Thursday, October 23, 2014

Energy, Economy and Environment

A year ago it seemed that $100 dollars might be a floor for the price for oil. Now it looks more like a ceiling. As the price was falling there was talk about what price the Saudis or the Russians or the frackers needed to balance their budgets, as if the question of price was for producers to decide. But weak demand may prove that notion untenable. The four- to five-fold increase in crude oil price since the Year 2000 is driving a multitude of changes in the way we live, travel, and consume that will vastly reduce use of fossil fuels while massively increasing energy-use efficiency.

The suburban villa is obsolete. It takes up too much space, creates urban sprawl, necessitates huge expenditures of time, material and energy on commuting. Apartments and apartment-sized houses are increasingly in demand. Apartment living has accustomed people to combining living space in a single room comprising kitchen, dining and sitting areas. In fact, people like that better than a collection of smaller partitioned areas. The result is that, in the future, the typical North American family living unit will be no more than 800 to 1200 square feet in area consisting of, for example (in square feet): living room, 400; three bedrooms, 100 each; two bathrooms 75 each; den/office, 80; and entryway and closets, 100.

Not much room for stuff, but North Americans will get used to living like the Japanese. No point in keeping cribs and high chairs and rocking horses for the grandchildren. Manufacturing is cheap and will stay cheap as Asia's sweatshop workforce is replaced by robots. If you are no longer using it, junk it. If you need it again buy the new and improved model.

Trash will not go in a bin, but down the chute, to be taken by underground conveyor to the recycling plant. Every manufactured product will be bar-coded or chipped to tell robot trash handlers how it is to be processed. Products without an approved recycling process will be excluded from the marketplace.

Alternative energy:
Thus far, alternative energy has amounted to nothing much. But it's getting there. Much more is known today about what doesn't pay economically or environmentally. Bio-fueled thermal power plants will probably never be of much importance, and ground-based windmills operate too intermittently to add more than marginally to energy supplies. But solar power is more interesting. Solar panel manufacture is a high tech industry where huge cost reductions and efficiency improvements are rapidly occurring.

Solar panels with an efficiency of 20% or better are now available for 50 cents per watt: that's peak power, so per watt of year-round average output, the cost is more like $5.00. The year-round average electricity consumption per person in the developed world is about 1 kw, which could thus be generated with solar panels costing $5000, and occupying about 100 square meters (1000 square feet), which seems a feasible alternative to nuke and coal-fired power.

There are problems of course: where to put all those panels, how to store the power for when it's needed, at night or in the winter when solar radiation in the temperate zone is only one tenth what it is in mid-summer. So we're not there yet. But further improvements in solar panel efficiency, which could rise by a factor of two or three within the next decade, in electric battery technology, and in grid storage solutions could make solar power a mainstay of electrical generation.

Energy-Use Efficiency:
A transition to small homes will mean large reductions in home heating and cooling costs. A small home adequately insulated and well sealed and with a heat exchanger to handle ventilation can be heated in the coolest climate with nothing more than a hair dryer.

Energy efficiency in transportation is also about to improve radically. Automobiles are getting more efficient but are nowhere near as efficient as the latest prototypes. Renault's four-seat Eolab concept, for example, is reported to be capable of 100 km per litre, or about ten times better than the typical American sedan. VW's two-seat XL1, has comparable fuel efficiency and may go into limited production.

LIT Motors, gyroscopically-balanced, two-wheel electric car. Source.
Despite GM's misconceived Volt, a vehicle for carrying a lot of batteries a short distance, the range of which can only be improved by adding more batteries, light-weight electric vehicles have real potential. This potential has been conclusively demonstrated by the SunSwift, produced by engineering students at the University of New South Wales, Australia. This solar-electric two-seater with a carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic body recently completed a 500 km run on a single charge at an average speed of more than 100 km per hour, and using only 44 cents-worth of electricity. Covered with solar panels, the SunSwift's range on a sunny day extends to 800 km.

Then there are electric bikes, 200 million of them in China alone, which do about 40 miles to a penny worth of electricity.

The Environment:
The industrial age was driven by the use of dirt cheap energy, which drove down the cost of goods and transportation by orders of magnitude, while massively driving up consumption, at the cost of the relentless exploitation of mines, forests and the capacity of the earth, the air and the waters of the earth to absorb the resultant waste products.

We are now well on the way to the information age, in which dirt cheap information drives increasing efficiencies in the use of energy, materials and labor in manufacturing, transportation and the satisfaction of other human needs. The result will be either a population explosion leading to a high-tech Malthusian limit in the hundreds of billions, or population stabilization at the UN projected total of around ten billion and a huge reduction in human environmental impacts.

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