May 31, 2008

'I live in a world of infinite money'

This figure shows that as countries get richer, they almost always use more energy.

I invited a speaker for the institute seminar series to give a talk about energy; yesterday was the big day. The speaker is the chief scientist at the world's second largest independent oil company and is responsible for their research programs, and advises their executives. He started his lecture by saying that he wasn't going to talk about the world they way he would like it to be but rather how it is and where it is going. It was sobering.

--Oil production is tremendously profitable. In the middle east it costs $5 to $7 per barrel to pump out of the ground, and can be sold for around $125. There is lots of oil out there, including deep ocean deposits, tar sands and so on. He pointed out that 'as the ice cap thins for whatever reason', it will become possible to drill for oil in the Arctic ocean.

--He discussed controlling atmospheric CO2 levels, 'an enormous, complex challenge', in part because energy is at the heart of economic activity (unlike the CFCs).

--There will be a doubling in the demand for energy by the end of the century and at the same time we must have a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions to stabilize the atmospheric concentration, requiring an improvement in efficiency by a factor of four.

--CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a long time, roughly a thousand years, which is an infinite time from our perspective. The atmosphere integrates all emissions. This means that if you would like to say pump CO2 into old oil fields or salt domes you have to monitor it and keep it out of the atmosphere for at least a thousand years. Who is going to be responsible? The companies and political institutions we have today most likely won't be around that long. The only global institution with that kind of lifetime is the Vatican.

--The developing world is developing, rapidly, and a 10% reduction in CO2 emissions in the industrialised world is counteracted by 4 years of growth in the developing world.

--It should be possible to produce 10 to 15% of electricity worldwide using windmills, but this represents only a 4 year delay in reaching the CO2 concentration in a world without wind power.

--It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuels is equivalent to a diminished consumption. -William Stanley Jevons, 1865. Jevons was concerned that the world might run out of coal. There are many examples where improving efficiency increases consumption. 1) Refrigerators today use about 1/4 the energy they did in 1970. People have responded by buying more and larger refrigerators. Many homes in the U.S. have several. 2) Cars today produce more power using less fuel, a 23% improvement from 1990 to 2000. People responded by buying really big powerful vehicles.

--History has shown that the surest way to induce conservation is through price or policy; both are politically difficult.

--If car ownership in China went from today's 1% to 10%, this would be about the same number of cars as America has.

--In the US there are 250 million cars, and about half a million hybrids. It will take time to change the vehicle fleet to more efficient models.

--Liquid hydrocarbons can't be beat as fuels for transportation because they carry a lot of energy using a small mass. The best batteries today have only 2% of the energy density of liquid hydrocarbon fuel.

--He recommended that the world make a concerted effort to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations using a combination of conservation and decarbonation of the energy supply, but even so, 'safe' levels may be exceeded, and the CO2 will remain in the atmosphere for centuries. Therefore we need a plan B, a response beyond conservation and decarbonization. There are two parts to the response, the first is adaptation: Hardening of infrastructure (insulation, dams, seawalls, aqueducts), shifts in agriculture and population, etc. The second is geoengineering. If the planet's reflectivity could be changed from 30% to 31%, it would counteract the greenhouse gases. This change could be affected in space (orbiting nanomirrors), in the atmosphere (stratospheric aerosol shield) or at the surface (paint buildings white).

--It is rare that I have heard a talk this good.

--I said the university would be happy to pay for any expenses, his flights, taxi, food and so on and he politely declined. It is my job to talk to people, he said, and I live in a world of infinite money.

--During lunch he told a story. 'I went to dinner at Buckingham Palace last Tuesday and Prince Philip asked me a question. The Prince likes gardening, and he said, if I increase the thinkness of the glass in my greenhouse, it doesn't get any warmer. How can it be that more CO2 in the atmosphere makes the planet warmer?'



At May 31, 2008 4:57 PM , Anonymous Tim said...

great info. The first bullet clarifies something I heard on MPR yesterday. They were talking about a shareholder "revolt" at exxon mobile. The rebel shareholders were claiming that Exxon-Mobile was too heavily invested in oil and that oil was running out so Exxon-Mobile should diversify. An petroleum engineer was on saying that the shareholders were wrong from a business standpoint because even if we passed "Peak" oil, there is still huge amounts of oil to sell and it will only get more profitable.

The bit about energy density of hydrocarbon fuel reminds me that I don't truly appreciate just how energy dense gasoline is. I might just have to submit this post to

At May 31, 2008 5:03 PM , Anonymous Tim said...

is the last bullet a puzzle for your readers? Isn't it because the gas inside the greenhouse is absorbing the sun's energy and that is what heats it up? The glass only keeps the heat in, so it shouldn't matter how thick it is, right?

At May 31, 2008 8:59 PM , Blogger Matt_J said...

Calling the greenhouse effect the greenhouse effect is a misnomer because greenhouses mainly work because they block the wind. 'Global warming' or 'climate change' are the correct terms-- 'Greenhouse effect' is historical, coined in 1827 by the French mathematician Fourier. Sunlight will always heat the surface but if there is a greenhouse the energy is trapped in that small volume instead of mixed throughout the troposphere. Prince Philip's greenhouse doesn't get warmer because the thin glass panes are already blocking the wind.

The greenhouse gases only absorb about 75% of the outgoing infrared radiation, so adding more of them (like CO2) is 'adding more insulation', it will result in surface warming.

I have another couple of figures related to 'running out of oil' that I will post.


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