Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Geo Green Dreams

Geo-Greening by Example
by Thomas L. Friedman
“…we could change the car-buying habits of a large segment of the U.S. public, which would make it profitable for the car companies to convert more of their fleets to hybrid or ethanol engines, which over time could sharply reduce our oil consumption.”

The 500-Mile-Per-Gallon Solution
by Max Boot
“Add in `flexible fuel’ options that already allow many cars to run on a combination of petroleum and fuels like ethanol (derived from corn) and methanol (from natural gas or coal), and you could build vehicles that could get — drum roll, please — 500 miles per gallon of gasoline. That's not science fiction; that's achievable right now.”

The greatest threat to our civilization is business as usual. Peak oil pales in comparison. Global economy boosters are influential in the mainstream American press. What are they proposing? Fantastic and nonsensical solutions to power dreams of perpetual growth. The 500 mile per gallon car is not achievable at present; Max Boot seems to have lifted that idea from Fareed Zakaria in his recent Newsweek editorial. As futurist Bruce Sterling archly noted, "that would be par for the Bush course all right == faith-based internal combustion engines."

Energy problems around the globe are increasingly obvious. The solutions are wide ranging, composed of painful choices and tradeoffs. Instead of answering manifest concerns, such as how will we feed the globe when liquid fuels start to decline, Thomas Friedman (among others) answers questions that are irrelevant with solutions that won’t work. To wit, techno fabulist Wired Magazine estimated 3.25 billion future cars, and Friedman ruminates that we therefore need ethanol and nuclear pronto to fill em’ up, as well as a dash of wind and sun to taste.

Ethanol is unsustainable. It does not have positive energy return on energy invested. If it did, say with cellulose ethanol (trees instead of corn), it would be by a slim margin. There is only so much room in corn, or trees, to pack latent carbon fuel. You would perhaps plant twenty acres of crop out of which one acre would be usable for external consumption, the rest sustaining production. And this, we pump into 3.25 billion cars? To what end? Jared Diamond has asked what the individual who cut down the last tree on Easter Island was thinking. Follow ethanol insanity an illogical end point and we find out.

Nuclear is not a practical replacement for liquid fuels. The Bush administration is proposing 50 new nuclear power plants in the U.S. by 2020, construction to commence in 2010. Barring the discovery of several new Ghawar sized fields, oil will have peaked by 2010. This will make construction of new nuclear infrastructure extraordinarily difficult, but not impossible. If the task is achieved, what does the U.S. win? 50 Gigawatts.

Make a leap of faith and assume one could efficiently and immediately turn all that energy into a replacement for liquid fuel. Working roughly from Physicist David Goostein’s numbers, each nuclear reactor could supply the equivalent of 3 million barrels of oil a year. Aggregate the hypothetical 50 new reactors and that becomes about 3 percent of the current yearly imports of oil for the United States.

Clearly, there is a lack of rigor in the energy proposals of economists and pundits who wish to see global growth continue in a straight line up to heaven. Their vision is a modern day Tower of Babel. A glance at the latest ASPO numbers for depletion shows that by 2020 we will have 17 percent less oil to use on a daily basis, but the ride will likely be bumpy, with periods of oil famine, and periods of plenty.

If Geo-Green ideas are unchallenged, we will watch tragedy unfold as unsustainable proposals continue to be written as energy policy in Washington D.C., with billions spent on blind industry wish fulfillment. Subsidies for nuclear and ethanol. Grants tossed down the rat hole to study oil shale and methane hydrates. Problems will be created faster than they are solved, right up to the point where oil depletion kicks our global economy like a mule.

The Geo-Green paradigm must be unmasked and reframed. It is not green, nor is it globally sustainable. Rather, it represents a mass delusion, the future of the globe as an ever growing continuation of our western experience - cell phones, supermarkets, televisions, and cars. Cheezy poofs and cancer for the third world embody the pinnacle of this civilization.

Allowing callow utopians frame their dead end policies as “green” will kneecap the credibility of true sustainable green movements when depletion begins.

Solutions that have a solid chance to succeed should be proposed and pursued. This might include rethinking our cities, gradually eliminating the need for cars, (lowering maintenance needs on roads) and clever use of solar energy via local, organic agriculture where petroleum inputs are carefully eliminated. Electricity and liquid fuel should be applied to pumping water and maintaining agriculture before all else.

Proposing a return to a semi-agrarian society is a tough sell in our bling addled age, but it represents a truly conservative ethic. Breathing room is needed to solve our problems and prevent an overshoot population collapse. We needn’t unweave the progress of the last century, but rather take the opportunity to cast aside the worst parts of industrialism that pollute our world and devalue our lives.

The globe should have about (70) million barrels of oil a day flowing in 2020, (down from 84). That is a massive amount of energy, enough to solve all our problems, and represents a self enforcing Kyoto, as depletion will proceed apace from there.

An opportunity, if we don’t squander it.

It's the eighties so where's our rocket packs?
Go anywhere, we strap them on our backs

I thought by now I'd walk the moon
And ride a car without no tires
And have a robot run the vacuum
And date a girl made out of wires
No things don't change that much, do they?

Words and Music by Terry Taylor
©1984 Twitchen Vibes Music (ASCAP)


At 5:25 AM, March 29, 2005, Blogger Big Gav said...

I think the 500mpg of gasoline line is actually true - but very misleading.

While its late and my brain has almost stopped working for the day, I remember reading about this elsewhere (maybe WorldChanging ?) - if you have a hybrid, and it uses a mix of bio-fuels and regular gasoline (or petrol, if I could use the anglo-australian word for it), then you can get your 500mpg for gasoline - but this equates to say 50mpg of "fuel".

No magic engine required - just a salesman's respect for the truth...

At 2:51 AM, March 30, 2005, Blogger JMS said...

I would add that statements having an obvious interpretation should be held to same.

In other words, given the claim of a 500mpg hybrid diesel, I expect to fill up such a car with one gallon of any "flavor" diesel and drive for about 500 miles.

At 5:56 AM, March 30, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your thesis is right on, namely that the problem is our trying to sustain the paradigm of constant growth --economic, population, consumption, etc. But your figures about barrels per day don't seem to me to add up. You say that the amount of petroleum available per day in 2020 should be 17 percent less than it is now, but later tag the figure for 2020 at 23 million barrels per day which is approx 17% of the current 80 million barrels of production (i.e., 83% less than what it is now.
Or have I mis-read you? addled?

At 12:04 PM, March 30, 2005, Blogger JMS said...

You are right, I transposed GB a year with mbd - my cheeks are flaming. Fixed, above.

At 4:03 PM, March 30, 2005, Blogger Phila said...

Great post! It's funny that it's so hard for us to give up on the idea of unlimited growth, considering that most of us have at least some experience of cancer. I'm not sure when cornucopian nonsense became an essential philosophical component of "human dignity," but it's high time we rid ourselves of it.

At 11:38 PM, March 30, 2005, Blogger JMS said...

I can't wait to see our civilization remade.

I hope it is a gentle transition.

In the meantime, at the rate cancer is increasing, we're all going to get it.

The frogs are dead, and we're sitting in the same pot going, wtf? Why are the frogs dead?

At 12:54 PM, April 01, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh. Do you really think there will still be 70 mbd in 2020? That feels optimistic to me. If the peak is coming this year or by 2007, and we've been on a plateau for quite awhile, the drop off curve could be very steep. Well, perhaps a decade one way or the other doesn't make much difference since we probably wouldn't make good use of any extra decade anyway. . .

At 1:06 AM, April 02, 2005, Blogger JMS said...


It is all kind of speculative. I am looking at the big chart by ASPO and making some rough guesses.

Put it in the range of 60-70 - depends how deep water, etc pans out.

I agree with you that decline could be much sharper, for any number of reasons. Infrastructure problems could actually make drilling some of the remaining oil impossible in the future that is possible today.

At 2:56 PM, April 15, 2005, Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

The 500 MPG figure may be misleading, but the CalCars folks are delivering 120+ MPG from a slightly modded Prius.  That's a real 120 MPG, not one that fails to account for ag diesel and fertilizers; further, it can get better as batteries do.

We need to push the plug-in hybrid.  It's feasible with today's technology, the price is coming down rapidly, and it will cannibalize the uneconomic "alternative fuel" programs as people ignore them in droves in favor of another extension cord in the garage.

At 2:57 PM, April 15, 2005, Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

(BTW, you should go into your blog options and add the date to the timestamp on the comments.)

At 7:43 PM, August 19, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Nuclear is not a practical replacement for liquid fuels. "


As others have noted, "500 mpg" is misleading, but the intent is about how we could use efficiency and other fuels to leverage more out of each gallon of gasoline.

Nuclear for electricity + using electricity in transportation = replacement for liquid fossil fuels.

How does it work?
First, take a hybrid, e.g. Prius.
Second, make it a plug-in with a battery for 100 miles or so.
Third, Now, get users to use plug-in electricity instead of oil for short trips. How? make electricity cheaper than gasoline;
Cheap, safe nuclear power (4 cents KWh vs. $60 per barrel. Nuff said.

Most trips are under 100 miles. If that is 2/3rd of miles driven, and hybrids in crease mpg in the other cases by about 50% ... then you have cut oil use for the vehicle vs baseline by 5/6ths!!!! A 30mpg care becomes "180mpg" ...

The stuff about bio-fuels is just icing on the cake. although imho that misses the even better deal of electricity as the solution.

Better than a hydrogen economy: The electron economy.

At 7:52 PM, August 19, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"This will make construction of new nuclear infrastructure extraordinarily difficult, but not impossible."

This statement that higher priced and restricted supply oil will make nuclear power more difficult is absurd on its face. In a 11 trillion economy the infrastructure requirements for 50 nuclear power plants (about $40 billion) is miniscule.

We just passed a highway bill of $280 billion over 5 years that will dwarf those needs. Construction in general is multiple trillions in our economy.

Yet oil prices impact gas prices which directly drives the relative cost of nuclear power versus fossil fuel generated power. Coal and gas are now non-competitive relative to nuclear power generation. The companies with nuclear baseload generation are making good money, and good money means a desire to invest more in a solution that works cost-effectively.

So the REAL answer is that oil shortages will lead to MORE nuclear power plants, unless irrational politics intrudes.

At 1:34 PM, August 25, 2005, Blogger JMS said...

""This will make construction of new nuclear infrastructure extraordinarily difficult, but not impossible."

This statement that higher priced and restricted supply oil will make nuclear power more difficult is absurd on its face. In a 11 trillion economy the infrastructure requirements for 50 nuclear power plants (about $40 billion) is miniscule."

Patrick, not only is it apparent that you can't read, you are also ignorant.

Not even the government's optimistic numbers for constructing reactors claim that any single reactor can be built for less than one billion. So what game are you playing?

I mean, I pointed out in the article that 50 nuclear reactors, if built, would be comparable to a tiny fraction daily oil imports.

Did you miss that point, or did you ignore it?

At 10:50 PM, April 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Plug in hybrids from electricity even from nuclear will not use less energy and will not be cheaper. The poster above compared 4c per KWh with $60 per barrel oil. Lets do a real comparrison. The averge electricity cost in the US in 1998 was 8.3c/Kwh not 4c and we are no longer in 1998. I believe building nuclear plants now is not a bad idea but not for electricity for cars (it will be too expensive) we will need it for industry and food production and distribution.

One gallon of gas holds 128,000 BTU thats 37 kwH per gallon so thats $3.11 for the energy equivalent of a gallon for your plug in hybrid, thats more than the current $2.70. If you factor in electricity distribution losses the equation gets worse. You can fudge these figures by even 20-30% for majical new technological efficiencies but they still dont give you an energy substitution.

This is the problem with the whole Geo green argument they never do the figures. The entire argument relies on majical substitution for oil with free electrical energy.


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