AEREN is responsible for the website Crisis Energética (www.crisisenergetica.org), which has become a reference among Spanish speakers around the world for information about peak oil and the energy crisis.
Pedro Prieto (Madrid, 1950) is Vice Chairman and a co-founder of AEREN and is a member of ASPO’s international panel. Pedro has worked as an engineer in the telecommunications sector since the 1970’s and is a member of the association Scientists for the Environment (CiMA) in Spain. He has managed several photovoltaic solar projects and provides advice on photovoltaic systems to public entities and individuals. Pedro is currently the director of development of alternative energies in a Spanish company.
Interview date: January, 2010
Interviewer: Toby Price
Firstly, what most concerns you about the world’s energy system at present?
Well, the fact that we are close to reaching peak oil – the time when oil production reaches a maximum and the point after which this fuel’s contribution to Humanity will become increasingly smaller. Shortly after, peak gas will also be reached.
The Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO) declares that peak oil is already upon us, while one of the best known and most optimistic organisations, the International Energy Agency (IEA), estimates that this point will not be reached for another two decades.
The issue of peak oil is so important to Humanity that it could overshadow concerns about climate change. At Humanity’s current rate of demand, no possible or foreseen energy substitutes to oil and natural gas exist that could replace these fuels at the same rate that they decline. This is even truer if the rate of growth we have come to expect as indispensable to a capitalist society is to be maintained.
In a recent interview, you said that renewable energy producers “lack a sense of realism” because “they do not take into account the true cost of the energy and raw materials” required to develop their technologies. Could you expand on this?
Ignoring the energy cost when developing a source of energy or assessing whether or not it should be used is one of the problems faced in the renewables sector. I believe that, not just in the renewables sector but in society as a whole, we should avoid assuming too quickly and easily that renewables can replace fossil fuels as and when these resources start to decline.
My criticism of many who defend modern renewable energies is that they almost always tend to argue in a very superficial way that as reserves decrease, renewables can replace fossil fuels in both volume and at a rate which will enable the world economy to continue to grow. However, when they put the figures on the table, they almost always do so out of context.
Here’s an example. 80% of the primary energy we consume in the world today comes from the third dimension, i.e. the depths of the Earth, the lithosphere. It is not renewable and is, therefore, subject to being used up. Two of the four sources of this energy (oil and gas) are very close to their maximum limits of extraction and point of decline, while the other two (coal and uranium) will also reach their peaks in just a few decades.
The remaining 20% of primary energy comes from the biosphere: 13-14% of which is biomass. However, to use this energy, we have already destroyed almost half of the world’s forests and we continue to destroy them at a rate of close to 1% per annum.
Another 5% of our primary energy demand is met with so-called renewable hydroelectric power. However, to this end and for irrigation ponds, we have had to occupy around 25% of the major river basins around the globe.
Crops take up 12% of the total surface area of the continents, while modern renewable energies hardly appear on the world primary energy map, accounting for just 1% of primary energy production. As such, it is somewhat unrealistic to expect that we will be able to extract 99% more energy using wind turbines and photovoltaic, solar thermal or solar thermal electric solar panels within a few decades from now, and all from our biosphere.
The idea that we can replace 80% of the non-renewable energy we consume now from the lithosphere and extract it from the already abused biosphere, while continuing to increase the amount we consume, is decidedly unrealistic and even less sustainable.
How can we ensure that renewable energy projects have a truly positive impact on energy demand? Should energy audits be based on the Energy Return on Investment (EROI) concept for example?
Fossil fuels have provided a net return that so-called renewable energies cannot provide. The EROI is the ratio of the amount of usable energy acquired from a particular energy resource to the amount of energy expended to obtain that energy resource.
In the sweet oil fields close to the surface in the US, where extraction pressures were very high and fields were close to demand, petroleum reached an EROI of 100 over the last 30 years (i.e. it took one barrel of oil to supply society with a hundred more barrels).
Today however, oil in the US only reaches EROIs of between 5 and 20. When the EROI of an oil field reaches 1, it is closed for a purely physical and geological reason, even if the oil costs $10,000 a barrel. This is something which many economists (and quite a few engineers turned economists, who we call flat-earth economists) don’t understand, because they see energy as an asset subject to market forces. However, energy is more than just an asset; it is a prerequisite to obtaining all other assets.
EROI assessments are essential to understanding the possible real usefulness of an energy source. Our modern and highly mobile society demands energy sources that are very easily available, with EROIs that are as high as possible, and which can be stored and transported in huge quantities. This is something that is not taken sufficiently seriously when analysing modern renewable energies, despite the plethora of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) of modern renewable systems, especially wind and photovoltaic solar, which, it must be said, , are generally commissioned by interested parties. These theoretically green and clean or “emission free” systems are in reality totally reliant on fossil fuels, receive subsidies from a fossil fuel-based society, and generally have many hidden energy costs that are not often presented in their LCAs.
It would be very interesting if we could demonstrate that these energies can be sufficient and self-supporting in, for example, a closed system with a minimum critical mass. It would also be interesting if these energies could prove that they can make a net energy contribution to society as well as producing the energy required in their manufacture, transport, assembly, operation and maintenance from one end of the life cycle to the other. They would also need to prove that they could work without subsidies, feed-in tariffs, tax credits or any other support from the fossil fuel-based society.
Last year was a record year for renewables around the world. The global recession even represented an opportunity for the sector, as many governments earmarked millions to develop renewable energies to create jobs. Do you believe we are better placed to react to peak oil thanks to the leap the renewables sector has made?
It was undoubtedly a record year but, once again, things need to be put into context. 9,000 MW of new wind capacity, for example, was installed during 2009, taking the total to 140,000 MW worldwide. Meanwhile, around 5,000 MW of photovoltaic solar capacity was installed in 2009, bringing the total to approximately 18,000 MW. Based on the expected average performance of these systems, this equates to additional generating capacity of around 25 TWh/year in 2009 being provided by renewable energies, against a total of 300 TWh/year from these sources of energy.
The problem is that this record renewable capacity installed in 2009 only equates to 0.12% of the total world electric demand in 2008 of 20,000 TWh. The renewable capacity installed in 2009 only covered 8% of the increase in global electricity demand recorded between 2007 and 2008. Figures show that global electricity demand based on fossil fuels is growing some 30 to 100 times more quickly than renewable capacity is being installed. This isn’t exactly worthy of celebration. The records achieved last year are nothing more than a drop in the ocean, especially if one looks at primary energy demand, where the ratios are even greater.
Another way of looking at this is to compare renewables growth with the decrease in the supply of the main energy sources.
If, as the chief economist of the IEA, Fatih Birol, has claimed, oil reaches its peak and starts to decline at a rate of 6.7% per annum, an additional 1,000 to 3,000 TWh would have to be found from other sources. In other words, just one year of decline in petroleum production would require us to install 10 times the capacity of modern renewable energy installed in the world to date.
Thereafter, more and more renewable capacity would have to be installed using every decreasing fossil fuel resources. This is the double challenge we face.
2009 also saw the founding of IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency). Do you consider this agency will play an important role in resolving current energy problems?
In view of what I have just said and IRENA’s approach, I have serious doubts. The fact that this agency has been located in Abu Dhabi, an important oil producing state, and not in one of the countries that has promoted renewables says a lot about the political undertones running through all the decisions it takes.
The circus surrounding Masdar in Abu Dhabi, the so-called “green city” or “emission-free city” also says a lot about the misleading approach being taken and is a true reflection of the deception that modern renewable energies often represent.
I understand that you do not believe renewables will ever cover 100% of energy demand, unless we reduce consumption. What do we have to do in terms of energy efficiency and saving and renewables development to fill the gap left when fossil fuels disappear?
Energy saving and an improvement in efficiency will have to cover the rest of the gap that renewables cannot fill; which are also, we must not forget, systems that have to be replaced every two or three decades.
In my opinion, energy saving will have to involve not only the use of more technology, but also, and above all, RADICAL changes in the social behaviour of humans, who are very consumerist and are ruled by policies aimed at continuous growth and the use of ever increasing amounts of capital.
Imagine that you were President of the European Union this year. What would be your three top energy priorities?
Good question, but first let me say that no acting president of any supranational organisation, even one as powerful as the European Union, can do a great deal to change the energy sector during the six months they are in office, especially considering the limited powers they have over the policies of individual Member States.
This said, what I would do first would be to raise the alarm and make a proposal to EU citizens, which would be far crueller but equally as necessary and even more critical than that proposed by Churchill when he asked his compatriots to fight Germany with “blood, sweat and tears”. This time, instead of the backdrop of the Second World War (win and return to the good old days), we face a far deeper, long-lasting and structural challenge.
This time the problem is much more dramatic: we have to make citizens – who are accustomed, especially in the EU, to decades of comfort, security and high social advantages – realise that their quality of life exists because of a huge abundance of cheap, accessible and highly versatile fuels and that these fuels will soon start running out.
We have to warn them that it is quite probable that renewables will not be able to replace these other energy sources in the quantity and time and net energy required. We, logically, need to start thinking first about those people who have most benefited from these high levels of energy and how to reduce their consumption, which will lead to radical constitutional changes and changes in the way in which capital is accumulated and distributed.
Mobility will need to be cut dramatically in the most orderly way possible. We will have to start producing goods and providing services as close to demand as possible. Societies need to be guided towards a system for producing food and obtaining water that uses the most natural methods possible (obtain fresh water using gravity rather than pumping, desalination, etc.) and we need a far larger primary sector and far smaller tertiary and secondary sectors, which need to focus more on “needs” and less on “wants”.
In short, we need to instigate a Copernican shift, which will undoubtedly leave many readers very concerned and give them the idea that I have apocalyptic view on the world.
Nuclear energy, yes or no?
Without a doubt, no. Let’s look again at the facts. The approximately 440 nuclear power plants in operation today only generate around 5-6% of the world's primary energy and 15% of the total electricity. The 50 nuclear plants under construction and 200 in development would not cover future energy demands for even a moment once oil and gas supplies begin their inevitable and inexorable decline one, two or three decades from now.
The gap that oil will leave in just one year once production starts to fall will require 200 new nuclear power plants of 1 GW each. A huge amount of infrastructure would also have to be adapted. Don’t forget that each nuclear plant also takes around 10 years to commission. There just isn’t enough time.
Furthermore, Marcel Coderch (Secretary of AEREN and doctor at MIT) has calculated that it will take 50 years just to recover the fossil-based energy used to roll out several thousand nuclear power plants.
Meanwhile, the nuclear agencies themselves admit that there are only proven reserves of uranium for around 100 years, based on the current demand of the 440 plants in operation. Finally, nuclear power is even more dependant on the fossil-fuel society than modern renewables, not to mention the problems of untreatable waste, concerns about terrorism or possible wars.
Do you believe hydrogen has a future as an energy vector?
It could do, although precisely because hydrogen is an energy store and not a source of energy, the question should really be: since hydrogen is not freely available in nature, which energy or energies will be used to separate hydrogen from the molecules it is always connected to? This aspect and the fact that hydrogen is a very light gas from an energy perspective and has too be subject to huge pressure when in gas form or be liquefied at very low temperatures to enable it to be transported, raises its own set of problems. Energy has to be continuously consumed to maintain hydrogen below 250ºC below freezing.
Hydrogen also has the added and costly inconvenience of being able to escape from practically any container. It is capable of escaping from the systems used to contain it at a rate of 1% per day. This means that it would not be wise to leave a vehicle with its hydrogen tank full and then go on holiday, because it would be practically empty when you return. This is a big problem, because oil and gas can be stored very easily in large deposits over long periods of time as strategic reserves. Hydrogen reserves however, would be very difficult to manage.
Furthermore, hydrogen is also highly reactive and bonds with many elements, especially metals, to form hydrides. It generally eats away at metals in a very short period of time. This problem means that the current gas pipelines could not be reused for hydrogen and an immense new transport and distribution network would have to be built from scratch.
I don’t see hydrogen as a vector, except for very specific applications such as for rocket or similar launches or in the chemical industry.
Desertec… the North Sea Offshore Electricity Grid… Are these major projects a solution to our energy problems or should we be concentrating far more on distributed networks and local supply and demand?
No, I don’t believe they are by any means a solution to the world’s energy problems. The most ambitious projects such as Desertec would not cover any more than 20 or 30% of Europe's electricity demand, in the best case scenario. Sarkozy’s Mediterranean Solar Plan would hardly cover 2-3% of the electricity requirements of the countries involved. The volume of materials and energy investment required would be enormous.
Energy security would be complicated due to the vast gap in quality of life between the countries providing the land rights in North Africa, and those providing the technology and merely wanting to consume the energy produced without wanting to raise the quality of life in these areas.
Under these conditions, the question of energy security for Europe would be as much of a concern as it is now in relation to fossil fuels, which in part come from the same areas. These projects would simply change vulnerable gas pipelines, gas liquefaction plants and oil tankers for high-voltage cables crossing the Mediterranean, which would be equally at risk.
It would be far more rational to strive for a world with far lower levels of more localised demand and widely distributed, small and local generation and distribution networks where possible. Although it should be stressed that this reverse would be extremely complex in many parts of the world, and in some cases, impossible.
I am fully aware of the trap in which we find ourselves.
The sustainability of biofuels has been into doubt. Do you consider biofuels are truly viable as an energy source for the transport sector?
Once again, things need to be put into context. If it only concerns producing energy crops locally to move a few tractors to grow the same crops and food, then it may be viable.
However, if we are talking about replacing the almost 4 billion tonnes per annum of petroleum, the 85 million barrels we consume each day to move, among other things, 95% of the world’s transport, then no. There is no sustainable system that could fill the tanks of all one thousand million combustion vehicles on the Planet. It is not in the least bit credible in this context that this type of production will not enter into conflict with food production and the every decreasing supplies of fresh water.
If we return to the estimated 260 MTpes gap that oil will leave only in the first year after peak oil is reached, and if this drop is projected over the decade thereafter, the professor Carlos de Castro estimates that some 300 million hectares would be required to grow energy crops to fill this gap. No, it is not by any means sustainable.
And finally, what are AEREN’s objectives for 2010?
We intend to continue to remain active and independent and work to raise awareness of the problem of the gradual and inexorable decline of fossil fuels and the impact this will have on Humanity, which has developed exponentially over the last century as if this non-renewable resource was never-ending.
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