Dave Spicer: An Electric Economy

The Facts within the Fiction of DEADLY FREEDOM

DEADLY FREEDOM is a fictional story about a real cause. This is that cause.

Do we really want our children and theirs to inherit a world of energy shortages, pollution, global warming, climate change, terrorism and wars purported to defeat terrorism like the current conflict in Iraq? Add to these concerns the fear that Iran is developing a nuclear capability, an impending conflict with China over remaining oil reserves, and the mounting debt our heirs will inherit. The burdens we are placing on future generations beg for leadership and new thinking.

Unfortunately, when we’ve needed statesmen and patriots, we’ve had politicians—in both parties—who have shown themselves to be ineffective leaders, spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives with no perceptible impact on these issues and no discernable strategy for the future.

It’s time to recognize that our expensive, seemingly solutionless fears are not really problems but merely symptoms of the real problem that does have a solution: our continued use of fossil fuels and, more immediately, our dependence on imported oil. The geopolitical well-being of the industrialized world hangs on the irrational whims of a few Middle Eastern countries who by simply pricing their oil in euros instead of dollars could decimate our fossil fuel-based economy.

The debate over global warming is over; the earth is sending a wake-up call. Greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, have been increasing the amount of heat trapped within our atmosphere. While the number of climatologists in denial has been decreasing, the remaining dissenters are reminiscent of those denying cigarettes were a carcinogen. Such denials in the face of the facts discredit them as well as their science of climatology.

A 6.3 pound gallon of gasoline contains 5.5 pounds of carbon. When each of those carbon atoms combines with two heavier oxygen atoms, that 5.5 pounds of carbon forms 20 pounds of carbon dioxide. If we assume the average car gets 20 miles per gallon, then we are producing one pound of carbon dioxide for every mile driven, an average of 3 trillion pounds per year in the US alone! It doesn’t take a climatologist to understand this cannot be good for our planet. It took billions of years for our planet to sequester fossilized carbon underground. It’s taken just hundreds of years for us to remove it and place it in our atmosphere.

The other pollutants from burning gasoline including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and particulate matter are visibly obvious to those who live or work in Los Angeles. They are even worse in cities like Sao Paolo Brazil and Mexico City, places where pollution controls are essentially non-existent. The short-sighted view is that countries with pollution need to take care of their own problems. But unlike Las Vegas, when it comes to pollution, what happens in Mexico City does NOT stay in Mexico City!

The world currently consumes oil at the rate of 80 million barrels per day. For those who like numbers, that works out to 1000 barrels per second—clearly not a sustainable level of usage! Not surprisingly, energy shortages and ever-increasing prices for oil and gasoline have become commonplace. We just accept them and anticipate continued increases.

There was a time when OPEC was able to control the price of crude oil, and thus prices at the gas pump, by controlling the output of their oil fields. Tightening the spigots would decrease supply and increase the price; opening them would do the opposite. For the last forty years they have been walking a delicate balance between maximizing their revenues and making sure the price of oil stays just below the level that would encourage development of alternative fuels.

Two things have happened recently to limit their ability to control prices. China and India have been experiencing industrial growth at historic rates, and world oil reserves have reached what a now-famous Shell geologist called “Peak Oil.”

China and India are two of the fastest growing economies, growth that manifests itself in increased demand for energy in the form of oil and gas. It is anticipated by many that China will surpass the United States in GDP within ten to fifteen years. The United States leads the world in oil consumption using 20 million barrels per day, and that number is projected to go to 30 million barrels in ten years. So China, a country that is now using over 6 million barrels per day, can also be expected to be using 30 million in ten years. The near-term ramification of this growth is that OPEC can no longer adjust the price of oil downward. The demands placed by China and India are consuming what was once excess capacity.

The longer term ramifications will be dictated by Peak Oil. In the 1950’s, Shell predicted that US oil production would peak in the 1970’s, and it did. The same forecast showed world oil production peaking in the 2000-2010 timeframe. It appears that this prediction may also have been correct.

The concept behind Peak Oil is that as oil is retrieved from a field, the least expensive barrel to extract occurs when the field is one-half depleted. After that, each barrel of oil will be more expensive to retrieve than the last. The ultimate end of life for an oil field occurs when the energy it takes to retrieve a barrel of oil exceeds the energy in a barrel of oil! In practice, economic limitations will occur before energy limitations. It’s ironic that there will always be a considerable amount of oil in the ground; we just won’t be able to reach it. This means reserve forecasts—as if we could trust them anyway—will need to be adjusted downward to account for “unreachable oil.”

A world experiencing a shrinking supply of a crucial commodity such as oil in the face of increasing demand is vulnerable to war and terrorism.

Since the 1940’s the foreign policies of industrialized nations have been driven by oil. When the United States talks about “protecting its vital interests” in the Middle East, the only vital interest that matters is oil. Oil dictates the behaviors of countries and has been the cause of more than one war. Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor? Was it because they wanted to vacation in Hawaii? Hardly. During that period, 20 years before OPEC, the majority of the world’s oil came from Texas and Oklahoma. As retribution for Japan’s invasion and occupation of China, we embargoed our oil exports to them. The result was Pearl Harbor.

Today, Iran is developing their nuclear capability. Everyone knows that it will ultimately be used for weapons development yet we are reluctant to take any action, even though we know they are also funding terrorists. Why? Because Iran is a large oil producer and we cannot afford to disrupt our vital interest! And we do not need another Iraq war.

So how is a backward country like Iran able to develop sophisticated nuclear technology? Easy, China is providing it to them in return for oil rights, mortgaging the future of the civilized world for guarantees to the commodity that is their economic lifeblood. As the oil runs out, history will repeat itself and desperation will lead to a conflict between the world’s oldest and newest superpowers.

Terrorism is a very real threat and we do need to defeat it. But if there is one lesson we should learn from the Iraq war it’s that we cannot defeat terrorism militarily. Terrorists do not wear uniforms, do not abide by—or even acknowledge the existence of—the Geneva Convention, and they are willing to kill themselves to kill us. Bullets provide little deterrent to those seeking their own death.

Terrorism is an ideological conflict and the root of the word “ideology” is “idea.” It’s time for a nation of innovators to innovate a better idea that can defeat terrorism without firing a shot. Sixty percent of our oil is imported and sixty-seven percent is used for transportation. Fortunately, one-third of our imports come from Canada and Mexico leaving forty percent from countries that would do us harm. The process of eliminating oil from transportation will drive the value of imported oil to zero, completely eliminating civilized society’s dependence on the Middle East, effectively quarantining them.

Our addiction to oil can be seen for what it really is: the root cause of many of our geopolitical worries. So how can we eliminate this dependence and still keep our economies growing? Clearly, we need to get on a different energy technology curve and many ideas have been advanced; let’s start with false promises and end with one that isn’t.

There have been many handwringing books and articles written on the issues we’ve been discussing. Conservation is often mentioned as the solution. Simply stated, let’s just use less energy to somehow lessen the problems. All we need to do is turn down the thermostat and wear a sweater to bed. Remember Jimmy Carter?

There are two things wrong with this approach, the numbers don’t work, and some of our problems, e.g. terrorism, need complete solutions. Remember, we currently use 20 million barrels of oil per day and if we do nothing, in ten years we will be using 30 million barrels per day. Let’s assume that over the next ten years we find a way to conserve 50 percent of our usage. No one is suggesting this is even possible, but for the sake of argument, suppose we could achieve this lofty goal. That would mean in ten years we would be able to cut our consumption from 30 million barrels to 15 million, just 25 percent less than we use today! The other major consumers would not be able or willing to cut their consumption which means we would not have advanced our position at all. In fact we would weaken it with respect to our influence on oil providers. Conservation may provide some personal satisfaction and may lower your energy bill for a little while, but as a real solution it’s a dead end.

The agriculture industry periodically promotes ethanol as being the way to energy independence, but it, too, has problems. First, we could not possibly distill enough ethanol from corn or other plant material to make a significant difference. Of the 42 gallons of oil in a barrel, the refining process creates 20 gallons of gasoline. Since we are consuming 20 million barrels of oil per day, that says we are consuming 400 million gallons of gasoline per day.

An acre of corn can produce 362 gallons of ethanol per year, or roughly one gallon per day. The energy content of ethanol is just two-thirds that of gasoline, so a car that gets 20 miles on a gallon of gas will require 1.5 gallons of ethanol to travel that same 20 miles. Eliminating oil for transportation would require the production of 600 million gallons of ethanol per day which would require 600 million acres of corn. There are 640 acres in a square mile so this would be just less than a million square miles of corn. The United States has 3.7 million square miles of land area, so to eliminate oil from transportation would require planting more than 25 percent of our country in corn; and this requirement would increase to 40 percent in ten years.

The other problem with ethanol is pollution. The distillation process in volume is highly polluting; and ultimately, burning ethanol as a fuel results in many of the same carbon-based pollutants as burning gasoline.

Despite promotion by the agriculture industry and their strong lobby in Washington, ethanol is another false hope.

When the discussion turns to non-polluting energy alternatives, hydrogen invariably comes up. The oil and automotive industries are spending millions of dollars promoting the Hydrogen Economy; this fact alone should raise eyebrows.

Today, commercial hydrogen is created from natural gas, which tends to lessen its attractiveness, a perverse way to get “renewable energy.” It can also be produced when an electric current is passed through water, a process known as electrolysis. When hydrogen is combined with oxygen in a fuel cell, the result is an electric current and the waste product is the water we started with. A battery is defined as a device that converts chemical energy into electrical energy. In spite of the auto industry’s Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) hype, a fuel cell is simply a battery and a Fuel Cell Vehicle is just an electric car powered by a battery.

The problems with hydrogen are with its handling and distribution. The only way to distribute hydrogen in bulk is in its liquid state. Unfortunately, liquid hydrogen is 423 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, or 20 degrees Kelvin, one of the coldest substances on earth. Any attempt to pipe liquid hydrogen through existing oil or gas pipelines would cause them to rupture from the very high pressure and extremely low temperature. Hydrogen suffers from a terrible “chicken or the egg” problem: cars powered by hydrogen will need to wait for hydrogen distribution infrastructure, but that infrastructure is waiting for enough hydrogen powered cars to justify the expense! The oil and automotive proponents of the Hydrogen Economy almost gleefully admit that the infrastructure required is decades away. It’s not surprising that these are the same people who will profit from no change at all.

Perhaps not all the ideas in a Hydrogen Economy are bad. The notion of using batteries and electric motors to power our ground transportation is a good one. Enter the Electric Economy.

The Electric Economy will eliminate carbon from our energy diet and needs three things to solve the problem: clean sources of electricity generation, electric transportation, and a distribution channel to connect them.

Electricity is the cleanest form of energy. It’s universal in that it can be used to run our factories, power our homes, cook our food, and power our transportation. It’s also a “common denominator” since it can be produced from any other form of energy that can create the heat necessary to generate steam to turn a turbine.

The problem with today’s electricity generation is that it comes primarily from the burning of fossil fuels, mostly coal and natural gas. We use some nuclear and we have already tapped most of our hydroelectric generation capability, but there is one untapped renewable source with the capacity to provide all of our peak electricity demand, the sun.

Our country currently uses 4 trillion Kilowatt Hours, or KWH, of electrical energy per year and we can generate all of this energy from the sun. We have two ways of doing this. The first is to convert sunlight to electricity directly using photovoltaic panels like those you see on rooftops in some locations today. The problem with solar energy, even in the desert southwest, is that it only shines eight hours per day. Intermittent energy sources are not a problem as long as you have a way to store energy for use in the evening. Unfortunately, we have no way of storing the many gigawatt hours required for a large-scale grid application.

The other way to generate electricity from the Sun is to do so thermally, using sunlight to heat water that in turn is used to power existing steam turbines. We still have the problem of storing large amounts of energy, but thermally, this is possible using water storage tanks.

It would require 12,000 square miles to provide our current 4-trillion KWH of electricity. If 12,000 square miles sounds like a lot, keep in mind that the state of Arizona has a land area of 115,000 square miles, much of it uninhabitable. So by utilizing just 10 percent of the state of Arizona, we could produce 4 trillion KWH of electricity. And we have much more space than that available to as we can see on this AccuWeather.com map of locations with 80-100 percent sunshine, an area of about 150,000 to 200,000 square miles, a “solar furnace” that can power our country for many generations.

In fact, we have enough solar thermal capacity to completely replace our current nuclear generation capability after we build the infrastructure needed to support our electric LDV fleet.

An Electric Economy mandates a move to electric transportation. In the past, electric vehicles were seen as glorified golf carts, with limited range of less than 100 miles. Today, with recent advances in lithium-based battery technology we can see electric cars like those from Tesla Motors and ZAP in the US and Lightning Car Company in the UK that provide all the performance and amenities we expect in cars and with ranges between 200 to 250 miles. And the capacity of lithium battery technology is increasing at 8 percent per year driven by applications such as laptop computers. On average, electric vehicles get 5 miles per KWH which translates into 1 to 2 cents per mile of operating cost. Unlike today’s gasoline motors with hundreds of moving parts that can fail and need servicing, electric motors have just one moving part, the rotor. That means there would be no tune-ups or oil changes required, no emission checks, and no service to exhaust or cooling systems.

So how much additional electricity would we use if all cars and light trucks were electrically powered? About 0.4 trillion KWH or 10 percent more per year than we currently use.

Connecting sources of electricity to the usage of it, including recharging electric vehicles, is the existing electrical grid that already distributes electricity to every home and business in the country.

Fortunately, the Electric Economy does not suffer from “chicken or egg” problems, in fact, the three components are quite independent: We can begin deploying electric cars immediately. These vehicles will typically be charged in the evening, off-peak from the perspective of the current electrical grid. And we can begin building High Voltage Direct Current transmission lines from our “Solar Furnace” in the southwest to each of the eight North American grid regions while we are building the solar collection infrastructure.

What would it take to accomplish the Electric Economy? The work comes in displacing our gasoline powered transportation with electric transportation. To do this we need to mandate that all new cars sold will be electric vehicles, perhaps introduced at the rate of 20 percent per year. With gasoline at $4/gallon, each of these cars would save the owners $2300 per year. These savings would be used to build the solar collection infrastructure in our desert southwest and the distribution from the desert to our existing regional distribution centers. Unlike other alternatives, the Electric Economy is completely self-funding.

Given an Electric Economy, what would our world look like in five years? We would have driven the value of imported oil to essentially zero. The foreign policies of industrialized nations would focus on real economic growth instead of securing oil. We would have no strategic interests in the quarantined OPEC countries other than humanitarian. China would no longer be interested in trading nuclear technology for oil with Iran and we could take the appropriate actions in dealing with Iran’s ambitions.

We would have no gas stations on street corners. Instead we would charge our vehicles in our garages or driveways. As with our cell phones we would always start the day with a full “tank.” Trips over 250 miles would require rapid recharging at stations located along interstate highways, where such distances would be traveled.

There would be no possibility of ecological disaster from oil spills. And we could stop transporting dangerous fuels on the highways and railroads.

Oil is currently the largest component of our trade deficit which would be erased. Instead, we would be exporting our Electric Economy technology to the industrialized world providing a positive trade balance and enormous wealth for this country. This wealth could be used to fund the upgrading of our aging infrastructure and better health, education and lifestyles for our children and theirs.

The Greatest Generation earned that name by their accomplishments and sacrifices for succeeding generations. While ours is not the Greatest Generation, it’s not too late to be great.

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Anonymous said...

Hey, man. awesome post. really great. Good work.

I wish our president would read it.

HarleyDave said...

Just spread the word, that's the power of the Internet

Zobeid said...

Don't focus solely on solar as the answer!

Geothermal energy also has huge untapped potential. A recent study from MIT showed that "enhanced geothermal" energy could conceivably power our country at relatively low cost. http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2007/geothermal.html

Also, don't write off nuclear fusion! There is research underway which could lead to practical, power-generating fusion reactors much sooner than most people imagine. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polywell

HarleyDave said...

Good points. As I say in the post, electricity is the common denominator and can be generated by any form of energy that can create heat. Geothermal and fusion qualify and could certainly contribute one day. Are you someone who could provide the research into timeframes and costs for both? I am currently putting together an electricity generation model based on 10 GW “modules” based on Solar Thermal generation. I need someone who could do the same for Geothermal and fusion. In a way, I’d like to think that I am already including fusion when considering solar since the Sun is really just a large fusion reaction…and at a safe 93M mile distance!

Nathan2go said...

I'm pro-electric cars, but I'm not as optimistic as some. I think in the future most luxery cars will be electic, but I doubt battery cars will be cheap enough to get more than 50% market share. I would expect most cheap cars to run on a combination of biofuel and expensive synthetic fuel from wind and nuclear sources.

Have you read Zubrin's essays on methanol? It could beat ethanol as the best (highest yield per acre etc) biofuel.