Might As Well Face It, You’re Addicted To Crude

(With apologies to Robert Palmer.)

President Bush has stated that the United States is “addicted to oil.” Which isn’t all that inaccurate a statement, we do have a necessity for a substance sold by a bunch of rather shady characters. However, one could also say we have an addiction to air as well – it’s necessary for our healthy functioning.

The biggest problem with alternative fuels is physics. Gasoline carries a lot of energy, or as physicists say, it has a high energy density. (Around 45MJ/kg for the people who actually care – all none of you.) In comparison, alternate fuels like ethanol has a much lower energy density (about 25MJ/kg).

Now, hydrogen has a great energy density (around 120MJ/kg), but it takes much more energy to get that hydrogen than it does to get other fuels. In fact, it takes considerably more energy to create hydrogen than we get back from burning it. Even a very efficient hydrogen fuel cell runs at only 25% efficiency when the creation, storage, and transportation of the hydrogen is taken into account. Gasoline still remains the king of energy storage needs.

Bob Zubrin, who’s really is a rocket scientist believes that biofuels are the future – taking agricultural waste products and turning them into liquid fuels. Already this is being done with 10% Ethanol blends and even E85 fuels. The problem with these fuels is the old energy density problem. You’re only getting an efficiency of 1-2% from these fuels, and while the energy used to produce them is relatively cheap (as much of it comes from the sun), E85 fuel is corrosive, and many cars on the road today don’t accept ethanol fuels. I know that I won’t touch even 10% ethanol fuel because it kills my gas mileage, degrades my engine performance, and I end up burning more fuel. If a 10% ethanol blend causes a drop in fuel efficiency of 11%, then you’re using more gasoline to produce the same amount of work.

Not only that, but biodiesel fuels produce unacceptably high levels of particulate matter – smog, in essence. The 2006 VW Jetta Diesel may get 40mpg on biodiesel fuels, but has one of the worst emissions ratings of any car. The only way to reduce particular emissions from biodiesel is to install complex filtering systems that rob those engines of power.

Electric cars don’t help either – they just shift the pollution from vehicles to power plants. Thanks to decades of overregulation, we don’t have the power generation capacity to meet current demand, no less the demands of a million new electric cars. Most of America’s electricity still comes from coal, and even “clean coal” plants belch out tons of particulate matter and other pollutants. Furthermore, coal power produces more radiation than do nuclear power plants – and that radiation goes right into the atmosphere rather than being contained.

Obviously, we can’t stay on fossil fuels forever, but we don’t have any alternatives that have the same economic benefits, and we can’t change the laws of physics. What we can do is realize that if we’re going to have a biofuel economy, we’re only solving half the problem – electrical generation still produces pollutants, and we’ve all seen how dangerous coal mining has become. The alternative to the kind of mining that killed the miners in West Virginia is strip mining, and that isn’t something most people particularly care to allow. Again, we’re faced with either subjecting people to a dangerous environment to gather coal resources or “despoiling” the environment through strip mining – and then living with the pollutants produced by coal.

Looking realistically at the economics and the physics involves, our best solution remains a multi-pronged approach. The Chinese are working towards producing 300 gigawatts of nuclear power by 2020. The entire world output is 350 gigawatts at the present time – China intends to produce a truly massive amount of electricity using safe and efficient pebble-bed reactors. If you have 300 gigawatts of efficient energy to play around with, you can start to afford to let some of it go to “waste” in inefficient processes like hydrogen generation.

However, the biggest roadblocks towards energy independence are bad policies. Regulation has made nuclear power generation economically impossible. The NIMBY effect and the irrational fear of anything “nuclear” by the American public make nuclear power a virtual non-starter. The Bush Administration has quietly been making things easier, but government policies still put this efficient and safe technology far out of reach.

Biofuels are mainly produced from corn, which is tremendously inefficient and done mainly as a way of buying off rural voters with government subsidies. While ethanol is tremendously popular here in America’s heartland, it’s because it’s a gold mine for farmers rather than its real economic value. While it’s much better to be sending money to Billy Farmer in South Dakota than Ahmad al-Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia, the subsidies on ethanol production distort the market. The price of ethanol is set artificially low, which helps farmers and makes ethanol blends more attractive, but end up costing more than they should and stifling innovation. Take away the economic incentives to make ethanol cheaper and we end up with the same inefficient processes rather than finding the next breakthrough that could make ethanol fuels truly cost competitive.

Markets are fantastically good at finding and utilizing efficiencies when resources get scarce. Governments are not. As valuable as government research can be, the best way of jump-staring America’s path into energy independence is for government to get the hell out of the way. We have options for energy independence, from manufacturing oil through polymerizing turkey guts to advanced pebble-bed nuclear reactors. The problem for all these different forms of energy is that regulatory pressures make it damn near impossible for anyone other than huge multinationals to develop alternate energy sources. Smaller companies don’t have the resources to navigate through the minefields of regulation on the local, state, and federal level, meaning that they end up being forced to close down or sell out.

Breaking our “addiction” to oil won’t be easy. It requires us to think creatively, try daring new initiatives, and be willing to fail. Neither of those three are qualities found in big business or government. They are all qualities found in America’s entrepreneurial spirit. The next great breakthrough in energy might be found in someone’s garage, but if the regulatory climate doesn’t let that inventor bring his product to market we’ll never know. Our addiction to oil is directly tied to our government’s addiction to onerous regulations, and until we break the latter, we’ll have a much more difficult time breaking the former.

5 thoughts on “Might As Well Face It, You’re Addicted To Crude

  1. From what I’ve read, 1.3 gallons of oil are burned to produce one gallon of ethanol. I expect a similar ratio can be applied to biodiesel. Perhaps in time this will change, but for now the combination of production inefficiency and government subsidies make ethanol a very expensive “alternative” far removed from the marketing fantasy of “getting our energy from the Midwest rather than the Mideast.” The sad part is, most Midwesterners don’t have a clue about the inefficiency of biofuels given all the propaganda we’re spoon-fed about it. I’m not opposed to its continuity as it is likely to become more efficient as the years progress, but as for now, it’s right up there with the Department of Homeland Security amongst bottomless pit boondoggles.

  2. Ethanol isn’t a fuel, ethanol is an additive. And I don’t know why you get worse milage with 10% ethanol, I always tend to get better milage; I get the worst milage with low-octane regular. And, unless you’ve got a Taurus with a Vulcan engine (the only mass-produced ethanol burner), E85 is worse than pointless.

    We need nukes, now. We need to renew our hydroelectric network, rather than dismantle it. (Some of the highest output plants in the U.S. are hydro- Washington’s Grand Coulee puts out over 12 GW at peak operation. At peak output, SD’s hydro network can power the whole state.) As a long term investment, we need wind turbines- and a hell of a lot of them. (GE’s new designs are increasingly efficient and long-lasting.) Start paving the upper midwest with them; you could hide 50,000 in SD and hardly anyone would ever notice. We’ll need solar convection towers, tidal harnesses, oceanic-thermal generators, geothermal generators. We’ve got six billion people who need power, and it isn’t coming from oil or biofuels.

    Hydrogen will have it’s place too- as energy storage. I could forsee a time when extra wind energy from off-peak hours is shunted into electrolysis plants on the great lakes which could generate a hydrogen reserve for either automotive or power generation use; while it’s not the most efficient method in the world, it’s better than losing the energy.

    Of course, how to make this happen without holding a gun to the head of every energy company on the planet? Given the way the world system works, I’m not sure that the market could save us, given that the major energy companies are so powerful that they can manipulate just about any government into doing what they say; collusion could depress an oncoming crisis until it’s too late to do anything. One possible market-driven solution would be backing currency with an energy reserve, say pegging the dollar to the value of 20 KWH of electricity, but, unfortunately, I don’t see that happening. It would make more sense and have much more utility than a gold standard though…

  3. You know what I like about ethanol? We’ve already got the technology to make it, we’ve already got ethanol producing plants cranking it out right now here in Minnesota, we’ve already got farmers producing the raw materials for it. We don’t have to wait for “sometime” in the future for ethanol production to become a reality. It’s here. Let’s use it now. If something better comes along in the next five to 10 years that’s better, great. We can switch to whatever works the best when whatever is best becomes available.

  4. way:

    Ethanol is a crock. It takes more energy to make it that we get out of it, and it can’t be produced in quantities necessary for use as a fuel. It’s an additive, nothing more.

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