Why is selecting and developing alternatives to oil so very important? Consider three reasons: Oil is a hydrocarbon whose natural product of combustion is carbon dioxide, which increases global warning. Oil is easily the number one source of energy, meeting 38.7 percent of the world’s demand, and 63 percent of oil reserves are located in the volatile Middle East. The world production of oil will peak and begin to decline in the next several years while demand continues to grow, leaving us with a permanently increasing oil shortage.
Oil-based fuels are unique in that they provide the portability and energy density transportation requires. Vehicles and planes, for example, must be able to carry enough fuel to provide needed power and range; they can’t be tethered by a several-hundred-mile-long electric cable or natural gas hose. Oil is special in that it is much better suited for transportation than other sources of energy, including uranium, coal, natural gas, rivers, wind, and the sun. Oil-based fuels provide over 97% of fuel for transportation.
When should we organize and accelerate research and development (R&D) efforts for alternatives to oil? The time is now. The oil shortage will come very soon relative to the lead times for solving the many technical and social problems of oft-mentioned alternatives. Many of the technical problems require research, which by its very nature and definition has an indefinite completion date. We are already late in working aggressively to decide on alternatives to oil. If we continue to delay, the coming oil shortage will bring very high prices, lower standards of living, reduced competitiveness, worsening of an already bad balance of trade, and shortages of fuels and petrochemical products.
Aren’t we doing R&D on alternatives now? Yes, but we are not getting results fast enough. Hydrogen, for example, is often touted as our savior. However, hydrogen poses some huge hurdles. It can be made from natural gas, but this source is also a hydrocarbon that is in limited supply and that produces carbon dioxide. It can be extracted from water by electrolysis, but this process is very energy intensive. Where do we get the energy for electrolysis? Let’s say we do produce the hydrogen. Then it has to be compressed as a gas to very high pressures and carried in a strong tank or liquefied to below -400° F and carried in a well-insulated tank. Both processes are energy intensive and perhaps dangerous. Do we use fuel cells? If so, they need a lot of work to be competitive in price with engines. How long would it take and how much would it cost to build the cars and the refueling infrastructure if we were to decide that hydrogen is ready for the big time?
Ethanol production is subsidized. Some say that it takes more energy to produce it than it provides.
Solar and wind energy have promise, but they are in their infancy in the United States. They don’t seem to have potential for direct application in transportation, so if we are to use them to power cars, we will need batteries. Despite years of research, batteries still don’t provide the vehicle range people demand. If research could produce results, battery-powered vehicles would have the very big advantage of being recharged with electricity that could be made from any energy source, providing the portability now provided only by oil-based fuels. If we had the right battery, what source of energy would we use to provide the huge increase in electrical generation needed? Can we tame nuclear energy so we feel safe with it?
These examples show that our society does not know what alternative or alternatives to oil are ready for the truly massive investment and retooling that will be required for providing them to consumers in quantity. We need to galvanize research to answer these questions and then develop the chosen solutions for the marketplace.
We can do it. Shifting our economy to marshal resources for WWII, the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, and JFK’s moon landing effort showed what we can accomplish when we make the commitment. Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is the one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…” We must apply the same can-do attitude and the same brainpower and technical resources to the alternatives-to-oil issue as we did to landing a man on the moon.
Tom Mast is the author of Over a Barrel: A Quick Guide to the Oil Shortage. www.overabarrelbook.com