If rhetoric could move mountains I’d like to see the Rocky Mountains moved to northern Michigan so I could view the magnificence of Lake Superior from the top of Long’s Peak. Unfortunately I’m not expecting to see that day.

Such is the case with the rhetoric concerning “energy independence”. Politicians and the media are now spewing considerable rhetoric concerning energy independence, although that is not necessarily new.

Jon Stewart had a recent skit about “energy independence” programs that U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon on have proposed. During that time, U.S. dependence on foreign oil has increased significantly to the point where we’re now importing over 50% of the liquid hydrocarbons we consume.

The public is on the “energy independence” bandwagon. The “Drill Baby Drill” crowd likes the idea that if we only open every conceivable acre of U.S. territory to oil drilling, the U.S. will be energy independent. The environmental crowd likes the idea that wind and solar can replace oil, natural gas and coal to power everything in the United States, including our extensive transportation system. I personally think both positions are delusional.

The problem I see with our current situation is that the vast majority of people, including pretty well all politicians and the media, don’t understand why oil is so valuable and why it is not easily replaceable.A major aspect of oil that makes it such a great energy source is that the Energy Profit Ratio for oil can be extremely high, particularly for the large fields we have historically relied upon; fields such as Ghawar, Prudhoe Bay, the Black Giant, Cantarell, Burgan, Ekofisk, Samotlor and many others.

Energy Profit Ratio (EPR) is the ratio of the energy content of a fuel relative to the energy needed to obtain the fuel.

EPR = energy content of fuel/energy needed to obtain fuel

The higher the EPR value is for a fuel, the higher the net energy yield and the more valuable the fuel is because more of the energy can be used for other purposes. Conventional oil, coal and natural gas have high EPR values relative to other energy sources, which makes them extremely valuable. Table I provides some reported EPR values. (EPR is called by some EROI-Energy Return On [energy] Investment.)

Table 1: Energy Profit Ratio Values

Fuel Source Energy Profit Ratio*
1970 U.S. oil production 30
Today’s U.S. oil production 15
Oil sands oil production 3
Corn ethanol 1-1.5
Hydrogen from Water <<1

*Primary data source is Cutler Cleveland, Boston University;value for hydrogen, based upon thermodynamics; oil sands data based on Steam-Assisted Gravity Drainage method

The energy profit ratios for ethanol, shale oil, oil sands oil and hydrogen from water are considerably less than that for conventional oil so they have far less net energy that can be used for other purposes in the economy.

Oil distillates have the added virtue of having high energy density values relative to other fuels, shown in Table II.

Table II: Energy Densities for Common Fuels

Fuel Source Energy Density (kJ/gallon) % Relative to Octane
Octane 118,690
Ethanol 82,958 69.9
Methanol 59,579 50.2
H2 (at 5000 psi and 25.0oC) 6,020 12.8
CH4 (at 5000 psi and 25.0oC) 16,888 35.5

The high energy densities for oil distillates make them particularly valuable for transportation purposes because a large amount of energy can be stored in a relative small volume.

Another important aspect of fuels is their enthalpy of combustion, how much energy a fuel produces per mole of fuel molecules. Table III contains enthalpy of combustion values for various fuels.

Table III: Enthalpy of Combustion Values for Various FuelsFuel

Fuel

Enthalpy of Combustion (kJ/mole*)

Octane

-5,103

Ethanol

-1,278

Methanol

-638

Hydrogen

-286

*A joule is a unit of energy and a mole of molecules consists of 6.02*1023 molecules

Based upon the data in Table III, it takes 18 times more hydrogen molecules, 8 times more methanol molecules and 4 times more ethanol molecules to obtain the same amount of energy that is obtained from an octane molecule. That’s an important consideration when you have to make the hydrogen, methanol or ethanol.

I’ve previously argued in -Drill Baby Drill-A Reality Check‖ and Drill Baby Drill-A Second Reality Check‖ that there is no possibility that the U.S. is going to drill its way to energy independence. The rhetoric sounds good to people who want to believe it but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

I believe wind and solar have a similar possibility of making the U.S. energy independent in the foreseeable future. I have nothing against wind and solar but I don’t think it’s wise to have exaggerated expectations of the extent to which they can power America in the lifestyle Americans now live. Because wind and solar are intermittent sources of energy, there will always have to be backup energy supplies, probably from fossil fuels or nuclear, or extensive and expensive energy storage systems.

As of 2007, wind and solar were providing about 0.4% of total U.S. energy demand whereas oil provided about 40%. Energy production from wind and solar is growing with the majority of the growth being due to wind energy.

Wind and solar are used to create electrical energy. Oil is mainly used for the transportation sector in the U.S., including aviation, as well as agriculture, construction and other industrial purposes. For wind and solar energy to replace oil, electric vehicles would have to displace oil distillate powered vehicles, something I don’t see happening.

I see two major problems with electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles that I expect to seriously limit sales in the future: price and power. Production costs have dogged electric vehicles since the 1800s compared to oil distillate powered vehicles. That has not changed although I frequently hear that battery prices will drop significantly in coming years, something I’ve heard for a long time.

A case in point is the GM Chevy Volt (a plug-in hybrid vehicle), which reportedly will have a base price of $41,000. Only relatively wealthy individuals are going to spend that much money on an electric powered vehicle even with the $7,500 tax credit the U.S. government is providing.

Most people who buy motor vehicles buy them with some expectation that they can use them for carrying and towing purposes. Electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles will not be vehicles you’ll want for towing or carrying purposes because of their limited power for towing and space for carrying.

From my observations, most people who drive hybrid vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight, also own other vehicles because of the limitations of the hybrid vehicles. The limitations of plug-in hybrids and purely electric vehicles will be even more pronounced. In the case of purely electric vehicles, range limitations, particularly when electrical accessories (e.g., heating and air conditioning) are used, and charging time are also significant.

Wind, solar, and electric vehicles have to be subsidized by the government to make them somewhat competitive. Of course, all energy sources receive major tax breaks, not only ethanol from corn but also oil, natural gas and coal. A serious question is how long government subsidies will be possible considering the high federal government debt and large deficits.

Roger Blanchard teaches chemistry at Lake Superior State University and authored the book The Future of Global Oil Production: Facts, Figures, Trends and Projections by Region, McFarland & Company (2005). He also grows fruit trees and hay on acreage outside Sault Ste. Marie (MI).

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the ASPO-USA position.)