Resources: How soon will the water in the bottomless well run out?
(ORDO NEWS) — Since the 1860s, mankind has been promised an exhaustion of coal, since the 1960s – oil. After them, many are sure, civilization will not be able to maintain the previous level of energy consumption, which will make life much more difficult. There are such predictions about metals, and even fertile land, which for half a century has been promised a quick collapse due to erosion. Oddly enough, the history of mankind shows that almost all forecasts of this kind are illusions. Our species has many problems, but the exhaustion of basic resources is clearly not one of them. But the very idea of the finiteness of resources is truly harmful: believing in it, we humans make many gross and costly mistakes. Let’s figure out why.
Our species has made exceptional strides that set it apart from others, after learning to use external, chemical sources of energy – namely, combustion. It is believed that the fire is also used for their own purposes by Australian birds of prey – carrying burning smut in their beaks in order to more conveniently hunt small animals migrating during a steppe fire.
However, the genus Homo used fire more extensively from the very beginning. Frying meat, he spent much less energy on its digestion, moreover, predators are afraid of fire, and he allows you to arrange a driven hunt. 1.8 million years ago, erectus reached the Caucasus, and in such conditions, fire could not but come in handy for heating. That is, a new source of energy allowed people to settle in places where their African ancestors, who did not use fire, would not have survived.
The beginning of the industrial revolution also went under the sign of firewood: Sweden under Charles XII was the largest iron producer in Europe precisely because of the abundance of firewood (it led to low prices for them). Russia replaced her in this post until the end of the 18th century for the same reason.
Of course, the felling of forests reduced their area, and forecasts appeared in Europe that the forests would soon end. A widespread confidence of this kind appeared in German lands since the late 16th century and was called Holznot (“lack of wood”). Within the framework of such a concept, forests were soon doomed to disappear due to felling, after which people would have nothing to warm themselves with. The concept is slender, logical, and, following it, they began to plant trees there in large quantities – strictly according to the ruler, with a typical German desire for the “ordnung”. A clear example of a running out resource, a kind of “peak of firewood” – as well as a reasonable, resource-saving response to it.
Holznot looked logically from the surroundings of mines that quickly appeared in modern times: trees were quickly cut down in their vicinity (hemp in the background), since the tree went to support the mines and other production needs. However, as modern historians have shown, where there were fewer mines, the picture was completely different / © Wikipedia
By the way, in 2011, the supporters of the peak oil theory tried to introduce such a term. They suggested that it was the “peak of firewood” that buried the Roman Empire. However, there were no hints of this in historical sources, but in the paradigm of the supporters of the “peak of resources” this could not but be.
And everything would be fine, but in the 1980s the historian Joachim Radkau discovered that there was never any Holznot in the real world. According to historical sources, there is simply no noticeable difference between the actual amount of per capita wood resources before and after the idea of “lack of firewood”. Moreover, after the Thirty Years War, the population of Germany decreased by a quarter, arable land began to be overgrown with forest – but the states continued to restrict logging for firewood, and with ever-increasing force.
Radkau’s conclusion is simple: the word itself appears in historical sources shortly after a particular German state began to sharply limit the rights of its peasants to cut trees for firewood, and not after some really observed leaps in their availability.
The work of Hans Hesse, 1522, shows a typical product of the ore boom of the 16th century – an entire mining town actively consuming wood / © Wikipedia
Where the local rise in prices for firewood did occur, it happened because of the local ore rush – the formation of mining towns, to which many people flocked. Unlike later eras, the income of the miners was much higher than that of the rest of the population, and a lot of timber was required for the support of the mines. As a result, there were local jumps in prices for firewood, which had nothing to do with the lack of resources – only with the strongest local jump in demand.
As Radkau notes, the German states were faced with a choice: to stop the price hikes by limiting the use of forests by the mining industry, or to prevent peasants from cutting firewood in the forests for free, as they used to do from generation to generation. The problem was that mining enterprises paid a lot of taxes to the treasury, while peasants, per capita, paid less. Naturally, the heads of state chose to restrict access for the peasants. And to substantiate it, they used the previously rather abstract idea of Holznot.
The reader will ask a legitimate question: it turns out that the wood is endless? Well, they can definitely give a lot more energy to society than we think. Suffice it to say that today people burn more wood than at any other time in their history: they give us only four times less primary energy than coal, and five times less than oil.
Two hundred years ago, in 1820, “traditional biofuels” produced the equivalent of 6.1 trillion kilowatt-hours of primary energy (including heat). In 1970, it was 9.4 trillion, and today it is 11.1 trillion kilowatt-hours per year. We burn twice as much wood as when the first steam locomotive was launched. In the primary energy balance of earthlings for 2018, firewood provides four times more energy than uranium, and three times more than hydroelectric power plants.
Despite this, the world’s forest area is growing by tens of thousands of square kilometers per year. However, we have already written in a separate article about the fact that the area of forests, contrary to popular myths, is vigorously increasing. Even in Western Europe today the use of wood fuel is at the maximum in its entire history, while the forest area is growing steadily.
But the main reason that no peak in firewood should be expected is not because forests can produce a lot of them.
Coal is the main reason for the failure of the “peak of firewood”
It is often believed that coal began to be actively used in Britain in the 18th century, during the industrial revolution. In fact, the beginning of its active mining in China dates back to 3490 BC at the latest. For the same Britain, the use of coal has been known at least since Roman rule, and practically the same zones were exploited where coal was mined until the 20th century. However, then, due to barbarism, the ability to maintain coal mining was reduced to zero – and the demand fell due to the decline in the population.
In modern times, the population and technological level increased, and after the appearance of steamships and steam locomotives, the demand for black fuel soared. The reason for this sharp popularity is greater convenience. A cubic meter of firewood gives 1.5-2.0 thousand kilowatt-hours of thermal energy, and a cubic meter of coal – 9-11 thousand kilowatt-hours. It is clear that a steam locomotive or a steamer with coal on board will go much further than with firewood. Coal turned out to be the most convenient fuel for the civilization of the 19th century.
In 1865, William Jevons published the book The Coal Question, where he bluntly stated: coal is a finite resource, Britain is not wise, allowing it to be spent freely. His calculations showed that the country should run out of coal in 90 years, by 1960.
Jevons proposed concrete measures to solve the problem: in particular, to artificially slow down the economic growth of Britain by raising taxes (and this is a century and a half before Greta Thunberg, campaigning for a carbon tax). In addition to purely repressive measures, the English thinker put forward constructive ones.
First, he proposed increased use of wind and tidal power – yes, in 1865, more than a hundred years before the current greens. Realizing the discontinuity of these energy sources, he considered it necessary to build a water pumping capacity on a hill. When the wind was not blowing, the drainage of the storage was supposed to rotate the turbine, giving the required energy. By the way, he rightly considered the option of storing energy by generating hydrogen from intermittent generation impractical, due to the large energy losses in the production of hydrogen. This idea has found brilliant confirmation in our time, when the “hydrogen energy” clearly failed. Jevons also noted the promising use of solar energy and even geothermal energy, however, he emphasized that they are in trouble in England.
In general, from the point of view of modern green, Jevons was a prophet, of which there are few. However, our reality for prophets – even very smart ones – is poorly equipped, so everything went wrong in it, as in his book.
Coal production continued to grow. After 1900 – decades after his book – coal was finally able to overtake wood in the amount of primary energy received from it by mankind. Therefore, the 19th century is not quite a century of coal and steam: until 1900 inclusive, firewood provided more energy than coal.
Yes, coal production in Britain peaked in 1913. In the world as a whole, this happened in 2013. However, today the planet produces 80 times more coal than in 1865, and there are no signs of a shortage of it. Its production has been declining since 2013, not because there is not enough coal, because the reserves would have been sufficient for hundreds of years at current production. And all the more not because of prices that are not growing. It’s all about … that’s right, another source of energy that has seriously supplanted coal.
And this is not gas, as they might think in Russia. Natural gas still provides only 35.5 trillion kilowatt-hours of primary energy – significantly less than coal.
The ever-elusive “depletion” of oil reserves
In the 19th century, oil was used for lighting (kerosene stoves), and the invention in Russia of transporting oil by tankers (and not barrels, as before) made it possible to start exporting oil over great distances. By 1900, oil provided people with 0.18 trillion kilowatt-hours of primary energy per year, ten times less than the main fuel of that time – wood.
The revolutionary turning point happened after 1900: Henry Ford created a massive internal combustion engine-mobile, the Wright brothers launched the plane, and in Russia in 1902 they built the world’s first motor ship. The advantages of petroleum products in transport over coal are, as expected, huge: gasoline can be burned in an internal combustion engine, which removes the need for a bulky and long-heating steam boiler, as well as for regular water topping up for its operation. As we can see, oil – like coal 100 years before it – also turned out to be a more comfortable fuel than its predecessor.
By the 1920s, there were millions of cars, and since the second half of the 20th century, the ship became the main means of transportation in the world, sharing this function with diesel locomotives. In the first half of the 1960s, oil finally provided more primary energy to civilization than coal. Today, transport absorbs more than half of all oil produced, and in total its combustion gives 54.2 trillion kilowatt-hours per year – against 43.9 trillion for coal or 11.1 trillion for firewood. In other words, oil has almost completely displaced coal from transport and precisely because of this it has occupied the main niche in providing people with energy. A third of all our primary energy comes from it.
For half a century now, completely copying Jevons, supporters of the peak oil theory say that it is about to end, and its prices will skyrocket. True, it turns out that it can be extracted from, for example, shale, but adherents of “near depletion of oil” do not give up, pointing out that shale is not endless, and extraction from them is expensive.
While they are predicting another holznot, oil, the real world is going in a completely different way: oil “suddenly” becomes less important for humanity – and that’s why.
The age of electricity
Popular literature forms in our country an incorrect perception of real energy. We have already noted above: the 19th century is called the century of coal, although in reality firewood remained number one in the energy pyramid right up to 1901. The XX century is usually called the century of oil, but in reality, back in 1960, coal gave us more energy than black gold.
Similarly, it is not entirely correct to consider the 21st century as the “era of electricity”: even in 2018, people consumed 157 trillion kilowatt-hours of primary energy, and less than 20% of this amount came to us in the form of electricity. Still not, when a third of all this energy comes from oil, which is burned mainly in transport.
We are used to not noticing this, but transport plays a disproportionately large role in the global economy: without oil, the scheme “to produce in Russia / USA is expensive, let’s buy in China” simply would never have worked. There would be nothing to refuel a container ship, nothing to transport the goods from the port to the end consumer.
This is not the only major channel for the waste of primary energy that goes by the power grids: heating houses with gas is still the most popular in the Nordic countries. In addition, fuel is burned in the production of cement and in a number of other industries.
But this situation, characteristic of our era, is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. We have already written why electric cars are doomed to do away with internal combustion engines and why already in the 2030s they will be produced more than cars with internal combustion engines. In a nutshell: the reasons are the same as those of the victory of oil in transport in the 20th century – an electric car turned out to be more convenient than ICE vehicles of the same cost. They have a larger cabin due to more compact engines and higher acceleration dynamics.
The victory of electric vehicles will radically change the entire global energy balance. Let’s take Russia. We have about 50 million cars of all types, the total mileage of which is approaching a trillion kilometers per year. Now they consume many tens of millions of tons of oil products. The victory of electromobilization will affect our country more slowly than the world as a whole, but by the middle of the century it will be inevitable: the world will simply stop producing mass internal combustion engines, and Russia does not have its own centers for the development of new machines of a good technical level, so we will have to collect foreign ones. electric vehicles.
What will happen then? Imagine that today’s cars would be replaced overnight by their electrical counterparts. Electric vehicles consume 0.16 kilowatt-hours of electricity per kilometer, which means that electricity consumption in the country will grow by 200 billion kilowatt-hours, or 20%. Fuel costs for car owners will fall at least a couple of times (more likely, more). Oil will find itself in the same situation that dropped the demand for coal after 2013: it suddenly has too few buyers.
Black gold prices will go down, somewhere to black silver – or even black copper. This will have a positive effect on the aviation industry, whose kerosene will inevitably fall in price, and a little less on global shipping (diesel fuel will also fall in price, but maritime transport is so energy efficient that the share of the cost of fuel in the price of transportation is not so big there).
The main thing is that the share of oil in the global energy balance will decline, while the share of coal will not start to grow either. Who will cover the 20% increase in electricity consumption? Atomic energy, with all its advantages, is doomed to stagnation for the psychological reasons we have previously described. There are not so many places for large hydroelectric power plants on the planet. Obviously, only two realistic options remain: gas and solar / wind power.
Natural gas may well do the job – and here’s why. The climate on Earth is getting warmer, which is why gas is needed for heating less and less: in Europe, its sales in the winter of 2019-2020 were record low. On the other hand, gas reserves are still plentiful, and prices for it are so low that coal-fired power plants cannot compete with gas-fired ones and are being closed in many parts of the world.
Solar and wind energy also have ample potential for this. It takes less than eight trillion-kilowatt hours of electricity per year to convert all of the world’s vehicles to electricity. Already today, wind power generates 1.3 trillion kilowatt-hours, and solar – 0.6 trillion kilowatt-hours per year. This is a quarter of the required amount, but, importantly, both wind and solar energy continue to grow rapidly.
They have significant limitations in today’s power systems: intermittent generation is difficult to compensate for. No one is in a hurry to build pumped storage power plants, as Jevons proposed in 1865: such projects require large centralized bureaucracies with a high degree of government intervention in the economy.
Most states are technically unable to implement mass construction for purely organizational reasons. A typical example is Russia: an attempt to build a PSPP-2 in the Moscow region ended with a vivid illustration of the administrative insolvency of the building organization. There are few effective bureaucracies outside the PRC in the world, so it is obvious that pumped storage power plants cannot become a truly mass phenomenon.
But after mass electromobilization, the problem of intermittent generation from the sun and wind will become noticeably less complicated. It costs little to lead to each parking space along a post with a wire of four square millimeters and a socket of 3.5 kilowatts. With midday solar surpluses – or unexpected wind surpluses – simply arrange to distribute them to EVs with a temporarily reduced tariff. The overwhelming majority of today’s electric cars already have rather complex software and an Internet connection that allows remotely adjusting charging in an automated mode.
Consequently, electromobilization will endow the electric grids with a huge fleet of batteries, with a total capacity – for example, Russia – no less than three billion kilowatt-hours. The daily consumption of an electric car is only a dozen kilowatt-hours. Therefore, the real storage capacity of the entire electric vehicle fleet per day will fluctuate within half a billion kilowatt-hours. But after all, the daily consumption in Russia today is only three billion kilowatt-hours – that is, the peaks of excess generation will be covered by electric vehicles.
However, we are inclined to think that specifically in Russia, gas thermal power plants will dominate SES and WPPs for decades to come. The reasons are clear: we have a lot of our own gas and there is no too much emphasis on combating global warming. This will be approximately the same in the United States. But Europe and the PRC may show a greater bias towards SES and WECs: China due to the shortage of its gas, and Europe due to the rapid “tunbergization” of public consciousness.
Carbon Peak: The Newest Ultimate Resource of Our Imagination
For centuries, only the fuel itself was considered as an energy resource: firewood, coal, oil or gas. But our time has brought quite unexpected fears about the ultimate ability of the atmosphere to safely absorb the products of burning fossil fuels.
According to modern data, this very combustion since 1750 has raised the level of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s air from 280 to 410 parts per million, and the process continues. A number of scientists fear that burning all the proven reserves of coal, oil and gas will raise the CO2 content in the air so much that the climate will change catastrophically. Some say that people in today’s warm countries will literally die out, unable to withstand overheating.
We have noted more than once that, in general, modern science does not support such fears. There have been periods on Earth when subtropical forests reached 88 degrees of latitude – and even Franz Josef Land, the northernmost point of Russia, lies much further from the pole. Our primate ancestors appear in geological sediments in sufficient quantities during the Eocene-Paleocene thermal maximum – in an era when the coast of the Arctic Ocean was as warm as it is now in Yalta (average annual temperature is + 12 = 13).
From that geological chronicle it follows that in all these epochs the equator and the tropics were densely populated by animals and plants, and no species extinction in such especially warm periods has ever happened. From this alone it is clear that the “peak” in the planet’s ability to carry carbon dioxide in its atmosphere is no less dubious than the never-come “peaks” of available coal, oil or gas.
In addition, the withdrawal of coal from power generation is in full swing. Gas as a fuel for power plants is much more convenient: a coal furnace cannot be quickly “ignited”, but the turbines of a gas thermal power plant accelerate quite rapidly. Therefore, the capacity of a gas-fired thermal power plant can be easily maneuvered, but this will not work with a coal-fired one. And air pollution with microparticles from gas is noticeably less than from coal. All this makes the displacement of the latter in the position of firewood a matter of the next decades.
Combustion of fuel emits almost 40 billion tons of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere per year, but most of it is absorbed by natural mechanisms. The planet cannot absorb only seven billion “extra” tons of CO2 per year. Coal contributes more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than any other fuel – 14.6 billion tons. Therefore, it is easy to see that stopping its combustion will lead to the cessation of the growth in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere. Apparently, this will happen sometime in the middle of the century. So fears about “excess” carbon dioxide are again based on a reluctance to accommodate future technological changes – just like Jevons’ coal fears in 1865.
Infinite resource peaks: illusory, but at the same time causing real harm
So, the future of the world’s resources is not too difficult to predict – just look back at their past. Gold has been mined for thousands of years, and its production today is still more than ever in the past: that is, even one of the most expensive and scarce natural resources, mankind has not yet been able to exhaust.
People have been using firewood for about a million years, but today they burn more than in the era of steam locomotives or John F. Kennedy, not to mention earlier periods of history. The world produces more oil than ever before, and its prices, to put it mildly, are not record highs. Gas production is growing – and with it prices for it are falling. It can be seen from this that people are finding new ways of extracting resources of interest to them so quickly that prices for them do not have time to seriously rise.
The transition of humanity from one resource to another does not happen when the first ends, but when we find a more convenient and comfortable replacement for it. Coal won over firewood, since it is several times more energy-intensive and therefore more compact. Oil has won over coal in transportation, since the internal combustion engine is smaller and more convenient than a steam boiler. Gas beats coal at thermal power plants, because its turbine changes output much faster – which, again, is more convenient.
In 1956, American geologists estimated the near depletion of oil in the United States with a red forecast graph. If he was faithful, there was almost no oil in the States today. However, its real production followed a green schedule: after the start of shale oil development, its total production began to grow rapidly / © Wikipedia
Over time, the concept of comfort and convenience changes. Today people know something that was unknown to their ancestors: that coal-fired thermal power plants kill hundreds of thousands of people a year, and gas-fired ones – tens of thousands. And in China and developed countries, solar and wind power plants are being actively built, which are much safer for the health of citizens.
And if at first solar and wind energy were expensive, today such electricity is no more expensive than coal. It is very doubtful that the efficiency of solar panels will never increase or the height of wind turbines will not increase, increasing their efficiency in the future. That is, energy from these sources will become cheaper and cheaper.
A very similar picture has developed with the production of natural gas in the USA / © Wikipedia
Along the way, the progress of electric transport will make its accumulation all the easier. Winter failures of solar energy generation will be compensated by gas generation, and if gas becomes too expensive, other energy sources (at least nuclear) will also compensate. There is enough uranium in the oceans of the Earth to cover the needs of people for billions of years.
Certain problems can be created not by the “depletion of energy resources” itself – which does not exist in real life – but by panic about it. As we can see from the example of Jevons, intellectuals of our kind believe too much that “tomorrow will also be today.” That is, the trends and realities they observe will last forever.
They do not even admit the thought that in a matter of tens of years a resource that they considered indispensable (coal at Jevons’) will suddenly turn out to be much less convenient than a new one (oil). They do not understand that this makes attempts to regulate the economy and the technosphere for a long time on the basis of fears of a “peak in resources” harmful.
The first example of harm from such “resource-saving” regulation was the fictional holznot, the lack of firewood. Trying to save firewood from exhaustion (which did not threaten them at all, as Radkau and the current peak of firewood production with the simultaneous expansion of forests have shown), the German authorities of the New Time thought that they were doing good. In reality, they have deprived many of the peasants of access to cheap fuel by making their winter housing colder, and this, as we know, leads to a sharp increase in mortality.
The imaginary peak of firewood in the future was followed by the imaginary peak of coal shortages. What if Jevons succeeded and convinced the British to raise taxes to slow economic growth? That’s right: the British would have become poorer. Only now, the availability of coal would not have added to them: there is coal in England today. True, they are in no hurry to extract it: not a single coal-fired power plant simply works in the country, they are recognized as too dirty.
… And with oil production for the world as a whole. If the peak of oil does happen, it will be the peak of the demand for it, and not at all the possibilities for its production / © Wikipedia
Don’t think Jevons was a fool, but today we are all smart. Greta Thunberg calls for reducing the consumption of fossil fuels – albeit not because of their depletion. To do this, she proposes a carbon tax – essentially the same higher Jevons taxes.
To improve the energy efficiency of society (to delay the “peak of energy resources”), many European countries (Germany, for example) introduce draconian taxes that sharply raise the price of electricity. Results? Tens of thousands of cold deaths a year in Germany, for example, although it is known from experience that lower heating prices (Germans often use electricity to heat them) reduces such deaths.
The fear of a spike in resources really does great harm to society – even though the spike will never happen.
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