Monday, November 7, 2011

Peak ... what?

The idea behind phrases like Peak Whatever is that we are running out of the cheap, easily reachable whatever. It doesn't mean that there is no more whatever available; just that the cheap stuff is all gone. When this happens, the price of whatever goes up, until a substitute is found. In some cases this is easy to do, in other cases, not so much. There are many things to which this applies.

Peak Oil. You've probably heard about this: the idea that the era of cheap oil is over. While there is still lots of oil in the ground, it's harder and harder to get out. The result: we can't ramp up production anymore, no matter what the price. For the last 10 years or so, this is what we've seen:

[image credit. Graph shows that no matter what the price, supply is constant.]

The result is increasing oil price as demand grows, with more and more pressure to develop lower-efficiency and higher-cost (in all senses - economic as well as environmental) alternatives like shale oil, tar sands, horizontal drilling, deep-sea wells, etc. But these sources hardly put a dent in the demand, because they are actually pretty low-volume compared to what we need to just keep the economy (actually, mostly the transportation sector, here in Canada) rolling with business-as-usual. While there is plenty of oil there in those tar sands, it's hard (and expensive) to get at.

Now, whether or not we are in, close to, or far from "peak oil" is quite controversial. There's a whole cottage industry out there trying to argue either way. There are doomers, peakists, and deniers. Here's a nice summary from a rational and well-informed blogger. Personally, I think that if we're not already experiencing peak oil, we're likely not far from it; and that, in any case, there are other reasons to start thinking about getting ourselves off of the stuff. Climate change being the biggie (and, no, climate change is not controversial).

But, there are other resources whose reserves are depleting:

We're into Peak Helium. Yep, that's the stuff that makes you sound like Mickey Mouse when you suck on a balloon. And no, floaty party decorations are not the major market for helium. Helium is used for cooling (superconductivity), and is essential for things like MRI scanners. It is used extensively in scientific analysis equipment (gas chromatography). It's used as a cover gas when growing semiconductors -  and this is really a huge market. It's used in welding. Helium is non-renewable and there are no substitutes. We can do better with what we've got by improving recycling (which will only happen if the cost goes up!).

Peak Phosphorus. Phosphorus is a main ingredient in fertilizer. There is no substitute, and it's non-renewable. It's mined, and there are not so many places on the planet where it can be found. Saskatchewan happens to be one of 'em: think potash. Current practises in mining, farming, and (non)recovery of phosphorus result in an unsustainable consumption rate of some 23kg/day (!!) per person. According to the article (click the link above) there is plenty of scope for improvement...but we need to get on it! Mostly we need to recover manure, and stop overapplying. Again, prices will be rising as this starts to bite, and then will people start being more careful with it. One hopes.

Peak Rare Earths. This includes a list of esoteric heavy metals (the mining of which is very dirty) used in modern electronics manufacturing. Reserves are estimated to be mere 10-50 years on some of these. One of these endangered species is...iron...expected to last 50 years at current consumption rates. It will take more and more energy to access deeper and deeper reserves, but that will become more and more expensive because of...peak oil. Another point to note: solar panels, smart grids, and high-tech "green energy" rely heavily on these rare earths!

Now that there are 7 billion of us on this happy planet, it's probably time to start thinking about the carrying capacity of the place. There are physical limits to growth in a closed system such as we inhabit. Exponential growth (as we are currently demanding from our economy) is by definition unsustainable. So, sooner or later, we're going to have to come to terms with peak whatever.

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