Straight Talk on Alternative Energy

No matter how much we spend, it doesn’t help if we spend it on the wrong things, and we don’t know which things are right.

Ground rules:  This isn’t about President Obama. Nothing he or his Energy Secretary has said or done is really about finding an alternative to Middle East oil.

This is about concepts, not details, so there may be some generalities that are not precisely correct.

Alternative energy (AE) means “a source of energy that is an alternative to whatever is used today.” Natural gas is not an alternative energy for home heating, because it’s already used that way on a large scale. It is alternative energy when used to power vehicles. That may be as specific as I get.

OK.  To start with, the current dialogue, or perhaps monologue, about AE comes from a direction that turns it into nonsense on more than one level.

First Level

The two distinct issues of the question are being conflated in recent weeks because of the runup in gasoline prices. The most important of those issues is the economic and national security benefits of having a significant supply of energy that comes from within the United States. The second issue is the cost of energy in the United States, primarily the cost of gasoline. We have been talking about both the supply of energy and the cost to buy it as if it were a single issue.

Second Level

The discussion has devolved into one about gasoline for vehicles and how to replace that, without giving enough thought to how we got to where we are today. We see the need for transportation and we’re casting about, looking for an AE source that will do for us what gasoline does, the same way, in the same vehicles.

Let’s dispense with the first level right now. The only real issue is the first one. We need to insure a source of energy that can’t be cut off. The cost of domestic, consumer transportation fuel is important on a personal level, but it will take care of itself once the supply is assured. Contrary to the opinions of some famous TV pundits, supply and demand eventually rule. It will always fluctuate, but that’s life, isn’t it? I know that can’t be spoken as a national energy policy, but it’s the truth.

So what do we do to insure a secure source of home-grown energy? No alternatives need apply. We need to use the petroleum resources that are plentiful on the North American continent and elsewhere under our control. We need to change regulations to address only industry safety standards and real environmental hazards, then get out of the way. While those resources are being developed, we continue to buy foreign oil. And if history is a guide, it will begin to cost less as soon as our foreign suppliers recognize that we’re serious about competing with them. Problem solved without finding any AE.

That was too easy. That’s why I say it is nonsense. It is in Level Two that it gets complicated, so let’s uncomplicate it by looking at history.

Electricity had been observed and recorded as far back as 2750 BC. It was studied along with magnetism by William Gilbert in 1600, and the forces of electricity and magnetism were observed by James Maxwell to be fundamentally related in 1873. Thomas Edison opened his Menlo Park laboratory in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell received the first patent for an electric telephone the same year, and the first telephone switchboard was invented later the same year.

Why go into all that? Because what came first was the energy source, and an early application for it quickly followed. In this case, the energy source had been known to exist for centuries, but how to use it was a mystery. When that mystery was solved, inventions came close behind.

We could go through the same process with the steam engine. An improved one was developed by James Watt around 1770, but it was many years before a steam engine was small enough to power personal transportation, and by then the gasoline engine was better suited. But the steam engine was successfully used for years to power large vehicles–steamboats, steamships, and locomotives.

Without belaboring the point, it wasn’t until the small-enough, powerful-enough, gasoline internal combustion engine met up with the assembly line and a plentiful supply of raw material that a cost-effective replacement for the horse as personal transportation and work-multiplier was “discovered.”

In all cases, the energy/power source was developed first, then applications to use it were devised. And they were innovative, not replicative. Early auto makers didn’t try to build a mechanical horse, they built something that would do the same work with what they had available. They didn’t delay rollout of their first models while they looked around for shock absorbers and better tires. You will note that although electric cars were among the early ones, as were steam powered cars, it was the gasoline engine that prevailed.

Today, our leaders are spending huge sums of money to find out what we already know–energy sources other than gasoline just don’t work efficiently or economically to power personal transportation and commercial trucks. Still, they keep pounding on that square peg, trying to force it into a round hole.

There is as yet no Alternative Energy that will do what they want.  Current AE sources don’t even eliminate hydrocarbon emissions, because every single one of them ultimately relies on burning a carbon-based fuel to release the energy that powers the vehicle (either directly or stored in a battery), with the exception of hydroelectric power, which is only available in specific regions and must be accessed via batteries that themselves create hydrocarbon emissions in their manufacture.

That doesn’t mean an effective AE doesn’t exist, but we’re trying to find it the wrong way, at least from a public policy standpoint.  For some reason, the government has decided that solar batteries and windmill farms are where we should concentrate our resources, and to put it charitably it is wasting billions of dollars that way, while it ignores more likely sources. It is hung up on electricity, which is great for running a computer (never would have been invented if we didn’t know how to use electricity) but terrible for running a heavy load over even smooth ground for more than a short distance.

We should instead be making it easy for inventors and scientists to conduct the basic research we need to develop the best eventual replacement for petro-fuels. While we do that, we should give them some time to be successful, by developing our own known, existing sources of fossil fuels, which by current estimates would give us one to two hundred years to make that breakthrough. Maybe one of them will replace not only the gasoline engine, but the automobile as well, by inventing something better.

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