21 August 2005

Odell on Carbon Fuels

I recently read Peter Odell's Why Carbon Fuels Will Dominate the 21st Century's Global Energy Economy (2004). Peter Odell is obviously the polar opposite to the peak oil/global warming doomsayers. Odell basically states that, as a proportion of our energy consumption, coal was the primary fuel of the 19th century, oil of the 20th, and natural gas will be the carbon fuel of choice for the 21st century. This is the first real book that I've read on carbon fuel issues, so I am going to give it a very heavy-handed review. Later I'll probably give the same treatment to Campbell or one of the other peak oilers.

Odell points out that as nations move into the post-industrial age, their economic energy efficiency improves. This is due to the fact that industrial activities, such as the production of steel, are inherently energy intensive. Service industries, in contrast, are much more energy efficient. Technology also plays a huge role in energy efficiency. The USA, for example, has seen economic growth in terms of percent GDP, outstripping the growth in energy demand for a while now.
Relationship between Energy Use and Economic Development over Time

Odell proposes that nations progress along the above curve as they develop, and that most of the developed nations are already on the plateau. Presumably China and India are on the steep part of the curve as they industrialize. This isn't the graph from his book, I just created this in MATLAB using the function 1/sqrt(1+x^2) but it closely mimics the shape of his curve and concept of an ultimate energy consumption limit. This curve converges to 1.0 as time goes to infinity.

What this suggests is that due to a move away from industry, improvements in energy efficiency, and the slow-down in population growth that energy consumption will eventually stabilize. Odell, while he presents this concept, oddly did not attempt to fit any nation to this shape. This is unfortunate as it would be very interesting to see where populous developing countries like China and India are on the scale.

Odell also focuses a lot of the development of unconventional oil (e.g. tar sands) and unconventional gas (e.g. coal-bed methane), and how they extend the lifetime of those resources. Odell claims that conventional oil will peak by 2030, but that due to the growth of unconventional sources overall oil production will not peak until 2060. Odell thinks that gas production will pass oil in 2040. The peak for natural gas will not occur until 2090, but by that time the world will have consumed 90 % of gas reserves. While he clearly believes in the long slow plateau for oil, he still shows gas going into a nose-dive after its peak.

Odell briefly presents the theory of abiogenic origins for hydrocarbons that was developed in the Soviet Union. Essentially the theory states that hydrocarbons are produced by chemical processes deep in the Earth's mantle. They are then forced up towards the surface. Apparently some reservoirs in the former Soviet Union are found in the crystal zone for rock, where the heat causes a phase change from amorphous to crystalline. Odell takes this as the possibility that some existing oil and gas reservoirs are being fed by active conduits to the production zones deep in the mantle. Hence, they may be renewable. Furthermore there may be additional reserves much deeper down than the fossil theory of carbon fuels would suggest.

This does beg some fairly obvious questions to a layman such as myself. For example, why is oil and gas found primarily in sedimentary rock, which clearly hasn't worked its way down deep enough? Why doesn't oil or gas naturally find its way through rock formations to the surface? Why does it get stuck? If oil is renewable on the order of human lifespan, how come the world isn't swimming in oil? Odell points out that some 4000 papers have been published in the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, that's very few papers over a time scale of 55 years. If many of them are in Russian, they aren't readable by the bulk of the scientific community and so they don't count.

I have a number of criticisms to make of the book:
  1. The book is short and succinct; it is only about 128 pages in a soft-cover novel format. The book presents a fair number of numbers, tables, and graphs, but it is devoid of descriptive statistics. I was surprised to see that he made no attempt to quantify the error in oil reserves and the like. Similarly, he does not conduct any sort of sensitivity analysis on the important parameters for supply and demand. For that matter, he doesn't identify the important parameters.
  2. His projections for the growth in consumption for coal and oil seem simplistic. He sets them at 1.5 % and 2.0 % (sometimes 1.5 %) respectively, without justification. Similarly he sees conventional gas production grow at 3.0 % per year over the next 25 years. He does not attempt to actually use his curve for developed nation energy consumption to drive his analysis of say, the 25 largest economies in the world. This begs the question: why did he bother to present it?
  3. Odell assumes that carbon-fuel prices will remain very low, and renewables will not improve. There is contrary evidence in his own book. For example, Germany maintains 6.0 % of the world's coal reserves, but is the 3rd largest importer. As Odell states:
    Germany, the declared reserves of which ought probably to be significantly discounted as most of the country's coal is either uneconomical to produce, or too polluting to use in the context of stringent emissions policy...
    The idea that reserves claims in general are inflated because not 100 % of reserves can be economically exploited does not appear to have occurred to the author. Consider, however that he shows that world estimates for coals reserves went from 8,166 Gton in 1936 to 11,423 Gton in 1976 to 6,246 Gton in 1997. Consumption was only about 250 Gton over this time. Even worse, he states that, "Of this lower total in 1996, however, almost 50 % was defined to unlikely to be exploited except in extremis." So reserve estimates have been shown to be extremely overly optimistic for coal -- the oldest carbon fuel -- but Odell assures the reader that due to seismic tomographic imaging that oil and gas reserve estimates are reliable. It is probably worth pointing out that coal reserves are quite enormous. Since an overriding theme is that the most likely future is one where historical trends continue, the failure to examine the volatility of coal/oil reserves represents a major oversight of that theme.
  4. While Odell gives credit to technology for keeping the price of carbon fuels down and improving energy efficiency, he does not extend the same faith in R&D to renewables. This is fallacy. Clearly, as carbon fuel reserves are depleted, the highest quality reserves are consumed first, which results in an upward pressure on prices derived from lower quality deposits (like tar sands). This isn't due to just technology, the energy return on energy investment (ERORI) has been falling steadily for oil since the 70s. If the historical trends of increasing carbon fuel prices and decreasing renewable prices continue, the price break should occur before 2050. At that point, we will have a paradigm shift in the economy because non-fuel consuming "renewable" power production will have become cheaper than oil or gas. Some sort of full-width at half-maximum clearly needs to be incorporated into the analysis of carbon fuel reserves.
  5. He uses the abbreviation viz. (for videlict) excessively. Some editor should have broken him for it years ago. It's too late now.
Overall, the tone of Odell's book is that historical trends are likely to continue as is. I think a major reason for writing it is simply to counter some of the arguments of the peak oilers. His claim that natural gas will replace oil as the fuel of choice in the 21st century seems natural, assuming that renewable energy technology remains at a standstill. He does believe in the introduction of hydrogen reformed from carbon fuels, and sequesterization as a means to control CO2 emissions. He does not believe that the case for global warming has been made, but he does acknowledge that public opinion and government legislation will cause a shift regardless. Overall I find some of his theories intriguing, but I think his proofs are grossly insufficient. His attempt to predict world energy demand by sector for one hundred years is a bit silly. Science and technology can and probably will create paradigm shifts. He may as well written about the oil consumption of flying cars.


Peak oilers will probably be bouncing off the walls after this 10 page report from the NY Times Sunday Magazine.


1 comment:

Engineer-Poet said...

Odell doesn't seem to grasp that solar is about to fall below the retail price of electricity in California.  As in, this year or next.  Solar will quickly displace gas-fired turbines as the price of natural gas continues to rise.

We can increase efficiency radically using cogeneration and GO-HEV's, and the GO-HEV's can also take energy from solar and wind.  It's that connection from grid to wheels that's missing, and when it starts taking off the whole paradigm espoused by Odell will start breaking down.  Carbon fuels will come to be used for aircraft, portable devices and chemical synthesis; for the mundane tasks of supplying energy to lights and such, they will be underpriced by electricity or one of its chemical surrogates (e.g. zinc).