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09 May 2009

Watch: Oil Addiction (GOOD magazine)

Recently I came across this video. I thought that it was good when I first viewed it. I still do. It was obviously done up during the few weeks that culminated the peaking of oil at US$147 per barrel. While the panic causing events have passed, what is relevant is that oil is still being consumed and hybrid engine vehicles are still a rarity. Watching the video, I could not help noticing the matter-of-fact statement that 85% of the world's energy needs are provided by fossil fuels. Part of the underlying assumptions for this video is that population will always increase, leading to more and more demands for energy, food, etc.

Obviously, our dependency on oil as a source of energy will not change drastically -- not in the near future. Population needs will however increase, thanks to population increase. Many years ago the philosopher Malthus imagined that one day man would fail to obtain an adequate supply of food due to the constantly increasing population. But to date that has not been the case. (Perhaps Malthus' theory in relation to petrol had best be explored in another article). If we were to one day fail to find an alternative source of energy to replace fossil fuels, the solution would present itself simply: Go without electricity.

But that should not be the case. One day the oil wells will trickle dry. The oil wells which have been producing less and less oil will produce no oil. As peak oil comes closer and closer to realisation, it is likely that more and more people will turn to alternative sources of energy. Increasing demand for alternative energy, would mean economies of scale. In the end, it would mean economies of scale for one or more sources of alternative energy. The question is what source of alter energy? Casual observation would yield the conclusion that wind speeds in Malaysia do not reach the required velocities to generate the energy needed for our population. Even our best candidate of alternative energy for Malaysia (to date) is at great cost to Mother Nature -- surely, you have heard of the Bakun Dam.

The obvious solution is to tap into our abundant supply of sunshine and rainwater. Solar power and hydrogen extraction would be good solutions for the long term if the government backs it in a big way. Often left unsaid, is the environmental cost of solar power panels compared to burning fossil fuels. The fact is that production of solar power panels releases less air pollutants than conventional fossil fuel technologies. (Ref: ScienceDaily, 26th Feb 2008. Easing Concerns About Pollution From Manufacture of Solar Cells.) A recent discovery by Chinese / Japanese scientists may also lead to increased energy conversion in solar cells. (Ref: ScienceDaily, 5th Feb 2009. Natural Solar Collectors On Butterfly Wings Inspire More Powerful Solar Cells.)

Unfortunately, solar energy as a source of energy is not fully exploited in Malaysia -- despite our abundant sunshine. From a 2005 report by the Australian Business Council for Sustainable Energy:

The solar radiation in Malaysia is high by world standards. Even in Kuala Lumpur, a PV system receives 30% more energy than an equivalent system in Germany. Solar radiation varies from its lowest in the Klang Valley (Kuala Lumpur, Petaling Jaya) to Penang (Georgetown, northwest coast) and Kota Kinabalu (East Malaysia), where the highest values have been measured. Subject to location, a typical PV installation in Malaysia would produce about 900–1400 kWh/kWp. An installation in Kuala Lumpur would yield around 1000–1200 kWh/kWp per year.

Despite the abundant resource, solar PV applications in Malaysia are limited to mainly standalone PV systems, especially for rural electrification where the systems receive a significant subsidy. Other minor applications include telecommunication, street and garden lighting, and autonomous energy for parking ticket dispensing machines.

(Source: BCSE, August 2005. Renewable Energy in Asia: The Malaysia Report.)

Do we really want to wait for peak oil to become a reality before we start taking action? Well, let's look at the price of crude oil. As of today, OPEC's price basket for crude oil is USD$56.05 per barrel. The movement of the price basket shows an upward trend in the past week.

In fact, the following two graphs further show that the price of crude oil has been experiencing an upward trend on a week-to-week basis and also on a month-to-month basis.

(Source: OPEC's price basket)

A report dated 8th May, 2008, from Bloomberg confirms that the upward trend is likely to continue. (Ref: Bloomberg, 8th May 2008. Oil set to break resistance point, PVM says: Technical Analysis.) From the report:

Crude oil is set to reach $62.65 a barrel “in the near future” and rally to $78 within six months as prices retrace the surge that started in 1998, according to technical analysis by PVM Oil Associates Ltd.

It looks like commodity traders are due for another "bull run". For those in the oil and gas industry, it looks like good times will be back. But for the rest of the population, it is time to start weaning off our dependence on fossil fuels for 85% of our energy needs. It's time to start looking elsewhere.