Tuesday, June 24, 2008

All Of The Above

Time to tick a few people off. Energy issues have been a part of the American landscape for over 3 decades. It surfaced once in 1973, the again in 1979 and has come to a head again with gas prices passing $4 per gallon. Personally, I believe the status quo isn't working. So here are some quick thoughts on energy economics.

There has been a mania behind exporting jobs, importing cheap products and increased trade deficits that seems hypocritical when we consider that we export $1 billion per day (combined -- in order --to Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq, Angola, Algeria and many others) in trade for two-thirds of the oil-based products we consume. (You may notice we purchase less from places further away as it costs more to ship.) When we make less than half of what we consume, that's a huge on-going energy deficit. And, when we pay someone else to extract oil, we provide a job extracting oil to someone in another country.

The notion that we can grow our own oil is a terrific one. Self-sufficiency through productive growth is ideal. Yet, it leaves us dependent on sunny weather. E-85 gets its name from the percentage of corn-based ethanol in the product (15% is gasoline.) The price of corn is climbing. Don't expect that to stop. The current Midwest flooding and other natural events such as drought affecting supply do not make for stable pricing. I will not go into the fuel's contribution to greenhouse gases as the studies will take some time. Just kind of odd to say you want to get off gasoline but you include it in the mixture when there are car conversions that allow you to run on vegetable oil which also could be affected by natural events.

Electricity is wonderful. The promise of hybrid cars is exciting. One presidential candidate has proposed a $300 million prize "for the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars". Of course, the definition of 'leapfrog' is debatable but similar to corn-based ethanol... how stable is electricity? 70% of our electricity is created from fossil fuels. Many rightly claim that this means of production adds to air pollution and, yes, greenhouse gases. But, more dangerous is dependence on electricity. The rolling black-outs of 2000-2001 were not an anomaly. During another set of California rolling blackouts in 2005, The California Independent System Operator ordered the provider to "to reduce demand throughout its territory." I don't know about you, but I don't see us producing more electric energy without some clearing of legislative hurdles. Plugging in your car sounds amazing until a new wave of blackouts begin. I believe that this will lead to something similar to our watering plans ("People in plan C can plug in on Wednesdays and Saturdays.")

Windpower is wonderful. It is a growing form of renewable energy as states are able to make use of some land (and water areas) that might otherwise go unused.
As of June 30, 2006, the United States has 9,971 MW of installed wind capacity, enough to serve over 2.3 million average American households. Finding suitable area that isn't in migration paths are an issue here. For some reason, birds either don't see it or care. There are also a lot of people that don't find it visually appealing.

Hydropower has hope. But there are tons of different technologies being looked into. According to the IEEE, "
In fiscal year 2008, funding was provided to DOE for research on a wide range of advanced water power technologies. As part of its commitment to develop clean, domestic energy sources, DOE is collaborating with industry, regulators, and other stakeholders to investigate emerging water power technologies and further improve conventional hydropower systems." So possibly in the future. Sure dams have been around for a long time but creating power by releasing water is entirely dependent on rainfall and snowpack which are as predictable as... the weather.

Solar energy is progressing nicely. Oddly enough, BP -- one of those big greedy oil companies -- has been involved in its development for over 30 years. The technology is getting better for storage and return to the power grid. It's still costly due to the cost of the accumulators, the fragility of the components (glass, semiconductors and more) and regular maintenance. Again, aesthetics and land use are problems but it is getting more tempting to add panels to your house when you make the purchase. When it gets cheaper, expect panels on every roof. Yes, it requires mother nature's help again with plenty of sun.

The hydrogen engine is also appealing. There are several automobile models that are already using it. Despite the promise it may hold, there are critics that claim that it is one of the least efficient and most expensive ways to reduce greenhouse gases. And it may not even do that. According to an article published in the March/April 2007 issue of Technology Review: "In the context of the overall energy economy, a car like the BMW Hydrogen 7 would proba­bly produce far more carbon dioxide emissions than gasoline-powered cars available today. And changing this calculation would take multiple breakthroughs--which study after study has predicted will take decades, if they arrive at all. In fact, the Hydrogen 7 and its hydrogen-fuel-cell cousins are, in many ways, simply flashy distractions produced by automakers who should be taking stronger immediate action to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions of their cars."

Lastly, I'll mention nuclear energy. Remember when I said 70% of our elecricity comes from fossil fuels? 20% of it comes from nuclear energy. There are many arguments against its use (waste disposal, radiation and accidents creating a meltdown.) Of course, this isn't keeping global competition from going this route as China, Russia and India have plans to build over a hundred new plants among them in the coming decades.

If anything, what we do know is that there are a lot of alternatives out there when it comes to energy. Is America sitting on the fence when it comes to self-sufficiency? That's something for us to consider. Let's say that the best all-electric car comes along at an affordable price. Although, that kind of development is quite a ways off, it needs to be powered or it'll be useless. Emerging technologies are just that... emerging. It's important to develop these and let American ingenuity loose. Waiting and depending on the advancement of specific technologies to hopefully come save the day is wishful thinking. I wonder what would happen if we developed all of the above. Could these energy forms duke it out in a free market to lessen their costs and sharpen their focus? Could we become a nation that exports energy as well as intellectual property? I think that I'll revisit this topic 10 years from now.


Fred said...

In the future, every house should have solar panels. No questions asked.

I would add one other scarce resource to your post. Water.

Water is rapidly becoming an issue, as those of you out west have known for years. Tampa Bay has the largest desalinization plant in the nation, and it is saving the aquifer and shielding us from drought. We need more of them.

It could be one of those things that twenty years from now we wonder why we didn't fix it now.

Ken said...

Martin, first, it's nice to see that others are tackling the more weighty issues in their blogs as well. It gets a little lonely out here.

That being said, I'm not confident that the US will ever be entirely self-sufficient when it comes to energy. Where I disagree with you is that I think we currently need some government assistance to develop the alternatives and then we can see about turning the free market loose.

Martin said...

Fred: I entirely understand what you mean. When you see states fighting over access to water for crops, they aren't too far off from drinking water issues. I'd love to see other states take the initiative that yours has especially when problems are on the horizon (even though people will bicker about how far the horizon is.)

Ken: The weightier issues don't come out as easy as they used to here. hahaha I think government assistance often leads to the picking of a winner instead of a bolstering of all those technologies.