Monday, September 12, 2005

Energy Notes

A number of interesting articles and posts regarding energy from the last few days that I thought I might point out. First is this article from Saturday's NYTimes about alternative fuels, focusing on ethanol, or E85. It also features a great graphic comparing all the major alternative fuels, either currently available or in the planning stages. But just because ethanol is currently available, it still has some drawbacks:

For starters, it's hard to find the stuff. There are roughly 180,000 gasoline stations nationwide and fewer than 500 with E85. And ethanol can take us only so far. Huge tracts of farmland would have to be converted to corn production to provide enough fuel for significant portions of the American automobile fleet.

E85 is also less energy-dense than gasoline, so a driver goes a bit less far on a gallon. Its current cost advantage is dependent on a 43-cents-a-gallon subsidy, versus a roughly 40-cent tax on a gallon of gasoline. Environmentalists have generally viewed the rise of flex-fuel vehicles as a boondoggle for automakers, because they are afforded fuel economy credits for making them. The credits have had the effect of driving up oil consumption. Many consumers who buy flex-fuel vehicles are not even made aware of the capability.

On the upside, ethanol is a domestic resource and most studies indicate that it reduces emissions of both smog-forming pollutants and global warming gases, the amount depending on how it is produced. An emerging process of creating ethanol from agricultural waste like cereal straw has the potential for far greater emissions reductions and more efficient land use.

This so-called cellulose ethanol has much greater potential than current ethanol, said Michael Wang, a researcher at the Center for Transportation Research at the Argonne National Laboratory, but, he added, "the technology has not arrived."

Daily Kos/European Tribune diarist (I'm not really sure what differentiates a diarist from a blogger, but there you have it) Jerome a Paris has a very nice wrap-up of a progressive approach to identifying the roots of our energy dependence and comes up with some proposals for energy policies (a manifesto, if you will) that are attainable with some political strength (backed by popular will). First, I really like his description of why our cheap energy really isn't cheap:

The fundamental problem is that oil (and natural gas, thus power, is the same) is cheap only because we have decided that we would only consider as its cost the actual cost of digging it out of the ground, plus whatever the locals forced us to add as taxes or royalties. Other costs were not considered:
  • the pollution generated when we burn it, and the corresponding healthcare costs, and the harder to quantify impact on the delicate ecosystems around us;
  • he even harder to quantify cost of using up a non renewable source. The planet has provided us with this treasure, a highly concentrated and convenient form of stored chemical energy, and we've burnt almost half of it (and the easier to find half) to run around, without making any significant effort to find substitutes for the future; How will we keep on functioning when that amazing resource  becomes harder to find, scarcer - and a lot more expensive?
  • the newer threat of global warming, and its unpredictable consequences on our weather and our ability for us to tolerate it (and Katrina shows that we seems to be poorly prepared even for predictable phenomena). The likelihood that our crops and our environment will adapt to the coming changes is unknown;
  • the transformation of our agriculture into a petroleum-based industry, where crops matter less and less and where food is but a by-product of subsidies on top of strange industrial processes (involving millions of animals "living" in horrible conditions) whereby oil-calories are transformed (very inefficiently) into edible products. The additional side effects on our health (obesity,  pollution by pesticides and the like) and our landscapes (the wholesale destruction of arable land, whether by filling it with petroleum-based products or by building on it more buildings, roads and other artefacts of our oil-fuelled civilisation) are shamefully ignored by most.
Energy is not cheap, because we are already paying a very high indirect price. Some of it can be expressed indirectly in monetary terms (good chunks of the healthcare system, the military), but a lot of it cannot be "monetised" - or only when it is too late (all the oil that we waste now and which would be incredibly valuable in post- peak prices). But essentially, we are enjoying our cheap "high" now, and leaving the consequences to our children or their children. As  individuals, that may barely make sense, but as a society, it is incredibly short sighted.

Check out the rest of the post/diary for the proposals portion (I don't wanna steal all his text--just give you a taste of his flava). Jerome's proposals flow nicely into this summary by Patrick Dougherty at Tom of two articles from the most recent Economist magazine:

Two stories in this week's issue of The Economist struck me as sounding a major warning bell for the powerful in their boardrooms. The first, entitled, "Katrina And Oil Prices: No Safety Net," quotes oil industry guru Daniel Yergin as saying Hurricane Katrina could lead to "one of the biggest energy shocks since the 1970s, perhaps even the biggest."

But that's not all. Because gasoline consumption is relatively inelastic, meaning price increases will not push suburban families to change their driving habits until they reach withering heights, as gas prices increase, families will have to cut back in other areas of consumption. Et voila , a Wal-Mart led recession.

And, to top it all off, America has now entered one of its most vulnerable periods. A recent policy exercise hosted by the group, America's National Commission On Energy Policy, decided to explore what would happen to oil prices if there were two shocks to the world oil system in rapid succession. The result was oil reaching $160 a barrel.

And to add to that happy news, The Economist also reported on the state of the global auto industry. In a special report, the economist wrote that "some experts predict that over the next 20 years more cars will be made than in the entire 110-year history of the industry." According to the Bush energy plan, cars made in those 20 years will be powered by internal combustion engines. That means unsustainable demand for oil and a massive increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

It seems to me that some folks at very senior levels in government and industry are simply not doing the math. Indeed, The Economist did not place these two articles in much proximity. Yet event ExxonMobil  has stated that it expects global oil production to peak in five years. Combined with the current blow to our energy infrastructure, this is the perfect time to shift our economy decisively off of its dependence on the auto-industry and suburban sprawl.

Finally, there's this tidbit from Treehugger--a new kids book about biodiesel:

We just got word that a new book about biodiesel for children will be released later this month, called "Have Fries Will Travel". The book is an adventure story featuring "Rock" an eco-rap singer (strangely, this rapper wears a cowboy hat). He buys Tiny, a smelly diesel car, at a used car lot. Rock soon has Tiny running on vegetable oil from Rock's favorite restaurant. With Tiny's exhaust smelling like fries, the two set off on a road trip to encourage others to use biodiesel in their cars. Along the way, they visit farmers growing soybeans especially for making biodiesel.


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