Thursday, July 27, 2006

Dana Joel Gattuso on Oil Addiction and Alternative Energy

This NRO author has an interesting column today on America's "Oil Addiction" and the use of alternative fuels. It mostly discusses polling and funding numbers, there are some interesting things to take away from it.

The limitations of the new energy sources is, to me, a very important and too unnoticed fact. When politicians talk about energy policy, they always mention more funding for energy research. This is fine. In fact, I'm very enthusiastic about funding scientific research. I wish the private industry did more of it, but there's never a problem with more science.

How many of these, though, will be permanent solutions? For example, solar power is a cool thought, but will it ever permanently replace coal or nuclear power plants? One of the professors at Northwestern who researches solar cells discussed their application during our orientation, specifically discussing surface areas needed based on the efficiencies of the materials and the electricity needs. I can't recall exactly how it went, but suffice it to say that even with 100% efficiency (which is impossible), very large tracts of land would be needed for solar cells to account for a large portion of our energy needs. Combine that with their frailty and the fickleness of the weather and it seems unlikely that solar cells will ever do more than supplement our electricity supply.

That conclusion seems to apply to most of these alternatives, at least as things currently stand.

I become discouraged because very few politicians have any short-term plans for energy policy. Yes, research is important, but there haven't been any breakthroughs just yet. Most of the alternative fuel sources, whether we're discussing automobile fuel or sources of electricity to replace power plants, if they become feasible, won't be implemented on a wide scale for many, many years. Possibly decades, even. Let's say that it's 20 years from today that we'll have an applicable technology that can counter gasoline burning automobiles. What do we do in the meantime?

Rising global demand is a large part of the soaring oil prices (along with the ever looming threat of war in the Middle East). Since everyone in America won't switch over to electric or hydrogen cars by tomorrow, what kind of solutions will help in the meantime? Higher supplies would drive down prices. Some people want to see the prices go even higher to discourage use, but that would only hurt those who can least afford higher prices in the first place.

Take note, politicians: As glad as I am that you do/will fund energy research, what else do you have in your energy policy? We need solutions that will help within the next ten years.


Jared said...

You mistakenly seem to assume that drilling = near term solution. This is incorrect for a number of reasons. First of all, building the infrastructure required takes time and money. Second, your assumption of over 10 billion barrels of oil there is extremely optimistic. The real value could be half that or even lower. Finally, even if the reserves are large, you can't pump it all out at once. There is a limit to the rate at which you can pull it out of the ground and unfortunately this means the actual immediate impact on our market would not be nearly as dramatic as you might hope.

And a quick note on renewables - namely wind. You neglect the fact that the wind industry has seen growth of 25-50% every year for the last decade. You are correct that less than 1% of our demands are met via wind - but fail to realize this is an opportunity not grounds for dismissal of its potential. Up to 15% of our electricity needs could be met via wind before intermittancy becomes a significant barrier to growth. Furthermore, the expenses of wind-farm infrastructure are quickly recouped. You want to talk immediate impact - we need to get as many wind farms up as we can.

Hal said...

I never said any of the things that you label me with saying. Please do not put words in my mouth.

Incidentally, drilling would have been a fine solution 10 years ago when it first started being debated. I guess that's neither here nor there anymore.

I've read a bit about wind power. From what I can tell, wind it just too fickle to be reliable for large scale use. Additionally, I understand that there are environmental concerns in keeping those turbines well-lubricated.

Not that I'm an expert, by any means. What I can see is that none of these technologies are perfect, and we need energy policies that are about more than pouring money into research and hoping a miracle emerges.

Jared said...

My apologies - I posted the comments this morning after reading the post last night and confused your words with the words in the article you posted. Just chance the 'you's to 'he's.

However - regarding wind you are still mistaken. As someone who has done a great deal of research in the field, I can say that in fact wind can be and is reliable for large scale use. (This fickleness you alude to I can only assume refers to the intermittency of wind itself - but as I previously mentioned, this would not create a significant hurdle until close to 15% of the US electricity needs are supplied by wind power - which is a large chunk - more than double what hydro is currently supplying). Furthermore there have been a great many technological and design advancements and maintenance is not nearly a limiting factor any more.

Also - for the record - opening up the pathway for additional nuclear power generation would help things out as well (though building a new nuclear plant might take a bit more time than a wind farm).

Hal said...

Well, like I said, I'm going mostly on, "Hey, I read an issue of National Geographic last year that talked about this" kind of things. And that's usually interspersed with pictures of well-proportioned women in parts of the world where bras are still optional, so those memories are fuzzy at best.

Still, I'm wondering what the land requirements of wind power are. Intermittency requires more turbines to be built. How much land does this require? Is it a reasonable amount?

The questions aren't rhetorical because I just don't know. I know with solar power it's a ridiculous amount (in one of the NU professor's examples, about half of Australia was converted to a big solar panel), so I'm curious if it's the same for wind.

I don't know enough about the complexities of nuclear power to say anything about it's uses. For now.

Jared said...

You'd be amazed at the land requirements for wind power. Their footprint is extremely reasonable. The best part is, you can farm or raise livestock in between all the turbines. For that matter, it gives struggling farmers a chance to earn an additional chunk of change by leasing parts of their land. Our glorious midwest has lots and lots of prime spots for just such plants.

Jared said...

PS. yes - solar is going nowhere fast