Friday, June 06, 2008

British Motoring - are its Days Numbered?

The raw cost of a barrel of crude-oil is now down from the record $136 to around $122, and yet fuel prices at the pump remain high. Not surprisingly, this is causing consternation among British motorists who have been calling for the government to cut its tax on fuel to restore the cost of a litre of petrol or diesel to more manageable levels. As an average, a vehicle that cost £50 to fill its tank in 2006 now costs around £85, or an increase of 70%. There is no way the government can cut fuel-taxes since it needs all the money it can get to pay for the welfare state, the NHS and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fuel infrastructure has been compromised, it is blamed, for instance the strike at the Grangemouth refinery and the fire at another in Finland, which has hit fuel provision in Europe generally, and so refining capacity and distribution may impose a bottleneck to cheaper fuel, irrespective of the basic cost of a barrel of oil. Since oil prices are subject to the vagaries of exploration costs, pipelines being blown-up (e.g. in Nigeria) and an inexorable rise in production costs per se, in consequence of the need to draw oil from wells that was once considered not economically viable and also the price of capital equipment such as oil-rigs and platforms, we should not take too much comfort in the fall in oil prices, which remain six times that of 5 - 6 years ago.

The situation is not great for British motorists. Not only are fuel costs increasing to the level that will force many cars off the road, certainly if, as is inevitable, the ultimately rising oil price is borne by the cost of the fuel that is refined from it, but there is very little new infrastructure in terms of motorways, in comparison say with Spain, a country that has invested heavily in its transport infrastructure. In Britain, the roads went the same way as the railways (in the latter case due to privatisation) and their retrospective refurbishment will cost more than routine maintenance would have done, if it can indeed be done to the same level given present costs and that investors are reluctant to put their money into a system that is not guaranteed to provide good returns.

If cars will be forced off the roads by inexorable hikes in fuel costs why should anyone invest in more roads? The car is seen as a symbol of prosperity across the world. In the early 1960's certainly not everybody had a car. With one wage coming into a house, cars were expensive and higher-purchase arrangements not as convenient as they are in today's credit bubble. Now car-ownership is practically a given. Both in terms of their price and quality, cars are cheaper than they once were, in real terms. Little tin-boxes on wheels I often think of them as, rather than a Bentley or even a "Jag". In developing economies such as China one principal aspiration is to own a car, an untenable situation since there is insufficient cheap oil to keep even the existing number going, let alone double that by 2030, as I have read projected, if more Chinese, Indians and South Americans own cars in consequence of the growing success and prosperity of these nations.

I strongly suspect that oil-prices will increase again, and we are presently in a lull on what will prove to be a relentlessly rising curve. I note too that it is now thought there may be 30 billion barrels worth of recoverable oil in the North Sea. Now this is mostly not down to new finds but that oil formerly considered uneconomic to extract has now become so in consequence of the massive rise in oil prices. If, as I believe, the price of oil will increase to $150 by the end of this year and $200 or so by the end of $2009, there may be around $4-6 trillion to be earned from the extra North Sea bounty.

To put it into a different perspective, if the UK gets through 80 million tonnes of oil a year, call it 100 million to allow for some lucrative exports, that amounts to 730 million barrels annually, and so the "new" reserve would be enough to keep the UK in oil for 40 years. Personally, I agree with King Abdullah in Saudi, that we should keep it for ourselves and not waste is as we did the first tranche.

However, it is an unknown quantity just how much oil can be extracted and it is of course the rate of extraction rather than the quantity of the reserve that determines how useful this will be to us - hence providing yet another bottle neck, like fuel.

Related reading.
[1] "The end of the road for British motorists." By Neil Lyndon.
[2] "North Sea could see second oil boom due to huge unexplored reserves." By Andy Bloxham.


Anonymous said...

hello, not related to this post, I have found this link,
It says that in theory solar panels with this nano technology could have a 44% efficiency. I think the average efficiency is around 30%, so I was wandering what this could mean in terms of how many sqm of solar panels would be needed to be built to supply energy consumption. thanks

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

That figure of 44% efficiency is very high and I doubt it refers to a commercially ready solar-cell as yet. 30% is still good going commercially, and 15 - 20% is usually regarded as more realistic. Thin-film cells are less efficient, counting-in at around 8%.

However, to answer your question at face value, I note the following:

The average insolation in the UK is quoted at 0.1 kWh/m^2 which would accord to 2.4 kWh/m^2/day.

At an efficiency of 44% that amounts to 1.056 kWh/m^2/day, x 365 days = 385.44 kWh/m^2/year.

The UK electricity total is 390 TWh/year and so dividing:

390 x 10^12 Wh/385.44 x 1000 Wh per year/m^2 = 1.01 x 10^9 m^2 of cell area.

So, that's just over 1000 square kilometers, or 0.4% of the UK mainland surface.

However, it would make more sense to place them on the roofs of buildings - particularly those that are south-facing, rather than spoil the countryside with them.

My feeling is however, that making 1010 km^2 of panels would prove a considerable undertaking.


Chris Rhodes.

Anonymous said...

ok thank you. I was thinking, how feasible would be to cover part of the deserts in the world with solar panels and transfer the energy long distances to Europe? Is it possible or the dissipation on the way would be too much? Does the energy have to be generated where or near where it is consumed or can it travel long distances? In fact, if there's something greenhouse gases resulted in is a hotter sun and creating more arid areas. What if part of the sahara desert was covered with solar panels and their power transferred to EU?

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

There is some information about losses in power transmission here:

It would seem these are less than 10% (as I understood it to be, e.g. the efficiency of the National Grid) and so transmission from e.g. the Sahara desert to the EU should not be unduly hampered by the distances involved. The most efficient transmission was found to be over a distance of 7,000 km (4000 miles).

I guess there are other issues - political, who will bear the various costs along the chain, threats of terrorism and not insignificantly the fabrication of such a large area of solar-panels which would be no mean undertaking.

Large-scale solar pv energy is thought to be only feasible if thin-film technology is implemented and that is some way off as yet. The efficiency is less but then only around 1% of the silicon or other semiconducting materials is required - a huge advantage for potential scale-up. Amorphous materials can be used too for thin-film cells, which takes some of the draconian pressure off from e.g. ultra high purity, crystalline silicon wafers.

I did read one report of a company that claims it can print thin-film cells onto thin metal sheets, rather line an ink-jet printer does on paper. This would get costs down considerably, which is necessary for pv to really be applied "in anger"!



Anonymous said...

ok, but since oil comes from the middle east anyway, I think it wouldn't be a bad idea to transform those areas in sun power harvesting areas.

Used cars said...

Oil is enough for another fifty years only