Eric Harrington – Our Zero Sum World..
Recently I was watching the television when a commercial came on for Ford Motor Company efforts to produce a new type of foam rubber for cars from Soy beans. Presumably, this foam was developed in an effort to reduce our dependence on oil. But there is a HUGE problem with this concept, and so many of the “green” chimeras being promoted today.
The problem is that using Energy from non-renewable sources is a Zero sum game. The energy necessary for every step in a given system must be considered in gauging its value. While on the surface it would appear obvious– creating cushioning foam out of soy bean could reduce oil dependence in making plastics, the reality is very different. Soy beans require significant amounts of oil in the form of fertilizer, fuel oil for farm equipment, and for shipping them around the world, as well as water which typically must be pumped, as well as the energy used in creating all the chemicals and the very processes that convert the soy bean into foam. In fact, if actually carefully analyzed, it is very likely that the soy product contained in the foam actually has more oil in it than an oil-based foam product. The reason is, no conversion step is perfectly efficient, and all types of chemical and energy conversions waste energy in every step.
This inefficiency has been proven true with ethanol. The amount of oil required to produce ethanol, is greater than the amount of oil it replaces when burned in a car. This is a scientific FACT, not political propaganda. Not only oil based fertilizer, tractor fuel and diesel truck fuel, but huge amounts of heat are used in the process of creating ethanol. There is a simple rule that might make this clearer. In chemistry, every conversion from one form to another has an energy overhead, i.e. a loss. Also, aggressive commercial agriculture not only requires significant petroleum based fertilizers, but also other important minerals, which are also becoming scarce. These minerals may not be important to the corn, but they are critical to anyone who wants to eat the corn for food. And with each gallon of ethanol, those important minerals are being pulled out of the soil and ultimately discarded. Could they be recycled? Possibly, but it again would be at a loss in energy. And finally, placing finite food resources in the free market for creating fuel raises the price of food to the less fortunate people of the world.
The other popular energy pipe-dream is hydrogen. While hydrogen is a very clean energy storage system, it is, to date, highly inefficient and expensive. But it is not and never will be an energy source, and it will not in and of itself reduce our dependence on oil. All hydrogen technology really amounts to is a less toxic, higher capacity (volumetrically) replacement for batteries. It is NOTHING else. And it is to presently substantially LESS efficient, and hence requires MORE oil than would be required to do the same work with batteries, at least when the actual materials required for the systems are not considered. When one does consider the energy required to produce the battery or the hydrogen production & storage systems, it is a much more complex comparison and one I will not attempt in this forum. But the bottom line is, regardless of how it is stored, we need new renewable SOURCES of energy, not fantasies.
The only truly renewable, ie truly sustainable energy sources on this planet to date are Wind, Solar, Geothermal, Tidal, and Hydroelectric, and unless a practical fusion discovery is made, that will be the case well past the point of the imminent economic collapse that is unavoidable with our current policies. These sources are the ONLY truly sustainable sources and they are not Zero Sum. They are only limited by the cost of converting their energy into useable forms, which at the present is generally 5-10 times as expensive as getting the same number of calories of energy from oil. It is the extremely cheap energy found in oil that has fueled the industrial revolution and makes our current level of energy consumption even possible.
The sad, or rather desperate truth is, that the ONLY way we can possibly build a renewable infrastructure that could come anywhere near replacing our current supply demands, is to use most of the still relatively cheap (compared to all the alternatives) energy of oil NOW, while it is still cheap, to build an alternative infrastructure, because all of the technologies necessary to extract energy from the sources mentioned previously, require huge amounts of energy. Wind and Tidal systems require large amounts of high-tech metals which require huge amounts of heat in their refinement and production. Really significant Geothermal opportunities are fairly scarce, and seldom found in the dense population areas where the demand for energy is greatest, and they require substantial energy in the form of large ground drills and metal piping. Solar panels use silicon cells which again are baked in ovens. New forms of cells are being produced which may reduce the energy footprint, but to date these new film-based cells are much less efficient. These new film based solar cells and wind power are the planets best chance for ending it’s addition to oil, but an intervention is necessary immediately. The urgency for this cannot be stressed enough, because as oil prices skyrocket, the price of these producing these technologies goes up right along with them.
The pure material cost, (ie solar equipment without construction) to convert all the present US electrical energy needs to Solar is estimated at 2-3 trillion dollars. While a staggering sum, the money spent on the Iraq war alone could accomplish 10-15% or more of our demand right now. It would have provided enough clean, renewable, domestic energy to power several major cities. And the more you buy, the less it costs, and the more investment that will pour into research, with the resultant technological advances. And finally, the conversion to solar power is inarguably the most effective thing we can do to counteract global warming. Not only does it reduce CO2 emissions, but it literally converts the very energy heating the planet into electrical energy to do work.
Our current energy policy when viewed in truly holistic terms is tragically short sighted, catastrophically so. To compare the threat of Terrorism to any single American with the threat of imminent economic collapse caused by skyrocketing oil and food prices, is like comparing the danger of getting struck by lightening in the middle of a forest, to that of getting caught in a fast moving forest fire while there. A fire that is already raging.
The painful reality is there are no easy fixes, no short cuts to a sustainable planet. Possibly the greatest challenge is the simplest one–over population. No amount of technological advancement realistically possible can support the current population growth in the third world. Regardless of our energy resources, there is a little discussed, but truly dire problem with soil fertility, and in particular it’s content of trace minerals — rare (hence the word trace) elements critical to human health, and elements that have been pulled from the soil without replacement for decades, leaving the soils depleted and unhealthy.
Productivity of soils worldwide has deceased for decades now, and has only been offset some by the advent of more vigorous hybrid plant stocks. But more important than productivity is the issue of the effective nutrition of the food produced. The more complex and longer lived the organism, the greater number of trace minerals it requires to remain healthy. Shortages in these trace minerals have been linked to everything from diabetes to cancer to heart disease, and may well prove a important factor in all these maladies. And then the final straw is that huge resources are then spent trying to cure these maladies, ones that could have been quite inexpensively prevented. So it is easy to see that growing food crops to replace oil with our already overtaxed soils, will likely create a another dire crisis to add to the energy challenges everyone now is painfully aware of.
Our window is almost GONE…