On likely alternatives to conventional oil

David Roberts over at Gristmill questions whether the immediate reaction to increased awareness of the peak will be the development of renewable energy alternatives.

After receiving a letter to the editor explaining a more likely scenario (see post), Roberts sums it up for us:

Environmentalists seem to have a somewhat naive faith that once the concept of peak oil sinks in, people will move -- as though by the force of tides -- to support renewable, decentralized energy.

But why should that be true? A much more natural, predictable reaction would be to push like mad for more drilling and for more coal gasification. Both more drilling and more coal-to-liquid-fuel production would fit better with our existing infrastructure and practices, however environmentally malign they may be.

Despite their prediction for the most likely path of post-peak fuel production, the authors of the letter, Kai M. A. Chan and Hadi Dowlatabadi of the Institute for Resources, Environment & Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, hold out some hope:
"Peak oil" represents not a crisis but a cross-roads. One path leads to energy production methods that are more environmentally destructive, but easier because of our existing infrastructure. The other realizes the promise of renewable alternatives and smart growth. When focused, environmental advocacy has been successful in helping society choose the right path. To do so here, we must recognize that "peak oil" brings both threats and opportunities, and will not alone define the right path. We're still living with a six-century fossil fuels legacy prompted by "peak wood" in the UK; it is time to make sure the path chosen now is more sustainable, socially and environmentally.
When the real energy crunch comes, be it next year or ten years from now, I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that environmental concerns related to energy production and use will go right out the window.  I say this based on my 30+ years of experience in the environmental field. The 'environmental ethic' or whatever you want to call it gets huge amounts of lip service from politicians (after all, who WOULDN'T be for the environment?) but very little long-term commitment, particularly if that involves spending money.  In other words, it is a highly expendable issue.

When the real energy crunch comes, we will of course do what is most expedient to alleviate the problem. And what looks to be most expedient is to ramp up tar sand or coal-to-oil projects ASAP. Even though this is the quick and dirty (very dirty!) solution, it will still be enormously difficult to displace even a relatively small fraction of our current oil consumption.  

One sometimes hear that Nazi Germany successfully went the coal-to-oil route during WW II. Yes, they did, but their production was almost totally devoted to military use and was at a relatively small scale and at a very high price. For instance, in 1940 Germany produced something like 4.25 million metric tons of oil from coal. That works out to an daily average production rate of only 76,000 bpd. Even if production in the later years of the war increased several-fold beyong this level,  the output would only be that of a single average size modern US oil refinery.

Even following the path of least resistance is not going to be any picnic.

I always think of the attitides of people on the East coast during big snowstorms.  Once that mindset sets in, environmental concerns will go right out the window.  I agree with JD that we should keep fighting to prevent environmental stupidity, but once you scratch the surface most folks won't give a shit.  It'll be a tough battle to win.
I have a kookie idea........

It seems logical to harness the energy that so many N. Americans produce while exercise on stationary bikes and stepping machines. What if we were to build exercise machines equipped with generators( linear alternators perhaps ) and stored the energy burned into batteries.  I know it's been done to some degree and would only produce a tiny fraction of the electricity we use, but it would be one tiny pice in the huge puzzle.  The best applications for this electricity would probably be lighting(LED?) and electronics.  I have envisioned wiring a whole health spa this way, but a home personal use model would be much easier to maintain than whole network.......  

What if we had tiny hydro powder generators in skyscrapers that harness the energy of wast water flowing down to the sewer?

I know these are not solution to PO but they might lead to greater efficiency.............

Please pick it apart and tell me why it would not be practical.  

When I was small, my dad used to have an old hand-crank ring generator from a military surplus field telephone, of WWII vintage. He was a radio ham and had lots of such stuff around.

Anyway, and to get to the point, it was a surprise to me how much effort is required to light a 15-watt incandescent bulb. The generator made about 200V p-p at about 10-20 Hz depending on how fast it was cranked. If you put a bulb across the terminals it would suddenly get much harder to crank and the voltage would drop. Granted, I could probably light a 60 watt bulb now, given the right kind of generator on a stationary bicycle. But it's a -lot- of work.

The output of all those sweaty gym dwellers probably wouldn't be enough to keep the lights on at the gym, much less put out on the grid. And waste water is also not particularly energy-dense.

Bottom line is that any devices for collecting this small amount of energy would cost quite a lot, and could be put to better use harnessing, for example, wind power.

The lights in the gym are nothing compared with the ac load. Each person normally puts out 600w of heat, no doubt larger when riding a bike. Then, there are the (hot) showers taken afterwards, and then the ac necessary to cool the shower rooms, etc. Huge net loss. Most can't imagine how much energy it takes to run modern machines.
THink about it like this... Most cars have peak output of at least 100hp, some much larger. Now imagine 100 horses, all expending max energy as they try to pull the car uphill at 30 mph.  Next, imagine feeding the herd, cleaning out the stable, etc.
Back to a light bulb... One horse at full throttle can generate the energy to light around 10 100w bulbs.
Your points are valid, but I still see possibilities for home use.    Advances in efficiency could be used to provide an alternator that would fit the job.   My old landlord use to design and build linear alternators for NASA, Dod, and private firms, and from what he told me, they had very high efficiency.   LED's would probably be a better choice  than incandescent bulbs for such a small source of power.  

I think the biggest hurtles to finding uses for micro power generation, are economics.  So many consumer products are designed to be disposable.  I suppose that makes them cheeper to manufacture.  If products were made to last, we would consume less, but that would not be good for the economy.............

An article summary here reports that Floyd Landis was measured over the entire course of the Tour de France. Average output, 232 watts. During the final time trial, where he finished sixth, 379 watts for 75 minutes. While training, maximum of 649 watts for five seconds. Figure that the average person at the gym comes in way below those figures... I know that the Tour racers average at least twice the velocity that I can manage, and energy goes up as the square of the velocity, so I figure I would be pressed to put out 60 watts for any kind of sustained time.
We could have a new unit of power called the 'metabolic'. Normal air pressure of 14 psi or 101 kilopascals is called an 'atmosphere' which is a little more than 1 bar in metric units. To illustrate the term you might put 2.5 atmospheres of air pressure in your tyre. If say 1 metabolic = 200 watts then a middle class person may burn more than 10 'metabolics' or 2000w in continuous averaged use of food, fuels, electricity and embodied energy depreciation of houses and large items. Seen that way that makes us by far the most wasteful animal that ever lived.
Per-capita use of energy in the USA is about 10 kW, so you'd be closer to 50 "metabolics".

OTOH, the choice of reference is problematic.  Do you pick an athlete or a couch potato?

And in a dark room a 7W nightlight bulb puts out a lot of light.  Around the holidays we often have a single 7W bulb in a couple of windows in a room - once your eyes adjust, it's surprisingly bright.  Imagine what someone from the 1800's would have thought of a 7W bulb!  My point being that we need to consider revising our expectations of power use - and we have the advantage of things like compact fluorescent bulbs.  For like 15W I get 60W equivalent of light.  

BTW - the 6 pack of these bulbs at Home Depot is quite a deal at under $10.  The color temp is pretty good too, and they start a little slow when cold, which is nice in the morning!  I've got at least 24 of them now, too bad they don't have any that fit in the small-base candle sockets of that brightness.

They have ones that will fit candle bulb sockets where I live. I got mine at IKEA. They're more expensive than the regular compact fluorescents though, and they don't look anything like candles.
In the 1973 movie Soylent Green, it appears there was a bicycle that was used to charge up some batteries to power their lights and TV...

Another conservation idea that would create jobs and cut down on waste.......

I have been dumpster-diving for years, and some of the best spoils come out of renovation and construction site dumpsters.  The amount of nails, screws, steel pipe, aluminum, and copper wire I find in the garbage is amazing, and sickening at the same time.  Jobs could be created to collect these items and prevent them from ending up in the land fill.  I use much of what I find for art or I give away what I collect to folks who have a use for it.  There is no excuse for such wast.  I know it is cheeper in the short term to haul it away instead of paying someone to re-cycle it, but when you think about the energy expended mining, refining, and manufacturing these products, it makes a lot more sense to re-use them.......  Conservation of the resources we have is a vital part of reducing energy consumption.  

Recycling, on the other hand, is an excellent idea. One remark I have heard about aluminum is that it is "congealed electricity" since the reduction process consumes so much electric energy.

Same goes to a lesser extent for copper, steel, plastic, paper, and glass in descending order of importance (by my estimate). A lot of energy was used to create them and recycling doesn't get much attention from the powers that be.

In part, I think it may be lobbying by the extraction industries, but mostly it's cultural.

When we began renovating our little house, my wife couldn't believe that I was reusing nails.  But nails aren't cheap.  We recently removed the plastic bumpers from our chair legs, which I collected in a jar.  She complained to her son, who agreed that we might need them again some day.  I've used old pipe to make closet rods.  Virtually all the trim in the house was carefully removed, scraped, restained and reinstalled somewhere.

BTW, when did Ianqui become Yankee?

Sigh - it's a sickness, and I have it too!  But there is precedent - in earlier times a nail would never have been wasted.  They would burn old stuff just to get the nails out of it.  I'm sure that changed after machine cut nails came about.
'bout a week ago. Just some personal housekeeping changes...sorry I didn't announce it, but I see you all figured it out anyway.
A long time ago, in a Galaxy Far Far Away  I read an Article about recycling That changed how I looked at the act.

 20 years ago we had guys that collected ceratin kinds of scrap metal. Today they keep on collecting that scrap metal even thoough it is in beat up Pickups.

 Here is the problem,  many of the of things we throw away are not totally trash!!

 Dumpster diving has become a survival form for culture.

 Look to other cultures and see what they find!!

I'd be willing to bet that these jobs will come about. But they won't be minimum wage. They'll be the way some people survive. There are already examples of this in poorer societies where entire families live by sifting through the land fills.
They already exist in this country.  Not in the landfills but in the dumpsters.  When I use to make my rounds in Athens, Ohio I would see the same families, filling garbage bags with the beer cans discarded from the fraternity houses....
I know it is cheeper in the short term to haul it away instead of paying someone to re-cycle it...
Copper, aluminum and other scrap are worth money.  So are some whole articles in good condition, like doors.  If people could get separate bins for those and get paid (or rebated) based on the value of their scrap, they might separate things themselves.
Unfortunately, I agree that our approach may not be more environmentally friendly.

Governments are well aware that if change accelerates beyond a certain velocity then real chaos--civil unrest, collapsing governments--may well be the result.  An interesting observation of this problem is stated in:

"International Fuel Prices 2005"


in which the author looks at fuel prices and fuel taxation worldwide.  He notes the effects of sudden rises in fuel costs in undeveloped countries:

"Numerous examples of the past document how such irresponsible behaviour [removing fuel subsidies on or adding fuel taxes] on the part of governments can lead to riots and bloody conflicts - up to and including the government's own overthrow. In some cases, such as Indonesia and Zimbabwe in 1998, popular discontent forced the state to rescind such price hikes.

"It is of particular interest to note that such revolts as a result of opposition to fuel-price rises are
always triggered by the relative increase (often 30 % or more), while the absolute increase
(frequently only a few cents being added to "dirt cheap" fuel prices) plays practically no role at all. This applies especially in Nigeria where fuel-price increases have repeatedly led to rioting, even though fuel had already become - viewed objectively - cheaper than drinking water."

Governments, including those in the West, may not have the time or the will to move rapidly towards alternate energy sources, especially those whose infrastructure is deeply built around oil and coal.  

Changing gears quickly may mean stripping all cogs and losing control.  

Of course, continuing and lengthening our present dependence will only worsen the final conclusion.  Political will looks only to the next election.  

We need to change; the question is how and at what rate?  How do we change the infrastructure--peacably?

In the civilizisal world I am not sure.
Slightly off topic.....

Does anyone know if the strategic reserve is still open and how much was released post-Katrina?


You can check for yourself:

http://www.eia.doe.gov/oil_gas/petroleum/data_publications/weekly_petroleum_status_report/wpsr_histo rical.html

The size of the SPR is listed in each weekly report.

As of last Wed report it was down 16 million barrels compared to pre-Katrina.
We need to change; the question is how and at what rate?
(not to flog this too much, but...) If you have an underutilized piece of infrastructure you can make this far less painful.

The electrical grid appears to be one such piece.

  1. Average US electric consumption is ~450 GW.
  2. Total US nameplate generating capacity is > 950 GW.
  3. Actual power transmitted to wheels from gasoline is < 90 GW.
  4. The grid is very lightly loaded in the wee hours.
Great post.
The most comprehensive and short explanation of the obvious path to be taken I've seen. If we indeed want to have a civilization around after 15-20 years of course...

Now we only have to overcome the societal inertia and the lonely SUV rider stereotype.

Interesting.  Issues off the top of my head:

  1.  How capable of dilivering it reliably is the distribution network?

  2.  The energy generated on a national level is not completely free to move around at will.  

Both of these mean an investment in infrastructure will be required if we attempt to make use of the generating capacity that exists.  Also, most of it is from coal and NG, so what does the capacity look like as depletion of oil and NG put more pressure on coal?
  1. It is the distribution network.

  2. True, but it's completely independent of the petroleum and natural gas distribution systems.
what does the capacity look like as depletion of oil and NG put more pressure on coal?
If necessary, we can burn oil to make up the difference.  This sounds backwards, but if we substitute 55%-efficient combined-cycle plants for 15.9% efficient car drivetrains, we'd need about a third as much even after losses.
I have to agree with Joule and Ianqui on this one: if there is money or expediency at stake, the environment will lose.

Consider another issue of monetary tradeoffs. All things being equal, most people prefer organic foods, and surveys show they would be willing to pay up to 7-10% more for organics. Given that the cost of organic food is far higher than most people's price threshold, it remains a small, niche category.

I'd bet that people would be willing to pay even less of an upcharge for clean renewable energy. Food is high interest, and goes into our bodies; energy we don't even see directly, and it's sort of a grudge purchase.

There is an economics-based approach to public policy that would work: a Pigouvian tax. Simply tax non-renewable or polluting energy sources so they become more expensive than clean energy. Know any policymakers who have the nerve?

If you haven't read about it, UK natural gas prices went crazy last week--up to almost $30 per MMBTU.  This is equivalent to paying $180 per barrel for oil.  Their problem is that their North Sea supplies are collapsing; they are at the end of a long supply chain starting in Siberia; and LNG terminals aren't ready yet in sufficient capacity--and last but not least, it looks like they are facing a very cold winter, perhaps because of a slowing of the Gulf Stream.  Besides that, there appears to be a developing global scramble for LNG supplies.  

Good article on LNG:  http://www.thestandard.com.hk/news_detail.asp?pp_cat=22&art_id=6657&sid=5676324&con_type =1


 In Britain, prices have tripled in a year because of lower output from the North Sea, prompting BP, Europe's biggest oil company, to import cargoes and consumers such as Terra Industries to cut output.

"The globalization of LNG is happening," said Audie Setters, vice president of international marketing and business development at Chevron Global Gas, a unit of Chevron. "Henry Hub prices have become the benchmark not only for Europe but for spot cargoes across the world today."

Natural gas has risen sixfold on the New York Mercantile Exchange since September 2001 and touched a record US$14.75 on October 5.

Consumers have to pay more because the fuel is a priority in cold, developed nations, Shum said. "Heating is a basic need in life, not a luxury."

Great article.  I was especially interested in the comments concerning how price competition is hurting natural gas dependent industries in Spain and South Korea.

Some statistics and projections from SEER on the developing LNG market:
2004 World LNG trade was about 17.2 Bcf/d out of global consumption of 270 Bcf/d - only 6.4%.
Projected US growth is from 1.8 Bcf/d in 2005 to 10 Bcf/d in 2010.

I've read elsewhere that China is planning on adding a similar amount of LNG import capacity by 2010.  Add in the demand increases in the UK and long time customers like South Korea and Japan, and global LNG demand will easily double in the next five years.  In 2000 few IOCs were very interested in developing remote stranded gas reserves for $2/MMbtu.  But prices over $10/MMbtu for months in the US and $30/MMbtu in UK turns heads.

I recall that Goodstein in Out of Gas looked to replacing some of our gasoline/diesel needs with natural gas to diesel conversion.  One of the results of the coming globalization of the natural gas market is that prices will be driven up on a global basis by the US and to a lesser extent the UK (to replace our declining domestic supplies) and by China (to meet surging power generation demand).  So it's not at all clear that natural gas to diesel will be economically enticing until oil prices reach their post-peak heights.  Further muddying prospects, most of the big untapped stranded gas reserves near coastlines also happen to be located in OPEC nations and Russia, places where politics often dominate over economics when it comes to resource development.  The biggest losers are probably the third world countries close to stranded gas reserves that were hoping to use the cheap gas for economic development.

As far as fossil fuel replacement goes the coal to liquids path looks far more economically viable, which provides all the more reason to advocate efficiency and conservation in the transportation sector.  I've said it before:  I'd really prefer to see us follow the path of weak hybrid to strong hybrid to electric car path in order to shift our transportation sector needs to the grid, for which we have a number of options for generating the juice.  The cellulosic ethanol process can be helpful in reducing our oil needs but is not likely to be scaled up to provide more than a small fraction of US transportation energy needs.

I recall that Goodstein in Out of Gas looked to replacing some of our gasoline/diesel needs with natural gas to diesel conversion.  One of the results of the coming globalization of the natural gas market is that prices will be driven up on a global basis by the US and to a lesser extent the UK (to replace our declining domestic supplies) and by China (to meet surging power generation demand).  So it's not at all clear that natural gas to diesel will be economically enticing until oil prices reach their post-peak heights.

Yes, it will be an interesting question to know whether demand for liquids for transportation, or gas for heat, will prove to be the less elastic.

At 80p/liter, 59.4 lbm/gallon and 19110 BTU/lb for diesel fuel, my calculations work out to 20 £/mmBTU; I'm not sure what the exchange rate is, but that looks close to the price of natural gas.   It looks like someone in Britain could buy diesel at government rates, burn it in a stationary engine, and be ahead after offsetting for the electricity.

Co-fuelled (nat gas/oil) diesel cogens charging electric cars would rescue Britain from its current problem... if it had them.

Although I believe the solution has to be a combination of factors, the one item that seems very tantalizing to me has been bio fuels from algae. I've read some very exciting research from Michael Briggs at UNH, which shows a possible output that could replace our current transportation and heating fuels. It seems that there would be a lot more buzz about this idea out there than I find, so I wonder what the 'catch' is? Anyone have some insight?
The most obvious catch which comes to my mind is growing the algae cleanly. Perhaps the algae will be ok if it's not in an otherwise perfectly sterile environment, but I suspect not. Other less productive algae will move in, and possibly diseases will move in.

Also, with many new things coming out, sometimes they were great on a small scale, but once one tries to bring them up to a scale to be useful to a state/province/country, one can't get enough resources, manage everything, etc.

Furthermore, here (one of the first google hits on 'michael-briggs unh') it says that growing the algae in salt water can lead to problems from salt build-up in bonds. I'm not sure if they're saying "rust/corrosion" or if they mean another step to refine the algae into bio diesel. Another point is that the ponds will be most effective in sunny warm locations. Since one doesn't want to use otherwise arable land, deserts seem a great location. Suddenly one has to worry a lot about water evaporation. They state that in the rest of the paper that calculations are based on:

if the remaining challenges are solved (as they will be, with several research groups and companies working towards it, including ours at UNH)
And of course, asserting that the challenges will be solved, and looking for an answer guarantees that they will be solved. Or does it?
I've noticed a string of "coal news" in the last week.

... I think we are seeing action on peak oil, even if not official acknowledgement.

people will [NOT] move -- as though by the force of tides -- to support renewable, decentralized energy.

I have to agree with the GristMeister.
You can see right away on this site that competing solutions instantly come into play: Should we use "biofuels" or "sweaty gymnists" pumping their stairmasters or what?

Like Engineer-Poet, I have to argue that we need to switch to electrically-powered transportation because electricity will be the one common denominator for converting other forms of energy (windmills, hydroelectric, sweaty gymnists, etc.) into a universally usable format. The biggest drawback of electricity is that we have no good way of storing that energy. Oil, gasoline, etc. you see is a great way of chemically storing a dense amount of energy. Unfortunately, it is also a way of generating greenhouse gases (CO2).

I will be switching to electric hot water and heat backup (along with wood), mainly because it represents a common interface.  I cannot afford to upgrade my infrastruture every time the source situation changes.  Let the electric utilities change theirs!  And yes I know what condition the grid is in.

I see a future with a diversity of energy sources, and if that happens we will need a common media like electricity, even if that entails some conversion losses.  Otherwise we will need a large variety of end-use products which will lower volumes and reduce economies.

Building coal gasifiers and coal liquefiers is not what I'd call the quick option.  Large equipment now has delivery times of 3-4 years; billions of dollars must be assembled before anything can be started; and it's questionable that the U.S. now has the engineering and construction talent for a crash program in these things (crash being defined as any more than one at a time).  The gasifiers and F-T units that Montana is looking at will take 6-7 years to come online.

Face it, if peak oil and gas is anytime between now and three years from now, we're going to have to do everything, coal, wind, solar, just to keep up (if that's even possible).  We do not have the capacity to pick just one thing.

Yeah, as much as I like the idea of advance planning to be able to have a more environmental option, I more or less agree with TJ's sentiment here. I don't think we're going to have the luxury to pick and choose (if the world makes it a priority to maintain something like current levels of consumption).
Well, by 'quick' I mean at least a 3-4 year time frame, assuming we have that much time. This would be 'quick' relative to a massive conversion to solar energy, wind, or biofuels of the same equivalent output as large coal gasifiers or coal liquifaction facilities.

 We should also keep in mind that the alternative energy routes don't have an instant energy payback period, so their implementation will actually cause a siginficant additional energy drain that won't be recovered until probably several years of continuous successful operation.

And as pointed out, the coal liquifaction route is highly compatible with the liquid fuel transportation, distribution, and retailing infrastrure.  In other words, it is just as easy to deliver and distribute oil from a coal liquifaction facility as it is to deliver and distribute gasoline from a refinery. The same cannot currently be said for delivering electricity from alternative energy sources to run cars.

Displacing even 1 million bpd of crude oil with the same amount of oil from coal liquifaction or tar sands will require some humongous (and humongously expensive) construction projects.

I will be teaching a class in the spring entitled "Peak Oil and the Ecological EROI of Alternative Fuels". The objective will be to get research published that acknowledges and defines the tradeoffs between energy and the environment. Fischer Tropsh has an EROI of 10-15? But after the coal is cleaned, where will it be - 3? 5? We will have to choose - more energy /more CO2  - the best we can do is have the science in place before the ugly snout of peak oil (or NG) is seen by the decision makers and reactionary decisions are made. I too fear that it will be energy at all costs once first and second energy derivatives are negative
But in this age, if the science doesn't have the answers that the politicos want, then the science is wrong and should be studied by a coal industry group. They will be sure to give an honest answer regarding the coal industry. And definitely unbiased too.
... then the science is wrong ...

Yes. You definitely see it, how the Invisible Hand gently guides our great Lemming herds ever closer to the cliffs.

The free markets free us from our mortal bondage and physical attachment to this wretched planet and its rules of limitation.

Perhaps you could perform an analysis on the Ecological EROI of cellulosic ethanol distilled from agricultural, forestry, and municipal waste? I, for one, would like to hear that comparison with the others you mentioned.

I would hate to see this country resort back to nuclear energy but unless we start coming up with realistic short- and long-term alternatives now, reactors will be back on the table for discussion.

Here is a scenario I would like to see an analysis on. - Solar power using the concentrator-sterling engine method employed by sterling energy systems combined with long distance transmission and storage in lithium ion batteries with similar energy storage characterisitics as the 18650.  It would be good to know the EROI, and the environmental impacts of such a system, as it seems that - if the batteries could store twice as many watt-hours/kg and there is enough lithium in the world - it could almost work
For on-ground energy storage I'd rather suggest flywheel systems.
There are no obvious limitation for building huge ones, and the advantages compared to batteries are enormous.
This is a good idea too, although I wonder how they would fit in.  The wikipedia article said ~130 watt-hour/kilogram, which is comparable to the 18650 battery at ~170 watt-hour/kilogram - maybe new composite fly wheels can spin faster.  I have been folowing the idea of getting solar power during the day (I live in TX) and using local storage for night and vehicles.  The idea of a 300 kilo fly wheel (to give about 50 kwh) and associated vacuum in a house to store enough energy for the night sounds big, but the volume is only 38 liters of steel (density 7.85g/cm3) - maybe something the size of a freezer in the garage?  Shipping costs may be high.
TJ - you are absolutely correct to look at timing as critical in this transition. Add to the timing of technical ability the timing of economic ability. If (as?) we tilt into a recession or worse the sort of investment needed to build these large scale projects will not be as forthcoming. To me, this is one of the largest issues, can we get alternatives in place before the economy turns so sour that they are no longer practicable alternatives?
It's true that people will try to raze the environment to preserve their wasteful car-based lifestyles. But I don't think environmentally-concerned peak oilers should throw in the towel.

For example, I think American environmental peak oilers should fight tooth and nail against opening ANWR, Lease Area 181, and the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) to drilling. ANWR, 181 and the OCS are highly symbolic -- like the last tree on Easter Island -- and  (at the very least) the fight over them is a great opportunity to make a big stink, and educate the public about fossil fuel depletion. It's also a nicely balanced issue, where the peak oilers have a good chance of prevailing. (The U.S. House recently killed a sneaky Republican attempt to open those areas, so the peak oilers do have allies, including mainstream politicians like Roscoe Bartlett).

The question we need to pound the drilling interests with is: "What is the U.S. going to do when ANWR, 181 and the OCS run dry?" If the answer is: "Switch to alternatives", then we should switch to those alternatives now, and save ANWR, 181 and the OCS for later.

I am going to be politically incorrect here and point out some things that advocates of renewable energy sources don't seem to get.  

The whole world is driven to a large degree by the profit motive.  This is especially true of the investing class and other entities that have large amounts of capital for investment.  Surprisingly enough to people who are not investors, people who invest money expect a reasonable return on that investment.  If they invest in something where they could lose their entire investment, they expect a handsome return for accepting that risk.  

One of the most significant reasons, in my humble opinion, why renewable energy sources have had so little penetration into the overall energy mix is that they do not present a good opportunity for investment.  The risk is large, the return is small, and the current opportunities to make LARGE investments in these areas are also small.  

The tar sands in Canada are a good investment opportunity for investors because 1) profit is predicatable under a reasonably wide set of future scenarios 2) the opportunity is to invest is large - billion dollar chunks of capital can be invested in single projects and 3) investors are putting their money down to own a fungible commodity that can be sold worldwide.

Let's compare this to distributed renewable energy like solar or wind.  An investor looks at renewables (especially the distributed-use vision that lots of environmentalists have) and tries to figure out where to invest.  With solar and wind he can't easily own the resource.  So he looks at technology enablers to exploit the resource.  However, there are no obvious front runners, or at least any that seem to have a killer technology that can't be knocked off by the company down the street.  So the investor sits on the sidelines, because there does not seem to be an investment opportunity commensurate with the risk he has to take.

Until this changes, don't expect a large and vibrant renewable energy sector to take off.  This sector cannot grow without investment, and the money will only flow to where the profits are perceived to be.  Right now, to me, this looks like more investments in oil, gas, coal, tar sands, nuclear, etc.

My son on the west coast who is looking for a way to get out of the electronics rat race tells me that renewables are hot with venture capitalists right now.  He also says that solar stirlings seem to have a big buzz, even tho the kinematic stirlings seem to have mean time to failure problems.  That gives free piston stirlings a chance, since NASA has proven they last more or less forever.  The guy down the block will have a hell of a time coming up with something better at the same $. PV will definitely not do it.

Normal people can put out about 100 watts on a bike for hours, Americans however, can only do about 70 because they are too fat and weak from driving instead of walking. A 2000 calorie diet adds up to almost exactly 100 watts steady state, so if you are going to put out 100 watts of energy you had better stuff a lot more fuel in, since people have an overall conversion efficiency of around 20% (people are low temp fuel cells running on highly unrefined fuel like oatmeal).

Linear alternators are  electromagnet things just like rotating alternators and have the very same efficiency perameters.  High efficiency means high cost and weight (relatively), although it is "easy" to make an alternator over 90% efficient- even 95%.

This does appear to be changing.  Check out Cleantech Ventures.
"Not till Exxon owns the sun will alternative energy be possible" goes the old slogan.

Two of the biggest wind and solar companies in the world are
GE which bought Enron wind and
Shell which bought Siemens solar.  

Kyocera is a solar investment too.

None of those are pure investments in alternative energy, they are big though.
It is often cheaper to buy a new idea than develop it. Big companies buy up trail blazing smaller companies. The new energy companies of tomorrow will probably have names familiar today.  

There are few Mahatma Gandhis in business or governments. Bubba is right in that there is risk. Investing in alternatives to the extractive energy economy should compensate for the risks but usually offers no immediate benefits. Big money sees little profit in blazing an alternative future, when there is still money to be made in the old energy paradigm; let somebody else do it. That is the fatal (possibly for the mass of humanity) flaw in rule by markets, but theoretically corporations can live forever.

What we are talking here is in the realm of venture capitalism, a very high risk highly compensated subset of investment.  None of the forgoing should prevent us from doing the research and placing our bets on an alternative future however, even if it is just buying one product over another..

The two solar pure plays that have been receiving the most attention here in the US lately are Evergreen Solar (ESLR) and SunPower (SPWR).  Neither are currently profitably but both are seeing strong revenue growth.  Both use traditional polysilicon wafer technology, although SunPower uses specialty antireflection coatings to boost efficiency - they recently claimed 23% for an off-the-shelf product.  These guys are ants walking in the fields of giants and there is a lot of new revolutionary technology in the pipeline, so exercise much caution if contemplating an investment.

There is a stable full of VC funded solar power companies in the works, so we could see a fair number of thin-film / nano particle coating solar cell companies and stirling engine companies come public in the next several years.

The little acorn of today is the mighty oak of tomorrow.
or more likely ... the never matured seedling in the vulture capitalist's dump (having never grown into an oak)
It may seem daunting at best to turn the corner on fossil fuels and begin a new paradigm of renewable energy, but the right "killer ap" in any field tends to find endless market, investment, and manpower. Brazil provides a good model for an energy economy that is, for all intents and purposes, fossil fuel energy independent using sugar fermented ethanol. It took them 30 years - we can phase in a cleaner solution quicker.

The best answer to fossil fuels is cellulosic ethanol made from gasified urban, forestry, and agricultural waste - feedstock that is universally available. The process is efficient, cheap, clean, and it would solve or reduce many environmental problems (landfills, sewage, rice straw disposal, greenhouse gases, smog, oil spills, LNG explosions, etc.). Ethanol can be gradually phased in to replace gasoline through blending (10% of gasoline without retooling cars) and through sales of more flex-fuel conversions to existing vehicle models (as has occured in Brazil - 100% of new cars will be flex-fuel by 2007).

The U.S. has begun... 2% of our automobile fuel is ethanol (5.7% blended with gasoline as a mandated oxygenate in California). 85 plants are distilling ethanol stateside (using inefficient sugar fermentation of corn). Los Angeles has a proposal for 6 cellulosic waste conversion plants to replace their landfills. All could produce ethanol and green electricity.

The technology exists but investment has to wait for state regulations (like California AB 1090) to lift obstructions to the opportunity. If you are a Californian, please support AB 1090.

Using Patzeks methodology of including ALL energetic inputs, what is the EROI of cellulosic ethanol? A big assumption would probably be what is defined as 'waste'?
Whatever the EROEI for cellulosic ethanol, it is probably significantly better than that of ethanol from corn.  As you probably know, these energy input/output analyses can be quite tricky and subject to controversy, largely due to disagreements as to where to draw the envelope and how much energy credits or debits should be given to byproducts and wastes. There is a good deal of value judgement imbedded in the various assumptions used.

Though I haven't looked into the subject lately, when I did quite a few years ago, the net energy output of ethanol from corn looked to be somewhat disappointing, though I understand many improvements have since been made.

Probably the most attractive feature of cellulosic ethanol is that  it makes use of otherwise low-value plants and thus does not (directly) compete with crops for food. This is an extremely important feature, as we don't want to get into the position of having to choose between food and fuel.

For on-site energy use (as opposed to producing a transportable fuel), direct biomass gasification appears to have some attractive features, and is also relatively low-tech. I understand that in Sweden during WW II, some people actually attached little wood gasifiers to their cars. Though the performance was awful, and the engines gummed up frequently and became damaged, people were still able to get from here to there in a crude sort of fashion.

Wood gasification in automobiles was done in Finland, too. It's actually still done, although very rarely, by tinkerers who want to learn about old technology. It's actually even legal to do it (for old cars that don't have to comply with exhaust regulations).

As a comparison, it's illegal to use biodiesel in Finland unless you pay extra tax for using tax-free fuel - or pay the fuel taxes for the biodiesel itself, so that it becomes taxed fuel. The Finnish government has repeatedly refused lower the taxes for biofuels (for now they're considered the same as fossil fuels), because the legislators are afraid it would lower the total fuel tax revenue.

Indeed, wood gasification was often the only way to get around for the few people lucky enough to even have access to a car in Sweden, Finland, the occupied countries, and even Germany. This is not  surprising really, since it is well known that the Wehrmacht often lacked both fuel and ammunition for much of the war, and civilian needs had a rather low priority under Hitlers "total war" paradigm.

Mercedes with factory fitted gasifier
Not so classy aftermarked model
The classic Källe gasifier (charcoal) interesting read.

According to one official swedish study, in the event of an oil crisis, Sweden could from wood get 150 TWh of energy each year for transportation purposes. This numbers are uncertain, since I don't remember if the 150 TWh was as before or after gasification. Also it didn't say if this meant cutting down on construction and heating, wich is the normal uses for wood. This was said to be a sustainable amount.
If before gasification:
150TWh/y equals appr. 88 mboe/y, 241 kboe/d.
If after gasification, assuming 60% efficiency:
88*0.60=53mboe/y, 145kboe/d.

From the CIA world factbook about Sweden: Oil - consumption: 328,600 bbl/day (2001 est.)

About half of Sweden is covered by forests (skog, skogsmark on the map). This gives a clear picture of the amount of area required for substituting wood gas for oil.   Even Sweden, with 9 million inhabitants, cannot sustain it's current reliance on automobiles, but she is probably closer than most other industrialised countries. Map showing ha forest/per inhabitant for Europe. Substituting wood with coal should be quite easy, but the higher ash content would mean you had to empty the ashcontainer more often, or make it bigger. Running the gasifier on coal the emissions would be greater compared to liquid fuel, but not more hazardous, since the gasification, and the cleaning required for use of the gas in an internal combustion engine, removes all the solids from the exhaust. The exhaust should in fact be about as clean as that of a NG or propane fired vehicle, since the gas mixture out of the gasifier consists of hydrogen, carbon monoxide and a little methane. After combustion in the engine the exhaust gas would consist of water and carbon dioxide, and ofcourse NOX and carbon monoxide like that of any other vehicle. However,since coal usually contains considerable amounts of sulphur, it would be necessary to scrub the sulphur from the gas, or else I don't think it would be very healthy to breath in a city where this kind of vehicle was extensively used. probably centralized gasification and Fischer-Tropsch is better in many cases.

The total number of mobile gasifiers in operation during WWII was estimated to 100,000 in Sweden, 1000,000 worldwide. A whole industry of making the gasifiers and supplying the fuel was ofcourse needed. One interesting thing about gasifiers is that they usually required between 5 and 45 minutes of preparation for the first start in the morning, so using a wood powered car for commuting would not be practical, and most people would probably prefer the conveniance of taking the bus for most trips. If driving was resumed in less than 5 hours the car would start like a gasoline powered car. If liquid fuel by some chance became as scarce as in wartime Europe, public transportation seems like a good investment.

Hey!  Sweden is the home of stirling engines,   They run great on pellets and such like biomass,  And a pellet burner starts in seconds, and burns cleanly and under perfect control at all times.  So why not a pellet stirling hybrid?  Tell it to Volvo.
Jaha -

That information about gasifiers for autos in Sweden during WW II was most interesting!  I knew they had some, but was quite surprised to see that there were an estimated 100,000.   While a wood-fueled auto gasifier has some obvious limitations, it just goes to show what you can do in a crisis situation. I have always admired the resoucefulness of the Scandanavians.

Many years ago I tried to build a small crude gasifier just for the hell of it. It didn't work too well, but if was fun playing around with it and it gave me a feel for what problems are involved in making a gasifier work. As I said in a previous post, it is certainly not high-tech.  However, like most superficially simple things, it takes quite a bit of knowhow and experimentation to get it right.

I'm sure there's an abundance of technical literature now available on biomass gasification. I just might start looking into it again.

I haven't run the EROI model you refer to but I attended a hearing last week in L.A. and Professor William Welch of UC Riverside CE-CERT, whose job it is to measure emissions from factories and vehicles for the watchdog agencies, testified that the conversion processes not only didn't emit very much dioxins, VOCs or NOx but a toxic truck run to the landfill from the sorting site is eliminated.

Also consider that there is no energy cost in waste - it exists as a biproduct of other human activity. Anything productive we can do with it is a net gain and you shouldn't count the energy used to produce it. Plus what is the energy cost of waste that isn't fully recycled?

BRI Energy (brienergy.com) claims that their conversion process uses up less energy than it generates in electricity and ethanol.

People as diverse as James Woolsey and Ed Begley, Jr. both support legislation to R&D conversion technologies for the production of cellulosic ethanol.

Using waste is not a good idea to counter energy crunch. It is sensible as such, as waste disposal, but the point is that generating and transporting waste requires a lot of energy. In a society with less energy there will be less waste.

Biodiesel from corn or wood gasification is a very bad idea. They have useally been used in a crisis situation, when there ahve not been any other alternatives. But we are not running out of oil or energy, there will just be less and less of it. The EROEI is not very good so the net benefit is limited. Besides wood is better used as raw material substituting energy intemsive ones, as cement. More expensive farm inputs (fuel, fertilizers, pesticides) will lead to smaller crops - there will be no surplus of corn, on the contrary, all will be needed as food.

Using subsidized biodesel in a society that already uses very much energy will only lead to more overall energy use, not to conservation. Even if the EROEI of biodiesel or other biofuel should be positive, it needs investments and distribution network - ie. more energy. It will enable driving more miles than by oil alone - and thus causing more car production, repair, road maintenance, tyre production and so on. Biofuels are mostly agricultural policy, not environmental or energy policy.

I would not recommend anybody to switch to wood, corn or electricity in heating. The energy prices will level out. Switching from gas furnace to electricity makes only things worse, because so much electricity is generated by gas, but only with more energy losses. The most sensible solution would be to learn live with lower heat. Better insulation, letting some rooms unheated, having more clothes on indoors. This is how they did before the fossile fuels.

The point is, we cannot avoid energy crisis just by switching energy source. We will have less energy and the challenge is to live with less of it.  


Like it or not, China and India will emerge with robust industrial development competing briskly for existing reserves of fossil fuels. Stemming demand for fossil fuels or turning back the cultural clock (your "society with less energy") is not a realistic option - no matter how desireable the ideal, population growth and consequent market demand will trump any conservation education achievement.

Generating waste requires no net new energy to the cost of conversion - because waste will exist no matter what you do with it. Transporting it already happens - the question is do you transport it once (to the sorting/conversion site) or twice (to the sorting site and then to the landfill). Furthermore, communities pay tipping fees for landfills that they won't have to pay for conversion sites - plus they can earn tax income on the products generated - green electricity and fuels. Win-win-win.

I would think environmentalists would embrace a waste-to-clean fuel and electricity solution. The possibility that it would reduce pollution and foreign dependence on fossil fuels should make it irresistable - at least for R&D investment purposes. We need to try many options - conversion technologies represent no risk.

At some point population growth will not only stop, it will reverse, based on available resources. Your assumption that it can forever go only one direction and in an exponential curve at the same time is mind-boggling. It may or may not stop this century but the larger the human population grows, the more likely the dieoff will be more spectacular. Population growth, in fact "growth" in general, is the core cause of most of our problems.
Hence the "cold logic" of ASPO's admittedly Draconian population reduction scheme.

I took a few courses on preindustrial society in college, and one of the things that struck me was that not everyone expected to marry and have children. Some simply had no more prospects than living in someone else's household.  n our romantic culture, marriage and children is almost a given for everyone.  

After reading all the broughaha about taxing or not taxing gasoline, SUVs, fuel-efficient cars, etc., I wonder how long it will take to stop considering children to be tax deductions. IOW, address population overshoot by sending the message that you procreate at your own expense.

Having raised a pair of successful adults since their birth I found the tax advantage to be trivial compared to the total costs.
Of course, but the message is that every US citizen deserves a tax break for having more kids.  Given that population is the source of so many problems, that message should change.
I don't know too many people who have even considered the tax break when thinking about children, so I doubt it would have much effect on the population growth.  I do agree population is a problem, but it is to our advantage that those kids who are born are raised into healthy, productive, eduacated adults.  Preferably trained in something useful!  Making it finacially more difficult won't help this.
If we don't think a tax break for additional children is a problem, how can we complain about the tax break for SUVs?

I have nothing against children, I have two of my own, but if we agree that exponential population growth is the root problem of energy depletion, climate change, etc., we have to slow it down.  I would rather not be as severe as China's one-child-only policy or the ASPO tract that JD cited, but some message must be sent, or severity will be forced upon us.  

Conservation education is not important - we are speaking about the decreasing supply of energy. The energy use will decrease globally in the future no matter what. Energy consumption is still growing, but quite likely only for only few years more, so conservation efforts now will not help much. But some skill is needed to cope the new situation without too many problems.

Making gas or fuel from waste is rather good way of waste disposal. No problem with that. But it will not help much to counter the diminishing energy suppy. In a low-energy society there is not much waste to make energy from. The present level of waste is just a consequence of high energy consumption. Waste with high energy content is a sign of wasteful primary use of energy.

When the Peak Oil comes, I expect to see a rush of interest and investment in all kind of biofuels. But most likely this interest will wane as the costs rise. The rising costs reflect the more expensive energy inputs in producing and processing biofuels and the vanishing base of suitable raw materials. Biofuels are more costly than oil-based fuels today because of the input and investment costs. The rising oil and energy prices will not make them more profitable because the inputs will be more expensive, too. Subsidies will not change the basic problem here.

I think everybody will understand that burning corn or using ethanol as a car fuel has no future in a post-peak world. Building infrastructure for this now will only make things worse, because the energy used for this will be mostly wasted.

I think there is a distinction between the biofuels mentioned in these articles (renewable fuels fermented or otherwise derived from crops and forests) vs. the fuels I am referring to that are derived from conversion of waste streams (sewage, MSW, agricultural waste like rice straw and corn stover, diseased trees, construction and demolition wastes like New Orleans). Waste reduction is a significant achievement that would release more agricultural and forestry capacity not reduce it.
Thanks for the links. You can access mine at http://bioconversion.blogspot.com.

There was an interesting article in the paper yesterday about corn stoves.  


Essentially like a wood stove, except that it burns corn kernels.  Pellet stoves are quite similar - these burn little pellets of wood made from sawdust.

The advantages of these types of stoves over a regular wood stove is that it is possible to regulate heat by controlling the amount of fuel being injected.  A simple auger connected to a thermostat is all it takes.

The thing that was interesting was that demand has been so strong for these things, that if you ordered now, you wouldn't get it until spring.  They were anticipating that by the end of the year, the backlog will be one year.

These things aren't perfect - there is smoke going up the chimney, but it is a renewable fuel, and certainly better than making heating oil from tar sands.

I guess my take on the broader question is that a lot of the people I talk to feel this need to get 'off of oil'.  The problem is that they still don't have a good sense what they should be doing differently.  Almost like they are waiting for national leaders to set a new direction.  

Oil from tar sands isn't really going to be hugely popular - it doesn't do squat to help with global warming.  I have to wonder about whether these tar sand things are ever going to be economically viable - the cost of natural gas is going to  become a killer.

Thanks to monitoring TOD, we got our pellet stove just before the rush.  We can mix in 50% corn or wheat.  I expect that pellets will get more expensive, but there you go.  I actually felt the need to get off of natural gas.  Next, we get an electric water heater and cut off the gas service altogether.

I was thinking of going the geothermal heat pump route myself, but I am just starting to do my research on the thing.

When I bought my house, the only fireplace options were for gas, and I took a pass.  The elephant in the room is the gas furnace, but I am in a middle townhouse, and my gas usage hasn't been huge in previous winters.  It really comes down to a question of how much an appropriately sized unit would cost me.

In terms of water heater, I would be tempted to go electric tankless myself.

I would still have a gas stove though.  I really hate cooking on electric, but it would be hard to justify a gas connection for just a stove.

You can order a pellet/corn fireplace insert, although it might take a while to arrive.  

About six years ago, a local pizza place filled up w/NG overnight, exploded and was completely destroyed in the wee hours of the morning.  A few years later, a house in the area did the same.  Then I read that Kunstler article about low gas pressure.  So we're not going to miss using gas.

I looked at tankless units and half of them said for "one sink only," so I'm not sure if I can connect one to all our fixtures.

Combustion is part of the problem - not the solution. Most of the dioxins that we associate with pollution come from combustion. In hearings concerning the acceptability of gasification and pyrolysis as ways of disposing of waste, the Luddites always try to blur the line between these new technologies and combustion. The data proves that gasification provides a safe, virtually toxic emission free method of reducing waste, well within safety standards (5-10% of that allowed).

The dioxins and furans that you can get from combustion depend a lot on what you are actually burning.  Burning plastics seems to be particularly bad.

This being said, I agree that this is really a short-term adaptation.  I am told that mountain valleys in ski areas get unhealthy air quality due to the large number of wood burning stoves.  Actually a lot of it there is probably fireplaces which are generally pretty inefficient.

Regarding CTL, Tar Sands etc as alternatives.  What about the EPR associated with those things?  If Oil EPR is currently around 10:1 and Oil costs ~$60 won't a CTL or Tar Sands EPR of 2-3:1 result in Oil in the $180-$300 barrel range after peak?  What happens to the EPR of CTL and Tar Sands as ore quality erodes, water and NG becomes scarcer etc?  What about the questions of sequestration of CO2 and removal of other pollutants?  
With respect to algae, the problem is one of scale-up. The DOE research was done in small batch reactors. Its easy to sterilise and innoculate a 10 litre container, but production scale requires large lakes of algae. Unfortunately the rest of the ecosystem then cashes in on your fuel/nutrient source. An organism genetically engineered for maximum fuel production is at a natural disadvantage compared to "weed algae" floating into the lake, which are optimised by several billion years of evolution for maximum growth.
Making a sealed photo-reactor is just too expensive at the football stadium scale.
The solution to this problem is to select for algae that have few predators. For instance Dunellia salina lives in brine, and grows to massive quantities without significant predation. Up to 50% of its mass is glycerol which can be burned in a modified diesel engine. There are other options as well.

With respect to cellulosic ethanol, there is some interesting research on direct microbial conversion of cellulose to ethanol using organisms like Clostridium thermocellum and friends. As this field is only a few years old, scale-up hasn't been investigated yet, though estimates put the cost of ethanol  produced this way as cheaper than current gasoline per kilojoule. See
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/entrez/query.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=pubmed&dopt=Abstract&list_ uids=16154338&query_hl=11

Re: "Environmentalists seem to have a somewhat naive faith that once the concept of peak oil sinks in..." Hope?

This is Daniel Yergin.

I hope you know who the other two are.
I agree with GRIST that we will do whatever supports the status quo at the outset. However, if people think NIMBYism hurts the oil patch today, wait until they build a few CTL plants right down the street, and resource companies begin to mine coal more intensively... just the open pits and the tailings from subsurface mining make for some really fun eco-by-products.

What nobody is speaking of is that regardless of which if these technological paths is taken, current driving levels cannot be sustained with liquid fuels. All the numbers I have seen simply do not allow us to continue to consume as we have done going up the curve. As LNG is rapidly pricing itself up towards the stratosphere, one begins to wonder if the Alberta tar sands can handle the extraction costs long term. Not to mention that under NAFTA the Canadians MUST sell us all the NG that we want. They have NG, but even theirs is not an infinite and cheap supply.

If we do not switch to nuclear or massive wind, solar, wave, etc., as well as upgrade the electric grid, then attempting to move personal transport to an electric base is extremely problematic.

Everyone is talking around a simple basic truth - we will stick with what we know, as much as possible. I would throw out Brazil and their ethanol program as a very possible idea. Right now, the government pays farmers for their sugar, stuffs it in warehouses, then has a fire sale at a net loss to support the sugar lobby. Corn has the same thing going on. Yet commercial ethanol plants were turning out product in the early 1980's at $.75-.90 per gallon using sugar and corn as feedstock. Back then it wasn't economical - but today this is a bargain.

Ethanol can be run, shipped and used in todays fleets with minimal effort, similar to biodiesel. In Texas, where I am, 5 counties used to be covered stem to stern in sugar cane crops. Today, Imperial sugar doesn't even operate a mill in nearby Sugarland (yep - home of the famous Tom Delay). The low price of raw sugar from outside the country forces farmers into a no-win scenario, and thus they are paid not to grow.

I realize that there is no single answer, but I do believe that as prices for liquid fuels rise, people will begin to demand change. The path to ethanol is well known, proven, fits into the infrastructure, and was basically destroyed by NAFTA. NAFTA will not be likely to survive high energy costs, so IMO ethanol has a real shot as a replacement without all the infrastructure modifications required by other fuels. It is also incredibly low-tech and efficient, with a profitable waste stream. If we use sugar as feedstock, energy inputs are lowered considerably compared to corn. This is what the Brazilians have done. Corn farmers could switch to beets in the colder areas of the country too.

The big caveat here is that our liquid fuel consumption outstrips Brazils considerably. Whatever we do will require us to reduce personal transportation costs. The only way to accomplish this in current society is for gasoline and diesel to become pricey enough to hurt, forcing people into giving up their lifetime driving habits. But then, how do they get to work when real, working mass transit only exists in the northeast?

As we saw earlier in the year, $3.50 a gallon will cause a lot of screaming and fingerpointing, but no reduction in driving. Until the price wave gets much higher, biting into paychecks even deeper, Americans will not take a step down the path we all know we must take.

It is likely that the economy will implode under the next wave of higher prices, before we can switch, reducing demand again at the time we need to be making the move. Prices will drop, and back to business as usual for those still solvent and able. What those insolvent and unable will do at that point is the another really pregnant question...

Economics will force things, but that path is fraught with strife and pain, because it is a very bumpy road in terms of energy costs and demand. As long as the "free market" is king, we will be looking at demand spikes, price spikes, demand destruction, recovery, and repeat again. Money will be looking for the quickest profit, and thus looking at almost anything except the right path to energy self-sufficiency.

There is a way out of this, but it will take someone at the helm of the country who cannot be bought, has a vision for the people, and can show corporate interests where they can make money here instead of elsewhere, and give them incentives to do so. I just don't see that caliber of person among todays leaders, so I think we are in for a rough ride.

Of course, that's just me, thinking out loud again...

real, working mass transit only exists in the northeast

I would submit that even in the northeast it has only spotty coverage.  There's more of it sure, but then there are more people too.  At any rate, in less metropolitan areas there is little or none.  We used to have an extensive rail and trolley system, and IMO we desperately need to rebuild it.  If I had to pick just one project that would be pursued by the gubmint, that would be it.

You will be quite disappointed to learn that the federal government, whilst preaching energy  conservation out of one side of its mouth , is, at the same time, out of the other side of its mouth, trying to destroy AMTRAK as a passenger-carrying entity. Relative to Europe, our rail system is a disgrace.

I have absolutely zero confidence in our government, as far as its ability to be effective in doing anything positive regarding our energy problem. In fact, I would go so far as to say that they are more of the problem than the solution.
To wit: our $200 billion ++ Iraq adventure, which has garnered us a negative net energy gain, not to mention the whole host of other problems that fiasco has visited upon us. Our track record is not good.

Unfortunately I have Zero faith as well.  I write my state and local rep's on a regular basis regarding public transportation issues and energy conservation.  I am always careful to use a moderate tone and point out that it would help in the war on terror.  I have not received any reply.
I agree with you.  And I've gotten quite good at being disappointed these last few years - I'm almost proud of my abilities in this regard anymore!
commercial ethanol plants were turning out product in the early 1980's at $.75-.90 per gallon using sugar and corn as feedstock. Back then it wasn't economical...
It probably isn't today either; the cost of all the inputs has gone up, and even the USDA's best estimate is that it takes 0.6 gallon-equivalent of other fuel to make a gallon of ethanol.  Only the 52¢/gallon subsidy and outmoded oxygenate mandates keep it going.

The EROEI isn't the only useful measure of efficiency however.   Some forms of energy have a small or negative EROEI, but nobody cares because those forms are in a particularly convenient form - flashlight batteries would be an example of this.

WRT ethanol, it isn't always the case that you are directly converting gasoline to ethanol.  Some of the energy inputs are in the form of electricity, and given that a good fraction of electricity in the U.S. is generated by burning coal, you are in effect converting coal into ethanol.  Coal by itself isn't terribly useful for transportation purposes, but ethanol (or any other liquid fuel) is much more useful.

Some of the energy inputs are in forms that could be useful for transportation (natural gas), so the answer won't always be clear-cut.

All this being said, EROEI is still important - if someone can find a way to get a usable liquid fuel that has a higher EROEI than ethanol, then by all means

Heh.  Funny you should close with that line, when I'm on record as believing that liquid fuels are a dead end and we should be converting to electric propulsion as fast as we can.

We can probably convert biomass to electricity about as efficiently as we can turn it into ethanol (and then plant-to-wheels will be around 70% instead of the ICE's 15.9%), and there are many more ways to make electricity than starting with something to burn.

Engineer Poet -

Have you ever grown sugar cane or actually distilled ethanol? Not trying to be argumentative, but the farm inputs are very minimal. Similarly, the cane waste is used for distillation heat, post heavy fermentation.

I'll agree with you on corn, but cane has higher yield, fewer pests, less cultivation issues, and only requires heating (and moderate at that) during distillation. With a little work, even this distillation heating could probably be replaced with solar, which fits in with the typical sugar cane climate.

The subsidy you brought up was for corn ethanol as well, if memory serves me correctly, not cane. Farmers in the Texas panhandle use corn ethanol even today as it is cheaper than gasoline when produced on the farm. Cobs and husks do the heating...

The other big issue is infrastructure - you can flog the electric horse all you want to, but that switch will be very costly and take both time and government intervention. It requires retiring every ICE, killing every gas station, a MASSSIVE upgrade in grid infrastructure and some huge inputs into battery manufacturing. More than any other thing, it would require government to get into the electricity business in one way or another (loans, grants, planning, etc.), and their business record speaks for itself.

Ethanol seems to be more economical, even if it is merely breakeven or a slight net EROEI loss, simply because it doesn't require infrastructure changes. It slips right into the mix - today, not in 5 or 10 years - reduces emissions, is renewable and cheap when processed from the right crop with the right process.

Of course, without overall reduction in driving, no option is viable.


"More than any other thing, it would require government to get into the electricity business in one way or another (loans, grants, planning, etc.), and their business record speaks for itself."

At one point the US had a highly regulated overbuilt grid with excess capacity, right?
Back before competition brought deferred maintenance and success stories like Enron. At one point government herded a pretty reliable utility system; it was the private profits that were dismal.

Yea - they were into power ages ago.

But note exactly what you said - overbuilt.

Governments run exactly the way illustrated in the movie 'Contact' - "Why build one when you can have two at twice the price?"

"Slipping into the mix" is where rubber meets the road for this blog. No short-term solution is acceptable that can't fit the existing infrastructure of transport, fueling stations, and vehicles. No long-term solution is acceptable that can transition from the short-term solution.

Ethanol is the "esperanto" of liquid fuel. It can be blended with gasoline (and is), it can replace gasoline (with slight qualification), and manufacturers can produce flex-fuel versions of their vehicles with very little cost involved.

Ethanol from waste is more efficient and universal than ethanol from single crop distillation (corn or sugar cane). And the heat from the gasification process can generate a surplus of electricity. What's more, the fossil fuels used in fertilizers and moving the crops to distilleries are not a cost factor in waste ethanol since the feedstock already exists and the waste has to be moved anyway.

Someone, please tell me the downside of moving from a fossil fuel economy to a renewable fuel economy (cellulosic ethanol) based on waste conversion.

I agree as well, we need pragmatic solutions now.  We will not be able to replace even a quarter of our transportation fleet with electric vehicles quickly.  And the EVs we are capable of mass-producing now do not have the range performance of the vehicles we have now.  You cannot yet buy a plug-in hybrid either.  The investment in infrastructure would be enormous, and would have to compete with other possible investments, such as revamping the rail system.  I have no doubt that we will have to use fuels with dubious EROEI values in the short term in order to make use of existing infrastructure.  Long term, we can learn to live with fewer vehicles traveling less miles.
Ethanol fermented from sugar (corn and sugar cane) is prone to certain feedstock limitations and problems that affect the price of the final product. It also takes about 36-48 HOURS for the brew to ferment. Since 1976 we have managed to construct 85+ sugar fermentation plants in the U.S. (compared to ZERO new gasoline refineries). In some states 5-10% of the gasoline consists of ethanol due to oxygenation mandates.

I invite you to read up on cellulosic ethanol from http://bioconversion.blogspot.com/. The feedstock is virtually unlimited since its primary resource is waste. It takes about 7 MINUTES for waste to convert to cellulosic ethanol. Emissions are well below state and federal restrictions.

If the next 85 plants could produce ethanol and electricity from wastes (in blue states as well as red), imagine what a positive effect that would have on the environment, foreign imports, employment, and reduction of dependence on fossil fuels.

Currently the federal government, landfill operators, county governments, ethanol plant partnerships, and others are actively investigating conversion technology for the production of liquid renewable energy. Unfortunately there are many reactionary environmentalists and politicians who are standing in the way of investment and development in this risk-free technological breakthrough.

Well, this all sounds great except that there is only a pilot system running. What are the energy inputs like for the gasification process? If it is similar to other gasification operations, then this will be a big loser in terms of EROEI. You can't just look at what comes out at the end - you got to look at what you are putting into each part of the process and then balance the equation.

What pre-process handling, sorting and separation is required? Can this thing be setup locally on small scale or does it require grabage to be trucked to a big central facility? All of this has to be taken into account. From reading about it, you just can't back the average garbage truck load up and dump it into the system.

Everybody is always wanting to tout faster as inherently better - what is actually better is something that has low energy inputs. So what if fermenting sugar takes a couple of days? Once the process is started, it's just a matter of feeding the it continuously. When NG is costing $40-$50, a lot of standard heating operations begin to bloat manufacturing costs quickly.

KISS - "keep it simple, stupid" needs to be the mantra for whatever we do in the face of rising NG and fuel prices. When you try to speed things up and force natural processes, it always seems to cost more energy, which unbalances things in the negative direction.

It makes much more sense from my POV to try and work with nature and natural processes than to force them. Less fossil energy in means better economics out.

The pilot plant is experimenting with blending a variety of feedstock while conducting emissions tests for specific sources of waste. Essentially the system accepts a wide variety of material without sorting beforehand, other than making sure that what is fed into the hopper is not too large to reduce completely.

The waste that will feed the system is already being trucked to distant landfills after sorting so there is no net cost for taking it to the closer processing center - actually it would save trucking charges and emissions.

Regarding the net energy overhead of cellulosic ethanol vs. other liquid energy fuels I refer you to a study by Michael Wang of the Center for Transportation Research of the U. of Chicago ( http://bioconversion.blogspot.com/2005/10/isaf-2005-greenhouse-gas-emission.html ). One of his key finding was that cellulosic ethanol offers much larger energy and GHG emission reduction benefits than corn-based ethanol.

The charts of his study are illuminating. He contends that the fossil energy input per unit of ethanol is lower--0.74 million Btu fossil energy consumed for each 1 million Btu of ethanol delivered, compared to 1.23 million Btu of fossil energy consumed for each million Btu of gasoline delivered.

Another key finding he presented was that ethanol has a positive benefit in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction. On a per gallon basis, corn ethanol reduces GHG emissions by 18% to 29%, while cellulosic ethanol has an even greater benefit with an 85% reduction in GHG emissions.

Don't forget to look at fusion in the mix of alternatives.  The energy crisis is pretty bleak without it.  I would love to see more discussion of fusion now!
So, the energy crisis is pretty bleak.
I think you mean fission? Fusion isn't possible at this time - it's like talking about the new "Warp Drive" for the shuttle...