Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Other Side of Peak Oil

Electricity could be the transport fuel of the future – but will we develop the infrastructure in time?

In the 1950s, much to everyone’s disbelief, M King Hubbert came up with his theory of Peak Oil, and claimed that all the world’s oil was going to run out. Production would reach a maximum and then start to decline. In fact US oil production reached a peak in 1971, but nobody has determined exactly when we will reach the global limit, although it’s generally expected in the next couple of decades. Now an article in New Scientist (19th May) suggests that we’ll reach the peak not because of a failure in supply, but because of a failure of demand.

Some 50% of the 85m barrels of oil that the world consumes each day is used for transport. It’s a fossil fuel and a major contributor to global CO2. The author’s belief is that technology will dramatically cut transport fuel consumption, largely because the electric car will capture a major – even dominant – share of the market within only one or two decades.

The efficiency of the petrol car has improved dramatically over the last 20 years or so. New technology with turbochargers and direct fuel injection will improve it even more. In terms of emissions, however, the pure electric car is far cleaner; the emissions at the power station per mile are far lower than those of the traditional internal combustion vehicle. The cost of electricity is dramatically lower at around one fifth of the cost of petrol per kilometre, at European prices. The problem with the electric car is its notoriously limited range and its very high initial cost. Batteries, a major element of cost, are expected to fall in price as demand increases, but that still leaves the problem of range. Rapid recharge still takes at least 30 minutes, and recharging two or three times on a long journey is not acceptable. Battery exchange looks a more viable option. The vehicle arrives at the exchange station and robots remove the battery and replace it with a fully-charged unit in about the same time as it takes to fill a petrol tank. The technology exists, but so far there are few exchange stations.

The hybrid car is a halfway-house. Economy is improved by using the energy from regenerative braking – otherwise wasted – to charge a battery to drive an electric motor to support the petrol engine. In July Toyota launches its plug-in hybrid. In addition to the hybrid technology the car may be charged from a domestic socket to run on battery power for 15 miles. If your journey is longer than that then the petrol engine cuts in seamlessly for the rest of the trip. The savings will only be worthwhile for high mileage users, as the car will cost around £27,000, even after the UK government’s £5,000 subsidy. Other hybrids like the Vauxhall Ampera come in at £38,000.

If electricity is the future, the key question is where is it all going to come from? In the UK we are facing problems with meeting the existing demand for electricity. The government has finally announced its commitment to a new generation of nuclear power stations, but because it will take at least 10 years to get new stations in commission, existing stations are being authorised to run beyond their originally expected lifetimes. There are technical issues with the proposed design of new stations – similar stations are years behind their construction targets. There are political issues. EDF, 85% owned by the French government, is the only serious bidder for the UK nuclear construction programme. The new French president is not a supporter of nuclear power. And then there’s the infrastructure – new pylon routes and a network of exchange or recharging stations.

Electricity is attractive, but how soon it can be practical is open to doubt. Peak Oil, with rocketing prices and unpredictable supply, may not have gone away quite yet!

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