Energy: The Achilles Heel of the Resource Pyramid

22 May, 2009 04:24 pm

When economists say that we have far larger mineral resources today than ever before, they are usually referring to a model known as the resource pyramid. What they often fail to mention is that cheap, abundant energy is the key input into this model and that without it much of our presumed abundance would vanish.

In the classic 1954 book "The Challenge of Man's Future" famed geochemist Harrison Brown posited a future in which there would no longer be mines, only processing facilities. With all the concentrated deposits of metallic and nonmetallic ores and helium (which is found in natural gas reservoirs) depleted, the only minable resources left for society's needs would be rock, air and seawater. But, together they contain everything we need other than land-based food and fiber for modern civilization.

For example, granite contains many common metals such aluminum, iron, magnesium, titanium and manganese. Many more minerals including uranium are available in quantities of parts per million. Seawater contains most of the elements on the periodic table, the source of which is the erosion produced by streams and rivers feeding the oceans. The air contains rare "noble" gases that are important to industrial civilization including argon, neon, helium, krypton and xenon. The vast majority of the resources from rock, air and seawater, however, are at very low levels of concentration which is why granite and seawater are not currently being processed for their resource content (with the sole exception of salt from seawater). On the other hand, air is presently the only practical source for all the noble gases mentioned above except helium. These gases tend to be quite expensive since the processes for extracting them from air are very energy intensive.

Brown's depiction is of a world at the bottom of the so-called resource pyramid. Economists use the resource pyramid model to explain why they believe humans will never run out of resources. If prices are high enough for a given resource, companies will have the incentive to develop previously uneconomic deposits, find a substitute for the high-cost resource, recycle and/or learn to do with less until a substitute can be found or new technology allows us to exploit resources that were previously technically impossible to extract. As we move down the resource pyramid, there is a lot more of any given resource to be had in the form of lower-grade deposits. The trick, of course, is to figure out how to extract these deposits economically.

One of the key challenges for the future will be to obtain the needed energy to extract ultra-low-grade resources. Even in 1954 it was obvious that fossil fuels were finite and that someday modern society would have to run on other forms of energy. Brown could see only two alternatives, solar and nuclear power, which he was confident could provide the necessary energy to fuel the rock, air and seawater economy. What Brown feared was that we would not build up these two alternative energy sources fast enough to replace fossil fuels as their availability declined. This problem is now often referred to as the rate-of-conversion problem. ( if you are interested in this article i highly recommend you open and read this link )



Source: Earth as a Magic Pudding, Michael Lardelli

Brown's depiction of a possible future mineral economy clearly illustrates that energy availability is the Achilles heel of the resource pyramid. Even arch cornucopian Julian Simon acknowledged that energy is the "master resource." Simon, who died in 1998, was certain that human ingenuity would provide a steadily increasing supply of energy needed to obtain all other resources. If he's right, we need only sit back and let the magic of the market provide us with the energy of the future.

But, here's why the future may not work out as Simon and other cornucopians envision. The main energy resources we use today are mineral resources. Oil, natural gas, and coal provide 86 percent of the world's energy. All of these resources are thought to be growing more abundant through the magic of the resource pyramid. But, if you examine the pyramid closely, you will see that not only do low-grade fossil fuel resources require better technology to extract them, they also require increasing amounts of energy to run that technology. At some point the amount of energy needed to bring low-grade deposits of oil, natural gas and coal to the surface and process and transport them will be more than the energy we get from these resources. At that point they will cease to be energy sources, and the vast, remaining ultra-low-grade deposits of these fuels will be useless to us except perhaps as feedstocks for chemicals.

If this happens to fossil fuel production too soon, it will also mean that we will have severe restrictions on the amount of energy available to extract other minerals from the ground and rare gases from the air. In practice problems related to energy supply and mineral extraction will show up long before we reach the point where it takes more energy to get fossil fuels than they yield. If the peak rate of production for oil is near and peak rates for natural gas and coal are not too far behind, then the total energy available to world society could begin to decline making resource extraction of all types progressively more expensive and difficult.

One way out of this dilemma is to move away from fossil fuels to renewable energy and nuclear power. But, nuclear power expansion has proceeded at a snail's pace since the accident at the Three Mile Island reactor in 1979. Renewable energy is now growing at a high rate; but it makes up such a small sliver of the overall energy pie that even its current fast pace of development implies decades before renewables become a major power source. After fossil fuels begin to decline, we will find ourselves in serious trouble unless alternatives are being deployed at a rate that will make up for that decline.

Without a transition to vast new supplies of nuclear and renewable energy, the promise that we will be able to go all the way to the bottom of the resource pyramid is a mere daydream. The resource pyramid only shows what is possible. It does not guarantee that humans will achieve it. If peaks in fossil fuel production are nearing, either society will have to learn to get along without many of its critical resources, or it will have to make the transition to alternative energy swiftly as part of an engineering and planning feat that would be unparalleled in human history

Energy Needs: Getting From Here To There



Our options for solving the growing energy dilemma confronting modern civilization seem to fall into two basic categories: we already have the clean technology to meet our energy needs if we just had the political will to utilize them; and we don't yet have the necessary clean technology to meet these needs so we better start inventing them as fast as possible.

The first option calls for conservation, greater efficiencies in vehicles, lighting and appliances, the capture and utilization of wasted heat, the massive and rapid utilization of renewable energies such as wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and hydro -- some serious environmentalists even concede that nuclear is a better option than emitting more carbon dioxide. The dual problem of finding more energy while converting to clean energy can be solved by expanding and refining our existing low carbon technologies. This option is held by optimists, those who believe a concerted and heroic effort by individuals, corporations and governments can accomplish this challenging task.

The second option calls for research, huge expenditures of effort, ingenuity and money to find efficient and clean ways of producing and storing the astronomical amount of clean energy needed to run our modern civilization. Such a trust in the saving grace of future technologies suggests that we continue at our present rate of economic expansion while relying on newly invented systems to rapidly replace the old ones.

This option is also held by optimists because they, too, believe that human cleverness can get us out of the fix we have created for ourselves.

The issue is not academic. It is strategic and critical. The scientific consensus is that if we do not cut greenhouse gas emissions to halt and then reduce the rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, then we will reach levels of global warming that will be "catastrophic". This is a word that experts are now using commonly to describe the ecological consequences of global temperature increases of 2°C, 4°C or 6°C caused by reaching atmospheric CO2 levels of 450 or 600 parts per million.

With our present population of nearly seven billion, this means cutting fossil fuel emissions 80 per cent by 2050. But, with a world population expected to increase nearly 50 per cent by mid -century -- 9,000 people per hour, 80 million per year -- this means that emission reductions will have to be correspondingly higher. The challenge is staggering.

An energy chemist at the California Institute of Technology, Nate Lewis, calculates that even slow worldwide economic growth of 1.6 per cent per year and dramatic increases in efficiencies of 500 per cent above present levels will still create a doubling of our energy needs by 2050. If we are to meet the 80 per cent reduction target by then, nearly twice the total energy we produce today will have to be zero carbon (Newsweek, Mar 23/09).

Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal in 2006 provided merely 1.4 per cent of our present global needs, according to Lewis's calculations -- this amount has probably doubled in the last two years. Nuclear power provided 6.4 per cent. For nuclear to provide about half our energy needs by 2050, we would have to build 10,000 new reactors by then, or two every three days for the next 41 years.

Capturing one-fifth of the world's wind energy to provide just 10 per cent of our energy needs would require one million state-of-the-art turbines, plus some kind of efficient electrical storage system -- a system we still don't have. To get one-third of our energy needs from solar, according to Lewis, we would have to cover one million roofs with panels every day until 2050.

These statistics outline the staggering challenge we are confronting, the sobering task of trying to reconcile a rising population with increasing energy demands against the catastrophic consequences of emitting further amounts of carbon dioxide into an atmosphere to which we have already added too much of the stuff.

Given the threatening consequences and our limited options, the best strategy would seem to be vigorous conservation, the enthusiastic utilization of all present renewable energy sources, and a frantic search for new technologies that would both save energy and produce it.

We need smart electrical grids that will distribute power from multiple, diverse and intermittent energy sources. We need to convert primary transmission lines from alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC), a change that would reduce long-distance power loss by nearly half. We also need a new family of superconductors that can be made into wires.

So we need massive research, liberally funded by governments and made economically enticing to corporations by generous tax concessions.

This research should have two primary objectives. The first should be to specifically target energy issues -- anything that will create clean supplies and increase efficiencies. The second should be pure research -- Canada's Perimeter Institute is an example -- in the hope that someone might stumble upon a discovery with revolutionary energy applications.

The odds are against a winning discovery but the laser, transistor and nuclear energy were inadvertently found by this kind of serious play.

Maybe chemical fusion, superconductors, cheap hydrogen or ingenious methods of electrical storage await just over the horizon of our imaginations. In this age of hurried time and pressing urgency, we have a long way to go and a short time to get there.