April 2007

Editorial comment

History lessons

Vol. 228 No. 4  

History lessons. You probably don’t remember Ollie and Merle. That’s OK, neither do I. Ollie is a journalist; Merle is an energy analyst. They’ve been doing those jobs for the past 200 years or so. Although they have often been incredibly wrong, they seem so believable. Ollie is masterful at turning a phrase. Merle can cite “facts.” They do it so well, and so often, that even they can’t tell whether they were being intentionally specious, or unintentionally misleading, through their masterful, but false, arguments. Most of these you know well.

Regarding automobiles, Ollie wrote, “People have been working on this ‘horseless carriage’ thing for over 50 years, with nothing to show.”

Merle chipped in, “Besides, there’s no infrastructure to support such a contraption. People have been using horses for work and transportation for centuries, and they will likely continue to do so for centuries to come.”

On the airplane: “If people were meant to fly, God would have given us wings!” The Wright Brothers took off the next day at Kittyhawk.

Artificial Intelligence: “Computers smarter than humans? Yeah, right—and I suppose a robot will serve me tea and then beat me at a game of chess?”

On space travel: “Men walk on the moon? Ha!—you’ve been watching too many science fiction movies.”

Ollie and Merle aren’t really naysayers, they’re just ordinary people who are fixated on the past and can’t foresee a future that is different. And they haven’t gone away—they’re right in the middle of today’s future energy debate. Here are some modern examples.

People have been working on batteries for use in electric cars for over 50 years—so, it’s unlikely that it’ll ever happen. As I discussed in this column last year, there have been some breakthroughs, as well as incremental progress, that could dramatically change the electric/plug-in-hybrid picture. Incidentally, according to a recent study by the US Department of Energy, off-peak electricity production and transmission capacity could fuel 84% of the 198 million US passenger vehicles if they were plug-in hybrid electrics. Eventually, you would need new sources of electricity if all passenger vehicles were to become electric or hybrid plug-ins. But this is very doable.

Wind, wave, solar, etc. are unreliable, because these things are not constant, and you cannot store electricity. Actually, we can, and do, store electricity. We do it by impounding water, by compressing air, and it can be stored in a special type of fuel cell plant. The biggest storage device will eventually be hydrogen. Once you remove the requirements of size and portability, storing electricity as hydrogen and vice versa becomes much easier and requires fewer breakthroughs than hydrogen cars do. A round trip back to electricity should eventually be as efficient as water impoundment—about 70%—maybe a bit higher.

The most that solar, wind, ocean, biofuels, etc., can muster is 5% of our needs; therefore, it cannot possibly replace oil. This is probably the most common false argument. Good sounding. And pure speciousness. No reasonable person ever suggested that any of these alternatives could or should replace 100% of all oil. But we certainly can use oil more efficiently, and we can replace much of it that’s used for transportation and heating.

There are some uses for oil that will be particularly difficult to replace, especially fuel for aviation and heavy-haul transport, and chemical feedstocks for things like lubricants, pesticides and plastics. Oil will be needed for these things for many decades to come. Perhaps centuries. Because of this, some folks have said that using oil for heating or motor fuel is akin to “hydrocarbon malfeasance.” I once wrote that the energy picture in 50 years appears quite motley, requiring perhaps thirty, 3% solutions. Or even fifty, 2% solutions. Five percent is a lot.

Nuclear power is proven safe and cheap. Actually, it’s proven dangerous and expensive. Just how expensive depends on as-yet-to-be-determined disposal and dismantling costs. Most plants use technology that was invented in the 1950s and ’60s. In general, the older your plant and its technology, the less likely it’s safe.

The Three Mile Island near-disaster really did occur. Evacuations were ordered. We simply were unlucky, then lucky. And Chernobyl killed at least 4,000 in the immediate area and another 5,000 in the extended area, according to a UN report last year. And there have been many other incidents that easily could have had worse results.

Yet, despite these shortcomings, more than a dozen new nuclear plant designs exist (so-called fourth and fifth generation), some of which are being built (but outside of Europe and the US), and some of which are still in the design phase. Many of these offer dramatically safer operation—essentially eliminating the possibility of a Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. Some, such as the Thorium-based reactor, cannot become critical (runaway overheating). And there’s at least a 400-year supply of Thorium on the planet, unlike Uranium, which has about a century’s worth. (Thorium reactors still need development of a commercial particle accelerator, which is doable, but so far, no one has put up any money.)

And while still expensive, nuclear power is not prohibitively so, especially when you consider the strategic national benefits and the environmental benefits. Sure, it will take $10 to $15 billion and at least 10 years to prove each new design, but we can do that. So why aren’t we?

The answer lies in the status quo. It has the money and the know-how to buy politicians and sell the public on “proven” technology, even when the only thing proven is that it’s old and dangerous compared with the new designs.

I am struck by the lack of fundamental breakthroughs required for an abundant, clean energy future, whether in electricity generation from wind, coal (IGCC), ocean thermal, ocean wave, ocean tide, solar, nuclear, or liquids from coal-to-liquids, gas-to-liquids, biofuels, bio-engineered fuels, and so on. And I find no fundamental impediment to the wise production and use of abundant energy for centuries to come—except politics and those who support, wittingly or not, the basic premise that the future will look like the past. If they get their narrow-minded way, it will.

The truth is, like Ollie and Merle’s observations on the horseless carriage, airplanes and space flight, and so on, we were idiots back then. We are idiots now. We will always be idiots. And unless we realize the simple fact that we relish the certainty of the past, and fear the unknowns of the future, we can never move forward. WO

Comments? Write: fischerp@worldoil.com

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