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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

WHAT DO YOU REALLY KNOW ABOUT ENERGY?



Your knowledge and views about energy and the environment, to some degree, depend on whether you are a Democrat or Republican, plus, if you are associated with the fossil industry or green technologies.  However, not only is energy low on the list of issues facing the candidates for the 2012 presidential election, it is not even important enough to be placed in polls.  Also too, there is so much disinformation floating around in the various media that most people are just not aware of the seriousness of what might be facing humanity.  Here is the inflation adjusted (in redhistorical price of oil:

Note that our most serious recessions occurred just after the price of petroleum jumped.

If you're old enough, you might have lived through both energy crises in the 1970's, for there were lines to fill your car. Certainly, you must remember that oil spike up to $147/barrel four years ago.   You've heard of Peak Oil, but are not sure if it means much, especially if you're a Republican.  In any case, you're reassured that fracking for natural gas is lowering the price of energy, with just a tiny bit of worry about possible environmental effects.

You probably feel that gasoline prices are unbearable today, but might not know that we pay about half the price of Europeans.  The difference is because we do not lop on as much tax.  If you want to pay less for gas, go to OPEC countries, for many of them charge about one-fourth what we do. For people from Hawaii, we shell out about 10% more for gasoline than the U.S. average.

Around the world, electricity prices are all over the map.  The U.S. average is about 12 cents/kWh, but Hawaii is three times that rate (36 cents/kWh). We thus are charged 300% more than the national average.  As in gasoline, Europeans pay about twice as much per kilowatt hour compared to the U.S., but there are some global anomalies:  Argentina (6 cents/kWh), Brazil (34 cents/kWh), Denmark (40 cents/kWh).

The world today uses energy as shown in the right column:  roughly one-third oil, one third coal and one third all the rest, with natural gas the most dominant, and gaining.  Solar energy is less than one-third of one percent.  China uses the most, with the USA second, and together, we use a bit more than one-third of world consumption.

Some time in the 2025-2050 future, the U.S. will be using energy in the following manner, which should roughly represent the world average:


(If you can't read the numbers, just click on the spaghetti diagram, it will expand.)  Note that only about one-third of the energy consumed goes towards electricity production.  Then why is most of the renewable development going towards electricity?  Because you've got to start somewhere, and here is where there is earlier potential for competitiveness.

There are local differences, of course, and Hawaii is an especially aberration, for only 8% in world consumption goes towards aviation, but Hawaii's is closer to one-third.  This is partly why there is relatively little concern for developing next generation aircraft and jet fuel substitutes.  In a word, Hawaii is screwed, for much of our economy is dependent on tourism, which will be decimated when petroleum spikes beyond $150/barrel.   Read my HuffPo on the future of sustainable aviation.  Perhaps a next generation dirigible might have some application.

The dominating X-Factor in the future of energy is global warming.  If Republicans and the fossil industry are right, the USA, being the Saudi Arabia of fracked gas and oil shale, will do well, indeed.  If it turns out that scientists knowledgeable about this field are correct, and nothing continues to be done about enacting a serious carbon tax, we could be well on our way to The Venus Syndrome, the end of humanity.  On the one hand, we have Republicans and the fossil industry.  On the other, competent scientists.  Who should you believe?

Well, we've already answered that question with the present stalemate, so let us proceed with this analysis.  Yesterday, I showed Wired's bar graph of the relative cost of electricity:


Thus, it is clear that natural gas is economically attractive.  In the production of electricity, the carbon dioxide generated by natural gas is about half that of coal.  Second, let me repeat: the future of energy will only be one-third electricity.  But, half of coal is still a lot of carbon dioxide.

Wind and solar are intermittent and dispersed.  There is no hope for these two options dominating in the future.  In addition, there is not enough biomass/water to satisfy global needs, unless marine biomass can be effectively developed.  Hot dry rock (if go deep enough, our planet does get very hot) has promise, but every exploratory effort has been abandoned.

Nuclear fission (left, think Atomic Bomb) was eliminated by Fukushima.  Nuclear fusion (right, what our Sun and all the stars do to provide energy) hopes for ITER in France to advance the technology, but they are only running into more difficult problems.  That system uses something called magnetic confinement. I think laser fusion, known as inertial confinement, shows more potential, and I continue to dream about cold fusion.  There is, too, heavy ion fusion, a second form of the latter, which promises more than electricity.  We need, though, to more seriously progress on the other two-thirds of our energy consumption.

Transportation should be our greatest concern.  Unless gasoline lines return, though, advancements will be slow.  Remember our romance with ethanol from corn?  That was a huge mistake.  Even the U.S. Congress has reconsidered, for tax incentives were finally eliminated.

The future trend now is to use the cellulosic portion of the plant and advance algae R&D, for microalgae can be up to five times more efficient than any terrestrial crop to convert sunlight plus nutrients and water into biofuels.  The biomethanol economy with a direct methanol fuel cell for ground transport deserves a good look.  There is a more futuristic pathway, the hydrogen economy, but my sense is that this alternative is many, many decades away.

I have provided semi-optimisticmore sober, and downright depressing assessments of biofuels from biomass.  About plug-in EV's, I posted a less than encouraging article in the Huffington Post four years ago  and followed up with a more recent overview.  In short, the world is in trouble, and we can only hope Peak Oil awaits another quarter century.  The Chicago Mercantile Exchange has petroleum only at $86/barrel in December of 2020, so, perhaps we have some time to do something.  No responsible decision-maker, though, should count on the price of oil being $86/barrel in 2020.

As the full transition to cleaner energy resources will take another generation, the timing is such that about all you can do is to pray that Peak Oil and Global Warming are hoaxes or somehow are delayed.  In the meantime, we must continue to press forth along all sustainable fronts, with, I think, special emphases on the Blue Revolution and fusion.

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