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Monday, June 23, 2008

Big Oil Plays Games Online

TheVeryBigOilCo (VBOC) has put a simulation game online so you can supposedly see what it’s like to attempt to power a city of 3.5 million or so (about the population of the city—not the county—of Los Angeles).

You pick energy sources from an available list until you’ve fully powered the city. Your energy mix is rated along three axes, Economic, Environmental, and Security. You then, “watch what happens” over two time periods, the present to 2015 & 2015 to 2030, depending on your energy mix, “events,” and how aggressively you choose to pursue conservation and efficiency measures.

So how does this play out? Here’s what happened when I ran Solahville.

In the first stage, I assembled an energy mix that was 37.5% biomass, 25% solar, and 12.5% each for wind and hydro—maxing out all of those options and producing 88% of Solahville’s energy. At that point a “Petroleum Needed” flag came up and every energy button except petroleum became inoperative. Oh VBOC, say it ain’t so!

The city map showed four areas of deficit: Commercial Buildings had only 87.4% of the power they needed; Vehicles and Office Buildings both had 87.5%; Airplanes had 0%--my airport was shuttered. It was projected that I needed 17 Trillion BTUs for airplanes, some 3% of the city’s total energy needs.

It appears that, almost no matter what you do, you are limited in the number of alternative sources you can bring on line. No matter what set of choices I made, I could never power the city without getting to the “Petroleum Needed” level. You can argue limits make sense for biomass and hydro; there are clear supply issues for both. That’s less true for wind and solar.

I don’t know what assumptions the game makes about energy usage and efficiency; it’s a black box in that regard. But I am comfortable completely ignoring the matter of “underpowering” vehicles and buildings by ten to fifteen percent. Europe and Japan use about half the amount of energy the US uses, on a per capita basis with a comparable standard of living. We have plenty of room there to cut back with little or no pain.

The matter of jet fuel is a bit more difficult; we may need petroleum products there, as a bridge fuel, for some time. Still, we could significantly cut fuel use and ultimately change the fuel source: 1. How many passenger miles are consumed by pleasure trips? (for the record, I am in favor of pleasure but it’s not a noun I’ve lately associated much with air travel); 2. How many trips are of a duration that make them much better suited to high speed intercity rail? 3. How soon before we can scale up projects in which bacteria or algae excrete fuels for us in a carbon-virtuous cycle?

Moving into the future, with an aggressive efficiency and conservation plan in place, the first bump the program throws at me is “Smaller solar panels developed for widespread industrial use prove too costly over the long term, forcing factories to return to traditional sources of electricity.” I’m just going to snicker at that and move on.

The next bump is, “The growing use of ethanol and biodiesel results in higher food prices and shortages of corn, soy and sugar cane.” Can’t really argue with that; we’re mostly there already. If only I had listened to that nice Aaron Sorkin, when The West Wing broke the news that ethanol (corn ethanol anyway) was a scam.

In 2015, when it’s time to reconsider the mix, Solahville is suddenly down from 100% powered to 67% (economic growth?). I add more wind, more solar, more biomass, and (newly available) hydrogen to the mix. I’m fully powered but my “Economic Impact” meter goes into the red.

In 2019, “New technologies to extract oil expand the economically viable resource base.” Well that’s a relief! I was beginning to miss my hydrocarbon fix. And I’m sure those new technologies are completely environmentally friendly, cuz, y’know, they always are.

In 2024, “Dams become more environmentally friendly and powerful,” increasing power production from that source, while decreasing the environmental impact—fish ladders and bigger turbines for everyone! Dunno about this. Riverine ecologies don’t seem to be doing well on multiple fronts. A little skeptical about “low impact,” a little nervous about low flow—given the impact, present and future, of global climate change on snow melt, rain fall, and water usage.

My final score: 617,705,499. Maybe I didn’t look closely enough but I don’t know what that number measures. As a comparative, they provide a (higher is better) score of 622,960,192. Their mix to achieve that higher score was 11.2% petroleum, and included coal, natural gas, nuclear power, and shale oil. Hydrocarbons in aggregate made up 25.1% of the energy mix; nuclear provided 8%.

My mix was 8.3% petroleum (they would simply not allow me to “just say ‘no’ to hydrocarbons,”) with the rest divided between wind, solar, hydro, biomass, and hydrogen.

It’s an interesting, if somewhat opaque, game but my guess is that most people will come out with the same convictions they came in with: my conclusion, after twenty-two years as the energy czar of Solahville, is that we could build a carbon-neutral future; the conclusion of TheVeryBigOilCo remains, of course, Petroleum Needed.

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