The New American Crisis
(and solutions to that crisis)
by Bradley L. Gould © 2003-2011
Rev. 4, July 12th, 2011
Nearly a year ago, I posted the third revision of this article. As with previous revisions, much has changed in the interim. All three American automakers continue to rebound with great vigor from the brink of extinction thanks to the Obama administration's bold and well-orchestrated moves. Nearly half a million American jobs were saved by those moves at a time when unemployment figures, as recently as this Spring, perniciously flirted with double-digits.
Oil prices have continued to fluctuate wildly, reaching over $100 per barrel in February to fall back to around $93 per barrel as I write this. Prices at the pumps have seen a similar roller coaster ride with $4.00 per gallon settling in as "the new norm". Most experts agree that commodities speculators have a hand in this volatility. Naturally, lawmakers serving the energy lobby excoriate the Commodities Futures Trading Commission for these speculative abuses even as they consistently vote against the funding or regulatory teeth needed by the CFTC to reign in those abuses.
Since my last revision, the horrendous BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill was finally ended in September 2010 after over a million barrels of oil had been released into the Gulf of Mexico and eleven families had to comfort themselves only with memorials for the Husbands, Fathers, Brothers, and Sons lost to all but God in the April 20th, 2010 fireball which started this disaster.
Then, on March 10th, 2011, an 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit off the East coast of Japan, killing hundreds immediately and thousands after the resulting Tsunami scoured most of the Japanese Pacific coast with a 30-40 foot wall of water and debris. That, alone, would have qualified this as an epic disaster, but the worst was yet to come. As emergency personnel attempted to rescue the few survivors of the earthquake/tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear powerplant became the third and perhaps MOST devastating and LONG lasting component of the disaster.
We learned our own Fort Calhoun nuclear plant and Cooper Nuclear Station facilities in Nebraska had BARELY survived this Summer's Missouri River flooding and that California's Diablo Canyon nuclear plant is built DIRECTLY over a geological fault line! Add to this Los Alamos being threatened by this Summer's Western wildfires and you can expect no further suggestion from me of building ANY new nuclear FISSION facilities.
There's no question we continue to face an energy crisis in America. The ONLY question is whether We, The People, can muster the political will to throw off the yoke of the energy lobby slung across our collective necks to solve our problems. If you agree with me that we can, read on...
Still with me? Great! Let's begin by defining the key points of the matter:
1. How we consume energy,
2. How we get energy to consumers, and
3. How we generate energy.
We will look at each of these closely related challenges in greater detail and explore what I consider the best short-term and long-term solutions to these challenges.
1. How we consume energy...
We are a mobile nation. It's in our genetic makeup. Ultimately, all of us came from somewhere else; all immigrants who traveled vast distances and endured many hardships along the way; asking nothing more than a fair shot at the American Dream. From Conastogas, to Iron Horses, to Model-T's rolling down Route 66, we continued our wanderlust across this beautiful land. For Americans to feel truly American, a private vehicle on the open road became MUCH more than just a means of transport; it became an essential part of who we are. Ironic, then, that this very symbol of American freedom, our beloved automobile, should also be the iron shackle that enslaves us to the oiligarchy and the potential vehicle, if you will, of our own economic downfall.
In 2008, 44% of America's total annual oil consumption was for vehicle fuels. When rail, public vehicle, and farm/construction equipment consumption are included, over 52% of our total annual oil consumption in 2008 was for ground vehicles of one form or another. In 2008, foreign oil imports accounted for about 65% of our total annual oil consumption. Based on projected growth in demand, we can easily estimate that by 2011, we're now looking at about 70% of the oil we consume being imported.
Even if we leave the 52% of total consumption for vehicle fuels unadjusted, we're still seeing the majority of our imported oil demand being "driven" by transport fuels. Fuels derived from oil share a unique portability, energy-to-weight ratio, and storage characteristics. For a highly mobile society like ours, that means oil is at the exact center of many of the critical issues our nation faces; not least of which our dependence on foreign sources. So, while this article looks at all the energy issues we must find solutions for, special attention is given to keeping America's wheels turning over the long haul.
We also use and waste a LOT of electricity. U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) figures for 2009 recorded 3,950 TerraWatt Hours (TWh) consumed in America alone with 4,003 TWh generated. This means over 53 TWh were lost in transmission and unused production. In 2007, Viet Nam was estimated to have used roughly 51 TWh, so the annually wasted electrical production of America alone could, quite literally, have served another nation's ENTIRE annual demand.
Solving the Short Term Problem
Consumer energy conservation with compact fluorescent (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED) lamps, home insulation, and Energy Star compliant products can all lead to more efficient use of electricity, but the real problems with our electrical usage have less to do with consumer demand and much more to do with the delivery infrastructure and generation technologies. Thus, for now, I'll focus on transporation fuels and circle back around to electrical energy in a bit.
The problem, as I see it, is how do we rapidly and substantially replace (or at least substantially augment), our oil consumption with alternative fuels? Fuels derived from biomass have a dual benefit of being renewable and "carbon neutral". In other words, the carbon sequestered in plant materials used as fuels is reabsorbed by new plants, creating something of a closed-loop. Many contemporary vehicles and service stations can also support Ethanol (E85) and bio-diesel with little to no modification. This is important for rapid adoption.
In my original article, as well as my first revision, I had looked at the challenge of producing bio-fuels (such as ethanol and bio-diesel) as close as possible to high demand zones to minimize the energy costs of transporting those fuels to market. My suggestion at that time, was for our Congress to provide subsidies and tax incentives for establishing a nationwide network of "vertical farms" and associated biomass fuel plants on the immediate outskirts of all our major cities.
While I continue to support building vertical farms near urban centers for bio-diesel and food production, there now seems a less pressing need for biomass to convert to ethanol when millions of tons of garbage are just sitting around waiting to be "harvested". You read that right. Garbage.
At various facilities in the U.S. and around the world, Integrated Environmental Technologies, (InEnTec), co-founded by MIT Plasma Physicist Dr. Dan Cohn, has been licensing a revolutionary new conversion process called the "Plasma Enhanced Melter" (PEM) to convert thousands of tons of municipal solid waste, hospital waste, and manufacturing waste into useful gases and chemicals; including hydrogen and ethanol. The PEM process at the core of these new plants is a conversion process, NOT an incineration process, so harmful emissions are essentially eliminated.
2005 figures from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), state that America generated nearly 250 Million Tons of municipal solid waste. We can safely assume incrementally higher figures for the last six years. For our IMMEDIATE gasoline crisis, then, it seems logical to incentivize building PEM conversion plants, while also providing incentives to build vertical farms and bio-diesel plants. Equally logical is for our Congress to assist car and truck owners to retrofit existing vehicles for E85 FlexFuel and bio-diesel, or to purchase new FlexFuel and bio-diesel vehicles over the next four to five years. I'll explain the need for that "sunset provision" shortly.
If you visit the InEnTec link provided above, you will learn that the PEM process can generate Hydrogen from waste just as easily as it can ethanol; perhaps even easier. This might prompt you to question my continued advocacy of ethanol and bio-diesel fuels when Hydrogen produces no emissions but water. A totally valid question if environmental impact was the sole consideration in what, I wish to reiterate, is a short-term solution. There are economic factors involved as well which cannot be ignored if the solution is to be successful.
Any short-term solution to our vehicle fuels crisis must have, as a key criterion for consideration, extant and ubiquitous distribution infrastructures to allow for rapid adoption. Generally, short-term solutions should be viewed as transitional or "bridge" solutions which will eventually be replaced by more permanent or at least longer term solutions. In that context, it would be difficult for both distributors and consumers of vehicle fuels, to justify the expenses involved in retrofitting millions of vehicles and tens of thousands of stations to support Hydrogen fueling when - in the long run - even Hydrogen fueled vehicles will become as obsolete as their FlexFuel and bio-diesel counterparts.
This same logic applies to natural gas. Again, the economics of conversion just don't add up for private vehicle owners or station operators, but they are favorable for companies providing natural gas fueling hubs for their own fleets of trucks, cars, or equipment.
Assuming our elected officials are compelled to act in the American People's interest and in the face of an energy lobby specifically created to prevent them from doing so, the above recommendations could produce a 30% to 40% reduction in our use of oil for vehicle fuels within five years. An admittedly large assumption about an equally large undertaking, but we're the nation which put footprints on the Moon! LARGE is what America does!
The Long Term Solution for powering transportation
Near the end of 2010, a truly 21st Century, mass production car began rolling off the General Motors assembly lines and into showrooms across America. The Chevy "Volt" is unlike ANY of the current gas/electric hybrids because the Volt's gasoline engine is not directly connected to the powertrain (transmission, drive-shaft, axles, wheels). It's small internal combustion engine (ICE) is strictly there as a generator to replenish the batteries when driving beyond the base 40 mile range of a full charge; giving the car a total range of a little over 400 miles on a full battery charge and a full fuel tank of about 7-9 gallons.
Another totally new electric vehicle (EV) is the all-electric (no ICE) Nissan "Leaf". Nissan claims a maximum 100 mile range for the Leaf on a full charge. While this is more than double the all-electric limit of 40 miles for the Volt, the Volt's ICE gives it another 300 miles before stopping for either a charge up or a fill-up at a gas station.
The Leaf is about $7,000 cheaper than the Volt, but requires installation of a special 240 volt home "charging station" to recharge. While GM offers a similar 240 volt home charging station, the Volt can also be charged from a standard 120 volt power outlet. Both will soon have a LOT of company. Ford, Toyota, and Mitsubishi have ALL entered the EV market in a big way and I haven't even mentioned the "Tesla Roadster", a rich person's toy which plasters you into your seat as it goes from zero to sixty in less than four seconds!
The Volt, the Leaf, and even the Tesla won't allow us to break completely free of oil as a transport fuel, even ten years from their introduction, but looking at a fifteen to twenty year horizon, we could see the 44% of total oil consumption drop to something more like 25%. Combined with the augmentation of ethanol and bio-diesel capable vehicles still in service, that number could fall even further to around 18% of total consumption.
Obviously, as such primarily electric or fully electric vehicles become more prevalent, they will impose ever increasing demands on our aging electrical grid. You may be wondering at this point what efforts may be necessary to accomodate those vehicles. You're not alone.
2. How we get energy to consumers...
Converting our nation's ground transportation from primarily internal combustion driven to electrically driven is going to require a LOT of electricity; many TeraWatts of electricity. We will need a system that can readily handle a 30% increase in load within five years, with a flexible enough architecture to handle a 70-80% increase within 15 years.
General Motors is, once more, out in front of many of the important questions regarding such a national grid. Writing for Greenbiz.com in July 2008, Joel Makower describes a series of meetings, between GM and 30 members of the Electric Power Research Institute. While the question of capacity was obviously central to those meetings, they also addressed such issues as standardized connections, smart charging, mobile billing, and myriad other details. Our greatest challenge, however, will be storage.
One of the major shortcomings of electricity as a power source is its transient nature. Fossil fuels and radioactive materials can be stored for long periods of time and lose little of their potential energy. Electricity, once generated, must often be used immediately, or just go to waste. Today's battery technologies can sequester some of that energy for later use, but most batteries require time to charge; time which simply may not be sufficient to effectively capture short spikes of excess power. A key element, therefore, of an advanced electrical grid would be an economic means of RAPIDLY STORING excess energy whenever and for however short a duration such peaks may occur.
In my original article as well as the first revision, I had suggested our government underwrite a national network of UltraCapacitor "farms" built close to high-demand centers such as industrial parks, steel mills, etc. as a way of capturing transient spikes of excess power and minimizing long-haul line losses. Unlike batteries, "ultracaps" pose significantly less threat to our environment, last longer, charge and discharge faster, and can actually provide much higher short-term power densities. Batteries, however, provide the sort of deep-storage yet to be realized with capacitors.
By my second revision I began thinking about that growing population of plug-in electric and electric hybrid vehicles and the smart energy grid linking them all together. Why must such vehicles rely solely on battery technologies to sequester electrical power? Why not make our hybrid vehicles TRULY hybrid and combine the best qualities of ultracaps and batteries into a new sort of energy storage medium? Plug those millions of Hybrid-squared vehicles into a truly smart electrical grid and you have the transient energy storage medium of my original ultracap farms suggestion, still relatively close to demand, without incurring the expense of building those farms!
Efficient and intelligent delivery and storage of huge amounts of electricity is one thing... generating it is another. Windmills and solar arrays are rapidly evolving as viable sources of energy, but a 21st Century nation like ours would literally need to be carpeted from coast to coast with windmills and solar arrays to generate the industrial levels of power currently provided by coal, natural gas, and nuclear fission powerplants.
3. How we generate energy...
Figures reported for 2005 from the Edison Electric Institute tell us:
-- 49.7% of our nation's electricity was generated from coal.
-- Nuclear fission reactors produced 19.3%.
-- Natural gas supplied 18.7%.
-- Hydropower provided 6.5% of the supply.
-- Fuel Oil accounted for 3.0% of our electrical power.
-- Biomass produced 1.6% while other renewable resources, such as geothermal, solar, and wind, provided the remaining 1.2% of the supply.
As a short-term solution to both a growing electricity demand and reduction of our fuel oil consumption for power generation from 3% to 0%, I see little choice but to judiciously expand both coal-fired and natural gas power generation. For the long haul, however, these are not solutions. They are suicide.
Coal and natural gas are both relatively abundant in America. They are also environmental nightmares; regardless of the spin energy lobbyists put on the "clean coal initiative" and T. Boone Pickens' "plan". Both befoul our land and water with their extraction and while gas-powered generation is one of the cleanest, the pipelines getting that gas to the powerplants are decades old and leaking like sieves. Methane is the principle component of natural gas and as a greenhouse gas it is 20 times more effective at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon-dioxide.
This leaves nuclear fission powerplants as the third major means of generating electricity in America. I opened this revision with the recent Fukushima devastation and the near-misses and ticking timebombs right here in America. Let me now mention the year 9500 AD. That's 7,500 years from now; a period of time FAR longer than recorded human history. It is also the amount of time necessary for the TONS of spent fuel rods and other radioactive waste from FISSION powerplants to cease being LETHALLY radioactive.
Think for a moment how much has happened in the last 7,500 years and you'll get some sense of the collosal hubris of our government assuring us they can safeguard this stuff at Yucca Mountain (or anywhere else) for that long. 7,500 years ago, simple agriculture was just getting started in the Nile valley and along the Euphrates. Ancient Sumer had yet to exist and the pyramids were still about 2,400 years in the future!
Now here's the kicker...
7,500 years is a CONSERVATIVE estimate on the deadliness of this stuff. Depending on storage density and quantity, the real figure could be in excess of 10,000 years! So, if coal, natural gas, and nuclear fission are all - quite literally - dead ends for America, what IS the long-term solution?
The Long-Term Solution: A New Kind of Powerplant
Nuclear FUSION powerplants will harness the reaction that takes place in our sun to generate energy. They will use a form of water for fuel, create no radioactive waste, and have no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) potential, either directly, or by virtue of their reaction by-products. They will, in fact, have only one by-product... Helium.
A FUSION reaction "fuses" atoms of extremely light elements like Hydrogen into atoms of slightly heavier elements like Helium. Existing nuclear FISSION reactors are more like the original atomic bomb. They rely on the "fission" (or splitting) of extremely heavy and unstable elements like Uranium-235 and U-238 in a controlled "chain-reaction". The resulting radioactivity and heat is then used to drive steam turbines and ultimately generate electricity.
FUSION reactions rely on sustaining a superhot, superdense, stew known as a "plasma". This plasma can be used to bombard a surrounding jacket of lithium with neutrons to, in turn, heat water to drive steam turbines, or might be passed through a magnetic harness to generate electricity directly. Active measures will be required to keep such a plasma at the required temperature and pressure to sustain a reaction. If the controls of a fusion powerplant were somehow disabled, the fusion reaction would simply STOP.
FISSION powerplants must employ active measures to avoid a runaway chain-reaction; not only in the primary containment vessel, but also in storage pools for spent fuel rods. If the complex controls in a current fission powerplant were accidently (or intentionally) disabled, a meltdown or even explosion could occur.
In both types of powerplants, provisions must be taken to protect plant personnel against high levels of radiation while in operation, but once the reaction ends in a FUSION powerplant, those high levels would rapidly dissipate. As I mentioned earlier, current FISSION powerplants produce radioactive waste which remains deadly for a time longer than recorded history, but those by-products also have National Security implications beyond simple safeguarding for public health reasons. FISSION powerplants generate a uniquely unstable class of radioactive by-products known as "transuranics" which include, among other nasties, Plutonium.
When I was a teenager, I remember reading articles about the enormous potential of fusion powerplants in Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. Those articles didn't discount the technological challenges, but the concensus opinion of the experts at that time was that a functioning fusion powerplant was about 35 years in the future.
That was over 40 years ago and we're still being told not to expect a commercial fusion powerplant for at least another 25 years. Certainly, the technological challenges are daunting, but as you can see from the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) and Lawrence Livermore Lab's National Ignition Facility (NIF), real progress is being made. The only thing keeping Fusion Power perennially somewhere off in the future is our lack of political will to make it happen.
Energy is at the core of every major issue facing America today. Our economy, our security, our environment, our way of life, ALL depend on the choices we make as a people and our resolve to see those choices through the minefield of vested interests opposing us. In 1961, our President challenged us to dream the impossible; to put Americans on the Moon and return those daring souls safely back to Earth and to do so within a decade. Well, we DID it! In the process, the Lunar Program spawned thousands of new American industries; generating many tens of thousands of good-paying American jobs. I see a comprehensive national energy program stimulating similar innovation, industry, and meaningful employment.
Few of the proposals I've made are wasteful. Vertical farms can gradually be dedicated solely to urban food production as electric vehicles become more ubiquitous. Ethanol plants can be profitably employed for a wide variety of alternative applications. As for bio-diesel plants, who doesn't like fried foods? Even contemporary oil refineries and coal mines will (to an obviously lesser degree), continue to be essential to the petrochemical products and pharmaceuticals we rely on in innumerable ways every day. The ONLY totally useless artifact of our energy awakening will be the nuclear fission powerplants.
Fusion powerplants may be down the road a bit, but when they're available, they will dovetail perfectly into a 21st Century power infrastructure. I believe we can make fusion power a reality within a decade, but even if it takes 30 years of lobbyist-sponsored foot dragging, Fusion Power IS coming. The European Union, Russia, South Korea, Japan, India, and China are all aggresively funding fusion research. If we are to remain a 21st Century nation, we dare do nothing less.
The solutions to our energy issues, will NOT be found in the energy cartel's propaganda exhorting us to let them drill more holes in America. As detailed above, our solutions must embrace fundamental changes in how we generate, store, and use energy. Our greatest energy resource is not what lies beneath our feet, but what lies between our ears and the sooner we apply that resource to wean ourselves off fossil fuels and nuclear fission, the safer and more prosperous our nation will be.