Hydrocarbon junkies

Over the last 300 years we have built a worldwide society with an infrastructure that has enveloped us in total hydrocarbon dependency.

Today, we cannot survive individually or as a society without our daily dose of fossil fuels. We are all, in effect, carbon junkies – we must have our multiple daily hits, even if the end game is our own destruction.

The anti-windfarm lobbyists are mainliners, looking around for anything that will keep the hits uninterrupted, not trusting the alternatives. The supporters are also hydrocarbon junkies, but they are on a substitute dose of wind – renewable energy, a less than perfect interim solution that may buy time until hopefully a more carbon neutral solution can be found.

Both junkies will soon be faced with a stark choice: carry on the mainlining or the substitute until the fossil-fuelled hits run out, then go cold turkey as chaos ensues.

Alternatively, why not try to come off our dependency now, while there is still an economy to support and sustain us, as we seek a way to cleaner energy?

So why should we spoil our environment to send electricity to the mainland? A cry often heard. What if the mainland consumers said the same? Why should we subsidise your electricity? That’s the case at the moment because we in Shetland don’t pay the full cost of electricity produced by inefficient oil-fired generators.

What if Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Russia, et al turn around and say: “To hell with you. If we keep our fossil fuels for ourselves, we have enough to last for centuries. You need some of it do you, to keep your country functioning? Too bad, go find your own.”

What if Australia took the same attitude with iron ore? The list is endless. This is nimbyism at its worst. Selfish and uncharitable. We are in the global village with all of humanity inter-dependent, whether we like it or not.

There are many possible energy sources, though some more viable than others:

Hydrocarbons – more bangs for your buck than any other system bar nuclear; portable and convenient, but the well will run dry very soon.

Wind: intermittent output, deemed unsightly by some, technology well understood, in common use worldwide. Offshore very expensive to install/maintain.

Tide: intermittent output but predictable; two hour periods at each slack tide with virtually no output.

Wave: hugely unpredictable in output because of variable time and direction; very expensive to install and maintain.

The latter two very much experimental, wave power just bordering on useful deployment.

Solar power: a no go in Shetland.

Biomass: increasingly used, but if world population keeps growing at 85 million per year, this land will have to be returned to producing food.

Fuel cells: clean energy, has great possibilities, but requires large amounts of electricity to produce the hydrogen.

Nuclear fission: we will need this although passionately disliked by many, the big problem being availability of fissionable material will last no longer than fossil fuels.

Nuclear fusion: a possible long term solution if it can be made to work. At least the EU, USA, Canada, Japan and Australia are co-operating by continuing to fund a research reactor project in France. Fuel for this technology is abundant hydrogen.

Algae: the US military are putting a lot of research into this; they recognise their vulnerability as fossil fuels become less abundant and more expensive.

Carbon capture and storage: not proven.

There are many more ideas – a few possible but most completely off the wall.

Not any one of the alternatives can supply all our energy needs. There will have to be a mix, and none of the renewable sources can consistently supply base load. They all have disadvantages, and all have a carbon footprint. No clear winners then.

There is general agreement that global warming/climate change is a concern, the only issue being whether man is contributing. This is easily answered. Burn a gallon of oil, a cubic metre of gas, a tonne of coal and the released carbon can be measured. Release carbon into the atmosphere and the warming effect can be measured.

Assume no people in the world – no oil, gas or coal consumed, no carbon released. Assume near 6.8 billion people burning 87 million barrels of oil, trillions of cubic metres of gas, tens of millions of tonnes of coal per day, many tons of carbon released. How can man not be having an effect?

This then is a dilemma. Hydrocarbons are a finite gift, 250 million years in the making, 400 years in the burning – some party. We are 350 years into that party now, with a monumental hangover close.

It’s a tough call. Get the call wrong and it’s going to be really tough.

James Sandison


Add Your Comment
  • James Castle

    • November 15th, 2010 3:29

    Agreed with everything mentioned. One recent development may keep the party going for a long time: Origin Oil
    http://www.originoil.com just announce that it developed a procees to generate hydrogen from algae. If this is true, it will be a tremendous boost to the hydrogen economy



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