Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Can Alternative Fuel Replace Gas and Oil?

Most people agree that use of hydrocarbons to produce energy is a terrible use of natural resources. It is expensive, it pollutes, there is a correlation between energy use and global climate change, and relying on hydrocarbons often means relying on corrupt or authoritarian governments that control the sources. Why, then, don't we develop other sources of energy? Can't we use clean technology such as hydropower, windpower, solarpower, etc.?

In a word, the answer is no, the technology does not exist in the near future to replace the world's reliance on gas and oil. To quote that National Intelligence Council in their prognostications:

All current technologies are inadequate for replacing traditional energy architectures on the scale needed, and new energy technologies probably will not be commercially viable and widespread by 2025. The present generation of biofuels is too expensive to grow, would further boost food prices, and their manufacture consumes essentially the same amount of energy they produce.
Other ways of converting nonfood biomass resources to fuels and chemical products should be more promising, such as those based on high-growth algae or agricultural waste products, especially cellulosic biomass. Development of clean coal technologies and carbon capture and storage is gaining momentum and—if such technologies were cost-competitive by 2025—would enable coal to generate more electricity in a carbon-constrained regulatory environment. Long-lasting hydrogen fuel cells have potential, but they remain in their infancy and are at least a decade away from commercial production. Enormous infrastructure investment might be required to support a “hydrogen economy.” An Argonne National Laboratory study found that hydrogen, from well to tank, is likely to be at least twice as costly as gasoline.
Even with the favorable policy and funding environment that would be needed for biofuels, clean coal, or hydrogen, major technologies historically have had an “adoption lag.” A recent study found that in the energy sector, it takes an average of 25 years for a new production technology to become widely adopted. A major reason for this lag is the need for new infrastructure to handle major
innovation. For energy in particular, massive and sustained infrastructure investments made for almost 150 years encompass production, transportation, refining, marketing, and retail activities.
Adoption of natural gas, a fuel superior to oil in many respects, illustrates the difficulty of a transition to something new. Technologies to use natural gas have been widely available since at least the 1970s, yet natural gas still lags crude oil in the global market because the technical and investment requirements for producing and transporting it are greater than they are for oil-based fuels.
Simply meeting baseline energy demand over the next two decades is estimated to require more than $3 trillion of investment in traditional hydrocarbons by companies built up over more than a century and with market capitalizations in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Because a new form of energy is highly unlikely to use existing infrastructure without modifications, we expect any new form of energy to demand similarly massive investment. (National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2025, p.44)

Dr. James J. Coyle is available to speak to your organization or at your event. Please contact him at jimcoyle@verizon.net.