Welcome to Charge: the future of energy
by Daniel C. Sweeney, PhD
Having completed our hydrogen study and thrust it upon a largely indifferent marketplace, we are now contemplating a study of so called alternative fuels, though we have not fully committed to the project as yet. Hydrogen apparently is so 2002, no longer fascinating to investors, hence the tepid reception given our report. Indeed, we heard a recent interview with Amory Lovins, hydrogen’s biggest proponent heretofore, and he was talking about cellulosic ethanol from switch grass, a palliative also endorsed by President Bush. There is apparently some sort of harmonic convergence going on here, if we can resurrect a term from the wonderful lost decade of the nineties when it was very heaven to be alive.
At any rate, alternative fuels are now the rage and shall remain so for some considerable span of time, just as food is the rage of a starving man—or at least until he finally starves to death. Of course one could argue that people could simply become reconciled to high petroleum prices and forget about alternatives, and indeed we are being enjoined to follow such a course by certain figures on the political right, but so long as petroleum prices continue to inch up such forgetfulness becomes extremely unlikely. One may become reconciled to a high price if that price remains stable, but if it is continually ascending then fresh irritants manifest themselves at every turn.
Alt Fuel and Objectivity
As with many other issues relating to energy and energy security, more heat than light is evident in most discussions we have read on the subject of alternative fuels. And this is because ideology colors all such discussions.
Here we cannot resist an illustrative anecdote.
We were attending graduate school when the first oil crisis occurred—this in the year of grace, 1973. That crisis was entirely political in its origin and arose from the conflict between Israel and several Arab states known as the Yom Kippur War. Oil production in the Middle East was cut back in an attempt to persuade the U.S. to slacken in its support for Israel, but fortunately Egypt and Israel, the principal combatants, were both desirous of peace and the crisis was quickly resolved. At the time, however, no one knew that a swift resolution was in the offing, and there was much speculation concerning future interruptions and ongoing shortages in petroleum.
We vividly recall a conversation on this subject with one of our fellow graduate students, an individual who was already enjoying great success in landing research grants and seemed destined for academic stardom.
Now this person might be said to have anticipated James Howard Kunstler, a widely quoted and self appointed energy pundit, in that he held to a species of neo-agrarian vision where in the face of an ongoing energy shortage the masses would return to working the land; although in contradistinction to Kunstler he foresaw the toiling masses being mired in a condition of serfdom, while a small aristocracy continued to enjoy the high consumption lifestyle of the twentieth century.
“People like you,” he said referring to myself and to similar low born oafs, “will remain on collectives performing backbreaking work in the fields while people like me jet over to Europe to study on Ford Foundation grants.” He smiled at the thought of this, himself exalted, myself abased. Upon hearing this, I obligingly tugged my forelock, broke wind as peasants are wont to do, and shuffled off to begin the hard scrabble existence that awaited me.
Of course not all neo-agrarians favor a return to feudalism as did my classmate. Some are utopian environmentalists or collectivists who believe that a sharp reduction in energy usage will conduce to social leveling, on the one hand, and sustainable use of natural resources on the other, though in fact most traditional societies have tended to overexploit the resources available to them. But, in any case, an implied socio-political ideology generally lies behind any position on energy. And this is because energy plays such a major role in determining the nature of any given society. High energy societies are wealthy societies—no exceptions. They can use that wealth to foster high standards of living, as have many Western democracies, or to support imperialist expansion as did Japan prior to 1945. Or they can do both by turns as did the U.S. in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But in all cases, energy is destiny.
Topics and Issues
We define alternative fuels as any combustibles apart from conventional fossil fuels. That’s a large universe of substances.
Within this large universe the fuels themselves may be categorized according to either the foodstocks from which they are derived or the chemical composition of the derivatives.
Now this makes for considerable confusion, because one can derive fuels of similar chemical compositions from widely varying feedstocks. One can, for example, derive methanol, ethanol, diesel, and gasoline from coal. One can also process agricultural wastes to produce biodiesel, ethanol, diesel, and gasoline. And in turn one also produce a wide array of finished fuel products from natural gas, landfill gas, paper pulp waste products, recycled plastics, meat byproducts, manure, algae—the list is almost endless. Furthermore, there are a multitude of chemical reactions as well as processing equipment which one can utilize to produce fuels for motive power and heating for each individual type of feedstock. In short, there is no single successor technology for supplementing or replacing conventional fossil fuels.
What we find interesting, and we shall return to this topic in future postings, is that, as in the case of hydrogen, both the investment community and government agencies have already made choices which may not make economic sense. Biodiesel and ethanol, the favored alternative fuels at present, may not represent the best options for containing fuel costs, reducing greenhouse gases, or reducing dependence upon imported oil. And yet this is where the funding both public and private sector is going.
Of course missteps in respect to energy policy have been made before. Nuclear energy has proven far less cost competitive than originally envisioned, and is thought by many to represent a serious misallocation of resources, though one could argue that as various fossil fuel resources are depleted the nuclear option becomes more attractive. Still, no one can maintain today that fission reactors are the panacea that they were seen as being fifty years ago.
But if nuclear power was a misstep, it was a misstep that has not been productive of the most dire consequences to date, however intense the opposition to the technology in some quarters. True, there remain knotty issues of waste disposal, but few seriously believe that economic crisis impends due to the now diminished activities of the nuclear industry.
But in the case of combustible fuels for transportation and stationary power a misstep culminating in an uneconomical product would mean that the citizenry at large would be thrust back into an utter dependency on increasingly costly traditional fossil fuels, at least until a new technology for alternative fuel could be funded and perfected. Which seems to us altogether more serious.
Naturallly, we are assuming that steadily rising fuel costs would not be without economic consequences, but we must report that there is contingent of conservative economists prepared to argue otherwise. Paul A. Samuelson, Nobel laureate, recently wrote an opinion piece for Newsweek in which he opined that rapid continuing increases in industrial productivity in the U.S. were far outstripping increases in oil and natural gas prices and would assure us of a bright future irrespective of future oil crises. So take that, Mr. James Howard Kunstler. We don’t have to worry about going back to the land when those rivers of oil dwindle to rivulets. Industry will be so productive that we will all be as rich as Croesus and well able to afford $20 a gallon for low test, and the hell with the rest of the world which lacks Yankee ingenuity and won’t be able to increase productivity as quickly if at all. Thus I won’t have to perform backbreaking labor on a hard scrabble farm while the fortunate few study in Florence.
At least I hope not.