I’ve started wondering if there’s an upper limit to what the above mentioned fuels can cost before industrialized society falls apart.
We’ve gone through this stuff that’s happened with fuel prices twice in the past thirty-plus years. First in 1978-1980 (which I must say passed by my head at the time, as I stopped living within walking distance of a gas station in 1977), now in the past year we’ve seen prices spike up, only to shoot down.
And while this set of gasoline spikes can be linked to fatally flawed economic vehicles and subsidies for Gasoline in many countries, both times demand DROPPED. Not only that, but the economies that were moving along (limping in the mid-1970’s, flying on illusionis in the 2000s) suddenly fell into deep depressions that required/will require major work just to right them.
And gasoline prices. Both about the same at their peak, accounting for inflation.
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So here’s the issue: With crude prices presently around $54/barrel, there are a lot of fields which are either giving marginal returns for their efforts or losing money for the people drilling/bringing up the crude. Those efforts may stop because of profitability issues.
But…more to the point, what is there’s stuff out there that would need steady prices of $80-100 of today’s (December 2008) dollars to get developed — both deeper sources of crude and gas AND for alternative sources of energy. Stuff that would get us over the hump on the route to more “renewable” energy sources AND help us adjust to the new energy system. And at prices that would make the development of trains and mass transit workable.
Here’s the problem, though: What if there is an upper limit to what an industrial society can pay for its electricity and fuel? What if, above a certain price, we cannot find enough work for people to be employed at; enough things made cheaply enough to keep people at work and consuming and enough residual capital for investment, development and profits.
People seem to be working on the idea that we can eventually make “alternative energy sources” cheap enough to replace fossil fuels…and keep our energy usage at its present level (or higher). What if that’s impossible?
Ethanol takes away land from food production (guess what: The USA now imports its food. We’re about to become a Melamine experiment!). Solar requires massive technological investment (either concentration or nanotech) to make it work as more than a micro-scale solution (for neighborhoods, not just handheld devices). Wind will require heavy-duty investment in the power grid (and like my brother said, enough wind usage will affect the weather). Coal-to-Oil makes Oil look clean, green and environmentally friendly. And batteries don’t look like they’re going to make it into more than a local-transportation option.
And for all this to become widely developed, we’ll need to make massive investments in our infrastructure. New plants, new facilities to transport the energy to its usage point (wires or fueling stations), and the willingness to pay the cost for having 1) duplication in our systems that doesn’t make things more secure or cheaper, and 2) the relics of massive investment in stuff that has no value, either in a changed economy or an economy that was able to stay unchanged. Plus the possibility of upkeep being much more expensive for the newer technologies, energy-wise.
Is there enough money for this? Is there enough in the industrial system to allow for a change to a different energy regimen?
Or is there a gap between what the industrial system can afford and what’s needed to switch successfully to other energy sources, a gap that cannot be jumped over?
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Just some thoughts, maybe thoughts that need more thinking through. I know there’s others who think along these lines, chances are they’ve thought deeper (as I’ve started thinking about this with the latest fuel price drops).