Science

Cheap Dirty Fuels Versus Costly Clean Fuels

Which will win the race to fuel the future?

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Burning fossil fuels loads the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, and that's raising the earth's average temperature. This raises the question: Will today's higher oil and gas prices necessarily spark the development of low-carbon, climate-friendly transport fuels? Unfortunately, energy produced from unconventional sources of fossil fuels is still often cheaper than many other proposed alternative fuel supplies. In addition, some allegedly green fuels aren't all that green.

Let's look at the fossil fuel conundrum. With oil at $100 per barrel, all kinds of alternative petroleum sources become more attractive. Consider the ongoing development of the Alberta tar sands in Canada. The reserves locked in these sands amount to 179 billion barrels of oil. The oil sands production cost estimates range from $25 to $40 per barrel. This was not economical just ten years ago when oil was selling for around $10 per barrel, but it looks great when the price of crude is hovering near $100 per barrel. Today, more than 1.1 million barrels of oil flow from the oil sands and production is projected to grow to more than 3 million barrels per day by 2015. However, producing oil from tar sands uses 2 to 5 barrels of water for each barrel of oil, scrapes large portions of the landscape bare which must then be reclaimed, and releases up to three times as much the chief global warming gas, carbon dioxide, as conventional oil production.

A similar analysis applies to the oil shale in the Green River Formation in the western United States. That formation contains an estimated 1.1 trillion to 500 billion barrels of recoverable crude according to a 2005 RAND Corporation report. That report suggests that it is economical to produce oil from Green River sources when oil prices are above $30 per barrel. Again, obtaining crude from oil shale is a dirty process, consuming 3 barrels of water per barrel of oil produced and releasing considerably more atmosphere warming carbon dioxide than conventional oil production.

In terms of global warming potential, an even more worrisome proposal is turning coal into liquid fuels. A brief from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) finds that transforming coal to liquid transport fuels becomes economical when oil is $50 per barrel. The AAAS brief suggests that sequestering the excess carbon dioxide emitted from the process would increase production costs by $5 per barrel. And even in that case, the coal fuels would release 10 percent more carbon dioxide than conventional hydrocarbons. Coal to liquid fuels would have all of the environmental and health consequences associated with conventional coal mining. The AAAS brief cites an estimate that it would take an additional 250 million tons of coal, equivalent to 25 percent of the United States current annual production, to replace 10 percent of the country's present consumption of liquid transportation fuel.

What about so-called green alternatives like electric cars, hydrogen fueled cars or biofuels? Can they compete with these alternative oil supplies? Let's start with bioethanol produced from corn. Bioethanol is almost as contentious a fuel as petroleum. Since ethanol is a refined fuel, the easier comparison is with the price of gasoline. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) notes even as oil prices have climbed, the price of a gallon of ethanol produced in the U.S. has generally been higher than the price of a gallon of unleaded gasoline. Also, one must take into account the how plowing up additional land to produce biofuel crops affects the natural environment and growing concerns about the effect of biofuels on the price of food. The EIA notes that if oil prices fall to below $50 per barrel that cellulosic ethanol based on current technologies will not be cost competitive.

What about the much-ballyhooed hydrogen economy? The idea is that cars would run on fuel cells that would burn hydrogen and emit only water vapor. But where will the hydrogen come from? Ideally it would be produced by electrolysis—splitting water molecules using electricity. As engineer Robert Zubrin notes, however, hydrogen currently costs about $100 per kilogram and a kilogram of hydrogen contains about as much energy as a gallon of gasoline. Other sources of hydrogen include methane or even coal which have all the environmental downsides discussed above. Besides why waste perfectly good electricity to make hydrogen which will be used to make more electricity in fuel cells to propel automobiles? Why not use electricity directly?

So why not electric cars? Are they an economically feasible and environmentally friendly solution to our dirty liquid fuels conundrum? Current battery technologies are not up to the task, but nanotechnology may now be coming to the rescue. For example, Phoenix Motorcars is ordering NanoSafe batteries from the Reno, Nevada-based company Altairnano to fuel its all-electric trucks. These lithium ion batteries can be charged in 10 minutes at a commercial 480 volt station or in six hours using home power. The trucks can accelerate from 0 to 60 in 10 seconds with a top speed of 95 miles per hour and can go 100 miles before recharging. Amazingly these batteries can be recharged 20,000 times. Typical lithium ion batteries can be recharged only 500 to 1000 times, and lead acid batteries won't last more than 700 cycles. Nanosafe batteries replace combustible graphite in typical lithium ion batteries with nanoscale titanium.

How could a fleet of electric cars be fueled? In 2006, a U.S. Department of Energy study concluded that if 84 percent of all cars and light trucks were plug in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), fueling them would not require any additional electric generation capacity. The study assumes that the PHEVs would travel an average of 33 miles per day solely on electric power and could be charged using off-peak power at night. PHEVs have gasoline engines that kick in for longer trips. In addition, electric utilities would develop a smart grid that would allow them to draw power from vehicle batteries hooked into the grid as a way to cover peak power periods, such air-conditioning on summer days or winter cold snaps. The big environmental upside is that the U.S. could dramatically cut back on greenhouse gas emissions from its transport sector.

While progress is being made in improving battery performance, current nano-batteries are not yet cheap. They add at least $6,000 to $10,000 in costs to a vehicle. For example, Phoenix Motorcars is adapting the Korean-made Ssangyong Actyon truck to all-electric. The regular version of that truck goes for $25,000 in Australia (not available in the U.S.) and Phoenix will sell its all-electric version for $45,000. The DOE PHEV study finds that when compared to 27.5 miles per gallon internal combustion vehicles, the break-even premium for a PHEV at $2.50 per gallon is $3,500 at when electricity costs $0.12 per kilowatt hour. At $3.50 per gallon, the premium rises to more than $6,500. So, current versions of PHEVs, using nanotech batteries, are not yet economical in comparison to gasoline powered vehicles.

Biotechnology is another possible pathway to a post-petroleum future. For example, the privately-held biotech company, LS9, based in San Carlos, CA. aims to use synthetic biology to skip over ethanol to directly produce gasoline. LS9 co-founder and Harvard University geneticist George Church describes synthetic biology as "treating biology the way you would treat large-scale integrated circuits. We've been dealing with one part at a time or a small number of parts. Synthetic biology is engineering of new systems using parts that we trust." Another way to think about it is that biologists want to do to biology what engineers have done to electronics and chemists have done with chemistry.

If LS9 succeeds, it would mean no need to change our current transportation infrastructure. LS9 has modified bacterial metabolic pathways so that their designed microbes can eat cellulose and excrete hydrocarbons that can be refined into gasoline and other petroleum products. In 2008, LS9 plans to build a pilot plant to test and perfect the process, and hopes to be selling biocrude to refineries within three to five years. Keep in mind that the source of the cellulose to feed LS9's microbes will also have important environmental implications.

If the goal is to encourage low-carbon transport fuel alternatives as a way to help prevent excessive man-made global warming, the carbon content of fossil fuels must have a price. A price on carbon emissions would steer inventors and consumers toward low-carbon alternatives. In practice, this would involve imposing either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade carbon market. In the meantime, the technological race for fueling the 21st century's vehicle fleet is on, and unconventional fossil fuels are in the lead.


Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His most recent book, Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution, is available from Prometheus Books.

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  1. The DOE PHEV study finds that when compared to 27.5 miles per gallon internal combustion vehicles, the break-even premium for a PHEV at $2.50 per gallon is $3,500 at when electricity costs $0.12 per kilowatt hour. At $3.50 per gallon, the premium rises to more than $6,500. So, current versions of PHEVs, using nanotech batteries, are not yet economical in comparison to gasoline powered vehicles.

    This is very confusing. Are you saying that you can’t break even at $2.50/gal., but as you approach $3.50/gal it becomes a financial wash? And what mileage per year are you using to determine that analysis? Sorry for my obtuseness, but I just was not able to pull the relevant info out.

  2. What? No mention of biodiesel?
    Growing rape seed or canola for its oil makes better sense than raising corn to make ethanol. There is little or no refining necessary.

    What’s wrong Ron? Afraid to shill for Big Rape?

  3. …unconventional fossil fuels are in the lead.

    Hmmph… Not one word about burning petrified wood.

  4. This will all be meaningless once I perfect my flux capacitor.

  5. Why is thorium never mentioned as a cleaner source of power? If not for weapons grade plutonium thorium would have been the choice for nuclear power. It isn’t too late to be the choice if enough people demand it.

  6. Huh. Good article.

    Clearly those of us with some environmentalist temper to our libertarianism would like to cheer for something other than tearing up the Green River shales or dealing with the coal-liquification mess. But pairing plug-in hybrids with LS9’s biocrude is appealing, if either can make it to commercial viability.

  7. I find my production of methane propels people away from my immediate vicinity.

  8. Gotta agree with nostar, though. At least some mention of biodiesel would be in order. And it’s a great platform for Willie Nelson jokes.

  9. Bobj, but that would lead to dangerous proliferation of cobalt-thorium G technology.

  10. If LS9 succeeds, it would mean no need to change our current transportation infrastructure. LS9 has modified bacterial metabolic pathways so that their designed microbes can eat cellulose and excrete hydrocarbons that can be refined into gasoline and other petroleum products. In 2008, LS9 plans to build a pilot plant to test and perfect the process, and hopes to be selling biocrude to refineries within three to five years. Keep in mind that the source of the cellulose to feed LS9’s microbes will also have important environmental implications.

    As I have said before, I suspect that things like this will be the end of the carbon dilemma. Though to be honest I was thinking more of being able to pluck carbon out of the air for use in things like carbon fiber but still, here it is.

    If we produce “biocrude” and store it underground, then we will have effectively reversed the fossil fuel caused C02 excess.

  11. It should be illegal to grow rape seed because of the name.

  12. Vlad Drac,
    Why do you think they call it “Canola Oil” instead?

  13. Because Canuck Oil was taken?

  14. I don’t think Canucks fans and Oilers fans get along too well.

  15. This article will be a boon for green libertarians, but it falls into a common rhetorical trap in the global warming debate.
    The emphasis here is almost exclusivly on alternative fuels for cars.

    While emissions from vehicles ARE a big cause, they are still outstripped by emissions from fossil fuel power plants, most notably, those that run on coal. Look at the second chart of this link, and you’ll see for yourself. This problem will likely only get worse as time goes on as China is heavily relying on coal power in its rapid industrialization. The U.S. uses it for half of electricity production. Even if you believe that electric cars (where is the electricity to power them going to come from?) won’t cause these coal plants to blech more greenhouse gases, the harm the plants cause outweights that caused even by all of our veichles.

    Unlike alternative fuels, which are still a ways away, we have alternatives to coal power now. I’ve been a big proponent of nuclear power, and renewable sources such as solar and wind (while still not viable) do have potential.

    It’s not that I don’t appreciate Reason talking about greenhouse gases. I do. However, if we want to do something decisive now, we should turn away from the pumps and look towards the cooling towers.

  16. 3W,

    The reason the focus of such articles usually falls on transportation fuels is exactly as you note: we have alternatives to coal power now.

    Transportation is the uncracked nut of the global warming issue because there are no solutions for capturing the CO2 emissions from a moving engine, while there are point-source solutions for zeroing CO2 emissions from a stationary plant.

  17. if we want to do something decisive now, we should turn away from the pumps and look towards the cooling towers.

    3W, That’s essentially my thinking.

    Would somebody, PLEEZE grab “the greens” by their collective collars and shake some sense into them about nuclear power and global warming? You might want to mention the thousands of annual coal mining deaths while you’re at it.

  18. Articles on all the myriad comparative environmental impacts of different technologies bore me. Unless you’re just into that stuff, who cares?

    Seems we have three choices:

    a) the free market (or as close to it as we currently have),

    b) command and control, in which case the bureaucrats pour over articles just like Ron’s here and choose what technologies to favor and disfavor using various coercive means at their disposal, or

    c) tax carbon emissions (hopefully with an approximately revenue neutral cut in other taxes) that tax ALL carbon emitting technologies but which allow the free market take care of the rest.

    I’m for (a) or (c). C is intriguing, and I figure with its (accurate) implementation we can stop being bored with articles like this one except in trade magazines where they belong, because the tax will force those who are actually involved with the industries in question to make choices based on the new prices that include the carbon taxes, and the most efficient means will be found by them without their necessarily even trying, while the bureaucrats and electorate can be freed to turn their attention to trying to control their fellow citizen in other noxious ways.

    The problem, of course, is whether such a tax can be implemented accurately, fairly and efficiently enough that, even coupled with comparable tax reductions elsewhere in the economy, they do more good than harm. This, whether or not such taxation is really feasible, is the issue I would like to be reading about!

  19. Why hasn’t joe come along to hurl insults at Ron Bailey yet?

  20. And even in that case, the coal fuels would release 10 percent carbon dioxide than conventional hydrocarbons.

    Shouldn’t there be a “more” or “less” in front of “carbon?”

  21. 3W: MikeP got it right. Besides I can’t cover every fuel in one online article.

    fyodor: My excuse is that the public and policymakers need to know which fuel techs are actually economically in play when they make decisions about which policies and politicians to support. Besides, as a science geek, I like reporting on such topics.

  22. LarryA: Thanks. Fixed.

  23. Is it wrong that I can’t give a damn about this while Conservative T-Shirt Girl is there?

  24. I hope a new article on this coverint the other things mentioned here is coming soon. Especially addressing NASCAR going full throttle on alternative organic hydrocarbon fuel this year, just a couple of decades after me!

  25. > Burning fossil fuels loads the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, and that’s raising the earth’s average temperature.

    It’s a sad day when a regular Reason contributor states an opinion as if it were an established fact.

    > These lithium ion batteries can be charged in 10 minutes at a commercial 480 watt station

    480 watts for 10 minutes would produce a total charge of 80 watt-hours. A truck wouldn’t get far on that. 480 volts, perhaps?

    Reason should be able to do better than this.

  26. Mick:

    As for temperature you might want to glance at the IPCC reports, e.g., The Physical Science Basis for Climate Change. The Synthesis Report will be out later this week.

    Good catch on volts vs. watts. The correction is made. Thanks.

  27. Seems we have three choices:

    a) the free market (or as close to it as we currently have),

    b) command and control, in which case the bureaucrats pour over articles just like Ron’s here and choose what technologies to favor and disfavor using various coercive means at their disposal, or

    c) tax carbon emissions (hopefully with an approximately revenue neutral cut in other taxes) that tax ALL carbon emitting technologies but which allow the free market take care of the rest.

    You forgot the most promising avenue…technology prizes. Give me $5 billion for technology prizes for fusion, and I’ll completely solve the world’s energy and global warming problems. (Truth-in-commenting note: I think it might well introduce the significant problem that everyone in the world would be able to make nuclear bombs. But it will solve the energy and global warming problems.)

  28. In reading this article the first thing I thought of was the great documentary: Who Killed the Electric Car?

    The saddest thing was there were people who signed petitions to try and buy EV1 electric cars (put out by GM, who finally could have lead the way in SOMETHING other than losses), but production was cut.

    Here’s a little quote from their website, showing , sadly, the free market isn’t always quite as free as we’d like it to be:

    “According to GM, 4000 prospective EV1 customers on waitlists were contacted in 2001 about leasing an EV1, and only 50 were willing to sign a lease. EV1 supporters argue that GM discouraged prospects from signing up with the EV1 program. [33] You had to fill out a crazy amount of paperwork, it was difficult to get information about the car, and even Mel Gibson was required to submit a resume to lease his EV1. The claim that there was no consumer demand for this car is false. We interviewed John Dabels, who headed up GM’s marketing team when the EV1 was still the Impact, and he said that the sort of consumer enthusiasm for that car was something he had never seen before-thousands of people, literally from around the world, were lining up to get information about this innovative new electric car.”

    I think its going to take some new blood in the auto industry to get electric cars going. It’s too easy for them to say that its too tough and that there’s no demand. It’s going to take some really clever business people to do this and overcome economies of scale, but I’m routing for them.

  29. c) tax carbon emissions (hopefully with an approximately revenue neutral cut in other taxes) that tax ALL carbon emitting technologies but which allow the free market take care of the rest.

    Since the only organization with the capability of coercively rip off people from their property (as the concept of “TAX” implies) is the government, we are back to the calculation problem: who is to say what a carbon emission is, or how would you measure it, by whose standard, by what (economical) means? Only the free market can price things, not a central planning bureaucracy. The idea is absurd – I am appalled by hearing this woolly idea being touted by an otherwise intelligent person like Ron B.

  30. There was no mention of nuclear power in the list of alternative fuels. Why? Is it not nuclear power “green” enough?

  31. “There was no mention of nuclear power in the list of alternative fuels. Why? Is it not nuclear power “green” enough?”

    Again, the focus of the article is on vehicle fuels. Nuke-powered cars may have been a dream of the 50’s, but people woke up to the impracticaliy of it.

    Apart from vehicles, greenies at Treehugger.com and elsewhere do think about nuclear power in practical terms. The recent droughts though have brought to light the Achilles Heal of nuclear power. Water. A nuke plant uses 20% more water per Watt generated than Coal power. For comparison, Wind turbines ultimately use (cradle to cradle) 1/1000th the amount of water. Additionally, Nuke power is not CO2 free as a considerable amount of mining and transporting must take place, which so far burns fuels.

    Sepeartely I am taking the bus now instead of driving my MINI Cooper. Solenoid problems. But doing so helps me discover bulk rate discount tickets. Reduced wear and tear costs on my car. Reduced car insurance. http://www.commutercheck.com helps too if one’s employer participates. My health is improving by walking to and fro more. All in all I figure my commuting costs will drop by 1/3 to 1/2, by taking the bus….and I still keep my car. Only real drawback is my commute time increased by 2 hrs /day.

  32. c) tax carbon emissions…

    Would that really help? Would that keep people from burning so much carbon? High gasoline prices don’t seem to keep people from driving, and high taxes don’t seem to keep many from smoking cigarettes. People will do what they want to do and find some way to pay for it (or get someone else to pay for it.)

  33. “Would that really help? Would that keep people from burning so much carbon?”

    *cough*

    Fuel Taxes when combined with relatively cheap alternatives are available: busses, trains, fuel efficient cars, bicycle paths etc. YES.

  34. The real solution to the Global Warming crisis was developed by the DOE/NASA over 20 years ago. What is lacking is an administration in Washington with the vision to implement it. It would be good for the planet and good for the United States. See the following articles.

    Press Briefing on
    Solar Power Satellite Report:
    “No Showstoppers”
    by Frederick Osborn, Jr.

    February 1981

    The DOE/NASA Program Assessment Report – Statement of Findings on its Satellite Power System Concept Development and Evaluation Program was presented to more than 50 representatives of the media at a press briefing organized by an Ad Hoc Coordinating Committee on Space on December 3 at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C.

    Dr. Jerry Grey, Administrator of Public Policy, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, introduced Dr. Peter E. Glaser, Vice President of Arthur D. Little. Inc. and president of SUNSAT Energy Council, who presented an overview of the report and answered questions for more than an hour and a half.

    The report, Dr. Glaser said. is the culmination of a three year $19.5 million study by the Department of Energy, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Commerce, and more than 60 organizations, including public interest and small consulting groups as well as universities and large industrial firms.

    The report is a landmark document, he said. It represents the first time in the history of assessing energy options that a major technology has been reviewed so carefully prior to its application. It sets a pattern for future assessments of major technologies.

    While the report presents no conclusions or recommendations, its findings are positive for further exploration of the SPS concept. No “show stoppers” or insurmountable obstacles to bringing power from space down to the Earth’s surface were found.

    Because of the significance of these findings to future energy supplies, to public understanding of SPS, and to futture space activities, an ad-hoc Coordinating Committee on Space, comprised of the Aerospace Industries Association, the American Astronautical Society, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the L-5 Society, the National Space Institute, the Space Foundation and SUNSAT Energy Council was formed to organize the press briefing, to publicize the key findings and to present conclusions and recommendations.

    Dr. Glaser selected the following highlights:

    ? The reference system developed by NASA for the study (a 10×5 km satellite using photovoltaic or thermal collectors to feed a 2.45 GHz transmitter using klystrons and delivering 5 GWe to utility grids on the earth via a 10×13 km receiving antenna) uses only known technology and is amenable to evolutionary development. Solar Power Satellites appear to be not only technically possible, but also subject to technical improvement. For example, advanced concepts with improved technology, developed only 2-1/2 years after the reference system was evolved, project a capital cost reduction from the reference system estimate of $3000 per kilowatt to $1500 per kilowatt.

    ? No environmental effects were identified as clearly irreducible and unacceptable, including microwave and non-microwave health, ecological, atmospheric and communication effects.

    ? No insurmountable problems of providing materials or finding land for receiving antennas were uncovered, although some additional manufacturing capacity will be required. Net energy analysis indicates that the SPS energy ratio is very favorable compared with that of fossil and nuclear energy options if fuel requirements are included.

    ? Government regulations, private sector interface, electricity pricing, industry and labor relocations, financing, and the role of federal and state agencies in land use and energy planning will require further clarification.

    ? The DOE study has made a great contribution to the knowledge of microwaves. During the next decade the United States and the international community can be expected to agree on microwave exposure standards. When the standards are set the microwave flux in the vicinity of a receiving antenna could be controlled to meet such standards.

    ? Lloyd’s is already insuring business satellites. As insurance consortiums become more familiar with satellite operations, SPS ground and space risks may become insurable.

    ? The COMSAT/INTELSAT organization, which now includes 102 countries, is a precedent for the type of international cooperation on the global energy option provided by SPS. A similar organization could be acceptable to both developed and developing countries, sharing costs, distributing benefits widely, preventing military use of SPS and minimizing vulnerability to attack.

    ? Solar Power Satellites, by opening up a new and very large energy resource, provide opportunities for improving international relations on a global basis.

    ? The Department of Energy’s Solar Power Satellite Project Division has pioneered in reaching out to uncover possible areas of public concern and has recognized the public’s legitimate role in the decision process. Both advocates and opponents agree that many of the impacts of the SPS program require further study.

    ? The life cycle cost of solar power satellites is competitive with coal, nuclear and terrestrial photovoltaics. Each alternative technology will have its distinct health and safety impacts and the low level and delayed impacts of all technologies will he hard to assess. The total amount of land required for the complete fuel cycle is roughly the same fur all technologies, but SPS and terrestrial photovoltaics for base-load (centralized) power require large contiguous land areas.

    ? Space is not owned by the U.S. or by any other country. There is a great demand for positions on the geosynchronous orbit. This could burden SPS with international regulations that may not limit other technologies.

    On the basis of the DOE / NASA assessment findings the ad-hoc Coordinating Committee on Space concludes that:

    No technical, economic, environmental, societal, or other constraint has been identified which would preclude continuation of an SPS R&D program.

    Technical advances, with consequent cost reductions in components and in space transportation can increase the technical feasibility and economic viability of power satellites beyond that of the SPS Reference System. SPS is not critically dependent on any specific technology, which increases confidence in the concept.

    Dr. Glaser concluded with his belief that now is the time to explore the possible contribution of the SPS concept to meet the U.S. and the world’s future energy demands. “It is our responsibility to future generations,” he said, “to bring the research on the SPS to its logical conclusion and, in concert with other nations, decide whether or not to proceed with the development of this major energy option.”

    Dr. Glaser was asked whether power from SPS could be delivered directly to homes, like television broadcasting from communications satellites. He replied that SPS will probably deliver power appropriate to a wide range of situations.

    Asked about possible scarcity of materials, Dr. Glaser said more manufacturing capacity for photovoltaic cells was needed, but that the cells are made of common materials which are in ample supply. There may be shortages of materials for some parts of the satellite system, but substitutes can probably be found. As regards making 1-1/2 billion dipoles for receiving antennas, Dr. Grey said a Japanese friend had told him “give us an order and we’ll deliver in six months.”

    When asked about making SPS from lunar materials Dr. Grey replied that it would probably not be done in the early stages, but ultimately, yes, it would be cheaper.

    Dr. Grey was asked whether all the energy collected in space would have to be beamed down to the Earth. He replied that SPS was a first step in the industrial use of space, and that the energy up there is by no means limited to Earth surface use.

    Asked about the present status of the DOE /NASA SPS program, Dr. Grey said it is presently dead. DOE has zero funds from now to October ’81.

    Sunny Outlook for Sunsats

    Monday, Dec. 15, 1980 By FREDERIC GOLDEN

    A federal study finds solar satellites technically feasible

    It is the year 2005. At the White House an agitated aide rushes into the Oval Office with grim news. “Mr. President,” he announces, “OPEC has just raised its prices by another 10%, and oil will be going up to $450 a barrel by next January.” To the assistant’s surprise, though, the Chief Executive seems unconcerned. “Don’t worry,” says the President. “This time it isn’t going to matter. We will have another three solar satellites on line by early next year, so we can tell those cartel characters to take their oil and [expletives deleted].”

    Any scenario calling for complete U.S. freedom from foreign oil supplies is probably a petro-pipedream. But the notion of using solar satellites to capture vast amounts of energy may not be very farfetched at all. In spite of considerable scoffing at the sci-fi grandiosity of the idea, a report published last week, after a threeyear, $19.5 million study undertaken by the Department of Energy in collaboration with NASA, indicates that there are no insurmountable technological hurdles in the way of solar power satellites (SPS) as a major alternative energy source.

    The report, says SPS Pioneer Peter Glaser, “is a landmark study that should go a long way to dispel the apprehensions and just plain misunderstandings about solar power satellites.”

    Glaser, 57, a vice president at Arthur D. Little, Inc., the Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm, is a Czech-born engineer who first proposed solar satellites twelve years ago. Foreseeing a day when oil would run out and other fossil fuels would become scarce, he suggested placing two giant arrays of solar cells, each about half the size of Manhattan, 22,300 miles above the earth in geosynchronous orbit; there the structures’ orbital speed would match the planet’s rotation, thus holding the solar powerhouses over the same spot on the ground. Bathed in almost perpetual sunshine, the cells, like those already used to power weather and communications satellites, would convert the sun’s energy into electricity, which would then be beamed to earth as microwaves.

    Even at night or on cloudy days on earth, when ground-based solar collectors shut down, these microwaves would come flooding down from space. In the scheme studied by the Energy Department, these beams would be focused on six-mile by nine-mile oval-shaped receiving antennas called rectennas. The rectennas would turn the microwaves back into electricity and funnel it into utility power grids. By Glaser’s calculation, one satellite could supply as much electricity as five nuclear plants. The Energy Department envisioned 60 such arrays, built over 30 years, to supply 300 million kW., which is about half the U.S.’s current electrical generating capacity.

    For a long time, Glaser recalls, even some of his scientific colleagues “thought T was writing science fiction.” Many critics, recoiling at the potential cost of $100 billion or so for the first satellite, called his idea a pie-in-the-sky space boondoggle. Others worried about the effects of microwave radiation, fretting that passengers in passing airplanes might be flash-cooked like roasts in a microwave oven.

    At a press briefing heralding the Energy Department study, Glaser replied to all these objections. He pointed out that solar satellites, unlike power plants that would use nuclear fusion, need no major technological breakthroughs; the space program has already shown that the required scientific know-how exists. What of the staggering costs? Glaser argued that after the turn of the century, when such satellites could be in operation, their electricity probably would be no costlier, and perhaps a lot cheaper, than power from oil, coal and nuclear plants. As for the danger from microwaves, Glaser conceded that this needs further study. But he pointed out that a satellite’s beam would always be locked on target; in fact, it would disperse altogether if the satellite did not receive continuous electronic cues from a transmitter in the rectenna. Along its edge, said Glaser, the beam would be much less powerful than permissible leak age from a closed microwave oven.

    For all the optimism radiated by Glaser and the Sunsat Energy Council, a coalition of individuals and corporations lobbying for his scheme, no one could deny SPS’s enormous complexities.

    Weighing up to 50,000 tons apiece, solar satellites would have to be built in space itself, with materials carried aloft by a new generation of craft considerably larger and more powerful than the NASA space shuttle. Looking like great Erector Sets, the structures, about six miles long and three miles wide, would be made of long thin beams actually manufactured in space out of rolls of aluminum or carbon-fiber strips about as thick as the wall of a beer can. In the weightlessness of orbit, nothing stronger would be needed.

    Though much of the assembly would be automated, as many as 600 construction workers would have to be housed at the orbital site for months at a time. As NASA’s problems with the space shuttle’s heat-shielding tiles have shown, countless un expected difficulties could crop up in such a complicated undertaking.

    Nonetheless, the House of Representatives was sufficiently fascinated by the proposal to pass a bill last year calling for $25 million in fiscal 1980 for further study of the concept, especially its environmental effects. Though the proposal died in the Senate, SPS advocates are now mounting a campaign for enactment of a similar measure by the next Congress.

    They have one compelling argument in heir favor. This year the lawmakers passed a bill calling for $20 billion in spending for fusion research over the next two decades. Why not hedge that bet with a few million dollars at least to investigate another idea that may be every bit as promising?

    – By Frederic Golden

  35. The article misstates the DOE study. The DOE study said no additioal power gen would be needed if 84% of the vehicles were electric; Assuming that recharging would be done during a full 24 hour period NOT merely during off peak hours. This means that the actual percentagee is closer to 40% when ellectric vehicles are recharged only during off peak hours.
    This is still an excellent outcome but we shouldn’t overstate the case.
    Also our study, Carbon Folly, at tsaugust.org shows that CO2 will be reduced by only 18% if 75% of all vehicles in 2050 were electric.

  36. Equating ethanol with corn is a cannard and displays the unseriousness of this article. Corn is probably the worst crop you could choose to create ethanol. Biomass and particularly switch grass are actually viable, and would be far moreso without massive government subsidies on corn farmers.

    Switch grass is brilliant because it grows almost anywhere. There are VAST stretches of the US where no commercial crops can grow that is basically wasteland at the moment. Turn that into switch grass farms and that is as pure a way to create wealth from dirt as you will find. The technology has finally caught up enough to make it realistic, now the politics have to catch up.

  37. “Burning fossil fuels loads the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, and that’s raising the earth’s average temperature.”

    Got any science to back that up? No, not your silly consensus, some scientific proof, something that actually resembles “the scientific method”? I thought not, but let’s accept your conjecture for the moment, let’s assume that it’s not just another “faith based initiative”, shouldn’t the first step be to plug all volcanoes? You know, the largest emitters of CO2 on the planet? Oh yeah, can’t do that, so let’s go after the cars that give people freedom. Let’s avoid doing something about traffic gridlock because all of those idling cars emit zero emissions, let’s just ban personal transportation except for methane-free horses.

    “If the goal is to encourage low-carbon transport fuel alternatives as a way to help prevent excessive man-made global warming…”

    How much is excessive? Is warming of 1 degree OK but 1.1 degrees is excessive? Who decides? The folks in Norway or those in Houston? Can we vote? Shouldn’t we determine the optimum climate before we tax ourselves into poverty? If current temps are excessive then why aren’t they the highest on record? Were the highest temps excessively excessive? And, why did they occur before the era of the muscle cars? How can you make a “moral case for the biotech revolution” if it’s based on a hoax? Oh, right, it is a “faith based inititatve” and those with the faith have the morals.

  38. Hmm…

    * Biobutanol can be used in place of gasoline, put into unmodified engines, standard gasoline pipelines, etc. Thanks to Uncle Sucker’s farm policy, we can’t import foreign cheap sugar for this, so we have to drive up the price of corn to do it.
    * Biodiesel from algae
    * Raise the federal gas tax by $3/gal and use that money to offset federal defense spending on CENTCOM, whose main reason for existence is to protect access to mideast oil
    * Set a baseline price per barrel of dino oil to $65/bbl by law, so if the price goes below that the difference is taken as tax. That would guarantee a floor for new technology and processes like oil sand/shale extraction (which greenies have issues with, but for me taking $$$ out of the hands of evil foreigners trumps all)

  39. THERE IS NO NEED FOR A ELECTRIC STORAGE IN THE ELECTRIC CARS, ALL WE NEED TO DO IS USE A DIESEL GENERATOR AND HOOK IT TO A ELECTRIC MOTOR THAT HAS A 10,000 RPM CAPABILITY AND USE THE GENERATOR TO POWER THE MOTOR, TO PROPEL THE CAR OR TRUCK THROUGH A 3 OR 4 SPEED TRANSMISSION, WHEN THE GENERAOTR USES A PINT OF DIESEL AN HOUR AND CAN PRODUCE A CAR THAT GETS UP TO 500 MILES A GALLON, THEN WE CAN TALL THE MIDDLE EAST TO K.M.A. AND GO ABOUT OUR BUSINESS…..IS THIS POSSIBLE? I BELIEVE SO EMAIL ME AND LETS TALK ABOUT IT.

  40. RUBICONINDIANA:

    shhh. indoor voice. indoor voice.

  41. > Burning fossil fuels loads
    > the atmosphere with carbon
    > dioxide, and that’s raising > the earth’s average
    > temperature.

    I came in late; I been busy. Ronald Bailey is plainly asserting that global warming is anthropocentric, correct?

    It’s been a couple years sicne reading him, but I dodn’t know he thought that.

  42. Mick and Curly

    It’s a sad day when a regular Reason contributor states an opinion as if it were an established fact.

    Got any science to back that up? No, not your silly consensus, some scientific proof, something that actually resembles “the scientific method”? I thought not, but let’s accept your conjecture for the moment, let’s assume that it’s not just another “faith based initiative”,

    Your language here is identical to anti-evolutionists, and equally invalid. It is not necessary to couch every scientific statement in a thousand caveats. It’s important to admit and discuss those under some circumstances, but it’s a waste of time and space to rediscuss this every time. Bailey has very explicitly stated in these hallowed interwebs why he has been skeptical, and why he now feels that global warming is acceptable as provisional science fact.

    This article is more on some potential solutions, and isn’t intended to rehash the evidence for global warming. So no, it’s not inappropriate to leave out caveats that are adequately discussed elsewhere.

  43. Since the first sentence is BS I didn’t read the rest of the article. The actual science indicates water vapor is much more of a “greenhouse gas” than CO2. Thorium does look promising – India’s experience with it may be a lamp unto our feet (pun intended).

    Mark Buehner is right on about switchgrass.

  44. OK, lunchstealer, let’s test your premise that “Bailey… now feels that global warming is acceptable as provisional science fact.” with the first two sentences of the article:

    Burning fossil fuels loads the atmosphere with carbon dioxide, and that’s raising the earth’s average temperature. This raises the question: Will today’s higher oil and gas prices necessarily spark the development of low-carbon, climate-friendly transport fuels?

    I don’t see any provisional acceptance, I see a statement followed by the supposition that low-carbon fuels are climate friendly. If your premise were true, then the article would begin:

    If we accept that the CO2 emitted while burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming then we can evaluate whether or not today’s oil and gas prices might spark the development of alternative fuels.

    However, I would prefer that the article began more along the lines of:

    The economics of alternative fuels are always dependent on the price of oil and natural gas. As technological advances are made, it’s important to review the price sensitivities of the various technologies to determine when, and if, they might be viable alternatives to fossil fuels.

    You’ll note that listing the assumption did not lengthen the article. Reams of documentation were not necessary. There was a simple declaration of the assumption. There is, in point of fact, no reason at all to mention global warming in the article, particularly if, as you suggest “Bailey… now feels that global warming is acceptable as provisional science fact.” Global warming is mentioned to steal a base, Bailey is attempting to convince the reader that there is an overarching issue that should color the economic analysis. That, lunchstealer, is not representative of “provisional acceptance”, it’s pure advocacy.

  45. “There are VAST stretches of the US where no commercial crops can grow that is basically wasteland at the moment. Turn that into switch grass farms and that is as pure a way to create wealth from dirt as you will find.”

    Very little of the unfarmed and undeveloped arable land in the US has enough water for any sort of commercial farming, including switchgrass. And there’s not a great deal of unused water even if we wanted to expend the resources necessary to build the infrastructure to get it there. You can’t make wealth from dirt alone, unfortunately.

  46. Switch grass is brilliant because it grows almost anywhere. There are VAST stretches of the US where no commercial crops can grow that is basically wasteland at the moment. Turn that into switch grass farms and that is as pure a way to create wealth from dirt as you will find. The technology has finally caught up enough to make it realistic, now the politics have to catch up.

    Those vast stretches of the US where no crops are grown? We call that “wildlife habitat”. Loss of habitat is principally what causes species to become endangered. Also, even switch grass needs water and the main reason much of that land is uncultivated is because it’s in the arid west and there is no water.

    Putting more land under the plow will inevitably cause us to lose more species. We certainly should debate that trade off, but tanstaafl applies here as everywhere. We should also look at making use of the agricultural waste we’re currently producing, but there’s not a great deal of that that isn’t being used for something.

  47. Yeah, provisional acceptance from a scientist is plenty enough justification to write an uncaveated sentence as a lead in to an article on a separate but related subject.

    Your objection is about as justified as insisting on a big bold declaration that “EVOLUTION IS JUST A THEORY” in school textbooks.

  48. In 2006, a U.S. Department of Energy study concluded that if 84 percent of all cars and light trucks were plug in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs), fueling them would not require any additional electric generation capacity.

    I can see how recharging vehicles during off-peak hours could be done without building more generation capacity, but if I’m reading this correctly, that’s not quite the same thing as saying no more electricity need be generated. Running our electric generating facilities full blast 24/7 to meet a new off-peak demand would certainly require more fuel for those generators. In a lot of places that means burning even more coal, no?

    [Great minds think alike eh, Alan?]

  49. Evolution is “just a theory”. However, those who make that assertion generally have no clue what a scientific theory is.

    Whether AGW rises to the level of theory is another question. For instance, it’s damned inconvenient to the AGW theory that global temperature seems to rise followed by an increase in atmospheric co2. Also, “correlation isn’t causation” and I’ve seen little explanation of how atmospheric co2 is supposed to affect global temperatures. Most of the argument is that there is a correlation between atmospheric co2 and global warming. Bottom line: What is the optimum global temperature?

    Be that as it may, pollution sux and we should be doing all we can to reduce it in all of its forms, no matter what we think of AGW.

  50. Most of the argument is that there is a correlation between atmospheric co2 and global warming.

    That and a pretty solid theoretical model to support it. Correlation isn’t causation, but correlation + good causative model is good evidence of causation. Let’s remember that we have a correlation of complex forms coming after simple forms in the fossil record and a causative model in natural selection and we call that a theory. I will admit that AGW isn’t as bulletproof as theories go as evolution, but its good enough that we don’t have to caveat every sentence we write ever in any article ever. Jumping all over it like stink on shit is just picking nits.

  51. lunchstealer opines:

    Most of the argument is that there is a correlation between atmospheric co2 and global warming.

    That and a pretty solid theoretical model to support it.

    Except that the ice core data clearly shows the rise in CO2 levels follows the rise in temperature. Your argument and your solid theoretical models claim the converse. I know, it’s an inconvenient truth.

    Since you, for some reason known only to you, keep bringing up evolution then why are you proposing that we do anything? Why don’t you advocate that we adapt, that we evolve? Can’t take the heat, stay out of the natural selection.

  52. …shouldn’t the first step be to plug all volcanoes? You know, the largest emitters of CO2 on the planet?

    Emissions of CO2 from volcanoes aren’t even close to human emissions of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels. A good estimate would be that human emissions of CO2 are more than 100 times greater than emissions of CO2 from volcanoes:

    Human emissions of CO2 are more than 100 times greater than volcanoes

  53. The article should have gone into more detail about the cost of batteries for electric cars, the reasons why they are so expensive, and the prospects for reducing those costs.

    There’s nothing fundamentally costly about Li-ion cells: they aren’t terribly complicated and they aren’t based on rare elements. No technological breakthrough is needed to reduce the costs. All that’s needed is a lot of capital investment and mass production on a large scale.

    When you look at the complexity and tolerances of an internal combustion engine, it’s amazing that they cost as little as they do. That’s the result of decades of experience and investment, in a highly competitive industry, to product them on a large scale. The same kind of efficiencies should come to electric cars, given time and motivation.

  54. Glaser, 57, a vice president at Arthur D. Little, Inc., the Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm, is a Czech-born engineer who first proposed solar satellites twelve years ago.

    That’s odd, because I remember solar power satellites being advocated when I was an undergraduate in…geez, it’s been 30 years. (Time flies.)

    Per wonderful Wikipedia, solar power satellites were proposed in 1968.

    Solar power satellite

    P.S. Until we get space elevators (which I thought up somewhere around 30-35 years ago), I don’t see solar power satellites being viable.

  55. There’s nothing fundamentally costly about Li-ion cells: they aren’t terribly complicated and they aren’t based on rare elements. No technological breakthrough is needed to reduce the costs. All that’s needed is a lot of capital investment and mass production on a large scale.

    Yes, I’ve forgotten the exact numbers, but as I recall, the money the U.S. government spends annually on photovoltaics and on battery research are each about $50-70 million.

    Those values can be compared to federal corn ethanol subsidies of $7 billion in 2006…or about 100 times greater.

  56. Natural sources of carbon dioxide include the respiration (breathing) of animals and plants, and evaporation from the oceans. Together, these natural sources release about 150 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, far outweighing the 7 billion tonnes of man-made emissions from fossil fuel burning, waste incineration, deforestation and cement manufacture. Nevertheless, natural removal processes, such as photosynthesis by land and ocean-dwelling plant species, cannot keep pace with this extra input of man-made carbon dioxide, and consequently the gas is building up in the atmosphere. (http://www.ace.mmu.ac.uk/eae/Global_Warming/Older/Emissions.html)

    Or, if you prefer, Mother Nature contributes about 96% of the CO2 while man lags behind at a paltry 4%. One must also point out that the conclusion that the concentration of CO2 is rising is due to man implies that CO2 levels pre-1850 were static. The ice core data demonstrates the fallacy of that conclusion. Go ahead, use your favorite search engine and find the data, you’ll find that CO2 levels have been much higher than they are today absent any industrialization (naturally I’m excluding aliens and the mythical inhabitants of Atlantis).

  57. Those values can be compared to federal corn ethanol subsidies of $7 billion in 2006…or about 100 times greater.

    How much is spent defending access to mideast oil? That should be considered subsidies for oil companies.

  58. Glaser, 57, a vice president at Arthur D. Little, Inc., the Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm, is a Czech-born engineer who first proposed solar satellites twelve years ago.

    That’s odd, because I remember solar power satellites being advocated when I was an undergraduate in…geez, it’s been 30 years. (Time flies.)

    Per wonderful Wikipedia, solar power satellites were proposed in 1968.

    Perhaps you missed the byline…

    Sunny Outlook for Sunsats

    Monday, Dec. 15, 1980 By FREDERIC GOLDEN

  59. How much is spent defending access to mideast oil? That should be considered subsidies for oil companies.

    Since ham-handed US foreign policy in the Middle East is a spectacularly destabilizing influence on the region, I would hardly call it a subsidy to anyone.

    However, there is the possibility that the US is intentionally making Mideast oil hard to acquire by tromping around in the area in order to raise the world price of oil — netting domestic producers inflated profits. But I don’t think even the oil-connected neocons are that obnoxious.

  60. Alan wrote:
    “Very little of the unfarmed and undeveloped arable land in the US has enough water for any sort of commercial farming, including switchgrass. And there’s not a great deal of unused water even if we wanted to expend the resources necessary to build the infrastructure to get it there. You can’t make wealth from dirt alone, unfortunately.”

    Switch grass requires very little water and fertilizer to grow on its own. It’s roots are perennial, so it doesn’t need to be plowed. It’s yields canbe improved of course if water and fertilzer are added aggressively. If left merely fallow and functionally wild for a while and then harvested, no extra water etc are needed and biodiversity can be preserved. Now we only need to make room for it by ending Corn and Soy subsidies… But then there is the sticky issue of whether ethanol is even useful for fuel; technically it can be used as part of the biodiesel cretionprocess. And in a plug-in-hybrid-biodiesel bus-transit system, it might work without hamring biodiversity nor increasing the price of food…though we may need to eat less meat.

    Curly Smith wrote:
    “Except that the ice core data clearly shows the rise in CO2 levels follows the rise in temperature. Your argument and your solid theoretical models claim the converse. I know, it’s an inconvenient truth.”

    There are two flaws to your reasoning. First the increase in CO2 is clearly the result of human activities as shown by in isotopes unique to burning fossilized CO2. Not Volcanoes, nor ‘Benthic Bacteria’. Second those ‘common’ ancient CO2 arent just responses to warming events, they feed-back mechanisms which sustain and prolong the warming events. The only analogous ‘recent’ *cough* prehistoric greenhouse gas-rises-before-temperature event was 55 million years ago. This was a major extinction event caused by the sudden release of massive quantities of methane gas. There have been higher CO2 levels in between that time than now, but those have been much slower to arrive; and given projected fossil fuel consumption rate, CO2 levels aren’t topping out any time soon.

    MikeP wrote:
    “But I don’t think even the oil-connected neocons are that obnoxious.”

    Interesting you should say that. Did you ever read the full transcript of the 1991 conversation between Saddam Hussein and American diplomat April Glaspie? The interests of Texas Oil get mentioned in passing.

  61. Swen Swenson wrotd:
    “Bottom line: What is the optimum global temperature?”

    Optimum Global temperature for what/who?

    likely what ever the rest of the planet settles on is basically a good enough temperature for human civilization.

    my ‘Bottom Line’ question would be, “How sudden a climate change can human civilization handle?”

  62. Also forgotten in this and similar articles is the fuel needed for other forms of transportation: trains, ships, and aircraft. The first takes to electricity well, the second could revert to coal or progress to nuclear, but there is no existing alternative for the third, unless you want to go really, really fast. Even if all start driving electric cars, there are vast quantities of petroleum used by other modes, not to mention the many other petroleum-based manufactured products. Weening off oil is not as simple as creating a good electric car.

    For my part, I’m ready for the coming oil crisis. I’ve learned how to ride a horse.

  63. NoStar wrote:
    “What? No mention of biodiesel?
    Growing rape seed or canola for its oil makes better sense than raising corn to make ethanol. There is little or no refining necessary.”

    So, use biodiesel in a hybrid. One of the first practical hybrid cars, the “Second Millennium Cruiser”, did just that.

    The key reason to support R&D on hybrids is for the future options — your car is electric, and can be fed by anything which will make the right kind of electricity.

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