Wednesday, June 25, 2008

No Right To Energy

Politicians, repeat after me: we have no right to energy.

We can trade for it, if we have insufficient supplies. We can reduce our consumption. We can find alternatives. We can try to bolster the case for others to produce more by revisiting some of our own decisions.

We also have to recognize the linkages between the spread of democracy and accountable governments around the world with a rising number of people entering the middle class (and expecting a certain lifestyle). In the old days, repressive dictatorships in countries with large numbers of poor people could tap things down. Today, find me an elected politician in India or South Africa or Brazil who is going to ask his constituents to give up the benefits of development because Americans don't like to pay $4/gallon at the pump. Even China is constrained, because the PRC derives its legitimacy from extending prosperity to increasing numbers of citizens.

An excerpt from Dan Yergin's testimony today before the Joint Economic Committee:

The United States is more integrated into the global marketplace than in years past, and yet it has less leverage over the market. Our oil imports today are twice what they were in the 1970s. Yet our share of world markets is less. In the 1970s, the U.S. represented 30 percent of world oil consumption. With economic growth elsewhere, the U.S. share is down to 24 percent. The balance is changing in other ways.

National oil companies—which vary greatly in their character and capabilities—control over 80 percent of world oil reserves. The five “supermajor” oil companies account for less than 15 percent of the world’s total oil production. China and India are now significant players in the market. The list of shifts goes on. The realities of the global markets and America’s integration into them emphasize the need for a cooperative, multifaceted approach to relations with both producers and other consumers and put a premium on how we manage, think through, and structure our relations with other countries.


Premium on how we manage, think through, and structure our relations with other countries? Don't hold your breath.

Maybe the message can be passed on to future Naval & Marine service members: "No Right to Energy". But by that time, they will be (?painfully) aware of it.
Congress complains about oil and doesn't want to move forward on nuclear. The lack of vision is astounding.
I think this is one topic on which the engineering prospects may be brighter than the apparent political ones.

First, the deep water oil field recently discovered in the Gulf of Mexico, doubling US domestic reserves, could relieve some of the constraint on supply in the short-run of the next decade if it can be brought into production soon.

Second, car makers are finally getting serious about electric drive technology. With lithium-ion batteries, a practical and affordable electric car may only be a few years distant now. A shift to electric vehicles by the 2020s may actually be possible.

Third, according to a 2006 report by MIT, we are ready to tap dry geothermal energy, which can increase electricity production with zero carbon costs and none of the waste and security problems associated with nuclear power. (Dry geothermal involves drilling down into the earth's crust about 2 miles, where the rock is 400 degrees F, and cycling water down and back up as steam to drive generators.) Before private investors take the plunge, the federal government would need to spend a few hundred million dollars for a few years in test projects. But if the MIT people are correct, this kind of energy could supply the electricity we need to shift transportation and a lot of industry from chemical fuels to electric power.

There is an engineering context to the politics and diplomacy of energy and we may be entering a new engineering environment that will change the policy debate.
Sorry, the deepwater Gulf field only increases US domestic reserves by fifty percent, not double. But that could still make a difference if the oil can be recovered.
The lithium-ion batteries only push the energy consumption upstream; they consume oil in their manufacture.

Furthermore, the hybrid vehicles, with their massive battery pack, are only more energy efficient (compared to gasoline-only vehicles) in urban, stop-and-go traffick; they are not as efficient as gasoline engines on highways.

One also has to keep in mind that some of the gasoline models such as Honda Civic already are as efficient as a comparable hybrid and cost less to own and operate to boot.
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