Wednesday, December 22

Thinking Ahead: Energy

A frequent commenter, who goes by the nom de plume Dark Syd, has penned a lyrical pessimistic ode about the long predicted oil crash (here). Oil consumption has been on the rise for as many decades as we dare count, the third world is trying their own industrial revolution on for size, and new reserves are not forthcoming. Cheap oil will run out. Fossil fuels probably will not, but shale oil, natural gas, and coal reserves, while vast, are much harder to utilize than "sweet crude". I don't have a single point to make on this issue, but I will take the opportunity to put a few thoughts on "paper".
  • I think it highly likely that when the demand and supply curves cross in the near term (the next decade), the market correction will be severe. Unlike Mr Dark's prediction, I don't see a complete collapse of the American economy and then the dawn of a new dark age as the outcome. I still have faith in our institutions and practices.
  • This crossover of the long term supply and demand curve has been predicted since the '70's. The most recent predictions I saw were for 2007. If I were a betting man, I'd figure that is too soon, but that it will certainly happen by 2020.
  • Making the problem worse, of course, is the current GOP and Democratic party positions in this country. The GOP "party-line" right now, is that the reserves are nothing to worry about for decades to come. The Democratic party line is similar, with the compounding problem that they have the Green movement in their fold which holds that nuclear fission is worse than death. Nuclear fission could indeed hold a major part of the answer, except that the lessons learned from the '70's need to be learned by our politicians. Namely, we need to learn:
    • Economies of scale aren't. Small facilities which can be gotten up and running in a year or 18 months are far better than a mega-facility that takes a decade or more to get on line.
    • Water or heavy water is not the coolant of choice. Water cooled reactors were initially used because those reactors were modeled on those developed by the nuclear submarine push in the late '50's. We've come a long way in reactor design since then. But the environmentalist whackos have enough political clout that nobody will listen yet. Intrinsically safe reactors have been developed. An intrinsically safe reactor is one where if you pull the control rods out and stop the coolant flow it shuts down.
    • Also, with high-level waste disposal and storage. Solutions exist, but the political climate is such that people are not ready to listen.
  • Fission, of course, will become more attractive as oil prices skyrocket. The interim may be interesting times.
  • What is needed are more leaders like Mr Bush. Say what you will about him, but he doesn't lack political courage (unlike his recent political opponent, Mr Kerry). The move to attack Iraq was, in his opinion, the right thing to do. I would claim that attacking Iraq was in nobody's estimation the politically smart or safe move (not even his). We almost never see a politician doing something which he thinks is the right thing to do while thinking it is also politically unsound. My personal view is that those on the right of the aisle are more likely to act on principle than political pragmatism, but those individuals are rare. But again, perhaps I only view those on the left as always acting for their personal political gain, and never on principle, because I don't understand their principles very well.