Thursday, June 12, 2008

Energy Independence and the Future

I try to keep my posts brief, so fair warning, this one won’t be. I’ll be including some posts written earlier on another blog site. Energy is huge right now, and we need solutions to help bridge us to new technologies that will keep the country running. The alternative is going back to pre 1900’s technology. That would please a lot of environmentalists, but I don’t believe the people of the United States would actually tolerate it.

The information gathered here is what I’ve come to understand after significant research and reading. I don’t have link sources for all the information I’ve accumulated over time, but a quick web search should suffice to give you more information on my point of view as well as opposing points of view.

Let me first say I am a huge proponent of new technologies. I believe we need to use and develop every viable energy technology that shows promise in getting us off of oil all together. We’re smart, we’re capable, and we can move beyond internal combustion. These dreams are going to be realized, but we’re not quite there yet. In the mean time, we need immediate solutions to get us off foreign oil.

Bridges to the Future

There are several things we need to do to get off foreign oil in the next decade. They’re not cheap, but they are cheaper than $130 per barrel oil. I lean heavily toward the use of nuclear energy as I’ll outline below. We have to recognize that there is no perfect source of energy. Every source of energy comes with risk and pollution, whether in the actual production of the energy, the fabrication of the collection system, or both.

The key, then, is to choose the "least bad" option. This means balancing reliable production with the smallest degree of pollution, danger and transfer of wealth to enemy nations.

The future is not oil; oil is a limited resource that we may actually be nearing the end of. However, it is a vital bridge to better sources of energy. To keep our economy going in the short run, reality dictates we start drilling off our shores, in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, refining oil-bearing shale and even gasifying coal.

Implementing these short-term solutions means changing our current, often ludicrous legislation about domestic exploration and extraction of resources. Most of our modern methods can produce petroleum with little or no ecological impact. Carbon dioxide can be sequestered during gasification processes, human footprint kept small, etc.

Offshore Drilling

Many environmentalists worry that we'll have an accident during offshore drilling. As far as I'm aware, that's incredibly rare. Remember, the largest oil disaster most people can think of was the Exxon Valdez spill. That involved a tanker ship running aground, not a platform at sea spilling oil into the ocean, so what's the better method? Shipping billions of barrels of oil across thousands of miles of ocean, or drilling offshore? The figures I’ve heard put the danger of oil spill from tanker accidents at 13 times the danger of spillage from oil platforms. Oil platforms have had less leakage into the ocean than natural petroleum seeps that occur from time to time. That’s right, Mother Nature is dumping more oil into the ocean than our drilling platforms are! Current offshore rigs can work far enough out to avoid "marring" the ocean view.

Gasification of Coal

The proposal I heard on gasification of coal actually came from the former president of Jet Blue who is concerned about preserving the profit margins of his company by driving down the cost of fuel. Other companies have also proposed this solution. I’m absolutely not for big government, or spending tax dollars on private programs, so it’s something I usually wouldn’t want the government to do. In this case, however there’s the potential for energy independence in 10 years if we were serious about it, the generation of new jobs in many States, the massive generation of tax revenue for the Federal and several State governments without raising the rate of taxation at all, and the elimination of our dollars going overseas for oil.

The role of the government would be to insure the profits of the new five billion dollar gasification plants, the same way they underwrote the airlines following September 11, 2001, when no insurer would take an airline.

Coal is something America has in abundance. During gasification, impurities can be removed, and the carbon dioxide produced can be pumped back into empty mines to prevent release of additional unwanted gases into the environment. The plants would be built and crewed by Americans. If oil doesn’t drop below 38 dollars per barrel, the government never pays a dime for the construction, but the new plants will produce fuel for far less than it presently costs, driving down the cost of gasoline and stimulating the economy. If OPEC drops the price of oil below 38 dollars per gallon, the government pays some money to offset losses that would otherwise be sustained by investors and companies building gasification plants, but the reduced fuel price will still stimulate the economy, bringing in tax revenues that are estimated to give a return several times the size of any funds paid out to support the project.

This appears on paper to be a proposal that can’t lose. Best of all, we’d be betting on America, and keeping hard-earned dollars inside the United States. Gas would cost less for our working families, and people presently out of work would have employment at the new facilities.

Drilling in ANWR

The area proposed for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge isn’t exactly the arctic equivalent of a jungle. Rather, it’s a desert. There’s not a tree in some 700 miles of the proposed drilling site. Also, it could actually benefit what wildlife are present. The Alaska pipeline, which was vehemently opposed by environmentalists, has actually served as a shelter for caribou and other species. Since the oil flowing through the pipeline is warmer than the surrounding area, animals mate and raise young near it to increase their reproduction and survival rate.

When drilling in ANWR was proposed previously, they said, "It won't help that much, and won't be available for 10 years! We don't need to drill there." If Congress had approved no footprint drilling then, we'd have had oil production from ANWR sometime in 2004 or so. That would be helping your gas price right now. Where will we be in 10 more years?

Extracting Oil from Shale

We have a tremendous amount of oil-bearing shale in Colorado and Utah that we can process into oil. This isn’t much different from Canada’s oil-rich sands which they’re currently using to produce oil. Unfortunately, Congress chose to protect those very lands about two weeks ago.

Congress’ Obstructionism

I do not understand the seemingly suicidal obstructionist attitude Congress has toward sources of fuel that will bridge us to the future. We know these resources are not permanent solutions. They are simply ways to keep our economy from crashing as we transition to cleaner technologies that are presently in the early stages of development.

Nuclear Power

While we're changing the legislation, we need to make it easier to construct and operate nuclear reactors. For the time being, we need oil to make and move things. We don't need to burn any form of it for electricity, though. France gets over 70% of its energy safely from nuclear plants, and current technology, including breeder reactors and fuel reprocessing mean there's little waste. The waste that is produced is dangerous for a couple of hundred years (it retains some radioactivity for thousands, but isn't actually hazardous that long).

How much waste is produced? Even using older technology, supplying the energy needs for my lifetime will produce about a soda can's volume of waste. Coal or natural gas will produce hundreds or thousands of tons of waste (depending on whose estimates you review) just to supply my individual needs, and burning coal, even with cleaner filtering technology, will produce tons of carbon dioxide and radioactive particles far exceeding those produced by a nuclear plant and released into the air, unlike nuclear power's contained radioactive fuel. While people complain there’s already too much waste around, at least one physicist places the sum total as being of small enough volume to fit in one high school gymnasium.

The only thing preventing the production of these facilities is restrictive legislation not designed to make constituents safe, but to create a back door ban on nuclear energy. Some safe reactors are being designed that will be able to run hot enough to split water as part of the process, creating a cheap and abundant source of hydrogen which can then be used in hydrogen fuel cells. Of all our options involving current technology, nuclear is clearly the least bad reliable source.
For full details on nuclear power and sources, view “Going Glowing Green” below.

I don't want to slight wind or solar energy, but if you look into them, you find we can't put up enough wind turbines or square footage of solar cell to meet our needs, and since they're variable producers, we must have traditional sources of energy to back them up. Once again, the least bad option for that is nuclear power. I do believe photovoltaic cells will become more efficient, and in time may become cheap enough to install on every home, thus solving part of the square footage problem, but they’re still variable producers. Hydroelectric power is fantastic, but we’ve nearly tapped it out in the United States, and environmentalists strongly oppose the building of new dams to provide more.

Mobile Solutions—Replacing the Internal Combustion Engine
We have many ideas for powering our vehicles in other ways than gasoline. Most of them are good, with one notable exception.


Corn ethanol as a fuel is a bad idea poorly executed. Brazil makes their ethanol from sugar cane, which is much more efficient. We've known this is a bad idea for a long time. Here's a 2005 article to prove that point.


We can indeed make fuel from used French fry grease and other sources more recently alive than the dinosaurs and prehistoric plants, and will probably need to do so for some time yet to supplement other technologies. However, the goal is to move away from internal combustion. Whether you believe in human-caused global warming, or just don’t like breathing dirty brown air, we really need to stop burning things where we can.

Compressed air:

This is promising technology. The problem might be running your conveniences, like air conditioning and your MP3 player. As a commute vehicle, however, this has promise. There are many designs, a lot of which are simply aluminum replicas of combustion engine. I prefer designs actually made for the new compressed air engine technology, like this one. These are already in use in warehouses to reduce indoor fumes and noise. Other challenges include range and engine power.


We've come a long way since the early models. Range and power are good enough to make solid commute cars in the near future and they can run your MP3 player and air conditioner, but cost may be a challenge on these. Tesla Motors has produced a high performance electric vehicle to both demonstrate the electric car is no longer limited in power and speed and to help develop the technologies that will make normal electric passenger production cars more viable than in the past.

Hydrogen Fuel Cell:

Very promising! Fuel cells are still costly to make, but hydrogen isn't as costly as it once was. It presently costs about two dollars per kilogram for compressed hydrogen, which is fairly equivalent to a gallon. This technology has promise as a replacement for gasoline since the user doesn't have to spend 5 hours charging it overnight. On a long trip where one is switching drivers and continuing to travel, you need a "fill and go" power solution. Hydrogen can do that. At present, the making of hydrogen fuel cells does require polymers, made from oil, but just as we’ve learned to make plastics from soy beans instead of petroleum, we can overcome this hurdle.

Air Travel

If we run out of petroleum or it is restricted to military use, jet travel as we currently know it will cease. Commercial jet propulsion involves the compression and ignition of fuel and air, and that can’t be done with electricity or hydrogen. We may have super quiet propeller-driven passenger aircraft in the near future, however, as described in this earlier post.

Most of the above travel solutions require electricity. Air compressors are mostly electrically run. Separating hydrogen from water involves running an electric current through water to produce hydrogen and oxygen. To underscore the importance of it, if we want reliable, cheap electricity unaffected by oil and natural gas prices, we have to build nuclear power plants. It's the only way at present to keep our energy costs low.

The short to this long post is that we have no shortage of good ideas to replace oil. Even reducing our oil usage by 10% could have a powerful impact on the global market. We need Congress to stop blocking us to appease the environmentalists and let us get the job done. China, India and other nations have already realized this and are acting. If we do not, we’ll be the 3rd World while they become the new leaders in technology and innovation. The sooner we stop paying terrorist nations that want to kill us for our energy and stop pouring pollution into our environment, the better.

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