Biofuels and foreign oil

2009/03/12

The following content is from an email I wrote to a friend back in May WRT our current dependence on foreign oil, which was getting some press in the presidential campaigns at the time. As mentioned in my previous post, biofuels might be an attractive alternative to petroleum-based fuels from a national security standpoint, but given that both biodiesel and ethanol must be burned to produce useful energy, I suspect that even these will be of limited value to the treehuggers. On the other hand, I am still concerned about the national security implications of our continued dependence on foreign oil, so while this aspect of our energy economy seems to be lost in the current debate, I consider it to be of vital importance.

I also encountered a commentary on the impact of biofuels [1] after writing the email, and it raises some interesting points WRT the potential disadvantages of large-scale production of biofuels and the crops that would support said production.

Text of the email follows (Note that some of the research was done by my brother for a post he did on biofuels, so I can’t claim credit for all the legwork):

One thing to keep in mind regarding crude oil imports is that the vast majority of those imports are refined into various vehicular fuels, such as jet fuel, gasoline, and diesel fuel. While there are still some fuel oil burning power plants in the country, most of the nation’s electricity now comes from coal, natural gas, and other technologies (i.e. wind, solar, hydroelectric, nuclear, etc.) [2] 
 
Note that 1 barrel of oil is roughly equivalent to 5.62 cubic feet of natural gas, though I’m not sure of the weight of a single barrel (probably on the order of a couple hundred pounds would be my guess, since the barrels are rated for 42 US gallons). The thing to note here is that, no matter what equivalencies you use, we derive only a miniscule amount of electricity from burning petroleum products. Coal and natural gas are less of a foreign-policy concern, since we still have large quantities of both available through domestic sources. Coal, in particular, is projected to last for nearly 200 years, based on current estimates of how much we have left.
 
Thus, while switching over to alternative forms of electricity production would mitigate some of our thirst for foreign oil, the primary need for petroleum products is in the transportation sector. See the following link for a breakdown of our petroleum useage, per mode of transportation (I’m liberally pilfering statistics from the US Department of Energy here) [3]
 
Note that the lion’s share of the monthly finished (i.e. refined) product supplied (total: 552,000 barrels) comes from gasoline (the biggest share, and, at 277,400 barrels, more than half of all the overall supply), with diesel fuel running a close second (distillate fuel oil, 124,500 barrels). Gasoline is used almost exclusively for motor vehicles, while much of the diesel fuel is also used for vehicles (though some of it will probably go towards running generators and other stationary equipment); this is also the type of fuel used in oil-burning power plants, so obviously, there are far fewer diesel vehicles out there than gasoline powered ones, and the gasoline ones are almost exclusively personal vehicles.
 
One of the emerging technologies that could help alleviate some of this consumption is Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs, for short). PHEVs have a limited range that they can travel exclusively on battery power, while they have a traditional engine or fuel cell for travel outside their all-electric range. The primary difference between these vehicles and current hybrids is that current hybrid electric vehicles only use their batteries to supplement the traditional engine (or in some cases, a fuel cell); most of the energy to propel the vehicle still comes from petroleum products, though the electrical systems help to boost the fuel economy the vehicle gets. Most of these vehicles also can’t plug in to a standard wall outlet to recharge their batteries; they use energy generated during the operation of the car to recharge their batteries. Obviously, this decreases the amount of electicity available for other uses, but it still results in net positive benefits for fuel consumption.
 
One of the attractive benefits of a PHEV is that, while it relies on external power to recharge, it can also be recharged during off-peak hours, when demand for electricity is lowest (i.e. most people would recharge their cars at night, when they’re not using them). One of the problems with our current power grid setup is that even when people aren’t using electricity (i.e. during off-peak hours), a certain amount of power is always flowing around the country. This is mainly because the power plants themselves never shut off; it takes too much time and energy to re-start the plants to provide power during peak usage periods. Thus, while we’re sleeping, there’s always a certain amount of energy going unused throughout our entire power grid (even if the plants were run at minimal levels – and they probably are – this amount adds up to some substantial amounts). [4]
 
Also, given that the average length of commute for a given commuter is roughly 15 miles; only 11% of the population travels over 30 miles or more to or from work. Most PHEVs can easily accommodate such short jaunts almost exclusively on electrical power. Thus, for a very substantial portion of the population, PHEVs could significanly reduce (or even almost entirely remove) their gasoline requirements for much of their travel. [5]
 
The beauty of such an arrangement also goes beyond reducing our consumption of petroleum (though this is my primary concern – I’m not an environmentalist, so I don’t much care what happens in that regard; the planet will take care of itself long after the entire human race is gone): PHEVs rely on standard electrical outlets to provide their recharging capacity, but this electricity can come from anywhere. If we were to commit to building more nuclear and/or alternative energy power plants, we could also cut down substantially on the amount of fossil fuels on a whole that our nation consumes. The only problem with this concept is that coal and natural gas are still relatively plentiful (hence, very, very cheap), but regarding the environment, we already possess the technology to make fairly clean coal and natural gas plants, so this may not be a significant concern.
 
We could also further reduce the amount of petroleum we need if we did switch to a hydrogen-based vehicular ecomony, but this would require massive infrastructure development, since we currently don’t have the facilities available to produce mass quantities of hydrogen, or to produce it cheaply. Keep in mind, also, that hydrogen production is dependant on outside sources of energy. While we might be able to cut down on our fossil fuel consumption in cars by using hydrogen fuel cells, we still need something to produce the electricity needed to separate the hydrogen from whatever its currently tied up in. Biofuels might also work, but I’m not crazy about the new drive towards ethanol. Ethanol isn’t a bad fuel, but the primary method of producing it is through distilling it from sugars (in much the same way as one would make whiskey); the problem here is that all of the raw materials that contain sugars in sufficient densities to be effective in producing ethanol are also basic foodstuffs – corn, sugarcane, etc. Causing food shortages to produce more fuel for cars probably isn’t such a good idea. OTOH, there are other forms of biofuels that we could explore – algae biofuel comes to mind here. Algae biofuel is basically diesel fuel produced from photosynthesizing algae [6], as opposed to corn or other plants (algae are also plants, but we don’t normally think of them as such). Of course, this would require, again, substantial infrastructure development costs, but the advantage here is that the fuel, once extracted, could use the existing infrastructure we use to move conventional diesel fuel around the country, making it probably cheaper than modifying our infrastructure for hydrogen. Of course, biodiesel still pollutes, but I’m primarily focusing on reducing our dependance on foreign sources of oil, and not so much on environmental concerns.

Keep in mind that since petroleum will be gone (even optimistically speaking) after only about another hundred years or so [7][8], we won’t be producing nearly as much pollution from these sources when that happens. With regard to oil production, Hubbert peaks are the general statistical theory behind the concept of peak oil, which is why I mention it. Basically, the point is very simple: since oil is a finite resourse, at some point, global oil production (i.e. extraction from the ground) will have recovered more oil than there is left in the ground. Once this happens, global production will, of course, decline. The problem is that while oil is a finite resource, global demand for oil is continually growing, the reason being that not only are the developed nations continuing to develop, but more and more nations around the world are pursuing industrial development, as well. China, for example, is aggressively pursuing increased industrialization, and their demand for oil is second only to our own. This trend shows no sign of abating any time in the near future, but there are signs that we may have already hit a plateau in oil production (for example, our demand for oil has increased over the past several years, but over the same span of time, oil production has not increased to meet the demand – since market economics dictates that supply needs to be increased to meet demand (if possible), one argument is that the oil companies aren’t increasing production because they can’t – because there is no physical way to increase extraction from the ground).
 
Another thing to keep in mind is that we don’t necessarily need to entirely excise petroleum use from our society to eliminate our need for foreign oil sources; we simply need to reduce our consumption. Of course, given that we derive upwards of 60% of our oil needs from foreign sources, we would need to make some very significant cutbacks. Again, the biggest savings would come from more fuel efficient cars and trucks, since these are the primary consumers of refined petroleum products. This is not an entirely insurmountable challenge, though; the issue isn’t so much the technology, but the lifestyle changes that would probably ensue. For example, we had domestically-produced cars that could get up to 40 mpg (or even higher) over a decade ago (remember the Geo car company?), but they were never very popular. Most of the stylish European imports that people admire here are not particularly fuel efficient, and most of those manufacturers also don’t have plans to start producing hybrid vehicles for sale here. There are after-market kits that could be used to modify existing cars (or, of course, new ones) to use hybrid technologies, but there’s no guarantee that such kits would be universally adopted by those who don’t own HEVs, and I’m not sure about the efficiency rates for such kits, either, since they may not necessarily be regulated in the same manner as cars themselves. 
 
The point of all of this is that, in short, there is no simple solution to our current oil consumption crisis – and its probably also worth noting that, even with all the ‘attention’ being paid to the energy needs of our country by the various presidential nominees, none of them are _really_ talking about the true sources of the problems. The problem isn’t just one part of the energy economy, its that the entire system is almost entirely dependant on fuels sources that are not renewable. Its always easy to point fingers at the big oil companies (as it is with all big corporations in general), since they’re relatively immune to verbal accusations, but its much harder to point a finger at the entire American society and point out that they themselves are responsible for the crisis they’re so vocal in protesting now. Its also much harder to point out that, even if we start now, we won’t be able to solve our energy issues in a year or five years, or even ten. It may take decades to restructure our entire energy economy to utilize other forms of energy than cheap fossil fuels. This, of course, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be pursuing such goals, just that it will be difficult, and possibly painful (to our wallets, that is).

Notes:

[1]: http://www.grist.org/news/maindish/2006/12/05/olmstead/ ; I would be interested to see the supporting data for these conclusions, but the article does not list any. The logic makes sense, though, so there may be something to them.

[2]: Statistics from the U.S. Department of Energy: http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epat4p1.html

[3]: Statistics from the U.S. Department of Energy: http://tonto.eia.doe.gov/dnav/pet/pet_cons_psup_dc_nus_mbbl_m.htm

[4]: http://www.pnl.gov/news/release.asp?id=204

[5]: http://www.bts.gov/publications/omnistats/volume_03_issue_04/html/entire.html

[6]: See the following article for a detailed description of how this might be accomplished: http://www.unh.edu/p2/biodiesel/article_alge.html

[7]: From Wikipedia, which I’ve found is usually reliable: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hubbert_peak

[8]: Also from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peak_oil

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