This is the second part of my post about peak oil. You can find the first part, which explains what I mean by ‘peak oil’, among other things, here.
One of the most useful things about oil and its derivatives is that it’s a portable and energy-dense resource. Independent travel on land and at sea was made a great deal easier and faster thanks to the ability to fill a tank with a comparatively small volume of liquid that was capable of producing a great deal of energy. Oil is most crucially necessary in rapid air travel – without the existence of oil-derived fuels, it’s highly unlikely mass air travel would have ever got off the ground. That’s not to say things are desperate, however, because oil is not the only high-density portable energy source available.
Hydrogen, as you may know, is the most abundant element in the universe, and is a more potent energy source than petrol, or any other oil derivative. Unfortunately, most of the easily accessible hydrogen on earth exists as part of a largely inert compound, dihydrogen oxide, which we tend to call water. Luckily for its potential as an energy source, though, water can be used to produce hydrogen by means of a relatively straightforward chemical process called electrolysis (which, despite what you may think, doesn’t just mean that the water ends up less hairy…).
In the kind of electrolysis I’m talking about here, an electrical current is passed through water, and this results in the separation of hydrogen from oxygen. The process is not especially efficient, meaning that more electrical energy has to be put into the reaction than comes out in the form of hydrogen, but given the spectacular over-abundance of renewable energy that can readily be converted to electricity (see part one for details), this is not a major obstacle. Hydrogen can also be produced directly from water by various biological processes, and a number of these are under active investigation, as they may represent a more efficient way of producing the gas. In any case, the key thing to note is that, as in the production of electricity from renewable sources, the production of a portable high-density energy source can already be achieved using existing knowledge and technology. In other words, this isn’t a pipe dream.
As well as being able to be produced from renewable sources, a major advantage of hydrogen is that it’s production and exploitation is largely a closed loop. When the hydrogen is made from water, the major side-product is oxygen, and when the hydrogen is used to produce energy, it combines with oxygen in the atmosphere to produce water. In other words, the source material and waste product are the same, and neither are harmful. All that has to be added to the system is electricity (assuming the fuel is produced by electrolysis).
Hydrogen can be used for many of the applications oil is currently used for. In transport, hydrogen can be used directly in a hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engine (the first internal combustion engine using hydrogen was developed in 1807, before the petrol-driven engine was developed). Such engines will be very useful in the transition from an oil to a hydrogen economy, because they are mechanically very similar to mainstream engines, and so can be produced at the same production plants with minimal re-tooling. In the longer term, though, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will make more sense – these use hydrogen to produce electricity within the vehicle, and this is then used to power an electric motor.
The first commercially-produced hydrogen fuel cell car is already available, although currently only in southern California. The car has a range of 240 miles on one tank of fuel, and can be refuelled by the driver at self-service fuelling stations. There is already a limited global network of these fuelling stations. Again the thing to stress here is that these vehicles, and the network of fuelling stations required to support them, already exist. When the oil begins to run dry, it will not be a question of floundering around looking for a new technology, or reverting to an older one, but simply of switching to a replacement.
In addition to their use in cars and other road vehicles, it should be possible to use fuel cells in many of the places where oil is currently used. Ships, for example, should be able to use fuel cells to power their propellers. They can be used as portable electric generators where this is required, and it should even be possible to use them in smaller equipment, such as lawnmowers and saws, that are currently petrol-driven. The thorniest problem is probably air travel, and, in particular, high-speed air travel.
For low speed air travel, airships are an obvious contender – these use a balloon filled with helium to float, and could then be driven through the air by engines powered either by fuel cells, or by solar energy, or, most likely, a combination of both. It would seem reasonably likely that these airships could fairly easily achieve speeds equivalent to propeller-driven planes, but for more rapid transport a different approach would probably be needed. The most likely solutions are direct combustion of hydrogen in jet engines, or some sort of biofuel. For plane journeys that take place over land, it might be possible to make use of maglev trains instead, which can be powered by electricity. Where they are run through sealed tubes from which most of the air has been removed, trains of this type have a theoretical top speed of 4,000 mph. Only a fraction of this speed would be required to match the speeds currently achieved by jet aircraft, and if anything like the maximum was achieved they would actually represent an improvement over air travel. Still, this is one area where a non oil-based replacement is not currently ready to go.
Viable solutions will probably present themselves in the interim between now and a significant shortage of oil – both the airlines and plane manufacturers have a major commercial incentive to find a way to keep planes in the sky after all – but if they do not, then the absence of rapid air-travel will have a number of effects. Some people will have to find different jobs, and others will have their holiday opportunities curtailed. In some parts of the world, people will have to make adjustments to their diet. In particular, out-of-season fresh produce is likely to become harder to obtain, but basic foodstuffs that do not spoil so rapidly can be transported at slower speeds, by land and sea if necessary. In reality, some luxuries are likely to remain available, especially if airships are achieving propeller-aircraft speeds, but the key thing is that, even in a worst-case scenario, starvation will be avoided.
For all of these reasons, it seems to me that the wholesale collapse of the global economy is highly unlikely. Almost everything that we currently do we will be able to continue to do, and those things that we will no longer be able to do will, for most of us, fall into the category of inconvenience rather than anything worse. That’s not to say that the transition from an oil-based to a hydrogen-based economy won’t be disruptive. We have, though, been through similar transitions many times already, and we’ve survived without any major problems.
The transition from oil to hydrogen will be no more difficult to accomplish than the transition from coal to oil (a transition that has in fact never been completed, as the many coal-fired power stations in the world prove), or the transition from wind and water to coal. Those transitions weren’t entirely smooth, and had some short-term negative social consequences, but they were not impossible, and they didn’t lead to the deaths of significant numbers of people. The transition from oil to hydrogen will be made in different circumstances, but that doesn’t really matter. The actual mechanics of making the change are the same, whatever it’s being driven by. There’s no reason to suppose that, as human beings, we will suddenly lose our ability to cope.
In fact, our ability to cope with change is probably the defining characteristic of our species. If you were wanting to come up with a general definition of our us, you could do worse than to say that we’re the ones who are good with technology and tools, the ones who’ve been able to figure out how we can use and combine and alter the things around us to meet our needs. I realise that faith in technology, and belief in progress, and respect for engineers and scientists and technicians is a little out of fashion at the moment, but this isn’t really about that. It’s about something much more fundamental – the basic characteristics of our species, the things that have shaped our evolutionary pathway since before we were even ‘us’. To believe that we will fail to meet and respond to challenges – that, faced with the failure of oil supplies, all we’ll be able to do is sit down and cry – is to believe that, fundamentally, we are no longer ourselves.
To believe it also requires a fairly extreme level of blindness. It’s not been hard to track down evidence of the various technologies that will replace oil-based technologies, and are for the most part so far advanced that they’re not even ‘waiting in the wings’, but are already on stage. A few half-remembered ideas, and a few google and Wikipedia searches, has been all it’s taken for me to find this stuff out, and so I find myself wondering why more people haven’t done that. I also wonder why, for that matter, the information isn’t so widely known that you don’t need to make a special effort to find out about it, given that these are changes we’ll need to be making within the next half century. I don’t want to get into conspiracy theory territory here, but it seems to me that the oil industry is very powerful, and has a definite vested interest in promoting the idea that oil is running out (since this will tend to stimulate the price) and that it is irreplaceable (since this will slow the take-up of replacements, and thus maintain demand, even at higher prices).
I think there are probably other reasons why the idea has been so persistent. There’s no getting away from the fact that lots of us seem to take a basically pessimistic view of everything, and believe that the worst will always come to the worst. Then, as well, there’s the fact that the idea of society breaking down, and the consequent rise of a rugged and heroic individualism, feeds very neatly into a particularly American right-wing ideology, one that’s been shaped by America’s founding myth of the wild west frontier. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the most passionate believers in the inevitability of social collapse (for whatever reason) seem to come from America, and seem to vote Republican (unless they regard the Republicans as dangerously liberal, that is).
On the other hand, I also think the idea fits into a particular brand of environmentalism. I share a lot of the concerns of the environmental movement. I think not to do so requires a deliberate effort to ignore the emerging scientific evidence, most of which supports a correlation between man-made carbon emissions and the period of accelerated global warming we seem to be living through. But environmentalism also has a luddite fringe that I absolutely don’t agree with. I don’t think that the new challenges we face mean that we have to abandon everything we’ve achieved, and go back to living in a pre-industrial-revolution way. I also think a belief in cataclysmic consequences following the collapse in oil supplies is a kind of passive-aggressive wish-fulfilment for some environmentalists: ‘we were warning you to give up using oil for years, and now look, you’re paying the price for ignoring us’.
Mind you, the peak oil hypothesis does have some things right. We do live on a finite world, and at the moment we are behaving as though all of its resources are infinite. Shifting to a hydrogen economy will get around the problem of limited non-renewable energy resources, but there is no getting away from the fact that the global demand for food and raw materials are both increasing at a rate that is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. We will be able to finesse our way out of plenty of individual resource shortages, as we will with oil and the other fossil fuels, but eventually we are going to come up against the fact that there will be no more of our planet that we can dig minerals and metals out of, and no more surface-area to grow crops on. At some point these shortages will have their inevitable consequences, and mass die-offs in the human population will occur, unless we take steps to drastically limit the size of the global population first. Speaking as a westerner, I and the people who will come after me don’t have much to fear from this personally – as with everything, it will be people from the poorest parts of the world who will suffer most – but the suffering will be no less terrible because of that.