Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Oil Slick Ahead

Well, summer’s here; time to start planning those road trips!  Oh wait, that was 5 years ago.  Can’t do that anymore.  Not in an age of $3-plus gas prices.  Whatever it cost you at the turn of the century to head out to a different coast, it’s double now.  I used to joke that taking I-95 up to New York was a trip that had to be put on lay-a-way because of the Delaware and Jersey tolls.  It’s not as funny anymore.  

Oil is a topic on everyone’s mind these days, and to be honest, it’s about high time.  It’s shocking to me how many people I talk to are in disbelief when I say that the prices are never coming down.  Of course, this is the same country that decided that Hummers were the way to go when faced with rising gas prices.  Unfortunately, this means we’re all being set up for a massively rude awakening in the coming years.  

Hubbert’s Peak
Hubbert’s Peak, or the Oil Peak, is the accepted theory that points to eventual depletion of oil as a natural resource.  Fossil fuels are relatively non-replenishable and extraction is related to natural supply.  Basically speaking, it’s easier to scoop peanut butter out of a full jar than when you are forced to scrape the sides for the last bit.  As oil fields begin to deplete, it will be come more energetically expensive (lower energy yield) to retrieve it, and prices will go up.  The Oil Peak itself refers to the point that oil production begins to decline, and it has been argued whether this point has already occurred.  I, for one, strongly believe that it has.  

Are We Out of Oil?
There are still many major untapped reserves of oil in the world, including the deep ocean, Eastern Russia, and Northern Canada.  Unfortunately, these reserves are not readily accessible and the financial and energy costs to retrieve would represent a net loss at this point in time.  Future drilling technologies may make them a viable option.
The oilfields in the protected Alaskan Wildlife Refuge have sparked controversy for some time, with some pointing to them as a way of reducing dependence on foreign oil supply.  While this may be true, it’s highly unlikely that this supply is great enough to significantly solve our supply woes for any length of time.  

So I Should Get a Hybrid, Then?
Color me skeptical when it comes to hybrids, at the moment.  While the gas mileage is better, all of the car’s power is still generated from gasoline.  It’s just much more efficient about it, primarily by reducing the amount of gas burned for accelerations.  You won’t save an awful lot of money, given the approximate $10, 000 premium that most hybrids sell for versus their conventional counterparts.  Today, all hybrid repairs have to be done by dealers (and they don’t exactly spare you much on the bill) and replacement batteries will cost you as much as three thousand dollars.  The pessimist in me is also wary that no one can say how well a hybrid holds up after six years.  Yes, a hybrid is much better for the environment, and one major way of conserving, but don’t expect any real financial relief.

So Should I Hold Out for My 2010 Toyota Hydrogen Car?
Many are holding out hope that Hydrogen Fuel Cells will be the alternative fuel of the future.  Shell already has a Hydrogen fuel gas station, and many manufacturers (BMW, Mazda, GM) have prototype engines for development.  The plus: pollution free energy that can produce nearly equivalent horsepower to today’s cars.  The minus: it takes as much energy to isolate hydrogen as you get from it’s combination with oxygen.  In short, HFCs are at best a battery.  Dedicated power plants would most likely be required to generate pure hydrogen for use.  Additionally, storing the hydrogen is problematic since gas is more expansive than liquid fuel (requiring bigger tanks or compression technology) and any exposure to air would be incredibly hazardous.  It could be like living in Knight Rider – any car wreck would result in an explosion.  Hydrogen Fuel Cells aren’t inconceivable, but there are numerous obstacles that still need to be overcome.  

So if Power Plants Help Make HFC Cars a Reality, Are We in the Clear?
Not exactly.  Cars and Oil are the most immediate connection, since 70% of petroleum use goes to transportation and 97% of the fuel used in transportation is petroleum.  However, fossil fuels as a broad group (petroleum, natural gas, coal, etc) represent over 85% of our energy supply.  Heating, cooling, electricity.  All fossil fuels are subject to peaks and depletion as mentioned above, and we’re draining the world of them in a fairly consistent manner to oil.  Point?  We’ve got to start shifting from our nearly-complete dependence on fossil fuels before it has to happen the hard way.  

We Hippies Are Happy to Hear that You Agree Green Energy is the Way to Go
Yes and no.  First off, don’t think I’m not still sending you all to Northern Canada when I take office.  I haven’t forgotten about that incident at the Bela Fleck show.  And as far as the renewable energy sources…
There is serious doubt from this corner that renewables (wind, solar, hydropower, ethanol) can meet current energy demands.  Almost all seem to be far better suited as power supplements rather than sources.  Also, these green sources have been shown to be less environmentally friendly than historically viewed.  To generate the levels of power consumed today, large amounts of land would have to be built on for the number of wind turrents required, and there has even been some concern raised that with a large enough number of turrents, world currents would be affected.  Solar panels are still expensive to build and maintain, though they continue to lower in price as the technology develops.  Dams have a profound impact on the surrounding environment and habitats.  

So What’s Your Master Plan Then, “Future Prime Minister?”
Nuclear power.  

Okay, Well, So Much For Reading This.  
No, no, stick with me for a second.  The nuclear field has had as bad an image as any new technology, even worse than genetic engineering, but a lot of that is bunk and solely public perception.  For example, an MRI exposes you to no ionizing radiation while a CT scan (or, to a lesser degree, a planar X-Ray) delivers relatively high amounts.  However, people were initially reluctant to have MRIs done because of their original name: NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance).  Following the name change, everyone’s happy to have one.  
3-Mile Island is still a buzzword on par with Chernobyl, but lost in the paranoia is that (a) Chernobyl was a power plant disaster because of the combination of a terribly unsafe design and negligent operators, (b) 3-Mile was a horrific disaster only from a PR standpoint: no deaths, no radiation fall out, a contained meltdown that was brought under control.  Raise your hand if you already knew that.

I Don’t Know That I Buy It, but Go On…
Thanks!  Today, we get less than 7% of our power supply from nuclear power plants.  Coal fuels half of the energy we use (non-transportation).  Worried about the environmental impact of nuclear plants?  Coal plants are established polluters in a major way while nuclear plants vent…water vapor.  Worried about worker safety in nuclear plants after watching Homer on television?  Stop and consider the number of coal mining-related deaths that have occurred in recent history.  What about the toxic, glowing, neon green ooze being dumped into rivers?  Well, there you’re thinking about chemical waste, not nuclear.   Nuclear waste is typically sold materials such as depleted uranium and is buried underground, usually with concrete, as the radioactivity fades over time.  To be blunt, nuclear waste is handled and disposed of far more efficiently and safely than most any other kind of waste on the planet.  

Advanced Reactors
Today, light water fission reactors using uranium-235 (slow/thermal neutron reactors) are the most commonly used.  Light water indicates standard H20 as opposed to heavy water’s deuterium (isotope of hydrogen with a neutron).  These reactors are popular because they do not require extensive enrichment of uranium.  Ur-235, however, makes up less than 1% of naturally occurring uranium, and is a wasteful fuel source.  In fact, Ur-235 likely does not exist in sufficient quantities to serve as a valid long-term global source of energy.  
Fast reactors produce less waste by more efficiently generating energy in a fissle chain reaction, but require highly enriched uranium or plutonium (Pu-239, generated by fusing a neutron to Ur-238).  There is plenty of fission source material to last for thousands of years, and the prospect of deep sea deposition of waste would further improve the low environmental impact of this energy field.  

Holy Grail
Fusion reactors are the ultimate prize in energy production – self-sustaining, non-polluting energy modeled after the sun.  Unfortunately, we are still extremely far off from realizing it as an option.  A couple of early-generation reactors have been built in Europe and show some promise, but it will be some time before this technology is honed and accepted.  
So Where Are You Going With All This???
The answer to the world’s future energy supply question will need to be as complex as the problem.  Clearly, the immediate concern is in oil and natural gas reserves.  Calm me crazy, but I would caution against trusting OPEC in regards to the state of supply.  I believe there is less than we are led to believe (world oil production has plateaued) and when we get a handle on how much is truly left, it will be uncomfortably late in the game.  

-The U.S. is fortunate in that it sits on a quarter of the world’s coal reserves.  That will help provide a stabilizing crutch as we transition away from oil.  Expanding our use through more coal-based power plants would be unwise, however, due to the heavy production of air pollution.

-Green renewables, especially solar panels, would help keep energy bills down for individuals and businesses.  Roof-mounted solar panels supplement energy needs and are non-intrusive.  

-Diesel and Jet fuel are the petroleum products most necessary in our economy, supplying fuel for shipping (air, truck).  Those guzzling gas in dense urban areas behind the wheel of an SUV are most wasteful of the diminishing petro-supplies.  The country is beginning to shift away from its obsession with monster trucks, but I would suggest a pseudo-luxury tax on any vehicle that gets less than 20 mpg (city), an additional tax on any that gets less than 10 mpg, and a new 3% tax on gasoline (non-diesel) in major metropolitan areas (i.e., mass transit available) that would go to funding local mass transit as well as nationally subsidizing diesel and jet fuel.  Pinch hurting?  Carpool.  Use mass transit.  Get over your single-person Tahoe commutes.  Me?  I bike to work.  Over 8 miles each way.  Maybe that’s not a viable option for you, but there is an option out there that you’re choosing not to employ.

-Build new Nuclear plants.  Easy to see that one coming, I know.  There are advanced new designs out there, generation 3 boiling water reactors.  There’s major room to improve the efficiency and safety, and this is already a highly underutilized source of power.  Yes, we’re still spooked by the name, but China, Japan, and India are hot on the field, realizing its energy potential.  I propose we stay ahead of the curve while we still can.

-Push for Hydrogen Fuel Cell car technology, with the hydrogen production powered by dedicated nuclear plants.  Give my hydrogen gas tank an extra layer of titanium, if you could.

Yes, the future can be frightening, but no, we’re not careening into a Mad Max apocalypse.  This country built itself on innovation, and I expect that innovation to power the next major world economical revolution.      


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