Some people repeat a particular word
("hydrogen" or "solar" or "ethanol") as if it were a mantra and
promulgate it to the exclusion of all else. Arguments such
as hydrogen vs ethanol miss the point. "Hydrogen" is an
element, not a technology. Hydrogen requires a whole
group of technologies (production, distribution, storage, conversion) that
must be developed together in order to have a real solution. Ethanol
is one of a number of possible bio-fuels, each of which can be produced
a variety of ways with varying degrees of energy payback.
tendancy to look for one magic bullet is a result of the wrong mental
model. In my opinion the better mental model is to think of 25
different technologies each providing 4% of the solution. Of course,
some technologies will help more than others, but we need
to consider a wide variety of alternate energy sources,
improvements to conventional sources as well efficiency
improvements. In nature, a healthy ecosystem usually has
a whole bunch of interconnected processes, not a single process repeated
everywhere. Our energy infrastructure should be the same.
5 - We need a wholeclip of "Magic Bullets"
FREE ENERGY! Limited time only! Call now!
There are a lot of claims of free energy, double your gas mileage,
etc. that range from dubious to outright scams. If it looks too
good to be true, it probably isn't true. Even honest, reputable people sometimes
get so focussed on their particular product that they come to
believe it is THE answer to all our energy problems. You need to apply
a little realistic analysis to claims, particularly when dealing with
"true believers" of a particular technology.
- We need Hope, not Hype
2 - Beware correct, but irrelevant, statistics
A corallary of the preceding point, people
trot out statistics that sound really impressive but don't really
mean anything when you analyze them. Two of my favorites:
- the most plentiful element in the universe". After a while, this
one makes me grind my teeth. The implication is that there is
plenty hydrogen around to power our cars. The reality is that
there is essentially no free hydrogen on planet earth. There is a
lot of it around but it is bound with oxygen or carbon and it takes
real energy to separate it. The fact that the sun, like most other
stars in the universe, is mostly hydrogen is true, but irrelevant.
Unless you have a 93,000,000 mile long hose, it won't help power your
fuel cell car.
- "There are thousands of years worth of hydrocarbons
in the earths crust". This is sometimes used to imply that the
current oil economy can continue for hundreds of years. The reality
is that the easy, convenient liquid hydrocarbons that are easily accessable seem
to be a much more limited resource.
Be afraid of fear mongering
stories of the impending apocalypse make great headlines (which is
why the media report them so enthusiastically). I've been around long
enough to experience several "end of the world" cycles regarding petroleum.
In 1974 the world was going to be out of oil by 1985. In the early
80's a popular prediction had civilization collapsing by 1994 due
to lack of oil. In 1999, when we were filling up at $1 a gallon,
a heard a number of people say "those environmentalists are wrong
about everything". In the long run, overly sensationlistic predictions
that don't pan out hurt rather than help the cause.
be a powerful tool for motivating people to do something, but is often
detrimental when it comes to deciding what
to do. Describing things
using the scariest possible language can lead to poor policy
decisions. Witness the movement to ban dihydrogen monoxide (check
and then look at the end of this page). Look past
the language and understand what is really being talked about.
6 - Understand where your priorities change the answer
People talking about AE usually mention a number
of motivations involving the environment (local pollution, habitat
loss, global warming), national energy security (we import 2/3 of
our oil) and cost to the consumer. While all these factors warrent
a look at alternate energy, they do not necessarily lead to the same
conclusions about particular technologies or policies. For example:
1) - If low gasoline prices in the short to medium
term are the top priority, then the current oil policy may
be largely correct. No energy source I am aware of has a production
cost as low as a barrel of oil from the Persian Gulf. Sink a well
a few thousand feet down, rig up pipes to it and get 10,000 barrels
a day of wonderfully useful liquid hydrocarbons. Keeping friendly
governments in power in that area (which seems to be the current US
policy) makes a lot of sense. Of course, in the long term, demand
will exceed the supply capacity even of a friendly Saudi Arabia and
then we have problems. If an Islamic revolution makes Saudi Arabia
unfriendly then we have problems sooner.
Case 2) - If increasing
the USA's energy independence is the top goal than an obvious
strategy is to increase the use of coal. We have hundreds
of years worth of coal and technology to produce liquid fuel from
coal has been around for a long time (the Germans ran a good part
of their economy on synthetic fuel during the last couple of years
of World War 2). The problem is that the costs will be high, both
in terms of money and probably environmental impact.
- If reduced environmental impacts are top priority then neither
coal nor petroleum are likely to be favored. Major concerns include
being "carbon neutral" and having low impact at the production
site. Ironically, the second issue often causes serious objections
to real industrial scale alternate energy projects. AE in theory
is OK, but devoting thousands of square miles to biofuel production
or building a major windfarm is not.
There are some things, such
as improving efficiency, that can help in any of these cases. But
many of the other technologies and policies involve making some trade-offs.
The first step is deciding the priority among a number of reasonable
Common errors and pitfalls in alternate energy discussions....
who haven't already figured this out: Dihydrogen Monoxide is a molecule
with two (Di) hydrogen atoms and one (Mono) oxygen atom =
H2O = Water.
- Understand the power (and misuse) of cascading assumptions
Many processes in the AE field may
have 6 or 8 links in the chain. For example, the question of whether
or not producing ethanol from corn actually has a useful energy payback
depends on how much energy is used for: preparing the soil, planting,
producing the needed fertilizer, pumping water for irrigation, harvesting
and transporting the corn, grinding the corn, fermenting to produce
alcohol, distilling to concentrate the alcohol and transporting the
final product to the customer. Reasonable estimates for each can vary
by at least a factor of 2. In this example (and in many others) -
you use worst case numbers for every item in the list, the overall
result looks terrible.
- If you use the most optimistic numbers for
every item, the overall result looks wonderful.
The devil is in the
details. Reality lies somewhere in between. Since the loudest voices
are usually touting their own particular technology (and disparaging
the competition) you often get best case scenarios for one technology
compared to worst case scenarios for another. It can be hard to sort
throught competing claims and get an accurate comparison of technologies.