Tuesday, October 07, 2008

US Energy Independence...

What does it really mean for the U.S. to be "Energy Independent"?

Honestly? You hear it all the time right now with the presidential politics, in the debates, and everything else. But what does it really mean?

To start with - it means that the U.S. would be self-sufficient on its energy needs - as any country should be. That's all there is. Nothing more, nothing less.

So, how do we get there?

Well, that's the hard part. Primarily entirely due to nothing more than politics. Why? Because its politics that keeps us from it; and big spending lobbyists as well.

It's the lobbyists paying the politicians for their interests. For example, the U.S. Congress tried to raise the required gas mileage for the average vehicle to 35 miles per gallon; however, the bill never made it through, namely due to political interests - the big auto makers didn't want to do it as it would be "too costly" for them, so they poured lots of money against it. But it is that exact kind of politics that are keeping the U.S. from achieving energy independence. Why?

Because it keeps driving the need for certain kinds of energy sources higher. For example, the current standard is 25mpg - which typically yields about 400 miles per tank of gas. My Mazda 3s gets between 26 and 32 mpg on its 14g tank - thats between 364 miles and 448 mpg if I were to run it empty. Raising it to 35 mpg on the same vehicle would either raise minimum miles per tank to 490, or lower the size of the tank to about 11 gallons.

Now to put it into a little bit of perspective. Suppose you have to go 1000 miles. At 25 mpg, that's 40 gallons of gas. At 35 mpg, thats 28.57 gallons - or 70% of the fuel consumption. In today's dollar - at nearly $3.75 per gallon - it comes to a savings of $42.85. That also frees up 11.43 gallons for distribution elsewhere.

So what, then, would happen if we increase fuel efficiency to 150 miles per gallon? Or 200 miles per gallon? Or more? We do have the technology; but the auto-makers choose to give us all kinds of things we don't need - like TV's - instead of giving us savings that would really help us.

So how else do we get there?

The other big side of why politics gets in the way of energy independence is that there is a lot of political upheaval over building new fuel refinery plants, or even nuclear facilities.

Why are these important? New refinery plants means the ability to spread the fuel we have further at lower cost. Nuclear energy has the highest return available in terms of fuel to power ratios. Nothing comes close. The only argument against Nuclear is the relatively small amount of waste afterwards. And in terms of safety history, nuclear is by far the safest; with less injuries than anything else. And every instance of a nuclear plant failing - all two or three of them - containment has occurred. (Yes, even Chernoble was no where near what it could have been; and research already shows that after only about 20 years it is already coming back to levels that are safe enough to live in!)

** It doesn't mean we have a nuclear plant in everyone's back yard though! **

Don't get me wrong - we need a very diverse energy plan that includes solar, wind, hydro, and many other forms of energy harvesting. But bang-for-buck, nuclear is the cheapest and cleanest we can get.

Again, to put it in perspective - we can reply "dirty" fuel sources such as coal that have limited resources, which are costly to recover and transport, with other sources of power such as nuclear that can do far better. And when the next safer/cleaner thing comes along we can upgrade the power plants to that too.

BUT that does nothing for the hundreds of thousands of vehicles that traverse the roadways and railways all over the world, over 90% of which use some form of petrol - which is even more limited in quantity than coal.

There really is only one solution for the vehicular side - converting everything to pure electric. The reality, though, is that the conversion is not an overnight process. Most are ranting now about the battery situation - however, Porsche had a 100% electric vehicle around 1915, and companies such as Tesla Motors are figuring out ways around the battery situation. (BTW, Tesla has a really neat method of charging/discharging batteries by treating them like a big network of small batteries.) But should we toss the baby with the bath water, or so to speak?

Absolutely not. What it means is that we need a hybrid vehicle to get there. Toyota brought us the Prius, and several other companies have brought similar vehicles. But they all do it wrong by building two system in-line, instead of building one system that supports the other and for that there is only one real solution - a full electric system that can be supplemented by an alternative energy source.

Now why did I say "alternative energy source" instead of saying a "gasoline engine"? So as not to limit the possibilities. That alternative source will likely be a small gasoline engine - and if we do it right we could recharge the batteries while the vehicle is moving and then shut it off again - but it must also include a way to draw energy from the greater power grid - i.e. a plug-in hybrid.

Sadly, we'll have to wait until at least 2010 for such a vehicle to be done right . The EPA killed it before; hopefully they won't do it again. (Why? Because it meant they couldn't get the test results to be consistent since it could be plugged in, thus the vehicle might have gotten 50mpg one time, and never used a gallon another time.)

Why is this important? Because until it is provided, we cannot centralize our energy generation systems. Until we can plug-in the vehicles there will be no such thing as energy independence. Why? Because we'll still need oil and petrol from other nations in ever growing quantities than the U.S. could ever itself produce.

Of course, once they start selling it'll take about 20 years to replace the vehicles on the road. Why? It'll take about 10 to 15 years to trickle down once it reaches a generally accepted price range, and it'll probably take about 5 years to reach that once it hits market.

But there is hope for making it happen sooner, but only if someone can come up with an economical way to convert existing vehicles to either a pure electric system or a hybrid. Needless to say it can be done - there are a lot of enthusiasts our there doing it right now - but it usually is a very custom job, namely since no one is doing it on large scale. What is needed is someone to pick it up, create a replacement engine that will suite most vehicles and give decent performance (not everyone needs a sports car), and the glue-parts (namely the connections to the transmission) for most vehicles and deliver it at a cost that is not much more than replacing a standard engine.

Why the cost limit? To make it affordable, and that would probably come at about the same point the car companies are able to do it for their current selections - about 5 years out - since it would use much of the same kinds of technology.

But it can't just stop at vehicles. Systems that can be maintained by solar energy such as traffic lights or school zone lights should be. Systems that can be shut off when not needed should be.

And don't forget about "Daylight Savings Time" - it should just be eradicated. It doesn't save us anything (as the recent study of the state of Indiana showed when they converted to it in 2007), and does not make an impact on energy usage - the U.S. is a 24/7 economy. Manufacturing (which is what DST was all about) happens regardless of the clock. If it's not heated, it's cooled (which is more likely nowadays anyway) and that happens regardless of the time of year. People tend to just leave their air conditioner or heaters on; which in the end just uses more fuel though it may save a few dollars a month today.

Then of course there is the big farce that is ethanol. The only reason you hear anything about ethanol is again politics - the farming lobbyists which spend more money on the U.S. Congress than anyone in the world. So despite the fact that 1 gallon of pure gasoline produces more energy than 1 gallon of gasoline mixed with ethanol, which produces more energy than 1 gallon of pure ethanol, we're still force feeding ethanol production through the system - even legally requiring it - despite the fact that it is a leech on the entire fuel system that only drives demand for fuel higher because the vehicle that was getting 400 miles per tank is now getting 200 or 300 mile per tank just because of ethanol. (Of course there are also the other side-effects such as how much more corrosive ethanol is; the fact that it burns hotter and makes engines deteriorate faster, and more.)

Ultimately, there's a lot there. And it will take a long time to do. But it'll only take longer unless we get started on the road to it today. Some are starting. Energy independence - energy self-sufficiency - will be a long and hard road; but it will be more than worth it to get there.

Now if we can only get the politicians in line with the interests of the people instead of the lobbyists...

P.S. Sorry if I seemingly got a little off-topic. Everything there is really on-topic. Hopefully I made it all relate in a way that made sense. Comments, discussion welcome as always.

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