Energy Independence Too - Alternatives

We have been here before. Harry Truman started the first big alternative fuels project. President Carter promised that the U.S. would never again import as much foreign oil as it did in 1977. Twenty-nine years later, President Bush warned about our addiction to oil (BTW more than in 1977). What did we learn? Cheap oil trumps policy promises and alternatives. Sowaddawedo?

First, we need to recognize that the problem is political, social and economic, but not really technical. This is important, because we keep on trying to apply the technical solutions and they never work. We use oil because it is cheap. We use foreign oil because it is even cheaper. We want to continue to use oil because it supports the lifestyles we enjoy at a price we accept. Unless we change part of that equation, we will always come up with the same answer - more oil.

Before going on, let me break the problem down into two parts. The one part is oil as an environmental problem. The second part is FOREIGN oil as an economic and geopolitical problem. They are separable. You could solve one and not the other. For example, foreign oil can be replaced by American oil from ANWAR, oil shale from Utah, Colorado & Wyoming or from oil sand from Alberta (yes a foreign country but nearby and generally stable). This oil will cost a little more in terms of dollars and a lot more in terms of environment, but we can achieve reasonable energy independence in this way. This is not the way to go, IMO.

Oil use as an environmental threat is the bigger challenge. Remember why we use oil, but then figure in the external costs. This makes oil less of a good deal.

Rand Corporation has recently released a study indicating that falling costs of ethanol, wind power and other forms of renewable energy could allow them to supply 25% of U.S. energy by 2025 at little or no additional expense. (Renewables currently account for only 6% of our energy, and about half of that comes from hydroelectric dams.) This assumes that the price of oil does not decline by very much. Low cost oil (reaching its lowest point in 1998) has destroyed hopes for alternatives before. So let's make sure the prices do not drop very much.

Once they get started, renewables have a big constituency, especially in farm states. The most promising, IMO, is ethanol from wood chips. I admit a personal interest in that. Also interesting are various ways to make methane from manure and other wastes. Read more about these things here.

Promising as all this is, read the number very carefully - 25%. That is the optimistic scenario. That still means 75% has to come from someplace else. We will still be using oil, coal and gas for a long time. The most promising large scale clean alternative is nuclear (the French get 78% of the electric power from nukes; we get about 20%). We might be able to squeeze a little more out of energy conservation. If we just build smarter we can save money, be comfortable and help the environment at the same time. A sustainable resource house, BTW, need not be built out of straw or sticks and it can be very attractive and comfortable.

So let's address the energy problem, but let's address the right one in the right way. Recognize that we have the energy mix we have today because it is what we chose and what we continue to choose. We need not blame others or talk about the stupidity of past generations. We chose what we have and that means we have the choice to choose alternatives too.

Posted by Jack at November 15, 2006 5:40 PM
Comment #195231
The most promising large scale clean alternative is nuclear (the French get 78% of the electric power from nukes; we get about 20%).

There are two problems with nuclear power:

1. Nuclear energy is not sustainable. The next generation will face the same problem we are when they start running out of uranium.

2. To get the kind of power we need we would have to have big reactors, a lot of them. This means there’s a very good chance of encountering Chernobyl-like accidents and or terrorist bombing incidents. Also, with this much nuclear energy, what do you do with the waste?

I’m all for more nuclear power, but it’s not a magic bullet. We’ll never get all our energy from nuclear power like the French.

Recognize that we have the energy mix we have today because it is what we chose and what we continue to choose.

Glad to see you are recognizing that through goverment regulation we can exercise our right to choose. We don’t have to “choose” what the free market decides.

Posted by: Max at November 15, 2006 6:20 PM
Comment #195251


One reason we choose oil is government regulation. Government programs (good ones, BTW) such as building the Interstate system and providing stimulus to home buying have encouraged the use of oil. Regulations on power plants have shaped the mix of generating capacity.

The free market has not decided on oil. It is a combination of free market, regulation, luck and inertia.

BTW - why do YOU think we depend on oil to such a great extent? How is it that we so swiftly moved from a coal based economy? Did we move from a coal based economy?

Re nukes - nukes may not be the permanent solution. The current generation certainly is not. But if we can generate 25% of our energy with renewables by 2025 in an optimistic scenario (up from 6% - and half of that from hydro. How many more big dams can we build?) today, what alternatives do you propose?

Posted by: Jack at November 15, 2006 8:04 PM
Comment #195256

2280W 240V solar tie in grid, $16,869, hook it up and watch your electric meter run backwards.

Posted by: jlw at November 15, 2006 8:42 PM
Comment #195258


Not wanting to naysay again, but … that is your initial investment. It has to be maintained and replaced. Second, you are talking about powering your residence. We have lots of other industrial needs. How much electricity does one elevator use to get up and down a tall building?

A renewalble like that is a good part of the mix. We should encourage them but not rely on it or over promise.

I wonder about your estimate. I looked at solar from BP Solar and it looked like a 50K investment to reasonably power a house in the middle Atlantic. You need some way to store the power for dark or cloudy days.

If you are just talking about replacing current electrical usage, my highest monthly bill was $184 in August when we use a lot of air conditioning. How many years would it take to recoup the initial investment?

I figure it would take 15 years to amortize at 6% interest rates, and then if the roof blows off or we get a big ice storm, I am out of luck.

Posted by: Jack at November 15, 2006 9:06 PM
Comment #195269

Jack: This is just one of many systems now available. Most of the systems have a life expectency of 30 years. When your meter is running backwards, you are selling electricity to your utility company unless you live in a state where your state legislature is in bed with the utility companies. Although there are totally off the grid systems, this is not one. Won’t your homeowners insurance cover such losses. The price of electricity will continue to go up.

If you added a wind mill you will be a utility company.
There are better systems, I just grabbed this one quick from the alternative energy institute. type in alternative energy and search the web.

We will be talking about this subject a lot and I promise that I will research it thoroughly and I promise to learn to link as soon as I can get my nephew to come around. Twenty year olds have a very busy schedule.

Posted by: jlw at November 15, 2006 9:51 PM
Comment #195273

Jack, I beleive that we can even add two more parts to the foreign oil and environmental concerns, they are increasing competition for the same oil, and decreasing availability of oil.

Its important that we as a Country develop a plan that will wean us from oil in the coming decades. Of course the sooner we start the better off the future of the country can be. The longer we wait the harder we fall. The demand for an answer has to come from the people not the politicians because as you pointed out earlier we will not get ourselves elected running on this message.

Posted by: j2t2 at November 15, 2006 10:00 PM
Comment #195278

Jimmy Carter warned us and tried to do something about it. Then Ronald Reagan became president, Don’t worry, Be happy.

Posted by: jlw at November 15, 2006 10:15 PM
Comment #195285


Jimmy Carter warned us and then did the wrong thing with his synfuels. Good thing he didn’t succeed in making oil from coal and oil shales. Remember in 1979 we worried re global cooling. The CO2 from these technologies is vast. We would have made progress on the energy independence at the expense of enviroment.

I wrote another article about price. You find US energy efficiency increased fast when the price was high. The price of oil dropped in the mid 1980s and reached a low point in 1998. The president or party in power doesn’t make much difference. Clinton did nothing except talk alot even with Gore as VP. On the other hand, our efficiency increased again under Bush WHEN THE PRICE WENT UP.

Posted by: Jack at November 15, 2006 11:10 PM
Comment #195299

Jack: The election is over. The price of gas has risen 30 cents a gal. in a week. The price of oil is going to continue to rise and will only come back down if we actually get serious about alternative energy sources. What we need is a leader with a backbone. One that can convince us to do what is right for us, our nation and the World. Where we are going to find the next great leader at God only knows.

Posted by: jlw at November 16, 2006 12:15 AM
Comment #195313

Nice Jack

You mentioned the hazard of cheap oil to alternatives, Absolutly correct. Some Saudis have hinted that that is exactly what they plan to do if alternatives start hurting them. Why not? Outside of pumping and minimal processing they have no real investment in their product. To avoid this we could establish a floor,a minimum price. If the price falls below a given level an automatic levy kicks in. The price could raise over this level but never go below. This would allow a pricing target for alternative fuel developers and help give confidence to investers. This is important as a real shift will take large amounts of capital. Yes this is government interference in the market but face it we are not dealing with a free market here .We are dealing with a cartel.
Another way the govenment could help in a hurry is to promote conservation not just through regulation and incentives but through a national campaign. In this war on terror we really have not been ask to do much. InWW2 we were asked to buy war bonds,there was rationing and scrap metal drives. Celebrities were inlisted to promote these measures and Americans were proud to help. It not only helped the war effort but helped the country pull together and unite as one to defeat the axis. All they have to do is ask. It should not be to hard to convince people that it is patriotic(because it is) to carpool or use that old clothes line on a sunny day,or vacation somewhere closer or wash the clothes in cold water or buy that hybrid instead or install those solar panels or…you get the point. Between the enviormental and geo-political considerations it could easily become a national unifying point. Imagine Al and Rush on the same show urgeing that we all check our tire inflation or join in a gasless sunday. We could probably cut in the nieghborhood of 20%.

Posted by: BillS at November 16, 2006 2:07 AM
Comment #195322


The price will (should) NEVER come down. That is the pernicious myth of the alternative energy debate. The price of alternatives (when you count in captial investment in things like your solar) will be about as expensive as the high end of energy is now. Presumably, we will learn to use energy more efficiently, making the actual cost of use about the same. For example, my hybrid gets 40 miles to the gallon. That kind of progress will NOT in the long run CUT my gas costs. It will just keep me up.

Religious people believe they reach paradise in some future world. The truth about this one is that we never get all the things we want (or even most of them) at the same time.

Posted by: Jack at November 16, 2006 8:46 AM
Comment #195323


Good post. I think that a combination of various small actions would be an excellent first step. Improving efficiency in housing and automobiles across the board would help. Developing a viable public transportation system would also be valuable. There’s a lot we can all do to improve efficiency, and we all need to start.

Posted by: 1LT B at November 16, 2006 8:53 AM
Comment #195334

Now that the dims have control, we might get into wind turbins on dan-tuck-it despite ride with Ted and end up dead kennedy. With all the hot air expounding from the house and floor of the senate it should power NYC for at least 2 more years.

Now that the moral fiber of san fran is running our country the term dims use regarding their national symbol of the jackass, will take on a hole new meaning of get off my ass!

You know the bi-partisan group now in control reaching across party lines. They cannot even reach across their own lines to agree to agree.

what a bunch of jackasses.

no pun intended.

Posted by: im at November 16, 2006 10:28 AM
Comment #195361


Yeah, that pernicious attitude will help.

Posted by: womanmarine at November 16, 2006 1:16 PM
Comment #195363

“squeeze a little more out of conservation” ? Have you considered the choices that people make with their use of energy. (cars, electrical appliances, lifestyle choices, even the choice of cheaper energy wasting light bulbs over efficient ones). If people simply maintained proper tire pressure it would save more energy than Anwar drilling would produce.

Posted by: Charles Ross at November 16, 2006 1:30 PM
Comment #195368

Your comments about expanding the use of nuclear power show a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of risk. Nuclear power generation has been extraordinarily safe and reliable here in the United States. If you look at the generation of power world-wide there has been a net cost to the use of nuclear power, not a net benefit! This is because of one “incident”, Chernobyl. If you doubt that the industry itself does not understand this risk then please refer to something called the Price-Anderson Act of 1957. An action by Congress that indemnifies companies/individuals that are involved in the production of nuclear energy. (look up the word “indemnify” if you don’t know what it means, I don’t have the time to explain it to you).

Posted by: charles Ross at November 16, 2006 1:48 PM
Comment #195380


I guess some of us may have heard that word indemnify some time in the past. I always figure that I am talking to intelligent people unless they give me reason to suspect otherwise. Why do you think others are so dumb? Let the wisdom of your post speak for itself (or not).

I assume you make a lot of money writing books about risk managment, but that does not mean you know everything or that others know nothing.

But if you do not understand that, I do not have time to explain it to you.

I do understand that the Soviet Union screwed up more than Chernobyl and that many thousands died as a result of their use of coal and other forms of energy, in many incidents. Many more had their health ruined by the related pollution. I also understand that 1957 was a long time ago. How many people has nuclear power in the U.S. killed since that time? Energy has to come from somewhere and all forms of energy generation have risks.

Posted by: Jack at November 16, 2006 2:32 PM
Comment #195397

It irritates me to no end how people with ideologies take positions, and then seek out facts to massage and rationalize, extracting little germs of truth that fit those ideologies and then present it all to the world as reasoned commentary.
You’ve just written about energy/policy/use/sources/political restraints. It is a huge problem that can scarcely be defined in a couple of paragraphs let alone solved. Go outside and take a look at how people use energy. I don’t know how anyone could come away from taking an honest look at energy consumption in the United States and make the comment that we might be able to “squeeze a little more out of energy conservation”. The truth is, the undeniable truth is, that we can squeeze a hell of a lot more out of energy conservation if policy were made on the basis of national interests and not monied interests
Your comment that many forms of energy pose health risks is certainly true but it is a rationalization to imply that, because of that, nuclear power is a good alternative. You don’t deny that nuclear power, to this point, because of Chernobyl, has provided a net cost to the world, not a net benefit but instead insist on a rationalization that it wasn’t a nuclear powered plant that poisoned thousands of square miles and killed I don’t know how many people, but that screw-up Soviet Union. The implication of the comment is that, well, we’re a sharper group of people here in the West and it won’t happen here. Well clearly the Price-Anderson Act is telling us all that the big boys don’t agree with you. They are saying that it COULD happen here and they don’t want to pay for it!
Absolute truth is very rare. There is some aspect of 99% of what we hear presented as truth, that is not true. I have trouble with people who try to sum up/dumb up/simplify problems and then stick a label on it. You are obviously promoting the use of energy in your commentary. We use oil as a source of energy not because it is cheap (when one considers ALL the costs, it is extremely expensive) but because the above-mentioned big boys decided long ago that this is how it’s going to be.
I drive a bread truck for a living. It gives me a lot of time to think.
I post on this blog because it is interesting and your commentary is interesting. Regards

Posted by: charles Ross at November 16, 2006 3:51 PM
Comment #195401


We can save a lot by conservation. I do not mean to make it seem like nothing. But we obviously cannot conserve our way to not needing fossile fuels or nukes. Today renewables make up 6% of our energy future. Even if we can conserve away half our total demand, we still have to deal with that other 44%. I do not know how much this translates to in real oil, coal or nukes, but I suspect it is a big number.

Re the Soviet Union, we are a sharper group of people. Our reactors were not as bad as theirs even in the old days and they have improved a lot since then. My point re the Soviets is that they managed to produce bad results in everything except Olympic sports, pure sciences and chess. It was really amazing how bad a management they had. It is no coincidence that terrible accident happened there and not here, Sweden or France.

We COULD have an accident. But we DO have people dying each day from other forms of energy, not to mention the CO2.

RE the book, it was not a joke. I think there is a Charles Ross who writes on risk management. Google your name and risk managment.

Posted by: Jack at November 16, 2006 4:25 PM
Comment #195409

Sorry Jack,you lose me on nukes,unless of course in the true spirit of bipartisan cooperation,congress is able to repeal Murphy’s law. They are just too dangerious.

Posted by: BillS at November 16, 2006 5:29 PM
Comment #195422

Nuclear power plants are the best way to insure that the control of electrical power in this nation remains in the hands of the corporate oligarchy.

Posted by: jlw at November 16, 2006 7:30 PM
Comment #195432

Jack, for the most part, the French government owns the nation’s nuclear plants. I assume you are not recommending socialist energy in the United States.

If Rand says renewables will account for 25 percent of the energy consumed by 2025. I assume its forecast makes some sort of sense, though as we know all forecasts, even EIA’s are guesses. Considering, though, that because of population and other pressures, demand is forecasted to increase, it’s not clear to me if Rand is actually projecting a decrease in oil/fossil fuel use by 2025 or not. EIA forecasts, after taking into account movement on renewables, an increase in actual energy consumption, though a decrease in energy intensity. Any discussion of this must account for increased population. We’ll have 400 million people in this country by 2040 or so.

Personally, I think the most likely scenario is that we don’t take significant steps to actually curtail in any dramatic fashion our use of imported oil. Without the kind of national committment to energy independence that the French have demonstrated, I don’t see us getting off our oil addiction.

Posted by: Trent at November 16, 2006 8:12 PM
Comment #195509

I was in Calif. during the energy squeese. We were face with the prospect of prolonged rolling blackouts etc. We avoided most of the hardship and economic disruption with conservation. It really was not too hard. The governor just asked us to and there was media messages reminding us to conserve. People turned off lights they weren’t useing and shut down computers for the night etc. I forget the exact figure but it was between 10-20%.
Just because this is as good a place as any to mention interesting energy conservation methods, I met some people working on a method to dramatically decrese the energy cost in large building. Seems that under ground always stays about 60 F. If its 20 below it stays 60F, if its 112 it stays 60F. The method involves under groud plenums to change the air temps before it gets to the heating or cooling systems. This is most suitable for new construction where excavation occurs anyway. There is additional cost that can be made up in energy savings over time and the savings achieved by smaller heating and cooling devices.
We do not need the Wright brothers to devise some revolutionary energy source. Good old American knowhow and creativity will do nicely. What we lack is the political will and leadership to create a climate where alternatives can thrive.

Posted by: BillS at November 17, 2006 1:10 AM
Comment #239797

Gas prices,,,,,, way too high! and the ‘idiots’ that are now making money ovey this, sure aren’t ‘crying’ now. But we who are paying this are now ‘screaming’ I do own a good car, no stupid suv, but still hate this ‘crap’ What I now own, isn’t made anymore but it still does really good in that sense. Sorry I can’t afford a
‘hybrid’ which would be the best thing, but I do own something that still does really good!
I love my car(ford Probe) and hope for a better deal in these
stupid’ fuel prices!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: Albert Cantin at December 1, 2007 5:56 PM
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