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Saturday, February 9, 2013

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 …"

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