Why Alternative Energy Isn’t

As oil prices recede from all-time dollar highs and some of the hot air gets let out of energy policy debates, it’s a good time to remember that here’s a key concept missing from almost every popular discussion of the subject: energy density. Specialist economists get it, but almost nobody else does. It is important to understanding why most forms of “alternative energy” are mirages, and what a sane energy policy would actually look like.

The background to this is that the few technologies we have for storing electricity (batteries, pump-fed ponds above hydroelectric turbines) are lossy and don’t scale well. Worse, power transmission is significantly lossy as well. These mean several things, all of them bad.

Absence of a decent storage technology means we can’t really time-shift electricity demand. When more electricity is needed (for example, to run air conditioning during the day in the American Southwest) more power plants have to be running and feeding power to the grid in real time. There’s no way to run plants at night and store the generated power for daytime use.

Transmission losses mean our ability to space-shift demand is limited, too, though not as severely. Electricity-intensive industries (the classic example is aluminum smelting) need their own dedicated power plants nearby.

The combination of these problems means that household energy conservation is mainly a way for wealthy Westerners to feel virtuous rather than an actual attack on energy costs. Household conservation slightly decreases the maximum capacity needed locally where the conservation is being practiced, but has little impact further away, where demand has to be supplied by different plants. Industrial efficiency gains are far less visible; but, because the scale of industrial energy use is so much larger, they matter a lot more.

The combination of these problems also means we cannot, practically speaking, aggregate lots of very small flows of electricity into one big one. It’s not just total volume of energy production that matters, but the energy density available to high-volume consumers at a given place at and at a given time. This may sound like a dry technical point, but it has huge and nasty implications.

One is that the most touted forms of so-called “alternative energy” and are largely (though not entirely) useless. Solar and wind power are both time-variable and low-density. Lacking good ways to time-shift and aggregate electricity, this means you can’t count on them to run factories and hospitals and computer server farms. The best you can hope for is that they can partially address low-density usage, running climate control and appliances for homes and some purpose-designed office buildings.

Biomass (including processed forms like ethanol) seems more promising because, like fossil fuels, you can burn it when and where you choose in order to to match your electricity production to demand. The problem is that biomass has much lower practial energy density than coal or oil. This means you have to transport and burn a lot more of it, with much larger pollution and life-cycle costs. One of those is much higher CO2 emissions, which are a significant problem for other reasons even if (like me) you don’t believe they’re driving global warming.

Hydroelectric power is, in most respects, ideal — nonpolluting, renewable, all those good things. The trouble is that, at least in the U.S. and elsewhere in the developed world, we’re not going to get any more of it. All the good sites for high-density hydropower are taken. There’s some potential for low-density hydropower, especially in rural areas to run farms.

Geothermal is like hydropower, economically speaking, but requires unusual geology. Basically the only place it can work on a large scale is in Iceland, home of a full third of the world’s active volcanoes.

Accordingly, hydropower and geothermal are not going to support any larger share of what energy economists call the industrial base load — the day-in, day-out demand for high-density power from all those factories and hospitals and server farms — and printing presses, and food-processing operations, and everything else.

The industrial base load is the life blood of technological civilization; without it, we’d have a hideous global population crash, and then revert to pre-1750 conditions in which the economy is almost entirely subsistence farming and life is nasty, brutish, and short. The first question any energy-policy proposal has to address is how to sustain an industrial base load equivalent to today’s — much higher than today’s actually, if we don’t want to condemn the Third World to perpetual poverty. But most advocates of “alternative energy” evade this question, because they don’t like the answers they get when they look at it squarely.

In the real world, there are only three base load sources that matter: coal, oil, and nuclear (hydropower would be a fourth if it weren’t already maxed out). What they have in common is that you can get lots of energy per gram out of the fuel, thus lots of both energy volume and energy density out of one power plant.

Of these three, nuclear has the highest density, then oil, then coal. Both economic arguments and historical evidence tell us that you can’t have an industrial civilization without a fuel that has an energy density at least as high (and thus a cost per unit of energy as low as) coal. Higher density is better, because it means lower cost.

Those costs are not denominated just in money; low-density energy sources are more labor-intensive to operate and that causes more illness and death. Compare annual deaths from coal mining to annual deaths in the petroleum industry to the annual deaths associated with nuclear power; the trend is dramatic and favors higher-density sources, even if you ignore chemical air pollution entirely.

Nothing on offer from advocates of low-density “alternative energy” even comes close to coal as an industrial baseload source. let alone oil or nuclear. Ethanol and hydrogen look like it, until you consider life-cycle costs; basically, making either costs a lot more than mining coal, both in money and in input energy.

Another key point is that, for transportation, oil is basically the only thing we have that will do. For fixed-location power plants, the energy yield per gram of fuel matters a lot and the weight of the plant machinery only a very little. On the other hand, for automobiles and ships and airplanes, power-to-weight ratio matters a lot. Nuclear and coal basically cannot make that cut, cost-insensitive military applications of nuclear notwithstanding.

For fixed-location power plants, however, nuclear is the clear winner. Coal and oil have lower density and serious pollution costs. They are also much less safe. Yes, I said less safe; the historical evidence is extremely clear on this.

There are some kinds of non-polluting fixed-location plants that might become available in the future: notably tidal generators and atmosphere towers. They will probably be good replacements for nuclear down the road, but they’re not an answer to the transportation problem. Oil is non-renewable; the price is rising and eventually (though not in the near term and not as rapidly as predicted by peak-oil-collapse hysterics) it will run out.

And no, electric cars aren’t the answer either; the power to run them has to come from somewhere. The best case is that people will charge them off the grid at night. This will require power plants to be burning just as much additional fuel as if the cars themselves were doing it, perhaps more given transmission losses. What electric cars can do, at best, is give us fuel flexibility, replacing direct oil-burning with nuclear plants and coal. But that’s not going to net out to lower pollution and lower costs unless we build a lot of nuclear plants very quickly. Thanks to decades of scare-mongering and NIMBYism, this probably isn’t possible in the U.S.

The pressing question, then, remains: What’s going to replace oil?

Let’s draw up a specification for the ideal replacement. We’d like a fuel with the energy density of oil, or better. We’d like the only per-unit cost to be sunlight, because that’s the only thing that’s 100% renewable and (unlike tidal, hydropower, and geothermal) available everywhere. Ideally, we’d like the stuff to not require a huge, expensive conversion job on our energy infrastructure.

Happily, I think this spec can be filled. There are demonstration plants making synthetic oil from algae at a per-unit cost not far above that of oil, and plenty of venture capital looking to fund more. As this technology scales up, algal-synfuel costs will drop below that of oil. At that point, the free market will have solved the problem.

It’s largely forgotten now, but we’ve actually been through a similar transition before. In the mid-19th century whale oil was heavily used for lighting and as an industrial feedstock. Prices rose as whales were hunted to near-extinction; fortunately, the stuff proved to be replaceable by petroleum. Yes, that’s right; big oil saved the whales. A century and a half later, pond scum looks likely to save civilization.

137 thoughts on “Why Alternative Energy Isn’t

  1. If there were a reasonable way to get to geosynch orbit, we have both high effectiveness photovoltaic and beamed power that’s about 30% lossy, which compares nicely to transmission line rates

    Unfortunately, there is no cheap way to geosynch. Likewise, the NIMBY fear mongers will paint space based solar as “microwaving city blocks”.

    For what we’re spending on the Wall Street Debacle, I’d have rather bought 700 $1B nuclear power plants.

    Insofar as electric cars, there is two significant benefits you seem to be overlooking.

    They provide a virtualization layer for the energy inputs for transportation. Environmentally, it’s a lot easier (and cost effective) to do enviro remediation at a power plant than on 300 million cars.

  2. If synthetic oil never proves to be feasible, we might just have to resort to ephemeralization. In the same way that microprocessors get smaller and faster while using less electricity, couldn’t we build even more efficient petroleum engines? This seems like an interesting technical problem that would earn a startup who got it right $expletive-loads of money.

  3. Is the USAt’s hydro capacity really built out? Did they manage to build it all before the greens gained political power, or what? Tasmania has lots more hydro capacity, but 1) the greens won’t allow any more dams to be built, and 2) there’s only so much power that one island of half a million people need, and transmission to the mainland isn’t practical.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve read, over the past few years, news stories of dams being demolished in the northwestern USA. Were those not hydro plants, or were they so small that you’re not counting them?

  4. > In the same way that microprocessors get smaller and faster while using less electricity, couldn’t we build even more efficient petroleum engines?

    Up to a point, sure, but if even we got all the way to the Carnot limit I don’t think that would be good enough in the long run.

  5. > For what we’re spending on the Wall Street Debacle, I’d have rather bought 700 $1B nuclear power plants.

    $1 billion does not get you a nuclear power plant, at least not one of the conventional large sort. The budget for the one currently being built by Areva-Siemens (French-German consortium) in Finland was originally 3 billion euro, and has since been overrun to at least 4.1 billion. The project is suffering from delays and cost overruns partly because the plant is the first of it’s kind, but that’s what you’d expect in the US also, since no plants have been built for – guessing here – almost 30 years now.

    This is part of the problem with nuclear: the construction costs are such that it takes a long time to recover them, and it’s not straightforward to get the utility companies to make the investments, even if nuclear was politically accepted and there were no NIMBYs. The proposals to start building nuclear capacity again in the US have included some pretty substantial government subsidies to the utilities. Then again they probably don’t seem so large in comparison after last weekend.

  6. > In the same way that microprocessors get smaller and faster while using less electricity, couldn’t we build even more efficient petroleum engines?

    Hmmm, after a century of development, Detroit came up with the SUVs… Maybe now there will finally be some incentives to go in another direction.

    It’s not just the engine. Most cars are way too big, heavy, and unaerodynamic for what they are being used in practice.

    After the energy losses in the internal combustion engine, transmission, tire rolling resistance, aerodynamic drag and what have you, of the energy content that goes into the tank, the percentage that actually moves the car forward is in the low single digits. I heard someone giving a talk about this quip that ‘this is not a very satisfying result for a century of engineering effort’. Nevermind that most of that tiny fraction goes to moving the car, not the usually single person inside. In other worlds, if you want efficiency, ride a bicycle.

  7. >Did they manage to build it all before the greens gained political power, or what?

    Yes, basically. There simply aren’t a whole lot of good sites for large-scale hydro. You need a narrow point in a river where you can back up enough water to get a big drop without flooding out people upstream.

    >I’m pretty sure I’ve read, over the past few years, news stories of dams being demolished in the northwestern USA. Were those not hydro plants, or were they so small that you’re not counting them?

    Those are probably relics from before rural electrification. Between the 1880s and the 1930s there was a *lot* of small-scale hydro built, but when the grid came in it was cheaper to just plug in than maintain the turbines and they rusted. This is a really obscure bit of history; I only learned about it from an interview with an aging hippie/engineer who discovered some of these relics by accident and fell in love with the tech. Now it’s his mission in life to revive it.

  8. >Have you looked into [abiogenic petroleum formation], and if so, any thoughts on the subject?

    Indeed I have. Interesting stuff; there’s some evidence that the Gulf Coast oil reservoirs are refilling, abiogenically, from underneath.

    If the abiogenic theory is correct, we’ll never run out of oil – in fact, we could find it almost anywhere by drilling deep enough. Drilling that deep is expensive and chancy, though; algal synfuel is probably already cheaper.

  9. >ESR, you are forgetting to factor in global warming in your analysis.

    Um, what global warming? There hasn’t been any since 1998. Recently global average temperature has actually been dropping rather dramatically, enough to wipe out the last century of warming trend.

  10. Electric cars may be practical. Electric aircraft are not, in any form. For aviation, power density per pound, not only of the fuel, but of the machinery to convert it to thrust – is the sine qua non of an energy source- and gasoline, or jet fuel, are the clear winners there. Jet engines are very expensive to make, and even piston aircraft engines are not cheap. The little 100 horsepower 4-banger on the front of N55ZC costs a cool $20K new, and it’s one of the most common engines out there. An overhaul on some turbocharged piston aircraft engines approaches $50K – and if they cost that much to overhaul, think of what they might cost new!

    In order to replace petroleum in aviation, a fundamental breakthrough in energy storage and conversion to thrust would be necessary. To quote a well-known computer, “there is no way to predict when such a breakthrough might occur.” We cannot make decisions on pies in the sky, even if they’re full or renewable energy. We must deal with the universe as it is.

  11. From what I can tell, alternative energy works well when it can by used in conjunction with something conventional, although hydro power is probably the best. The principle is that the traditional power source needs to be able to supply peak power, and the alternative energy displaces some of that demand when it generates energy.

    Also, from what I understand, the main proponents of the abiogenetic theory are the Russians. I read a few papers about it, but apparently the science is somewhat lacking, although the Russians area claiming they have successfully used the theory to locate oil fields, so who knows.

  12. Jay:

    Satellite delivered lasers onto collectors on planes to superheat air/microwave rectennas would about do it.

    Of course, we still need that hypothetical cheap way to orbit.

    And I’d cheerfully take 70 nuclear reactors for what we spent last weekend.

  13. There is regular talk among environmentalists about tearing down major dams in order to restore river valleys. See here for example.

    Also, you may be overestimating transportation costs re biofuels. Many plans involve making oil out of plants, turkey guts, etc. pretty much where they are, so wouldn’t transport costs be better than moving tankers full of oil across oceans?

  14. Didn’t den Beste cover this six years ago? Has anything changed since then?

  15. As oil prices recede from all-time dollar highs…

    Seems like you picked the wrong day to post this, given that oil spiked in its biggest ever 1-day gain *today*

    For fixed-location power plants, however, nuclear is the clear winner. Coal and oil have lower density and serious pollution costs. They are also much less safe. Yes, I said less safe; the historical evidence is extremely clear on this.

    a) you need to show your work (yes, I know you didn’t finish college, but you need to show your work, cite your sources, etc.)
    b) You seem to (willfully?) ignore where we might get the fuel for all those nuke power plants.

    There are 442 nuclear reactors in operation around the world. If, as you suggest, nuclear power were to replace fossil fuels on a large scale, it would be necessary to build 2000 large, 1000-megawatt reactors. Gven that no new nuclear plant has been ordered in the US since 1978, this proposal is less than practical.

    Furthermore, even if we decided today to replace all fossil-fuel-generated electricity with nuclear power, there would only be enough economically viable uranium to fuel the reactors for three to four years. Here are the figures, do the math yourself. http://www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/publications/PDF/Pub1104_scr.pdf

    I could continue, but I won’t.

  16. Interesting, I just have a few thoughts I’d like to add:
    1) Have you thought about electric trolleybuses for transportation? They are used in a couple of large cities in Canada and they are only slightly more expensive than diesel.
    2) The other problem with biomass besides what you mentioned is that, as your title suggests, biomass is more of a derivative of hydrocarbon fuels than an alterative thereto. Fertilizers, for instance, are made with vast amounts of hydrogen derived from natural gas. Biomass also puts a strain on our food supply, as we saw recently when corn ethanol subsidies precipitated a huge increase in food prices.
    I’d like to hear your thoughts on global warming, too.

  17. Jim – to make nuclear viable, there’s only one way to do it.

    Breeders.

    And I think we’re likelier to accept conserving our way than we are to building massive breeders.

  18. It is true that known uranium reserves are low.

    This is because nobody has been prospecting for uranium for many years. If it takes 20 years to find and develop a field, and you have 30 years worth of reserves, you don’t spend any money now for prospecting; you bank the money for 10 years, earn some interest, and then start prospecting If people start building reactors, other people will start prospecting for uranium again.

    Pond scum basically allows us to time- and space-shift solar energy.

  19. > Didn’t den Beste cover this six years ago? Has anything changed since then?

    The price of oil has. By a factor of about 4.6, as of today.

  20. > It is true that known uranium reserves are low.

    Why is it that ESR doesn’t seem to understand this?

    > Breeders. (/ nimby)

    understood, especially if they’re designed to use thorium.

    all power is (converted) “solar power”, btw.

  21. Bloomberg is saying the oil jump was a short-squeeze/flight to commodities combo. We’ll see if it drops back down. The rise in oil we see in the next few years will be more due to dollar inflation (1.3T worth!) than peak oil.

  22. @Pat: HOLY CRAP?? The price of oil has gone up 460%?? That’s HORRIBLE.
    @Tony: we’ve already established that Jim Thompson neither understands economics, nor sees the value in not speaking nonsense.
    @esr: electric vehicles are practical when they run at distance on a guideway. Remember the RUF I told you about in San Francisco last April? http://www.ruf.dk/
    @Jim: it would be better if you wouldn’t continue, but you will.

  23. I took on much of this topic a few months back while criticising McCain’s nuclear plan for being too small scale and for using the wrong metaphor.

    I was unaware of the potential of pond scum. Given that we have reduced large portions of the oceans to anaerobic toxicity, perhaps we can raise algae in the Gulf of Mexico, seeded by defunct oil platforms, and manage it with ex-drillers, and restore some oxygen along the way.

    Five additional points:

    1) While the US has not built a new nuclear plant in 30 years, Westinghouse is building 4 of a hopefully-to-be-mass produced design (AP1000) in China. China has 24 plants being built today, and plans for 76 more.

    Getting the bugs out of the new nuclear designs in other countries should appeal to the NIMBYs in America. Perhaps after a decade safety of going through a creature comfort withdrawal, with the extremists freezing to death in winter and frying in summer, will enough Americans reconsider nuclear power.

    2) Whether there will be enough uranium left by then is another question entirely. Breeders are the only answer to that question, and lately thorium has been seeing some revived interest. India is working towards creating one. I am ill-equipped to evaluate the pros and cons of the thorium fuel cycle, but a breeder with 1/1000 the nuclear waste as current reactors sure sounds good. Still, thorium breeders seem a long way out compared to the AP1000.

    3) I have been following the activities of nanosolar with great interest. They have a very innovative-sounding solar cell printing process. Recently they secured 300m of industry financing. (the terms of which compare rather favorably with McCain’s subsidy – in fact, the financing round was oversubscribed!), and claim to be shipping lots of product this year and the next to select buyers.

    Still, as you say, solar is not a particularly reliable base-load technology, and oil derived products (however obtained), are best for transport intensive industries. Coal is going to remain and grow as America’s primary fuel for fixed load, and who knows, perhaps global cooling is setting in and we’ll need the extra greenhouse gases.

    (My own jury remains out on global warming, though I follow the satellite and sunspot data closely)

    4) Where I live now, where only 50% of the population has electricity, geothermal has very high potential to power the entire upper half of the country. (transmission losses are an issue). Back in the 80s, somebody made a sweetheart deal to go with oil instead, so geothermal languished, but an 8MW plant has gotten built, and over the past year an additional 2MW of energy has come online. The engineering is being done by a Canadian firm that projects bringing 72MW online by 2010.

    Exploiting geothermal is a very capital intensive project, with high maintenance costs. 1/10th of the profit from the 10MW geothermal field is currently coming from carbon credits.

    5) Human behavior changes due to conditions. We used to wake before sunup and go to bed at sundown. Perhaps the last 200 years have been an aberration, and we will return to that.

    I work nights, primarily, because I can work without running an air conditioner (quiet = good think time). The cost of running a computer all night pales when compared to running an air conditioner all day.

    The daily cycle of energy distribution, however it changes, will affect society – eventually. it’s quite puzzling why after exiting the agricultural age and entering industrialization that we still let kids out from school to work the fields in summer….

  24. > Bloomberg is saying the oil jump was a short-squeeze/flight to commodities combo. We’ll see if it drops back down. The rise in oil we see in the next few years will be more due to dollar inflation (1.3T worth!) than peak oil.

    World oil production has not increased substantially since 2005. The price is behaving as would be expected at the peak, i.e. rising and becoming much, much more volatile. This has been observed for other mineral products that have passed peak production. The price will go both up and down in large jumps like this, with the overall trend being up. Things that used to be small blips, such as a hurricane knocking out platforms, now have a large effects on prices, since there is no surplus capacity anywhere.

  25. Hydrogen might be expensive, but mabye not so if you use cheap nuclear energy to split water? Other than production cost, is there anything else against it: i.e. according to current technolgy, could a car with a 10-gallon tank run a couple of hundred miles at current speeds? Preferably, without blowing up like a Zeppelin? :)

    The problem is, though, with all that water vapor that comes out of it. Vapor is said to be a greenhouse gas so still have the AGW crowd screaming, but that I think will stop in a few years if they will be anything like 2008. But still, putting a lot of vapor out into the city air might be a very bad idea. For example, below freezing temperatures it would quickly put a thick sheet of ice on the road. In warm temperatures, it’d make a tropical high-humidity microclimate. And so on.

  26. Mike,

    “Nevermind that most of that tiny fraction goes to moving the car, not the usually single person inside.”

    I thought that over, and couldn’t find an alternative. Let’s start with a scooter, where about half of the total weight is the rider’s weight. That’s not a bad start. Let’s add a chassis – I hate to ride in rain. Let’s add a large trunk at the end, for shopping. Let’s make it so that it can carry two passengers sitting behind each other, because not everybody can, is allowed, or want to drive. Basically then we get a car cut in half. But wait, it’s gravity center is too high, it’s unstable. So let’s double it to make it stable. Whoa – a car!

  27. Throughout history, most of the energy needed to move stuff around was supplied by muscles: human or animal labour.

    These days when exercise it getting increasingly important it’s somewhat funny that the exercise we do resembles manual labour, but does not perform any useful work. We row on rowing machines which do not propel ships. We ride exercise bikes that don’t go anywhere. We lift weights but not because we want to put that weight up somewhere, like on a shelf or something. Isn’t there a waste here? Couldn’t one use 500 exercise bikes to drive a small power plant? Not that it would be a big help or anything, but getting paid to exercise instead of paying for it would be nice.

  28. >Other than production cost, is there anything else against it: i.e. according to current technolgy, could a car with a 10-gallon tank run a couple of hundred miles at current speeds?

    AFAIK the biggest problem with hydrogen is building pipes and tankage that won’t leak unacceptably. This is *hard*.

  29. Shenpen,
    1) You know this, but exercise is useful work: it gives me a better shape, makes me capable of doing more things and living longer.
    2) If my exercise served to collect energy, it would feel even more like work, rendering it less palatable. Even now, I find going to the gym a bit boring.

  30. (esr) > AFAIK the biggest problem with hydrogen is building pipes and tankage that won’t leak unacceptably. This is *hard*.

    Also AFAIK, the fuel cells than ‘burn’ (oxidize) hydrogen in the car have fair bit of platinum in them. The availability of platinum becomes a problem if one tries to replace any significant part of the cars in the current fleet with hydrogen-burning ones.

  31. >Also AFAIK, the fuel cells than ‘burn’ (oxidize) hydrogen in the car have fair bit of platinum in them. The availability of platinum becomes a problem if one tries to replace any significant part of the cars in the current fleet with hydrogen-burning ones.

    It’s true that platinum availability is also a blocker here. But I can imagine a nanoengineered catalyst substituting for the platinum much more easily than I can imagine hydrogen-sealing the entire fuel-handling infrastructure we’d need.

  32. Shenpen: Work the math. A back-of-the-envelope calculation will rapidly show you why nobody’s trying to monetize human exercise, not even in the third world. (I did see one gym that was doing it, but the same BOTE calculation will show you why that was a stunt to attract green fools to the gym and not something that will actually help.)

    Or, instead of looking at it at the national scale, imagine your own life. I commute 20 miles one-way every weekday. I do it in a reasonably fuel efficient car for which that is roughly 1.25-1,5 gallons of gas, round-trip. How many sweating humans biking for 20 minutes does it take to move that car the same distance at the same speed? I don’t know, but it’s certainly in the dozens. So, those dozens of sweating humans biking away for 20-40 minutes, which is about all a human can do in a day (more or less, depends of course), replaces about a gallon of gas.

    Which adds up to “whoop-de-freaking-do”.

    Similar math with show why the idea that the nation was ever going to run on used fry-oil was obscenely stupid. If I eat at a fast-food restaurant every day and order nothing but fried goods, I still consume far less than an amortized gallon of fry oil a day, and probably less than a gallon of fry oil a week. (Possibly even a month, they get a lot of fries out of that oil.) That’s your “ration”. It only works if you get to use far more than one person’s “ration”. Cute, but totally unscalable.

  33. (Mike) >> Nevermind that most of that tiny fraction goes to moving the car, not the usually single person inside.

    (Shenpen) > I thought that over, and couldn’t find an alternative.

    The alternative is a bicycle of one type or another. Nothing else comes even close in efficiency. Add batteries and electrical motor assistance (assistance to human power, not full motor drive) for increased range/cargo capacity/hill climbing capacity if you must.

    This ‘alternative’ does not mean that most everyone still could not have access to something like a Flexcar, but they would be charged for using it by the mile, which tends to make people aware of just how much they drive.

    Large-scale use of bicycles would mean a more or less urban living arrangement. This implies interfering with the American Dream as defined by the auto industry and the various industries that depend on the building and maintenance of the suburbs, so it is unlikely to happen, unless it is actually forced by an economic catastrophy (which seems like a distinct possibility right now). Experience seems to show that people will save on food before they save on gasoline and car expenses.

  34. I am increasingly convinced that hydrogen is just silly; it’s too hard to store and transport. If you had crazy-cheap electricity you’ld probably be better off synthesizing synthetic methane or even longer hydrocarbons instead (using atmospheric CO2 and your hydrogen) – once you factor in the transport/storage losses it’s very likely more economical.

    Advanced geothermal (drilling much deeper) offers promise in more places, and might not be that expensive to develop on this scale of things.

    Electric cars are better than you might think – the poor energy density of batteries is a big problem, but electric motors and commercial power plants are both quite efficient. Automotive internal combustion engines, on the other hand are more like 30% efficient, and that isn’t bad engineering, it’s thermodynamic limits due largely to their small size. Lightening the massive steel frame of the average car would help a lot, of course.

  35. You left off an important predicate to your argument … you laid out specs that _seemed_ to support, if not explicitly point to nucular, at least in the short and intermediate term … and yet you never got around to talking about why nucular wouldn’t fill the bill. I don’t think it’s being non-renewable is the right answer (again, at least in the short / intermediate term – 5-15 years) as to why it won’t fill the bill. So again … why not nucular?

    Algal-synfuels seem promising in some respects, but simply the notion that it is “new” is going to require some re-tooling and re-education, not to mention that we are down on the learning curve in terms of industrial-grade synthesis. Our answer needs to be “old” tech first, then migration to “new” tech.

  36. (Jeremy Bowers) > … those dozens of sweating humans biking away for 20-40 minutes, which is about all a human can do in a day (more or less, depends of course), replaces about a gallon of gas.

    This is an excellent example of how much energy the car actually wastes. Imagine not having a gym full of stationary cyclists trying to make your car move, but leaving the car home and cycling the trip yourself. You can get pretty far in 20 minutes even when not huffing and puffing and sweating. Not 20 miles, but quite easily five or, with some sweating, several miles more.

  37. The problem is that the energy is only wasted if you consider the task of an automobile as “moving a person from here to there”.

    Obviously, that’s what it is, right? No. It’s actually to move a person from here to there comfortably, safely, and conveniently.

    Moving around metal-based crumple zones is “inefficient” by the first measure, but most of us consider such safety features critical features of the car and I’m not willing to write that stuff off as “inefficiencies”. It’s part of the “safety”. Moving around a windshield is inefficient by the first measure, but it’s part of both safety and comfort, and I’m not willing to write that off as “inefficiency” either.

    The big problem is that given the task as I’ve laid it out, there are in fact not any massive inefficiencies lying around to get rid of. Contrary to popular belief, the car companies do not in fact get some sort of sadistic glee in deliberately making inefficient engines. They make big cars (because people wanted them, at least until recently), but that’s just following the market. The engines themselves have long since been made about as efficient as they are ever going to be; a little more to be eked out with more clever control systems, but mechanical cars are pretty much what they are. (And clever control systems cause their own problems when they are clever and wrong.)

    The only way to move forward is not to dump the random bits of metal and glass they stick on cars for inexplicable reasons… the only way is to get rid of the stuff they stick on for “safety”, “convenience”, and “comfort”. Not Gonna Happen.

    The only way we’re going to get rid of mechanical cars is to move to pure electric, which probably is going to require ultra-capacitors to ever be practical. I need to be able to fuel up in a comparable time to a gas car. This would allow you to dump a lot of a current car used for moving power very inefficiently.

    The other thing that at times boggles my mind is how rapidly you hit diminishing returns. Some people point out that you really ought to think in terms of gallons per mile instead of the other way around, because 100 to 200 mpg sounds like a big gain, but it’s actually the same percentage increase as 10 to 20. So, you’d think that a motorcycle might be a big improvement over my ~35mpg car, but it turns out that some motorcycles get the same mpg, and in general you can only expect a factor of 2 improvement over what I already drive. Did I mention I live in Michigan, where for much of the year, “comfort” is also a factor in “safety”?

    There just isn’t that much efficiency to be “found” in a car. Even stripping away everything until you leave nothing but two wheels and an engine gives me shockingly small gains, and is way too far on the wrong side of safety and comfort for my tastes. The math doesn’t work out.

    (The only other possibility that will work is a societal state change that drops the miles I have to drive. Like many here, technically I could telecommute for a huge portion of my job, but the telecommuting experience is going to have to be radically redefined for people to be comfortable with it.)

  38. > Large-scale use of bicycles would mean a more or less urban living arrangement. This implies interfering with the American Dream as defined by the auto industry

    Huh?

    Given a choice, most people prefer to live where they have some space. Autos make that choice viable.

    I’ll note that the American urban experience is basically a disaster unless you’re rich or an urban hipster. Since both groups are essentially tourists….

    It isn’t the folks in the suburbs that make large US cities the hell-holes that they are.

  39. (Jeremy Bowers)> It’s actually to move a person from here to there comfortably, safely, and conveniently.

    > There just isn’t that much efficiency to be “found” in a car.

    > The only other possibility that will work is a societal state change that drops the miles I have to drive.

    Yes, exactly. ‘Alternatives’ that look like cars and work like cars are not likely to be very substantial improvements (unless you start with a Hummer and go to a Smart or something). This is why I said ‘bicycle’.

    If there should be a real reduction in the energy spent on transportation, it requires some real changes in the living arrangements and expectations. As I wrote, large scale use of bicycles (or public transportation for that matter) would mean that a number of people move closer to work and that – the horror of it – people sometimes ride bikes in the rain. Cycling in an urban setting actually becomes safer when the number of cyclists increases. In all likelihood it can be made as safe or safer than motoring is today. There are also obvious benefits besides saved energy and money: physical health, easy parking, no road rage, no noise pollution etc. Anyway, the whole thing requires seeing ‘convenience’ and ‘comfort’ in a different light, which unlikely to happen in the US unless forced by circumstances.

  40. The problem is that for lack of a better word, “comfort” and “convenience” are real. They aren’t illusions generated by our brains, they are words attached to real powers and flexibilities that the economy has and will continue to use. Even moving everybody to more central locations doesn’t make the issue go away; it will still result in a more rigid, less-flexible economy, because people can’t move around as freely.

    Advocating centralization and bicycles is not just advocating that people should “suck it up” and deal with less comfort, it’s advocating a smaller and more brittle economy. Hell of a time to be advocating that.

  41. >”Large-scale use of bicycles would mean a more or less urban living arrangement. This implies interfering with the American Dream as defined by the auto industry and the various industries that depend on the building and maintenance of the suburbs, so it is unlikely to happen, unless it is actually forced by an economic catastrophy [sic]…”

    “The American Dream as defined by the auto industry and various industries…”? Come on: All those people who wanted to own a detached home with a little bit of space around it would have been content to continue living in crowded, noisy, filthy, crime-ridden urban ant-farms if it hadn’t been for the dastardly alliance of the Big Three and Madison Avenue?

    That’s the great thing about a free society and a free market. When enough people want something bad enough to spend money on it, it gets done. The very same industries that created the sprawling suburbs (or at least the flexible, forward-looking parts of those industries – will build whatever replaces them the ‘burbs are no longer attractive or viable.

    >”Experience seems to show that people will save on food before they save on gasoline and car expenses.”

    Do you believe that is because (a) they’re stupid and brainwashed, or (b) their safe, reliable and flexible mobility is very important to them?

    >”Anyway, the whole thing requires seeing ‘convenience’ and ‘comfort’ in a different light, which unlikely to happen in the US unless forced by circumstances.”

    We agree on that, sort of. (Riding a bicycle in the rain in November is right out, though.) I would’ve said, “unlikely to happen QUICKLY in the US unless forced”. OTOH, have you noticed how, in a lot of places, that very thing is happening gradually?

    I work in retail architecture and the way that shopping centers get designed and built has changed completely in the last 10 years (denser, less parking, more green space, more amenities, multi-level in dense urban centers). I expect the trend to accelerate if energy prices remain high. People are moving back into the cities and they are bringing many features of the suburban life with them. (Take that, urban hipsters! Your new neighbors may refuse to live the way you think they should.)

    Also, in my Major Metropolitan Area, there has been a noticable increase in the use of “transportation alternatives” and a marked decrease in traffic congestion since gasoline first topped $4.00 a gallon. Everybody isn’t on a bike, but I’d say bike use has doubled in the last few months – more if you include scooters – and continues to increase. (Of course, that’ll drop off again when it gets good and cold.)

    A word of friendly advice, Mike (and I mean it very sincerely): Be *very* careful that your pro-bicycle arguments don’t assume or imply those that don’t ride bikes are stupid, lazy, irrational, wasteful, etc. The handful of “cycling evangelists” I’ve dealt with have done far more damage than help to their cause with their insufferable condescension and proselytizing. (I often wonder what they’ll do when enough lumpenproles get on bikes that it’s not “cool” anymore…)

  42. Individual commuters are irrelevant anyway, cars or bikes or walking. It’s all the trucks hauling everything to us in our cities or suburbs from wherever it comes from. That’s a huge source of demand for motorized transport that isn’t getting replaced by muscle power. Shifting more hauling to trains would be nice for long distances but you still need trucks for end distribution and that’s a large portion of the demand.

  43. Availability of Hydro

    Actually there are a ton of good hydro locations in America. The thing is, all of them are already dammed. There’s just no hydro capacity at the dams because they’ve never installed turbines. They’re used for flood control, mostly.

    You could get a TON of electricity by converting regular dams into hydroelectric dams. Put together a reputable engineering company that can prove its ability to do the work, as well as a show a profit for the dam, and you’re absolutely golden.

    Micah

  44. OK. let’s look at ‘reduced energy transport’

    I ride a bike to go grocery shopping, or I walk. I deliberately choose to live in low population density areas, but close enough to the services I need to make them viable.

    Right now, we have HUGE government subsidies for the Interstate Highway system. Gradually phase those subsidies out, and we’ll see much bitching and caterwauling from the long haul trucking industry…but a resurgence of rail.

    Rail is about an order of magnitude more efficient for hauling cargo when all cost factors are controlled for; high end electric rail even more so.

    I personally hope to see more vehicles like the Chevy Volt, which is sort of an inverted hybrid. It uses gasoline solely to refill the batteries/power the electric motors in each wheel. It functionally gets 45 mpg, without the performance/fun to drive compromises of the Prius.

    I would love to see if that idea can scale up for a semi truck.

  45. AFAIK the biggest problem with hydrogen is building pipes and tankage that won’t leak unacceptably. This is *hard*

    Not really, several chemical compounds (such as metal hydrides) can store hydrogen easily.
    In fact the problem here is getting the hydrogen back *out* without additional large energy inputs (say, to raise the temperature of the matrix.)

    You can build tank and metal hose materials out of similar ‘saturation traps’.

    If you need a flexible tube, teflon (ETFE is better than PTFE due to Hydrogen diffusion) tubing is fairly immune to the ionic issues with ‘flexible’ metal tubing used for Hydrogen transport, and if you’ve got high-velocity gas flow, then you really want a smooth bore (teflon).

    This is all known art in mechanical engineering / chemistry.

    The largest issue with hydrogen is producing it in the first place. Large Energy Inputs are required, sans chemical reactions, and I think we can all agree that these, while normally exothermic, aren’t sustainable.

    Russ Nelson would do well to quell his shrill banter, as it only humors me. I doubt this was his desired effect.

  46. Phil,

    What global warming?

    CO2 has been 5x higher in the past and temps were not much higher. CO2 is a minor greenhouse gas.

  47. Good source that supports Eric’s position:

    “Renewable and nuclear heresies” by Jesse H. Ausubel, Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University in New York, NY, published in Vol. 1, No. 3, (2007) of the Int. J. Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, at pages 229-243

    Abstract:

    Renewables are not green. To reach the scale at which they would contribute importantly to meeting global energy demand, renewable sources of energy, such as wind, water and biomass, cause serious environmental harm. Measuring renewables in watts per square metre that each source could produce smashes these environmental idols. Nuclear energy is green. However, in order to grow, the nuclear industry must extend out of its niche in baseload electric power generation, form alliances with the methane industry to introduce more hydrogen into energy markets, and start making hydrogen itself. Technologies succeed when economies of scale form part of their conditions of evolution. Like computers, to grow larger, the energy system must now shrink in size and cost. Considered in watts per square metre, nuclear has astronomical advantages over its competitors.

  48. ummm….. where is the discussion of natural gas? T. Boone Pickens’ Plan, Aubrey McClendon? CNG? no?

  49. esr,

    “Um, what global warming? There hasn’t been any since 1998. Recently global average temperature has actually been dropping rather dramatically, enough to wipe out the last century of warming trend.”

    where are you getting your facts from? thats factually not true at all. I dont buy in to the idea that human activity, especially cars, is driving global warming, but the trend over the last century is pretty much the exact opposite of what you just said.
    proof: http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs/Fig.A2.lrg.gif

    but that is beside the point. 100 years is far too small a time frame. If you are going to analyze geological trends, then you have to use geological time periods. 10,000-50,000 years is a more appropriate range.

  50. >where are you getting your facts from?

    Here’s a representative source. And another which pushes back the start of the temperature plateau to 1995.

    >100 years is far too small a time frame.

    I agree with you, but tell that to the alarmists who have been predicting catastrophic global warming based on the 1975-1998 data.

  51. >Then there is this: http://agrofuel.org/

    Nice, but I’m skeptical about the claim that it won’t displace food production. The nice thing about algal synfuel is that you can put your culture tanks in deserts.

  52. Wish I could find the link, but in Japan they are selling a nuclear (isotope) based power plant sized for a apartment building (or the Gore Mansion). Once fueled and started its sealed up and its good for thirty years.
    Of course it will never be sold here.

  53. Good word from Ken, I live in bicycling distance of groceries too. Electric semi trucks would certainly be a more workable proposition when used as a “last mile” transport from the train depot to the store. Oh, and that 1998 global warming reversal–it’s a myth, due to a very selective interpretation of the data. Don’t even read the words, just look at the graph at http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2006/11/4/175028/32

  54. > @Pat: HOLY CRAP?? The price of oil has gone up 460%?? That’s HORRIBLE.

    No. It has gone up 360%. It is (or was, when I wrote that comment) 4.6 times what it was six years ago.

    You are confusing addition with multiplication.

  55. > it’s quite puzzling why after exiting the agricultural age and entering industrialization that we still let kids out from school to work the fields in summer….

    Speak for yourself. My offspring attended year-round schools. (They got the same amount of time off, but it was distributed more evenly through the school year in three-week chunks.)

  56. > A word of friendly advice, Mike (and I mean it very sincerely): Be *very* careful that your pro-bicycle arguments don’t assume or imply those that don’t ride bikes are stupid, lazy, irrational, wasteful, etc. The handful of “cycling evangelists” I’ve dealt with have done far more damage than help to their cause with their insufferable condescension and proselytizing. (I often wonder what they’ll do when enough lumpenproles get on bikes that it’s not “cool” anymore…)

    This is excellent advice, and it applies to far more people than just the “cycling evangelists”. I am continually amazed at how many people seem to think that an attitude of smug, arrogant condescension is the best strategy for advancing your cause, whatever it is. I encounter people like that all the time, whether the subject is politics, religion (or lack thereof), environmentalism, personal computers, varieties of coffee, you name it. They really seem to think that their personal preferences and tastes are objective evidence that they are better than everyone else, and they never get tired of saying so.

    As you said, this offensively annoying behavior does great damage to their cause, but these people never seem to notice. Or maybe they just don’t care. Perhaps feeling superior is more important to them than actually changing anyone’s mind.

  57. >This is excellent advice, and it applies to far more people than just the “cycling evangelists”.

    I have a heuristic. Whenever an advocate for a cause begins to sound like what they actually want to construct is the New Socialist Man (for which sneering about demands supposedly manipulated by capitalism is one of the diagnostics), I simply assume that their movement is actually being run by totalitarian control freaks.

    I don’t think this one has misled me yet,

  58. > Individual commuters are irrelevant anyway, cars or bikes or walking. It’s all the trucks hauling everything to us in our cities or suburbs from wherever it comes from. That’s a huge source of demand for motorized transport that isn’t getting replaced by muscle power. Shifting more hauling to trains would be nice for long distances but you still need trucks for end distribution and that’s a large portion of the demand.

    Don’t forget about airplanes. We could theoretically convert at least some of the freight trains to electric power, but I’m not aware of any technology for building electric passenger jets. So those will continue to burn petroleum products.

  59. Oh, and cargo ships run on petroleum products too. Although those could be phased out in favor of nuclear-powered cargo vessels.

  60. > We could theoretically convert at least some of the freight trains to electric power

    Not in a way that makes economic sense.

    Fuel is a surprisingly small part of the cost of trains. So, even if you drive it to 0, you’re not saving much.

    Electrification is very capital intensive, so to save that small amount, you have to get a lot of use out of the “capital”.

    There aren’t that many freight corridors with enough traffic. And, unless the electrification reaches the end of the line, you have to switch engines, which kills much of the fuel savings.

    Take the San Jose to San Francisco corridor. It’s fairly high traffic, yet electrification doesn’t make economic sense. (It’s being pushed for “convenience” and “we’ll be more green”.)

  61. I’d love to see nuclear powered cargo ships. There would probably be a tremendous amount of weight savings, and shipping would likely be faster since (unless I’m mistaken) nuclear-powered turbines are generally a lot more powerful than diesel ones. You would also reduce air pollution in port cities (at least a bit).

    I’m wondering what the real savings in fossil-fuel use is from using an electric car. Does anyone have any links showing the full equation between the two, including transmission line losses, etc?

  62. Actually, I was under the understanding that you could convert freight-train to electric and still be operationally economically viable, the trick was to convert everything to mag-lev, thus reducing ground-friction entirely. The problem is the cost of doing that.

  63. As I mentioned above, electricity, at least with known storage and engine/motor technology, is not practical for aviation.

    An airplane flies because its thrust overcomes its drag, and its lift is greater than its weight. Lift has its own costs in drag. An airplane engine’s job is to produce thrust. A turbojet or turbofan engine generates thrust directly; a turboprop or piston propeller engine does so by spinning a propeller, which in turn accelerates air toward the tail of the aircraft. In either case, the thrust required is measured in thousands of pounds, from a fraction of a thousand for a little airplane like mine to several hundred thousand for a 747. This is a nontrivial problem to solve.

    Generating thrust suitable for an aircraft is hard because it’s required for essentially the entire duration of the flight. The reason that using automotive engines in aircraft seldom works well is that an automobile engine operates at 30% or so of its rated power output the majority of the time; an aircraft engine operates at 75% or so in cruise, for hours on end. Thus, substantial power output is not only required for takeoff, but normal flight. This means that engines must be built to run at or near full power on a continuous basis, which makes them heavier and burn more energy, in turn increasing the energy storage needed.

    Aircraft design is a delicate balancing act. We can do it today only because petroleum is such an efficient way to make energy portable and engines that use it can be made sufficiently light for the power they produce.

  64. @John, who wrote: Wish I could find the link, but in Japan they are selling a nuclear (isotope) based power plant sized for a apartment building (or the Gore Mansion). Once fueled and started its sealed up and its good for thirty years.
    Of course it will never be sold here.

    Or anywhere else. It’s an urban legend.

    http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/weblog/permalink/micro_nuclear_reactor/

    @cyclists: I loved my e-bike because it made hills easy, which both sped up my average trip by about 40% and lowered my risk of a coronary.

    Re: Transport…

    I live in the third world now. Buses that carry people also carry groceries and supplies on top. The only major dedicated supply trucks I see are the water truck and beer/soda trucks (which supply beer and soda in glass bottles only, which are reused). Kids ride around with 3 wheeled supply bicycles stuffed full of whatever stuff the most recent truck just dropped off into town. (I wish I had a picture of one). I’m not saying it’s all positive (it is hard to get fish inland without refrigeration), but it has to consume far less fuel than the US does….

    One item the arm chaired blobs on this blog missed is that exercise is good for you. Finding a way to fit it into your day and your projected future society (I walk and surf a lot here) will help.

  65. > I’d love to see nuclear powered cargo ships.

    Four have actually been built, although only one — the Savannah — was American. I actually visited her a decade or so ago at Patriot’s Point in South Carolina. (She’s now in Baltimore having her nuclear material removed.) Savannah was basically a proof-of-concept ship and worked fine in engineering terms, but was a commercial failure for reasons that had nothing to do with her power plant. The Wikipedia article doesn’t stress this point, but the explanation I recall hearing at Patriot’s Point was that Savannah was a non-containerized cargo ship that entered service just before container shipping became the global standard. So her failure was inevitable.

  66. > Actually, I was under the understanding that you could convert freight-train to electric and still be operationally economically viable, the trick was to convert everything to mag-lev, thus reducing ground-friction entirely. The problem is the cost of doing that.

    Even better, you could run the mag-lev trains inside tunnels (underground or aboveground, it doesn’t matter) from which all the air has been evacuated. Here again, the downside is the cost of building and maintaining a network of vacuum tunnels. The technology works great in science fiction, but I’m not sure how economically feasible it is.

  67. “Individual commuters are irrelevant anyway, cars or bikes or walking. It’s all the trucks hauling everything to us in our cities or suburbs from wherever it comes from.”

    Hm. I’m about 102 kg and I don’t consume more than a kg stuff a day. So city-level transportation of the stuff I consume must be less way than the transporation of my arse. On the other hand that kg of stuff I consume, half of it something like beef from New Zeeland, half of it is a baseball cap from China… conclusion: yes, probably hauling stuff around is more expensive than hauling people around, but probably it’s the not the city level, more like the long-range shipping. Of course we have to factor in semi-finished products, raw materials, capital goods…

  68. > I’m wondering what the real savings in fossil-fuel use is from using an electric car.

    It depends entirely on where you get your electricity. If it comes from coal-fired power plants, you’re still getting 100% of your energy from fossil fuels. On the other hand, if it all comes from hydro or nuclear plants, you have reduced your fossil-fuel usage to zero.

  69. >Absence of a decent storage technology means we can’t really time-shift electricity demand. When more electricity is needed (for example, to run air conditioning during the day in the American Southwest) more power plants have to be running and feeding power to the grid in real time. There’s no way to run plants at night and store the generated power for daytime use.

    One time-shifting concept I’ve seen is the use of refrigeration units, operated during off-peak hours, to produce ice in storage tanks; said ice is then used to provide for the building’s air-conditioning needs during traditional peak hours. It’s already been deployed in some office buildings, and turns out to be a good deal for the customer if the power company sells off-peak power at a discount. I don’t know what fraction of electrical power is used for residential/office cooling – the rolling blackouts that sometimes occur on sweltering hot days suggests it might be quite large – but if widely adopted, I would think this could go a long ways toward smoothing out electrical power demand, leading to smaller power plants operating closer to peak load (and peak efficiency) more of the time.

  70. > It depends entirely on where you get your electricity. If it comes from coal-fired power plants, you’re still getting 100% of your energy from fossil fuels. On the other hand, if it all comes from hydro or nuclear plants, you have reduced your fossil-fuel usage to zero.

    Now compare that to your use of fossil fuels in a normal, say well-tuned-for-efficiency internal combustion engine. What percent of the fossil-fuel-chemical-energy actually makes it to the ground in both cases? On the electricity side, assume something in-between coal and nuclear, assume 100% natural gas electricity generation, and that you’re between 10-30 miles from the plants making said electricity. That was what I should have said in my first post.

  71. > You are confusing addition with multiplication.

    Its OK, he’s an “economist”, mathematics is merely his primary tool.

  72. Jeremy:

    Electric car maker Tesla’s analysis can be found here.

    They claim a >2X advantage over IC engines; the basic argument seems to be that automotive engines are only about 30% efficient, large fossil-fired power plants >80%, with transmission and electric motor losses relatively small.

  73. Hal Clement wrote a novel, a few years before I was born (somewhat before 1950) about a slime-mold-like symbiont hanging out inside a teenager, called “Needle.”

    The background of the book had big tanks of algae in tropical places producing petroleum-like stuff.

    The name of the book was “Needle.” I have a crumbling paperback copy in the next room.

    It’s a shame that it’s out of print.

    I’m just trying to say that getting energy-dense substances from algae is not exactly a new idea.

  74. Sorry about the awkward repetition of the book’s name. Hey, it’s late, and I’ve been into the ethyl hydroxide.

    Or, it’s into me…

  75. (for which sneering about demands supposedly manipulated by capitalism is one of the diagnostics)

    Sounds like someone needs to read about Ed Bernays. Who he was, what he did, and the historical ramifications of his work.

    It’s not pretty.

  76. Jeff,

    about this Bernays stuff, it reminds me of something a friend of mine said: “Yes, I do believe in conspiracy theories. I believe in a lot of small conspiracies, not just in a few big ones. I believe there are so many little conspiracies out there that if you add all of them up they mostly cancel each other and you basically get a market.”

  77. > They claim a >2X advantage over IC engines; the basic argument seems to be that automotive engines are only about 30% efficient, large fossil-fired power plants >80%, with transmission and electric motor losses relatively small.

    Is 80% consistent with thermodynamics? A perfect heat engine’s efficiency is delta(temp)/max temp, where delta(temp) is max temp – base temp, all in absolute.

    Base temp is around 300k unless you’re melting ice. Oil burns at around 1450k while natural gas burns at around 1370k, so the max efficiencies for both is under 80% even before we consider generation, transmission and motor losses.

    I’ve heard that transmission losses are non-trivial.

  78. Also, cars will have braking losses. Regenerative braking helps a lot, but it isn’t 100%. (For weight and duty cycle reasons, a car’s generator will be less efficient at turning rotation into energy than the generator at a power plant.) And then there’s the battery – it loses energy too.

    I’m perfectly willing to believe that electric cars are more efficient, but I’m beginning to suspect that much of the large fuel cost advantage comes from a more efficient supply chain and different tax treatment.

  79. >I’ve heard that transmission losses are non-trivial.

    Wikipedia cites sources saying transmission losses are around 7-8%

    My understanding is that a significant part of that is due to AC-frequency coupling with the earth. This was in fact the main problem that plagued early undersea telegraph cables, i.e. high-frequency AC coupling of the insulated signal wire with the surrounding conductive seawater, which prevented long-distance transmission of high-frequency signals (e.g. the sharp-edged pulses of the telegraph signals).

    With the development of inverters, maybe at some point it will be economical to convert cross-country high-voltage lines to DC, eliminating those AC-related losses; the high-voltage DC could then be run through an inverter at its destination (e.g. a neighborhood substation) to generate AC. That would eliminate the AC line-to-earth coupling losses.

    HVDC lines are already in use in some limited applications:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HVDC

  80. Andy – in general, a gasoline engine is capable of capturing roughly 20-25% of the energy released and turning it into forward momentum. Some cars are better at this – they get up to 30%, but they tend to be cars nobody likes to drive.

    A coal fired plant is able to capture more energy from the process because it’s able to do it in multiple stages (think cogeneration facilities) that an automobile won’t get. (For example, using the waste heat from your car to power a boiler to feed more power to the engine is a net loss, because you’re carrying that boiler and its working fluid around all the time; it adds mechanical complexity and expense, for very little real benefit.)

    By comparison, generating electricity from a turbine starts at about 45% efficiency; with cogeneration, you get up to 70-80% of the stored energy from the fuel…but at a cost in material plant complexity.

    Transmission losses range between 20% and 30% for most urban areas, and are worse in rural areas.

    Lastly, coal and LNG for power plant use cost less per unit of energy released than gasoline does, by about 40%.

    Let’s assume 25% for transmission losses, and 70% for overall plant efficiency. That means each unit of energy that makes it to an end consumer is about 52% efficient, versus 25% efficient for a car – or 30% efficient for a high end efficiency car.

    Somewhere between 1: 1.7 to 1:2. Couple this with the cost to generate that electricity in the first place being about 40% less per unit of energy released, and you get a ‘cost per mile’ ratio of just shy of 3:1 for electrical vehicles, or equal to gasoline at about $1 per gallon.

    I am seriously seriously hoping that GM doesn’t screw up the Chevy Volt.

    1) It has a gas tank. Gas tank powers a generator, which is tuned for MUCH greater fuel economy than a typical auto engine is. The generator refills the Li Ion batteries when they run dry, or powers the electric motors running the wheels directly if the demand is too high. It nets about 40 mpg from this.

    2) It can plug in overnight to refill the batteries. From a single battery charge alone, it should get 30-40 miles of city driving. For most people, the car will be burning less than a quart of gas per day; the gas tank holds 12 gallons, so it can do long drives painlessly.

    3) Because of where the engines are placed, and where the batteries are placed, you don’t make the cargo space sacrifices of a Prius, and you don’t have the Prius’s sluggish acceleration.

    It’s a nice piece of engineering, coming out of GM. Which means it’s probably doomed in the marketplace, no matter what its merits are.

    Scaled up to an SUV-sized car, it would get roughly 23 mpg off the generator, would have about a 60-70 mile range off of one charge, and would likely take longer than an overnight plug in to recharge.

    It’s the ability to do those ‘most common’ 40 miles of driving without touching the gas tank that appeals to me, particularly using nighttime power generation..

  81. Russ Nelson. thanks for pointing it out, and I’ve fixed it, but … spelling flames? Really?

    how… petty of you. Can this really be all you have to add? If so, I suggest that you’re not actually participating in this conversation (and yes, I have noted that esr seems to have chosen to not respond to my challenges, either.) Doesn’t bother me, others do, and I’m here to exchange and learn.

    Here’s something to chew on. When I hear economists (or those who, like you, portend to be same) talk about “friction-free markets” it makes my skin crawl.

    You (and they) have obviously never seen an under-damped control loop pound an otherwise robust structure into dust. You seem to have enough of an EE background to understand the issues with unconstrained harmonics in, say, a DC circuit. Why can you not see how these apply to something as complex as a ‘market’?

    I speak here in reference to many postings of yours, including this: http://blog.russnelson.com/economics/price-cost-value.html, and most recently this: http://blog.russnelson.com/economics/lot-of-ruin.html and, of course, your comment above that I don’t understand economics.

    I anticipate that your response (should you choose to respond) will be trite and dismissive, but will be delighted if you choose otherwise.

  82. >The name of the book was “Needle.” I have a crumbling paperback copy in the next room.

    Well, of course. Doesn’t everybody? :-) Mine isn’t even crumbling. Much.

  83. Mike says:
    > leaving the car home and cycling the trip yourself. You can get pretty far in 20 minutes
    > even when not huffing and puffing and sweating. Not 20 miles, but quite easily five

    Well, no. Five miles in twenty minutes is 15 mph or about 25 km/h. On my current model street bike (like a mountain bike but heavier only only a front shock) with slick tyres at 120 PSI, 25 km/h is above what I can average for 20 minutes, except perhaps at the end of a summer of riding and getting fitter. I doubt that anyone much can do it without elevated heart rate and heavy sweating.

    If you want lack of sweating you’re talking about maybe 7 – 10 mph, or two or three times walking speed.

    > or, with some sweating, several miles more.

    Now you’re talking 7 miles in 20 minutes. 21 mph, or 34 km/h. That is the kind of pace that top triathletes do while competing. It’s not just some sweating — it’s totally beyond the capabilities of most people.

  84. Jay Maynard writes:
    > An airplane flies because its thrust overcomes its drag, and its lift is greater than its
    > weight. Lift has its own costs in drag. [...] the thrust required is measured in thousands
    > of pounds, from a fraction of a thousand for a little airplane like mine to several
    > hundred thousand for a 747.

    Well, no.

    It’s true Cessna 172 has a maximum takeoff weight of 2500 lb and a lift to drag ratio of around 10:1, thus requiring about 250 lb of thrust in cruise, but that is the SUV of the skies, using 1950′s technology or both the airframe and the engine.

    But you can get something more modern such as the Stemme S10 (only a 2 seater, but that’s usually enough) with a max takeoff weight of 850 kg and a 50:1 L/D ratio, thus requiring only 17 kg or 38 lbs of thrust in cruise.

    That’s a *huge* difference, and there’s no fundamental reason that all small planes could not be that efficient.

    As for the 747, while they have a max takeoff weight around 800000 lb, they have a lift to drag ratio of about 20, thus requiring only 40,000 lb of thrust in cruise. That’s a lot, but then you’re talking 400 people here, so it’s only about 100 lb of thrust per person. Note that the fuel economy of a 747 per passenger is about the same as that of a car, despite traveling at 900 km/h.

    > Generating thrust suitable for an aircraft is hard because it’s required for essentially the
    > entire duration of the flight. The reason that using automotive engines in aircraft seldom
    > works well is that an automobile engine operates at 30% or so of its rated power output
    > the majority of the time; an aircraft engine operates at 75% or so in cruise, for hours on
    > end. Thus, substantial power output is not only required for takeoff, but normal flight.

    Incorrect. It is normal to operate the piston engine in a small plane at 75% of maximum *RPM* in cruise flight, but the power output is far lower than 75%. This can easily be seen from comparing the thrust needed for cruise (250 lb) with the additional thrust needed to climb at about 700 fpm at 75 knots. That’s a 1 in 11 angle, and thus requires another 230 lb of thrust. Thus the cruise power level is more like 50% of takeoff power. In modern low-drag aircraft the difference between climb and cruise power is even bigger.

  85. Hey, you seem to forget about the Nuclear Power Plants.

    One of them will be built in my country for the first time.

    Yes, an offer was made yesterday to built the nuclear power plant in Turkey.

    They have been used in many other countries and it seems to be the best bet for the municipial electricity demands of big cities.

    As far as I know, nuclear energy production leaves no CO2 or CO in the air and that ‘s very fine.

  86. A guy from Anatolia: As far as I know, nuclear energy production leaves no CO2 or CO in the air and that ’s very fine.

    That’s absolutely right, but carbon emissions may be the least of your worries, depending on the type of plant that’s being built. Pressurized water reactors–the most common type in service today, I think–were originally designed for use in ships, not for civilian power generation. They’re insanely profligate with uranium, they’re not inherently fail-safe, and they produce a hell of a headache in terms of waste products. The sad thing is that there are better designs, which are far more efficient, have inherent fail-safes, and produce no waste that’s dangerous for more than two hundred years. Read about one of these designs here; it was actually built and ran before the project was scrapped around 1994.

    I’ve ranted about this before; it’s one of those recurring wallbangers that I keep running into.

  87. Jeremy: Actually, I was under the understanding that you could convert freight-train to electric and still be operationally economically viable, the trick was to convert everything to mag-lev, thus reducing ground-friction entirely. The problem is the cost of doing that.

    Wait… it’s not economically viable because it costs too much, but it is economically viable if you make a huge infrastructure change, which is… not economically viable.

    Either you just went ’round in circles, or you wrote something down wrong.

  88. Energy density only matters in transportation (car, airplanes etc). Wind accounts for approximately 19% of electricity production in Denmark and it works once you have enough wind farms the local weather becomes less important and it’s the prevailing weather patterns that matter.

    There are a lot of trade offs to each type of energy production but it’s just a numbers game (Net Cost – Net Value) = profit (or loss).

  89. > Lastly, coal and LNG for power plant use cost less per unit of energy released than gasoline does, by about 40%.

    How much of that is supply chain efficiencies and how much of that is taxes?

  90. Industrial efficiency gains are far less visible; but, because the scale of industrial energy use is so much larger, they matter a lot more.

    Huh? Industrial energy usage is about equivalent to residential and commercial usage, and if you’re only counting electricity, residential/commercial electricity use is more than twice that of the industrial sector. (I don’t know how much of the natural-gas input, for instance, goes to local generators, though, so this could well involve that local generation you’d mentioned.) Yes, an individual plant uses far more energy than an individual home or store, but efficiency gains in either class can make a significant dent in total energy consumption.

  91. “And no, electric cars aren’t the answer either; the power to run them has to come from somewhere. The best case is that people will charge them off the grid at night. This will require power plants to be burning just as much additional fuel as if the cars themselves were doing it, perhaps more given transmission losses.” –ESR

    “Pacific Northwest National Laboratory calculates that there is enough excess nighttime generating capacity nationwide to charge 84 percent of the 198 million cars, pickups, and SUVs on the road today. Ideally, the energy charging those cars would come from carbon-free sources, which would reduce almost to zero the greenhouse gas emissions per mile. But a joint study by Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council found that even if a plug-in vehicle got all its electricity from coal-fired plants (the U.S. electricity grid is about 50 percent coal), it would still emit only two-thirds of the greenhouse gases released by a conventional car. Over the next thirty years, the study concluded, widespread adoption of V2G could eliminate 450 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of retiring a third of the current fleet.” From Earth: The Sequel (p. 226)

  92. Andy Freeman: How much of [the price difference between gasoline and coal/CNG] is supply chain efficiencies and how much of that is taxes?

    Taxes represent, at most, under twenty percent of the cost of gasoline (assuming you live in California and gas is $3.50 per gallon at the pump). It’s less–sometimes considerably less–in other states.

  93. “Um, what global warming? There hasn’t been any since 1998. Recently global average temperature has actually been dropping rather dramatically, enough to wipe out the last century of warming trend.”

    Um, what kind of crack smoke you?

    It is WELL known that the warmest years on record have occurred in roughly the last decade. According to Goddard Institute for Space Sciences (GISS), 2005 was the WARMEST year in history [1]. And that’s expected to be broken in the next couple years whenever the comes [2].

    Care to name any sources for your assertions?

    1. http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/earth_temp.html
    2. http://www.livescience.com/environment/080116-warmest-year.html

  94. Andy:

    No, gasoline is just expensive; it being liquid, highly volitile and dense makes it a good automotive fuel (especially for smaller vehicles), but it’s too hard to get and deal with to use as a replacement for other fossil fuels. Until the development of the automobile it was an unwanted side-product of kerosene (for lighting) production. If there were no cars I’m not sure what we’d do with the stuff; burn it at refinery-sited power plants (we’d still want heavy fuel oils), probably.

  95. >Huh? Industrial energy usage is about equivalent to residential and commercial usage,

    Sorry. For “scale” read “density and scale”; both matter when you’re trying to figure what amount of dollar investment in improved process efficiency is likely to yield a foregone megawatt. As a semi-separate issue, “commercial” may not be a useful category here; I was really talking about low- vs. high-density usage when I said “residential” and “industrial”.

  96. I’m not suggesting that gasoline be used for powerplants (although I understand that some used to run on oil). I’m just asking where the “equal energy” cost differential comes from.

    BTW – I note that we’ve seen a wide range of figures for transmission line losses. I’m sure that they’re all true in some circumstances. Like taxes, they’re strongly affected by politics. (NIMBY with powerplants increases them.)

    The point is that cherry picking numbers and ignoring why they are what they are doesn’t help us make good decisions.

  97. >A word of friendly advice, Mike (and I mean it very sincerely): Be *very* careful that your pro-bicycle arguments don’t assume or imply those that don’t ride bikes are stupid, lazy, irrational, wasteful, etc. The handful of “cycling evangelists” I’ve dealt with have done far more damage than help to their cause with their insufferable condescension and proselytizing. (I often wonder what they’ll do when enough lumpenproles get on bikes that it’s not “cool” anymore…)

    Okay, you need to get the chip off your shoulder. So some people are assholes, does that justify you to be one? Your last sentence implying that the only reason people like to ride bikes is because it’s cool is so dripping with condescension that I wonder what happened to you during your childhood. And as someone who does quite a bit of both driving and cycling I can tell you that the US has way more asshole drivers than it does asshole cyclists, with the former being far more likely to maim or kill in a fit of road rage.

  98. Wow, how many falsehoods can you pack into an article?

    Grid losses hover around 5-7% — an order of magnitude less than internal combustion engines. I don’t know what the losses on oil tankers and gas trucks are, but it isn’t cherries. He spends a lot of vitriol on the problem of time-shifting, then seems to gloss over the fact that electric cars largely solve it.

    Hydroelectric power can be extremely environmentally damaging.

    I’d love to see a source on the ‘industrial energy demands far outstrip residental’ thing. Last I checked, individual transportation and residential power account for not less than 2/3 of energy use in the U.S.

    He’s right on nuclear. Except he didn’t mention self-contained microreactors. So he’s wrong.
    http://www.techrockies.com/story/0017490.html

    -Carl

  99. hpb wrote:
    > Have you looked into this, and if so, any thoughts on the subject?
    > http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abiogenic_petroleum_origin

    Yes, anyone with two firing brain cells should realize that the prior probability of oil being entirely biogenic in origin is on the order of 2%. Then ask what data exists to revise that probability upward? Basically none. Both mechanisms may be at work, but there are clearly large deposits of abiogenic, fuel-grade hydrocarbons somewhere in this rock of ours.

  100. > Your last sentence implying that the only reason people like to ride bikes is because it’s cool is so dripping with condescension that I wonder what happened to you during your childhood.

    No. It says that there are cycling evangelists who think that they’re cool because they’re “different”. Do you really want to argue that that’s false, that there aren’t a lot of cycling evangelists who are Prius-driver-class smug emitters?

    > And as someone who does quite a bit of both driving and cycling I can tell you that the US has way more asshole drivers than it does asshole cyclists,

    so you’re going with “they do it too”. Except, interestingly enough, they’re assholes about many different things so the comparison makes sense only if one believes that cycling evangelists can only be assholes about one thing.

  101. I feel you’re exhibiting a bit of a lack of imagination.

    Fact is, using the data available, over the next 50 years, oil and gas production will drop drastically. Barring algae-synthfuel working out (far from a certainty) we will have no choice but to depend on alternative energy, primarily wind, solar and hydro. Sure, there will be more nuclear power, but building, running and disposing of nuclear power stations is far from cheap.

    Will this mean that industrial civilization will have to change drastically? Yes. Will this mean we all die of disease and descend into anarchic warfare? Not necessarily.

    Sure, so you can’t use wind and solar for baseload. Maybe our production patterns will change, and we’ll manufacture goods on windy/sunny days, and leave the factories idle at other times.

    Will this be less efficient? Yes. Will it be the end of industrial civilization? No.

    And as for transportation, maybe the age of the private automobile will slowly come to end, and we’ll begin relying on public transportation for journeys both near and far, with the wealthy using electric cars for short distances.

    Will this entail a drastic change in lifestyle? Yes. Will it be the end of life as we know it? No.

    Look at how Cuba dealt with it’s own “peak oil” experience and cities like Copenhagen, where 32% of people cycle to work.

    It’ll be different. Our real GDP per capita might halve. Or even halve again.

    But it will not be the end of the world.

    It will have only minor effects on life expectancy, education levels, diet balance, and anything else that really counts for quality of life. We won’t suddenly forget the sum of human knowledge.

    We’ll just have to live in smaller houses, fly less, eat less meat, work more locally, cook at home, perhaps even grow some of our own food. But mainly: buy less crap. And who’ll even notice there’s less crap around, once it’s gone?

  102. > Lastly, coal and LNG for power plant use cost less per unit of energy released than gasoline does, by about 40%.

    How much of that is supply chain efficiencies and how much of that is taxes?

    Most of that’s supply chain efficiencies. Natural gas is a byproduct of oil drilling and coal mining to a lesser extent; once the infrastructure is in place to move it around, it’s amazingly cheap – it requires very little processing to make it useful as a fuel.

    Coal, once the infrastructure is in place, requires even less processing to turn into fuel.

    Both tend to be delivered to plants using them in efficient ways – whole train fulls of coal, rather than individual tanker trucks to gas stations.

    Oil requires distillation and cracking, and while those scale up nicely into industrial scale applications, they’re still adding steps to the process. Oil’s big advantage is that it’s easily transportable compared to natural gas or coal, and very energy dense. Its distillates are likewise portable. (Alcohol, in the US, runs into problems with pipelines freezing over.)

    I still hope that GM won’t screw the pooch on the Chevy Volt. Hopes are not the same as expectations, sadly.

    In regards to cycling advocacy:

    “There is no cause no noble that it won’t eventually attract fuckheads.” – Niven’s Sixth Law.

  103. Regarding global warming, everyone’s wrong in the above conversation, because no one bothered to define what he was talking about.

    The surface temperature of the Earth has cooled in the last decade. This bothered the climatologists, so the next logical thing to do is to include the oceans. If you include the oceans, which have high heat capacity, you can create graphs showing that the total temperature of ocean and surface have gone up, for example see this explanation:

    http://climateprogress.org/2008/08/21/debunking-the-myth-global-warming-stopped-in-1998/

    However, talking about the total temperature of the Earth is thermodynamically meaningless, because what’s relevant is total heat; you can’t average materials of different heat capacity and get any meaningful numbers for temperature.

    But because everyone’s political their brains turn to mush, so of course the current status quo will persist for decades, as it’s convenient to make up the definitions in an unprincipled manner as you go when discussing something of such little import as whether we will all die from methane extinction.

    If you’re going to talk about “global warming,” it’s helpful to specify what exactly is warming, and how warming is defined.

  104. I should note that the NASA source cited by Jess and the “debunking” reference I cited above are wrong, because they show plots of temperature, which are incorrect and thermodynamically meaningless.

    I certainly don’t blame anyone here for being confused or even disagreeing about this whole global warming issue, because if you measure temperature on (1) oceans, (2) the Earth’s crust, and (3) air, using (a) surface measurements, or (b) 3D lattice measurements, and integrate over whichever volumes you like, then of course you get arbitrary results. Perhaps this is the way NASA does science. I hope not.

    So in conclusion, there is no conclusion. Maybe there is science being done somewhere, but the results certainly haven’t been communicated to the public in a manner that has scientific meaning.

  105. I’d like to add that if one is going to claim that the heat in the Earth has gone up, or even that the heat within 2 miles underground to the space boundary has gone up, he or she had damn well better have a precise definition for where the heat went up, a good model, and extensive measurements proving the claim right. Because otherwise you won’t get science, you’ll just get a political feud.

    Science is about precision under fixed definitions, not bullshit generated due to changing definitions willy-nilly.

  106. I should add that I personally “believe” that the heat integrated from the top of the crust to space has been increasing, since the 1970s, due to Occam’s razor on current measurements. And I “believe” that the heat above landmasses may have decreased since the late 1990s.

    However, this misses my fundamental concern, which is that the definition of science has been warped, in the last 50 years, to be about human assumptions, that one can be “for” or “against,” or that it’s political to question global warming.

    The whole point of science is that it doesn’t require belief. Every detail can be questioned and found correct. It’s rational. You can make every measurement yourself, and reconstruct all of science from the bottom up. Science is proof or disproof, and it is rigorous.

  107. Mac,

    “We’ll just have to live in smaller houses, fly less, eat less meat, work more locally, cook at home, perhaps even grow some of our own food. But mainly: buy less crap.”

    I can’t help but notice the wishful thinking behind all this: that you seem to feel/think it would not only be a necessary thing, but a good thing too, a desirable thing, a virtuous thing. Do you think more modest circumstances would have a good effect on character and behaviour – less selfish, or something like that?

  108. Connelly,

    “The whole point of science is that it doesn’t require belief. Every detail can be questioned and found correct. ”

    Well, actually, not. There is a fairly limited area of things we know with 100% certainity. And there is a much wider area which is way less certain – the “likely” and “unlikely” things.

  109. I’m skeptical about the potential of synthetic oil from algae. I first heard of algae as a savior a couple months ago, and excited by the buzz, did some serious research. What I found is that the Web is chock-full of misinformation put out by start-up companies seeking to land venture capital. Algae has been thoroughly studied in the past by agencies and governments looking to use it as a source of fuel and food. To date, no one has been able to raise algae on the scale required, and independent analysis of the patents filed by alternative energy companies conclude that a barrel of algae green crude will cost $800. The lead scientist on the IEIA’s algae program recently said that every single claim being made by the start-ups on the Web violate basic laws of thermodynamics. That’s not to say that it isn’t a promising area of research – only that expectations shouldn’t exceed physical realities. Algae is unlikely to be a cure-all, and will only be one piece of whatever final solution we end up with.

  110. Might want to read this article

    http://www.thestar.com/columnists/article/250043

    In which venture capitalist Vinod Khosla argues that investments in “ultra-high-voltage DC transmission technologies and infrastructure” would address storage concerns. I’m not that conversant with this type of technology, however, if it is viable then it would poke a few holes in your argument that renewables can’t deliver the goods where and when they are needed. The network is the storage.

  111. Where you and I see eye to eye, Eric, is only on the thesis of the title of your essay: that “alternative energy isn’t”.

    With algal synfuels being currently nothing more than vaporware and nowhere near cost-effective, and the promise of nuclear power largely illusory, a cornucopian position becomes, to put it mildly, difficult to reasonably hold.

  112. Jeff, your web site immediately links to Rock Mountain Institute and Amory Lovins. Both entities are widely know as long-term detractors of nuclear power so using them as references to justify your statement is about as useful as asking Ingrid Newkirk to evaluate the steaks at Ruth’s Chris.

    Try looking at some more neutral sites before you declare nuclear power dead. Even Stewart Brand has come forward as pro-nuke.

  113. Rick T, according to the DoE’s own numbers if worldwide we converted our energy base to nuclear, the world’s fissionable materials would last us about 4.3 years.

    The elephant in the room here is that our energy-profligate way of life is going away soon, and that we must transition on a societal level to complete sustainability. It can happen by hook or by crook, by voluntary action or by having energy limits imposed on us by that blind ruler, thermodynamics.

    Whatever the case, in the short term the U.S. geopolitical power base will dwindle, and a Russia-China alliance will dominate twenty-first century affairs as the preeminent energy broker.

  114. The solution is very simple and works well with renewable energy. The price for energy must change with the supply and demand of electricity. When there is enough energy available, it is cheap, if the there is no energy available it is expensive.

    And BTW there is every year a conference about storing electricity from renewable energy in Germany.

    But since in the US the price per kWh is below 10 cents it is not really an incentive there to regulate the energy consumption.

  115. Two aspects I think you may be overlooking:

    Electric cars provide a substantial increase in modularity: it is simple to convert any fuel to electricity, so it makes sense to separate the primary function of a car (turn energy into transport) from the secondary function (turn fuel into energy). Just as in software, this allows the generation of electricity to be changed with changes in technology, without requiring changes in all cars. It is much easier to upgrade/replace a few power plants than a few million cars. Of course electric cars have some way to go, but if battery /hydrogen technology gets far enough to allow good enough energy storage, then I think they will provide a large benefit.

    Also, this allows pollution generation to be shifted from heavily populated areas to less populated areas, improving air quality.

    You claim that there are not good technologies for storing power, but pump-fed storage is >70% efficient. Especially in areas where hydro-electric plants are used for generating power through natural stream flows this is economical.

  116. Edgr, mass conversion to electric vehicles has its own set of problems..

    The first is energy density. One gallon of gasoline is equivalent to 33.56 KWh of electricty. If I assume 208VAC (standard US home high voltage power) and 20A load it takes 8 hours to transfer that amount of energy. Factor in charger efficiency and battery losses and you are looking at 10 hours of charge time to get 40-50 miles of range. Compare 10 hours of charging to get a 50 mile range to 10 minutes for 450 miles (14 gallons of gasoline into my 2006 Escape Hybrid) and you can see the issue.

    The second is timing of the load. Mass conversion would push the Peak Load from a few hours in the late afternoon/early evening to be essentially all night.

    The third is storage capacity. I can’t image how many lawsuits would be filed if you tried to create a pumped storage facility on the Columbia River Gorge. I pick that location because there is abundant hydro power *and* a 1000 ft high escarpment on the Oregon side to give a good high lift. Where are you going to build the new capacity that would be required?

    The forth is transport: The long-haul power grid is running at close to its limits now, especially in California so there isn’t a lot of leeway to move large amounts of power around. I have heard at least one comment from a utility worker that it is easier to build a new power plant than try an run a new high voltage distribution line. Every property owner along the proposed path files suits to move it away from their back yard, and they all believe the urban myth that low frequency EM fields causes cancer…

    The problems with gaseous hydrogen storage are well documented, and you would need a ton of energy to liquify hydrogen, not to mention the problems with handling 4 K liquids.

    Assuming users have a fuel cell in their garage to convert natural gas directly to electricity assumes that the house has a natural gas feed. Not the case in a lot of places.

    Liquid-fueled personal vehicles are going to be with us for a long time.

  117. I just came back to this one through a search…and find that there’re a couple of things here that need correcting:

    But you can get something more modern such as the Stemme S10 (only a 2 seater, but that’s usually enough) with a max takeoff weight of 850 kg and a 50:1 L/D ratio, thus requiring only 17 kg or 38 lbs of thrust in cruise.

    The S10 is an extreme case. Among other minor details, it’s got a very high aspect ratio wing and a wingspan of over 75 feet. It’s designed specifically for soaring, not cross-country cruising. It has little fuel tankage, and increasing that has effects that cascade through the rest of the design.

    Airplanes are designed for a specific mission. A 172 can’t handle the same mission as the S10, true; the reverse, however, is also true.

    Incorrect. It is normal to operate the piston engine in a small plane at 75% of maximum *RPM* in cruise flight, but the power output is far lower than 75%.

    Wrong. The pilots’ operating handbooks that are a required part of the documentation of every aircraft built in the last 40 years or so contain, among other useful information, a chart of power output vs. RPM (and manifold pressure, for those with constant-speed propellers), and pilots operate based on that power level. Most renter pilots who don’t pay for their own fuel (because it’s included in the cost of the rental) run their aircraft at 75%; other run theirs at 65%, and a few misers run theirs at 55%. To understand why the same power setting produces a climb, or a straight and level cruise, you need to account for the different airspeeds involved, and note that drag goes up quite a bit from an 80 knot climb to a 115 knot cruise. Lift to drag ratios are not constant. That’s why each airplane has a best glide speed, where the S10 you cite is usually operated, but the 172 (much less the 747) almost never is.

  118. spot on, eric. i’m closely involved in the wholesale energy-complex sector nowadays and can confirm you have rather neatly laid out the major issues and in a perspective based on the real-world rather than idealism.

     
    not as a criticism but for completeness, i will add one bulk-transportable mass-individually-deliverable energy source you missed (as does everyone outside the wholesale markets, since it’s only really become important in the last couple of years there, due to recent changes), which is not as energy-dense as oil but still pretty good: LNG. granted, this has additional safety implications at the point of delivery. but there have been huge new finds of gas fields in recent years (eg brazil), and far more importantly there has been a huge upswing in recent years of LNG infrastructure at the wholesale level as the energy markets realised that LNG lets them eliminate geopolitically risky pipelines in favour of using the vast and vastly efficient global transport infrastucture already in place. the sheer weight (exponentially increasing) of resources and capital turning to this energy delivery/transport method suggests it will be increasingly important in years to come, possibly even at a retail level.

     
    i read the comments up till the point they turned insane (so: didn’t read that many). one mentioned hydro and new zealand: to that commenter: NZ currently generates over 80% of its electricity supply (tho not its whole-economy energy needs) from hydro: at current point-of-delivery technology/infrastructure, there’s not really a huge amount of scope left for increasing their hydro use.

     
    wind power COULD be a practical solution in latin america’s mid-east-coast as the trade winds there are not only strong but very consistent. i’ll be working on raising funds for a large plant there shortly.

     
    i can confirm that many oil fields are filling up, and that the abiogenic oil physics (repeatedly replicated under laboratory conditions) seems the closest fit theory for why. it also fits rather neatly with the vast stretches of indonesian beaches that were flooded with oil after the tsunami several years ago, despite no known oil field being involved.

     
    nuclear remains far and away the best current alternative for electricity supply: according to the UK’s Green Party’s climate change expert Mark Lynas, “fourth-generation ‘fast-breeder’ reactors…use fuel more efficiently than the old-style reactors, produce shorter-lived waste and can also be designed to be ‘walk-away safe’.” “Just a month ago I had a Damascene conversion: the Green case against nuclear power is based largely on myth and dogma. My tipping point came when I discovered just how much nuclear power has changed since I first set my mind against it.

    (eric: do please have a read of that 2nd link at least — short, sharp, and amusingly describes how he’s been vilified by his now-ex Green colleagues for stepping off the bandwagon in light of new facts and new technology. as he says in the 1st link: “Being anti-nuclear is an article of faith (and I use that word intentionally) for many people in today’s environmental movement and beyond, just as it was during the 1970s.”)

     
    ;) one thing i MUST take exception with though:
    >>ESR, you are forgetting to factor in global warming in your analysis.
    >Um, what global warming? There hasn’t been any since 1998. Recently global average temperature has actually been dropping rather dramatically, enough to wipe out the last century of warming trend.

    COMPLETE RUBBISH!!
    the average world surface temperature has been dropping since 2000, not 1998. 2000. *chee* get it RIGHT!
    ok, it was pretty flat for a couple of years before then.
    /;)

    to be fair, this is entirely in line with the cyclicality seen over the last N hundred years and is entirely in line with and predicted from solar cycles. so this recent movement is not in and of itself a variation of the last 50 years’ trend — we won’t know for sure for another 4 or 5 years.

    amusingly, though, the whole CO2 thing has been proven precisely wrong by the inversion of its utterly critical overarching/underpinning assumption: the earth is heating up faster than the atmosphere. if the greenhouse effect was the cause, the opposite MUST be the case. it’s not, therefore it’s not the greenhouse effect (incl.CO2) which is driving the current situation. game over.
    there are loads of other correlative discoveries but off-topic. although my favourites are: that the key assumption underlying all the “runaway globalwarming” models was similarly discovered recently to be exactly upsidedown — reality works the opposite to the key assumption. and that nobody ever bothered to check what CO2′s actual greenhouse effect was in atmosphere before modelling up their assumptions, and it turns out it’s 80 times MORE effective than assumed, meaning that 99.something% of the earth’s radiated heat is absorbed within 6 metres of the ground, by the CO2 alone, ignoring methane etc.. double the CO2, and that comes down to 3m. this blows the models out of the water.
    heh: immunise yourself vs the next 100 years CO2 effect by buying yourself a 3rd storey flat…

    nevertheless, although i regard the emissions=climate-change thing as a social-virtue/status-acquisition -driven furphy, it is having the macro effect of concentrating large amounts of attention on the concept of sustainability. the credit markets are having their wakeup call that you can’t regard the outside world as infinite — the benefit of the CO2 squawking is that serious money is finally being directed to reducing the impact of industry upon the world. a good result for the wrong reason. the end can justify the means — i can be happy with that where the means are merely distasteful rather than toxic.

     
    speaking of toxic: i will be VERY glad if we can reduce global reliance on coal.

    the primary cause of toxic mercury levels in highfoodchain fish is coal power plants.

     
    another reason for discarding most “alternative” energy sources is their dependence upon (extremely) rare earths. The Economist ran an article a couple of years ago showing that moving up to less than 10% of just electricity supply from photovoltaics would completely exhaust the world’s reserves of a couple of them.
    bear in mind these are SERIOUSLY rare earths. the current african wars are close to impinging on a particular ore body which supplies a substantial proportion of a key material for the world’s supply of high-tech kit. and there’s a mine in central africa which constitutes 80% of the world’s reserves of one rather critical rare earth required for most of our high-tech kit — including computers.

    yes: one mine. a single mine. 80%. if the iraq invasion had had ANY flavour of “war for oil” (war for key resources), saddam would still be in place and america would be swarming central africa, led by the Silicon Valley Stormtroopers.

     
    one rather interesting feature of the world’s global energy demand which no one ever seems to mention: the global consumption of oil has been flat since 2004. global gdp has continued to grow at the same rate. but oil consumption has tracked dead sideways since then.
    very interesting.

  119. i can confirm that many oil fields are filling up, and that the abiogenic oil physics (repeatedly replicated under laboratory conditions) seems the closest fit theory for why. it also fits rather neatly with the vast stretches of indonesian beaches that were flooded with oil after the tsunami several years ago, despite no known oil field being involved.

    Debunked, long ago. M. King Hubbert got it right, predicting the 1970 U.S. peak on the nose, and predicting the global peak right about now.

    N.b.: Peak-oil theorists never moved the goalposts, as Eric asserts they did. To my knowledge they have always spoken of a global peak happening right now, and a U.S. peak taking place in 1970, which Hubbert predicted in the 50s.

  120. nuclear remains far and away the best current alternative for electricity supply

    For 4.3 years, at least. :) Nuclear’s status as an energy winner is illusory, and based on the fact that the energy rquired to mine and transport fissile material, build and maintian the plant, etc. comes from other sources. In contrast, petroleum’s appeal came from the fact that its initial energy investment was that required to dig a hole in the ground (and not even a particularly deep one). Nuclear’s EROEI is pathetic and four years is on the order of how long the world’s fissile material would last if we converted our primary energy base to nuclear.

  121. Aluminum could be the transportation fuel/battery?

    Appears that aluminum+water as a “battery” (creates hydrogen which is combustible) with attributes (energy density, recycleabe/renewable, instant recharge) suitable for transportation, can solve the time-shift, space-shift issue for electricity.

    The energy intensive aluminum production is thus a form of electric storage: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alumina#Production

    Aluminum has a high mass & volume energy density:
    wiki pedia /wiki/Energy_density (<– WordPress spam filter won’t let me put 2 links from same domain)

    And works as well as oil as a fuel, by on the site reaction to hydrogen or electricity to power devices:
    (the wiki site above) /Aluminium_battery

    http://www.instructables.com/id/Run-Your-Car-on-Hydrogen-from-Aluminum-Soda-Cans-a/ http://www.metalectrique.com/products.html

    Wind & Solar have EROEI, so they are appropriate once the time &
    space-shifts are solved with a suitable battery medium:
    http://www.chrismartenson.com/peak-oil-b

  122. I work in the Electric Power Industry. A coworker recently retired and went to work with a company that builds and runs wind power stations. They are working on using compress air as a means to store power for use during peak demand. Also at the plant I work at , a coal fire plant , there is a project to grow the algae that ESR was talking about. Since we use waste water effluent for cooling it provides a warm nutrient base to grow the algae in. Clean coal, nuclear, bio-power and other alternates should eventually get us off of using oil. Originally Henry Ford wanted to use bio-fuel to power his cars. Oil won out on price. We can power our cars with bio-fuel and will before too long as now bio-fuels are more attractive to use than oil.

  123. Regarding my prior post about using Aluminum as a fuel:

    http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=521#comment-229700

    Note that the Hall-Héroult process, used to regenerate Al from the Al + H2O -> H2 + byproduct Aluminum Oxide, requires carbon and produces CO2 byproduct. But CO2 can be used to make methane and hydrocarbon fuels:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_capture_and_storage#CO2_Reuse

    So the carbon gets used twice before it is released into the atmosphere (where is must then be recovered more slowly by the carbon cycle).

    Remember the point of Al, and these synthetic carbon fuels, is not EROEI (even < 1 is okay), but rather to create transportation (mobile) fuels from high EROEI sources (e.g. nuclear, wind, solar).

    Any one who doubts that Al has a high energy density, consider thermite (9/11 steel girder melting) which is just Al mixed with an iron oxide catalyst.

    Regarding immediately prior post, yes compressed air is potentially better battery for non-mobile applications, than chemical batteries, because it is has a very low maintenance cost, and it can release heat while storing and release cold air when consuming.

    Bio-fuels are potentially viable for harvesting CO2 from atmosphere, if the algae concept proves to be viable, else they are not going to work because they compete with our food supply (which is headed into shortage). Bio-fuels (at least non-algae) have a very low EROEI, and thus are not viable as an energy source– only as a way of storing and transferring energy.

    The only high EROEI sources are hydro, geothermal, nuclear, wind, and solar. Other potential sources might be wave action and some tapping of the earth’s magnetic field or an ambient heat pump (Tesla).

  124. Ethanol requires higher compression
    =======================

    Alcohol Ethanol (distilled from fermented sugar or starch plants) or methanol (from non-sugar organic matter, e.g. wood) can produce the same MPG performance as petrol (gas), but the engine has to have a much higher compression than can be used with petrol.

    This is because although alcohol has a 30% lower energy (mass & volume) density than petrol (meaning that for same weight or volume, alcohol will have 30% less energy content), alcohol has a much high octane rating (116). (which thus makes ethanol (methanol is toxic) a much less flammable fuel than petrol) Contrary to popular delusion, higher octane fuel does not improve fuel economy & power, unless the compression ratio of the engine is increased. Lower octane fuels can not be used in higher compression engines, because pre-detonation (knocking) occurs, which causes the engine to fight itself and lose power & efficiency. Higher compression engines produce more power for the same size (displacement, e.g. 350 cu.in or 5 liter) engine, and also have a higher thermal (Carnot Cycle) efficiency. Thus the 30% lower energy of the alcohol fuel is recovered in increased efficiency in the higher compression engine.

    Also a higher compression engine will be smaller and lighter for the same power, thus in theory alcohol engines would be more efficient (than petrol) for small propeller airplanes (not jets), when the engine weight is more significant than the fuel weight, i.e. short distances and where short takeoff/landing distances are preferred over long distance ability.

    So the whole E10 (10% ethanol mixed with 90% gas), burned in a lower compression engine that can run on 100% petrol, means that effectively E10 was just a way to make transportation in the country 3% less fuel efficient (10% ethanol * 30% lower energy density run on a non-optimal compression ratio engine).

    For varying the compression ratio of an engine, the main benefit of a turbo or supercharger over a crankshaft change, is the compression ratio can be varied dynamically at run time, without needing to mechanically re-manufacture the engine.

    Btw, Top Fuel (methanol + nitrous oxide, or nitrous oxide injection into petrol engines) is a way to get more power from smaller, higher compression engines than could be obtained without the “oxide”, meaning the fuel is carrying the majority of the oxygen that would normally come from the carburator and larger engine size (displacement). This only makes sense when the engine is the larger weight factor than the fuel, i.e. (analogous to using ethanol for airplanes mentioned above) in short distance applications (dragsters, hobby RC model airplanes, and go cart racing).

  125. I could have sworn this happened back in 2005 but now it’s official: we’re past the peak. Our civilization’s energy usage must be reduced, by the laws of thermodynamics, from here on out.

  126. >it now it’s official: we’re past the peak

    Yeah, right. I’ve heard this announcement at least four times since 1985. Obviously, at least the previous three were wrong.

  127. “and cities like Copenhagen, where 32% of people cycle to work”

    Which two major European cities are as flat as a table? Copenhagen and Amsterdam. In which two major European cities is cycling a popular mode of transportation? The same two again. Coincidence? Hardly so. I’ve cycled a bit in Copenhagen and walked a lot in Amsterdam, and found the almost complete absence of even minor elevations in the terrain can make a huge difference. I’ve found myself walking around 3-4 miles every day in Amsterdam without even feeling slightly tired, despite that I wasn’t in a good shape back then. All because of the flatness, I think.

    I don’t understand the biophysics of it but apparently even a few minor elevations here and there can make all the difference in cycling and walking. Not really the total joules of energy expended is what counts, it’s more like we often neglect to slow down / gear down at the beginning of the elevation and then just tire ourselves out quickly, or something like that.

  128. I have to admit that I would have been a little leary of all hype happening around solar. After exploring a lot of programs and get options my spouse and i decided i would take the plunge. We wound up getting solar without having money down and we all immediatly started putting money aside the first month is was installed. I have to admit that the features of solar are real and I am happy we decided i would move forward with it.

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