calculating how old I would be then and wondering what it would be like to live in such a world.  What did a classroom teacher know  (even if not exactly right) in 1951, and what did a young boy wonder about, that seems to have largely escaped the serious attention of political and industrial leaders over the past 60 years—until now?  Because they are paying attention to it now.

Dr. Hubbert drew a classic oil peak graph in 1956 to illustrate his forecast of how the fossil fuel era would play out.  I have adapted it below in Figure 1.

There are a number of things to note about this chart.  On the rising part of the curve on the left hand side the oil found and pumped is relatively easy to extract and is therefore “cheap.”  On the falling part of the curve on the right hand side the “easy” oil is gone, and oil companies are drilling in dangerous places out at sea and in ecologically sensitive locations.  We are also turning to oil extracted from less desirable sources such as tar sands (also called oil sands) and shale.  Rob Hopkins makes the following point in The Transition Companion on cost and energy efficiency: “In the 1930s, one unit of energy put into oil production could harvest 100 units in the oil produced—energy output/energy input = 100:1, a remarkable return.  Now it is around 20:1.”  On this point Chris Martenson in The Crash Course asserts:  “It’s estimated that new oil resources found after 2010 will return a much lower net energy, perhaps as low as 3:1, although nobody really knows for sure because careful analyses have not yet been performed.”  The concept of net energy (comparing how much energy has to be “put in” to how much energy we “get out” of any effort to produce energy) is a key concept we will return to in further discussion of possibilities for the future.

It needs to be acknowledged that Hubbert’s concept of a peak in world oil production is not a perfect reflection of what has happened since he first introduced the idea back in the middle of the 20th century. In his 2011 comprehensive account of the quest for the energy that our world needs, Daniel Yergin (The Quest: Energy Security and the Remaking of the Modern World) points out that we appear to be climbing towards a plateau rather than a peak.  Yergin also asserts that “the world is clearly not running out of oil.  Far from it.  The estimates for the world’s total stock of oil keeps growing.”   However, even Yergin has to admit that to secure a rising supply of oil means “the development of more challenging resources,” and ultimately that means an end to the predominance of oil in the energy mix that will be needed to sustain civilization.   

This leads to the other major point illustrated by Figure 1, that once you start coming down the falling part of the curve you are living in a world where each year there is less oil available than the year before.  However, instead of acknowledging impending shortages, or the undesirability of extracting oil from “unconventional” sources, we continue to expand demand for oil in its use by industrialized economies preoccupied by growth.  As the saying goes, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that this is a world heading for serious trouble if we are unable to switch to alternative sources of energy.

On the issue of alternatives, which I will discuss in more detail in later posts, I made an interesting find while researching the subject of peak oil.  On Google I actually found the original paper presented in 1956 by Dr. Hubbert to a division of the American Petroleum Institute in San Antonio, Texas in March 1956 in which he presented “the Hubbert Curve” that I adapted in Figure 1 above.  Typed on what my elder’s eyes recognized immediately as the “old fashioned” typewriters we used in those days, the paper contains a number of important features that illustrate the complexity of the emerging issue.

The first point is that Hubbert is unequivocal about the temporary nature of the fossil fuel era.  He illustrated this in a chart that I have adapted as Figure 2.

In this chart Hubbert goes back 5000 years to the birth of civilization, and forward 5000 years into the future.  He shows the period of the fossil fuel era as a miniscule shaded area that matches our lifetime.  And we thought this was normal!

Hubbert also told the Texas oil men that the supply of oil from reserves in the United States would peak around 1970 and steadily decline after that.  You can imagine how that went down, but he was subsequently proved to be right on the mark with his prediction, which is the reason why the United States, once self-sufficient in oil, is today so heavily dependent on foreign oil.  There has been recent excitement about reserves of so-called “tight oil” (oil found in rocks including shale) and a lot of drilling activity is underway for this unconventional source  in the Bakken formation in North Dakota.  However, the technology of hydraulic fracturing (fracing) to release the oil is controversial and the supply of recoverable oil is by no means proven.

What I found to be even more interesting about Hubbert’s presentation was that after demonstrating that the world would be facing serious energy problems within a few short decades (this was 1956 remember), he went on to make a very powerful case for nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels.  In fact, his paper was entitled “Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels,” putting nuclear energy first in the title.

I will discuss the nuclear energy option in detail in a later post, but let me just say here that Hubbert made a very clear case for its use based on the concept of a “breeder” reactor, though back in 1956 the first nuclear power plants in the world were still under construction.  In his conclusion to the paper Hubbert stated about nuclear energy, “we may at last have found an energy supply adequate for our needs for at least the next few centuries of the ‘foreseeable future’.” He incorporated this projection into the chart as shown in Figure 2 above.

Knowing that Hubbert lived until 1989, I wondered if his opinion about nuclear energy changed during the course of his life.  It did.  I found a statement made by him in the 1970s and quoted by Robert L. Hickerson in “Hubbert’s Prescription for Survival, A Steady State Economy” (1995): “Fifteen years ago I thought solar power was impractical because I thought nuclear power was the answer.  But I spent some time on an advisory committee on waste disposal to the Atomic Energy Commission.  After that, I began to be very skeptical because of the hazards.  That’s when I began to study solar power.  I’m convinced we have the technology to handle it right now [emphasis added].  We could make the transition in a matter of decades if we begin now [emphasis added].”

It’s Time to Get Angry

Hubbert’s closing words in the quote above are symptomatic of our current human dilemma: “if we begin now.”  How many times have people who have done the research said we can accomplish important human goals “if we begin now,” only to have their words drowned out by the naysayers and the voices of special interests?  “Now” never seems to come, and society stumbles forward into a black hole.

Today’s elders were fully participating citizens in those earlier times, doing the best we knew how to make things work for ourselves and our families.  But where was the political leadership that should have steered their citizens away from danger that was known so clearly 20 years earlier?  Our own parents and grandparents responded to a different call to confront danger in the decades before that as the world went to war twice in fierce and violent conflict.  They fought magnificently to preserve the free and democratic society that we so treasure today.  But that was a clear and present danger and they had great wartime leaders to inspire them.  The generations since then have been led to believe that we could have everything as long as we continued to grow the economy and enjoy our fossil-fuel intensive lives.  Where were the leaders from business and industry who could have charted a different course?  Sadly, they were fully participating in promoting the illusion of unlimited progress based on unlimited energy, even though they knew the energy supply from fossil fuels was limited.

Unfortunately for the world, one prominent world leader who did take the risk of describing the reality of the energy future was vilified for doing so and ultimately voted out of office.  Daniel Yergin reports the details in The Quest. In 1977 Jimmy Carter, newly elected President of the United States of America, warned the American people that the energy problem would “get progressively worse through the rest of this century. . . We are now running out of oil and gas, we must prepare for a . . . change–to strict conservation and to a renewed use of coal [along with] permanent renewable energy sources like solar power.”  For a brief two years solar energy “captured the public imagination.”  But then world events intervened and other vested interests prevailed and Jimmy Carter, the “energy pessimist,” was replaced by Ronald Reagan, “the sunny optimist,” and America and the world went another way, eventually leading to the current predicaments now confronting us.  This episode should be a lesson for all of us about human fallibility in understanding where relying on opinion rather than knowledge can lead us, and how difficult it is for nations to be guided by foresight rather than learn by shock.

And where are the leaders in today’s political, financial and industrial institutions who surely have had the information for a long time that humanity is heading in a dangerous direction?  They seem feebly silent or confused or, more serious, ideologically heading the wrong way and taking society along with them.

It appears that the leadership is going to have to come from the bottom up, from the people, from the grandparents and parents, from the better informed young citizens, to respond to Hubbert’s injunction : “if we being now.”   There is some good news to report about this. An encouraging example of new citizen leadership was reported in the December 15, 2011 edition of The Vancouver Sun.  A youth delegate to the Durban COP17 conference on climate change castigated the country delegates empowered to make decisions for their failure to agree on any kind of adequate plan to address the problems that the youth are going to have to live with.  “You’ve been negotiating all my life,” said Anjali Appadurai from Coquitlam, British Columbia.  “In that time, you’ve failed to meet pledges, you’ve missed targets and you’ve broken promises…I speak for more than half the world’s population [the youth]…What does it take to get a stake in the game?  Lobbyists?  Corporate influence?  Money?.. Where is the courage in this room?..These will be seen as the defining moments of an era in which narrow self-interest prevailed over science, reason and common compassion.”  Well said, Anjali.  The tragedy is that many of the people she was addressing are no doubt parents and grandparents themselves, but are so caught up in the diplomatic performance of protecting what they profess to be their country’s best interests, that they are willing to sacrifice the interests of their own children and grandchildren for whom Anjali and others have to speak.

On a similar note, veteran British advocate for monetary reform, James Robertson, had this to say in his December 2011 Newsletter: “Both these sets of activities — concerning the future of money and the human impact on the planet’s resources — demonstrate the inability of the leaders of our species today to create decent prospects for the children and grandchildren of adults already living now, let alone for their children and grandchildren in the more distant future.  Can today’s young people around the world take it on themselves to act with one another — intelligently, constructively and co-operatively — to create a better future for themselves and their children?”

This blog is dedicated to the belief that grandparents and parents now alive will not allow things to get as bad as Robertson fears.  It addresses the first step in the necessary response from people to their governments and corporate leaders, namely, the need to sort out the mixed messages we are hearing from so many places and to identify with reasonable clarity what needs to be done.  Then we must demand of our political leaders that they find the courage to act and put the necessary policies in place that will set the direction for a better future.  Along with that we must also do what we can to improve things through the decisions we make in how to live our own personal lives and how we talk to our grandchildren about these things.

Surely the young ones should expect no less from us than that.



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4 Responses to Energy: The Search for the Holy Grail

  1. Jim Short says:

    You have put a good point forward, but unfortunatly everyone is so caught up in their own personal gosls, that the ideals that would help are mostly ignored. I personally have championed solar power, and wind power, and the australian goverment has put in place a subsudised solar energy plan for residential households .Although these measures may not be the total answer ,they can at least help until there are other alternatives.We can look around us every day and see pitfalls that willaffect our grandchildren,sush as our computerised lifestyle,which was severly challenged in Nework in 911,there was limited communication ,this is where weneed to provide fail safe innovations. Unfortunately I do not have the knowledge or experience to offer a lot inthese fields but what you are doing, I hope will nudge the minds of our peers
    Respectfolly Jim Short

    • Thank you for your comments, Jim. I applaud your efforts and encourage you to keep trying. The more people working to accomplish change from an informed perspective, the more likely we are to get better outcomes for our grandchildren.


  2. A highly readable summary Des. I am working on similar issues at present, from a public health perspective, and found your synthesis very helful in developing an approach. Keep it up!

    Franklin White

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