Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Crossing the Energy Chasm by John Robb

The EIA (Energy Information Administration) announced that it is now in the process of radically lowering its estimates for future oil production. So, here's a brief that put this news into context.

In tech and marketing literature, "crossing the chasm" is a popular tag for describing how a company crosses the gap between the early adopters of its products to the start of mainstream acceptance. It's also a good description for the energy situation we find ourselves in today.

What the Situation Looks Like

Our current global energy burn rate is 16 TW (terawatts), which is up from 0.7 TW at the turn of the 20th Century. This rate is growing at 0.5 TW a year (and accelerating), driven by three major sources of demand (China, India, and the energy exporting 14). It's very likely, given a judicious evaluation of the data, that this demand will double to 32 TW by 2025 (even with a global 1-2% decline in usage per $ of GDP due to efficiency improvements).

From Stored Solar to Active Solar

The bulk of the energy we feed this burn rate with is from stored solar -- essentially, energy delivered from the sun millions of years ago and stored inside the earth's crust. The problem we face with stored solar is that it is reaching production limits (particularly crude oil). In combination with this rapidly increasing demand, we will face a never ending series of price increases (occasionally mitigated by demand destruction) for stored solar energy as oil, natural gas, and coal deplete in series.

The only plentiful and scalable source of energy for continued growth of our civilization (as a dissipative system) is active solar, estimated to be in excess of 600++ TW per (recoverable). The problem is, when compared to liquid stored solar fuels, active solar energy is still 25-40 times more expensive (remember, electricity is a premium energy source when compared to liquid fuels) and must scale from a VERY low base (we are only in the "playground" stage of active solar). Further, by most optimistic technical estimates, we will only see equivalents to today's pricing and scale in 2050 and beyond.

The span in years between now and 2040 or so, is the CHASM we need to cross. Big money projects in the short term won't solve the problem (due to step function economics in an uncertain environment). In contrast, resilient communities provide a way to cross it organically.

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