The Path from Petroleum Shortages to Electricity Shortages

It seems to me that there is likely to be a very short path from petroleum shortages to electricity shortages. There are a lot of issues involved, from the fact that the fuels used in electricity production are themselves dependent on petroleum for their extraction and transportation, to the current state of the US electricity infrastructure, to the impact of peak oil on debt financing. I have written about most of these issues before, but since the petroleum/electricity link is such an important one, I thought I would devote an article to putting the pieces together.

Fuels used for electricity generation

In the United States, the primary fuel used for electricity generation is coal, at 49% of electricity production. Natural gas follows at 22%; nuclear at 19%; hydroelectric at 6%, and petroleum at 1.6%. The newer renewables are all quite small: wood at 0.93%; wind at .77%; waste at .41%; and solar (for electricity generation) at 0.01%.

Percentage distribution of fuels used in US electricity generation

Figure 1. Distribution of fuel supplies used in US electricity generation, based on EIA data.

I see a number of reasons why there is likely to be a very short path from petroleum shortages to electricity shortages:

1. All of the fuels used today for electricity generation are dependent to some extent on petroleum for their production and transport.

Unless there is an amazingly good allocation system, once there is a shortage of oil, of say, 20%, it is going to start affecting electricity production, because the oil deficit will start affecting fuels used for electricity production.

Electrical fuel dependence on petroleum

Coal. Surface mining uses large diesel powered machinery. Below ground mining almost certainly uses some diesel powered equipment, since diesel is so portable. Workers in mines use gasoline or diesel fuel to get to work. Transportation of coal is primarily by rail and barge, and these are petroleum powered in the US.

Natural gas. Drilling rigs are often powered by diesel fuel. Workers who visit wells to make adjustments drive trucks that use diesel or gasoline. Roads to the wells are maintained using diesel operated equipment. In arid places like Wyoming, the food that workers eat needs to be shipped long distances.

Uranium. Uranium mining is very volume-intensive, because it is only available in low concentrations. Earth-movers used to mine uranium use diesel fuel; the process for separating out the ore from the waste most likely uses petroleum as well. Once the ore is mined and suitably processed, it must be transported to the ultimate location, again using some form of petroleum as fuel.

Petroleum. If petroleum itself is used as a fuel, there is clearly a direct link between petroleum shortages and electricity shortages. In the US, petroleum is primarily used in Hawaii (since it is a group of islands) and for backup generation. Outside the US, there are many countries that use oil for power generation because oil is easy to transport and plants powered by petroleum are easy to build.

Wood or switchgrass. If biomass is used as a fuel, it must be harvested and transported to the place where it will be used. Diesel operated trucks and other equipment are currently used for this purpose.

Wind turbines. Wind turbines are very large. Roads must be maintained to transport the equipment to the site where it is used. Trucks are needed when maintenance is performed. If the turbines are located offshore, boats are needed for maintenance. Wind turbines must be serviced regularly because of wear and tear on the gearbox.

Hydroelectric. Needs less petroleum inputs than most. Petroleum is used for maintaining the transmission lines to the electrical power plant; for replacing parts of the hydroelectric dam when they wear out, and for dredging out the area behind the dam when it gets filled with silt.

Solar power generation. Today, solar generates only 0.01% of grid electric power. If solar power stations are situated in the desert to produce electrical power for the grid, oil is needed to transport the equipment to the desert location, and to bring food for the workers. Oil is needed in the initial manufacture of the equipments, and for building and maintaining transmission lines.

Geothermal. Less oil dependent than most. Oil is needed in building the initial station, for making and transporting replacement parts, and for maintaining electrical transmission lines from the plant.

2. If there is a shortage of oil, people will tend to substitute other fuels for petroleum. This substitution is likely to lead to other shortages.

We have already seen how a plan to use biofuels as a substitute for gasoline can result in higher food prices. There has been considerable discussion of using cellulosic ethanol as a liquid fuel. If wood and other biomass are used to produce cellulosic ethanol, there are likely to be shortages of these fuels for powering electric generation.

Petroleum, coal, natural gas and nuclear are used for electricity generation around the world. Once petroleum is high priced or unavailable, power companies are likely to switch to other forms of electricity generation, at least for their new power plants. Because of this, it is likely to become increasingly difficult to buy uranium, coal, and natural gas for use in power plants.

T. Boone Pickens and others have talked about using natural gas as a transportation fuel. This is also likely to put pressure on available natural gas supply for electricity.

Even apart from the substitution issue, many forecasts say that other fossil fuels will peak not many years after petroleum supply peaks.

Figure 2. Worldwide possible coal production, according to Energy Watch Group

3. Our electrical infrastructure is very dependent on petroleum inputs.

Our electrical infrastructure includes transmission lines and transformers, among other things. Many components of the transmission systems are reaching the ends of their normal life spans, and will need replacement in the next few years. Outages are also expected because of storms.

In order to service these transmission lines and generators, replacement transmission lines and generators much be built and transported to the location where they are needed. Workers need trucks and roads to do the servicing. All of this requires considerable petroleum use. If transmission lines are to be expanded because of addition of new wind or solar or nuclear plants, this also requires petroleum.

4. There is a substantial chance that petroleum products available will suddenly decline by a large percentage (more than 20%), rather than just the small annual increment one might expect that results from the world decline in oil production.

There are really two issues with oil availability--the worldwide decline, expected to begin in the next few years, and a decline in the US ability to import petroleum products. Of the two, the decline in the US ability to import petroleum products is probably the bigger issue.

We have lived in a world where the United States uses 24% of the world's petroleum products for such a long that it seems like this is the natural order of things. The problem is that we are no longer exporting very many goods to pay for this oil, and our balance of payments situation is getting worse and worse. Our financial situation is worsening. There is a substantial chance that the value of the dollar will drop sufficiently that we will not be able to afford to continue our big share of world oil supply.

There are other ways that the amount of oil we are able to buy might decline, also. Geopolitical forces may eliminate some production, or may change the amount we are able to purchase in the open market.

5. Shortages of petroleum products are likely to occur in unexpectedly, in places where it hurts the economy.

In an ideal situation, shortages of petroleum products will only affect consumption in places that it will have no negative impacts elsewhere in the economy--for example, will not reduce natural gas production, or will not affect our ability to produce food and water, and transport it to those who need it.

In practice, it would be very difficult to design such a system. Diesel is likely to be in especially short supply, because it is used for so many commercial and industrial purposes. If its use is allocated based on who is able to pay the most, there is no reason to believe that those who will make the best use of the oil will receive it. For example, many small truckers who are involved with food delivery are likely to be priced out of the system.

If oil use is allocated by a governmental organization, they may do a bit better, but it still will be very difficult to get the oil to the those who will make the best use of it. Supply chains are so long and complicated that it is difficult to foresee what impact a shortage for one particular user will have, as it works its way through the system. Even with the best intentions, allocation schemes designed by government agencies are likely to undersupply users who are critical to the system.

As a practical matter, I think that what we will see is a lot of local outages, based on logistical issues. People at the end of the pipeline will find that there is not enough oil left by the time it gets to them. A particular refinery will not be able to get enough oil, and the people in the area of the refinery will discover themselves without enough gasoline and diesel, because the refinery was not able to purchase adequate fuel, or was not able to make repairs after an accident, because of missing parts. A pipeline operator (or refinery) will go bankrupt, and there will be no substitute available. We have already seen unplanned outages in North Dakota and Winnipeg.

There were also problems with oil shortages after Hurricane Katrina hit. The problem in this situation was electrical outages along the Colonial Pipeline. In order to get the pipeline moving again, it was necessary to bring generators to the pipeline and use oil from the pipeline to generate electricity to operate the pumps.

6. With increased petroleum shortages, we should expect more and more gaps in petroleum supply. If these gaps become widespread, they are likely to trigger further loss in electrical fuels.

Suppose that petroleum products become unavailable in Appalachia, because of a pipeline problem. This could affect the production of coal. If there is an outage in Wyoming, it could affect the production of both coal and natural gas. A gap in petroleum supply in the New York City area could bring all kinds of businesses to a sudden stop, and this could lead to all kinds of indirect impacts, which ripple from one sector of the economy through to other sectors of the economy.

7. If we start having electric supply disruptions, these disruptions are likely to start chain reactions of disruptions of other types.

I mentioned earlier the problem with the Colonial Pipeline after Katrina, because of electrical outages. Most oil pipelines and many natural gas pipelines use electricity to pump the product. Gas stations also use electricity to pump gasoline. Because of these connections, an area without electric power is likely to find itself without petroleum products as well, in a fairly short a time period.

If oil is not available in an area, industrial agriculture in the area is likely to cease. Truckers may not be willing to make deliveries, if their trucks cannot get refueled.

8. While it is theoretically possible to get around a lot of oil shortage problems by building new infrastructure, as a practical matter this is not likely to work, because of timing, the enormity of the project, and our current financial problems.

Theoretically, there are a lot of things one could do to circumvent oil shortages. One could build electric cars for transportation. One could build electric powered machines to mine uranium. One could replace our current truck transportation with much expanded railroad transportation.

Even in the best of times, it would be a monumental undertaking to make a transformation from one type of infrastructure to another. It would likely take a very long time--certainly more than 20 years, based on the Hirsch Report. With our current financial situation, it seems like such a transformation is pretty much out of the question. We have been reading recently about the fact that lenders are becoming less and less willing to make loans. This will make financing new infrastructure more difficult.

In the future, the US governments and state governments are likely to be in poorer and poorer financial condition, based on my analysis of the US current financial situation. Local governments will find their revenues dropping as house prices drop. The federal government will find itself increasingly asked to cover debt shortfalls of a lot of different organizations (Fannie and Freddie, banks, insurance companies, pension funds, airlines, auto manufacturers). This will leave little left over for building new infrastructure.

Because of all of the foregoing issues, I expect that we will encounter electrical difficulties within twenty years. The timeperiod may even be much shorter than this..

Any kind of change we want to make to the country's infrastructure to better prepare us for the future will take a very long time--most likely 30 to 50 years. Perhaps, with great effort, we could make a transformation in 20 years.

The issue I see is that if we know we are very likely to have electrical difficulties within twenty years, it does not make sense to start a transformation to a more electrical society. For example, if we start building a lot of electric trains, we are likely to discover that that we don't have the electricity to operate them when they get built. It seems like we would better off figuring out what resource base is likely to be available thirty to fifty years from now, and gearing our efforts accordingly.

It seems to me that the model we should be envisioning for future electric supply is local electric supply.

People talk about making food production more local. I think that in the long run, whatever electricity production we have will be primarily local. It seems to me that much hydroelectric power can continue for many years, if we make plans to maintain it. We may also be able to maintain geothermal power and power from photovoltaic cells, if the PV cells have a sufficiently long lifespan. There are likely to be many parts of the country without electricity.

I doubt that coal-fired power stations will still be available, except possibly in areas where coal is produced. (If there is a shortage, those closest to where it is produced are likely to get the output.) Electricity from natural gas may be available near natural gas supplies. Nuclear will probably not be available, because of all of the issues of mining and importing. Back-up batteries are not likely to be available for PV or other use. All of these have very long supply chains, and these are likely to be broken as electric outages become more common.

We need to be looking closely at what is really feasible, and aiming for that level.

With the limited amount of electricity available from local production, our ability to manufacture things will be much reduced. We will need to prioritize what we do manufacture carefully, so as to have the basics covered--food, clothing, heating, and basic transportation. I doubt we will be able to count on imports for very much of our basic needs.

It seems to me that we should be analyzing the situation closely, and developing plans that will work, based on what has worked in the past. We should be thinking about raising more draft animals and building small windmills to pump water. We should be thinking about building bicycles, if we can get all of the necessary components locally sourced. We should be thinking about what infrastructure is really essential (fresh water, hydroelectric dams, geothermal electricity, basic roads), and taking steps to maintain it.

I think the danger is aiming too high, and ending up with virtually nothing that works.

"People talk about making food production more local. I think that in the long run, whatever electricity production we have will be primarily local."

But once people are producing energy locally, why do they
need the Federal government?

«Other factors remaining constant, culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means of putting the energy to work is increased. … We may now sketch the history of cultural development from this standpoint.» — Leslie White, “White’s Law,” 1949

2) The loss of liquid fossil fuels will contemporaneously cause the loss of coal also. Think ‘trains’:

Coal-hauling trains (in the U.S.) run on diesel fuel (not coal — or anything else).

I think that there will be a real possibility that our government will change to be more local in the next 20 years. This is another reason I have questions about long-haul transport of electricity fuels and maintenance of long distance transmission lines.

I cannot help but note the single-dimensional nature of the analysis above.

Gail, you're correct to note the inter-relationships of the USA's energy systems.  However, you seem to think that these will be unchanged by the various proposals she cites.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

  • Gas-rig workers commute in petroleum-powered vehicles... today.  Tomorrow they might commute in passenger vans running on CNG.  The rigs themselves can be electrified; if we're going to run a pipeline to the site to take gas away, we can run a wire back along the same path.
  • You note that trains are powered by diesel, and that coal travels long distances by train.  You then claim that irregularities in the supply of diesel fuel will affect the supply of coal, and thus coal-fired electricity.  You do not reverse this analysis to note that the electrification of trains will eliminate the dependence of coal-fired electric systems on diesel fuel.  (You also fail to note that low-speed diesel engines can be run on slurried coal.)
  • Coal mining equipment is largely electric, not diesel.  The massive bucket-wheel shovels and longwall mining machines are all electric.
  • You note that large amounts of goods, including food, expend diesel fuel to arrive at store shelves.  But what happens when transport moves from road to rail, or from diesel rail to electrified rail?  That dependence shrinks and even vanishes, and diesel is freed to be used elsewhere.
  • Alternative sources of energy are increasing exponentially.  Wind generation is increasing at more than 50% per year.  What was 1% from wind in 2007 will be well over 2% by 2009, and probably 5% or more by 2011.  This 5% by itself will be sufficient to power the electric rail and displace considerable natural gas.  (I calculated some time ago that the power delivered to wheels from diesel in the USA was around 60 GW.  Most of this goes to heavy trucks.  Rail is about 3x as efficient as trucks, so if 2/3 of OTR freight moved to rail we'd need about 13 GW [1/3 of 40 GW] of electricity to move it.  Average US electric generation from wind stands at over 4 GW already.)
  • Domestic US oil production is over 5.5 million bbl/day.  US diesel fuel consumption is about 2.7 million bbl/day.  If truck traffic can be reduced by 2/3, it's plain that we can run the remainder from domestic resources for quite some time.
  • It's absurd to talk about nuclear power being at serious risk from shortages of motor fuel.  The amount of uranium needed to run a powerplant is so small, trucks powered by gasogenes using charcoal would be more than sufficient.  Uranium enrichment is 100% electric, and gas centrifuges use 1/20 the energy of diffusion.  The issue of uranium mining is open, but if any business could afford to convert all its vehicles to Zebra batteries, uranium mines could.  At some price it will be feasible to recover uranium from seawater via ion exchange, and this process will not involve much in the way of trucks.

I've long seen people arguging that we cannot dig ourselves out of this situation, but their arguments are always full of self-contradictions and special pleading.  I think the question of will we dig ourselves out is far more significant; if the Cape Wind project can be stalled by one pompous windbag and the US financial system can be undone by a single retiring senator promoting his next career, our ability to organize our technical abilities to meet this threat is the biggest unknown.

The major problem with this is where you get all of the capital from to accomplish this. If we lived in Saudi Arabia, maybe. In the United States, it won't happen.

The USA still has a significant manufacturing base.  Its products can be converted from consumption to investment.  If a large fraction of e.g. the domestic auto industry was converted to making wind plants and heavy rail, that would do it.

Gail, your essential argument appears to be financial.
When many other of your arguments such as in a previous article of yours the contention that the grid was likely to progressively degrade were answered by several electrical engineers that although there were problems it should be possible to continue to supply power, the position you then took was that the financial system would collapse and so this would not be possible.
Presumably you have a similar outlook to other possibilities, such as moving more freight to rail.
It should be noted in this context that doubling the freight traffic does not entail a doubling of the rail network or anything like it, so the sums are fairly reasonable.

Indeed, the basis of your contention seems rather circular, as the finance system appears likely to collapse in your model largely due to increased energy costs, and nothing can be done about that due to the collapse of the financial system.

In the case of the US at least, the sums needed to alter the energy situation would be comparatively small against the total size of the economy - even coal with more transmission lines and more rail freight would essentially do most of the job.

So even if your basic thesis is correct, and the financial system collapses, why should that paralyse all the needed investment?

To take two examples of bankruptcy, the total collapse in the Weimer Republic did not prevent a vast program of rebuilding and re-armament just a few years later in Germany, nor did the collapse of the Ancien Regime in France prevent the huge outpouring of energy in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

So why should the US suffer the never-get-overs in the event of financial collapse?

1. The increase in oil availability has fueled growth in the past. As we move toward the downside of the curve, there will be much more of a downward pull, instead of an upward pull.

2. Previous bankruptcies took place in very different environments. One can also find a lot of examples of societies that did not re-emerge after collapse.

3. Who would come to aid the US? How much aid could they really provide?

4. We have very long supply chains, and most all of them depend on electricity. Once they are broken, restarting with major electricity outages will be a problem.

5. This is an Associated Press article I ran across this morning, talking about the US's electricity problems, even apart from peak oil. Fixing these problems will take massive co-ordination among the various entities involved. There doesn't seem to be any way to make this work.

6. Geopolitical issues are likely to play a role also. I expect the US government will decline in influence or be replaced by more local governments.

7. I think that things are happening too fast for the various kinds of investment that you are proposing to be done in sufficient quantity to make a difference. Once the financial collapse comes, debt financing will not be available to either governments or others. Lack of imports will be a major impediment to investment as well.

The US does have resources, such as good farmland and above-average fossil fuel supplies. Long term, the US may be able to redevelop to some extent, but I expect that the redevelopment will look nothing like the current system. It may be that the US will break into smaller political units.

Point 1. above should surely read that fossil fuels have given rise to growth, rather than just focussing on oil, since a lot of growth took place before it's use.
At least in the US there is no imminent shortage of coal, and also at least immediately no shortage of natural gas.

On point 2 it should be noted that collapse has never happened in a society where so many are so far above subsistence, and so perhaps there are more possibilities to adapt.

On point 3, who would come to the US's aid - the rest of the world, given your basic thesis of energy shortages and perhaps food shortages will want American produce more than ever, so trade will still take place.

On 4 & 5, the same article that you quote says that many of the problems that the grid had in 2003 have been fixed.
A real shortage would focus minds, and I doubt that much NIMBYism would be tolerated, which is the largest factor in excess costs.

On 6 & 7 I don't think anyone is arguing that no disruptions will occur, or that transition to nuclear and renewables will be easy.
In my view however you are overstating the case by assessing it as more-or-less impossible, and particularly when much of the argument appears to be from the general to the particular, so that individual solutions to elements are dismissed because the whole system will allegedly collapse, and the whole system collapses because it's constituents do.

For perspective if we take the sky high estimates for nuclear power of $12bn GW installed, and guesstimate around the same for wind due to intermittency, then you might need around 20GW/year, say £240bn/yr plus money for extra infrastructure etc, so you might come out to around $350bn/yr - say up to 7% of the current GDP.
Of course, GDP would sink, but so would wage costs, and in the event of such a massive recession as you hypothesise so would raw materials costs, as, for instance, the US would hardly be producing 17 million vehicles a year.

I'd be curious to know whether you would have arrived at a more favourable prognosis for Weimar Germany - but after 40 years in spite of massive inflation and defeat in a major war they were still much more prosperous than they had been at that earlier date.

With it's huge mineral resources, massive agriculture and comparatively young population I can't get to the same point as you arrive at, where it is game over for the US.
Many areas in the rest of the world are far more doubtful.

I didn't say, "game over for the US". I said

The US does have resources, such as good farmland and above-average fossil fuel supplies. Long term, the US may be able to redevelop to some extent, but I expect that the redevelopment will look nothing like the current system. It may be that the US will break into smaller political units.

There are a lot of other places that aren't going to be doing well--Britain and Japan most likely are two of them. I didn't make a comparison as to who would be doing better/worse.

Sorry if I have mis-stated your position.
The reason I used the term 'game over for the US' was that you appear to think that a Tainter-type progressive decline is unstoppable within the US at least, as that is where most of your argument is drawn from.

At least in the resource rich US this seems to me relatively unlikely, and to rely on the assumption that bad choices are fairly universally applied.
Of course this may be the case, but it seems to me far from certain.

To look at another area on which it may serve to demonstrate that rolling collapse may not be inevitable, by 2020 China plans to have production lines capable of producing 20 conventional nuclear power stations a year, aside from pebble bed reactors and coal, wind and solar.
If continued then these 20 a year are around the number China would need to provide all it's power, other contributions aside.
Although shortage of oil might be a great obstacle in doing this, it is difficult to see why it would not be possible - already much personal transport is by very energy efficient rail and EV bikes, and residual needs for oil where vital could surely be produced from coal.

With perhaps more political delay there seems no reason why something similar, perhaps with more wind power, would not be possible in the US.

Since most of the difficulty and cost in building power and transmission lines in the States lies in regulatory approval, raising times for instance from around 4 years for a nuclear build to around 10 and putting up costs hugely, it is perhaps improbable that nothing at all will be done when times get tough to reduce this.

If resources are available, even financial disaster may be engineered around - the re-financing in the early days of the Reich being the most prominent example.

In short, the gravity of the crisis in itself would seem likely to preclude business as usual, and to blow away many of the roadblocks to progress.

Although the new cost level of renewables and nuclear will likely be higher than fossil fuels, they are likely to drop over time, as are batteries etc, and so it would perhaps be just as reasonable to hypothesise a progressive recovery from a much lower level than present US standards as an on-going, ever-worsening deterioration.

Some of what you say may be right.

One reason I think that outcomes will generally not be very good is that there will be a lot of things besides peak oil going on at the same time. It seems like peak minerals (or at least peak extractable minerals, with the resources we have on hand) will be taking place, making a drop in the cost of batteries or anything else made from metals unlikely. There will also be climate change, of some form or other. Water levels are already a problem, and are likely to get worse. These will be a problem in some parts of the world.

Time will tell what really happens.

If we have enough energy most minerals can be got in sufficient quantity - problems only really start if you are very short of energy.
So although I quite agree severe financial and liquid fuel constraints will hit, it seems to me that the spread of outcomes will be much wider than might be inferred from a position which seems to perhaps rather discount those possible solutions on the grounds that systemic collapse will not allow them.

Should some areas come through in relatively good shape, then their influence seems likely to spread.

To move from a general argument to a particular one, perhaps it is worth looking at the position of an individual country, France.
If one assumes that some sort of relatively effective response happens there to the financial challenges,and that ethnic conflict is contained relatively successfully, then it is rather difficult to see why a technological civilisation should not maintain itself there, with high standards of living.

They can probably do this using about the same number of reactors as at present, with gradual capacity increases as they come to be replaced with new reactors.
They burn a lot of gas, but then again it has been cheap, and dearer gas would simply mean that they would need to accelerate their program of installing air source heat pumps - they are putting in around 50,000 a year at the moment.

More freight would need shifting to rail, and the existing program of installing electric car charging points in cities would likely be expanded, but the model that Nissan/Renault have of building electric cars and selling them whilst leasing the batteries seems robust.

Biofuels sufficient to provide for agricultural machinery and other essential uses would be well within the capabilities of French agriculture.

Concerns about uranium shortage would seem to be misplaced, as solutions ranging from thorium burning reactors to building breeder reactors or obtaining uranium from seawater are numerous.

If France then is relatively well placed to overcome the difficulties ahead, that provides a core around which Europe can be re-powered.

This is not to dismiss well founded concerns, many of which I share with you.
In this context it is interesting to note the severe longer-term problems of Europe, due to it's unfavourable demography,
as is extensively detailed in articles on this site:

The same demographic issues perhaps put the present more aggressive stance of Russia into perspective, as over the next 20 years it seems from the ELM that the present leverage provided by oil will evaporate, and the bind that demography will have got them in by this time seem to point to a much weaker Russia.

The outcome you hypothesise seems likely in some places, but my own feeling is that outcomes will be patchy, with relatively successful outcomes in some areas.

It seems like more local almost equates to patchy.

We have gotten used to having inputs from around the world. Once these are cut way back, I am wondering whether this will put an upper limit on how developed even the better-developed areas can be. This week we read about platinum possibly being in short supply. With electricity shortages, I expect the supply of a lot of metals to be cut back greatly--copper and aluminum are two in particular.

A lot of things will change. It is hard to understand the interdependencies.

You've put your finger on what I find difficult or unproductive in some of the analysis here.
Of course, systemic failure may doom any response - I don't know.

However, if that is the working assumption then for a start the analysis tends to jump around from point to point of difficulty, by-passing often fairly simple remedies to particular issues.

I am also not a big fan of power down solutions - systemic collapse would certainly seem probable together with mass deaths under those scenarios in my view.

Considering that heating and air conditioning could be done with a fraction of today's energy inputs, and so could goods transportation and personal mobility, together with feeding the population with a much healthier diet with less, better quality meat, then the obstacles seem primarily institutional.

Focussing largely on the interdependencies rather than biting off bits that are chewable may make life too hard! :-)


you make many a good point and in order to argue against, you also had to simplify.

So, let's try to make it more complex, shall we.

  • All risks have probabilities. If we say things can happen, we do not necessarily mean with 100% likelihood. Agreed?
  • Risks can have primary, secondary, tertiary, etc. effects. Some instant. Some delayed. Often most with negative feedbacks. Some may have positive feedbacks. Agreed?
  • A highly hard coupled system (i.e. not able to reconfigure in real time on the fly) with a high level complexity (many parts, distributed responsibility) and high pressure on utility (utilization with near max capacity, with decreasing safety margins) is more likely prone to catastrophic failure. Agreed?

Now, again, to restate - this doesn't mean that one is automatically doomer, believes in collapse or thinks the world will end tomorrow.

This is just a way to think about big risks, with perhaps even small probabilities, but potentially very big and hard to predict consequences.

With that away, let's consider a real world scenario of chained events.

  1. Fast growing economy (US and worldwide) meaning high level of oil and electricity use. Utilization rates are high for all systems.
  2. A statistically colder and longer winter, increasing heating and electricity use of all fossil fuels
  3. Tight margins and very little spare capacity in oil and natural gas supply vs demand.
  4. Already relatively high prices, but for the past relatively steady prices (i.e. not driving a lot of demand destruction, like price spikes do)
  5. A fairly big, unexpected and unmitigated drop in availability of oil for refineries, transport and power generation (back up fuel).
  6. Increased pressure on natural gas demand, leading to rationing and shortages.
  7. People start compensating with electricity to heat their homes and buildings as availability of fossils for heating is limited.
  8. Lack of natural gas and back up supply leads to local electricity rationing.
  9. System utilization rates go near 100%, local power outages start to occur.
  10. A failure in a grid causes a cascade that spreads fairly wide.
  11. An attempt to raise production back online is crimped by remaining electricity load waiting for power to come back online. Power goes up only to be overloaded by demand on the network instantly and going down again.
  12. Continued oil and natural gas shortage diminished back up fuel storage for power generation
  13. Increased competition among fuel transporters to haul coal and oil to all demanding parties, esp. power generators.
  14. Lack of back up fuel causes smaller local power generators not be able to come back online
  15. Lack of proper emergency communication policy, downing of several mass media channels makes it harder to coordinate electricity load from residential buildings in order to get some power plants back online, when priority is given to commercial operators and those who pay most.
  16. A lot of people act in uncoordinated manner and try to solve the situation ad hoc on the fly, as standard emergency and other procedures do not immediately bring desired result
  17. Things continue chaotic for a while, until load is removed, backup fuel is deliver or the shortage of main fuels eases.

Now, above is just a one example of chained and causally reinforcing effects.

What is the probability for that? I don't know, but I'd guess it to be fairly low. Of course, there are geographical, national and fuel mix based differences between various places where that kind of situation might happen.

What I can say, that people who plan these are aware of these, but often they don't really know what to do with them.

Everybody's relying on things like SPR and other backup fuel reserves, but the logistics and coordination hasn't really been tested, in the case of multiple downside risks materializing roughly at the same time.

So, do I personally lose sleep over the above type situation? No.

Do I think that they will never happen? No, they might - even if the likelihood is probably very low.

Do I think the the consequences might be bad? Short term and for some actors, possibly yes - very hard to predict for systemic and esp. mid-to-long term effects. Is the situation recoverable: highly likely.

What I do know that such systemic risks cannot be cured or removed overnight.

Even if I had all the capital, knowledge and manpower in the world, it would indeed take a fairly long time to remove the major systemic risks from above scenario. It would mean a lot of rebuilding, redesigning and adding new capacity - not to mention reducing demand. Some of the risk factors (like peaking of oil, crunch on gas, etc) might not be removable at all. From an economic planning point of view, removing all risks is most of the times not worth it.

So, I think it is good to think about these situations, as I currently believe that the likelihood of such risks currently grows as a function of time as we continue doing BAU.

This does not of course mean that you necessarily think differently about this or that I'm some how arguing against you. This is merely a clumsy way to find some middle ground here.

our ability to organize our technical abilities to meet this threat is the biggest unknown.

Very well said and I think this applies to a lot of other systemic risks as well. Our ability is currently perhaps the biggest unknown :)

What is the probability for that? I don't know, but I'd guess it to be fairly low.

I'd say approximately zero, because steps 9 and 11 would be forestalled by load-shedding if the grid managers are at all competent.  That's what was done in 2003 (SE Michigan was brought back on line in phases), and I doubt the lessons could be forgotten anytime soon.

If we're looking for scenarios for collapse, we need to consider things either beyond our control or (like Cape Wind) where opposed interests block the necessary actions.

Might I remind you that's exactly what the operator's in Italy and Finland thought after the US east coast black outs "pfftt... incompetent, we know our stuff". Then they had their own blackouts, in Finland with a much much more up-to-date infrastructure, mind you.

BTW, the gist of those scenarios above are not my invention. They are by people in the operative side of the business.

I claim not to know the future, but I'm always weary of anybody who says the probability is 0% or 100% for any complex system with a human error built-in :)

I'm just telling you that a grid operator ready to use rolling blackouts to manage demand isn't likely to be caught flat-footed by a demand surge.  A sudden plant or line outage, sure, but not excess demand.  And the sort of staged return of power already used in 2003 is proof against re-collapse (which you'll note did not occur).

There are ways to manage this even further.  If major loads all had control units which sensed voltage and phase and cut back if either suddenly dropped (easily done within a couple cycles), even a line outage such as the one which triggered the 2003 blackout would have failed to create a cascade.  If we had substantial demand from (PH)EVs with V2G capability, it would take an even bigger upset to cause the system to fail.

Those protections are in place on the major lines and generators (phase, voltage, power angle, etc). The problem is they are not integrally coordinated across the vastness of the interconnected systems. After all, the grid is an analog system and failure propagations can be difficult to isolate with the amount of power flow involved.

There are regional coordinating committees to handle these interconnection issues, but that is no guarantee the optimal systems and methods are in place.

Here's a decent analogy: If the grid were thought of as a mesh of cables, (which it is electrically, but I'm using mechanical here because it is more visible), as load and generation is increased it is like putting more tension on the cables. More load and generation, more tension until the cables near their snapping point. One fails, or has to disconnect and the rest of cables can start to cascade fail.

The protective switching and control equipment attempts to prevent these cascading failures, but the higher the voltage (hence power transfer) the faster it has to respond. >230 kV requires 3 cycles or less from detection to trip and that can be challenging to accomplish in complex networks - but it gets done every day.

as load and generation is increased it is like putting more tension on the cables. More load and generation, more tension until the cables near their snapping point.

And as they get near their snapping point, controls can drop some of the weights.  The weights themselves can detect sudden accelerations downward as neighboring cables go, and reduce their pull to what the mesh can sustain.

the higher the voltage (hence power transfer) the faster it has to respond.

This makes no sense whatsoever.

The loads on the grid include a large fraction of electric motors, mostly induction and synchronous motors.  One of the great features of motors is that their load drops as the grid frequency drops; if you get a sudden slip in phase, all the motors will pull less power for a fraction, and reduce the immediate grid load.  This gives an energy buffer whose duration is independent of the size of the grid connection.

Don't forget that trains can run on coal, and have been for a very long time.

Trains can also run on wood and other local fuels.

Trains run on coal only if you make some modifications to make them do so, and set up new supply chains for this to happen. All of this requires capital, and is not going to happen over night.

My point is that it makes sense to look at what is doable, in the fairly long term. Making trains run on coal or wood is probably more do-able long term than making them run on electricity, because coal and wood have shorter supply chains.

I think we need to be thinking about this with a coherent view about what the future is likely to be like. Would we really be able to make coal or wood supply lines for trains work? For how long? Would the environmental damage be worth it?

But once people are producing energy locally, why do they need the Federal government?

Silly billy -- to protect them against terrorists -- BOOO!

roman empire thrived even tho all energy was produced locally

No it wasn't, not in the least. Grain was imported from all over into Rome.

The Romans were dependent on slave labor for anything resembling work. These slaves they gathered from distant lands, generally by military conquest (although many were purchased from pirates, who were known to sail around kidnapping entire islands of people).In addition much of their food was grown on Sicily, Sardinia or N. Africa, by slaves of course. So the very food supply was threatened by huge slave uprisings on Sicily, and later by the rampaging slave-gladiator army of Spartacus which seemed poised to invade the island, and by pirates who owned the water. Around 70 BC pirates were said to have completely shut down the movement of grain from Sicily, such that many Sicilian farms weren't even bothering to try to grow anything. This was the final impetus for the senate to grant Pompey a vast degree of power to clean the seas of pirates, the Romans' old slave dealers, which was the catalyst that led to the end of the Republic according to some.

But once people are producing energy locally, why do they
need the Federal government?

They don't, but the federal government exercises power because it CAN. See the infamous case Wickard v. Filburn.

There's more: US coal mining is increasingly to middle America - away from the coasts where the consumers are. The transportation cost of this coal is already now much higher than the mining costs (I'd have to look up the numbers).
Also the extremely expensive west Canadian coking coal is quite far away from the coast. If these trains are powered by oil this adds up on the coal price - and the steel made from it.
And did I mention the rising costs for shipping the coal from Canada to Japan...?

Supposedly the economics of running HVDC from coal mines/power plants to the grid instead of transporting it to the power plant via rail were decisively advantageous when oil was half of what it is today. Granted, the externalized costs of coal, especially it's GWP/kWh compared to alternatives might discourage expansion in the future, especially if grid/demand management takes off, but different energy transmission setups seem viable for coal power.

Interesting presentation.

I don't disagree with the analysis. It is probably cheaper to build transmission lines and ship electricity long distance than to build more railroad lines and ship the coal to the other end and burn the coal there.

Regardless of which is chosen, my point is that the whole system is going to become less and less sustainable, as oil availability declines. There will be more and more breakdowns over time, regardless of which approach is taken. We will have more and more difficulty sourcing the products used to build the new transmission lines. Maintaining the roads, so that the transmission lines can be serviced will be more and more difficult. Building new railroads is also going to become more difficult, and keeping everything working.

There will be many other strains on the system as well. Without oil for transportation, people will be trying to use more electric for transportation. If there are issues with high priced or unavailable heating oil, people will be using electric for home heating as well. There will be less natural gas available to power the system, because of other uses found for it. The system will be very prone to breakdowns.

The virtue of a rail line over HVDC transmission is that other goods and people can travel on a railroad but only electricity can use the grid.

Also, it is on the ground, and can be repaired with rather primitive tools. HVDC transmission requires a lot more sophisticated equipment to repair it.

The thing about electrics is that in order to have decent range and attainable entry prices, they need to be relatively small, light, and aerodynamic. For example, the only EV I know of similar in price to most cars uses ~100Wh/mile, about twenty times less energy per mile than the average American vehicle. Assuming we went all three trillion vehicle miles per year w/ this, we would need to increase electricity production by ~7-8%. Single passenger variations would need about half that, and PHEV's like the Volt (if it ever comes out ;)) or Prius, would need about three times that. In order to turn over the current passenger vehicle fleet wrt EVs we would need ~25 years, probably more, and if we can't increase electricity supply proportionally by that time and/or reduce consumption in order to provide for the vast majority of personal transportation, we probably wouldn't be able to screw in a CFL anyway. That being said, at current expansion rates, assuming no increase, wind will likely scale beyond EV adoption for the next couple decades.

The irony is that given the externalized costs of the current private automobile in the US and the cost constraints present wrt batteries, widespread adoption of EVs would probably reduce overall costs, just like demand side management and expansion of suitable renewable/fissile energy generation in order to replace coal power would probably be cost negative in the long run. Granted, if we don't monetize the externalized costs of different aspects of our economy, certain practices will continue to be "cheap" regardless of how much they cost.

The irony is that given the externalized costs of the current private automobile in the US and the cost constraints present wrt batteries, widespread adoption of EVs would probably reduce overall costs

Depending on the cost of producing batteries (probably smallest with Firefly Energy's technology), this is a huge factor.  Electricity at current prices can displace gasoline at an equivalent cost of about 75¢/gallon; that's dirt cheap.  Even if the marginal cost rises to twice that much to guarantee supply, it's still dirt cheap.  When you add the knock-on effects such as shifting the money flows from overseas oil producers to domestic generators and manufacturers, such a program would be guaranteed to increase energy, economic and military security.

If all the vehicles sold in the USA were EVs or PHEVs, the wind power added last year would have been able to power on the order of 40% of them.  Before EV production reaches even 10%, wind and other renewables will add enough capacity every year to power 100% of the new vehicles.  This is exactly what we once had for oil; now that oil production has plateaued and may be decreasing, we have to turn to the sources we can expand.

Even with the residential US average at 10c/kWh assuming a EV/PHEV with usable all electric range down ~30-40% capacity it's at cost parity w/ gasoline at ~$3/gallon assuming something like a PHEV w/ a fairly high average BTE of ~25%. With a typical car at ~14% BTE it's at cost parity at ~$1.70/gallon. The greatest barrier is the higher initial cost, but as we've seen the solution to this is to design cars that are more to way more efficient than anything else on the market.

In 1800 all energy was produced locally and we still had a federal gov't. I expect this will be no different.

The Federal Government, in 1800, was a very modest affair.

Thanks for fleshing out this issue Gail.

I have been focused on how fragile world energy is, particularly electricity.

It seems that AGW is putting HUGE "unexpected" pressure on hydro generation which then in turn adds to FF generation pressures.

We are being hit from all sides.

Thanks again for your good work. You are a true patriot, and I mean that in the good way.


In an emergency steps can be taken by governments to keep essential services supplied with fuel while the general population and non-essential users face a rationing of supply. Seems to me that North America still has enough domestic oil supply especially with the Athabasca oil sands factored in that there really isn't much risk of a complete breakdown of society in the next 20 years. Other parts of the world have a lot more to be worried about.

The oil sands have long supply lines as well. We ship lighter oil to Canada to act as a dilutant. The bitumen is then mixed with this dilutant, and shipped by pipeline back. If there is an interruption in either of the pipelines, or if there is a problem with our paying for the oil, we might find this unavailable. There are several methods of mining the bitumen, but they are all high tech. If something breaks down, it may not be fixable, if we are lacking easy access to all the things we are used to now.

There is also the factor that the EROI of tar sands is very low. As other energy sources become scarce, it will be harder and harder to subsidize synthetic oil production.

Paying for the oil shouldn't be a problem since Alberta imports lots of stuff from the US. As long as California exports grapes and Wisconsin exports big machines, the US dollar will be fine here.

you mean the dollar that is backed up by nothing? the same dollar nobody knows how much is actually printed yearly? the same dollar that opec wants to stop selling oil for? face it: dollar is worth no more than the paper its printed on once oil giants start using euro and yen instead. then again, all that paper probably burns well and will keep your stove warm at the winter


I think that there are some other issues that you should be aware in the Canadian Oil Sands when you are talking about the long pipelines for delivering "dilbit" (light diluent for bitumen). You are describing the situation as it is and was, not as it is becoming. There are perfectly mature and well accepted technologies for upgrading bitumen from the Oil Sands to lighter forms of crude. They have not been employed widely in the past because the easy availability of the lighter napthas (via pipeline) have mitigated against it. That is changing and it is quite possible to produce naptha from bitumen. Chemistry is a marvelous thing if there is sufficient incentive. (there is now).

ALSO, and perhaps more importantly for TOD readers, the heaviest and least valuable portion of the bitumen (the "bottoms", which has traditionally been dumped in land-fill or big piles at the oil sand mining sites) can be and is being (see Nexen/Opti-Canada, Steam Methane Reformation of bitumen processing bottoms) converted into methane. The methane can THEN be used in the place of natural gas to extract the bitumen as a heat source. Yes, it is highly carbon intensive but it is a perfectly proven technology ("syn-gas", etc.) that has been used in one form or another for a hundred years (can be used to provide hydrogen and CO from coal as well). The point is that ALL the energy to produce the bitumen can be (and is being in at least one case -NExen Long Lake) produced FROM the bitumen. Also, if there are future supply disruptions or pending disruptions, it will eventually be possible to produce ALL of the feedstocks normally derived from petroleum processing FROM the oil sands locally in Alberta. That hasn't been necessary in the past, but it will be in the future. Also, the economics of the business case for this are now MUCH more favorable (Peak Oil is seeing to that).

You are of course correct that there will be pressure to modify their plans and to produce electricity locally from the bitumen, but again that is not only possible, it is straightforward. The overall electricity generating problems that you mention will remain for the US, but I hope that they consider the rail electrification that was proposed here a couple of weeks ago. There is certainly no shortage of carbon (and a fair bit of hydrogen as well) in the oil sands of Alberta. (at least a trillion barrels or more). Will Alberta receive the attention it deserves to deal with Peak Oil?? Doubt it, but I can hope.

I think that extrapolation from the current state of industry to a future that is oil limited without sufficient consideration for EXISTING technology that could be pressed into service in the new oil limited circumstances, is a little dangerous (could be a too pessimistic view). I will try to post more often on the issues that affect the Oil Sands as I have begun to work in the business and things are changing (albeit not quickly enough for the challenges that need to be confronted). The major problem is the perception of the AGW consequences of the industry's actions. It probably occurs to most people that it will be possible to address ONE of the two issues (peak oil or AGW), but not both. There are few "miracle technologies" that can address both. Certainly the trade-offs between the two are causing great consternation in the Alberta Oil patch right now. I wish that there were as effective web-sites as TOD to publicize the problems with the current AGW "consensus" and the economics consequences of CO2 and warming and "mitigation". Canada will benefit significantly if there are longer summers AND more CO2. Of course, I seriously doubt that the temperature will rise as much as during the last interglacial (Eemian). It was 5deg. C Warmer back then and half of Greenland was covered with Pine forest (and the other half with a smaller icecap- even 5deg. C warmer isn't enough to TOTALLY melt the Greenland icecap). Strangely, the Polar Bears made it through that period just fine. I wonder why?? (sarcastic comment).

Keep up the good work. Always love your posts.


Thanks for the information. I know that there are new technologies being developed in Canada, and it sounds like these may be helpful in eliminating the long supply lines problems.

The climate change issue is a difficult one. There is controversy on the TOD contributor's discussion group about exactly what to believe. One contributor believe that within a year, weather will be enough cooler that the climate change model will start to be significantly questioned.


I think the possibility of a significant cooling cannot be ignored. One of the main opposing theories to AGW is the possibility that much of the warming of the last 30-40 years was a consequence of increasing solar activity (which itself may be related to movement of the Sun about its barycenter in space as affected by the outer big planets, principally Jupiter). This is purported to be one of the reasons for the 11 year solar cycle (pretty close to the orbital period of Jupiter). This theory has been heavily developed by a very knowledgeable solar scientist (and atmospheric scientist), by the name of Landscheidt. The mechanism for solar interaction with the Earth is via the cloud formation processes which are affected by Cosmic rays (which themselves are affected by the strength of the solar atmosphere, i.e the particle flux from the Sun, at the Earth's vicinity). This is the so-called "Svensmark Effect". Interestingly, a small change of ONLY 1% in the cloud cover over the Earth is enough to account for ALL of the warming of the last 100 years (since the end of the Little Ice Age). This is NOT accounted for (at all) in any of the current Global Climate Models. If the current warming (about 0.2-0.6 deg. C), is indeed a product of cloud cover changes, then the CO2 concentration is NOT the cause, but rather than an incidental change (caused by people).

This is also in keeping with the low radiative forcing of CO2 as compared to water vapor. Unfortunately, one of the predictions of the Landschiedt analysis of the solar motion is that there could be a large DROP in solar activity in the next 5-20 years. He has even suggested the possibility of another LIttle Ice Age. Now, if you gave me a CHOICE of either Global Warming or Global Cooling, I would take Global Warming any day. We are a tropical species and our crops grow much better in warm climates than in Tundra. So, preparing for the possibility of Global Cooling seems to be at least as good a strategy as preparing for global warming.

In an emergency steps can be taken by governments to keep essential services supplied with fuel

And these 'essential services' are?

Air conditioning in the oval office? Air Force One?

And these 'essential services' are?

Air conditioning in the oval office? Air Force One?

Well of course silly! Plus Wall Street and the Hamptons. The "captains of industry Finance must do their work "helping" America!

I fear with the oil sands it is rather the other way round: If these are processed - as is designed - using natural gas then there is less gas left for the power plants. What will happen then depends the energy policy chosen: Either electricity will become more expensive (as generally practiced in Europe) or will be rationed (typical Third World approach). Anyway there won't be a way to stay in the Comfort Zone without a fundamental move away from the Fossils.

Alberta is planning to switch to nuclear power to process the oil sands:-

and given Canada currently mines about 25% of the world's supply keeping nuclear power plants operating shouldn't be a problem.

Implementing nukes for the oil sands is being discussed, not done. Plenty of NIMBY resistance continues, even in such a remote location.

As for Alberta carrying the whole load, you should read this paper: Canada ’ s Oil Sands Resources and Its Future Impact on Global Oil Supply

Unfortunately, while the theoretical future oil supply from the oil sands is huge, the
potential ability for the Canadian oil sands industry to meet a growing world oil
demand, is not based on reality. As this report has shown, none of the official
Canadian forecasts result in an oil sands production that can even compensate for the
combined declining conventional crude oil production in Canada and the North Sea.
Not even the more optimistic scenario 1, outlined in this report, managed to
compensate the decline by 2030. Figure 17 below, describes the most optimistic oil
sands production scenario in this report and its potential impact on global oil supply.
The International Energy Agency claims that 37 million barrels of unconventional oil
must be produced by 2030. Canada has by far the largest unconventional oil reserves.
By 2030, in a very optimistic scenario, Canada may produce 5 million barrels per day.
Venezuela may perhaps achieve a production of 6 million barrels per day. Who will
be the producers of the remaining 26 million barrels per day?

You are moving the goalposts. The original article was about the United States rather than global requirements. North America can produce about half the petroleum it currently consumes with production growing rapidly in Alberta and considerable untapped reserves available in the United States as well if there were a change in the political climate where the ANWR and offshore drilling were concerned. With Li-ion batteries just over the horizon where cars are concerned and plenty of other scope for reduced consumption available in areas like home heating that is really not that bad a position to be in right now. It's certainly a much better scenario than that facing the European Union where Gazprom and Vladimir Putin will have increasing control over energy supplies in the years ahead or Japan where there is almost zero domestic production of oil, gas and uranium.

I agree that the US (or North America) has a lot of resources, so should be able to do more than fall flat on its face and never get up. I expect the form of the new regime will be a lot more local than is currently the case. It will become more and more difficult to have large businesses and long supply lines. The world may go back to closer to local communities taking care of themselves, with a much lower level of trade among nations. I expect that somehow the new trade will not permit all of the deficits that have become so absurd.

Also, I wonder how tied Canada will stay to the US. If it becomes clear that the US is running a big trade deficit, and has no way of repaying it, wouldn't it make more sense to take some of the oil and sell it to China, who probably can repay? Of course, with the common grid, Canada may have no choice.

China can pay, but it doesn't have Abrams tanks lined up on the border ;-)

That's kind of "whistling past the graveyard" sarcasm.

Reality is, the physical interconnections and systems in place are going to carry a lot of weight where selling the product is concerned. I don't think the financial situation will be cut and dry. And, what is China going to pay with, all those U.S. bucks it has in the piggy bank?

We are mercenary SOB's in Canada, but we are also joined at the hip with the U.S. in many regards. is like having a smaller, polite (and good looking, to be sure) siamese twin.

It seems like it would be sort of scary for Canada, depending on oil imports coming from the East ( including Saudi Arabia), and having pipelines shipping the oil sands production from Alberta to the United States. I can understand why there would be concern about "freezing in the dark."

I expect the form of the new regime will be a lot more local than is currently the case.

That, or the federal regime will turn to tyranny as it tries to deal with 'the situation'.

As for Canada... we'll think something up...

In all things - local production for local consumption.
Make sure that the pollution created is also local and in the faces of those who consume.
One arch capitalist friend (went to work for the great Satin in Redmond) saw absolutely
nothing wrong with poor people drowning in the pollution of the rich - it's an "incentive
for them to get off their butts and move".
But it's just one planet we've got and you can't escape the pollution for long. Set a
polluting example and the rest of the world will beat a path to catch up.

It's time we had leadership that said stop - stop consuming, stop polluting, stop driving, stop destroying.
At what point do we rob our children and their childrens children of any future that it's enough for us?
Drill here, drill there and leave nothing for future generations. Consume the planet and throw the peel
away in a one century orgy?

It's time to prune - stop doing the unsustainable. Recycle the cars and put the metals to use.
Plan to meet NEEDs with sustainable production and kill the WANTs.
Drive the population down to what can be sustained on what's left.
The whole issue is that we have a society which glorifies destruction, consumption, individualization (every generation for themselves?) and we've got to recognize the beast within us all. Only society (religon if you buy into that bunk) can ensure that all citizens are pulling together - and not destroying the future for short term, unnecessary, wants.

I think that the past 8 years of USA financial history has revealed rabid capitalism for what it is - turning war into profit, putting future generations into debt and living on credit, utter fiscal irresponsibility hyped beyond belief and still the ongoing delusion that nothing is wrong - that this mountain of debt is not an issue. Easy come - easy go? Hyper-inflate it away so that the next generation can reset the board and try the game again?

The pillage and plunder of our planet has been going on for a long time.
In the last century we have only gotten exceedingly good at it.

We will only stop it after we get our collective asses handed to us. And maybe not even then.

We need a sustainable economic model. Sustainable technology. Sustainable society. Sustainable everything.

Right now we have none of those.

I have faith that people will do the right thing. When they have exhausted the easy ones.
And unfortunately starting a war or two is one the easy things to do.

local production and consumption must come once oil economy collapses, but without oil earth will only feed 2billion at best case.... i bet the rest of 4.5billion wont die so quietly, interesting times are ahead of us. rather than worrying about nations, countries, monetary systems etc little things that will see collapse one day or another inevitably. i suggest you figure out how to be among these 2billion in a world where the strong survive and where every man is for himself

Hi Gail,

Much mining equipment is electric already. Cat are debuting an electric drive version of their 797B, the biggest dump truck in the world, which was developed for what else but the tar sands. Caterpillar to offer electric mining truck in '08 | Reuters They already cost up to $5.6 million USD. JD also has a piece on ELECTRIC COAL MINING MACHINERY.

I think the danger is aiming too high, and ending up with virtually nothing that works.

I think this is very wise. It is better to undershoot and have room to grow, than overshoot and collapse.

I feel that the best strategy is to find and invest in "energy cycles". An energy cycle might be a coal mine, an electrified rail line carrying coal, and a coal plant (just as an example). Another would be a wind farm region, electrical transmission lines, and a steel foundry that recycles old SUVs into wind tower bases. Basically, we need intact systems for turning energy sources into real goods/services. As long as a energy cycle can stay intact, it will keep generating wealth, which will bring in parts, fuel, etc.

To that end, I think we need to begin discussing fair ways to cut off electrical power without destroying commercial activity. Rolling blackouts are devastating Pakistan and South Africa. We need some kind of alternative or it will be the fast track to economic destruction.

Here is one idea: Industrial users are protected from blackouts 7am to 6pm. Commercial users (stores, shops) have guarantee of lights, but no air conditioning 7am to 10pm. Residential areas are protected from blackouts 6pm to 7am, and others are shut down during this period if need be.

Adjustments would need to be made for industrial processes that cannot be power cycles (refineries, steel mills, kilns, etc).

But we need rolling blackouts.

Slower than Pakistan, but rolling none the less.

Think of it as a "controlled burn."

This has the counter intuitive effect of strengthening the grid.

like a forest, the longer you go w/o a burn, the more
susceptible you are to an inferno.

I guess I wasn't clear. Users not granted priority during a time period would suffer rolling blackouts as needed to limit the load. The goal is to keep the economy running 7am to 6pm and then give residences power when people are home at night.

According to the 2000 census there are approx. 25 million households in the US with people over 65. Assuming that at least one person per household is retired, that's a lot of people who are likely to be home during the day. Also, according to a census bureau 2004 press release, there are 5 million stay-at-home parents. This means over 30 million people at home during the day, many of them small children or elderly people who may have significant health problems. How are these people going to deal with rolling power outages? I'm not saying that it won't be necessary but these folks will have to be considered. They won't be happy, that's for sure.

How are these people going to deal with rolling power outages?

In winter - when heat is needed - good question , given the stock of non-passive solar housing.

Otherwise - go outside with your kids and play? Work in the garden?

Yes, your point is very valid. The major issue I am seeking to address is that without energy the economy will stop, the money will stop, and the people will freeze. So if we MUST cut power to a fraction of current usage, how can that be done in a fair way?

Perhaps heated public shelters in every neighborhood. Or people can gather around cooking facilities. Our current system is so frustrating because if we rationed the natural gas now we could heat kitchens for 100 years. Instead we will have warm houses for a few years and then decades of freezing. (Ok, that was my 2 minutes of howling against cruel fate, back to adaptive planning).

back to adaptive planning

See my profile here for links to a solar dish cooking system....

As more people work from home, this approach may be sub-optimal, since it means that people will be forced to commute in order to work. The more one looks at any proposal, the harder it is to sort out all the issues.

...and then give residences power when people are home at night.

Yeah, because everybody works 9-5.

Rolling blackouts provide the slap in the face that people need, but it needs to be backed up with a graduated billing system that bills higher based upon individual household usage, and possibly time of use metering. (With internal feedback devices to tell consumers what the current price of electricity is.) These internal feedback devices have been tested in Canada and proved quite useful at cutting electricity usage by residential consumers.

Oregon governor Tom "Visit but please don't stay" McCall implemented limited rationing of electricity along those lines in 1973: BlueOregon: When Tom McCall turned out the lights

Even before the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, a prolonged drought threatened the West Coast with an hydroelectricity shortage. In Oregon, Gov. Tom McCall urged everyone to conserve electricity since most homes and business were heated with electricity, and the approaching winter was the season of peak electrical usage. McCall issued a constitutionally dubious, but very effective executive order prohibiting the use of electricity for “nonessential” purposes. This included very visible uses like billboards and electric signs.

The Oregon Department of Transportation dimmed some street lights at freeway interchanges. Stores and gas stations pull the knobs off the hot water faucets in public restrooms -- a dubious strategy from a public health standpoint, but very effective publicity. The public responded in their own homes and places of business. Oregon darkened as the lights dimmed. Utilities reported significant drops in electricity consumption.

Industrial users are "interruptible" customers, who agree to be the first to get cut off in case of emergency, like the incident from Feb when the wind wasn't blowing hard enough in Texas for turbines to meet demand. The concept is already out there, and I don't think people would mind much if it were expanded. The massive overkill of lighting in stores is something I'd cut out before going to the A/C, though.

I think your ideas are good.

I think we need to look at long-term goals as well. If we really need electricity for industrial uses because we are unable to import all the items we now import from abroad, maybe we need to specifically give this sector a greater share of use, and cut back on home use. Because or reelection issue, politicians are likely to favor homeowners. This may not work out well.

Thanks for this reference. Charlie Fletcher, Chuck Mahan and I are pulling together a catalog of contingency plans for oil supply shock.

This is helpful.

If anyone else has references to other supply shock actions and plans please let me know.



I think those are very good suggestions.

I especially like the energy cycles. We need to keep the idea of the whole chain together and figure out ways to maintain it. With our belief that the market will supply, we have lost sight of this need.

Also, it is easier to keep businesses going if one has an idea of when blackouts will be. Having scheduled blackouts, even if they are 16 hours a day, is better than having no idea when they will happen.

In practice rolling blackouts are far from being a smart idea. Those who cannot afford having the lights off need their own backup facilities. These are normally inefficient diesel generators, which provide the most expensive electricity with tree digit costs (cent per kWh) costs. This may be the only "advantage" of the unintentional "power saving" measures: As soon as people need things like accumulators in order to buffer shortage periods such existing facilities can reduce the comparative cost of alternatives like photovoltaics, which can also feed into these facilities.

And: I've heard that already now the increasing use of diesel for power backups is a reason for the increasing diesel prices - a vicious circle.

In the long run, I doubt diesel backups will be worth much. Not enough diesel.

I'm seriously confused by this post. I wish I had a highlighter to use on all the statements I want more explanation of (or just want to attack).

The time horizons of this are jibbeltyjop. Remember the historical production of Uranium vs. Consumption?

We've gone over a decade with consumption being maybe 20 to 50% greater than production. That means that we have extra Uranium to last us a long time - to say the least. And any discussion of interruption nuclear electricity production is absolutely impossible if you don't go to some multiple of a single outage time anyway. The fuel from the fabrication facility comes in a few truckloads for a year of production, so no disruption there. In terms of the running of the plant, they can lock down to practically Defcon mode and with people in the control room, there's no imminent danger of the plant shutting down.

So, your argument would turn into (even though this was never specified) concerns over long term feasibility of Uranium supply. The price of Uranium got up to near $140/kg and went back down to less than $100/kg, it was undervalued before that, but that's because we had too many stockpiles out pricing new production. I agree that the current price needs to go up as the new nuclear builds are highly likely, but this in no way results in your conclusions about the interruption of supplies.

If anything will shut down a nuclear plant in a oil shortage, it will be grid-side problems. Our electrical grid needs work, I understand this, and by all means agree. But with the massive interconnections we employ now, how are small regions going to go out? The grid looks more like an "infinite grid", and the only way I can see spotty areas going out is with power line security running to them. I suppose it depends, as step changes in oil supply may or may not be casually connected to the weather (in the continental USA).

I have similar doubts about how hydroelectric got (somewhat forcibly) included in the list. I believe that curtailing coal and natural gas can exert strains on the grid, causing problems with nuclear and hydro. In particular, the stabilizing (demand matching) role that NG plays is fairly irreplaceable. But it seems like your arguments for why hydro and nuclear are not (completely) stable apply for extremely long-term planning, while the argument for oil supply interruptions are exclusively for drastic short term changes.

I have always been under the impression (and still am) that there is some percentage of the grid that is not in danger of interruptions from things like an oil crunch.

We are currently importing uranium. The first thing we have to do is find a supplier who is still able to produce uranium, and wishes to sell it to us, in spite of the fact that we have little to sell in return.

There are dozens of new nuclear plants being built in China. All of these will need fuel.

We are currently buying a lot of recycled nuclear bomb material from Russia. (This is why we have been able to have consumption greater than production for many years.) Our relations with Russia seem to be spiraling downward. Our current treaty to buy uranium from Russia lasts until 2013, but if our relations deteriorate enough, even this may not be available.

We are trying to ramp up our own production, but this is likely to run into problems also as petroleum supplies get tighter. Other producers will have similar problems. There is some remote chance this will all end well, but I think it is remote.

You may want to read my article US Electricity Supply Vulnerabilities

It is true that most US consumption of uranium is imported but that's not much of a concern. Most current imports are either Russian nuclear warheads or submarine cores, blended down to 5%, or from Canada and/or Australia. There is some upside for domestic production but US mining regulations, political climate, and ore bodies make imports much more economic. New resources are being developed now as a result of increased demand and resultant higher yellowcake prices.

Let's put our U3O8 consumption into perspective. 80,000,000 lb per year is 40,000 short tons. Divide by 1.1 to get tonnes or long tons. A full size oil supertanker carries 550,000 tons in ONE TRIP. Fueling 20% of US electricity from nuclear is a trivial physical transport/material handling problem. Every 18 months, a reactor only needs 4 or 5 truck loads of finished fuel from the fabrication plant.

In addition, we have 10 years supply of reactor fuel awaiting burial at Yucca Mountain that could be reprocessed and recycled into commercially usable fresh fuel. Plus the investment in recycle infrastructure would reduce future yellowcake demand.

While very short-term petroleum shortages may well develop, they would be rectified quickly in a free market where the most valuable uses pay the highest prices. Plus the supply pipeline for reactor fuel requires years from shovel in the ground to fuel load into the vessel so delays of weeks or even months can be accomodated without disruption.

For a blogger who actually works on pipelines, including installing those generators for pumping stations, and writes about it, check out:

You are quite right about a concern for nuclear generation being degraded by grid conditions. I've been working to improve our nukes' contributions to grid stability and resistance to grid upsets for 20 years. What we need is a regulation to require new nukes to build-in a function called "net load rejection." A few US plants have it (costs about $10 million per reactor) but without this feature, it can take 24 to 48 hours or longer for a nuke to come back on line following a grid failure. Nukes become part of the grid restoration problem when they could be part of the solution. The real stumbling block is that is no current mechanism to recompense the owners for their otherwise uneconomic investment.

Thanks for that link, that post contains the specifications I was grasping for in this one.

The horizons of 2010 or 2015 are both mentioned. Clearly, the Megatons to Megawatts kind of fuel is going to be running out or short by then, and contracts are running out.

People often mention the "days of oil" we have stored (refineries, SPR, etc), but what would that be for nuclear? Given the fact that production was so much lower than consumption for over 10 years, I would be tempted to think that the "years of Uranium" we have stored is something on the order of 5 years. I don't have data for this, but it seems reasonable. If it takes new Uranium mines less than our "years of Uranium" to come online, then obviously we won't have a crisis as long as the market sees it in advance. Even a total explosion in the price of Uranium will not shut down plants as the entire fuel cycle costs costs are very low compared to total generation costs, and Uranium itself only comprises a small portion of that. If things got bad enough, Virginia would even lift their ban on Uranium mining unless our politicians were absolutely trying their darnedest to drive us full speed into an energy crisis.

Considering that new plants have a connection date of 2018, it would be absurd, absolutely absurd, that the utilities have not secured Uranium sources as far as 2015 - even if they don't publish it somewhere you and I have access to.

While this is not my field of expertise, I understand it takes about 4 or 5 years from digging to fuel in the pot. Most commercial reactor fuel is supplied under long-term contracts with mining, conversion, enrichment, and fabrication steps along the way which may have several participants. Hence, contracts for yellowcake need to be signed within the next two to five years for a plant opening in 2016.

Existing mines are expanding production and new mines are being opened.

These guys are players in conversion (U3O8 to UF6 and back to UO2) and have a great site with more info:

Likewise, these guys wheel and deal uranium for a living:

I too was quite impressed with news about $10 billion of uranium under a 200 acre farm in Virginia.

I think that the problem is that five years or ten years of supply is not a whole lot in the whole scheme of things.

Also, who is to say that these contracts will be honored, once the mines start encountering "force majeure" in one form or another, as an indirect result of petroleum shortages?

There is plenty of uranium awaiting discovery, development, and delivery. It just takes a market to make it worth the cash outlay to make it happen. Would you invest YOUR money in finding and characterizing a resource for which the market was oversupplied for decades in the future?

Note that it is 4 or 5 years for the PROCESS.

Here's a mining evaluation of uranium resource development:

Fears of uranium shortages are unfounded.

As Lalani said:

Uranium: Although uranium prices remain depressed, I remain bullish on it's long term prospects. Within 3 years Uranium prices will at least go past $250 a pound. Once again, it is unlikely to be the first domino to fall but an oil, natural gas or coal crisis could make countries start hoarding uranium. Uranium market is at the mercy of a large amount of non-mine supply. Russia has shown reluctance to part with it and if a worldwide energy crisis is triggered expect the worst from them regarding honoring and extending uranium supply contracts. Of all the commodities, uranium supply has the longest lead time which would make things a lot worse even if below ground resources are present.

It is very difficult to know what the REAL yellowcake price is since most transactions are long term contracts and the minimal little spot market is very thin.

Better to ask how production costs will change with increase production. New capacity is available both short term and long but mostly long. Since the real demand growth (ie new reactors coming on line) is even slower than possible production growth, I think adjustments will be gradual and with little real change. It take longer to build a new power plant than to open a new mine.

Of course, it is possible that a new international yellowcake cartel will arise and that could definitely drive up prices like it did in the 70's.

The connection between fossil fuels and uranium supply is highlighted with the present impasse over the expansion of the outback Olympic Dam mine. Eventually they want to produce 14,000 tonnes a year of U3O8 along with gold, copper and perhaps one day thorium and rare earths. Apart from electricity to run plant and machinery they need a coastal desalination plant which they say will require 690 MW. That is about half the output of the State grid. The company BHP Billiton is coy about where the energy will come from but they mention gas, wind power and geothermal
Each of these is unsatisfactory, fast depleting or unproven in that immediate region.

I think the company is waiting for public opinion to shift. For example a new coal mine could power the operation.

Or a nuclear power plant, but heaven forbid that being built in Australia. Or at least the coal lobby forbids it.

Thanks Gail.

When I read analysis like this, I can't help but wonder about feed back loops going in the opposite directions. If oil runs short, there will be contraction of the economic activity depending on it. Then businesses will downsize or even go bankrupt. This will destroy demand permanently. Then oil is no longer running short...

This phenomenon may keep supply and demand balanced for quite a while. Energy is one business everyone needs and I would expect its downsizing will match diminishing supply but no more. I would expect the supply of electricity would not be too severely disrupted until the economic contraction is such that the utility supply chains can no longer be sustained. I expect small temporary glitches would be adequately mitigated, it is prolonged supply chain collapse that would be the major concern.

Everyone knows where electricity comes from.....a switch on the wall. But you know what ?....there's more to it than that.

We take a lot of things for always having fuel for our cars....and always having electricity for our homes.

Do we all have a Plan B if shortages start occurring ?

Just asking...........

Why do I feel I am being patronized for not being all doom and gloom? I used the words "economy contraction", "downsizing" and "bankruptcy". Then I headed to the logical conclusion that the result is reduced demand for energy that will reduce the risk for shortage for a while. Anything wrong with that?

"Why do I feel I am being patronized for not being all doom and gloom? I used the words "economy contraction", "downsizing" and "bankruptcy". Then I headed to the logical conclusion that the result is reduced demand for energy that will reduce the risk for shortage for a while."

Nothing wrong with that it's just that you can't see that what you describe here is just what the future has in store for humanity and yes it includes HUGE HURT.

In short DOOM & GLOOM.

Nothing wrong with that it's just that you can't see that what you describe here is just what the future has in store for humanity and yes it includes HUGE HURT.

You got me baffled here. Where did I write I couldn't see that? I start to think some people are reading into my posts something I never wrote.

I think you are partly right. I expect that there will be big drops in demand, because of feedback loops. Many firms will go bankrupt, including some in the electricity business, some refineries, and some companies in the supply chain for producing natural gas and coal, besides consumers of these products. Many people will find that they are not able to drive their cars or trucks, because we are not able to import replacement parts (like tires or batteries) from overseas.

Because of this greatly reduced demand, oil may in fact be in adequate supply, for the businesses that remain open, and the few people who still have cars or trucks that operate. I don't think that this necessarily will mean that the businesses that remain open will be sufficient to keep the economy going, or that they will be able to keep the grid operating.

Thanks for your reply. FWIW I don't see much differences between this reply and my original post.

Part of the difficulty is it would be much better to have a quantitative analysis instead of qualitative. For example take the expression "keep the economy going" from your reply. What does it mean? If it is continued growth to ensure prosperity, it is axiomatic the economy won't be doing that. If it means there will be some economic activity happening, then it is equally axiomatic that will happen no matter how bad the energy shortage is. If it is something in between, then we need to quantify to understand what is actually meant. But doing such quantitative analysis is extremely difficult to do if possible at all.

This will leave us with qualitative analysis that is way too general to answer some of the most sensitive questions. For example I expect demand destructions to occur in stages. At the beginning, businesses and people will optimize their activity to reduce consumption. Eventually all the easy optimizations will be done. Then the demand destruction will move to economy downsizing and bankruptcies. But there is a limit to how much contraction can go without breaking some fundamental capabilities of the society. When such breaks impact the supply chain behind energy delivery, there will be shortages.

But seeing this as three sequential steps in time is overly simplistic. All three elements will occur concurrently in proportions that varies over time. But it is still useful to see them as a sequence because they are ordered from the less damaging to society to the more damaging. People will prefer to bear the least damaging option first if they are given any choice, so at each "stage" people will do their best to reduce demand using mostly the less damaging option available. The questions is how much demand destruction from each of the three mechanisms is possible before the next one kicks in as the predominant one. This kind of analysis requires numbers.

I think this sort of analysis is not an academic exercise. It may give us some insights on how much time we have to build alternative energy sources before we loose the ability to do so. It may also tell us what would be a "reduced" target of the energy required for society using energy in optimized state as opposed to its current wasteful state. In other word, this could be a strategy to lower the target to more achievable levels.

In one post (mostly the comments), I talked about the possibility of some parts of the country being entirely without electric power, because of supply disruption. If this happens, you suddenly end up with a lot of problems. No banks open. Possibly no record of bank account balances or loan balances available to anyone in the area. No petroleum for sale, since gas stations don't work. No industrial agricultural production. No water or sewer service. Cars and trucks unwilling to drive to the area, because of the unavailability of food and water, and fact that credit cards won't work.

This kind of situation will reduce demand. It will also tend to spiral to more problems, because any supply chain that goes back to such an area will be affected. Pipelines going through the problem will be at risk, because of the lack of electricity maintaining pumping, and because of the temptation to pilfer available oil from the pipeline if infrastructure in accessible.

The remainder of the US may be in great shape with respect to demand meeting supply. The situation may still spiral down out of control pretty quickly. The world use of oil may in fact drop fairly significantly, because of reduced demand from all of the systemic risk and its effects.

I am with you on that part. I have lived through the 1998 Eastern Canada ice storm and have commented about it here.

This ice storm is exactly the kind of scenario you describe, a collapse of the grid that last for weeks affecting several urban and rural areas. This comment contains links to very valuable reference information on this event. If you care to learn about the real life consequences of an actual collapse of the grid, this is the place to go.

It wasn't pretty. All economic activities were totally halted for weeks. All shops were closed. Nobody went to work. We have learned a few months after the fact that if the last power line to the Montreal island would have been destroyed as all the other were, the government would have been forced to evacuate 1 million persons in the worst of the Canadian winter because there would be only 2 hours worth of drinking water left in the city reservoirs. Yes, drinking water depends on the grid. A prolonged collapse of the grid means more than economic consequences. Without oil to organize rescue operations, it means massive human casualties.

This is why I am very interested into the intermediate steps the economy will go through before we get to the point where massive grid collapse occur. I don't want to just sit there and be scared. If knowledge of the intermediate steps could help find solutions one would not be able to imagine otherwise, we must do so.

Gail, thank you for your very well grounded article. It is a rare pleasure to read one that takes the issues as seriously as they deserve.

An aspect of the rising impoverishment of societies (whether American or not) that is IMHO as yet under-recognized is the intensifying climatic destabilization of BAU economics.

Reference has been made on this thread to the disruption of hydro-electric supplies (which are exacerbating diesel shortages) and to the incidence of ice storms halting normal production & trade.
As remarked above, Montreal came close to having to be evacuated in lethal weather, while, by contrast, post-Katrina New Orleans now seems rather unlikely to be restored.

So how far along the impoverishment-road of oil depletion will northern nations be
when the costs & capacity for rebuilding an ice-storm-hit national grid get beyond their reach ?
(The UK has already lost its pre-OPEC-embargo capacity to build either an aircraft carrier or a Concorde or a new nuclear station -
but we did manage to put up a large tent to celebrate the millenium).

Beside direct climate impacts affecting the slope of decline and impoverishment, there are also more subtle related cuts,
such as the primary requirement for mandatory global cuts of fossil fuel emissions by >2/3rds
just to stop adding to climatic destabilization,
(industrialized nations' shares of these mandatory cuts will necessarily be far higher)
and such as the re-insurance industry's need to reduce weather-related cover,
without which mortgages are suddenly nullified and businesses' listed financial assets vaporize.

Thus I strongly affirm your proposal that we should aim for tech complexity that can readily be maintained,
and I do so not least because this will be an achievable (and sustainable) advance for many developing countries.

Those who advocate further massive debt-investment in high-complexity energy supply systems
in my view simply have yet to understand and mentally integrate the range and severity of the problems we face.




A little "snark" warning?

but we did manage to put up a large tent to celebrate the millenium

It's morning in the colonies and coffee though the nose smarts.

You are right about climate change adding another layer of complexity to the situation. If we add a huge amount of infrastructure near the coasts (railroads, nuclear plants) and sea level rises, our investment will be lost. There are different opinions as to what needs to be done to try to prevent climate change. If these represent massive rebuilding, this adds to the strain on capital.

Gail, congratulations on a very articulate post.

IMHO, electricity is the real Achille's heel of modern civilization. In one of my previous posts, I described living through a week without electricity in Quebec during the Ice Storm of 1998. In short, the economy simply stopped dead.

There was a similar outage in 1961 which had much less effect because of a simpler infrastructure - manual typewriters, paper records, inventory orders placed by telephone. BTW, in both outages, the telephone system continued to work.

You brought up two very important points:

  • a 20% drop in supplies will cause major problems
  • ...the danger is aiming too high, and ending up with virtually nothing that works

Total agreement on both of these. This hydrogen nonsense is a dangerous illusion with too many things to go wrong. Spending resources on known technologies (rail, streetcars, canals, etc) is a much safer bet.

Finally, an addendum to the recent shortages you cite:

  • in February, there were diesel shortages in Fort McMurray because of a fire in an upgrader. Shortages in a town sitting *on top of* billions of barrels of oil
  • the current gasoline shortage is due to problems in a cracking unit. The plant manager (as of last night) was saying that they don't know what caused the problem

When people talk about expanding production of whatever (coal/shale/wind/bio/etc), it's going to take a lot of diesel to do so. Supplies are tight in Alberta, not because production is down, but because development activity is up.

I am not by temperment a doomer. But people better start waking up pretty soon or we are in for major problems.

Thanks again for an excellent analysis.

Thanks Gail,

It is likely that in 20 years most people in the U.S. will have died as a result of the power grid failure.

By then the highways will collapse and so will the power grid which depends on the highway for parts and maintenance.

State governments maintain the highways. Without gasoline and diesel tax revenues, the states will not have the funds to employ workers and pay extremely high prices for diesel for trucks used for highway maintenance. Increasingly, states will have to choose between spending limited funds on heating oil assistance and state institutions and highway maintenance.

We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel/gasoline trucks for maintenance of bridges, cleaning culverts to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables, all from far away. With the highways out, there will be no food coming in from "outside," and without the power grid virtually nothing works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated systems.

The power grid for most of North American will fail due to a lack of spare parts and maintenance for the 257,000 kilometers of electric power transmission lines, hundreds of thousands of pylons (which are transported on the highways), and hundreds of power generating plants and substations, as well as from shortages in the supply of coal, natural gas, or oil used in generating electric power.

Power failures could also result from the residential use of electric stoves and space heaters when there are shortages of oil and natural gas for home heating. This would overload the power grid, causing its failure.

The nation depends on electric power for: industry; manufacturing; auto, truck, rail, and air transportation (electric motors pump diesel fuel, gasoline, and jet fuel); oil and natural gas heating systems; lighting; elevators; computers; broadcasting stations; radios; TVs; automated building systems; electric doors; telephone and cell phone services; water purification; water distribution; waste water treatment systems; government offices; hospitals; airports; and police and fire services, etc. Phillip Schewe, author of “The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World,” writes that the nation’s power infrastructure is “the most complex machine ever made.” In “Lights Out: The Electricity Crisis, the Global Economy, and What It Means To You,” author Jason Makansi emphasizes that “very few people on this planet truly appreciate how difficult it is to control the flow of electricity.”

A 2007 report of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) concluded that peak power demand in the U.S. would increase 18% over the next decade and that planned new power supply sources would not meet that demand. NERC also noted concerns with natural gas disruptions and supplies, insufficient capacity for peak power demand during hot summers (due to air conditioning), incapacity in the transmission infrastructure, and a 40% loss of engineers and supervisors in 2009 due to retirements.

According to Railton Frith and Paul H. Gilbert (National Research Council scientist testifying before Congress), power failures currently have the potential of paralyzing the nation for weeks or months. In an era of multiple crises and resource constraints, power failures will last longer and then become permanent.

When power failures occur in winter, millions of people in the U.S. and Canada will die of exposure.

There are not enough shelters for entire populations, and shelters will lack heat, adequate food and water, and sanitation.

Water purification and water distribution systems will fail, leaving millions of metropolitan residents without water.

Waste water treatment systems will fail, resulting in untreated sewage that will contaminate the drinking water for millions of residents who consume river water downstream.

After the Last Power Blackout, most people will be left with no transportation, no food, no central heating, polluted water, no way to cut and move wood.

I used to live in NH-USA, but moved to a sustainable place. Anyone interested in relocating to a nice, pretty, sustainable area with a good climate and good soil? Email: clifford dot wirth at yahoo dot com or give me a phone call which operates here as my old USA-NH number 603-668-4207.

CJ, you have a fixation with doom and collapse of the highways. I don't disagree with much of what you fear but things won't collapse 100.00%.
Without a single drop of oil the transmission lines can be maintained (with greater effort of course) and the condition of the highways won't stop this. In Australia a hundred years ago bullock teams and camel trains moved goods without FF's and roads. In a future collapse it would be possible to continue basic transport the same way. There are more camels now than then and bullocks are just big steers (millions in most countries).
BTW the best method of getting firewood and timber is with a team of bullocks, not BAU but still doable.

Neither is cut and dry. Yes, you can move electrical line equipment and materials by livestock if you are building small distribution lines. For large transmission lines I'm somewhat doubtful, but if we limit the voltage to 345 kV, we can move wood pole structures.

Stringing and tensioning the line could be difficult, but at least priorities for fuel could be allocated as such. There are lower tech methods for moving large, heavy equipment like transformers and generators. We would have to design the projects and systems that way. That is, don't count on the 300 Ton mobile crane to show up for the lifts. We're back to levers, rollers, wedges and slaves.

Electrical systems are equally dependent on moving people around. Line crews, engineers and system operators have to get to local centers. Support staff - billing is pretty important, and meter reading - have to move around also. The system can gasp and falter for many reasons.

I've also figured out the place CJ keeps alluding to for a nice place to weather the demise of civilization. It's just south of Mackinac City, MI and is called The Mystery Spot. Weird things happen there...

I'm sorry, but the notion that we'll limit HVDC systems to match the towers which can be put up with animal power is simply absurd.  We could run 100% of our diesel-powered equipment on gas made from pelletized biomass with reasonable modifications, and if we had to forego that we could use battery-powered equipment recharged from a mobile substation at the end of the completed portion of the line (perhaps running at a reduced voltage to supply just the construction requirements); this is analogous to the way the railroads were built.  Line crews splice and re-tension broken wires without the massive equipment you think is required, and towers can be put up piece by piece using nothing more than gin poles and muscle power if it comes to that (I've done it).  We've already got hybrid-electric bucket trucks on the market for that kind of work.

Nobody reads water meters around here.  There's a wire running from a sensor unit on the meter up to a transmitter on the outside wall; the data is collected by someone with a radio-equipped computer which polls all the meters as they drive by.  I suspect that gas and electric meters have these things built in.  If worse comes to worst, the computer in the car can be replaced by someone on a bicycle.  WiFi mesh routing can replace lots of Internet wiring.

The system is not going to collapse for trivial reasons.  Electricity is valuable enough to be worth a heck of a lot of labor to maintain it, and we can certainly managed to do what we've done before.


Your comments sound like another reason smaller local electricity might be feasible, but ramping up what we have with high voltage long distance transmission would be less feasible.

It is my understanding that increasing electricity through wind or solar generation would almost certainly need grid upgrade, including large transmission lines. These might be sustainable for a few years, but seem iffy over the long term.

Assuming that some of this analysis is correct that a full conversion of electrical power from fossil fuels will take over 20 years and that there will be oil shortages starting before then should not the rational plan be for theoildrum to promote the more rapid conversion of the electrical power to non-fossil fuel during the period when there is the means to build a lot more easily (now).

Should not everyone here be pushing for more nuclear power, electric vehicles and better and more biofuels, and more wind etc...

Here is comparison of some biofuel sources
unmodified Miscanthus has been found to be 2.5 times more efficient than corn and switchgrass. 9.3% of cropland equivalent to grow Miscanthus to offset 20% of fuel. 23.25% to offset 50% of fuel. Genetic modifications can boost Miscanthus efficiency by 300%. Modified Miscanthus 8% of land to offset 50% of fuel.

So algae and Modified miscanthus should be pushed for biofuels. Plus the other stuff as stopgap.

The cropland argument against biofuels is not correct

Zubrin defends biofuels

The real-world data don’t back up these claims. For starters, the Searchinger study’s central assumption—that the rising demand for ethanol will lead to a decline in U.S. agricultural exports—is just not true. There has been no reduction in U.S. corn exports, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that corn supplies for food exports, for feed, and for other non-biofuel uses will continue to grow even as ethanol production expands.

Second, Searchinger’s study relies on a flawed assumption about the scope of the U.S. corn ethanol program, one in which the U.S. will be producing 30 billion gallons of corn ethanol per year by 2015. But in the very 2007 law that mandated the increased use of biofuels, Congress put a cap on the production of corn ethanol—a limit of 15 billion gallons by 2015. This error in the study was pointed out in a devastating online response penned by Michael Wang, a researcher at the Argonne National Laboratory, and Zia Haq, a researcher with the U.S. Department of Energy. Searchinger, they wrote, “examined a corn ethanol production case that is not directly relevant to U.S. corn ethanol production for the next seven years.” Wang and Haq’s rebuttal is especially powerful since the agricultural model that Searchinger employed was actually first developed by Wang a decade ago.

Third, contra Searchinger, there is no evidence that the U.S. corn ethanol program is causing arable land to be cleared elsewhere.

The flaw in biofuels is that the program is not big enough:

We need to do more—and can. Congress should take the critical step required to break OPEC’s vertical monopoly on our economic lifeblood by passing a bill mandating that all new cars sold in the United States be flexible-fueled—that is, able to run on any combination of gasoline, ethanol, or methanol. Such cars already exist and only cost about $100 more than comparable non-flex-fuel models. By making flex-fuel a requirement for the American auto market, we will make it the international standard as well, and will for the first time force gasoline to compete at the pump against alcohol fuels all over the world.

140 billion gallons of oil for the USA now.
20 billion gallon biofuel/ethanol target for 2015 [3 mbd]
Domestic production in the range of 6.3 mbd in 2015 [more gulf of mexico oil]
(one third 45 billion gallons)
1-2 mbd imports from Canada.

There are uses where coal and shale can displace oil usage if needed. But it would be better to have more nuclear power or renewables. More drilling and more enhanced recovery that brought in an extra 1 million bpd or more would also help in any transition. So again TOD should get behind that instead of draft animals. Especially as cows need 4-5 acres of grass each. The USA used to set aside 160 million acres for draft animals. This seems very inefficient instead of growing modified Miscanthus and/or algae for fuel and building more non-fossil fuel electrical (nuclear and other renewables that can keep pace).

10-11 million barrels per day is enough to finish the conversion even if 60 billion gallons of demand would need to be destroyed over a few years.

The danger of the draft animal/small windmill plan is that it is a surprisingly inefficient and poor plan relative to alternative plans. Fortunately it is a plan that will not be adopted on any wide scale.

Should not everyone here be pushing for more nuclear power,

No. The Nuke power industry has shown that they can not deliver on their promise of safety.

If they were safe, the industry would not have to ask Congress for the protection of Price-Anderson.

So are you pushing for de-powering and draft animals ?

Have you and Gail looked at the draft animal enabled societies and the death rates that they have ?

There will not be a doom scenario unless that kind of de-powering draft animal plan is implemented.

draft animal enabled societies and the death rates that they have

VS the rather nasty and brutish work that is farm work, what with thrashing machines and all.

So are you pushing for de-powering and draft animals ?

So I don't have to keep re-typing over and over, my 'draft animal' argument is in my profile.

Been there for a long time.

Many more people have died from getting squished in a paddock than from commercial nuclear power accidents.

But at least Poppa's squished remains and all other waste products in that pen can be planted right next to next year's crops. You won't need to bury him 1000 feet into solid rock and place armed guards over him for the next two civilizations. His kids and their new Step-Poppa can drink the water.. unless they buried him REALLY stupidly.


Along with a series of other intractable problems with nuclear power,
you ignore the prospect of widespread nuclear build leading to global nuclear weapons proliferation,
(like in India)
and the resulting probability of megadeaths, if not of gigadeaths.

Moreover, given that the CEO of the leading French N corporation has declared
that nuclear requires a lack of renewable power supplies
in order to maintain a high carbon price so as to maintain its market competitiveness,

and also that the US NRC has recently pointed out the lack of any reliable data
on which to base credible construction cost projections,

I guess your brazen confidence in this benighted industry reflects some wishful thinking.



Mr. Blair,

Sorry, but your syllogism is flawed. Price-Anderson is about safety from lawyers, not about radiation safety of neighbors to nuclear power plants. One's legal, the other is physical.

The track record of US commercial nuclear power plants is the best rebuttal.

Oh Well. I guess freedom is slavery.

The track record of US commercial nuclear power plants is the best rebuttal.

And yet, Price-Anderson is law.

Guess your 'best rebuttal' is a rhetorical nothing.

Oh, and where in the congressional record is your position that Price-Anderson is not needed because Fission power is so safe?

Who insures cities from a dam break?


You say, "Should not everyone here be pushing for more nuclear power, electric vehicles and better and more biofuels, and more wind etc..."

No, more, more, more is the problem, everyone should be pushing for less.

Biofuels are an energy sink. The conversion to electric vehicles will accelerate fossil fuel depletion. Where will the electricity come from --- burning coal, natural gas, and oil.

As for depending on OIL SHALE:


The World Energy Council makes the following assessment about the potential of oil shale energy:

“If a technology can be developed to economically recover oil from oil shale, the potential is tantalisingly enormous. If the containing organic material could be converted to oil, the quantities would be far beyond all known conventional oil reserves. Oil shale in great quantities exists worldwide: including in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Estonia, France, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and the USA.

The term ‘oil shale’ is a misnomer. It does not contain oil nor is it commonly shale. The organic material is chiefly kerogen and the "shale" is usually a relatively hard rock, called marl. Properly processed, kerogen can be converted into a substance somewhat similar to petroleum. However, it has not gone through the ‘oil window’ of heat (nature’s way of producing oil) and therefore, to be changed into an oil-like substance, it must be heated to a high temperature. By this process the organic material is converted into a liquid, which must be further processed to produce an oil which is said to be better than the lowest grade of oil produced from conventional oil deposits, but of lower quality than the upper grades of conventional oil.

It seems unlikely that shale oil recovery operations can be expanded to the point where they could make a major contribution toward replacing the daily consumption of oil worldwide.
Perhaps oil shale will eventually find a place in the world economy, but the energy demands of blasting, transport, crushing, heating and adding hydrogen, together with the safe disposal of huge quantities of waste material, are large. On a small scale, and with good geological and other favourable conditions, such as water supply, oil shale may make a modest contribution but so far shale oil remains the ‘elusive energy’.”

In 2007 the U.S. General Accountability Office with the advice of a panel of 13 National Academy of Sciences panelists concluded that:

“it is possible that in 10 years from now, the oil shale resource could produce 0.5 million to 1.0 million barrels per day.” But the GAO noted that the development of oil shale faces key challenges, including: “(1) controlling and monitoring groundwater, (2) permitting and emissions concerns associated with new power generation facilities, (3) reducing overall operating costs, (4) water consumption, and (5) land disturbance and reclamation.”

Walter Youngquist of the Colorado School of Mines provides a detailed history and analysis of attempts to develop Colorado’s oil shale. After spending billions of dollars, industry has terminated oil shale operations due to a low net energy recovery and a lack of water resources.

Finally, anyone with common sense who has seen oil shale can look at the little bit of dry carbon embedded in marmal rock and see this oil shale stuff ain't goin nowhere.

Walter Youngquist of the Colorado School of Mines provides a detailed history and analysis of attempts to develop Colorado’s oil shale. After spending billions of dollars, industry has terminated oil shale operations due to a low net energy recovery and a lack of water resources.

Sure, because its cheaper to turn coal into liquid fuel than shale. When the coal runs low and gets expensive, the economics may change even with low energy return, as then it would be about energy arbitrage rather than energy production, using another source for the energy like a nuclear reactor.

You dont need a page long diatribe to show that oil shale sticks today. You just need to show that its cheaper to use CTL and the story is done. When thats no longer true then it depends if its cheaper to make gasoline from CO2, water, and nuclear power than to do work in the dry Colorado rockies with shale oil. If thats the case, then shale oil is forever done. But its a few decades too early to tell for sure.

Great job Gail!

Your point about the inability of the US to import enough oil due to financial constraints got me thinking...

US economic collapse/dollar revaluation could be a great Peak Oil mitigation strategy for the rest of the world's industrialized countries. If the US had to make due on "local" oil production, 10-15 Mpbd of production would be available for other users and at a reduced price. If US imports were to drop two Mbpd/year for 5-7 years, this would allow a longer "functional plateau" of oil supplies for the rest of the industrial world despite rapidly declining oil production.

If I were the leader of, oh say China or Germany, I might adopt this strategy to give my country time to pursue structural changes to my country's economy.

Exactly! With Russia wishing to flex its energy muscles, and all of our problems, it seems like any rational player on the other side of the pond would say: Let's cut out the US and its huge imports. If we do, we will have enough to keep things going for a few more years. Canada is so closely tied with the US, and such a big user itself, I think it ends up going the US way. Mexico might also align with the US, but its exports are dropping dramatically anyhow--will be gone in a few years.

Yeah...might suck to be us soon.

The post is good for showing there are potential problems down the road, but some of the them are exaggerated, and for others it is simply assumed they won't be adequately addressed. Like most alarmist posts it is quite weak in justifying this part - why exactly can't we build substitutes and additional infrastructure for example? Because of lack of oil?? Give me a break. Here are a few claims that I'd like to address:

"All of the fuels used today for electricity generation are dependent to some extent on petroleum for their production and transport"

So does healthcare. Ambulances run on oil. Ergo after PO we'll be without healthcare? Are we going to be left dying in our homes? Oil used to produce and distribute electricity is negligible, especially compared to how much we waste in infinitely less essential activities. Everything needed by the electricity sector could be provided by a medium sized coal to liquids or biofuel plant essentially forever. Spare a total destruction of the economy and the energy production system this won't be anything but a spot problem.

"If there is a shortage of oil, people will tend to substitute other fuels for petroleum"

True, and this has always the real issue. Under different circumstances PO wouldn't be an issue at all, because oil is quite easy to substitute with natural gas. Consequently in the years to follow natural gas will be under significant stress (and hence higher prices), but utilities have long figured this out. That's why they are crowding out to build coal, nuclear, wind, not natural gas. Coal peak is still far too speculative, even oil seems to have more time to go than most of the pessimists expected. Clearly price signals and market economy do work. I suspect that in 20 years time natural gas for electricity will be phased out with coal/nuclear/wind/solar taking up the slack.

"There is a substantial chance that petroleum products available will suddenly decline by a large percentage (more than 20%)"

Under what scenario and how suddenly? If they decline in one year it will be a disaster. If it is 5-10 years, this already gives some time to adapt. Also see point 1 - it will always be inessential, discretionary consumption where demand destruction hits. Electricity, healthcare, food production, security - there are tons of fat to be burnt before they will be affected.

"8. While it is theoretically possible to get around a lot of oil shortage problems by building new infrastructure, as a practical matter this is not likely to work, because of timing, the enormity of the project, and our current financial problems."

It is not one project, there are hundreds of them. They are adding new infrastructure now, as we speak - to add new wind capacity for example. Is the infrastructure underinvested - yes. Will it always be like that? No. Claiming that it will be insufficient and underinvested even under shortages scenario requires detailed proof and a scenario to back this up.

And so on... I find the following assertion especially dangerous:
The issue I see is that if we know we are very likely to have electrical difficulties within twenty years, it does not make sense to start a transformation to a more electrical society

This is akin to saying there is no point going to work since you can get fired. All of these problems the article is talking about are not unsurmountable, they just require the necessary resources to be allocated and some hard work. There is no use of unnecessary alarmism, and it gets really ridiculous when it gets to "Let's not build the house, because we won't have the stones".

It is not until you start digging into these issues that you can really understand them.

The financial issue is a good example. We are close to bankrupt. We cannot pay for what we are importing. The 20% decrease in petroleum could be quite a bit more than 20%, and could come in a matter of months, not five to ten years. That is part of the reason the issue is so scary.

I have to agree with Levin for the most part. Liquids for providing necessary energy for electricity production are not going to be in short supply. Not even if a 20% drop happens overnight, which I didn't see any evidence in your post. Gail's post says it too:

Unless there is an amazingly good allocation system, once there is a shortage of oil, of say, 20%, it is going to start affecting electricity production, because the oil deficit will start affecting fuels used for electricity production.

There is an amazingly good allocation system and it's called markets. Personally I like to see good control over markets by governments since markets are quite shortsighted and insensitive to fairness, but markets do allocate resources to places where they are most valuable.

Another small comment on the original post is that it shows primary energy in the fuels of electricity production. This can be little bit misleading, since different power production methods have different efficiencies in converting the primary energy to electricity.

There is an amazingly good allocation system and it's called markets. Personally I like to see good control over markets by governments since markets are quite shortsighted and insensitive to fairness, but markets do allocate resources to places where they are most valuable.

Markets may be good at allocating resources to "where they are most valuable." But being most valuable is not necessarily where they are most useful or most needed. This is the fallacy of the free market argument. If you measure for value, you get value. But you have made the assumption that value is the goal.

I agree. Bill Gates will be well supplied. Will all the long supply chains keep functioning? Doubtful.


leaving the allocation to markets alone lets the poor and weak take all the suffering. When you look at countries that had catastrophic declines, like the former Soviet Union, resources tend to get allocated were they are most critical everytime, that is the military, the police, and the fixing of fatal breakdowns in infrastructure. You then have very much a system that locally breaks down frequently, but also gets mostly fixed quickly if its considered important. Mines, railroad system and elctricty production always got highest priorities. Highways last a very long time with little maintenance - they dont suddenly stop working, they just get worse and worse with the decades (Apart from the highway bridges of course...). Home heating and individual driving sometimes gets outlawed or just not supplied. (Romania in the eighties was really close to collapse but never did. But it was illegal to heat your home warmer than 13 degrees celsius)

This cuts to the point. First, electricity is considered very important. Second, oil inputs to keep electricity production going are negligible compared to other costs. If oil prices double or triple, electricity prices might be affected few percents, if that. It might be that poorest are not going to afford to pay for that increase, especially if other necessary goods are also increasing in price, but this won't bring the power system down and it won't stop it from running. The way I read Gail's post was that this would somehow happen. Of course if the whole society is collapsing, like in old_europe's examples, power system is likely to get disruptions as well, but this is different matter. These situations were triggered by large political upheavals, not commodity prices.

Poor and weak do take more suffering if the allocation is to the markets only, as for them one cent is more valuable than one cent for a rich person. I don't argue with that. I just argue with the notion that electricity system will have shortages if oil gets really expensive. The link is too weak for that to happen. Well, to be exact, some long term natural gas contract prices are tied with indexes that have oil in the basket as well. However, while this might bankrupt some companies, it won't destroy the power plants.

Second, oil inputs to keep electricity production going are negligible compared to other costs. If oil prices double or triple, electricity prices might be affected few percents, if that.

But electricity prices have already moved up more than a few percent and the rate of price increases seems to increasing based of filings with the rate commission in my area. I agree that the problem is not limited to costs directly tied to coal transportation but to all of the other inter-related costs;I think that the "other inter-related costs" are going up due to the price pressure exerted by high oil prices.

The US is only insolvent on paper... Monopoly money. We all know there is plenty of fat to be trimmed in both federal spending and oil demand. Further, there is no shortage of taxable income, the implications of which can be debated forever. The feds also have control over OCS and ANWR oil resources and would get a healty royalty which could be earmarked toward subsidizing renewable energy sources and electric grid upgrades. Sure, oil imports could drop 20% next month if the bulk of exporting countries opted for another embargo but the odds are very long on this scenario as the oil exporters need the money as bad as the U.S. needs the oil. The original Arab embargo was essentially in name only. Americans are not waiting for elected leaders to pull them out of the mess as they have already cut gas demand by 5% in very short order and this number is likely to go higher as people clamor for fuel efficient vehicles and mass transit. The current U.S. auto fleet averages about 20 mpg and a measly 4 mpg increase would drop oil demand by nearly 10%. There will without a doubt be more cars on the road with time as population increases but I am more optimistic than the EIAs projection of a 37 mpg fleet fuel economy by 2025. This isn't some corncupoian concept as we already have non hybrid cars in that ballpark and some diesels that exceed it. I have no idea how many EV cars will be on the road in 17 years but expensive versions exist now and odds are the technology will become far more affordable. I simply do not see doom for the electric grid and electric utilities. Electric utilities may very well become today's oil major equivalent within the next few decades assuming plug-in vehicles become the real deal for the masses.

I think this is all wrong. The author talks about 20% oil shortages, for example. But there won't be any shortages as long as governments aren't stupid enough to use price controls. Demand will simple be destroyed by increased prices when supplies tighten. What's more, electricity production is of very high worth compared to the small inputs of liquids that are necessary. Therefore, other petroleum users' demand will be destroyed long before the electricity producers' demand is.


This looks like shortages to me. When this bankrupt nation can't pay for it, you could call it a shortage, or whatever you want to call it, it's the same result.

According to energy investment banker Matthew Simmons and most independent analysts, global oil production is now declining, from 74 million barrels per day to 40 or 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time demand will increase 14%.

This is equivalent to at least a 33% drop in 7 years. No one can reverse this trend, nor can we conserve our way out of this catastrophe. Because the demand for oil is so high, it will always be higher than production; thus the depletion rate will continue until all recoverable oil is extracted.

Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment.

We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel trucks for maintenance of bridges, cleaning culverts to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables, all from far away. With the highways out, there will be no food coming in from "outside," and without the power grid virtually nothing works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated systems.

Hey, cjwirth, your vision has absolutely no basis in reality. USA is not bankrupt. It has among the world's highest GDP per capita and will thus be able to continue buying more than its fair share of the world oil output. Your demand increase projection tells us that consumption would increase that much at some constant price and corresponding supply increase. But as supply is tightening, and instead the price will increase and demand will be destroyed. So there won't be any shortages, if governments does not construct them by artificially lowering prices.

And I repeat, the stuff you mention, such as highway repairs and electricity production, is of such high worth that their particular demand for liquid fuels won't be destroyed. We will simply pay up and limit our use of liquids for other purposes. Also, when it comes to conservation, please realize that much of Europe uses half as much liquids as the US do, per capita.

Furthermore I believe you are wrong when you claim that most experts agree that oil production will drop by 23-46% over the next seven years. On the contrary, most expect a plauteu or slight increase in that relatively short time span.

"USA is not bankrupt. It has among the world's highest GDP per capita and will thus be able to continue buying more than its fair share of the world oil output."

What? USA trade deficit is currently about $2 billion per day and the federal government, by its own numbers, will have a half trillion deficit this year.

The ability to run endless deficits has mostly been an artifact of the Bretton Woods arrangement where foreign central banks would stockpile dollars because of their "reserve currency" status. That era is at an end.

On international markets, the USA will be competing with China, Japan and Germany (amongst many others) for oil. These are countries that have learned how to run trade surpluses consistently.

The days of issuing IOU's in exchange for real goods are over.

If they were truly over, we would have long been in a state of hyperinflation in this country, because there is no other realistic way to repay those debts then inflating them.

No, it's not over yet, but it may very well be the beginning of the end.

Levin: Thanks for the common sense input. I don't think we're all lemmings either.

There are a lot of very smart people (both academia and industry) right NOW talking about energy impact on supply chains. Process, procedures, technology, and yes, fuels, are changing as I type this. Is there a little bit of pain ahead? Yep....

But if you think it's the end of the world, I know of some land in Mexico that CJWirth is trying to unload.

And forget about the comments on Russia being in an enviable position - Outside Moscow, it's strictly a third world country in terms of infrastructure, etc. China, Russia, India have problems that are on a whole other level than the United States.

I hope you are making a lighthearted joke about CJ trying to offload some land. I don't agree with much of what CJ believes but I do respect his commitment in relocating to a nice area.

Outside Moscow, it's strictly a third world country in terms of infrastructure, etc.


I recently returned from a week in an ordinary small Russian city (population 400,000) that has a public transport system that is superior to that of every single similar-sized city in the USA.

I suggest you read Dmitry Orlov before jumping to conclusions.

I travelled for several days on trains that are far superior to anything that is to be found in the USA - and they ran on time.

Most importantly, they are only now just beginning to suburbanize. Single-family houses are most definitely not the norm.

Many ordinary people grow their own food and keep chickens - their food is delicious.

The primary and high schools are a lot better than in the US. At university, they do not have to recapitulate stuff that should have been taught at high school like in the US. Need I continue?

The U.S. is bankrupt because it is buying much of the world's oil, and most of that is wasted on transportation. Can anyone stop this?

Yes, a lot of wasted Transportation will be culled from the system.
When consumers and businesses can truly no longer support it, a whole network of redundant trucking and airfreight will collapse to a far more realistically priced system, this is happening with excessive packaging, shipping costs for non-essentials, etc, etc.. JIT inventory systems will be reshaped, commuting long distances is getting shaved, school-bussing is getting a lot of re-thinking.. etc..

Our bankruptcy is very bad.. but it's not the end of the world.

'..Bet your bottom dollar, that tomorrow, there'll be Sun!' [There might not be food.. but there'll be Sun!]


Let me be a little bit bolder than Cliff - The economy and society are going to collapse, not just for a few years but, likely, forever. There won't be the financial and natural resources to maintain even BAU Lite much less restart it. I realize it is hard for people to get their heads around this.

The people who poo-poo this are going to be the ones who end up being hurt the most. They will be neither psychologically prepared nor have taken an action to attempt to mitigate the loss of what they now find essential.

Finally, I doubt that you will be welcomed by those of us who have attempted to prepare. I say this from a practical point of view. Although I have 57 acres, it will only support 8 people at the most and the 8 people are already neighbors.



Poo Poo.

We have 6 billion people, more or less, interested in continuing and increasing prosperity. Most of them are willing to work for it too.

Maybe a future post-peak won't be as flush as pre-peak but collapse is HIGHLY unlikely. However, I do respect your landholding and so long as you pay your taxes, feel free to drop out.

Joseph - I see no more reliance on evidence or argument in your statement that collapse is highly unlikely than I do in Todd's that collapse is definite. As is, you are just countering one opinion with another. Why should anyone pay attention to that?

I did offer a counter-argument - 6 billion intelligent human beings willing to work to maintain a social and economic system through necessary and creative adjustments.

How the heck did we get to where we are today?


Let me ask you a few things:
1. Can you provide your own water both for personal use and irrigation?
2. Can you provide your electrical power?
3. Can you provide your own heat/cooling?
4. Can you provide your own food or a large portion of it?

Now, my guess is that you can't provide any of these necessities yourself. Which, of course, leads to another question: Why not? Well, you could say you can't afford it. Or, you could say the "system" is more "efficient". There are lots of other rationales you could use.

But, the reality is that being one of the smart 6 billion humans has not guarenteed your survival has it? In fact, you are depending upon some other smart person to pull your buns out of the fire. You have not taken responsibility for your survival have you?


"No man is an island." Who wrote that, John Donne?

In fact, single individuals AT ALL TIMES in human evolution have been incapable of more than short term survival. One bear + one man = one bear. We've evolved as a social animal, albeit that some are more social than others. As a species, we've been very successful. However, given my knowledge and experiences, created and transmitted by others, I could lead a group to do most of those things although the cooling thing would be hardly worth it.

One can argue about how we would adjust to peak oil (that's why most of us are on this site) but let's keep it in perspective. We should be able to replace petroleum at maybe twice or thrice the capital investment rate. I'll will admit that 6 billion is putting some stress on natural systems.

But hey, what politician is telling us "Together, we can!"


I can see I don't want to pursue this conversation but I do want to mention bears.

We are on a bear migration route and we get bears in the garden/orchard and, sometimes, around the house every year. They are all dead but I'm still here. The biggest bear that has been taken was about 550# and was over 8' tall when stretched out on the ground without pulling his forelegs above his head. And, we've had bear prints up about 6' on our 8' high sliding glass doors - checking things out.


Only because you had thousands of humans all over the world working on some enormously specialized part of weapons and ammo manufacture and development. True self-sufficiency would mean facing the bear with rocks or sticks sharpened with rocks.

Specialization and division of labour is what allowed us to rise above the level of flint weapons and mud huts. It's not that the system is more efficient with specialization and division of labour, it's that without it there is no system, only hungry humans rummaging around by themselves in the wilderness like any other animal. Being self-sufficient is not only not enviable, it's plain stupid; it is directly synonomous with poverty, hardship and lonelyness.

We have clearly gotten carried away with our degree of specialization. Is there an intermediate level that makes sense, that we can "carry off" with the resources available?


I'm concerned for the well being of those 6 billion people. I am taking steps similar to Todd's but am very far from "dropped out." It seems that energy has fueled an overshoot of global population and having done ecological analysis for a doctorate, the decline curve is not pretty. Anjd it's not that I don't believe that those 6 billion wouldn't be willing to work-- they will/would-- but that resources simply won't be as available.

So I'm working every day in industry and academia to craft Plan B. Personally, that includes 320 rain-fed acres, some crop land, grassland, food production, and getting energy self sufficient. We have 100 local investors workings towards a wind farm here.

I believe it is a race against time. The time I spend on this site is time away from working these issues out-- professionally and personally.


That sounds like a decent personal insurance policy - I wouldn't mind owning 320 well watered acres either! However, I would calculate the premiums to not be worth the risk but others may differ. I could get a job at some nuke out in the boondocks and buy some land but I would have to give up the urban sophisticate lifestyle here in California that I so enjoy.

6 billion does sound like a lot of people and take away cheap energy and it would create difficulties. However, the point where I differ from Gail is that cheap energy will not suddenly disappear - it will grow more expensive as other, lower EROEI forms take the place of Ghawar and other super easy sources.

I'm neither in neither the pessimist nor the cornocopia camps. I do think we have the mental resources to adapt to what looks to be coming the way of humanity.


I hope you are right about the mental resources of our 6 billion folks. I'm not as hopeful. I believe we lost or are rapidly losing the hard earned knowledge that we acquired over 14,000 years of developing agriculture.

Also- I think you would be amazed at the rich cultural life in rural America-- even an urban sophisticate lifestyle would enjoy.

Tonight for dinner I enjoyed a wood smoked/grilled chicken, beets roasted in sea salt and olive oil with a balsamic reduction, fresh green beans, artisan crusty bread, fresh peach over vanilla icecream for dessert. A fine meal worth hundreds at the Heartland Cafe'. Nearly every part of that meal from this farm (except for the peaches and olive oil). The flour was harvested and milled within 100 miles.

But over dinner the conversation with our neighbors was about the skill sets we have completely lost in 2 generations. I'm an adjunct professor of agronomy and plant genetics. I could not tell you where we would get seed to plant corn next spring if Monsanto did not deliver seed corn. There is not one open pollinated corn crop in this entire county. There would be no corn crop next year without seed companies supplying seed corn. Largely, seed is imported from Argentina where it is grown out over winter. Hell- I tried to raise popcorn seed (it is selling for $18 a pound) and don't even have the skills to propigate a seed crop.

That's just one skill in hundreds that we've lost since my grandparents farmed.

The US has a lot of good farmland and a reasonable amount of energy resources. If we had the skill set that is needed to go with what we have, we might be in reasonably decent condition. It is the lack of knowledge that is very frightening.

Gail -

Mending the poverty of skills is the core of the practical local need I believe -

starting with setting up training facilities for traditional mixed farming,
along with such productive innovations as can be sustained without remote dependencies.

(Terra Preta may well prove to be just such an innovation)

Here in Wales we farm just 160 acres in a high serpentine valley,
that was chosen partly for its seven streams flowing down into the main brook,
up which salmon & trout migrate to breed in the autumn.

As we also have grazing rights for 800 ewes plus followers on the mountain commons to north and south,
there is potential here for providing the farm's habitants and visiting tutors
and perhaps 30 resident students with bed & board.

But this is just one farm, and given that few UK farmers' sons have stayed on the land since the '80s,
the need of such practical training places is immense.

I wonder, how many such places do you know of in the US ?



My impression is that US farming is pretty industrial. Huge fields of corn, soy, or wheat, with large mechanized equipment to farm it. Much irrigation (with electric or diesel pump) outside the core Midwest area, even on where crops are "organic". I live in Atlanta, and have seen several organic gardens. They are all watered with city water, which is in short supply now, even without many trying to water gardens from it.

I have seen hogs raised in huge buildings. They are trapped in stalls, and cannot really move. My impression is that the situation for chicken and cows are much the same. There is some "grass fed beef" (I saw some in Hawaii), but it is definitely in a minority. I believe that quite often what is called grass fed beef is only grass fed for part of its lifetime.

The big farms for vegetables (and to lesser extent fruits) are in California and Florida. Crops are irrigated in both places. Both are experiencing problems with water. The California problem is because the glaciers that feed the streams used for watering are melting. The Florida problem I believe has to do with the aquifer, and whether it is in danger of being infiltrated by salt water, because an excessive amount is being removed. I expect an increase in ocean level would have the same impact.

I don't think any of this is very sustainable. Even the organic seems to depend on big mechanized equipment, and as I said above, watering. I understand that fruits are sprayed with oils that are plant based, rather than petroleum based. It may not be as high tech as regular farming, but it is still fairly high tech.

It is hard to see how we can feed ourselves long-term on this approach. People used to graze cattle and sheep outside, but it seems like much less of this is done now days. (We also have a real lack of Omega 3 fatty acids in our foods, because of the way our food is raised--another issue.)

cjwirth writes that
"Matthew Simmons and most independent analysts, global oil production is now declining, from 74 million barrels per day to 40 or 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time demand will increase 14%. "
I dont want to lessen the problem of peak oil but this kind of statement is such a misunderstanding of supply-demand mechanisms that I think it is totally misleading when we in threads like this one try to imaginge the future. If you say supply will go down you cannot at the same time say that demand will increase!
If supply of fuel decreases prices for fuel will go up and we (that is most of us and the economy as a whole) will experience demand destruction.
We can all imagine a thousand ways to save energy. we can have a decent life with a 10th as much energy consumption I'd say. the problem is more of what should we do for a living? all these car salesmen and mechanics, what will they work with? that's where the real strain on society will come from as I see it.

Hi Kaktus,

Demand is not that same as consumption. Demand is what would be bought with oil at a reasonable price. This demand is estimated by both the IEA and EIA. Both agencies use about 1.8% annual increase.

Consumption will actually decline each year starting by 2011, according to most of the independent studies.

I hear what you are saying about demand destruction, but remember we are only 1/4th of the consumption. And all of this is not so important.

What is important is this:

The Peak Oil community of scholars and experts is incorrect about two important points:

(1) a severe, lengthy, worldwide economic setback could reduce the demand for oil to such an extent that peak production could be lost in the chaos.

(2) oil prices rising to such level that demand drops significantly, which would be followed by a major drop in prices, followed by increased demand and rising prices, and the cycle continues.

Once oil production begins to decline, because demand is so high and increasing, a reduction in the rate of increase will always mean that demand is still above production. This means that the rate of oil production/extraction will remain the same and that oil depletion will continue along the same curve. For the same reason, the U.S. cannot conserve its way out of this Peak Oil catastrophe.

The 3 major errors identified here are dangerous in lulling us into the belief that we have more time left before oil depletion cripples the economy.

If you want to read more, see my free 48 page report that can be downloaded, website posted, distributed, and emailed

I used to live in NH-USA, but moved to a safer place. Anyone interested in relocating to a nice, beautiful, sustainable area, good climate, much rain, and good soil? clifford dot wirth at yahoo dot com or give me a phone call which operates here as my old USA-NH number 603-668-4207.

Demand is *not* what would be bought with oil at a reasonable price. Projected demand is not the same as actual demand, "what would be bought at reasonable prices" is just an imagination. If oil was down to, say 50 cents per barrel, we'd have ten times the demand, so considering the demand without regard to price does not really make sense in an open market.
If the prices are not reasponable anymore, maybe instead people become reasonable and stop demanding what they can do without :)


i am with you here: we need to reallocate resources from producing cars that make the problem worse to producing wind farms / solar farms / a smart grid that will be the solution. If we keep trying to grow by producing the same old things that were nice, but we dont have enough oil for anymore, oil demand will only fall through a very painfull recession. If we instead retool our factories and reeducate our workers to produce sustainable energy solutions, people will have work, factories will be running and we can set our society on different course. What we would have less of is expensive energy wasting toys.

Thanks again, Gail, for another provocative and insightful post.

Seems to me that what you are discussing here is really the unwinding of complexity supported by a cheap energy economy. I have long thought that one of the critical points determining just how far any particular locale unwinds is the ability to maintain centralized electric production.

I'm interested in hearing other's visions of what "local electric supply" would look like. Unlike local agriculture which has a reasonable similarity to modern agriculture and has historical precedents, local electric will be like nothing we've ever tried before.

Of course, the survivalist types among us will lean toward private or personal electric production, mostly through PV. But I think most of us would agree that such options are available only to the wealthy (and a small number of advance planners) and the attention such electric production would garner might be unwelcome.

So what does local electric look like? I know there are numerous municipalities that have their own publicly owned electric company, but these typically buy power from a big power plant operator. I certainly can't imagine my small town (40,000) having the wherewithal to put together some large wind or solar farm (even assuming there was a local infrastructure to support the manufacture). So, short of those places near existing hydro and geothermal, what do we do? Is this going to be primarily a trash to electric movement?

One aside on hydroelectric - as the complexity unwinds does there come a point where returning the river (and its watershed/ecosystem) to a natural state provide more advantage than maintaining the electric plant?

Here in Germany we have vilages running their own wind turbines, houses are built so they dont need any external input for heating energy or air conditioning (google "passivhaus"), solar warm water heating is now mandatory on new buildings, many houses have PV Panels on their roofs, which are producing so much electricity that they feed the excess into the grid at guaranteed, high feed-in-tariffs. Germany went from 5% renewable electricity production to 13% in the last few years alone! Most of the renewables work much better locally than f.i. a nuclear power plant.
Actually in Freiburg they now built a town of houses that create a net energy surplus - basically a passivhaus with solar panels on the roof. With this surplus you could charge your electric car for instance.

Sounds like an amazing village. I suppose the critical issue for most other towns would be the lead time allowed between recognition of the problem and the build out of the new infrastructure.

There's no question that changing our building habits would help dramatically. But its not at all clear to me that that will happen in a timely manner. Most people are going to be stuck living in the existing housing stock, at least in the short term.

I think I tend to write off the PV solutions because the very high technical sophistication of the production process. Out of curiosity, are the PV panels used in Freiburg manufactured nearby?

I actually have no idea where the PV panels were made, but Germany is now one of the biggest producers of PV panels (only china is -maybe- bigger), so it is likely they were produced here.
The trick to building a "passive house" i.e. one that doesnt require any energy input for heating is extreme insulation (plastic foam,rockwool or recycled paper shreds) and triple vacuum glazing. Installing this sure costs money , but this can be recovered in a few years at the current enrgy prices.

"Sounds like an amazing village"
These are still exceptions, but they show what can be done with smart planning. But wind turbines are all over germany by now, many people have solar water heating and/or PV panels on their roofs.
This all works because it gets supported by the state. We pay more for energy here, but that tax money goes to investments in the country, and not so much to saudi arabia and russia.

"I suppose the critical issue for most other towns would be the lead time allowed between recognition of the problem and the build out of the new infrastructure."

Defintely! Recognition of the problem ought to be right now IMO :) If you dont wake up until its too late you will be left with the "wearing three sweaters and a down jacket" option - hot tea helps too in keeping you warm ;)
Small Solutions, like just insulating one room of your house and installing a wood stove in it, can be done quickly and with little means. But for a seamless and comfortable transition we need long-term planning. But even without long advance planning, i dont believe in a necessary collapse scenario. A phase of uncomfortable adjustments seems more reasonable to me.

"I think I tend to write off the PV solutions because the very high technical sophistication of the production process."
Producing all the electicity we currently use with PV is certainly very expensive (Cost of a PV installation for one family house is about 10-20000 euros i think). But having a few panels on your roof and some old car batteries in the basement is not difficult or expensive. This lets you run small halogen flood lights where you need them and a laptop too in case of blackouts.
Here again, its a mix of conservation and smart energy production that works well without costing too much.

The village i talked about, called Solarsiedlung can be found here:

Specifics in english:

Here is the link to some other passive house project in Freiburg:
(this one still uses some heating in extreme cold, i.e. under -10 Celsius)

There are several small towns in eastern Canada & NE US built originally around water powered mills and that now produce their own electricity.

In the town of Almonte ON (pop 4,200), there is a 2.4 MW hydro station downtown which leaves its doors open in the summer and you can actually watch the generators turning from the sidewalk.

The ecology in this region has adapted to the presence of the hydro dams over more than a century - returning to a "natural state" would seriously disrupt things.

I agree with you on the unwinding of complexity being a major part of what is likely to happen. Central electricity is so critical to our current way of living that we just take it for granted. I think it has the same kind of complexity as many of our other systems, and, as a result, will be very difficult to maintain.

I think run of the river (or stream) electric generation has some possibilities, if replacement parts can be made readily available. I think some localities will try to burn wood or some sort of biomass, to produce a little electricity. We will have a lot less waste in the future, so I don't see waste to natural gas to electric as providing a very big solution. In general, I don't think there will be very much local electric, except where existing hydro-electric or geothermal plants can continue to operate.

The draft animal proposal is also incredibly hypocritical because the Oil Drum is always complaining about the lower EROI (energy returned on energy invested) of biofuel crops. Then Gail proposes growing similar crops and feeding them to draft animals for an even lower EROI.

You don't need a very high EROI on draft animals, because you don't have to maintain a long supply chain that is not part of the calculation. You do if you have to maintain roads, electricity, and everything else. The comments on EROI of 5 or higher were predicated on maintaining a relatively high standard of living. Using draft animals is not going to produce a very high standard of living.

I think you've gone a bit off the VERY deep end here. Sure we get 50% of our electricity from coal and oil right now, but we still get 50% from gas,hydro and nukes. I dunno about you but I could 'live'(not so well maybe-AC is a huge percentage of annual electricity consumption) with 50% of my present electricity use. Our current consumption of electricity is slowly dropping by ~1% per year due to efficiency and renewables could grow to 20% of projected electricity in 2030 according to NREL.

The fuel consumption and train traffic from shipping coal by rail is huge.

Lets say we shrink our electricity consumption by 20% by saving 1% each year for the next 20 years. So in ~2030 we are using 3200 Twh of electricity, of which 640 Twh would come from wind/solar and 2000 Twh from natural gas, hydro and nukes(the other 50% we use now). That means we shrink
coal from 2000 Twh down to around 560 Twh cutting coal use by 72%. That's 72% fewer railcars filled with coal (and maybe with food, etc)!

We could also gasify coal and ship synthetic natural gas by pipeline as we do now from the Weyburn coal gasification site in North Dakota.


this "we're all gonna die, we wont be able to run the AC anymore" posts appear a bit silly to me. Instead of all dying suddenly, you'd just start sweating :)
Europe has half the energy use per capita than the USA. Life over here isnt any less good or comfortable then in your country. We sure drive smaller cars, but then hummers are for waging wars, not getting to work.
I just spend two month in summer in southern spain. While temperature outside were at times around 40 degrees celsius (no idea how much fahrenheit this is, but it sure is hot...), buildings there generally dont have AC, yet the climate inside is reasonably cool and very comfortable. How do they do this? Houses are built of solid heavy rocks and painted uniformly white. The white reflects the solar radiation, while the fat stone wall insulates and stores the cool from the night.
This climatisation system has zero energy input. Ok, if you build the house by hand, you need to eat something :)

If people dont want to argue that their is something inherently different about US-Americans (apart from beeing lazy...) , so that they cant use energy as smart and efficient as Europeans, you sure can adapt by stopping the waste in the system. (think a smart car instead of a hummer, half sized refrigerators, freshly cooked food (can even be grown in your garden!)instead of frozen prepacked microwaved fare etc.
Japan even manages to use even 50% less energy per capita than europe (25% of the amiracan rate!), so there is certainly still a lot of room to improve even in europe still.

Most peopel will die, not because they can't run the AC, but because they can't run the oil or gas furnace and will die of exposure in time, and then they will lack food and potable water.

Your percentages are fine, except that the U.S. is not Europe nor Japan.

"Your percentages are fine, except that the U.S. is not Europe nor Japan."

Well whats the exact difference? Its mainly the price of petrol:
petrol in many european countries costs almost $10/gallon.
That means europeans are used to expensive gas and thus adjust their lifestyle choices accordingly. Americans will do that too, as soon as they have to.

Conservation is already happening in a big way in the US, oil import is down 800 000 barrels/day from last year, miles driven are down 4%, GM talks about stopping to produce the Hummer, while americans buy more Smart cars and Minis than dealers can import.
That seems to mean to me that the american citizen is just as capable of using oil in a prudent manner as the europeans, as soon as the price of gas hurts them just as much as it does us.

Southern Spain is a very civilized place.

People use a lot less petroleum than NA, but the quality of life doesn't suffer because of it. Also, there is a real emphasis on producing quality food and wine.

If this is our future, then I am all for it!

I think you've gone a bit off the VERY deep end here.

I think not deep enough. It's true, because there is SO MUCH WASTE here in the US, if there were any kind of sensible leadership, a lot of the initial cutting back could be done relatively painlessly.

But ultimately because electricity is connected with everything else, and because energy is at the core of it, and transportation is the key use, and our electric grids are, in a certain sense, part of that transport system, collapse is not localized. You already see the effects, for example, in S Africa, where blackouts are affecting mining, and mining cutbacks are affecting metal supplies, and metals affect energy extraction (and everything else).

Relocalization is one of the key components of any strategy for dealing with the future. Relocalization is inimical to corporate interests and therefore will be resisted to the max.

There are relatively easy things to do now, and the market is forcing some of them on us in an unnecessarily painful way (unnecessary because we have hostile leadership), but further down the road the easy things will no longer suffice. And the things Gail recommends will not be optional. E.g. Cuba re-introduced draft animals after the collapse of the SU.


Mass relocalization will not happen. People will not be able to sell their houses in the worsening Peak Oil recession to be soon a depression and they will not have the money to build houses that will be very expensive due to transportation and materials costs that are made with, from, by fossil energies.

Most people will be stuck where they are, both financially and physically. Soon air travel and automobile transportation will be so expensive, both will be non-functional for long distance travel. People will soon be trapped where they are. And that is where most will die after the highways and grid collapse.

Draft animals will take decades to breed, as there is not much stock to start with.

Plenty of room on the lifeboats of the Titanic, but not for long.

The scenarios you paint are what's to be resisted. People must be helped to relocalize, must be helped to return to the soil, must be helped in re-building small towns that go up a few floors and are walkable (JHK). The draft animals are symbolic of what needs to be done. But symbolic or not, they will eventually play a role. The earlier we start, the less painful (or cataclysmic) the retrenchment.

How much chaos and disaster it will take before we wake up and get on track, no one can say. I think maybe a whole lot. And even once we are on track, there will be immense challenges. But I don't think it's ultimately hopeless, else I'd still be in bed.

Just one question:
If relocalization is impossible after PO, how did America ever get colonized without the use of oil?

You are right that houses in places that are not liveable without cheap gas will be unsalable. This is already happening in some ex-urbs. Still, instead of dying, just because you cant sell you're house, you still have the option of abandoning it and move some better place. There you just rent something, or live in a tent/trailer/car, which is all not nice but sure better than dying. If net energy really declines significantly, people will live in much denser quarters anyway: it costs the sam to heat a house no matter if there is 1 or 10 persons living in it, so sharing heated space makes sense, and you can fit much more people into existing housing. I agree you might get a lot of ghost towns, but mass dying seems overblown to me.

old europe

'how did America ever get colonized without the use of oil?'

well the story is w/ a hoe , an axe & a rifle.

the pop density was a few less & more game, & skills, etc., etc.

so try overpopulated, culture of strong property rights, millions of guns, bad habits/attitudes from cheap[basically free] oil/energy & few skills to grow food etc.

i don't fear;' no oil'; i fear getting there.

and when we do get there we'll be working our fannies off! i don't look forward to no oil; but i might feel more secure & more sense of purpose & i'll bet if i get there i'll be part of a stronger sense of we/us.


bad habits and bad attitudes are basically the core of the problem. What I am trying to argue is just that collapse isnt somehow inevitable after PO. If we(individually and as a society) take the right decisions, then we could all come off better than before (after a maybe tough transition period). If we, however, start fighting each other instead of working out solutions together, we sure are doomed. But this can then not be blamed on PO, but rather at our incredibly stupid response to it.
Wars seem to flare up everywhere where there is oil these days, so if this progresses along these tracks, we might well be fucked alltogether.
But this is in no way technologically unavoidable, and even so, short of WWIII, even America will adjust - it certainly has the means to do so.

'this is in no way technologically unavoidable'

fully agree.

twas always a pol/soc/psych problem.

'America will adjust - it certainly has the means to do so.'

well, i don't think america[federally] will exist , at least for a while ,during a 30 yrs. span from now [even w/o WWIII].

we have so much pol/soc/psych change to make that i'm afraid only trauma will do the 'adjusting' you refer to.

You are absolutely right in saying: "we have so much pol/soc/psych change to make that i'm afraid only trauma will do the 'adjusting'"

If the tooth doesnt hurt badly, we wont go to the dentist. That is why high oil prices are good for all of us. Reading the news and watching your discussion here one TOD, it certainly seems to me like it already has started to hurt badly. Most astonishing is that US oil import dropped by 800000b/d in only 6 month. If you cant afford it, you stop wasting it. We had $4 a gallon oil in europe in the nineties, it is now closer to $10 per gallon and nothing has collapsed. But average small 4 seater diesel cars now use less gas then a prius, even without having a hybrid drivetrain. Last year everyone laughed at electric cars, now the CEO of Volkswagen says the future of cars is electric, Mercedes will sell an electric Smart in 2009, Renault installs a a charging infrastructure for EV in Israel and Denmark. The Trauma sure has arrived already, and people are waking up - even the americans noticed something is wrong, though most people still prefer not to face the true reason of the problem and rather find scapegoats instead. When it becomes obvious that pointing fingers doesnt really help, people will start doing something. How long that takes is anyones guess though...

i'm talking brain rewiring trauma like war, severe abuse,etc. a positive example of this rewiring would be developing the ability to not use after severe dependence; usually following DT's etc.

Draft animals don't take decades to breed, they already exist!
How many cows, horses, goats, dogs, camels, donkeys and mules in the US, Canada or Mexico? ALL can pull sleds or carts and the bigger ones can pull ploughs and wagons (even 40 ton 18 wheelers) across rutted dirt roads.
Roads don't collapse overnight, even with crap weather they last for years and collapsed bridges can be bypassed using simple punts and barges (still used even in modern countries, crossed the river at Wisemans Ferry, an hours drive from Sydney in a big truck on a punt, no probs).


this "we're all gonna die, we wont be able to run the AC anymore" posts appear a bit silly to me. Instead of all dying suddenly, you'd just start sweating :) AC is a big portion of peak electricity demand, and is something you can completely do without.
Europe has half the energy use per capita than the USA. Life over here isnt any less good bor comfortable then in your country. We sure drive smaller cars, but then hummers are for waging wars, not getting to work.
I just spend two month in summer in southern spain. While temperature outside were at times around 40 degrees celsius (no idea how much fahrenheit this is, but it sure is hot...), buildings there generally dont have AC, yet the climate inside is reasonably cool and very comfortable. How do they do this? Houses are built of solid heavy rocks and painted uniformly white. The white reflects the solar radiation, while the fat stone wall insulates and stores the cool from the night.
This climatisation system has zero energy input. Ok, if you build the house by hand, you need to eat something :)

If people dont want to argue that their is something inherently different sbout US-Americans (apart from beeing lazy...) , so that they cant use energy as smart and efficient as Europeans, you sure can adapt by stopping the waste in the system. (think a smart car instead of a hummer, half sized refrigerators, freshly cooked food (can even be grown in your garden!)instead of frozen prepacked microwaved fare etc.
Japan even manages to use even 50% less energy per capita than europe (25% of the amiracan rate!), so there is certainly still a lot of room to improve even in europe still.

First it takes energy to save energy. You need to invest in long lived infrastructure such as extensive light rail and high density living spaces to save energy like Japan or Europe. The only light rail in my city connects a shopping mall, airport, city park, grain silos, theater district, and downtown. Nice, and I am glad to have it, but commuters are moving by car, not train / bus.

Europe is much more dense than the US. And the core infrastructure was built without cars in mind. It is possible to live without a car. I don't think most people who have not been to the US can appreciate how big this country is. Or how empty the mid west/west is. I used to live in a Suburb where the nearest coffee shop/grocery store was a 5 min drive. Sidewalks on one side only. Culdesacs everywhere. Walking was for treadmills.

I sure can appreciate how big your country is: I rode my bicyle in 1995 from L.A. to Las Vegas to San Francisco. Then I had enough of long distance cycling :-)

I am totally with you that a city like Las Vegas f.i. will not sustain a population of 2 million people in the desert that its in without a huge input of external energy and water. So you will get some relocation (which apparently has started already), and more ghost towns. But not all towns in the US are like that. While the midwest might become even more depopulated, denser cities and coastal towns should thrive. People will move to more viable places and live closer together.

"First it takes energy to save energy."

Some things certainly do, like new infrastructure, or better built housing. Other things dont need any energy at all: carpooling, cycling, hitchhiking, walking. Moving closer to the workplace doesnt need that much energy either. Moving two families into a house where before only lived one (or taking in the children/granparents) doesnt require any energy and can save a lot.

Go back and read my post again. I am not talking about issue of shrinking our usage by 20% over an extended time period. I am talking about a very different issue, which is admittedly not terribly easy to understand. The things you talk about are not solutions.


I already posted about this below, please look there too.
The main question is: How do you see a "sudden" decline of over 20% coming about? I fail to see the reason for this.
Even if it was sudden, you sure can save more than 20% by stopping all frivoulous driving, carpooling, bicycling, heating only one room in your house, lowering the temperature, wearing wool sweaters, using videoconferencing instead of flying across the continent/world etc.etc.
All this might very well be uncomfortoble, and bankrupt some airlines and carmakers, but it doesnt mean the end of civilization.



I think the issue is basically the US's financial condition. We have been importing huge amounts of oil for years, without enough exports to pay for it. We now have a huge amount of debt (getting larger by the day) that we will never be able to pay off in dollars that are worth anything.

There are a lot of signs that all of this is about to come to an end. If it does, the US will not be able to buy oil that it is not able to pay for. This is likely to cut imports at least in half and drop US oil consumption by at least 20% (probably more like 30%). Other imports will also become much harder to get.

If you don't live in the US, you may be much better off. The US was taking such a big piece of oil production off the market that it reduced the supply available to other countries. Reallocating oil previously sold to the US may make the outcome for other countries with agricultural exports better.

A great key article Gail. And no, I don't think you have gone off the deep end as someone upthread wrote. It seems to me that volatility in physical supply is going to be just as bad as the volatility in pricing. What you are trying to predict is going to be wildly unpredictable once it starts.

You write that it's a financial issue. I think it is better phrased as a resource issue. Finances are just one resource. And to a degree - in very loose terms - even finances are substitutable for cheap energy and cheap sequoia trees. Until they are gone and money evaporates with them.

One of the key points I took away from "The Black Swan" was that it was much, much easier to know what is wrong than what is right. I know that replacing our infrastructure is wrong. What will happen instead, I do not know. I know that the governments - at least federal - will not be able to institute controls. No matter what they think RealID will do, it won't be maintainable. Thinking that we can shift from a deregulated market economy to a well planned control economy is another thing I know is wrong.

20% - even 30% - is wrong. Even in the best of worlds. John Howe figures the steady state if we embark on crash course in renewables is about 1/8 of current US energy use. Any resources we commit to a 30% decline will likely not work in the 12.5% paradigm. A good example of that: all the groups fighting for increased heating fuel subsidies this winter - all wasted resources that should be going to something like community gardens, insulations, "warm rooms" and public transit. We squander the resources again.

Jumping close to the right paradigm is critical. Otherwise every step down we dump resources into proppping up lost causes. All wasted.

I think the emphasis on local is important. Another poster mentioned the need to bring pollution "in your face". Both sinks and sources need to be "in your face". I pointed this out in a legislative hearing here in Maine. Local, like it appears the TX grid is thinking. Not "energy corridors" designed to export power like they are doing here in Maine.

We don't need a bigger grid. We need a more segmentable and local grid. Perhaps like carbon credits we might require power generation to shrink. Everyone gets coupons and next year they get a few less. [And simply metering power adequate to enforce that isn't going to happen.] The utility is required to finance high efficiency appliances. Some appliances don't get replaced at all. [If the paradigm is 12.5% or 75% matters a lot for that triage.]

And I'll point out that those sort of suggestions are illegal in US: the commerce and supremacy clauses. They are both counterproductive in a shrinking economy. The corporations - who already own our textbook fascist state - will fight hard to keep BAU. And that is why the electeds will not help. They are own3d by the corporations and the BAU consensus trance; their job is to prevent the revolution necessary. Instead they will kick in a little money for heating assistance this winter and put more more cops and surveillance into place.

There are many definitions of "Law". One is that law is a reflection of culture. In that sense our Constitution is founded on liberalism - largely economic liberalism. Economic liberalism is not the same as cultural liberalism or pluralism - though a rising tide economic engine fakes the appearance: everyone gets more so put up a flag and cheer.

When resources get tight, "liberal economics" gets very nasty. Grossly simplified, anything goes works for most people on the way up and doesn't on the way down. Kunstler's "World Made By Hand" strikes me as grossly optimistic; you can be a serf and master will come rescue you, the cults will be populated by capable young men and pretty women in translucent outfits, the rivers will be full of fish bigger than you've ever seen in your life and we'll still have the same sort of law and order and morality we have now. Kunstler's gone cornucopian, I think.

Getting the paradigm right - what amount of energy and other resources will we have in 10, 20, 50 and etc... years and then planning an economy that works for a wide range around that number - because it will be wrong - is the big question. For all intents and purposes, as a US inhabitant, it translates to "as little as possible is still too much".

Good article.

cfm in Gray, ME

Thanks for the vote of confidence. It is hard to know how things will really turn out. We have a lot of resources here, but things are certain to turn out different from the way they are now.

To expand my comment, I just looked up the stats and found that 2.5 billion tons of freight was moved by rail and almost half of that, 1.1 billion tons was for coal, mainly to make electricity.

OTH, 14 billion tons of freight was moved by truck--so shifting over to rail for all freight will be a huge challenge.

Only problem is that rail is currently pretty much maxed out. Need to build more infrastructure (double tracks, trains) to increase it more.

I had always assumed that more tonnage was moved by rail than by truck in NA.

Ths is *very* bad news.

Where were you looking?  Per the BTS, rail ton-miles were almost 40% greater than truck in 2005, and the trends favor rail.

I'd be wary of "tons" figures.  If a drayage truck gets a 30-ton container off the dock and takes it 2 miles to a train, and the train takes it 2000 miles from Los Angeles to Houston, that's 30 tons each for truck and train, but 60 vs. 6000 ton-miles.

I see water and pipeline have both been trending down. They are both more efficient than rail.

That may be partly due to a shift of grain from export to local ethanol, and less oil being pumped around.  Low lake and river levels may also reduce water freight tonnage; this is a function of the weather and may reverse.

(duplicate removed)

Transporting coal doesn't necessarily take oil:


Cough! Cough! Cough!

I am afraid your picture is what will happen. The toxic chemicals with coal are likely to be a big problem--mercury and uranium, among others. Also acid rain, not to mention added CO2.


if we were to take the easy way out and opt for coal-to-liquids instead of electrified transportation, and more coal power plants instead of renewable energy, we sure would be putting a lot more toxic stuff in the atmosphere and accelerate GW.

Surely with the latest technology we could really clean up and improve on the old steam engine. The other option is to electrify the rails like Alan suggests but especially for coal transportation.


electrification of rail would be the smart choice. Using the old steam locomotives from museums ought to be a strict temporary emergency measure. But if we need it, i think it could be done fairly quick.
Even better is having the power plants close to them mine and transport the electricity instead of the coal.

If we electrify rails, I think trains should be dual fuel. That way, trains can still be run if there are power outages in some areas.

That is easy to accomplish, you just swap out the electric locomotive for a diesel one. Whats more, modern diesel electric locomotives are propelled by an electric motor powered by a diesel generator ( ). It should not be impossible to have them run on grid electricity when that is available and on diesel when the power is off.
In fact, electrification of rail today only makes economic sense on relatively major rail lines, so even with a rail system that is mostly electric, like in Europe, there is still plenty of diesel engines working.


Great article, as usual.

Any kind of change we want to make to the country's infrastructure to better prepare us for the future will take a very long time--most likely 30 to 50 years. Perhaps, with great effort, we could make a transformation in 20 years.

Any thoughts on Al Gore's proposal for a crash program for 100% renewable electricity in 10 years? Assuming a President / Congress committed to this idea, is it technically feasible? I see that Jerome a Paris thinks that while 100% is unrealistic, 50-90% is not only realistic but makes sense:

I'm not sure if this solves our problem, but doesn't it help? Just checking.


Can you explain how you manage intermittency with 90% renewable electricity?

With High Voltage Direct Current lines. If you can transport electricity over several thousand kilometers, the intermittency effects will even out. The wind blows always somewhere, as much as the sun always shines somewhere. Off Shore wind turbines also have a lot less intermittency, as there the wind blows almost constantly.
But you are right, storage is definitely one of the biggest challenge when going to renewables. Electric vehicles connected to a smart grid (charging when there is too much electricity, feeding power into the grid when there is not enough) can certainly help there too.

Works great once you have a world wide grid. Stuart Staniford estimated it would cost $400 trillion to build the transmission lines that would provide for the world wide solar supply balancing. So what do we do until it is built out? Just put up with the intermittency for 30 years?

I think we are going to need more rigorous analysis of how that would work than "the wind blows always somewhere, as much as the sun always shines somewhere." How much excess capacity will you need to power half of North America if the wind is only blowing hard in the Dakotas? I think you would need to model this and all the other variations and verify that you really have it all covered instead of building nukes that could do it reliably and that all the redundancy and the cost of the grid would not blow the budget compared to building 4,000 reactors for $40 trillion.

More importantly, how do we guard a global grid from attack? Any old luddite with an axe to grind, boat throwing anchor, earthquake or storm could plunge whole continents into darkness unless you massively overbuild the system.

I'd be wary of Stuart's figure, because it's for a system that nobody would build.

If the USA built 750 GW(peak) of wind capacity @ $1500/kW(peak) to supply 225 GW average at 30% capacity factor, and built 150 GW of CAES @ $500/kW(peak) to buffer outages, that's $1.2 trillion with most of it for the generation rather than the storage.  Built over 20 years it would only cost $60 billion/year, or about $200/capita/year.  It would eliminate enormous expenditures for fuel and external costs from pollution, etc.

I am doing an energy demand model for an article that I expect TOD to run near the end of the month. I am projecting 25 TW or total electricity in 2050 of which 8 TW is wind and solar. So that would be about 2 TW in the US or ten times your number for 2030. A ten fold increase between 2030 and 2050 seems about right. I have not started to cost it out yet but your number seems low. What is your plan for managing intermittency? I am assuming that we have to preserve the power on demand nature of the system.

What is your plan for managing intermittency?

Long-distance HVDC interconnects, demand-side management and CAES for the remainder.

So I guess "demand-side management" means that you do not preserve the power on demand characteristic of the current grid. If the wind is not blowing, that's just too bad.

"demand-side management" means that you do not preserve the power on demand characteristic of the current grid.

No, it means that you exercise arbitrage.  Cold-storage warehouses will contract for the average demand, chill down a few degrees when power is cheap and coast on thermal mass while selling their allotment when it's dear.

If the wind is not blowing, that's just too bad.

If the wind isn't blowing, you run the air conditioning on stored ice and the computer on CAES.  When the wind is blowing, you make ice and charge all the EV batteries to 100% instead of the minimum needed.  You tap biofuel reserves when the intermittent supplies aren't producing and the storage is getting low.

There are lots of ways to manage this, and lots don't involve taking substantial hits in standard of living.

All of this requires planning and capital. Also, enhancements to the current grid, which requires many people to work together, besides planning and capital.

Many things require no planning.  For instance, all it takes is a time-of-day tariff to make ice-storage A/C attractive; once you've set up the tariff, the installation is the consequence of many uncoördinated decisions by businesses and even individuals.  PHEVs will be the same, and on the smallest scale, what about compact fluorescents?  Yes, it takes some capital to put these things into use, but many will repay the cost through savings and no team of planners is required.

The grid requires enhancements mainly to increase its PEAK power capacity.  If people do things which add demand mostly at the off-peak times, the only thing required is more electricity (and perhaps the fuel to make it).  Not much planning required there either.

Powering the Repowered Rustbelt with juice from the Windbelt running from the Dakotas to Texas... THAT will take planning.  But I think the profit motive will help push that along; even T. Boone Pickens has seen the light.

I think 100% renewable energy is totally unrealistic. In 2007, we had 0.77% wind and 0.01% solar. Our grid is maxed out on intermittency, with this little bit. I don't see renewable energy on the grid as a solution. Perhaps, a solar panel on your house, not grid connected, for daytime electricity.

I think 30% wind and solar might be possible with backup generation or storage to cover the periods of zero or low production. But it would not be cheap due to the need for redundant facilities that are idle most of the time (either the wind or the gas).

With a fully built out grid, it might be possible to supply balance over large geographic distances (Stuart suggested tapping Sahara sunshine to power California night time Internet usage) for a larger percentage. But the network effect accelerates as the grid gets bigger. How does this work for the 30 years as you are building it out?

Thanks for your response. Jerome a Paris seems to think that with different wind regimes in the country, intermittency would not be as much of a problem as many fear, but as a non-expert I'd like to see a little more detail here on both sides, why Gore's proposal would or wouldn't work (at least up to, say, 75% from renewables).

This is, basically, the critical issue on which the whole policy question revolves, as far as I can see. If 75% renewables (say) are not possible because of intermittency or scale problems, as you suggest, then maybe nuclear power + renewables would be my next suggestion, and of course serious and drastic conservation is important in any scenario.


If 75% renewables (say) are not possible because of intermittency or scale problems, as you suggest, then maybe nuclear power + renewables would be my next suggestion

What if it would work but that the cost of the grid alone (as estimated by Stuart Staniford) would be ten times the cost of the nukes as I show in a post up thread? That does not even count the need to have enough capacity in say the Dakotas to power half the continent to cover the times that it is only blowing hard there. What premium would you be willing to accept to do it without nuclear in the face of a cheaper way to do it with a mix of say 60% nuclear, 30% renewables and 10% legacy? I am trying to arrive at an optimal solution and I think we need to evaluate the nuclear alternative objectively.


If the cost of the grid to support the renewables would be ten times the cost of the nukes to produce the energy in the first place, in that case you could probably sell nuclear to me. I agree that we need to keep nuclear on the table, and there is a cost at which I'd support it -- no knee-jerk response from me on nuclear. Instead of a renewables + nuclear mix, an argument could also be made for making all or most electricity from nuclear, and that is perhaps the direction you're headed, right?

Here's the problem. I'm not the first to say that there's a lot of uncertainty about the intermittency of renewables issue. The discussion so far seems to be that there is no agreement over what the grid will cost, what sort of grid is required, and how much of a problem intermittency will be on renewables. I think that Stuart, Gail, and Jerome are talking about different things. As I recall Stuart wants this far-out world-wide renewables web, so that we'll be getting solar power from Australia while it's dark in New York. Jerome seems to be talking mostly about wind, and is talking about wind regimes within a country or region, not a world-wide thing. Also, I believe that Gail has argued elsewhere that we need to strengthen the grid anyway.

I don't want to get too sidetracked onto a discussion of nuclear, just throwing this out, BUT my concerns about nuclear are (1) uranium or thorium is still a finite resource, albeit a lot greater than coal and oil, and (2) more importantly in the next 100 years, it requires heavy technical knowledge infrastructure, with more opportunity to do something stupid and harmful, and this reflects in problems such as waste. E. g. suppose that industrial society collapses for (say) economic and political reasons. I wouldn't mind having wind turbines hanging around, it might generate intermittent power but at least we'd have intermittent power. But having nukes hanging around in a similar situation would be more of a risk. Smart people might be diverted in such a collapse to (say) medicine and administration, and we might not be able to afford to train the next generation of people who actually know what they're doing with nukes, so we might totally lose our investment in nukes. You could argue both sides of this, but it's a concern.

So basically, if you can convince me that society will be more or less intact (and that means saving the entire world, not just saving ourselves or Europe or whoever, and no massive die-off or nuclear confrontations), then you can probably sell at least some nuclear to me. Intermittency is to solar and wind the same kind of irritating problem that nuclear waste is to nuclear power. You can answer it, but not in a way that really could convincingly satisfy your opponents (at least not yet).

This, however, threatens to veer into a kind of vague theoretical discussion that gets us nowhere. But since Al Gore started this discussion, so to speak, I'm assuming that it's a live political issue, at least by 2012 or so. So in the meantime I'm looking for more research on the intermittency issue.



Thanks for your very thoughtful comments. I do not favor making all electricity from nuclear. I think we need a resilient system and so it is a bad idea to rely too much on any one source, no matter how benign it is. In fact, I think that the plan I am advancing relies on the smallest amount of nuclear that achieves the objective of maintaining advanced civilization.

Uranium and Thorium are finite but I would argue that there are at least millions of years of supply. I know this and any other comments that so favor nuclear will be hotly contested by those who oppose nuclear but I have defended it on TOD many times.

I think your concern about having nuclear after a collapse is a valid concern but there would be so many horrible things that would happen if we had a collapse (massive die-off, extreme environmental degradation, war that likely went nuclear, to name just a few) that I think a few thousand nuclear power plants would be the least of our problems. The plants would go cold after some time and then the danger would be to those who broke into the containments. I few thousand might die but that would pale next to the billions who would have already died.

My argument is that there is a way for society to remain basically intact. I predict that we will have a very serious downturn, which I believe will hit the developing world disproportionately because those are the places that are now populated the furthest beyond their carrying capacity without fossil fuels and which will be least able to make the technological investments to build the new energy infrastructure. But on the whole the world will recover. The developed world will have to help the developing world.

I do not think the nuclear waste and renewable intermittency problems are comparable. Here is the waste argument in brief. The idea of burying long term wastes is a non starter politically, no matter whether it might make sense technically. But that is a 1980s approach that I doubt that any current supporters of nuclear now favor. The key is to think of what comes out of reactors as partially spent fuel that still has about 97% of its potential energy. We now know how to burn up (as fuel or just to decontaminate it) all of the long term waste even if the current supply of cheap Uranium does not now financially favor building the infrastructure to do so. At some point either the economics will favor it or we will have to invest to build the infrastructure to do so just to solve the waste problem. What will be left after we do this will be true waste that I believe only has somewhere in the ballpark of 10% of the volume of the current partially spent fuel and which has half lives in the few hundred years. This we can reasonably bury. Until that happens, we can safely keep the partially spent fuel at the current plant sites in dry cask storage, for hundreds of years if necessary, since a reactor only creates about three cubic meters of partially spent fuel per year.

Wind and solar intermittency is a serious problem as long as we accept that the future grid needs to have the current power on demand characteristic. I think we can support up to about 30% wind and solar and manage the intermittency in a cost competitive fashion. But Al Gore has raised the bar on this debate and I think it will take quite a while to figure out what a good mix is especially since many of the proponents of this approach are willing to accept all kinds of compromises to avoid having to use any more than the current level of nuclear. I just think we need to consider the trade-offs more carefully, systematically and objectively. Power on demand is what people expect and I think there would be little support among the vast majority of people for a system that does not feature it if they knew that the only reason that it would be abandoned would be so that we did not have to have nuclear.


"There is a substantial chance that petroleum products available will suddenly decline by a large percentage (more than 20%)"

How is this gonna happen? I certainly agree that "there is a substantial chance that petroleum products available will decline by a large percentage (more than 20%) within the next 10 years", but there wouldnt be anything "sudden" about that.
A "sudden" decline of over 20% will only happen if the USA started invading Iran, and Iran then tries to not just close the Strait of Hormuz, but also manages to shut down Saudia Arabias Oil export or production facilities. As to this, there is unfortunately no guarantee that the current "regime" in charge of the USA might not just do that someday soon. (Though I think its getting ever more unlikely given how overextended the american military is already)

Petroleum products available will drop by more than 20% if the value of the dollar drops by 50% or more, or if others stop selling to us, because of our credit issues.

If the value of the dollar drops by 50%, the price of oil goes up 50% (probably more, though).
Apart from that there is no direct link to 20% less supply, you'd just pay more.

You are mixing here two issues that should rather be analyzed seperately: The availability of oil is what can be produced, this is not going to collapse 20% over night. The affordability of oil, however, is of course getting worse really quickly.
While the US finances definitely do look scary, as i understand it a country does not need to default on loans issued in its own currency, as it can just print the money to pay back the loan. So the actual default risk seems small, but the exchange rate risk is very real and basically that is what has happend in the last year. As the dollar loses value, sellers will demand more of them for their product, but there is no reason for them to suddenly stop selling.
That America cant maintain its infrastructure seems to me more an issue of bad politics and the now resulting extremely bad condition of its financial system, not Peak Oil. Personally, I worry more that the american financial system collapses any moment then the energy supply. Even if you default on your loans, that isnt the end all: Argentina, Russia and most of communist east europe went bankrupt at some point, and though all had really lousy infrastructure, none of them had a complete breakdown. Smart prioritazition goes a long way towards keeping the minimum functions of a system running.

I think the current system may change more than you think it will. Other countries don't have to keep taking our dollars; they could ask for goods in return.

You may not think that default was the end all in Argentina and Russia, but Dmitry Orlov talks about electrical outages and lack of money being two of the problems. We would have a hard time functioning in this country without money and with frequent electrical outages. Russia had a different type of economy, and most people had their own gardens, so they were able to cope. You might read Dmitry's book, "Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects". This is a link to a story I did about it.

I know Dmitry Orlovs writing, and I think very highly of it.
Indeed I was in Russia when the value of their currency dropped in half within a few days in the early nineties. People lost their complete savings, there was a extreme poverty everywhere, but the general system was astonishingly resilient. Trains kept running, gas was sold privately from glas jars (!!), electricity kept working (though in Irkutsk when the temperature drops to minus 50 celsius, they do indeed have blackouts because to many people heat electric then - so people keep propane gas bottles at home for backup. There were blackouts, but it wasnt like the grid fell apart). Dont understand me wrong, the poverty in Russia back then was really sad to watch, but even so, people manage. The economic output of the former Soviet Union fell more than 50% between 1989 and 1993, yet all the essential systems were kept running.
Certainly anyone would have a hard time "functioning without money and with frequent electrical outages", but history, and also a look at the "developing" world shows that this happens all the time, and still people manage.
Americans might not have gardens, but then, when I was there everyone had a lawn around their two-car-garage house. If you dig up the lawn you'd have a terrific garden and you could even turn the garage into a stable for chicken or something like that. And anyone can farm something simple like potatos in a pinch. Russians, living in concrete high rise building, actually had to commute to their dachas(gardens) outside the city!

What I mean is two things:
1. If Americas finances collapse anytime soon, this has more to do with bad politics than PO.
2. It is certainly not possible to mine coal without the use of a lot of oil, so electricity production can be done even without oil.

"I think the current system may change more than you think it will. Other countries don't have to keep taking our dollars; they could ask for goods in return."
As long as the dollar is freely convertible, there is no incentive for anyone to do so. You just take the dollars you got for the oil and change them to euros or whatever immediately. Anytime a country went bankrupt or had its currency collapse overnight it was because the goverment tried to maintain an artifical exchange rate (a peg to a stable currency). As the FED seems to have chosen to let the value of the dollar freely, this wont happen. But the dollar might very well keep declining continuously, making gas in America less and less affordable.
Even if affordabilty of oil falls to, say 50%, America still has the choice to use this for essential services or waste it on SUV's, Disneyland, bigger TVs etc.

Let me tell you that I think, and certainly hope, that America, and the rest of the world too, will change dramatically because of the decline of oil, but it certainly doesnt have to be inevitable disaster. We still have options. If we dont use them, however, we sure are doomed, but that then that would have been what we chose ourselves.

Coal prices triple as supply crisis deepens.

Other important facts over coal:

This in my opinion is slightly more likely than oil to bring the system down. Here the effects of export-land model (courtesy Jeffery Brown) are even more pronounced. China consumes more than 2.5 billion short tons of coal per year. It recently turned a net importer (2008 projected). The world export market is tiny and is less than 12% of the world coal production. China's coal consumption is rising at a 12-15% compounded annual rate. China's coal production growth rate is slowing dramatically and will rise less than 5% this year. Putting these numbers together means that China will swallow all of the worlds exports in 2-4 years. Unless coal production can be ramped up dramatically elsewhere it is lights out everywhere.

Yes-just the other day some "expert" was pontificating about 1000 years supply of coal. I agree that a lot of people are going to be amazed at how quickly global coal production peaks and declines once oil has moved off the plateau.

Unless coal production can be ramped up dramatically elsewhere it is lights out everywhere.

No. Just forced powerdown in places that cannot outbid China for imported coal.

Uranium mining is very volume-intensive, because it is only available in low concentrations.

I am not sure that is true. I have read that the Cigar Lake deposit has an average concentration of 210,000 ppm. According to this there is a 1,200 year supply at current rates of consumption from sources with concentrations of 1,000 ppm or greater. Then you have to multiply that by three if you include Thorium and multiply it by about 20 to 30 if you consider technologies that recover more than the 3% or so of the energy that we recover in once through light water reactors. Then there is also the lower concentration stuff, some of which is in production now, like the 300 ppm Rossing mine mentioned in the link.

I think the reason that nearly all the Uranium mines in the US shut down was that they could not compete with the supply that started to come from higher concentration sources, not that the mines were exhausted. At some time most of these US mines will probably be reopened.

Don't forget that Uranium has 2,000,000 times the energy density of oil so once you have extracted it, it does not take much energy to move it around. That is also true of the partially spent fuel.

Don't forget that Uranium has 2,000,000 times the energy density of oil

No I don't think so, burning Uranium has a poor EROEI.

Ripping apart oil at the proton/neutron level would be close to the energy of ripping apart Uranium down to Hydrogen - but hardly the factor you quote.

Let's do a simple calculation using carbon as the simpliest case of a fossil fuel.

One atom of carbon, at 12 atomic mass units, will oxidize (in free air) yielding CO2 and 2 electron volts of energy.

2 eV / 12 amu = .167 eV per amu

One atom of U-235 at 235 atomic mass units, will fission with 200,000,000 electron volts of energy.

200,000,000 / 235 = 851,000 eV per amu

So a ballpark estimate of the relative energy densities (ignoring oxygen, neutrons, and neutrinos) is then:

851,000 / .167 = about 5,000,000

I'll grant that hydrocarbons pack a bit more punch per amu since hydrogen is 1/12th the mass of carbon and maybe one could claim a bit more eVs per chemical reaction, but I'd say that the assertion is valid enough for our purposes.

Let's do a simple calculation using carbon as the simpliest case of a fossil fuel.
One atom of carbon,

And yet, one atom of Carbon != oil.

At least for the values of oil I am aware of.

Perhaps you can enlighten us all how 1 Carbon and up to 4 Hydrogens is "oil"?

Not to mention how you are not comparing the same processes:

will oxidize

will fission

2 different processes.

I'll leave it others to judge our exchange.

I'm going outside to converse with a lamp post.

ROFL: "I'm going outside to converse with a lamp post."

deleted duplicate post

Not what I'm coming up with.

Energy in a kg of uranium in LWR=3456000 MJ
Energy in a kg of gasoline=46.9 MJ
Therefore there is 73688 times more energy in uranium than an equal weight of gasoline.

If you go with a breeder reactor (of which there is one commercial breeder plant operating right now in the world) it would be 511,722 times more.

Just goes to show how much upside we have remaining in current commercial nuclear technology and how wasteful our long practice of once-through nuclear fuel cycles are. Just going to fuel reprocessing will make a huge improvement there.

Your figure for energy in a kg of uranium in a LWR is called "burnup." We constantly strive to increase that.

Of course, some of that inefficiency is the neutrinos that carry away a bit of the fission energy. No one has a clue as to how to capture that.

There must be some measure of the energy content of Uranium that is independant of how the fuel is used. You get 74k times the energy of oil in the once through LWR but that does not mean that the spent fuel no longer contains any potential energy. Same is true of today's breeders.

burning Uranium has a poor EROEI.

Only according to anti nuclear activists. As you know, there are two sets of completely incompatible numbers to do with everything important about nuclear. Actual measurements show nuclear power plants have EROEIs of between 60 and 100.

Check out energy density in Wikipedia. The 2,000,000 factor comparing Uranium and oil, is, in fact a bit low, I think. It compares the fission potential of the U235 in natural Uranium in a once through light water reactor. I do not think it counts the energy that can be recovered from the U238 in other fuel cycles.

Edit: Oops, looking at it more closely myself, let me amend that to U235 has 2,000,000 times the energy density of oil. Natural Uranium has somewhere around 500,000 times the energy density of oil in a breeder reactor. But I am not convince that the latter uses all the energy in the Uranium.

And yet, oddly enough, we have to subsidize nuclear power...why do you suppose that is? As you describe it, nuclear power is like a license to print money. Strange how rare new reactors are these days.

I think we need to provide loan guarantees because the payback is longer term than the financiers are willing to accept. But this is a vital national security issue. Right now we make nuclear pay for all its externalities (safety, waste disposal, etc.) while we do not require that of coal and other alternatives. And we insist on a safety record for nuclear that far exceed any other source. In spite of that, nuclear is still very competitive. With coal peaking in 2022 and likely to be phased out due to its waste issues even if it does not (we seem not to care about the tens of thousands of deaths it causes each year compared to 0 for nuclear), then nuclear becomes the obvious alternative. Unless we wants to pay a lot more money for an alternatives based system that will not work as well.

The only justification I can offer for nuclear production guarentees is that any private investment will be held hostage to future legal and political actions. Once you've sunk billions into a new nuke, there's no getting it back except from selling electricity.

Government is the risk here and government provide some financial assurance that it won't muck up a good thing is the second best solution. The best solution would be no licensing risk but that's impossible in our system of government.

any private investment will be held hostage to future legal and political actions.

The terms the soverign offers businesses these days are subject to change at any time already.

Thus, such a 'justification' is bunk on the face of it.
(Executive order 11921 VS the Steel seizure case of '52 and EO 10995-11005 + EO 11051)

The best solution would be no licensing risk

And when Corporations have a track record of good behavior, your 'wish' would have a chance of happening.

Given the bad behaviour of firms of all types, the solution was regulation.

Regulators that work for the corporations.

You obviously have never had to deal with the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

burning Uranium has a poor EROEI.

Only according to anti nuclear activists.

No. UO2's exothermic production of heat does not at all cover the energy used to refine it.

Then how do these power plants measure EROEIs for all inputs of 60 to 100?

7. (Chem.) To cause to combine with oxygen or other active agent, with evolution of heat; to consume; to oxidize; as, a man burns a certain amount of carbon at each respiration; to burn iron in oxygen.

U + O2 -> UO2


When one 'compares' the 'energy' of U under fission to oil under oxidation, one is not comparing the same reactions.

In the same way *I* can take oil and extract its energy with nothing more than a steel/flint, match, magnifying glass, or any other way of heating the oil to the flashpoint.

(I can even grow plants, harvest fat from the dead animals, or harvest bee wax to obtain 'oil' in various states. I can not do these things with Uranium or any other fission/fusion schemes)

There is no way *I* can 'extract' the 'energy' of Uranium as claimed. Not to mention if one applied the same idea to oil as to Uranium (the ripping apart of nuclear material), the 2,000,000 times more 'energy' claim would be bunk.

Not the same.

Then how do these power plants measure EROEIs for all inputs of 60 to 100?

Proof? As in do you have some?

When one 'compares' the 'energy' of U under fission to oil under oxidation, one is not comparing the same reactions.

But by the time this energy gets to the point of conversion to work in a steam turbine, they are remarkably similar and the comparison is very apt.

Not to mention if one applied the same idea to oil as to Uranium (the ripping apart of nuclear material), the 2,000,000 times more 'energy' claim would be bunk.

If you look at the curve of binding energy per nucleon you'll find that it takes enormous amounts of energy to rip carbon atoms or hydrogen atoms apart. What you need is a fusion reactor to put them together.

Proof? As in do you have some?

I'll do you one better. Here's the EPD for Ringhals and Forsmark:

No. UO2's exothermic production of heat does not at all cover the energy used to refine it.

One wonders how France manages to get 80% of their electricity from nuclear while having the lowest electricity prices in Europe then. Strange thing.

If you actually measure the energy inputs from say a very low or grade mine like Rossing (300ppm) and compare it to the uranium produced by nuclear power plants, you'll find somewhat different figures:

The Rossing mine produced 3037 tonnes of Uranium in 2004, which is sufficient for 15 GigaWatt-years of electricity with current reactors. The energy used to mine and mill this Uranium was about 3% of a GigaWatt-year. Thus the energy produced is about 500 times more than the energy required to operate the mine.

Or you can play semantic games with burning meaning oxidation or fission, which is just stupid.

Yep. This is why I postulated 'rationland'. Very soon into the decline, no matter what the rate, governments are going to have to implement rationing and allocations. They can't allow the market to determine who gets it, since food production gets hit early and they can't stand the riots.

So governments, looking at the interconnected nature of our society, determining who gets supplies? My guess is a good 50% of supply will be allocated in some way to 'essential uses'. That means the full impact of declines fall on the 'non essential' part - doubling the effective decline rate for them.

That's why I think your next car is your last and when coupled with 'exportland' and the other multiplier effects we'll hit an effective zero for the man in the street much faster than anyone is expecting.

Rations are required, but they will also make more certain the collapse of society. A nice paradox.

I think you are right. Governments are likely to turn to rationing to prevent riots, and 50% or more of oil will go to essential services.

The problem is likely to be whether the full supply chains of essential services have been properly identified. If there are people in the supply chain for, say, coal, that have been overlooked, this could have an adverse impact on electric production. The same thing is true for natural gas.

It's another reason for them to go rationing early. That way they get to iron out the kinks (as they see them) and ensure they have caught all the 'essentials'.

My guess is something like 'red diesel' in the UK, a special supply at a constrained price with a marker for tracking purposes. Everyone else fights over what's left at full, taxed, price. Obviously the UK has more scope to contain the price by changing the tax level - all the way up to $9 a gallon in US terms.

The problem is the combined effect. Even taking a constrained decline rate of 3.5% post peak, 'exportland' roughly doubles the decline rate for importing countries, and 'rationland' doubles it again to 14% for the general populous (it actually accelerates past that). That's sufficient to zero 'non-essential' uses in 10 years and half them in 5 years. That's far too fast for society to catch up with.

If 'exportland' is enough to make general decline rates a significant threat, then 'rationland' is the killing blow for a functioning society.

BTW you did know the UK has a plan for fuel rationing, drawn up after the fuel protest in 2000. They also have a group responsible for keeping it up to date. My guess is the US Homeland Security lot will have at least copied it.

The problem is likely to be whether the full supply chains of essential services have been properly identified.

The hierarchy of priorities that I've seen - in the case of Maine - is very short term oriented. Guns get first priority. Morgues are up high on the list. It would not keep an economy going and it would not help get it restarted in a different way. [This from memory - it's been at least a year since I looked at it.] And that's assuming a state-black-market didn't spring up almost immediately. Where the state has lost legitimacy I can see that happening right away.

The supply chain of essential services will be different depending on the amount of cut back. It's a triage scenario. Which is why state EMAs belong under the direction of public health visionaries like Bednarz or Montague, not under rabid military authoritarians. Think about who gets to make and enforce triage decisions in your community. The American military is about the worst possible choice. Hello New Orleans?

cfm in Gray, ME

So what's the solution??!
This doesn't seem like it is an urgent problem that we will have to deal with in this generation. I'd imagine by that time alternative energies will have taken over much of the energy supply including Mr. Pickens natural gas. I think we are slowly making the first steps of getting rid of our reliance on oil...

The solution for those who survive the great collapse will be small scale (2-4 kW) distributed solar arrays with battery back-ups.

Who is going to make the arrays and batteries? It's not like this is widely distributed technical knowledge. And the resources that go into them are not exactly readily available without substantial processing.

imho electricity shortage is more likely to happen because people would try to replace fossil fuel powered transport by electric transport. also electricity would be used more for heating. electricity shortage is quite different from oil shortage, 1% oil shortage means higher price, 1% electricity shortage means that grid is down and nobody has any electricity. electricity production capacity is more limited my power grids ability to carry it to consumers than by powerplants ability to generate it. adding a generator or two is an easy task compared to upgrading thousands of kilometers of power grid.

Outside of one chart showing the fuel percentages used in direct generation of electricity your post is lacking in the most important numbers, i.e. the amount of liquid fuels used by the electric power chain. Any look at history will show that the electric power industry preceded the automobile industry by decades. For the most part coal fired steam engines were used to build and then fuel the early electric power industry. Steam engines were used to mine the coal and steam engines transported the coal and steam engines built the electric power plants. Steam engines also transported the food for all the workers. Lard was and still is a good lubricant for steam engines if you thought the lack of lube was a barrier. When we look at what was done in the 19th century then what could be done in the 21st century becomes obvious.
The financial limitations are also the least of the problems we face. Another look at history shows how the financial problems of the 1930s were no barrier to all the goods manufactured by all sides during WWII.
Another look at history shows that early diesel engines were sold with a coal gasifier system because oil was scarce and expensive.
Making biodiesel is much more energy efficient than making ethanol so making enough fuel for essential services can and will happen.

the notion that we cant mine and transport coal without oil is really quite funny considering that for a very long time before ICE motors even existed all mining and rail transportation was done by coal powered steam engines. There is no reason we couldnt go back to that.
In Germany during WWII people even run their cars on wood gasification engines, constructing these engines in a very difficult wartime environment, so it shure can be done if there is no other way. Definitely beats dying if you ask me :)

And Germany lost as I recall.

Are you suggesting that converting the industrialized world back to coal is a solution? Given coal's lower energy content and the presence of an extra 4.5 billion people. Oil "bootstraps" coal production.

There is no reason we couldn't go back to that.

I can think of several reasons just off hand. You are aware that the coal your grandfather used is gone? High-grade, easily accessible coal deposits are but a memory. Anthracite? Ha! You can find more in mineral collections than in the ground. What do you know about mining? Generally, as the grade or quality of a deposit declines, more energy must be used to recover the mineral.

I wonder how many billions have to die to return to a coal-driven world.

ROFL: "And Germany lost as I recall".

I think Germany didnt primarily lose because of privately used wood gasification motors :-)

Please dont understand me wrong: i certainly dont suggest we should go back to steam engines.
Gails original post said, among other things, that once we dont have enough oil we will not be able to mine coal, transport it and thus not be able to maintain elctricity. This is nonsense. However, even in the case there suddenly was zero diesel available, we shouldnt go back steam engines - that would be silly, as we have far better technology now - but rather to electric rail and electric machinery.
Look at this picture: This is an electric dragline that mines coal in a very easy to access surface mine a 100km from where I live. The coal fired power plant is 10km away, so with the coal the dragline produces the power plant can always generate more then enough electricity to keep the dragline running. The transportation of the coal is on giant electric conveyor belts too, so apart from the engine grease and the cars used to drive the workers around the mine, it works completely without oil. So this coal mine completely bootstraps itself! And basically half of east germany sits on top of coal deposits like this, so its not like " the coal your grandfather used is gone?". Until last year, when i switched to wood waste bricks for environmental reasons, i was still heating with that very coal.
"What do you know about mining?" Well, I worked in that mine were I took these pictures, maintaining the dragline.

"Are you suggesting that converting the industrialized world back to coal is a solution? "
Certainly not!
I am suggesting two things: First, the world is not gonna end even though we run out of oil. Coal, while dirty, can produce electricity and heat without much oil input.

Second, i would suggest that we focus on creating an infrastructure of renewable energy, a grid that can handle this, and generally cover any shortfalls through prudent conservation.

"I wonder how many billions have to die to return to a coal-driven world."
Unfortunately, we still are in a very much "coal-driven world" when it comes to electricity. China builds several coal fire power plants per week, no one is dying yet.

The coal fired power plant is 10km away, so with the coal the dragline produces the power plant can always generate more then enough electricity to keep the dragline running. The transportation of the coal is on giant electric conveyor belts too, so apart from the engine grease and the cars used to drive the workers around the mine, it works completely without oil. So this coal mine completely bootstraps itself!

You argue from the specific to the general. Yes, your coal mine exists and operates in this fashion; does that mean that this solution is generally applicable? Indeed, does it really bootstrap itself? Was the conveyor belting made from coal-supplied chemicals? Were a thousand other essential products made from the coal you mine? Probably not. I am not saying that it would be impossible to use coal, but entire industries would need to be fundamentally altered at a time of tight and diminishing capital.

Yes, electric mining equipment is wonderful and not uncommon; I have made this very point on other TOD discussions. Barrick Goldstrike used overhead trolley electric power (supplied by coal-fired utility power) for haulpacs coming up the main ramp out of the pit and along the main haul road to the dump. This saves Barrick about $.30/Kwh since the haulpacs are diesel/electric anyway.

However you are underestimating the challenge. Draglines are very large and capital intensive and only useful where the scale of the deposit supports the expenditure. Was all of the waste development at your mine done by dragline? Are smaller deposits in your area able to use this system? Also, deposit geometry plays a big part in what equipment mix you can use. If you have a large, shallow and generally flat lying coal seam you might select different equipment from an operator with steeply dipping bedding and folding or faulting adding complications. The capital expenditures for electrifying all aspects of a mining operation are daunting, especially if the mine life is short and the focus of operation is constantly shifting.

Indeed, at least in the US, most underground mining is done with diesel equipment. Could electric equipment be developed or deployed? Sure, but how will this be paid for? Consider especially that you are proposing significant or even massive spending at a time when capital is becoming increasingly difficult to borrow. Where does the money to revamp the entire US(not to mention global) mining fleet come from. Heck, forget the money, where does the industrial capacity come from? We already have multi-year delays on equipment orders and this during only a modest "rush".

Consider this as well; Germany has a total area of 357,021 km2. I work in Nevada, just one of fifty states, and not the biggest by far. Nevada is 286,367 km2, 80% the size of Germany. Nevada's population is somewhat less than Germany's as well.

And I rather doubt that the coal quality is unchanged from your grandfather's day...that certainly is not generally true here in the US. Despite your experience, there is not usually a coal-fired power plant immediately next to every mine.

Unfortunately, we still are in a very much "coal-driven world" when it comes to electricity.

This is true, but have you wondered why oil displaced coal in the first place? Why has coal be relegated to thermal uses? Mostly because that is all it is good for. CTL may not have caused Germany to lose WWII, but the inability of Germany to access oil certainly gets mentioned as a causative factor.

Looking forward to your response. (And don't even get me started about wood gas!)

Oil wasnt relegated to thermal uses. It is the main source of electricity generation worldwide and was never displaced from that.(I am not talking about transportation here.) Coal for thermal uses is actually really bad because of all the dirty toxic fumes and not really used anymore. I only have this still because thats what makes my apartment cheap and keeps the heating bill low and predictable. If i had money I'd build myself a house that doesnt need heating :).

"You argue from the specific to the general."
Well, I was just trying to provide an example of what is possible. Diesel gets used because its just so much more convenient in mobile usages, but if its not available, you run a cable and a rail track to the mine and you can do without it.

"And I rather doubt that the coal quality is unchanged from your grandfather's day...that certainly is not generally true here in the US. Despite your experience, there is not usually a coal-fired power plant immediately next to every mine."
The power plant is so close to the mine because the coal is actually of incredibly bad quality. It is lignite, which is half water, so it would be indeed uneconomical to drive around. Sending the electricity around instead of the coal guarantees higher EROI. The coal was always that bad in my part of germany, thats just geology. The reason we have this efficent electric mining system is that all this was constructed in communist east germany, when we had just a small fraction of oil avaible compared to what gets used now. East Germany was intensely resource constricted - brown coal was pretty much all we had -, so because this was so, not despite it, we developed systems that were not wasteful.

"Where does the money to revamp the entire US(not to mention global) mining fleet come from."
What about slashing the Military Budget? It is now bigger then that of the rest of the world combined!
What about withdrawing from Iraq and invest the money saved into an energy crash program? Thats up to an estimated 1 trillion saved ( Cost of Iraq war could surpass $1 trillion)
What about having the military-industrial-complex retool to produce energy infrastructure instead of war equipment?

Of course America seems to be chosing to spend all its money meddling in other countries affairs and let its own infrastructure rot away, but do you want suggest this necessarily has to be like that?

"Consider this as well; Germany has a total area of 357,021 km2. I work in Nevada, just one of fifty states, and not the biggest by far. Nevada is 286,367 km2, 80% the size of Germany. Nevada's population is somewhat less than Germany's as well."
Well, Sweden, which has population density figures more comparable to nevada, recently decided to not use any oil by 2020. In Germany the argument goes that they can do this (and we not), precisely because of their lower pop density.
Nevada, f.i.,would make a terrific location for the installation of concentrated solar power. This is far cheaper than PV and as low tech as a steam turbine, which it pretty much is really. This wouldnt work in Northern Europe because its usually cold, overcast and rainy :(
Also I am far from suggesting that every place in America will survive PO. Las Vegas seems to be build entirely on the paradigm of really cheap travel. As soon as air travel becomes expensive, it will shrink, if long distance car driving becomes uneconomic, it will turn into a ghost town possibly. Building megacities in the desert migh not work for long. That means people will have to move to more hospitable places, so what?


I must have misunderstood the direction of all of your posts in reply to Gail's essay. It seemed to me that you were implying that the problems the US faces were of little concern, and that modest changes would make everything alright.

Now I understand that you are proposing to completely reorient the military-industrial complex, divert the military's budget to civilian purposes and abandon the metropolitan areas of the desert southwest.

I guess we agree after all; we both think that the United States must undergo massive changes if it hopes to forestall collapse. The only area we may still disagree about, concerns the likelihood that these essential changes will be made in time. I am thinking about snowballs melting on the hinges of the gates to hell; but then my German friends accuse me of "Russian" pessimism.

Incidentally, about 27.5 million people live in the desert southwest of California, Nevada and Arizona. When the occupants of those desert megacities are forced to relocate, the remainder of America will have to resettle the equivalent of one third of Germany's total population. That's a lot of people on the couch.

All joking aside, your prescription for solving the US's problems strikes me as essentially correct. We do need to stop meddling in others affairs and cease spending so much money on our outsized, ney bloated military. I just don't think this will happen in any meaningful way or time. You might consider the effects of our our proposed decreased military spending on Germany's own military budget though. Russia is much closer to you than to me, and like it or not, Europe is moving into the Russian sphere of influence based on proximity and commercial relationships.

On another note, the fact that your electric mining equipment was bought by East Germany does not surprise me. Communist governments often look at economic decisions with a different perspective than capitalist corporations. It seems that East Germany made a wise choice in your case. Here, we might have chosen to maximize IRR over the short term at the expense of long term efficiency as the cost of borrowed capital must be born upfront. This is one of the weaknesses of private capital vs government spending...assuming the private capital doesn't already control the government!


your last sentence is so true: I think the heart of the problem is that private capital is largely controlling the US government. The way the american election system works, only very rich people get elected or those that get a lot of donations. That means elected officials are effectively sponsored by private corporations. I wrote my masters thesis about intellectual property laws, and therefore had to research how american IP laws get designed. It turned out they all get written by commitees that consist of the interested industries (i.e. the RIAA,MPAA etc.), then introduced into senate by senators that are friends with these industries and later become law very much unchanged. I found this incredible. Looking at decisions in energy and military, it doesnt seem to work any different (think biofuel from corn ethanol...). The US seems to me very much a democracy hijacked by corporate interests. How long the american people will let that continue to happen, I dont know. But people tend to ignore such things only as long as their personal life is comfortable. Already now the comfort disintegrates for millions of americans (those affected by foreclosures, those that cant afford their long commutes anymore etc.), so people sure will wake up. What they will do then, I dont know either.

I totally beleive America, and the rest of the world will have to change fundamentally. My whole argument is, if we do it smart, we can do so without the systems collapsing. If, on the other hand, the US were to bomb Iran, then decide they need to occupy Saudi Arabia too to produce more oil, the end of the world as we know it could be two weeks from now. What gives me hope in this is that the project of occupying Iraq to control its oil has failed so spectactularly that the neconservative project now seems to be discredited even in america. If we (the west) unfortunately cant even defend Georgia anymore, waging wars for oil seems more and more unviable. So whats the next option? Conservation!

"The only area we may still disagree about, concerns the likelihood that these essential changes will be made in time."
They will probably not be made in time, but then better late then never. Growing up in a severely resource constricted society that was governned extremely stupid taught me how much can be improvised, how resilient people are in the face of adversity. Look at this picture at how many people can be transported in one small russian car in an emergency (in Georgia right now):

Osama Bin Laden attacked America because the army of the "infidels", the americans in this case, were stationed in his "holy land" (Saudi Arabia} following Gulf War I. If we stop bothering them, they'd go back to the sunni vs. shiite clashes that they traditionally do since 800 years.

You mean, like the attempt to take over Europe which only stopped at the second defeat at Vienna in 1683?

The jihad imperative in Islam is not just for the Arabian peninsula; it is against all infidels (like Buddhists in Thailand and animists in Africa) for all time, and open warfare is only one of its means.  Buying oil has to be seen as giving aid and comfort to the enemy in a time of war, because that's exactly what it is.


I went a bit over the top with that comment maybe, but besides the turks attacking vienna the crusaders went to capture Jerusalem several times, and there was an abundance of holy wars between christians too. I think its too easy to just blame the muslims, throughout our history we werent any better than them. But sending piles of money to dictatorial regimes is not a good idea at all of courses, no matter whats their religion/nationality/favourite sport/whatever.

Thanks for all your comments.

One issue is the current US financial problems, and its relationship to what will happen in the future. Besides the problems with the government that you mention, there seems to be a lack of awareness of the connection between spending and taxes. Every problem is solved by more spending, and plans to cut taxes further. This just digs the US deeper into financial difficulty.

You probably saw the article in August 13 drumbeat about OPEC wanting to dump the dollar. If this is true, our financial problems may take a sudden turn for the worse.

One question I have is how effective the government will be at adapting to financial stress. In 1991, the Soviet Union effectively disintegrated into its component states. Is there any chance this will happen in the US? It would give the US in a much reduced ability to respond.

Also, one of the reasons that businesses have so much control over the government is because the government tends to be staffed by people with very much less expertise (and very much lower salaries) than those in business. I doubt that these government folks will be able to spearhead any effort going forward.

The US disintegrating is an interesting question. I'd find that unlikely anytime soon, but certainly nothing is impossible. Given the demographic development, southern california might be mexican again someday.
But you have to see that the Soviet Union was a state founded on and kept together by intense violence, and suppression of minorities. It is not surprising they ran away at the first possibility. The curious thing is, however, that it was Russia itself that finshed the USSR by declaring its independence.
America is much more homogenous, it is one nation, not an assembly of peoples imprisoned into the same cage and it was founded by a voluntary agreement. That is a much more stable basis for living together. But, one a more joking note, when you look at an electoral map and see the difference between the coastal societies and the conservative states in the bible belt, one wonders, if America wouldnt be a more functional country if it would split in a progressive and a conservative half :-)

"there seems to be a lack of awareness of the connection between spending and taxes."
It is my understanding that this is mostly due to the neocon ideologues in power beeing professionally blind to this connection. Their ideology says less taxes creates more spending, better economy, thereofere lowering taxes equals more tax income in the end! Few other governments believe this.
America had a mighty impressive budget surplus under Clinton. While you might not get back to that soon, I certainly do hope the next government will not be quite as catastrophic as the current on this and several other issues.

Well, a Russia controlled by criminal structures made fat and powerful by oil and gas profits is certainly a problem. But they have no interest in attacking us as long as we buy all our gas from them...

I will leave off the rest of your post, but it strikes me that this is a pretty ahistorical way of thinking. Do you really believe that? The history of Europe does not support that logic very well. Consider the Hanseatic League. Or the destruction of the 30 Years War...large commercial connections between Austria and the Germanies were completely disregarded as were the commercial interests of Sweden in the German principalities.

Russia can hold you hostage over oil and natural gas; what make you think they will be satisfied with just your money. I can already see Russia using its energy leverage to affect policies in the FSU and former Warsaw Pact countries. And I am no raging anti-communist obsessed with Evil Russia; more a follower of Realpolitik. (Favorite quote: "Austria will astound the world with the magnitude of her ingratitude." - Felix zu Schwarzenburg)

What do these governments do with this money - they buy arms of course. We pay their armament!

A believe Lenin said it best:

“The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”
- Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov

Good luck with that!


what i wrote there wasnt meant completely serious, but the fact that Russia is again such a bold actor in geopolitics is mostly due to the fact that they are now flush in oil and gas money. So I think supplying the people who run Russia with all that money is the biggest threat to security of europe and any other neighbor of russia. Scarier than the military threat is to me that they now want to buy (energy infrastructure!) assets in europe with that money. Therefore I argue that investing more in an infrastructure of renewable energy that can be produced locally/regionally and decentralized is a better guarantee for our safety then getting in an arms race with somebody who you keep sending billions he then can use to buy arms. In this way we actually would have a decision were we send our money. Russia is such an ineffective country, that without the money from the resource boom they are not that big of a threat to anyone but their direct neighbors (think how it was in the nineties).
"Russia can hold you hostage over oil and natural gas"
Thats what I mean - military power doesnt change that! Becoming indepedent of their gas would be the only thing that helps. Besides, it seems they already hold us hostage over the gas, as few european government officials really confront Russia over the various things that go wrong there (like Chechnya...).

If Diesel engines are used underground then the ventilation costs must be huge. It is my understanding that Underground mining equipment used either electricity and/or compressed air. Perhaps diesel engines on the surface drive the generators and air compressors.

Good point.

Good point.

Not really.

MSHA has pretty good rules for ventilation and diesel fumes are only part of it. Here is a link to the new diesel particulate rules for metal and non-metal underground ventilation

  • Consider that the geothermal gradient is pretty steep in many mining areas and cooling and moisture mitigation are also considerations...if it is 117 degrees and 100 humidity at the working face, and you have inadequate ventilation, diesel fumes will kill you way after you are already dead from heat prostration.

    Diesel is the prime mover of choice underground and yes, ventilation is a major cost. I know of no north American underground operation that uses compressed gas, and electric is only used in certain, rare circumstances.

    Every underground operation I have ever worked in was diesel, from the jumbos to LHDs to the kuboda tractor and the geologist's ford truck...I have never seen an electric LHD or jumbo...the may exist, but not in my experience.


    bravo gail for taking this on.

    electricity is the basis for our[US] civil life; & the connecting of the dots u make to petroleum seem to me to be generally plausible.

    another factor re petroleum , though we on the oildrum sometimes leave out, is the geopolitical & social factors. these generally don't quantify. u do focus on the financial/social issues some & seem to give our inability to import a heavy weighted factor; i agree. i think though geopolitical & social[unrest] generally will also be very powerful factors; & i guess the 20% drop in petroleum is a way of including them.

    our adapting pattern so far with limited oil is to use our military; iraq being our blatant example.neither presidential candidate seems inclined otherwise given the foreign relations advisor obama has: Brezenski. military interventions is also a means of distracting from financial problems or oil shortages & the associated social problems.

    social/financial problems will lead to grid degradation quickly for rural areas. copper & other metals are of such value that without some smart punishment & inability to sell scrap readily the lines will frequently be stolen.

    cities will generally collapse w/o electricity [i almost said power-shows how ubiquitous it is].

    cities with a hydro or other local electricity source may have water & very basic services.

    u say we need to aim for what we can sustain, & not higher. i have concluded in the longer term [30 yrs. or so]that means essentially no electricity; in the transition i'll shoot for flexibility with regards to electricity & even mobility [ which complicates everything immensely].

    thanks for u'r work.

    Jeff Vail will be doing a post on geopolitical issues tomorrow, I understand.

    One-tenth of America’s electricity comes from fuel made from Russian nuclear warheads. The Megatons to Megawatts program converts highly-enriched uranium in Russian weapons into low-enriched uranium that is used in US civilian nuclear power reactors.

    Russia has shown reluctance to part with it and if a worldwide energy crisis is triggered expect the worst from them regarding honoring and extending uranium supply contracts.

    Euro's post sure rings true with the news coming out of that part of the world today. We have spent decades with a government making decisions to export our energy security to the middle east. Now they have moved it into the hands of our "friends" the Russians.

    Excellent article, but I'm surprised that more wasn't said about the widespread and ongoing electrical outages that are already occurring in many parts of the world. I've seen estimates that as many as half of the worlds countries are currently experiencing electrical outages of various scope and severity.

    Much of this article had the tone of speculation, very well reasoned speculation, but nonetheless it would have benefited greatly from an analysis of what is already occurring in the world as many countries grapple with electrical shortages from a wide variety of causes, political, logistic, and economic.

    For example, the first thing that many people (and institutions) are doing when a blackout hits, for whatever reason, is fire up the diesel generator thus creating a direct and widespread impact on oil supplies.


    There are so many people who believe that electricity will always be there for them that one can't go too far in an article. Electric outages are scary. It is bad when Associated Press is putting out articles talking about the problems with electricity. This is from an article in today's paper:

    Excess capacity in the system is shrinking. Construction and plans for new plants have slowed as costs to build and operate them have soared.

    At the same time, it is estimated that electricity use will increase 29 percent between 2006 and 2030 —- much of it driven by residential growth, according to a government report issued in June.

    "I'm really not a Chicken Little player, but I worry that no one seems to be focusing in on this," said Michael Morris, chairman, president and chief executive of American Electric Power, which runs the nation's largest electricity transmission system.

    Morris said massive outages this year in South Africa, which forced gold, diamond and platinum mines to stop production for five days, should serve as a warning to the United States.

    Industry experts back Morris and say there is even more resistance to building new plants because of the debate over climate change and opposition to new transmission lines.

    But Morris fears that in 10 to 20 years there may be greater blackouts as demand surpasses supply.

    Some of you may have missed this part in a comment by cjwirth above:

    Power failures could also result from the residential use of electric stoves and space heaters when there are shortages of oil and natural gas for home heating. This would overload the power grid, causing its failure.

    I think this is important, at least in colder parts of the world (e.g., NE US). One can think of this as another way, not mentioned by Gail, in which fuel-switching, induced by oil scarcity, affects the electricity situation. And as another comment above said, an increase in demand has the same effects as a decrease in supply, and in the case of electricity, a shortfall means blackouts, i.e., everybody loses. I see this scenario as the most immediate one to impact us, as soon as this coming winter. Right now, here in Vermont, electricity is (due to old fixed-price contracts) cheaper, per BTU, than oil, propane, or kerosene. This distortion of the market may prove fatal.

    Right now, here in Vermont, electricity is (due to old fixed-price contracts) cheaper, per BTU, than oil, propane, or kerosene.

    You forgot the biggest factor:  the 500 megawatt BWR, Vermont Yankee.  It soldiered through a recent winter at 100.0% capacity factor, no thanks to the soi-disant greens.

    Right now to the north of you, a bunch of people are regretting the decision to shut down Maine Yankee.

    I don't know why you said I "forgot" about the nuke plant. Yes it still provides about 1/3 of Vermont's electricity. Yes many people here want to shut it down. (Personally I am neutral on it.) I don't know where those who want it shut down think they'll get their power from, or how much power they are wasting (or not). I did not want to get into that debate here.

    When the current contracts run out, if a new contract is signed, electricity from the nuke plant will probably be far more expensive than it is now, given the setting within the New England market which is dominated by the price of natural gas. If no contract, even more expensive. If the nuke plant is shut down (no license extension, current license runs out in 2012 IIRC) then New England as whole will lose about 600 MW, which may or may not be made up by buying more power from Hydro Quebec. In any case, all this has no bearing on whether we have rolling blackouts this coming winter.

    Autodidact mentioned earlier above that "According to the 2000 census there are approx. 25 million households in the US with people over 65."

    This opens up an intriguing solution for us to buy a few more years time to react to the impacts of declining oil. I'll not quote statistics, rather I'll open up some ideas for discussion.

    Three generation households used to be the norm, and for good reason. They are much more energy efficient and cost effective than single or double generation households. When times get tough, and we all agree they will, the only debate being how fast and how bad, families will pull together to support each other. By combining multiple generations of people together in a single dwelling, there are immediate and substantial, long term energy savings. But, with some dire financial repercussions for businesses and the tax base of towns and cities.

    1. New housing construction will plummet.

    2. Large appliance sales will plummet.

    3. Furniture sales will plummet.

    4. New vehicle sales will plummet.

    5. Vacant houses don't pay property taxes.

    6. People will walk away from their mortgages when the housing market collapses and they can't sell their homes they no longer need.

    The good news is the energy required for heating, lighting, and air conditioning will be much lower as the number of households are reduced do to consolidation of families. Miles driven for essentials such as food shopping will be reduced. Miles driven, or miles flown, to visit relatives will be reduced:)

    Take a conservative number of say 5 million out of 25 million households of people over 65 merging together with their families into a single home and the impact on the economy and energy consumption is huge. The worse the economy gets, the faster the family consolidations will be. Who knew we would need those Mac Mansions after all to have enough room for mom and dad and maybe a sister or brother or two:)

    Gail wrote: "We should be thinking about raising more draft animals ..."

    More of an issue than the availability of draft animals is the availability of competent people to train and work with them.

    There are folks maintaining this option for use on the small farm. Check out the video:

    I think the bigger problem is the scarcity of horse drawn implements like mowers, harvesters, seed drills and hay balers. You can always mail order harness from the Amish and make shoes from steel bar, but not necessarily repair an antiquated horse drawn hay baler. I bred a number of foals by putting thoroughbred mares to draft horse stallions and they went to good homes. Some were broken to harness and could pull a mouldboard plow or a wagon. I rode these big horses in the hunt club for a few years until that social scene went into decline, probably triggered by high fuel prices.

    That was fun and games. However for serious farming you couldn't tow a modern spray boom behind a horse team. My conclusion is that we should now think about running tractors on compressed natural gas and keep the implements that are in common use. Forget draft horses.

    When you wrote "serious farming", did you mean "large-scale" farming? If so, you are correct, no one is going to pull a 12+ row implement with oxen or horses. If "serious farming" includes small-scale, more closed-loop systems, then you might want to take a look at the following links. There are companies quietly manufacturing and selling draft animal forecarts with power-take-off engines of up to 72 hp. These can drive any implements that are in common use in that power range: spreaders, balers, combines, etc. These are still fossil fuel dependent, but much less so than a typical tractor, for several reasons.

    Want to see a real life demo? Here's a hay crew that I was on recently (yes, an energy engineer out bucking hay bales) that was using oxen and Belgian drafts. We were using a truck and tractor too as we were short of horses and hands and the forecast was calling for rain:

    "Those who say it can't be done are usually interrupted by others doing it." ~various

    Hello TOD'ers,
    Today is the 5th anniversary of the great north American black out of 2003. A small short on a grid
    wire in Walton Hills Ohio caused a ripple or domino
    effect to cascade a blackout effecting 8 USA states
    and a large portion of Canada.
    Nearly 70 million people were without electricity for
    almost a week.
    The immediate news coverage in the MSM ponted blame
    at Canada.Subsequent MSM information was as simularly
    politically tainted as well. Even 5 years after the fact....much remains to debate...except it was wide
    spred and by all acounts unforseen.
    I cant ask you too trust my above posting of this
    event ...other then to tell you I could whistle out
    my window and the people of Walton Hills would hear me.


    coal fired power plants like to be run at full throttle. even bringing them up & down some [usual procedure at night;lower loads] causes leaks to develop quicker in boiler tubes.

    blackouts are the worse for stressing boilers & it takes some hours to fire them back up.

    at the plant i worked in the 70's we almost always had some leaks[& 2 of 4 boilers were new] & we were looking for ways to schedule the repairs.

    This is one of the poorest posts I have ever seen. Why? Because the author never asks or answers the single most obvious question. That would be

    "How much oil is actually used (directly and indirectly) to generate electricity in the U.S.?"

    Pretty straightforward, at least you would think so.

    If the number is 5 MBD, then peak oil is likely to have a major impact. If the number is 500 KBD, then probably not.

    Some time ago I saw the usual catastrophic predictions about the impact of peak oil on U.S. food production. As a sanity check, I looked actual U.S. energy consumption in agriculture. See "Chapter 5: Energy Use in Agriculture" ( At 1.122 quads, we aren't going to go hungry any time soon.

    Of course, getting to a food store might get challenging...

    However, the bottom line is this. Narrative is no substitute for numbers and the lack of numbers makes this article more than slightly incredible. Perhaps I shouldn't point out that natural gas drilling rigs (mentioned in the article) are used to develop new gas supplies, not produce existing gas... Or that drilling rigs can run on (you guessed it), natural gas...

    Numbers don't replace the fact of limits. Gail is recognizing limits. Narrative is probably the best way to grapple with that - at least at the outset. Look at the numbers in the IPCC report. Useless. Look at the narrative in Monbiot or Lynas or even the Ryanair post a couple up on TOD.

    Part of the cultural blinders we wear is "numbers". $400 Trillion to grid the world with HVDC? Not going to happen. $80 Trillion in derivatives? What's that and how will it put the polar ice cap back in place so we can live? No, it's all spent in making matters worse - in melting the polar ice caps.

    Horizons. Our economic activity has to be brought back to horizons that make sense and on which communities can act.

    If getting to a food store is challenging, you will not want to go there because it will be a breeding ground of sickness. I don't know how to model that. Though some games do - civilization and lincity - so there must be some parameters. Probably 100 parameters taken together.

    We don't really have the model.

    cfm in Gray, ME

    We are dealing with a lot of problems-- a grid that is near its limit now, and that we don't have a good method in place of upgrading; long supply lines for fuels of all types that are easily interrupted; and more demand switching into electricity at the same time that fuels used for electricity are in increasing demand for other purposes.

    Your question gets at only a tiny part of the problem. At this point, we have industry electricity leaders making the same kind of forecast I am, without even considering the impact of peak oil. I don't think I am being too pessimistic.

    Your post suggests a surprising lack of understanding of interconnectedness.

    Since the author failed to provide any numbers, let me try. A reasonable guess is that moving coal by rail accounts for the largest share of oil usage for power production. Of course, I am excluding direct oil consumption in this analysis. Presumably, Hawaii will have to switch to imported coal, LNG, wind, or geothermal.

    According to the Federal Government, U.S. railroads consumed around 90 million barrels of fuel in 2003 (see Based on freight statistics, coal probably accounts for 50% of railroad fuel usage, or 45 million barrels. That is 123 KBD. I would guess that the decline in U.S. gasoline consumption over the last few months is considerably greater...

    Here is another way of looking at this. Moving one ton of coal from mine to power plant probably takes 2-3 gallons of fuel (say Wyoming to Texas). Given the amount of power produced by a ton of coal, oil isn't likely to be a constraint on coal-fired power any time soon.

    Now, as stated above railroad diesel is probably the single largest use of oil to produce power in the U.S. Of course, it isn't the only use. However, even if you double or triple the numbers the lights won't be going off any time soon.

    This is an interesting post, but it was not what I expected when I began to read it. A sudden drop in oil supplies of 20% would no doubt be disruptive. Probably a Force Majeure would be declared. Some decisions would be made to priortize things like keeping the electricity grid open and putting troops on the street to keep order. It would be painful, but adjustments could be made to keep things going. Afterall, if people aren't commuting to work by car then there wouldn't be a petroleum shortage.

    I think what I was expecting was a discussion of converting the source of energy from petroleum to other sources, primarily electricity. I think that this conversion would very likely increase electricity demand by a significant amount.

    The question then becomes where would the additional electric generation and distribution capacity come from? What would need to be done to put it in place? How much power conservation would be necessary to make it work?

    Okay lets try this again. I posted that this is the
    5th anniversary of the great north American blackout.
    I even posted a link for those who doubt it happened.
    Exactly 5 years ago today in a small suburb of Cleveland Ohio,a place called Walton Hills, some tree
    branches came into contact with power lines. The
    subsequent events that followed were wide spred and
    unforseen. Even with the 20/20 vision of hindsight,
    the controversy surrounding this event is enormous.
    To those who poo poo Gails article and try with reckless abandon to admonish those with legitimate
    concerns of P.O. impact on electrical generation...
    however slight...are missing reality altogether.
    When a minor event cascades and causes electrical grid
    failure to nearly 20% of the American population for
    upwards of a weeks cant discount an
    event like PEAK OIL or its impact.
    When historical evidence proves even small factors
    can have huge impacts...its incredulous to propose
    other wise.
    Just because Scotty on classic Startrek always gave
    Kirk more power when asked......doesnt mean thats how
    it works in real life.

    (No Trekkies were harmed in this dramatization)

    I posted that this is the 5th anniversary of the great north American blackout. I even posted a link for those who doubt it happened.

    Some of us lived through it. I was driving through Troy, MI when the traffic lights all went dark.

    Repeating yourself adds nothing to the discussion.

    Poet: Did I jump on you when you posted....?

    "2000 miles from Los Angeles to Houston, that's 30 tons each for truck and train, but 60 vs. 6000 ton-

    I didnt suggest that its only approx 1500 miles between the two cities.I could easily repost all of
    your posts which repeat...but that wouldnt add to the

    (No truckers taking circituitous routes were harmed
    in this dramatization)

    30 x 2000 = 60,000

    30 x 1500 = 45,000

    No third grade students were harmed during this arithmetical correction


    This is a link to an article commemorating the fifth anniversary. These are some quotes from it:

    Excess capacity in the system is shrinking. Construction and plans for new plants have slowed as costs to build and operate them have soared.

    At the same time, it is estimated that electricity use will increase 29 percent between 2006 and 2030 —- much of it driven by residential growth, according to a government report issued in June.

    "I'm really not a Chicken Little player, but I worry that no one seems to be focusing in on this," said Michael Morris, chairman, president and chief executive of American Electric Power, which runs the nation's largest electricity transmission system.

    Morris said massive outages this year in South Africa, which forced gold, diamond and platinum mines to stop production for five days, should serve as a warning to the United States.

    Industry experts back Morris and say there is even more resistance to building new plants because of the debate over climate change and opposition to new transmission lines.

    But Morris fears that in 10 to 20 years there may be greater blackouts as demand surpasses supply.

    The drop in reserve generation and transmission capacity is a consequence of regulatory changes.  These can and probably should be reversed.

    The USA consumes roughly 4 trillion kWh/year.  An extra 1/10¢/kWh tariff would yield $4 billion/year; 1¢ would yield $40 billion.  There may be other investments in demand-management or efficiency which are cheaper than increasing transmission or generation.  Regardless, electricity is cheaper than petroleum for just about everything it can do, and we're bound to see its use expand.  If we get a rational regulatory system which does things like converting HVAC corridors to HVDC at several times the capacity and greater efficiency, a great many of the forecast difficulties will be molehills instead of mountains.

    The drop in reserve generation and transmission capacity is a consequence of a lot of other things besides regulatory changes, or if it is regulatory changes, the "toothpaste is out of the tube", and it is difficult to put back in.

    One of the big reasons for the changes is deregulation. Even where electric power continues to be regulated, there seems to be more of a shift toward a profit motive. Deregulation brought the breakup of the many utilities, and a shift toward trying to buying power from afar. The profit motive pushed companies to spend as little as possible on transmission lines, beyond what was absolutely needed. All of this has made funding new power lines very difficult.

    Another issue has been global warming and the push toward no new coal-fired power plants. This leaves supply tight. Old coal-fired plants are being taken off line because it is not economical to upgrade them to current emission standards. It is difficult to replace this capacity with anything else.

    Nice piece. It would be interesting to continue the local generation line of thought in a couple of directions. Start from your statement "There are likely to be many parts of the country without electricity." Two extensions occur to me: first, "without electricity" is too strong, what you really mean is "very low amounts of electricity per-capita"; and second, which parts of the country are likely to fall into that category if limited to local fuel/energy sources?

    As to the first point, most areas with significant numbers of people have some low-tech hydro and wind potential: a river with enough head to turn a grindstone can generate electricity. Whether it's enough is a completely different matter, and in turn that depends on how many people you're trying to supply with it. I assume that you have the same target that I do: enough people to support some approximation of today's critical services (eg, modern medical care). Since that depends on productivity levels that require a high degree of specialization by workers, there is some minimum number of people living in close proximity that are required. It appears, for example, that it requires at least a couple million people in order to support a teaching hospital.

    That argument seems to imply that we are looking at significant population centers. For purposes of discussion, assume that "local" means within a radius of 250 miles or so. There may be circumstances under which that distance could be stretched; an isolated rich energy resource that can be readily transported might result in such an extension. An example might be an easily mined coalfield that requires only a single rail line, or a massive hydro resource that requires only a single point-to-point transmission line. If really applied, the 250 mile limit might give results that may be quite different from the conventional wisdom about which areas might be able to sustain the desired degree of technology.

    Seattle-Portland is on most people's list because of their hydro (and offshore wind) resources. These are even larger if they can get British Columbia to admit that their interests are regional rather than continental in scope. Houston-New Orleans is not on so many lists, but their natural gas resources are impressive when you only consider local demand. I think a question for that might be supplies of the special piping and such needed for natural gas drilling. I would put the Front Range area of the Rockies on the list, although less than 250 miles from east to west but much longer from north to south -- enormous coal reserves that can be mined with relatively low-tech methods, then wind and solar. They'll have to get serious about water management, but with management there are surprising amounts of water available. St. Louis might make it for a long time on southern Illinois coal. Personally, I think most of the East Coast from Boston to Florida is in serious trouble -- too many people, too few resources.

    Excellent article Gail! Glad I dropped in, been awhile, however I want to support your interest in power and the part it may play in future, any way I can. Just scanning through the posts, there are some old friends here and I'll have to take the time to read the entire tread. I might say, thanks to your last "electrical" article, my memory has been jogged a bit to recall what I learned as a child.

    Ok, I'm going to pop some philosophy on you, to contemplate. If it was, through the use of fossil fuels (ancient sunlight)that has powered our society to become what it is today, what might power it into the future as fossil fuels decline? Of course, the answer to that question would be to utilize the power the sun can provide in the present....Is this even achieveable?

    As of now, according to your breakdown, solar only accounts to about one tenth of one percent that powers this society, correct? I'm suggesting as time wanes, could our society be almost totally powered from the grid? That is electic cars, trains and heavy equipment (farm equipment)powered from the grid in track form (much like a elec. race car set)? If over 40% our our fossil fuel usage is devoted right now to provide electricity, then perhaps we're almost 50% there in this achievement?

    If you would have asked me 35 years ago, what our society might look like today, it's this vision that would have came to mind.

    Thanks, yooper

    I am afraid I am not the science guru here. We will have to leave that question to one of them.

    Hello Gail! Ha! I'm not a scinece guru, either! ha! However, I've been in contact with some of these guys on other treads. In part, I'm going to agree with them, that this (future scenario) is feasible and attainable, even now. Having said that, I really question this as supporting the exsisting population, and unless we can put it all together, well....Perhaps, we should power down now, as opposed to powering up in hopes of by passing the "bottleneck" and not being able to achieve this goal, losing even more people (if this is a worth while goal?)? You have a very strong point at the end of your article... I might add, NONE of these guy's have satisfactory answer to that (that I've seen yet)... I'm going to strongly agree with your thought there, at that point. You know my story and unless things change drastically (I'm not counting this out), I'm sticking to it.. Much more feasible (how sad). Perhaps, people our age will never know.......Btw, I don't think the outcome will be determinded by the science guru's, one way or another...... it was never they're ballgame.

    Thanks, yooper

    Something you might want to ponder:

    Calculate how much e.g. wind and photovoltaic capacity the US and the world would need to replace existing generation at various rates, such as 3%/year and 5%/year.  Next, calculate how much material of various types this would require (steel for turbine towers, silicon for PV cells).

    Compare this to the material used today for consumer goods such as cars, plastic items, etc.

    This will give you a measure of how manageable an energy shift would be.  Note that wind is already about 1% of total US generation and is rising exponentially at upwards of 50%/year.

    Wind is not rising exponentially at 50% a year. It is rising at a little over 20% a year. 2007 production was 32,143,000 megawatt hours; 2006 production was 26,589,000 megawatt hours, an increase 20.9%. In 2007 wind was 0.77% of electricity generation, based on this table. At this rate of increase, in 15 years, production would be 13.25% of US electricity, assuming the US total didn't increase.

    Wind is not rising exponentially at 50% a year. It is rising at a little over 20% a year.

    Depending when the farms come on line, of course.

    1. The EIA figures state that wind generation nearly doubled from 2004 to 2006 (14.1 billion kWh to 26.6 billion kWh), a year-over-year increase of 37%.
    2. Installed wind capacity went from 8.7 GW in 2005 to 15.6 GW in 2007, a year-over-year increase of 34%.  The increase from 2006 to 2007 was 38%.

    I recall reading that the increase from 2006 to 2007 was roughly 6 GW nameplate, which would have been more than a 50% increase.  This appears to have been due to incomplete data, and the revised figures shifted part of that increase to 2005-2006; I stand corrected.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    There are clearly some places that may be able to do reasonably well. The Midwest, with its farmland and hydroelectric plants may do reasonably well. The Gulf coast, with its oil and natural gas may do well, especially if it is able to continue to get food from elsewhere. I would agree that the Boston to Washington DC area is probably way too heavily populated for its resources.

    I am less convinced that modern medical care should be a goal than some other things. Good nutrition (for all) and clean water generally have a much bigger impact on life expectancies than modern health care. We spend a huge amount on health care in this country, with little to show for it. We would be better off modeling some poorer countries, and concentrating on essential services (including a subset of healthcare) that have better payback.

    The question of what we might be possible in the future, and how best to go about doing it, is probably worthy of more research. There is quite a bit now being done in the name of "sustainability," but I doubt that many have given thought as to resource requirements to ensure sustainability. It seems like our results will be better if we do some planning. We may find some steps that we should be doing now, like dredging out streams damned for hydroelectric power, and building factories for transmission wires and transformers.

    What makes Modern Civilisation "modern" is electricity. It was cheap oil that allowed us to get here. It doesn't matter how we produce it or keep the infrastructure in sound shape, without electricity, our "modern" civilisation is finished. No more internet, no more cell phones, and all the gadgets of modernity will fall away. I've read that if New York was to suffer a blackout for 1 week, there would be somewhere about 1 million fatalities. Panic, riots, no medical services (except in a very limited capacity), no refridgeration, no cell phone use(no way to recharge the battery), etc. would have a very catastrophic effect.
    I would urge everyone to read the "Olduvai Gorge Theory" about modern industrial civilisation and it's consequences for the future. The solar carrying capacity of this planet is about 2 to 2.5 billion people; with cheap oil we have gone from 3 billion to 6.5 billion in a hundred years. If oil hits $200/bbl, third world countries will start starving on a scale never seen in human history. I'm sorry for my seeming pessimism, but reality is what it is, and human nature does not change.

    I suppose that there is a possibility that we can find a way around the problem, or that we can isolate the lack of electricity to some less-populated areas. It seems like this is a problem we should be thinking about ahead of time, and doing what we can to try to mitigate the situation.

    The US is in an enviable spot. When a famine comes along who will fare better: a fat person that was used to eating too much a thin person than has no reserves? In the US, we have essentially maximized in every way energy consumption from dishing out drivers licenses at sixteen to one person per car and long commutes, huge houses, lots of plug in stuff, etc. Clearly there is a huge cushion to be used up before hardship entails.

    I would attest that the US, in fact, could be 'energy independent' if the will to do so were there. Shall there be a discussion concerning "peak leadership"?

    The generation numbers on wind power and solar power are still patheticly low when compared to the total 'consumption' but how do they start to look if consumption drops by a factor of 10 which in my mind is very doable via price and an educational campaign. If you can convince someone to buy bottled water you can convince them to do anything.

    This is about the most irresponsible post i've seen here yet. The only ones that come close are the so called experts that graph and model KSA reserves and pronounce them as fact when in reality like eveyone else they are not allowed to see the real data.

    But if the electric goes out for good one of the things I will miss the most is the comment section. My fellow techers and I love to sit and read them, sometimes we even get a pool going and bet on which of the regulars will make the sillest post. Hollywood couldn't come up with this. PRICELESS!!!!!

    It's not peak oil it's peak doom. Get a life.

    So, clearly, you were the winner of that pool today. No?

    Perhaps you could ask your fellow


    to proof read your posts.

    Teachers who can not spell...priceless? Sadly no, they still get paid.

    In the past, food was used for only one purpose: food. Then, our governments forced a second use on food: biofuels. After they did this, our politicians sat back and feigned ignorance as food prices skyrocketed (that tends to happen when you shift the demand curve higher for any good or service - but, hey, our politicians can't be relied on to understand even basic economic theory). I have no doubt that, as we hit peak oil and they start using coal for an addition usage (coal to liquids) and natural gas for an additional use (gas to liquids), that our fearless leaders will once again feign complete and utter ignorance and horrified shock as the price of coal, natural gas and electricity go through the roof....

    I think this is exactly what will happen.

    A little perspective:

    We have already seen unplanned outages in...Winnipeg.

    From the link:

    "The ripple effect has reached Winnipeg. The shortage has affected Esso gas stations, which are trying to fill any gaps by buying gas from other suppliers as tanks in some stations drop below 50 per cent capacity."

    "Some gas stations of one chain have tanks under 50% capacity" is a far cry from "unplanned outages".

    Perhaps the intention was not to sound so unreasonably - and unfoundedly - alarmist, but that's how the piece reads, and it significantly undercuts the overall argument.

    Unless there is an amazingly good allocation system, once there is a shortage of oil, of say, 20%, it is going to start affecting electricity production, because the oil deficit will start affecting fuels used for electricity production.

    History disagrees with you.

    US oil consumption fell about 20% between 1979 and 1982, with fairly minimal ill effects, and no apparent effect on electrical generation ability. 20% didn't do much 30 years ago; why would it now?

    There's still large amounts of slack in the system, so if you want to claim that "this time it's different", the onus is on you to back up that assertion. In particular, and as has been pointed out before, it's simply not enough to point out that coal production uses oil; it's necessary to demonstrate why coal production would not get that oil.

    We need to be looking closely at what is really feasible, and aiming for that level.

    That your aims are low does not mean others are aiming too high.

    Interesting article in NYT ( - not sure if its been posted before, its from 2007. While about African electricity problems it highlights several key factors: demand from high end industry users trumps domestic, increased supply is no good if the distribution network is shot, and cost of meeting 'emergency' demand far outweighs long term investment in proper fascilities. Most western electricity distribution systems have been using high maintenance overhead systems. These will cost even more to service replace in the future. The further one is from the power station, the more likely there will be outages. Its one argument for devolved power production using more (thermodynamically) efficient local CHP stations (utilizing 'waste' heat)