Energy Independence Starts Now

An interesting piece in OpinionJournal says that until now the big barrier to dumping the Saudis and the other crackpot oil producers is…the Saudis. The good news is they’ve lost their leverage, and 2007 should see big moves to regain our independence.

Investors are wary of oil substitution because they’re:

…driven by memories of the mid-’80s and the late ’90s when sharp drops in oil prices, driven in part by increased production from Saudi reserves…bankrupted such undertakings as the Synfuels Corporation.

(But now)…Indian and Chinese demand and peaking oil production may make it much harder for OPEC today to use any excess production capacity to drive prices down and destroy competitive technology.

The new technologies are the best kind of engineering – incremental.

Cheap Ethanol

Ethanol’s appeal rose a few years ago when it became clear that genetically modified biocatalysts could break down the cellulose in biomass and thus enable ethanol’s production from a wide range of plant life…

…two years ago the National Energy Policy Commission…estimated that just 7% of U.S. farmland (the amount now in the Soil Bank) could produce enough biomass to provide half the fuel needed by U.S. passenger vehicles, and that production costs for cellulosic ethanol were headed downward toward around 70 cents per gallon.

Still, Ethanol needs a lot of new plant, whereas the next technology needs none!

Plug-In Hybrids

If hybrid gasoline-electric cars are provided with advanced batteries (GM’s announcement said its choice would be lithium-ion) having improved energy and power density–variants of the ones in our computers and cell phones–dozens of vehicle prototypes are now demonstrating that these “plug-in hybrids” can more than double hybrids’ overall (gasoline) mileage.

With a plug-in, charging your car overnight from an ordinary 110-volt socket in your garage lets you drive 20 miles or more on the electricity stored in the topped-up battery before the car lapses into its normal hybrid mode. If you forget to charge or exceed 20 miles, no problem, you then just have a regular hybrid with the insurance of liquid fuel in the tank. And during those 20 all-electric miles you will be driving at a cost of between a penny and three cents a mile instead of the current 10-cent-a-mile cost of gasoline.

Utilities are rapidly becoming quite interested in plug-ins because of the substantial benefit to them of being able to sell off-peak power at night. Because off-peak nighttime charging uses unutilized capacity, DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory estimates that adopting plug-ins will not create a need for new base load electricity generation plants until plug-ins constitute over 84% of the country’s 220 million passenger vehicles.

Further, those plug-ins that are left connected to an electrical socket after being fully charged (most U.S. cars are parked over 20 hours a day) can substitute for expensive natural gas by providing electricity from their batteries back to the grid: “spinning” reserves to help deal with power outages and regulation of the grid’s voltage and amperage.

That last feature is very neat, since it solves the problem of storing electricity (currently only possible on a large scale with two-way hydroelectric). That might make wind power viable. Because wind is unpredictable and only available about 30% of the time, all wind capacity needs an equivalent quick-reacting conventional generator to back it up so wind actually adds to capital costs. But plug-ins reduce the need for such wind backup.

Plug-ins work fine with our existing generating capacity – all we have to do is replace old plants with nukes when they come to be retired.

So there’s a good prospect that, in 10 years time, our dependence on Mideast despots will be a distant memory. As will Europe’s dependence on the Russians, so if you’re building plug-ins, you might want to install Polonium 210 detectors

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