Sunday, August 31, 2008

Energy And Oil

I just want to write here to re-hash something I've mentioned a few times before: our country (and the modern world) has to do something about our finite energy supply (coal, which is the biggest source of energy for our power plants, is due to run out in 95 or so years, and oil is due to run out much sooner). Remember, almost no one lives off the land, or even near a farm, anymore. The way we get our food is from refrigerated trucks and trains that depend on our energy supply. If a substitute for gasoline (that is, a way to power vehicles that is about as efficient and costly as gasoline) isn't devised, most of the world's people will starve, and if we come up with or implement a substitute for our vehicles a year or even a few months or weeks too late, it will almost certainly lead to widespread destruction and havoc and wreak a terrible disaster on the economy (because, again, a large portion of the people will end up without any food).

The keys to solving these problems are, in my opinion, (1) nuclear power plants and (2) putting about as many non-gasoline cars on our roads and highways as we have gasoline-powered cars currently.

-Why can't we replace cars with pedestrianism and mass transit? Why can't we just become more fuel-efficient? Nobody lives near a farm anymore, because family farms are almost gone, most having been taken over and consolidated into large mega-farms by huge corporations. Almost no matter who you are and almost no matter where you live, most of your food probably comes from hundreds or even thousands of miles away from where it is produced and packaged to you, and a lot of electricity and gasoline is spent getting it to you and to the many, many, many other people like you.

There are several dependencies created by this that perhaps cannot be broken. Not only might totally re-organizing every single person's life so that everyone lives with walking or mass transit of their jobs not work because it would be too massive and effort to organize-- such a thorough reorganization would be too big a drain on the economy as a very large portion of people have to figure out a new place to live-- but our societies might already have grown to such a degree that such an attempt at re-organization would destroy them. Some habitations (cities, towns, and whole counties or states) that cannot be put within cost-effective distance of farms have to be completely abandoned. We just don't know if the economy of an America where almost everyone has to be located is going to be able to be successful at all. And we might have so many people already that such a reorganization of our food production and distribution system just might not work (economies of scale would be totally lost, and we would have to go back to local production of food that has not been seen in America since our economy was much, much smaller). Naturally, the local farms that used to exist across America 90 years ago and more than 100 years ago are no longer there. Because economies of scale will be lost, it will put more pressure on where people will be able to live and still have it be cost-effective to transport food to them. And all this will have to be done presumably without petroleum-based fertilizers (i.e., most modern commercially-used fertilizers) since petroleum is becoming more and more scarce.

So, in order for post-petroleum America to be anything like America is now in terms of how safe and rich it is, what we really need is a 1-to-1 replacement for how many automobiles we have currently making the system work.

-Why can't we just replace all the gasoline with coal? Why can't we just use plug-in cars powered by electricity from coal-fired power-plants? Coal itself is due to run out in 95 years. Once gasoline becomes too expensive and we all have to start relying on electric-powered cars, this will create such a great new demand for electricity from coal that coal will run out even sooner than in 95 years. And we will be left with nothing-- and some of us will probably live to see that disaster. Certainly, our children and grandchildren will, and if we don't give them a solution, many of them will experience literally fighting for their lives and livelihoods.

Coal can, by a complicated process, be transformed into gasoline. But because this is complicated, it is necessarily more expensive. And it leads us to the same problem as before-- coal running out sooner than in 95 years. If you live in the US, your being able to watch Wheel of Fortune on TV and eat ice-cream out of your own refrigerator is probably because of electricity from a coal-powered power-plant. When coal ends, if there is no replacement, all that ends, too.

Turning coal into gasoline can probably be a part of the solution, like keeping gasoline-powered planes and boats moving longer as gasoline runs out. But it's nothing like a long-term solution.

-Why can't we use gasoline created from germs? That process has not yet been shown to produce a commercially-useable product, but even if it ends up working, it's not going to be efficient enough to produce all the gasoline the country needs-- by a longshot.

-What about the air-car? The air-powered car is actually less efficient than other "green" cars, and anyway electricity is used to run the device that compresses the air to power the car! Refilling an air car is a mechanical process that requires several hours of a machine working to compress the air. You can imagine how much electricity must be used to refill a car every day or two. If you've ever owned a portable CD player, you're probably familiar with the fact that just because the device has to use some of the power to physically spin a CD around, the batteries run out very fast, and much faster than if the power was only used for electronic, rather than mechanical, processes.

The point is, air-cars aren't likely to ever prove to be more efficient than other "green" cars could be because of the machanical process that is necessarily involved in compressing air to "re-fuel" the car, and in any event, air-cars will still require a lot of electricity to get them to go (electricity that will have to come from somewhere).

-What about other "green" energy like wind, solar, and hydroelectric? Those are great, and we might end up in a real bad position no matter what, at least in the long run, if they're not developed more and more. But for now, the only feasible alternative to gasoline and coal is nuclear power, which currently provides the vast majority (about 80%) of the electricity used in homes and businesses in the very large country of France. Nuclear energy isn't ideal, and nuclear fuel will run out eventually, but it's cheap.

-How big is this problem really? Think about this-- in addition to everything else I've mentioned, all our plastics and many of our other synthetic materials come from petroleum. When petroluem is gone, we'll be stuck re-cycling old plastic and resorting to alternative materials! We may encounter problems with scarcity if the quality of certain plastic degrade (to the point of unsuitability) after a lot of recycling. And the alternatives to using plastic-- such as wood, which is funny since our forests are running out and a new greater demand for wood could itself be a problem-- may not be entirely suitable or practicable. And many of our weapons of war are powered by petroleum.

=What Can You Do About It?=

-The first thing to do I think is to make sure people know that the coal and oil are running out. You could pick a day of the week on which you'll tell people you happen to meet or already know that coal and oil are running out. You may be surprised even at which people you already know who don't know that oil and coal are running out, and who think that electric cars are just about reducing vehicle emissions to stop global warming.

-Talk about the problem of a post-oil, post-coal world. If you can write an e-mail to a responsible person, a letter to a newspaper, or can give a speech, it won't hurt to mention this problem. You can sum up some of the points I mentioned in my post. You can even try to create T-shirts, posters, a zine or a website about coal and oil running out and about post-oil, post-coal energy alternatives.

-Another thing you can do is buy or construct an electric, hybrid, or other "green" car. When people know that you have a "green" vehicle, it will create a buzz, and when the car companies experience enough of a demand for "green" cars, they may start to get the message that this is the future, and big businesses might consequently spend more money and time trying to create a post-oil world that is worth living in for us.

Remember, it may take activism and speaking out to solve this problem. You just can't count on the most rich and the most powerful people to take this seriously. So long as they feel like they will have enough money to keep them safe and happy no matter what happens, a lot of the richest people in our society may even like it if a lot of people in America become relatively more powerless (because they'll be impoversihed) compared to them.