(and solutions to that crisis)
by Bradley L. Gould © 2003-2008
second revision incorporates some late-breaking technological
developments in the production of ethanol and resurrects some of my
original comments regarding a "smart electrical grid"
which seem to have gained recent political traction. Throughout this
article I have attempted to prioritize my recommendations to address
immediate needs before long-term goals, while keeping those long-term
objectives clearly in sight. I have also tried to maintain a pragmatic
grasp of the different imperatives driving our energy considerations.
As I learn of new technologies or initiatives relevant to either
short-term or long-term solutions, I will try to keep this article
revised to incorporate them. For the most recent developments,
however, you may wish to check out my journal entries on my home page.
When I first posted this article in June, 2008,
the price of oil was well over $120 per barrel and the prices of
gasoline and diesel over $4.00 per gallon at the pumps. By the time I
posted my first revision in July, 2008,
those prices had risen to over $145 per barrel and over $4.50 per
gallon respectively. While prices seem to have retreated back to June
levels, I doubt anyone is foolish enough to believe we will ever again
see prices at the pumps below $3.00 per gallon and are more likely to
see another surge in prices in the relatively near future.
book "Anne Frank Remembered", Miep Gies describes how the sturdy Dutch
bicycles were as much a part of the Dutch cultural identity as any
flag. When the Nazis occupied Holland in WW-II, they made a point of
forbidding Jews from owning bicycles as much to isolate them from Dutch
society as to hinder any escape. To BE Dutch is to ride your bike.
We Americans are like that with our cars. We are a mobile
nation. It's in our genetic makeup. Ultimately, all of us came from
somewhere else; all immigrants who traveled vast distances and endured
many hardships along the way; asking nothing more than a fair shot at
the American Dream. For Americans to feel truly American, a private
vehicle on the open road is not just a preference; it is an essential
part of who we are.
Ironic, then, that this very symbol of American freedom, our
beloved automobile, should also be the iron shackle that enslaves us to
the oiligarchy and the potential vehicle, if you will, of our own
economic downfall. We are the nation which put footprints on the
Moon! Certainly we can solve this crisis. But where to start?
A Look at American Oil Consumption
first step in any journey is to have a good map showing where you are
and where you want to go. Here, then, is a map of American oil
-- Approximately 7% of America's total annual oil consumption is used to heat and cool residential & business properties.
-- About 1.75% of America's annual consumption is used for rail freight and rail transport fuel.
-- A little over .75% is used for public transport and short-range official vehicles fuels.
-- About 4.5% is used for construction and farm equipment fuels.
-- Ships and aircraft account for about 9% and 16% respectively, while the petrochemical industry accounts for roughly 12%.
I will address the approximately 4% of our total annual oil
consumption to produce electrical power in a later section entitled "A
New Kind of Powerplant*1".
For now, if we tally all the above uses of oil (55%), we are left with
45% - close to half - of our total annual consumption going to private
and commercial vehicle fuels. Now, here's the $64,000 question...
What percentage of America's total annual oil consumption is imported?
Answer: about 65%
Shocking, isn't it? Combine the 45% consumed by private and
commercial road vehicles with the rail, public vehicle, and
farm/construction consumption and nearly ALL our imported oil - 52% of
our total annual consumption - is accounted for by ground vehicles of
one form or another! Obviously, then, transport fuels are our most
pressing problem. So, what is the solution to that problem?
Solving the Short Term Problem
There is no "quick fix". It took the Oiligarchy nearly a century to
get us into this mess and even with emergency national programs on a
scale with the Manhattan Project or Apollo Program, it's going to take
at least a year or two to provide some relief. To describe, then, the
best solutions I see for our short-term needs, I'll begin with two
points of information which may initially seem unrelated.
Point #1: Currently, there are approximately 250 Million registered vehicles
on America's roads today. Of those 250 Million vehicles, up to 8% are
capable of using E85 Flex Fuel or BioDiesel just as they are. Another
36% are capable of being retrofitted to use E85 or BioDiesel. That
means around 110 Million vehicles on the road RIGHT NOW either can use
- or can be converted to use - such fuels.
Point #2: According to the latest figures
publicly available from the Environmental Protection Agency, America
generated nearly 250 Million Tons of municipal solid waste in 2005
alone. We can safely assume incrementally higher figures for the last
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could convert all that garbage
from toxic landfills to fuel for our cars? Well, we CAN; cleanly,
efficiently, NOW. Fulcrum Bio-Energy
is building a $120 million facility near Reno, Nevada to transform
nearly 90,000 tons per year of municipal solid waste into approximately
10.5 million gallons of ethanol per year. Other projects are in final
development and will be announced in the next year or so.
The "Plasma Enhanced Melter"
process (PEM) at the core of these new plants is a conversion process,
NOT an incineration process, which dramatically cuts down on any
harmful emissions. It is also one of several breakthrough technologies
directly resulting from the fusion power research of Dr. Dan Cohn of the MIT Plasma Science and Fusion Center. Dr. Cohn is one of the co-founders of Integrated Environmental Technologies, LLC, which has licensed the PEM and related technologies to be used in Reno's Sierra BioFuels plant.
In my original article, as well as in the first revision, I had
recommended Congress provide major subsidies and tax incentives to
biomass farms immediately adjacent to a nationwide network of Ethanol
and BioDiesel plants; as close to demand as possible to cut transport
costs. While I continue to support building vertical farms near urban
centers for BioDiesel and food production, there now seems little need
for biomass to convert to ethanol when millions of tons of garbage are
just sitting there waiting to be "harvested".
For our IMMEDIATE gasoline crisis, it seems logical for our
Congress to provide major subsidies and tax incentives to companies
like Fulcrum Bio-Energy to build PEM conversion plants, while also
providing incentives to build vertical biomass farms and BioDiesel
plants. It also seems logical for our Congress to provide the same
sort of legislative stimulus given to Hummer owners, to assist car and
truck owners to retrofit existing vehicles for E85 FlexFuel and BioDiesel, or to purchase new FlexFuel and BioDiesel vehicles over the next two years. I'll explain the need for that two year sunset provision shortly.
Several people have emailed me recently to ask why I seem so
gung-ho about FlexFuel and BioDiesel when Natural Gas produces
significantly less greenhouse gases and Hydrogen fuel cells no
greenhouse gases at all. This is a fair question which would be
difficult to answer if environmental impact was the sole consideration
in what, I will reiterate, is a short-term solution. There are
economic factors involved as well which cannot be ignored if the
solution is to be successful.
Any short-term solution to our vehicle fuels crisis should
have, as a key criterion for consideration, extant and ubiquitous
distribution infrastructures to allow for rapid adoption. Generally,
short-term solutions should be viewed as transitional or "bridge"
solutions which will eventually be replaced by more permanent or at
least long-term solutions. In that context, it would be difficult for
both distributors and consumers of vehicle fuels, to justify the
expenses involved in retrofitting millions of vehicles and tens of
thousands of stations to support Natural Gas or Hydrogen fuels when -
in the long run - they are as intrinsically obsolete as even FlexFuel
and BioDiesel will eventually become. For now, there are significant
numbers of FlexFuel and BioDiesel vehicles already in service as well
as a large and growing nationwide network of fueling stations for
vehicles designed (or retrofitted) for those fuels.
As much as I loathe agreeing with T. Boone Pickens - a
kingpin of the energy cartel - on anything, I have to acknowledge that
the natural gas elements of his "Pickens Plan"
can contribute to easing our short-term fuel needs (if predominantly
for fleet vehicles and long-haul trucking). Again, the economics of
conversion just don't add up for private vehicle owners or station
operators, but they are favorable for companies providing
natural gas fueling hubs, owned and operated by those same companies to
fuel their own fleets of trucks, cars, or equipment.
The same economics would apply to Hydrogen fuel-cell
conversions. If you've visited some of the links provided above for
the "PEM", you know that this technology can produce Hydrogen from
solid waste just as easily as Ethanol; perhaps easier. However, as a
SHORT-TERM solution to our immediate vehicle fuel crisis, Hydrogen,
like natural gas, makes sense only for companies which can recover the
conversion costs of vehicles and centralized fueling hubs over time.
While some additional incentives may be appropriate
for both natural gas and hydrogen fuel-cell conversions, existing
incentives already provide compelling economic justification for fleet
vehicle and equipment companies to make such conversions. The greatest
short-term "bang for the buck" will be in offering private vehicle
owners, individual station operators, and FlexFuel/BioDiesel producers
significant incentives to rapidly expand adoption of those alternative
fuels over the next two years. Again, I've specified a two year
Part One of the Long-Term Solution: A New Kind of Car
Two years from now, a truly 21st
Century, mass production car will be rolling off the General Motors
assembly lines and into showrooms across America. The Chevy "Volt"
will be fast, clean, quiet, and (if our government does things right),
priced to move. I'm not making a sales pitch for GM here. GM is,
after all, the company which brought us the Hummer and has consistently
demonstrated an almost pathological resistance to innovation. Which
only makes the Volt that much more amazing. The car is pure
What makes GM's car unique is that unlike most current gas/electric hybrids, the Volt's gas engine is
While the Volt and similar plug-in hybrids won't allow us to break completely
free of oil as a transport fuel, over a five to ten year period, we
could see a reduction of that 45% of total annual consumption to
something more like 18%. With E85 FlexFuel and BioDiesel becoming more
prevalent, that figure might fall even further to around 11-13% of
Obviously, as such primarily electric or fully electric
vehicles become more prevalent, they will impose ever increasing
demands on our aging electrical grid. You may be wondering at this point what efforts may be necessary to accomodate those vehicles. You're not alone.
Part Two of the Long-Term Solution: A New Kind of Power Grid
Again, General Motors is amazingly out in front on this question. Joel Makower,
writing for Greenbiz.com, describes a series of meetings between GM and
30 members of the Electric Power Research Institute. While the
question of capacity was obviously central to those meetings, they also
addressed such issues as standardized connections, smart charging,
mobile billing, and myriad other details.
Converting our nation's ground transportation from primarily
internal combustion driven to electrically driven is going to require a
LOT of electricity; many TeraWatts
of electricity. We will need a system that can readily handle a 30%
increase in load within five years, with a flexible enough architecture
to handle a 60-70% increase within 15 years.
One of the major shortcomings of electricity as a power
source is its transient nature. Fossil fuels and radioactive materials
can be stored for long periods of time and lose little of their
potential energy. Electricity, once generated, must often be used
immediately, or just go to waste. Today's battery technologies can
of that energy for later use, but most batteries are still quite
expensive and require time to charge; time which simply may not be
sufficient to effectively capture short spikes of excess power. A key
element, therefore, of an advanced electrical grid would be an economic
means of RAPIDLY STORING large amounts of excess energy whenever and
for however short a duration such peaks may occur.
Once more, I diverge from my original suggestion of building
UltraCapacitor "farms" at locations throughout the nation close to
high-demand centers such as industrial parks, steel mills, etc. as a
solution to the electrical storage issue. I still believe that SuperCapacitors and UltraCapacitors
hold great promise in solving that problem. Unlike batteries,
"SuperCaps" and "UltraCaps" pose significantly less threat to our
environment, last longer, charge and discharge faster, and can actually
provide much higher power densities. Batteries, however, can provide
the sort of deep-storage capacity yet to be realized with capacitors.
Consider, then, a growing population of plug-in electric and
electric hybrid vehicles combining the best qualities of ultracaps and
batteries into a new sort of energy storage medium?
Plug those millions of vehicles into a truly smart electrical grid and
you have the equivalent energy storage capacity of my original UltraCap
farms suggestion, without needing to build those farms.
Efficient and intelligent delivery of huge amounts of electricity is one thing... generating it is another. Windmills and solar arrays
are rapidly evolving as viable sources of energy, but our nation would
literally need to be carpeted from coast to coast with windmills and
solar arrays to generate the industrial levels of power required by a 21st Century Nation.
Short-Term Solutions to Our Electrical Energy Needs
So, where do we currently get our industrial levels of electrical energy from? 2005 data at the Edison Electric Institute tells us:
-- 49.7% of our nation's electricity was generated from coal.
-- Nuclear FISSION reactors (I'll clarify that distinction shortly) produced 19.3%.
-- Natural gas supplied 18.7%.
-- Hydropower provided 6.5% of the supply.
-- Fuel Oil accounted for 3.0% of our electrical power.
-- Biomass produced 1.6% while other renewable resources, such as
geothermal, solar, and wind, provided the remaining 1.2% of the supply.
As a short-term solution to both a growing electricity demand
and reduction of our fuel oil consumption for power production from 3%
to 0%, I see little choice but to expand both coal-fired and nuclear
fission production. For the long haul, however, these are not
solutions. They are suicide.
Coal, while relatively abundant, is an environmental nightmare;
regardless of the spin energy lobbyists put on "the clean coal
initiative". It's extraction devastates our land, as its use
devastates our air and water. If global warming has a poster-child,
The "nuclear option", at present, means building new fission
reactors at an alarmingly breakneck pace. Alarming, because such
reactors cannot have ANY mistakes. Even if such plants are built
quickly, with zero defects, and in quantities sufficient to match
demand, let me just mention the year 9500 AD. That's 7,500 years from
now; a period of time FAR longer than recorded human history. It is
also the amount of time necessary for the TONS of spent fuel rods and
other radioactive waste from fission powerplants to cease being
Think for a moment how much has happened in the last 7,500
years and you'll get some sense of the collosal hubris of our
government assuring us they can safeguard this stuff at Yucca Flats for
that long. 7,500 years ago, simple agriculture was just getting
started in the Nile valley and along the Euphrates. Ancient Sumer had
yet to exist and the pyramids were still about 2,400 years in the
future! Now here's the kicker... 7,500 years is a CONSERVATIVE
estimate on the deadliness of this stuff. Depending on storage density
and quantity, the real figure could be in excess of 10,000 years!
So, if coal and nuclear fission are both - quite literally - dead ends for America, what IS the long-term solution?
Part Three of the Long-Term Solution: A New Kind of Powerplant*1
Nuclear FUSION Power
harnesses the reaction that takes place in our sun to generate energy.
A fusion reaction "fuses" atoms of lighter elements like Hydrogen into
atoms of heavier elements like Helium. Fusion reactions can only occur
in an environment of unimaginable heat and pressure; a superhot,
superdense, stew known as a "plasma". This plasma can be used to
bombard a surrounding jacket of lithium with neutrons to, in turn, heat
water to drive steam turbines, or might be passed through a magnetic
harness to generate electricity directly.
Existing nuclear FISSION reactors are more like the original
atomic bomb. They rely on the "fission" (or splitting) of extremely
unstable elements like Uranium-235 and U-238. When fuel rods, made of
a blend of both elements, are placed in close proximity to each other,
the U-235 atoms give off neutrons. Those free neutrons smack into
other atoms of both U-238 and U-235, forcing those atoms, in turn to
give off more neutrons. With each collision, radiation and heat are
generated. This is known as a "chain-reaction".
Fission powerplants must employ active measures to avoid a
runaway chain-reaction; not only in the primary containment vessel, but
also in storage pools for spent fuel rods. If controls in a current
fission powerplant are accidently (or intentionally) disabled, a meltdown or even explosion could occur. If controls were disabled in a fusion powerplant, the reaction would simply stop.
In both types of powerplants, high levels of radiation are
produced while in operation, but once the reaction ends in a fusion
plant, those high levels rapidly dissipate and the only by-product of
that reaction is Helium; a gas we use in party balloons and to make our
voices sound like chipmunks. As detailed earlier, our current fission
powerplants produce waste by-products which remain deadly for a time longer than recorded Human history
and which have National Security implications beyond simply
safeguarding this material for public health reasons. Those National
Security concerns come in the form of transuranics; a class of highly unstable radioactive isotopes which include, among other goodies, Plutonium.
Considering all the benefits of nuclear fusion power over
conventional fission power, you may wonder why we still don't have a
viable fusion powerplant? Certainly, the technological challenges are
daunting, but as you can see from the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) and Lawrence Livermore Lab's National Ignition Facility
(NIF), progress is being made. To understand why we're being told it
will take 30 years or more, you need only scroll up to the previous
chapter and read off the top three providers of electrical power today.
is at the core of every major issue facing America today. Our economy,
our security, our environment, our way of life, ALL depend on the
choices we make as a people and our resolve to see those choices
through the minefield of vested interests opposing us. In 1961, our
President challenged us to dream the impossible; to put Americans on
the Moon and return those daring souls safely back to Earth and to do
so within a decade. Well, we DID it! In the process, the
Lunar Program spawned thousands of new American industries; generating
many tens of thousands of good-paying American jobs. I see a
comprehensive national energy program stimulating similar innovation,
industry, and meaningful employment.
Regarding American security, the equation couldn't be simpler:
American dependence on foreign oil = American dollars paying for that
oil = those dollars funneled to terrorists = those terrorists buying
weapons to kill Americans. Our greatest security, as well as the
solutions to our energy predicament, will NOT be found in "Gas Tax
Holiday" sound-bites, nor in the energy cartels propaganda exhorting us
to let them drill more holes in America. As detailed above, our
solutions must embrace fundamental shifts in how we generate, store,
and use energy. Our greatest energy resource is not what lies beneath
our feet, but what lies between our ears and the sooner we apply that
resource to wean ourselves off of foreign oil, the safer and more
prosperous our nation will be.
We have the technology and the American ingenuity to start
NOW. All we lack is the political leadership and in this election
year, that is TOTALLY up to US. We can let our Senators and Representatives
know THEIR lives and their livelihoods are on the line along with ours,
or we can just fade into the history books with a whimper in the dark.
Few of the proposals I've made are wasteful. Vertical farms
can gradually be retasked for urban food production as electric
vehicles become more ubiquitous. Ethanol plants can be profitably
employed for a wide variety of alternative applications.
As for BioDiesel plants, who doesn't like fried foods? Even
contemporary oil refineries will continue to be essential to the
petrochemicals we rely on in innumerable ways. The ONLY elements with
intrinsic obsolescence are the coal and nuclear fission powerplants.
Fusion powerplants may be down the road a bit, but when they're available, they will dovetail perfectly into a 21st
Century power infrastructure. I believe we can make fusion power a
reality within a decade, but even if it takes 30 years of
lobbyist-sponsored foot dragging, fusion power IS coming. The European Union, Russia, South Korea, Japan,
India, and China are all aggresively funding fusion research. If we are to remain a 21st Century nation, we dare do nothing less.
directly connected to the powertrain (transmission, drive-shaft, axles,
wheels). The small, FlexFuel (E85) engine is little more than a
generator to replenish the batteries when driving beyond the base 40
mile range of a full charge. This engine gives the car a total range
of a little over 400 miles on a full battery charge and a full fuel
tank of about 6-7 gallons. GM engineers are also looking at an equally
small BioDiesel engine as an option.