Oil and Energy Independence

Last week, Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post wrote an opinion piece on our country’s energy policy and where he thinks President Obama is trying to go with it.  He called it “Obama’s energy pipe dreams.”  The whole premise of the piece is to tell us that searching for alternative and renewable sources of energy is a waste of time—we’re dependent on oil, and we always will be dependent on oil.

What a forward thinking strategy!  After all, it’s not like oil is a finite resource or anything!  It’s not as if someday—albeit somewhere far in the future—we’ll have extracted the very last drop of petroleum from the Earth.  What happens if we haven’t ended our dependency on fossil fuels by then?  Will the world simply come to an end?

His argument, it seems, is that since a transition to clean energy “isn’t going to happen for many, many decades, if ever,” then why should we bother?  Samuelson paints a rather bleak picture for us:

For starters, we won’t soon end our “addiction to fossil fuels.” Oil, coal and natural gas supply about 85 percent of America’s energy needs. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects energy consumption to grow only an average of 0.5 percent annually from 2008 to 2035, but that’s still a 14 percent cumulative increase. Fossil fuel usage would increase slightly in 2035 and its share would still account for 78 percent of the total.

Unless we shut down the economy, we need fossil fuels. More efficient light bulbs, energy-saving appliances, cars with higher gas mileage may all dampen energy use. But offsetting these savings will be more people (391 million vs. 305 million), more households (147 million vs. 113 million), more vehicles (297 million vs. 231 million) and a bigger economy (almost double in size). Although wind, solar and biomass are assumed to grow as much as 10 times faster than overall energy use, they provide only 11 percent of supply in 2035, up from 5 percent in 2008.

According to this logic, we should just give up.  Fossil fuels are the only possibility, the only source for providing for our energy needs, and thus it’s a waste of time and energy—pun intended—to search for alternatives that could not possibly provide for our needs.  There is no hope.  And someday, the world will run out of energy altogether.

Pretty defeatist attitude, if you ask me.  This is a country that found a way not only to put a man in space, but to put an actual human being on the moon.  As a country, we put our minds to it and found a way to generate nuclear energy (OK, so it was a byproduct of creating a weapon of mass destruction, but then again, that’s how many of our greatest technological advances have been achieved—through military research).

The problem that I see with the numbers cited above is that I doesn’t account for possible advances in the technologies that will occur, hopefully in the very near future.  The bleak numbers might be accurate if the productivity levels of the technologies remain the same, and we simply expand our capacity to take advantage of it.

But there’s a lot of great work being done right now, particularly in the area of biofuels.  In addition corn-based ethanol (Ethanol from starch), further research is being done to produce cellulosic ethanol.  Cellulosic ethanol will make it possible to produce energy from just about any kind of non-feedstock grains—in theory, we could collect grass clippings and leftover material from corn or any other food source and turn them in to ethanol.  The problem is that cellulose (a form of sugar) is much more difficult to break down and convert into energy than starch (corn) or glucose (sugar).  Once scientists learn to effectively and efficiently convert the cellulose in plant waste into ethanol, it will only add to our stock of renewable energy sources without affecting our food supply.

The Navy recently began a series of test flights running an F-18 Super Hornet on a 50/50 mix of biofuel, breaking the sound barrier in one flight.  The goal is to find out if there is a difference in the way the fighter performs when run on the biofuel mix as opposed to pure JP-5 petroleum-based jet fuel.  Thus far, the results have been very positive.

Researchers are also discovering ways to produce more and better bio-fuels from algae.  Scientists have already discovered how to convert the oil in algae into bio-diesel and jet fuel.  The challenge now is to find a way to produce it in large enough quantities and at low enough costs in order to significantly affect the need for fossil fuels.  The advantage here is that algae is the fastest growing plant on the planet, derives 50% of its weight from oil, and can be mass-produced without any harm to the environment or the nation’s food supply.

Critics also tell us that solar energy cannot provide enough of the electricity we need on a daily basis.  And in today’s terms that may be true, but the technology continues to advance and improve, and researchers are finding new ways to extract more energy from smaller and smaller solar cells.  Just like with computers, the more work that is done, the smaller and smaller the devices can get—we didn’t always have tiny notebook computers or telephones capable of going everywhere we went and connecting us with the world anywhere and at any time.

And someday scientists will be able to provide near limitless supplies of energy from nuclear fusion—the bringing together of two lighter atoms to create a larger one.  Fusion is much more difficult to accomplish, but leaves behind no radioactive waste.

We don’t know what the future of energy research holds.  We don’t know what scientists will discover tomorrow, what new ways they’ll find to create more power generating capabilities out of smaller and smaller renewable sources.

The only way we’ll once and for all be free from our petroleum tether that poses such a grave national security risk is to continue to invest in research into new technologies.  Mr. Samuelson is wrong when he says there is no hope.  Because if he’s right, then the world will literally run out of energy in the not too distant future.

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