The most important long term problem facing America and the entire world is energy - low cost energy. Forty years ago the problem began to be noticed, and the screechers and crypto-fascists screamed about running out of oil and natural gas. We are still not running out of either, BUT world annual demand IS bumping strongly against available annual supply availability. There is no slack capacity to keep costs down long term and prevent huge spikes short term.
For oil, the huge old oil fields are running out and production is declining for them. Higher cost sources are making that up, but where is the supply to replace them? The world is nearly fully explored; very high cost sources in the deep water field on the continental shelf are now being drawn. In forty years, they will, too, have weakening production.
Natural gas supplies are now very large as new technology made shale gas available at low cost. But those fields run out fast, requiring more and more fracturing. LNG brings much "orphan" natural gas to market. But demand is growing fast; where will all these be in forty years?
Forty years is the useful life of a well-made building. That's the proper horizon for governmental planners - those RESPONSIBLE for an energy policy. Of course, they are now doing nothing.
Peak oil theory was misnamed; the correct name is "the oil plateau". Annual production simply stops growing fast, not as fast as demand at a price. Hence, prices rise and spike with short term demand (such as from crowds of speculators, as in summer 2008). Those short term spikes cause havoc on people and national economies. That is the short term problem.
We need an energy policy that solves the short term and long term problems and is fair to the common man and woman.
Some facts (from memory):
1. Over the next 40 years, oil & gas production will plateau. Demand will rise as third world nations' demand grows.
2. Prices will slowly rise, with many spikes upward.
3. Higher prices will bring more difficult sources of hydrocarbons into production, such as oil shale. Already, tar sands are economical if natural gas prices are low enough (natural gas is needed to heat the tar to extract the oil).
4. The plateau can be stretched to perhaps 80 years. That means one lifetime. Remember, 80 years ago was 1930, certainly in our collective historical memories.
5. Coal can supply energy for electrical production for hundreds of years.
6. Nuclear power can supply energy to thousands of years, IF proven breeder reactor technology is used. By the way, France uses this technology. The nuclear waste is reprocessed and "burnt" in the breeder reactors.
7. A breeder reactor makes more fuel that it consumes. The reactor burns uranium 235 in a manner that also convert plentiful uranium 238 to plutonium 239, which IS a nuclear fuel, too. Breeder reactors can also convert even more plentiful thorium to usable forms of uranium; China just announced it is contractuing such reactors. From memory, energy from such reactors can make energy for tens of thousands of years. That is a long term solution.
8. We need transportable energy for transportation. Electrical power can be used in low power cars for short haul transportation. Electrical power can make hydrogen for use in fuel cells: fuels cells combine hydrogen with oxygen to make electrical energy.
9. For many decades, people will need a personal transportation vehicle. The structure of current urban sprawl mandates this. But we don't need or want more sprawl.
Don't even think on one solution. The world does not work that way. Policy types and demagogues bloviate about their own "silver bullet" solution, but they are often just pushing their own private gravy train. The world works by combined solutions at all levels from the atomic level to the national economic level (see post of October 27, 2009).
We use a combination of the above in a changing mix to solve both the long term problem and the short term problem.
I. Begin building breeder reactors. They are the long term solution. Use the electricity for base power initially.
II. Continue using coal for base power.
III. The above keeps base electric power costs steady and low, with electric supply reliable.
IV. Use now-plentiful natural gas for peak electrical power demand spikes - those hot summer days.
V. Start shifting new building codes to promote electric heating in New England and other areas that use fuel oil now. Use electricity for cooling. Over time, do similar conversions is areas heated by natural gas.
VI. Start promoting small electric vehicles for short term trips: shopping in town, nearby malls, errands, trips to the post office, or beer store. Change zoning rules to promote charging stations. Use nuclear and coal power to keep base-load power cost low - this keeps recharging costs low. Over a generation, the two car family becomes one regular car (likely an SUV) and one or more smaller electric cars.
VII. Over time, use that cheap base load power to make hydrogen. A regular SUV running hydrogen fuel cells can have the power and range for a normal family car. This transition will take 20-40 years. But over time it can be done. By the way, the transition from horse power to gasoline power took 40 years, too.
VIII. Use coal to make kerosene to power planes and heavy trucks. I suspect electrical power has problems providing enough controllable energy with sufficient density to power airplanes and trucks (we need trucks for local deliveries). Perhaps rockets can be adapted for subsonic flight, but I don't know. Such rocket planes might not be economical due to the weight of the fuel carried ompared to the payload. Rocket trucks? Forget about it. I do know one can make kerosene from coal; the Germans did it in WW II. That proven technology will work for hundreds of years. Also, use coal and natural gas to make the plastics and petrochemicals the world economy needs.
IX. Use zoning to reduce urban sprawl slowly. Bring back small towns and communities where those small, electric vehicles are very, very useful. This also cuts the costs of delivery of products bought online and all other deliveries to stores, etc.
X. Over 40-80 years, America becomes an electrical nation, not a gasoline or natural gas powered nation. Much electrical production will go the make hydrogen from fresh water and sea water. Coal will continue to make kerosene for planes and heavy trucks and petrochemicals for centuries. Eventually, they will use hydrogen, too. Energy will remain cheap and plentiful and living standards can be high for thousands of years. The transition period will pull enough demand off oil to keep its cost from excessive peaking. Pollution falls as clean nuclear power replaces most of oil use.
The above ten points are a solution to the energy problems facing America and the world on both the short term and long term. We simply need a coherent, integrated policies adopted to bring all the parts into the solution. And we need to keep the greenie nuts and viking hogs OUT.
Word of the Day
"Nigh" - adjective [$10]
Nigh means being near in time, place or relationship; close.
Sentence: Catastrophic energy shortages are more nigh than most think. Without policies using now-proven technologies, the next couple decades is almost certain to bring economic disaster.