Shots Across the Bow

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Smart Energy Policy

There are two factors which have driven American prosperity for the last two centuries. We've always had plenty of food, and abundant energy. If we lose either one, we will lose our prosperity; it is as simple as that. Cheap plentiful food means that we can support a division of labor. Rather than every man scratching to support himself and his family, an incredibly labor intensive and environmentally destructive process, we have farms that supply the food needs of an entire nation, not to mention a significant portion of the world, which allows all of those people to work at something other than mere survival. Cheap, abundant energy not only enables these enormously productive farms, but it also allows a single man to achieve productivity levels undreamed of in earlier times. It is that productivity that creates prosperity.

These two simple facts make it clear that we must have an energy policy that deals not only with our short term needs but also plans to meet our long term goals. It means that as long as we are dependent on foreign countries for our energy needs, we are vulnerable. We've already seen what a mild rise in energy costs can do to our standard of living and our prosperity; imagine a true crisis where our ability to purchase energy is literally cut in half, or worse. The primary goal of any sane energy policy must be to put the United States on an energy sufficient basis as quickly as possible. I'll say that again.

The primary goal of any sane energy policy must be to put the United States on an energy sufficient basis as quickly as possible.

Not reducing prices at the pump. Not worrying about the greenhouse effect. Not worrying about the environmental impact 100 years from now. Not worrying about peak oil. The primary question facing us today is what is the most effective way to balance our energy equation?

And no, we won't get there by adding a couple of pounds of air to our tires.

The first thing we need to look at, obviously, is oil. We're importing 70% of the oil we need. That is insane. What that means is that the folks we buy oil from have the capability of shutting our country down literally overnight. There are two reasons that hasn't happened yet. First, the world economy is carried by the US. We may run a gigantic trade deficit, but that deficit feeds billions of non Americans. If the US economy collapses, so does everyone else's. Second, we are the only country in the world that has ever used nuclear weapons in war.

The problem is that both of those reasons are becoming less valid. Other economies are beginning to rival US dominance, including the EU, and China, just to name two. And the US is showing signs that we lack the political will to act decisively to preserve our own national interests. The party out of power, regardless of the name, has demonstrated that they are more interested in regaining political power than serving the best needs of the country while the party in power is more interested in maintaining that power. And as for the citizens, as long as it doesn't interrupt American Idol, well, they pretty much couldn't care less. That means that those of us who do care need to make sure that whatever energy policy is adopted reduces the power of other nations to control our economy and our independence.

So, how do we eliminate our dependence on foreign oil. There are only two approaches. Either we produce more oil ourselves, or we use less. Obviously, the smartest play is to combine the approaches, but we need to do it intelligently. Where will we get the most bang for our buck? How can we best allocate our resources to maximize our return, not just in the short term but in the long term?

On the production side, we can drill. We have proven reserves in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico that can go a long way toward getting us where we need to be. We also have huge amounts of oil shales that are worth recovering at the current price of oil. In fact, if we fully utilize the resources we have right now, we can be independent of foreign oil within the decade, at least for a short while.

The problem is that oil isn't the long term solution. As world wide demand increases, the price will continue to increase. India and China have rapidly expanding economies and it won't be long until their oil demand is larger than ours and the hard truth is demand will eventually permanently outstrip supply. The trick will be to postpone that inevitability until we find the technologies that will replace oil permanently. Drilling will help, and so will conservation, but they will only delay the inevitable. The long term part of our strategy must be alternative energy sources.

Let's look at the available options.
  • First there's solar power. There are two aspects to solar, the first of which is solar voltaic, also called photovoltaic. Using specially constructed crystals, solar cells directly convert sunlight into electricity. The problem is the cells are energy intensive to manufacture, and the process isn't very green. Additionally, solar voltaic conversion isn't very efficient, converting about 10%-20% of the available sunlight to electricity. More promising is solar concentration, which concentrates the sun's rays just like a magnifying glass. The concentrated sunlight can be used to boil water to run a turbine generator to produce electricity or to heat a building. Steam can even be used to run an air conditioning plant.

    The major drawback of solar is that the sun doesn't stay out all of the time. It gets dark; it storms. We can bridge this inconvenient truth using batteries or slow discharge capacitors to store the excess electricity generated during the day, but that adds to the expense, and introduces more losses, reducing the efficiency of the system.

    In summary, to make solar power a viable possibility, we need better cells, manufactured in a less energy intensive way, and costing significantly less. We also need significant improvements in energy storage solutions to even out the inherently uneven supply. Concentrated solar power shows more short term promise, particularly from a conservation angle as it is easily installed in single family and multiple family dwellings, and it can have a significant impact on the energy consumption of those buildings.

  • Next is wind power. Wind power is simple and very easy to understand. The wind blows, turns a turbine and generates electricity. Unfortunately, wind suffers from the same problems as solar concerning intermittency of the supply. The wind doesn't blow all of the time. That means we have the same sorts of storage issues that we have with solar. The upside is that there's a lot more wind than there is usable sunlight, and the technology is already mature. There are estimates that the US can generate all of its electricity needs from wind power alone. All we need is more turbines and fewer NIMBY idiots.

  • Bio-diesel and other petroleum replacements are next. As is already apparent, ethanol from corn as a fuel is a losing proposition, and although the initial numbers for ethanol from switchgrass look promising, there's still a lot of research needed. Fuel cells are basically a shell game, a topic I've discussed in detail before. Essentially, the problem is that there is no free hydrogen in nature; we have to create it chemically, either through electrolysis of water, or the steam reformation of methane. In both cases, creating the free hydrogen consumes more energy than we get back when we burn the hydrogen, so the only way fuel cells will work is as a storage method for one of the other alternatives, like solar or wind.

  • Next on the hit parade is nuclear power. There's a lot of fear and ignorance concerning nuclear power, a lot of it spread intentionally by those who don't like nuclear power regardless of the truth. And the truth is this; nuclear power has fewer risks than coal, diesel, or natural gas powered plants. The downside is that startup costs are expensive, and due to excessive regulations, not likely to decrease in the near future. The upside is virtually greenhouse emission free energy.

  • Finally, there's everything else. Geothermal, wave energy, and all the other crack pot ideas floating around in the alternative energy universe. These longshots are all characterized by the years if not decades of development needed before they have any shot of becoming viable. However, they can't be completely ignored because lightening does strike occasionally and the longshot wins.

That's the energy snapshot. These are the pieces of the puzzle we have to play with. So now the job is to arrange them so that they make the most sense. Remember, our first priority is to get rid of our dependence on foreign oil. Our second priority is to develop technologies that will get us off oil altogether. We want to develop a strategy that meets our short term needs as well as moves us towards our long term goals.

The short term strategy involves leveraging current technologies to the fullest to both expand our current energy supply while acting to reduce demand through conservation. The long term strategy will involved heavy investment in those alternatives that show the most promise, or are closest to realization.

Looked at this way, the strategy becomes very clear. The following list is arranged by effectiveness in the short term.
  1. We should drill for oil domestically anywhere it is cost effective to do so. This includes off shore and ANWR.

  2. We should work on efficiency and conservation measures. Raising CAFE standards is only one approach. Provide incentives for energy saving solutions in industry and construction. Adjust building codes to take advantage of modern technologies.
  3. We should build more refining capacity. Even with refineries running at peak capacity, we're importing refined fuels.

  4. Utilize existing alternative technologies wherever they are effective. For example, I worked out on Johnston Atoll for a year. The island was 2 miles long and a half mile wide and drenched with sunshine, yet all the vehicles on the island ran on diesel and gasoline. It was the perfect place for solar electric cars.

You will note that developing alternative energy sources did not make the list. That's because this is the short term strategy. Alternative fuels, even wind, require a significant lead time for infrastructure development as well as basic R and D work, not to mention scaling the research facilities up to see if they are practical in a real world situation. For the short term, ie the next 5-10 years, alternative energies cannot play a large roll in out strategy. Long term strategy, well that's another thing.

  1. Expand wind power development, particularly the problem of storage and maintaining a clean even power signal. Wind power has the highest potential for replacing a significant amount of fossil fuel based energy with the shortest development time

  2. Transportation must be completely rethought. Cities have been designed around cheap transportation for decades. Trying to reverse that trend in the short term is a fool's mission. Instead, let's approach new construction from a fresh perspective. New growth areas should be developed with the view of minimizing transportation costs. Now this doesn't mean high density urban living, as is the current fashion in environmental wacko land. The village model is equally valis and has the advantage of appealing to a much greater number of people. Including bike paths, walkways, green areas, and convenient public transportation will go a long way towards convincing people to reduce car use.

  3. Solar voltaic is a long way from commercial viability, but concentrated and passive solar systems should be deployed as quickly as possible, perhaps even in short term in areas where solar power is an optimum solution.

  4. Fuel cells are not an energy source but a storage system. The hydrogen economy is a myth. It is a trap that will leave us exactly where we are now, with Big Oil being replaced by Big Hydrogen. As a storage system, on the other hand, fuel cells show some promise. Continue research on them in that capacity, but the fuel cell vehicle is a dead end.
  5. Nuclear power is a safe, sane, cost effective alternative to electricity generation using fossil fuels if it allowed to be. If your goal is to create good, high paying jobs that can't be sent overseas, and result in the generation of clean power, nuclear power is the best option.


And there you have it. A comprehensive energy strategy that meets our short term needs while preparing us to meet our long term goals. And it's environmentally responsible. It gets us off of foreign energy in a short period of time while not destabilizing our economy. It moves people to live in a more environmentally friendly fashion without burdening them with a lot of top heavy regulations. Instead, the advantages of smart living are used to sell it. After all, how many people reading this would like to live in a place where they could walk to work, and pick up groceries for dinner on the way home?

I know I would.

Posted by Rich
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