<i>National Geographic</i> on Alternative Energy

In the mail today, I received the August issue of National Geographic. The cover story is "Future Power: Where Will the World Get its Next Energy Fix?" (full text here).

TOD readers may remember "The End of Cheap Oil" from the June 2004 issue. That article did a good job of showing how pervasive oil and oil-based products are in our society, but it didn't do much to communicate what running out of cheap oil really means for us. It was also conservative in reporting when the peak would occur, citing Colin Campbell (2016) and the USGS (2040). While that article was somewhat of a letdown, I thought they did an excellent job with global warming ("Signs From Earth", September 2004), so I came into this month's alternative energy article with an open mind.

Michael Parfit's article starts off my reminding us about oil's uncertain future. He repeats NGM's conservative stance on oil depletion: "Oil, no longer cheap, may soon decline". May? He instead makes his case for alternative fuels based on the need to stem global warming. Parfit then describes his own experience with setting up solar panels on his roof—from the ecstasy of energy independence to the agony of cloud cover. This personal anecdote sets the tone that the path to alternatives is going to be rocky.

The article then examines all of the contenders for oil replacements in turn:
  • Solar: It's much cheaper than it used to be, but still expensive. Intermittency of sunlight is a problem that must be overcome with lots of batteries. On the land requirement:
    At present levels of efficiency, it would take about 10,000 square miles (30,000 square kilometers) of solar panels—an area bigger than Vermont—to satisfy all of the United States' electricity needs. But the land requirement sounds more daunting than it is: Open country wouldn't have to be covered. All those panels could fit on less than a quarter of the roof and pavement space in cities and suburbs.

  • Wind: Europe is way ahead of the U.S. in electricity generation from wind (35 GW versus 7 GW). The article uses a great graphic to show how huge a wind turbine is (60 stories!) A lot of people complain about the aesthetics, but the author points out that they are popular in Denmark,
    perhaps because many Danish turbines belong to cooperatives of local residents. It's harder to say "not in my backyard" if the thing in your backyard helps pay for your house.
    Of course, intermittency is a problem here too.

  • Biomass: We are reminded that it's already happening (ethanol blend in gasoline), but it's severely limited by land area (far less efficient per unit area than solar). However, the author doesn't point out that most fertilizer is petroleum-based. He mentions a plant called switchgrass, native to U.S. praries, which grows faster and needs less fertilizer than corn, but entrenched political interests (corn and sugar lobby) are a problem there.

  • Nuclear: We have only enough cheap uranium to last 50 years. Reprocessing could stretch out the supply, but generates plutonium and there is concern that it will get into the wrong hands.

  • Fusion: Explains it nicely, and makes it clear that it's not coming anytime soon.

As mentioned above, the author's principal concern is global warming, and not oil depletion. For this reason, he does not emphasize that, with the exception of biomass, the alternatives discussed serve only as sources of electricity, and not vehicle fuel. As the readers of this site know, nothing can match oil for its portability, and oil depletion is so serious because of its impact on transportation. The author does discuss hydrogen, and does a good job of pointing out that hydrogen fuel cells are not necessarily clean or renewable (it all depends on how the hydrogen is generated). However, because he is not considering the consequences of near-term oil depletion, he does not address the urgency of building a hydrogen infrastructure.

The conclusion considers what it will take to get these alternatives off the ground, and echoes some things we have heard here at TOD:
Although some politicians believe the task of developing the new energy technologies should be left to market forces, many experts disagree. That's not just because it's expensive to get new technology started, but also because government can often take risks that private enterprise won't.

"Most of the modern technology that has been driving the U.S. economy did not come spontaneously from market forces," NYU's Martin Hoffert says, ticking off jet planes, satellite communications, integrated circuits, computers. "The Internet was supported for 20 years by the military and for 10 more years by the National Science Foundation before Wall Street found it."

Without a big push from government, he says, we may be condemned to rely on increasingly dirty fossil fuels as cleaner ones like oil and gas run out, with dire consequences for the climate. "If we don't have a proactive energy policy," he says, "we'll just wind up using coal, then shale, then tar sands, and it will be a continually diminishing return, and eventually our civilization will collapse. But it doesn't have to end that way. We have a choice."
Technorati Tags: , ,

I got my copy yesterday. I appreciated their cautionary words on hydrogen.

... on another level, I really think National Geographic is taking it as their mission to challenge (if I may be so bold) Red State Consensual Reality.

Is there any good analysis that supports the contention that shrinking oil supplies are going to drastically cut back the availability of chemical fertilizers or is this just a wife’s tale?

I don't have any evidence one way or the other. However, the argument is repeated as gospel and I haven’t seen any documentation. I understand why it makes sense intuitively, but also have some reasons for doubt.

Firstly, you have to look long and hard at a petrochemical industry flowchart to find fertilizer. When you do, you see it is made from urea, which comes from ammonia, which is largely a byproduct of other processes. Fertilizer appears to be the only commercial use of ammonia. It also seems that the source of much of the ammonia is from natural gas. While gas may also peak someday, there appears to be quite a lot in the short-term and exploration has not been nearly as complete as it has been for oil.

Petrochemicals that are produced from petroleum come from Naptha, which is fraction of crude oil that is lighter than gasoline. Since petrochemicals compete in nonenergy markets, their prices are not as closely tied to overall energy prices. Many petrochemical prices rise and fall more with demand and the capacity levels of existing petrochemical refineries, which are not facing the same shortage as oil refineries. A similar situation exists for hydrogen, for example. In industrial uses hydrogen only needs to be cheaper than any substitute, so is commonly used. However, to be used as a source of energy, it needs to compete in energy markets, which it can not currently do.

Finally, there are other sources of ammonia, which used to be widely used. However with the easy availability of cheap ammonia from oil, they were rendered non-competitive. At some point, prices will rise and these sources will be viable again.

I don’t doubt that over time dwindling oil supplies will put some price pressure on petroleum-derived fertilizers. But will this lead to an increase of food prices at a level of 1%, 5%, or much more as the peak oil community seems to assume.

I know a lot of you have thought about this more than I have. I look forward to your feedback.

I have to pipe up that all of the calculations concerning the area required for solar conversion assumes that the efficiency of the devices remains roughly where it is today. That is not a good assumption and really sells us short. (It means you can pick a state much smaller than Vermont!) We will soon be approaching the 50% efficiency level in the laboratory and it is not unreasonable to assume that with a concerted effort we could have a viable technology out there that is at least twice as efficient as what is currently available.

Here's an item about Yemenies rioting over fuel cost increases, http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/BD09A401-9E2D-4D7C-ABCC-7F024C0A2...

"Nuclear: We have only enough cheap uranium to last 50 years. Reprocessing could stretch out the supply, but generates plutonium and there is concern that it will get into the wrong hands."

"Stretch out the supply" in this case means "increase by two orders of magnitude" (60% natural uranium utilization vs. 0.6% for non-breeding reactors); this not the usual barrel-bottom-scraping sense of "stretch out" we usually expect.

Let's put it to a public vote: "Invest in eliminating the risk of plutonium diversion" or "live in Kunstler's shiver-in-the-dark dystopia" and see which gets more support.

And then when the uranium runs out there's always thorium, which always seems to be overlooked as a post-fossil power source, and I have no idea why.

BTW, speaking of Kunstler, his latest "eyesore of the month" shows off his persuasive skills at their unhinged, spittle-flecked best:


Being no nuclear expert at all...AT ALL!..I have read that fast breeder reactors require two new installations besides a uranium processor and a study by MIT does not foresee viable breeder reactors for 3 decades...thorium is mentioned quite a lot by nuclear power but there seem to be real problems with that too...type in 'nuclear power primer Storm van Leeuwen' and you should get the document I've been alluding to...for a laymen it is almost impossible to get accurate info on the fuels that are supposed to help get us through PO...how many different analyses of coal, uranium, solar etc. are we supposed to read to make a judgement ? As far as I can see the safest route is to conserve energy, reduce population, forget growth, localise as much as possible, simplify the economy, learn to love each other (!)...the last point is the only one I can see happening easily any time soon!
I love you guys!

Forget growth? Not under capitalism! Well, at least, not with interest bearing money systems financing that capitalism. Growth is required to pay back the interest. Am I wrong???

Pinchy - you are spot-on dude!

Philip Martin - my nuclear enginering professor went into the whole reactor thing with me one night, but we were drinking, so it was kind of a blur. But the gist of it is that once you have a sufficient number of reactors, you can make enough fuel to keep them powered. Yes, it does require additional operations that a straight-ahead uranium system does not, but it does take nuclear off the non-renewable list. It does not decrease the number of reactors required to replace all petroleum based generating systems, so that is still an issue, along with cost and the plutonium itself.

FWIW, I think this could be part of a larger energy strategy, but is not our energy panacea.

Jack - I personally do no think it is the pesticides and insecticides that are going to be the problem. I think it is what Kunstler talks about - the "2000-mile-salad", that is the issue. Fertilizer can be made other ways, organic can be used as well. PROPER gm technology could help (targeted at YIELDS rather than RESISTANCE). If you look around cities, land cost is currently too high for farmers to "buy-in" and make economics. They are far removed from their customers, and this is the big issue. When oil is $200/bbl, a tractor will still be a more viable tool than oxen, and worth the fuel cost. But farming will have to change to reflect the economic picture. Subsidies for NOT GROWING need to be killed off, and other changes will have to be made.

And LISTEN to SW - he does PV for his living!! If he says they are getting better faster, then it is probably just a change in manufacturing process or materials that will need to happen to make PV more efficient. And that can happen fast.

I think we will have to fall back on coal unless there is some kind of government push - it is too easy a way out, even with the environmental consequences. But long term, energy sources will have to become adaptive. Regions will have to balance several types of energy sources (nuclear, coal, geothermal, solar, wind, hydro, wave, etc.) based on their availability and efficiency geographically. We can switch to electric if we feed all of these into the existing grid and more if we improve our national grid.

But this will be difficult to do with everybody promoting and fighting their pet projects with the DOE. And federal siolutions are typically simple - nothing else can get sufficient backing to get through our idiot congress. So my guess is that the feds will have a go at their "one-source-panacea" technology, and when it fails, local regions will adapt on their own, maybe even breaking off from the national electric grid to avoid blackouts.



Breeder reactors (plus processing steps) cost more than once-through reactors, in both capital equipment and operating costs. The reason why "a study by MIT does not foresee viable breeder reactors for 3 decades" is that there is enough cheap uranium lying around that it will be at least that long before the cost of raw fuel exceeds the cost of reprocessed ("bred") fuel.

It's purely a matter of economics. Another way to look at it is that we have around 30 years left of really, really cheap nuclear fuel before we have to transition to somewhat cheap nuclear fuel which will then last for hundreds of years beyond that.

Re: Kunstler's Eyesore:

Freedom tower! We note without irony and with a nod to Freud that the West's response to the 9/11 attack is to build the world's largest phallus. 8)

I've only been reading TOD for a short time, but there's one possible energy source that I haven't seen mentioned.

Solar-Power Satellites

Wait before you scoff! I know, they were a big deal in the 70's until further analysis and the economic realities of our space program showed they couldn't compete with terrestrial PV. That's still true, but there's a looming possibility that could change the economics and make them both more probable and nearer term than nuclear fusion.

A new form of carbon molecule, long hollow cylinders called carbon nanotubes (CNT), was discovered in 1991. Carbon nanotubes are strong the way diamonds are hard (and for much the same reason). In fact, they're so strong that there's a possibility that they could be used to build an amazing thing called a Space Elevator (SE), a cable anchored on the Equator and stretching so far into space (100,000 km) that it's held up and taut by centrifugal force from the Earth's rotation. Truck-sized vehicles called climbers would be able to pull themselves up that cable and deliver cargo to geosynchronous orbit for at least 100 and possibly 1000 times less than the current cost using rockets.

We don't know yet if we can make a CNT cable strong enough; theory says that the individual molecules are about five times as strong as we need, but we don't know if we can make them into a cable that retains enough of that strength. The way to create a cable might never be found, or it might be discovered tomorrow.

If we do find it, a fairly detailed engineering study done with NASA funding shows that we'll be able to build an SE in about five years for about $6-10 billion. (8% of NASA’s budget for that period; Bill Gates or Paul Allen could do it by writing a check.) With space elevators in place (you need more than one because there are a number of dangers that could sever them; the second one would cost $2-4B), a substantial manned mission to Mars could be mounted for less than a billion dollars. Universities could send unmanned probes to Jupiter. Boy Scout troupes could send up satellites the size of the original Sputnik.

More important for this forum, SEs would bring down the cost of SPS; the original proposals were dominated by the cost of getting all that mass into space. It's not outside the realm of possibility that we could have the first SE up in ten years, and the first SPS beaming down gigawatts five years after that.

Or maybe never. The big unknown is our ability to make CNT cables strong and light enough. (We need a strength of at least 63 gigapascals at a weight of 1330 kg/m³). A graduate student could discover how to do that tomorrow, or a billion-dollar research program could take two decades and fail. I'd take bets at 2:1 that we'll succeed within ten years, but maybe not at 3:1.

Another possibility with the SE: there's a lot of hydrogen up there, most of it not combined with other elements like oxygen. An SE in the shape of a tube might make it possible to pipe H2 down to Earth. This H2 would be an energy source, not just a transport mechanism, plus we could probably recover a fair amount of the kinetic energy of that gas falling 36,000 km.



http://www.liftport.com/files/521Edwards.pdf (2.7MB)



Bob -

OK - it's a great idea, but we have 10 years at the outside. It took that long to get a man on the moon. With the real possibility of 5 years until crunch time for petroleum, is this really something to consider? CNT is simply not ready for primetime - you can count the number of engineers experimenting on this with two hands. Note this key word: experimenting. This is a FAR, FAR cry from production of CNT "bucky-cables" or other such massive structures.

To keep things real, when was the last time NASA delivered anything on time? Or on-budget?

Peak Oil is not some little bump in the road - it has implications far into our future, especially with respect to space travel.

Bob, I don't want to rain on your parade, but this is something that is not going to happen under the current political system - they cannot even balance a budget unless they have a pay raise included within it...and then they balance it with non-existent money in the SS fund...

I want there to be a great technical miracle that saves us - we all do. But if you look critically at every one of the emerging technologies that might, you will shortly see that they will never come to fruition in the time we have, especially under escalating fuel costs, associated economic slumpage, and other energy problems already manifesting themselves within society.


I agree with everything you say. There's no way I'd think it possible or even desirable that NASA or the US government would build the first SE; that's why I included that comment about Gates or Allan being able to do it by writing a check. Maybe Australia, or Singapore, or Qatar, if we must have a government involved. We'd need the services of the current space programs for just a half-dozen or fewer launches to LEO -- Delta IV Heavy, Ariane 5, or Long March 2F -- and then we'd be able to finish the initial deployment independent of any particular government or interest group. After that, we use SEs to build new SEs.

I'm also assuming that, yes, "peak oil isn't some little bump in the road." It certainly isn't "little," but neither does it have the abruptness of "bump." My understanding is that PE is going to come on us gradually (has long since started coming on us gradually) and will get worse over decades, not months or years. We will, probably, have time to put the SEs and SPSs up if we figure out how to make the cable soon enough (and there are rather more people working on CNT than you seem to think, though I'd agree that most of them are chemists and materials scientists, not engineers).

Finally, energy from space is a long-term solution to the fact that energy demand will increase as long as the population of the planet continues to increase and the world-wide standard of living continues to rise. We'll need it in 2050 even if we solve the more immediate problems brought on by peak oil. (Unfortunately, I'll be 105 that year.)

Bob -

I still don't think you're "getting it" in terms of Peak Oil.

I do not think your proposal is something that will happen in anything other than an exponentially growing world economy.

If you do not agree with the above statement, then you can stop reading right here.

Chemists and scientists never got man on the moon - engineers did. You are easily several decades away from anything resembling commerciality or a mega-structure such as you describe.

In short, while I too dream starry techno-visions of man in space, the reality is much messier. As oil depletion slows world growth and contracts economies, this will simply never happen. This type of long-range endeavor is always the first to get cut when the money gets tight. Nobody cares a wit about CNT if they cannot get to work for lack of gas and no other transport available. They become worried about feeding their kids.

The first thing you learn when you have money is how to hang on to it...this would require a multi-billionaire with no heirs, ultimate regard for the species, utter selfless-ness, and no Board of Directors. Howard Hughes might have tried it, but the world hasn't seen a man like that in half a century. And the chances of that type man becoming a billionaire are miniscule.

Of course, I would love to be wrong....


Perhaps there are other in-development systems that will be more fruitful near term than a space elevator system. We could focus our efforts on getting algae to produce hyrogen gas or hydrocarbon gasses using solar energy. We could work on getting PV systems closer to 100% efficiency right here on earth. We could get that whole sonofusion/bubble-cavitation dealo going. And I'm sure theres other ways of getting energy that are simpler than space based PV via a space-elevator which are equally not-near-term-useable.

What we really need is something that is not centralized and which every-day-people can use for energy. If the population of this planet cannot sustain itself without massive centrailization of resources then the population needs to crash. With space based PV, am I still going to have to pay a utility company, or will there be public hotspots that anyone can tap into for the juice at no cost?

How much of an increase, and how fast can we expect the price of oil to surge on that day when demand finally outstrips supply? If it is a significant increase then there will surely be a very large and abrupt 'bump' in the road of the oil based economy that would be felt by everyone in many ways.

You are easily several decades away from ... a mega-structure such as you describe.

Is it possible you're thinking of the monster things described in science fiction? Beanstalks the diameter of a sequoia? The initial space elevator will mass (not "weigh," because most of it is up where gravity is tiny) about 20 tons. When it goes into production use, it will be capable of lifting a 6 ton payload (total lifting vehicle 10 tons) to GEO once a day, and will have a total mass of 800 tons. That's not a mega-structure.

The first thing you learn when you have money is how to hang on to it...this would require a multi-billionaire with no heirs, ultimate regard for the species, utter selfless-ness, and no Board of Directors.

Bill Gates has given away $28B, three times the highest estimated cost of developing an SE. Eight American billionaires have given away more than $10B (each). For a national government, be it Japan or Singapore, $10B over 5 years is a rounding error.

Chemists and scientists never got man on the moon - engineers did.

Whoa, I see why you posted anonymously. I know some chemists and scientists who worked on Apollo and are still spry enough to slap you around for that.


I'm not suggesting SPS as a replacement for all the other energy development work; certainly we can work on all of them, including the space elevator.

With space based PV, am I still going to have to pay a utility company, or will there be public hotspots that anyone can tap into for the juice at no cost?

Well, there'll probably be rectennae near major cities, using about a square mile of ground/ocean surface. "At no cost" seems pretty unlikely; in fact, it smacks of the "electricity too cheap to meter" claims of early nuclear. It seems to me that a continuously-available, day/night, windy/calm source of relatively cheap electricity would be something people would pay for.

how fast can we expect the price of oil to surge on that day when demand finally outstrips supply? If it is a significant increase then there will surely be a very large and abrupt 'bump'

OK, this isn't my area of expertise -- that's why I read this blog -- but it's my understanding that that day may have already come and gone. It's not going to be that abrupt; there's a lot of inertia and flexibility in the system. The oil isn't suddenly going to stop, nor will demand exceed supply by 50% over the course of a day (or month or year).

Bob Munck is kidding right? I mean, really...he IS joking around isn't he? What kind of fairy tale is this floating elevator crap and how does it relate to peak oil at all? What is the conductive capacity of these carbon nanotubes? How much raw energy will these orbital PVs generate vs. land based PV? How much of that will be lost in transmission across 100,000 miles of cable to get it back down to the planet? or if your're talking about the microwave beams how much is lost there? after factoring that in does it make sense?

look at the big picture....BIG PICTURE!!!!



Glad you're up on exploring all options. For me, super-cheap/free energy would be something that could change the whole social fabric. I know the oil wont suddenly stop, and while the production peak may have already come and gone (I tend to think we're riding it right now) what could soon happen is that there simply wont be enough to satisfy everyone who wants to buy it. That means that somebody is going to have to do without. The price would probably have to go up a significant amount before anyone becomes willing to forgo their orders. As far as I understand at this point nobody has yet had to do without for their being a lack of oil, and the price is as high as it is because the markets are scared to hell that it will happen soon. Theres a supply cushion of something like 1 million barrels per day right now out of the 84million available. OPEC says it can increase output on a whim but so far havent actually changed their output significantly and despite steady increases in demand, they are still putting out around 30Mbpd as far as I know. They talk about wanting oil to be cheaper but arent doing anything to effect that in terms of actual output - possibly because they no longer have the power as they may have begun their permanent decline.


What is the conductive capacity of these carbon nanotubes?

Don't care. The SE won't be used to carry power. No wire short of a pure superconductor could transmit power across 36,000 km.

How much raw energy will these orbital PVs generate vs. land based PV?

A square meter of photovoltaics in near-Earth space sees 1400 watts of solar energy, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. (In GEO, it is in the Earth's shadow for an hour or two during a five-day period twice a year.)

How much of that will be lost in transmission across 100,000 miles of cable to get it back down to the planet? or if your're talking about the microwave beams how much is lost there?

Current technology would give about 33% efficiency for microwave beaming; anticipated, near-term technology 50% to 67%. Note that a given inefficiency doesn't really "waste" anything; you just put up more photovoltaics, intercepting some sunlight that would otherwise escape into the universe.

after factoring that in does it make sense?

It almost makes sense with current launch costs. With the SE reducing those by a factor of 100, it beats the current cost of conventional fossil fuel plants, but at the expense of having no ongoing fuel costs for the life of the plant and having no pollution. With lunar mining and a lunar-L1 elevator, it's almost too cheap to meter.

Note that the best use of early SPS power is as night-time fill-in, energizing the local rectenna at night when terrestrial PV power is unavailable. In fact, the rectenna area can be used for both because the elements of the receiving antenna block very little visible light. That is, you can put solar cells under the rectenna to provide daytime power, and beam down microwaves at night. There's a proposal to put an SPS in a halo orbit around the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point, where it would have a continuous view of the night-side of the Earth.

Munck -

Well, I guess that Bob has all the space answers, so I got a question.

How long do you think it would take to actually develop the technology and build the SE? Estimates I have seen are 20-30 years away simply due to technical developments required.

You are right - there is a lot of inertia in the energy delivery system. Unfortunately, it is all petroleum inertia, not alternative renewable or sustainable energy inertia. These do not have critical mass enough to even develop inertia today.

You are dead wrong on the flexibility. The preponderance of energy used on this planet is directly derived from petroleum. Less than 15% is from other sources, and those are very recent additions. Switching from coal to natural gas or the converse is not something done with the flick of a switch. And there is absolutely no flexibility in the delivery system of petroleum - one big reason for the price fluctuations you see happening today. At a rate of 84mbd, 8.4mbd is 10%. If you take 10% of the oil used today and remove it from the market, you will see oil broach $125/bbl easily, and you will see riots begin in poorer parts of the world, and massive economic recession everywhere else quickly. Throwing out your "50%" only shows you really do not get the oil situation at all, so please keep reading links and get up to speed.

You are wrong with the idea that demand needs to exceed supply by a wide margin for there to be catastrophic consequences. Indonesia (an OPEC exporter) is already having trouble with domestic delivery of petroleum. Some Carribean and Central American countries are having trouble paying for enough oil to run their generating stations. South America is seeing demonstrations concerning their oil prices. Whether you understand it or not, we are in Iraq due to oil, and no other reason. We are at war for control of access to oil. Democratization and WMD have been revealed as nothing but rationales for the uneducated and uninformed. All this already, and we are not even at the inflation adjusted levels of the OPEC embargo of the 1970's! One has to wonder if you live on the same planet we do.

There is no fall-back source for transportable energy. There is no other readily available (within 10 years and with off-the-shelf technology) alternative as robust as petroleum. This means whatever we switch to will have to be much more heavily developed due to it's innately lower efficiency relative to petroleums energy density. Right now, petroleum is THE ONLY readily transportable energy that is unaffected by weather conditions or other external factors. There is no direct replacement for petroleum - period.

Put up your SE - the current electric grid cannot handle the demands we put on it today. Battery technology is not developed enough to use electricity as a replacement for oil without severely changing social behaviors, further extensive development and exorbitant cost. Fuel cells are also not ready - Ballard Power is a fine example of where we are with that - see their web site. Better yet, ask your NASA buddies how much it would cost to build a fuel cell powered car. Even if your SE works and was built in 15 years, the rest of what we need (storage and infrastructure) to utilize the energy it would provide is simply not ready for prime-time!

Keep blogging - it's great to read about wonderful, logical ideas. Man is not an inherently logical creature, or else we would not be on this blog, as there would be no problem. But do read the core books on resource depletion to grasp why we are concerned, and to get an understanding of how precarious our position really is. Read the earlier posts from a month or two when most every type of alternative energy was discussed and shot down as a true replacement for petroleum. Read the real nature of CURRENT electrical storage options, technology and capacity. Read why hydrogen is nothing but a red herring...

Things are precarious enough that many of us are HOPING for a massive recession to reduce consumption...and then hoping that people do not forget what caused the mess so we can address it while demand is down and we have a breather. You are obviously an intelligent man - read, read, read. But don't leave out the human side of the equation. You will sooner or later snap to why we all feel so trapped and sometimes angry at our predicament. The only way out is probably through a lot of pain and hardship...and putting faith in a long shot such as you describe is a recipe for planetary social disaster.

and BTW - I work at Lockheed Martin, and I stand by my engineering statement.


So you're also the "anonymous" of the 12:26 pm posting?

You spend an awful amount of effort in arguing against my 3-sentence paragraph that starts with "OK, this isn't my area of expertise..." I'm not sure why; in fact, I have the feeling that you aren't really arguing with me much of the time so much as with unseen prior opponents. For example, I've said nothing about transportable energy, batteries, and fuel cells, but you devote several paragraphs to refuting my position on them.

I've been a conservationist since the 60's, for example did some work with Clayborn Pell on mileage standards in the mid 70's. (Also on variants on daylight savings time; Sen. Pell was a bit dotty sometimes.) I've worked for NASA, ESA, NRL, DARPA, and MITRE (and worn out several shift keys). I also worked for LockMart for a short time after they gobbled up my division at Unisys. Boeing does better engineering.

That latter, of course, is a gratuitous statement, much like your put-down of "chemists and scientists." Why be insulting to a whole class of people who have worked hard and made real contributions? No one doubts the importance of engineering, and it's not a competition.

You seem to be actively antagonistic to the space elevator. Why? I know that the big aerospace companies see it as a threat, because it would make obsolete quite a few of their current products, but I'd expect antagonism from management, not from technical people. The SE is peanuts, $10B or so; it's not going to siphon away money that should be spent in other areas. In fact, the development of high-strength CNT materials would have many other important and hyphenated uses, such as bridge-building, light-weight vehicles, ultra-high-speed flywheels, and high-pressure tanks and pipes.

MLM: "There is no direct replacement for petroleum - period."

This is just not true. There is no direct replacement for long-chain hydrocarbons. Petroleum is only one kind of relatively cheap source of long-chain hydrocarbons. Coal, plus some processing, is a somewhat more expensive source, but certainly not "end of the world" more expensive, especially with crude already trading north of $60/barrel.

MLM: "The preponderance of energy used on this planet is directly derived from petroleum. Less than 15% is from other sources, and those are very recent additions."

While oil provides a large part of energy that we use, the number is closer to 40% than the 85% you claim. Coal provides around 28% and is not a recent addition.

sampo: "Bob Munck is kidding right? I mean, really...he IS joking around isn't he? What kind of fairy tale is this floating elevator crap?"

It's hardly a fairy tale. Space elevators are a widely known space engineering idea, and it's something that people are actively working on today. The Elevator 2010 people have a series of space elevator design and implementation contests, resembling the famous X Prize competition, which SpaceShipOne won last year.

I'd also take issue with many of MLM's assertions above, and add cites.

"The preponderance of energy used on this planet is directly derived from petroleum."

Perhaps for the world as a whole, but certainly not for the USA.  The data are here; crude oil accounts for less than 1/4 of the US fossil-fuel total.

The thing which makes petroleum so important is that it runs almost the entire transport network, which isn't capable on running on much else.  Technology changes can alter that, and the US car fleet turns over in roughly 14 years.

"There is no fall-back source for transportable energy. There is no other readily available (within 10 years and with off-the-shelf technology) alternative as robust as petroleum."

Plug-in hybrids are so off-the-shelf they were being built by amateurs 25 years ago; people are talking about commercial conversions of the Prius.  They could substitute electricity for perhaps 30% of most people's gasoline needs today, and more as batteries improve.

The same zinc-air cells tested by Electric Fuel in city buses could run railroads.  You could probably adapt the RR diesels to burn powdered coal slurry; the University of Alaska at Fairbanks tested that in a stationary diesel cogenerator, with apparent positive results.

"the current electric grid cannot handle the demands we put on it today."

Have you looked at the average vs. peak load on the grid?  It's marginal on the peaks, but if you could boost the average from < 50% of peak to 80% you'd really make the utility companies happy because their assets would be producing a lot more steadily.

The last time I checked, the average US electric consumption was about 440 GW compared to generating capacity of 950+ GW.  You'd need around 180 GW to replace all transportation fuel.

"Battery technology is not developed enough to use electricity as a replacement for oil without severely changing social behaviors, further extensive development and exorbitant cost."

You haven't thought about supplementation, I guess.  The majority of most people's driving is short trips, and the average commute is roughly 22 miles.  Making a car that can go 22 miles on electricity is almost trivial; you can do it with lead-acid batteries.  Make the car a hybrid and you can go as far as you want without recharging, but running those first 22 miles a day on electricity can eliminate a huge amount of fuel consumption.

Li-ion cells to make a car go 300 miles cost about $43,000 today.  They're coming down; if they fall in price by 20% a year they'll be $21,500 in 2009 and ~$5000 in 2017.  That's cheap enough and capable enough to completely replace petroleum, and if you leave enough space in the 2009 cars for more batteries you can retrofit them with the 300-mile packs in 2017.  Future-proofing isn't that hard.

"Read why hydrogen is nothing but a red herring."

Read it?  You must be new here; I've been writing it, along with others.