I’ve touched on peak oil a number of times over the years. I managed to depress myself recently by reading through James Howard Kunstler’s recent speech to the commonwealth club of California over on alternet. It’s scary ‘end of the world as we know it’ stuff. I desperately wish I could see through the fog to know just how accurate these kinds of predictions are. Peak oil is pretty much universally accepted at this point – all that’s left is the bickering over when exactly the world will reach it, and how precipitous the drop off the cliff on the other side of it is. I’ve spent the last several weeks reading up on this and it’s pretty depressing. Almost all of the proposed solutions to allow for a soft landing on the other side of peak oil range from unlikely to utter bilge. Biodiesel seems to be a pipe dream (with the lovely side effect of causing global starvation – we’re already seeing food riots in mexico over US corn crops going to produce ethanol rather than corn for tortillas, a wonderful harbinger of what’s to come), wind power won’t scale, solar costs more energy to produce the generation systems (silicon solar cells) than the generation systems produce over their lifetimes, and the whole hydrogen economy thing seems to be snake oil. My favorite quote about the hydrogen economy issue came from a CA university system physicist, the gist of which was to the effect of ‘even if you assume we can solve the generation issue to produce hydrogen on the scale we consume energy now, it would take us 30-50 years to get our distribution, production, transportation and other systems up to speed, and meanwhile peak oil leaves us between 10 and 20 years to get there.’
It’s not entirely doom and gloom. Despite the problems, solar and nuclear seem the most promising possibilities. With solar we need to attain significant advances in generation and storage. With Nuclear, it’s a little reported fact that there is an unknown total global supply of uranium, no one has been prospecting for it in decades, and we currently have no decent breeder reactor system to produce our own fuels. Plus there’s the whole ‘what to do with the waste’ issue. Also even with these possibilities, there seems to be a general consensus that achieving the same level of easy access to energy resources that we enjoy now doesn’t seem at all likely.
I encourage everyone to read (or listen, there is an mp3 link) to Kunstler’s speech. Even if he’s on the far end of the spectrum in terms of outcomes, it’s informative, sobering, and important for all of us to understand.