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The energy conundrum

R. Sundaram | Updated on March 12, 2018

Oil and gas reserves are fast depleting even as renewable energy remains expensive.



How long will the oil and natural gas reserves of our planet last? How soon should we switch over to renewable sources of energy substantially for power generation and transportation? Will we ever overturn the ratio of fossil fuel to renewables?

These are complex questions. Cassandras argue that our planet’s oil reserves will run out eventually and as early as 2020, supply will be below international demand, creating unprecedented energy crunch. Pollyannas believe that the estimation of reserves of oil and natural gas is a function of technology and therefore oil, which includes gas, may last for ever.

Fracking away

The US is brimming with new-found confidence with discoveries of shale gas and its success in developing newer drilling technologies to extract oil from what was hitherto considered uneconomic oil fields. Even companies such as GE, famous for producing aircraft engines, are placing bets on “fracking”. Fracking in simple terms is hydraulically fracturing rocks — a technique for shooting water mixed with sand and chemicals into rock, splitting it open, and releasing previously inaccessible oil. The International Energy Agency predicted in November last year that by 2035, the US will become “all but self-sufficient in net terms”.

However, the most exciting technology in extraction of hydrocarbons is not going to be from the US, but Japan.

“Chikyu” (earth) a $540-million Japanese deep sea drilling vessel, set out in January to mine the ocean floors beneath the Philippine Sea for explosive ice — “Ice you can set on fire”.

This wonder ice is nothing but the crystalline natural gas, methane hydrate, beneath the sea floor.

It is estimated that it is twice as abundant as all other fossil fuels combined, according to an article by George C. Mann in the Atlantic weekly. No wonder Japan is at the forefront of this endeavour. Obviously, it cannot be happy with its status in the global energy scene, as the third biggest net importer of crude oil, the second biggest importer of coal, and the biggest importer of natural gas.

price tag of renewables

Against the backdrop of development in fossil fuel with the possibility of perennial availability, it will be wise to compare how renewables are likely to fare.

Nuclear energy, arguably classified under renewable, is taboo in many countries such as Germany. Hydel stations are under fire for disrupting geological and ecological balance. In economic terms, energy from renewables continues to remain expensive. It is difficult with today’s technology to reach above a certain limit with renewables. “Typically, engineers believe the limit to be about 30 per cent of the total power load, but some argue for lower numbers”.

Surpassing that figure, according to a January study by two researchers at the Stanford Global Climate and Energy Project, will be difficult without “grid-scale energy storage” — methods for storing truly large amounts of power. Building these will be so expensive that in many cases the costs of construction “will prohibit their deployment.”

Even when energy-storage facilities can be built, the researchers concluded, revamping the grid is so difficult that the work “will require decades.”

(The author is former Member, Ordnance Factories Board)

Published on June 28, 2013

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