September 06, 2007

Musing on Energy Use.

When one member of the Evangelical Mafia sent this link along, and made a tart comparison between Al Gore's / George W. Bush's environmental habits (though noting that he still couldn't stand either one of the gentlemen in question), it reminded me that I've been thinking a good deal about government subsidies of alternative energy sources, particularly when it comes to meeting transportation needs—for instance, the fact that we are pursuing fuel-cell cars so aggressively at this moment, when they are still so far from being practical.

Of course, there is the issue of whether Federal subsidies are truly the best way to midwife the birth of a new industry—a question which may not have an obvious answer. After all, there is the issue of the internet to consider; where would it stand without the DOD's underwriting of the ARPA net? Beyond, that, though, I'd like to know if you all think there's a philosophical justification for this action at the Federal level? Energy independence is a bona fide national security issue.

(Yeah, I know: first, I won't take the "no new Clintons" pledge. And now this bit of heresy. But dangit: I'm curious, and slightly torn.)

Discuss, please.

Posted by Attila Girl at September 6, 2007 12:15 AM | TrackBack

Fuel cells represent the best chance for energy independence from fossil fuels. When combined with the hydrogen option, of course. Electricity(what you recharge those battery cars with) is not a primary energy source--some other primary energy sources are consumed to generate it. At a HUGE energy loss: Less than 1/3 of the energy value of the fuels used to generate electricity is available at your plug socket. The rest was lost during generation, transmission, and distribution. Hybrid cars still rely upon fossil fuels. No one see them as more than a transitional technology.

Alcohol is inefficient as well. And the loonies have made carbon dioxide public enemy No. 1. Making alcohol from cellulosic wastes would be a step in the right direction, but don't expect "cheap". Even waste has a cost(collection, etc).

The general rule of thumb is the government handles the cost of BASIC research--years-away. risky, but potentially greatly rewarding research that private companies can't or won't do. The closer it gets to market, the more the people that will benefit SHOULD do, and pay for, the work. And they will, for the profit.

Posted by: Darrell at September 6, 2007 10:26 AM

Well, I've never argued with the need to subsidize university research in the, um, real sciences (biology, physics, geology, etc.).

And fuel cells themselves are a by-product of the space program, which is of course finally transitioning into private hands.

Posted by: Attila Girl at September 6, 2007 10:52 AM

The problem is that Americans, as usual, want something for nothing.

Energy independence without any changes. No lifestyle changes, no drilling for oil in parts of the Gulf of Mexico, no wind farms where I can see them. (It isn't just Kennedy who is fighting wind farms, though he is the most hypocritical.)

Now oil is concentrated in the transportation industry. Energy generation could shift more to coal and nuclear, but natural gas driven turbine generators have been one of the most popular power plants to build in recent years. They take care of the summer air conditioning peaks nicely. Do you want to regulate that, or let the market decide?

More could be done with diesel-electric (or gas-electric) driven vehicles. The Army did a test and found a turbine/electric drive Hummer was 30 percent more fuel efficient than the standard diesel hummer, but the price was astronomical (more like buying a helicopter instead of a car.) It looks to me like the Army's new MULE vehicle use the "electric wheel" (a real term - do a search.)

The railroads went to diesel-electric in the 40s and 50s. Long haul trucking and probably all of trucking could do the same for the same reason.

But people don't want to change their lifestyle. Carpool? Live closer to work? Drive less?

The new Camry has something like 270 horse power. That is insane. But American's like faster and bigger cars. Given how the average Camry will be driven, you could get by with a smaller engine, less gas - diesel is inherently more efficient than gas - if you would just look at the impacts of your purchases. Do you really need car and driver to tell you the 0-to-60 time for a sedan? That will sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic most of the time or take the kids to school?

Posted by: Zendo Deb at September 6, 2007 11:59 AM

Developing the oil and gas resources we have goes without saying. And there are significant amounts left, not including the sources that will someday be exploited like methane clatrates/methane hydrates(natural gas in ocean environments, etc). Huge resourses there--many times total cumulation conventional production.

And, no, I don't want to suffer and the good news is I don't have to. With Middle East oil production costs still running below $5/bbl, $70/bbl oil prices are hard to sustain. Forget the agenda stuff, Know how fast oil prices FELL 50% in 1986? It can happen again. Today's high prices are the driving force for all the good things on the energy horizon.

Now how can I get Toyota to go to the 295-hp V6 next year?

Posted by: Darrell at September 6, 2007 03:07 PM

The problem is that government action, when it gets beyond the R&D stage, tends to be driven by politics and fashion rather than by technical and economic factors. Corn ethanol, for example, is being heavily subsidized, yet from an energy-balance standpoint it is considerably less efficient than sugarcane ethanol...which has a 50 cent per gallon import tariff on it.

Posted by: david foster at September 6, 2007 07:44 PM

The whole issue of government subsidies is a rat's nest of good intentions and political (rather than scientific) decisions. It's my understanding, perhaps erroneous, that the oil industry is receiving huge subsidies (often disguised by different terminology) - far outstripping those given to the alternative energies. Comparative costs per unit (watt or calorie) might be much more competitive and much easier to calculate if the field were made level.

In the end, alternative energy theology set aside, it makes more long-term sense to use renewable energy sources than limited fossil fuels, and it should make more economic sense to use higher efficiency energy consuming devices.

You can use lighting devices with a greater efficiency than the old incandescent bulbs without sacrificing your standard or style of living.

Transportation is going to be the really sticky point - alternative sources of energy just don't have the facility and power contained in fossil fuels. We may need to change our lifestyles, but I would far prefer to make my own changes based on clear market choices, rather than having the government tell me what they think is best.

Don't hold your breath waiting for that bit of fairness!

Think globally, act locally. If you can afford PV or solar hot water, do it. If you can accept the change of lifestyle, reduce your energy demand, increase your efficiency - to paraphrase Ben Franklin, if you would be rich, decrease your desires or increase your income, preferably both. If you would spend less on energy, decrease your usage (higher efficiency or reduced use) or produce your own, preferably both.

Posted by: Jim at September 7, 2007 03:45 AM

"...perhaps erroneous..."


Posted by: Darrell at September 7, 2007 09:32 AM

But I'd like to get beyond the abstractions. I'd like to know where we should be investing the most--as individuals, and through the government.

I know that hybrid (gas-electric) technology is just a bridge, but I'd like to know where that bridge is going--toward hydrogen, or toward ethanol/flex fuels? It matters in terms of how we adapt the existing infrastructure for future needs.

I'm getting the impression that Honda and Toyota are putting more into the "bridge" technologies, but Ford and GM are investing more in hydrogen, which would be awfully promising if it weren't for its high cost, some engineering challenges, and--perhaps--a difference in how well-suited it is to various regions of the country.

The fact is, most of us who are just scraping by don't have a lot of extra dough to serve as beta-testers for experimental technology. And I think most of us are genuinely willing to make some sacrifices in terms of convenience.

The horsepower thing . . . well, I feel safer when I can accelerate and keep up with traffic. And one spots a drunk driver, one likes to know one can either stay behind him/her or accelerate a bit to get ahead by a few miles.

People do tend to be selfish about safety issues. And those who aren't that way on their own behalf often get that way in a hurry when it comes time to buy cars for their kids.

Posted by: Attila Girl at September 8, 2007 11:57 AM

Also, I share, to some degree, Glenn Reyonolds' squeamishness about the idea of making fuel from food. Therefore, I'm kind of hoping--Market willing--that we end up making our ethanol (if ethanol turns into the focus, rather than hydrogen) out of corn husks, e.g., rather than corn.

(And, yes, David--this is a hell of a time for protectionism. I'd love to see the corn growers loosen their death-grip.)

Posted by: Attila Girl at September 8, 2007 12:01 PM

I think there's a lot of potential in the plug-in hybrid. (1)Like today's hybrids, it recovers braking energy into the battery rather than wasting it as heat (2)It allows part or all of the journey to be powered by electricity from the grid, which is considerably cheaper than gasoline on an energy-equivalent basis (3)Electricity generation is "omniverous" in that the power can come from any mix of several sources--coal, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, wind, solar, etc (4)Electric motors are high-torque beasts at low speeds, and should be able to offer good acceleration from a standing start.

The big question mark is battery technology. GM is now doing production engineering on the Chevy Volt, implying they're actually serious about making it, but there is clearly some uncertainty about whether the battery technology will be ready in time to avoid holding up the show.

Posted by: david foster at September 8, 2007 05:27 PM

The concern about making fuel out of food is ill founded. No human would be eating the corn used to make ethanol. It is made from feed corn, the corn that is used to feed cattle, not the corn that is used for human consumption, and there is quite a difference. Feed corn is large grained, very coarse kernels that are extremely tough; you would wear out your teeth very rapidly if you tried to eat the stuff. So, don't think of it in terms of making fuel out of food. (Fuel out of cattle food, OK, but not fuel out of human food.)

Posted by: Dr. D at September 8, 2007 06:46 PM

If past performance is any indication, far more of the new Camrys will be sold with the 158-hp inline-4, rather than the big honking V6, mainly because Toyota wants a couple of grand for the bigger engine.

Posted by: CGHill at September 8, 2007 08:25 PM

Electricity cheaper than gasoline? Let's see--At 13 cents/kWh(my cost) and 3412 Btu/kWh, the cost is $38.10 per million Btu. At $3/gal for gasoline and 125,000 Btu/gal, the cost is $24 per million Btu. Use your electric bills to get your cost. Divide the actual dollar amount by the number of kWh of electricity you used during the current month.

How do you think batteries will perform in all those areas that see -20 F temperatures in the winter? GM's old electric car had battery packs(plus controllers) that cost an estimated $7 grand(exact number a secret). Lithium ion batteries in the new concept would cost around 30 grand if pulled off the shelf today. It's going to take a whole lot of new manufacturing capacity with resultant economies of scale to get that down to a reasonable level. Unless you don't mind paying $7000-$30000 every 5 years or so. Maybe the used-car buyer wouldn't check? Or the dealer?

Does your state have a lot of excess electric generating capacity? Can it handle the additional load if a significant number of gasoline users make the switch? Do you think the new plants required might affect today's cost?

All alternative technologies have that "unproven" burden--with the exception of natural gas conversions. At the US average of $13.00 per thousand cubic feet and 1020 Btu/1000scf, natural gas is a bargain at $13.26/million Btu. But again you have the problem of what will the price be if demand rises sharply with conversions?

Hydrogen can be made from any hydrocarbon as well, by the way, including coal. See the Steam-Iron process developed by IGT, for example. Hydrogen can also be made from water via electrolysis. Despite rumors to the contrary, you can't say the same for gasoline.

Posted by: Darrell at September 9, 2007 07:24 AM

This just in from MSN's Stop Global Warming propaganda pages, "Greening Man Annual festival of radical self-expression goes green.">1=10427

Yeah. If you exclude the burning man part. And the three tons of weed consumed.

Posted by: Darrell at September 9, 2007 10:31 AM

Darrell...most of the energy in gasoline is turned into heat rather than turning the wheels. There are unavoidable thermodynamic losses in the engine as well as friction losses and throttling losses at anything less than 100% power.

The economics of the electric power industry is driven by the shape of the load curve. There is lots and lots of generating capacity available from roughly 10PM until 7AM, which would be the optimum time for charging batteries. Power companies *love* off-peak users.

Posted by: david foster at September 9, 2007 11:54 AM

David -- There are conversion losses in an electric vehicle as well. There is internal battery resistance that is a loss both during charing and again during operation, and there are losses in the electric motor, even a high efficiency motor. If a PWM contgroller is used to get variable frequency operation and thus variable speed operation, then the losses increase considerably. The electrical system may have less loss it will most certainly involve a large weight penalty for batteries and controllers. Unfortunately, there is no free lunch.

Posted by: Dr. D at September 9, 2007 02:48 PM

That's why we need devices that CAN convert the fuel's energy directly into work without burning it-- like fuel cells-- because they can even exceed Carnot efficiency limitations. (The thermal efficiency of a typical gasoline engine is around 25% for those interested--or for those not interested for that matter. The Carnot maximum is around 73%. We engineers receive big checks from the oil monopoly, Halliburton, and Big Pharm to keep it that way. Pissing Al Gore off is just a bonus. )

Posted by: Darrell at September 10, 2007 05:47 AM

Darrell -- "We engineers" know that fuel cells provide electricity, but that really does not amount to useful work; electrons flying off the end of a wire don't develop much thrust. There is still an electro-mechanical conversion to be made, and there will be losses in that conversion. Last time I had any involvement with fuel cells, unless there was a pure hydrogen feedstock available, it was necessary to provide a reformer to make hydrogen for them. All of this, the reformer and the fuel cell, and the fuel itself, contributes weight that has to be carried around. The electromechanical energy converter will require controllers and that will add more weight and bulk. As I said before, there is no free lunch.

Posted by: Dr. D at September 10, 2007 01:47 PM

De minimis non curat lex thermodynamicae(vel praeficio). . .

Also, we bring our own lunch.

Posted by: Darrell at September 10, 2007 06:30 PM

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