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srbarbour's picture
srbarbour
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 23 2008
Posts: 148
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Wow. I never expected you, Chris, to argue against the straw men conjured up by the oil barons, and often wanked off to by the nuttier oil crash apocalyptics.

Which straw men?

The Hydrogen Economy and Ethanol

However, while I'm at it I'll throw in the most under appreciated advantage of renewable energy for free!

The Hydrogen Economy

Ah, this ancient and desiccated straw man. Repeatedly, and brutally beat down upon by anyone and everyone for years. Here is one of very few places where Oil producers and Oil Peakists can join together for a bit of fun and a cup of coffee.

"Wait, strawman?" You say. "But, Hydrogen really is just a battery!". Why yes. No disagreement there. Indeed, everyone who has studied the issue, and whom is much smarter, and better informed about the matter than you, has already said this repeatedly..

This isn't some fact the 'experts' have overlooked, but rather a fact that these experts have calculated in from the very beginning.

And so what? It's still just a battery. Yep, in reality the Hydrogen economy is an all electric economy. Indeed, the only reason anyone ever mentioned it as a Hydrogen economy in the first place is that without providing the 'energy storage' replacement for oil, any discussion of an all electric economy would be dismissed out of hand. Rather, the Hydrogen economy is a direct rebuttal to the claim that an all electric economy is impossible. Hydrogen, of course, being chosen because it is so damn good for the energy storage role... and because there is so much of the stuff that nobody can decry limits of scale.

Indeed, the biggest advantage of a 'hydrogen energy storage/electric economy' is that between hydrogen and solar power the energy resource capacity limit is somewhere slightly lower than infinity, but so close it hardly matters.

(We'll run out of space based solar capacity at about the time when we can vaporize the entire Earth in a moment of drunken stupidity...).

But, since we are talking about an electric economy, a better question is: does an electric economy have any merit? Well, to beat out new oil finds, and to be good enough something around a 3:1 energy ratio is really sufficient -- that the energy investment capital can continually grow more rapidly than the human population is the only real requirement that needs met for modern society. Looking at 17b's chart it is rather easy to pluck out solar at its 20:1 ratio. Which basically means, that if overall energy use efficiency after storage, transport, and end system use is above 15%, its all good.

I'd point at that this remains true even if that energy storage substance is hydrogen, batteries, or hopes, dreams, and pink fluffy unicorns. (you'd need mighty potent hopes and dreams to get that 15% though!)

Ethanol

Why is it that everyone talks about corn ethanol? Why? Because everyone knows corn ethanol is a rotten idea, and oil companies and doomsayers love an easy target.

Ironically... No, it isn't ironic at. Rather it is quite intentionally that corn ethanol is repeatedly brought up when, in fact, most groups seriously discussing ethanol fuel are not talking about corn ethanol at all, but rather cellulosic ethanol.
Wait? Isn't there a specifically named logical fallacy for when a 'counter argument' which uses the same word, under a different meaning, to dismiss an argument.

Yes, and its called equivocation. A nasty and often used tactic which amounts to little more than lies, deceit and sophistry. For those that spot such fallacy, it is enough to force them to question the integrity of every single thing told to them so far. Which is why, Chris, if you do not wish some people to dismiss your entire slide show out of hand, I highly suggest you touch on the subject of cellulosic ethanol somewhere.

So what is the difference between the two? Corn Ethanol has somewhere between a 0.9-1.3 : 1 energy ratio. Cellulosic is a bit better at oh... ~5:1. (likely improving to 7-9:1 as extraction technology advances).

Did I say slightly better? Wait, let me look again. Cellulosic ethanol, according to 17b, out performs most modern oil finds. Which isn't particularly surprising since a gallon of the stuff today costs about $1.90 to $2.20 to produce. Which makes it directly competitive with a $3.00 gallon of gasoline -- the lower energy of ethanol already included.

So why don't we talk about cellulosic ethanol more? Why isn't cellulosic ethanol already everywhere? The main impediment is the fact that corn ethanol, despite all its failings, has cellulosic ethanol out priced For a cost around $1.20–$1.50/gallon corn ethanol can be produced. Eventually, this will change. Corn Ethanol, due to its own failings, is a doomed substance. Both because of its low energy ratio, and its incessant devouring of our much more expensive corn crop.

Fortunately, the eventual death of corn ethanol is sooner than most think. The government ethanol mandate (which would have been much better if the government in its infinite wisdom didn't redefine 'cellulosic' so that 'corn' and pretty much any shit a human can grow or dig up meets the definition of 'cellulosic ethanol'), and more importantly the fact cellulosic ethanol is projected to halve in price in the next 4 to 10 years, pretty much guarantees an eventual blitzkrieg toward victory.

By now, some of you are probably thinking: "Sounds to good to be true!", "But it has limits!" etc..., etc...

Well yes, there is one prime disadvantage of any plant derived resource. That being that there is only a finite amount of land and resources with which to grow those plants. Fortunately, the best plants for cellulosic ethanol are pretty much all low fertilization, low water consumption, and, in general, good for the ground (as opposed to corn, which is the opposite for all of the above), but even that only delays the issue.

However, I'd point out that it is hardly necessary that cellulosic ethanol displace the entire oil economy, only that it displaces enough of that economy to improve energy ratios, improve environmental conditions, and to take the oomph out of a worst case oil collapse senario. There are, in the end, plenty of other technologies that can displace all oil... such as an all electric economy run on Hydrogen.

Which brings me to the next point.

The large merits of renewable energy sources:

Some of you are thinking environment!. Yeah, well, there is that. However, the biggest advantage of renewable energy is captured so nicely on that energy ratio chart Chris provided for all of us.

You remember him mentioning oil at a 100:1 ratio? Remember how it has steadily fallen to 18-10 : 1 and then as low as 3:1? Now, note that during this time the ratio has fallen despite technological advances.

But lets forget oil for a moment. Instead, let us gander at solar and it's 20:1 ratio. Consider what happens, if say, solar due to technological reasons increases by 10% to 22:1. Lets go forward into the future. What is the ratio now?

Assuming we haven't used up all the material on earth needed to produce solar cells, the answer is still 22:1. This is an extremely important fact. Because while consumptive power sources that require more and more effort to get the fuel source -- be it oil, coal, or uranium -- are naturally forced to decrease in energy production efficiency.

Renewables, up until they hit Planatary capacity limits, however remain the same... year, after year, after year. Keep in mind that technology also tends to improve year after year after year. That means while the energy ratios of substances like oil, or coal will continually fall over time, power resources like solar or ethanol will tend to climb over time.

This general rule of thumb is extremely important to keep in mind, because it makes capital investments into renewable and sustainable energy sources much more profitable in the long run than they immediately appear to be in the short run.

So, if say some company genetically engineered a new type of corn that required half as much energy investment to grow, then corn ethanol would suddenly, and forever be a much better energy resource (still not as good as oil in its heyday, or even solar energy and cellulosic ethanol today).

Quercus bicolor's picture
Quercus bicolor
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Mar 19 2008
Posts: 470
Good idea, let's look at potential problems
I like both of these ideas. Let's look through problems: First, cellulosic ethanol: 1. Just how much energy could we produce sustainably from cellulosic ethanol without degrading the land or replacing other important uses such a food crops, use of wood for paper, building, etc? 2. Can it be used for everything oil can be used for? (I think the answer is a yes here). 3. Can we ramp up quickly enough to prevent a severe energy shortage? 4. Any other issues? Now hydrogen: 1. When you use one unit of electricity to produce hydrogen and then use that hydrogen to do work, how much do you get back? 2. Current fuel cells use platinum. There is not enough platinum in the world to scale fuel cells to anywhere near the level we would need to replace fossil fuels. Is there a way around this? 3. Are there enough raw materials to produce enough solar cells to generate the kind of electricity we need? Enough land to deploy the cells? 4. Is there a way to manage an all solar/wind electric grid given that solar is available only when the sun shines and wind only when the wind blows? Or will we have too much electricity at some times and not enough at others? 5. Are there enough raw materials (especially copper) to build a big enough electric grid? 6. Can we manage that much hydrogen? Create it where it is needed, store it, etc? 7. What about safety issues around hydrogen? 8. Any other materials limits? Metals for batteries is we choose them instead of hydrogen (lithium, nickel, etc)? Specialized metals for hydrogen tanks, etc? 9. Can we ramp up quickly enough? 10. Any other issues?

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