Climate Change and the Energy Problem

A recent book by David Goodstein called “Climate Change and the Energy Problem: physical science and economics perspective” has slipped under the radar. Goodstein is a professor of physics at CalTech and a disciple of Richard Feynman, the AGW skeptics’ favorite quote-machine.

This is the follow-on to Goodstein’s earlier book “Out of Gas” that ties together the hydrocarbon depletion challenge with the climate change problem. In interviews, Goodstein agrees that climate denialism, at its root, is a desire not to face the energy problem. He says that the people seriously working on peak oil are not at the margins but are at the forefront of change.

Goodstein has serious credentials, and is one of the top thermodynamics and condensed matter physicists in the world. He treats the AGW problem as obvious:

“Fortunately for us, that is not all there is to it. If the average surface temperature of the Earth were 0°F. we probably would not have been here. The Earth has a gaseous atmosphere, largely transparent to sunlight, but nearly opaque to the planet’s infrared radiation. The blanket of atmosphere traps and reradiates part of the heat that the Earth is trying to radiate away. The books remain balanced, with the atmosphere radiating into space the sonic amount of energy the Earth receives, but also radiating heat back to the Earth’s surface, warming it to a comfortable average temperature of 57°F. That is what is known as the greenhouse effect. Without the greenhouse effect and the global warming that results, we probably would not be alive. “

And Goodstein is also formidable when it comes to dealing with crackpots. His true skeptical credentials are revealed in his book “On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science”. This is a fascinating read as it deals with the Pons/Fleischmann cold fusion debacle as well as the Schon affair which I am very familiar with.

The interview linked above is good. Goodstein sounds like a Brooklynite and delivers answers to the questions in short, no-nonsense  replies.  The only chuckle that I heard was when the interviewer remarked that coal-power was not used to mine and transport the coal. 

Throughout Goodman stresses the significance of liquid fuel,  revealing the difficulty in boot-strapping the lower-grade forms of fossil fuels. 

The Peak Warmers

The question is whether we can use use solar energy to process all the oil shale or whether this is mind boggling in scope. If you apply your intuition, consider what it will take to collect solar energy in the form of electricity and then use that electricity to (1) dig out that shale and process it or (2) in situ process the shale via heat and refine something approaching a liquid from the kerogen. And then to deliver it to its destination.

The fear is that is is also possible that we will figure out how to bootstrap the entire oil shale process, whereby we use the energy from the oil shale to “extract itself”. That obviously is the case with crude oil, as all the energy going to extract the oil comes from oil-powered machinery and transportation.

I think that occurred also in the early days of coal extraction, but at some point the returns start to diminish. Remember that coal is barely refined before it is used.

That is the most frightening prospect in all this, that well more than half of the hydrocarbon energy becomes a kind of waste heat. This is energy that isn’t necessarily wasted because it is used for processing (see the concepts of EROEI and emergy), but that is essentially wasted as overhead and not directly contributing to propelling the world’s economy.

Suddenly 80+ million barrels a day turns into 200 million equivalent barrels because 120 million barrels is used to process the 80. And that is just to keep in place with the needs of a growing global economy.

That leads into Pierrehumbert’s reference to the Red Queen scenario in his Slate article. The Red Queen is about running faster just to keep in place. But oil shale makes it worse, as it turns the Red Queen into a voracious cannibal, while eating any seed corn and feedstock we have left.

Pierrehumbert states at the end of his article “Temporarily cheap and abundant gas buys us some respite—which we should be using to put decarbonized energy systems in place.”

Can we be patient with the use of solar energy or will the second law be insurmountable?

The dispersion in wind speeds already follows the second law of thermodynamics. Given a mean wind speed, applying the maximum entropy principle results in the observed variability.
Same goes for aquatic wave height variation.
Same goes for the areal coverage of clouds, which in turn will periodically obscure the sunlight.

Here is a pic that illustrates how nature follows the Maximum Entropy Principle:

click to magnify

That is the hurdle in dealing with the second law from a source perspective. Everything is variable because nature tries to fill up all available states, mixing the low-likelihood high energy states with the higher-likelihood low-energy states.

Through a freak of nature, our crude oil supplies were given to us in a very low entropy highly ordered configuration. But even there, the second law applies, as the volume distribution of reservoir sizes follows the maximum entropy principle. The tails in the distribution ultimately become the dispersed pockets we are now essentially mining. We used up all the higher-energy configurations first, and now are left with the lower energy configurations.

The other hurdle is one of entropic losses as we convert one energy form to another, which is needed to do all the processing of oil shales, etc.

So not only does entropy barely let us in, but it kicks our butt as we try to get out the door.
The objective really should be in how to sustainably harness the stochasticity in nature and not try to outdo it and burn ourselves into oblivion.

Patience is the key. Collect the highly dispersed energy sources from the sun, wind, etc. into a more concentrated form and then work with that. After all, isn’t that how oil reservoirs formed in the first place?

However, growing economies have no room for patience.

This innocuous comment of mine was deleted from The Oil Drum today. Never can understand why they decide to delete what they do.

On the other hand, the blogger Willis Eschenbach has to be the most wrong-headed blowhard that has ever graced the internet.  If you ever want to do science properly, read what he writes, try to figure out how he approaches science, and then do the exact opposite. Oh, and think a little bit, not spew every idea that comes into your head, because the sycophantic followers that you will attract will not be able to discriminate between garbage and something worthwhile.

This is how inflated a sense of worth he possesses:

“Here on WUWT, I put out my scientific ideas up in the public forum as clearly as I can explain them, and I hand around the hammers, and people do their best to demolish my claims. That is science at its finest, nothing hidden, everything visible, all the relevant data and code available for any reader to either check my work, or to tear it to shreds, or to pick it up and take it further.
This gradual scientific migration to the web is well underway, moved forwards by things like journals with open review, and by other blogs. Science done in the dark by a few learned boffins is already dead in the 21st century, the practitioners just didn’t notice when they ran past their use-by dates, and as a result that dark corner of the scientific world is populated more and more by zombies. Zombies with PhD’s to be sure, but zombies nonetheless, everyone else is emerging into the light. Good news is, it’s somewhat of a self-limiting phenomenon, the best authors say that zombies can’t reproduce …”

The Luke Oilers

In the climate science world, those who side with consensus science and agree that anthropogenic global warming is real are at a minimum referred to as “lukewarmers”.
These people may not be as rabid as the true-believers, yet they don’t dismiss the scientific theory and evidence as do the so-called “climate deniers”.

I ran across a similar type of minimal acceptance, though very muted and disguised, when I participated in a blog comment discussion at Climate Etc.  The top-level post concerned Maugeri’s wrong-headed analysis and conclusion of near-cornucopian oil availability.

In the ensuing discussion, it was clear that the climate skeptics, who would otherwise not admit that Peak Oil was real, would nevertheless continue to push  alternatives such as nuclear and unconventional oil, and suggest that BAU could continue.  This contradiction pointed to the fact that they implicitly agree in the Peak Oil concept while denying that the progressives and technocrats (such as Hubbert) were correct in their overall assessment.

I suggest these implicit Peak Oil believers need to be referred to as “luke-oilers”, distinct from the explicit Peak Oilers.  To be a luke-oiler, all it takes for you is to admit that the Bakken or the Tar Sands or nuclear will meet our future energy needs. Its actually not that high a bar that you have to clear to be a luke-oiler, but it wasn’t high for a lukewarmer either — just an admission to the facts on the the ground. The earth is warming due to man, and the oil is depleting due to man.

At the cross-roads of peak oil and climate science we see a world of dogs and cats, living together. On occasion this gets stirred up as in this Slate opinion piece by noted climate scientist and atmospheric physicist Raymond T. Pierrehumbert. The title is The Myth of “Saudi America”: Straight talk from geologists about our new era of oil abundance.
In this piece Pierrehumbert discusses the issue of Bakken oil and acknowledges Rune Likvern’s analysis of Red Queen behavior in shale oil.  At the end, he suggests a kind of “No Regrets” policy in that we move rapidly toward alternatives to oil, using the oil that we have right now to solve both the predicaments of oil depletion and AGW.