Sunday, December 11, 2005

final draft: Alternate Fuels

David Eric Renner
English 151
Section 13
Alternative Fuels

The Industrial Revolution has created within our civilization an appetite; a momentum of consumption that not only encompasses the whole menu, but the staff, the restaurant and all of us, as well. The irony here is that the Industrial Revolution was meant to set us free by having machines do the work for us. Now, with the impersonalized and computerized climate we see today, it seems we are working for the machines; shoveling coal into a doomed locomotive that’s running full steam toward the edge of the world, devouring virgin fields and pristine lakes all along the way. It is here I imagine some waxed mustachioed figure robustly snapping his suspenders and touting “progress, progress, progress!” in a proud, nineteenth century fashion. As modern Westerners, we consume about three hundred and fifty times the energy, per person, as did he. Consider that our population is ten times the size it was two hundred years ago, we might as well run an extension chord to the sun to meet our energy needs. “To put it another way, in one year we now consume more than our society did in the whole period from the rise of ancient Greece to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.” (Russell) That’s a lot of Joules of demand, and currently the best source for that much power is fossil fuel, or is it? Oil and coal have a tendency to be at the roots of great power struggles, with the additional costs of lives and pain not seen at the pumps. Plenty of alternative options have been introduced, but many fail to meet the demand. There are, however, two alternatives, one for each side of the energy industry, that make the grade: biodiesel for transportation (Segal) and nuclear power for electricity. These are current technologies that need minimal adjusting of infrastructure, pollute very little and are much more affordable than current standard practices. If we are to gain energy independence in our lifetimes, and possibly end energy related wars, biodiesel and nuclear power are our best options. (Moore)
Fossil fuels are the most available source in quantities needed to meet actual demand, and are in no danger of running out at any time soon. If only it were that simple this would be an open and shut case. We could trust our fuel suppliers to bring us quality fuel from around the world at reasonable prices and improve everyone’s lives along the way. However, such is not the case. We are starting to see trends of a hydraulic empire forming out of supply and demand for this most essential oil. A hydraulic empire is one that controls its subjects by controlling the water supply they need to grow crops, and thus, to survive. If the water is restricted to almost enough, the people are at the total command of the controllers, and will pay whatever is demanded to get more so they can survive. The same trend is seen with big oil. When the prices go up, we complain about it, pay through the nose, and get on with our lives with tails tucked and heads lowered. Couple this with the fast paced modern world, and we have to pay, lest we miss out on being a part of it. We need power to make our lives work, and burning fossil fuels is currently the most popular way of getting that power.
It seems as though all the Anti-Trust laws against monopolies have been ignored and gleefully sidestepped as the various oil companies all link elbows and skip down the coal-bricked road toward a huge smoking tower sporting a massive dollar sign painted in blood. Take Exxon, for example: These bloated, financial giants reported record profits of nine point nine billion dollars last quarter. When asked why they didn’t increase refining capacity, their spokesman Henry Hubble, gave this cryptic reply: "Frankly, if you're trying to encourage supply growth, it seems odd to put in place disincentives." (Reuters) Who’s supply are we talking about? If these guys are getting such ridiculous profits, and we are paying such high prices for oil due to “shortages,” or whatever the current crisis is, effectively, big oil has tyrannical capabilities similar to the hydraulic emperors of the past. One can be sure that out of simple self-preservation for the status quo, a future with an oil-based power struggle along these lines is guaranteed, and it won’t be pretty.
To be thorough, I must describe what brought about this need for fuel: the automotive industry. This industry has been around for a good hundred years, and in one form or another can be expected to be around indefinitely, as people and goods will always need transportation. One thing I find interesting is that only in the nineties did the gasoline side of the auto industry start making serious changes involving fuel efficiency and emissions control. These were entirely due to EPA standards, and even then the goal was to make autos run as clean and efficiently as their commercial diesel counterparts. (Dagel and Brady) This says two very important things: Primarily, the commercial side of the automotive industry, which is mostly diesel operated, builds their machines for the commercial consumers, who demand highly efficient machinery in order to operate dependably and make a profit. Secondly, the gasoline-run “lay person” side of the industry, builds machinery in the interests of the manufacturer, as indicated by poor fuel economy and mediocre mechanical soundness; these traits directly impact long term costs for the consumers, and contribute to secondary profits for the manufacturers in terms of repairs and selling new cars to replace “disposable” ones.
We can now witness a crack in the “bigger is better” plan with the rise of foreign vehicle dominance over the Big Three. The auto industry helped cultivate the fuel demand, but now soaring prices of that same fuel have cultivated a demand for fuel efficiency, which has been largely neglected and grudgingly conformed to with CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) Standards. CAFE Standards basically state that the overall fuel economy of a manufacturers vehicles have to meet certain standards. What happens is that a bunch of SUV’s come chugging out, and to offset fifteen and change miles-per-gallon, things like the Neon are built to meet an average fuel economy. It is not as if the technology for higher fuel efficiency isn’t available or is costly to install, as demonstrated by the rising foreign car market, it’s that our American companies don’t care. “[T]hey’re concerned about their profits two days, two weeks, maybe even two months from now. They’re not investing in technologies, they’re not investing in these opportunities that are going to ensure they’re profitable ten years from now.” (Friedman) It is these very technologies that have characterized the commercial industry, such as computer controlled fuel injection and variable timing, long before they were used in the public side of the business.
Let us look to the future, as I would like to introduce biodiesel here. The diesel industry has over a hundred years of research and development in the interest of efficient machinery. The actual engine itself is a very simple design, utilizing non-throttled, compressed air and expanding, injected fuel to operate. “The net result of the unthrottled air in the diesel engine is that at idle operation and light loads, the air fuel ratio in the cylinder is very lean (90:1 to 120:1). This excess air supply lowers the average specific heat of the cylinder gases, which in turn increases the indicated work obtained from a given amount of fuel.” (Dagel and Brady) Enter biodiesel, a fuel grown from plants on American soil and refined by ethenol, derived from more American plants. As far as power output goes, there is no notable difference, and it can be mixed with existing diesel at any mixture and used in the same engines. The two areas where biodiesel differs from traditional petroleum based diesel are: pollution and source. Biodiesel pollutes on average eighty percent less than petro-diesel, with the remaining twenty percent of carbon dioxide being reabsorbed by the plants used to grow it in the first place. (National Biodiesel Board) Biodiesel is also produced domesticly, eliminating our reliance on a greedy fuel cartel by providing an alternative that is a worth while competition.
Big Oil makes its presence known throughout the motive energy market, spilling over onto one fifth of the electricity grid. Here is where Big Coal picks up the reins, though on a greatly diminished scale, as coal supplies only fifty-eight percent of American electricity and therefore has some actual competition from alternative sources such as hydroelectric and nuclear power. At our current rate of consumption we’ll have burned up all the coal in the United States within two hundred years, though most likely we’ll stop using ours long before hand and start importing from foreign sources, putting coal in the same position as oil. (Mendelson) We’ve already experienced some rather uncomfortable price spikes in heating and electricity, and because these commodities are necessary, we can look forward to more with very little restraint. See again how the hydraulic empire rears its ugly head through any excuse to do so. As with Big Oil, to turn our backs or only offer temporary solutions such as energy conservation, is irresponsible and morally wrong. To consciously leave the world in such a state for our descendants is just as much a crime against humanity as if we were to leave the kid in the car with the windows up in the summer. Sure we didn’t mean to, but neglect still has the same end result and we’d be just as guilty in retrospect.
Alternatives to coal and gas are making progress in their development, but either face deficiencies in their availability, or miles of red tape. By far the cleanest alternatives are wind and solar; sufficient wind generation is not available nation wide and “Solar panels will not be cost effective for mass application until their cost is reduced by [five to ten] times.” (Moore) Hydroelectric has strong potential. It is clean and cheap, and used responsibly it won’t clog up waterways that are vital for much of the surrounding ecosystems. If its use were extended to current non-hydroelectric dams, another seventeen thousand megawatts of power would be available, effectively eliminating eighteen million tons of carbon wastes. Hydropower’s biggest obstacle is legislation, for example “A typical hydropower project takes 8 to 10 years to find its way through the licensing process. By comparison, a natural gas fired plant, which emits carbon dioxide (CO2) gases, can be sited and licensed in as little as 18 months.” (National Hydropower Association.) Nuclear Plants currently have an almost endless litigation process, mostly due to opposition from uninformed activists and the public love for fanaticism.
So as to dispel any lingering silliness, I must run though the common list and brush it away with a few fell swoops of keyboard. First, terrorists will use the spent fuel rods to make nuclear bombs. Secondly, storage of these same rods is unsafe, causing three eyed fish and abominations such as Godzilla, and finally, nobody wants a Chernobyl or Three Mile Island in their backyard. First, terrorists have been killing each other and everyone else quite effectively with machetes, rifles and car bombs for quite some time, and no one is about to ban those materials. (Moore) I highly doubt any terrorist or mercenary has the constitution and knowledge to hijack a power plant and remove the core without killing themselves halfway through the process. Even so, there may be some validity to that thought, though it’s the governments you should to be worried about since they have the ability to actually make the weapons. Of the five hundred or so reactors in operation worldwide; current security measures must be doing the trick, being as we are still alive. Second, we have more than adequate technology to store the spent fuel indefinitely. If it really bothers you that much, give the rods the old Timothy Leary send off and launch them straight into the sun, it’s big and hot and can take anything. Finally, no one wants any power plant in their back yard, that much electricity is not good for people, regardless of its source. Chernobyl was an example of how not to run a power plant, and is the only case of such extreme disaster. Three Mile Island stands as an ideal example of a worst-case scenario successfully mitigated by safety systems. Considering the nuclear industry has had twenty seven years to make improvements from nineteen seventies technology and the advancement of computer aided safety systems, a future accident, even on the minimal scale of Three Mile Island, is virtually impossible.
Nuclear power produces electricity in the same exact manner as any burnable fuel: heat is produced and water is turned to pressurized steam, which flows through turbines to make electricity. The main difference is how much of the fuel is converted to energy. In standard coal plants, about one third of the fuel is converted to energy from one hundred percent of the available fuel. (U. S. Department of Energy) Translated to automotive terms: this would mean about the same fuel mileage currently seen on the road. A nuclear submarine, however, has enough fuel in its reactor at the time of construction to operate continuously for thirty years. (Uranium Information Centre) It produces enough power to be able to support Battle Creek, though not for as long because of the much higher power load. Incidentally, that reactor is incredibly small, only about twenty feet cubed. While our current technology is able to tap only five percent of the core fuel, we utilize quite a bit of that five percent. Imagine a future where we could use more, where we could think of refueling the world’s energy needs on a scale of a hundred years at a time! Such a future is much more stable and peaceful than any oil or coal based futures.
We are living in times when capitalism isn’t making long-term sense anymore. To turn a profit at the expense of the future isn’t just unintelligent, it is purely evil. Picture a plague of locusts with sharp neckties, firm handshakes and confident smiles, selling wolf tickets and paper tigers. The end results are still the same; fat locusts, miles of stretching wasteland, and nothing to show for it. As Tom Robbins so elegantly puts it “if you keep feeding and feeding and feeding a bonfire, sooner or later you burn up all the fuel and the fire goes cold; or else the fire gets too huge to manage and eventually engulfs the countryside and chars its inhabitants.” To continue to use fossil fuels with no alternative plan is to willingly render ourselves powerless against those who control the valve to our high-octane, mega-watt lifestyles. We have at our fingertips the means to gain energy independence through bio-diesel and nuclear power. These same means could be spread around the world at a fraction of the costs we spend fighting and arming the world: actually doing something for world peace other than paying lip service to it. “This is why we continue to spend more than a trillion dollars a year on weapons of destruction; rather than ensuring our collective survival. Someone somewhere fears that change is not in his or her self interest.” (Russel) Of course these actions would greatly upset the balance of power, potentially sparking off yet more conflict and turmoil, the implications of which are well beyond the limited scope of this essay. Conflict, for whatever reason, is more or less inevitable, whether it will be to ride out this smoking train to the edge or to try and catch a new ride, there will be strife. Any action taken should be done with careful deliberation with respect to the well-being of all people everywhere, not just a quick buck for a few elite.

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