The best analogy for my money are the early months of America’s Civil War, where young men both North and South were signing-on as volunteers as quick as they could be taken, and the prediction was made (by a Southern gentleman) that the war would spill no more blood than could be mopped up in a handkerchief.
What we’re seeing in this case are special pleaders, all with dollar signs in their eyes, grabbing for government subsidies and promising that they’re the answer, even when we know they’re not. Nuclear. Coal. Ethanol from corn and sugar cane.
Fission has never shown how to safely dispose of its waste, and fusion is still years away from its first commercial production. Coal, no matter how clean, is a hydrocarbon. Ethanol, too is a hydrocarbon, but more important is the fact that when you take it from food crops, you compete directly with food production.
Electricity from wind, from geothermal sources and from the Sun is going to be primary in the future. These can be brought to market far more efficiently than they are, using new materials, and our grids need to become more interactive, so that localized sources can be tapped. All this requires far more planning, more capital, and more government intervention than anyone anticipates offering at the present time.
But these alone won’t get us there. We badly need a portable power source to replace gasoline, for jet transport, for back-up power, and for reliable power production off-the-grid.
Cellulosic ethanol is the big buzzword here. Richard Branson, who I have used as a hero in my recent fiction, is a big booster of it, partly because jet planes can use it. (How big is the hype? This picture came from the Whitehouse.Gov site.)
But cellulosic ethanol has its special pleaders as
well. Most especially the wood people. They talk about pine trees,
which we normally use as toilet paper, being the solution to our energy
Bull cookies. Here is inconvenient truth number one. When seeking to supply a cellulosic plant, you go for the fastest-growing feedstock you have, the plant with the highest tolerance for extreme conditions (so you don’t lose yield). Trees? Please. Think more of kudzu. Or giant kelp.
You also want a plant that yields multiple generations each year, because demand is continuous. We don’t know the final answer to this, but we need to be open to the fact it could an inconvenient answer indeed.
Still, alcohol may not be the best, transportable energy source. A
hydrogen cycle would be preferable to anything using hydrocarbons. A
hydrogen fuel cell yields water as its "pollution," and if that water
is collected where it is produced, it means you are creating more fresh
water wherever more people live. Water is as much a problem in our
modern world as energy.
Previously here I have mentioned Amminex,
which has a sort of sponge that allows ammonia to be broken down at a
set rate into its component parts, nitrogen and hydrogen. You can
produce hydrogen by simple electrolysis, separating it from the oxygen
in water with electricity. But transporting it is a big problem.
As John Holbrook of Ammpower noted in a recent response to this blog, most ammonia today is produced using natural gas.
This is our second inconvenient truth. Dr. Holbrook notes that a
company called Norsk Hydro produced ammonia from electrolysis for many
years, but it was not competitive with gas-based sources.
Holbrook added in his note that attempts are now underway to produce ammonia
efficiently, and without hydrocarbons, through a company called NHThree
LLC. (NH3 is the chemical formula for ammonia.) But these are very,
very early days. One thing Holbrook doesn’t note in his response to my post is that he runs both Ammpower and NHThree.
Holbrook, a Stanford graduate who has studied hydrogen for three decades (about as long as I’ve studied business), mostly at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, dreams of an ammonia pipeline taking
the place of today’s oil systems, of hydrogen replacing natural gas.
Special pleaders are also at work, within the Oregon legislature,
touting hydrogen and ammonia as energy sources, claiming that Oregon could be another Saudi Arabia. Such hype worries me. So does the fact that capital has not yet been made available for Holbrook’s proposals.
Sometimes this is the mark of a genius, a Bell, an Edison, or a
Chester Carlson. Sometimes it’s the mark of a crank. (Sometimes, as in
the case of Nicola Tesla, it’s a bit of both.)
And we won’t know — any of us — until we find out. Finding out will take time, money, and the assumption of risk.
The War Against Oil has just begun. This may be the most inconvenient truth of all.