Welcome to the new R-Squared! Our goals here are to provide a place to engage in respectful and thoughtful debate about the very important issue of energy.
I thought it might be a good idea to summarize my positions on a wide variety of energy issues. Here I will attempt to briefly cover my views on oil, coal, ethanol (cellulosic, corn, and sugarcane), renewable diesel (green and biodiesel), nuclear power, solar power, wind power, and then climate change. I don’t intend to cover a lot of ground explaining my positions in detail; I will save that for future essays.
The most important thing to note is that I try to let the data determine my position. But that also means that as new data come in, my position may shift. Therefore, my positions shouldn’t be viewed as being etched in stone.
I try to take a scientific approach in which data have to constantly be sifted through, categorized according to level of credibility, and incorporated into the position as appropriate. Of course the categorization step is important, because there are studies that are funded by interest groups that I put into a vastly different category than independent, peer-reviewed research.
To put my positions into perspective, let me explain how I see the world. First, I view energy as one of the most critical underpinnings of our society. Without energy, modern society falls apart. Thus, I think energy policy is a critically important – and very underrated – issue.
I believe renewable energy is critical to our future. Development of renewable energy is what I do for a living. But I am also an advocate of responsible use of taxpayer money. But what I see a lot of in the world today is taxpayer money flowing to companies that are just out hyping their technologies. I don’t want to see energy policy influenced by gross exaggerations, and yet that is the situation I see today. That is what motivates me to write.
Here is a rundown, with the briefest of explanations, on where I see the world of energy today. I will break this up in transportation fuels, electricity, and then a word on climate change. This list is by no means comprehensive, but I have tried to include the major contenders/pretenders.
Corn ethanol – My position on corn ethanol is often distorted by supporters of U.S. ethanol policy. I am not against corn ethanol. What I am against are some of the policies that we have put in place, such as subsidies on top of mandates. The benefits of corn ethanol are typically exaggerated by various interest groups, and what I try to do is sift the real from the hype to understand what corn ethanol is actually delivering for the taxpayer investments we are making. That usually runs afoul of the hype, and thus I am painted as anti-ethanol. What I would like to see corn ethanol do is get the fossil fuels out of their operations.
Sugarcane ethanol – Has some distinct advantages over corn ethanol. Two of the key challenges for producing ethanol are logistics of getting low-energy-density biomass in, and the energy required to convert to ethanol and purify. These issues aren’t much of a factor for sugarcane ethanol, because clean waste biomass is already at the plant as a result of the sugarcane processing. So they essentially have free boiler fuel, which minimizes the fossil fuel inputs into the process. That enables ethanol production that is relatively cheap, and that is largely decoupled from the impact of volatile fossil fuel prices.
Cellulosic ethanol – More hype than substance. This was the topic of my graduate school research in the early 90’s, and even then there was a very long history. In fact, cellulosic ethanol has been commercialized multiple times around the world, beginning in 1898 in Germany. The U.S. built two plants during World War I and shut them both down after the war due to poor economics. Another was built in the U.S. during WWII in Oregon, never produced ethanol during the war, and was closed down after the war. During the past decade there has been a race to reinvent the wheel and become the “first” to commercialize cellulosic ethanol. Worse, groups doing gasification to mixed alcohols started calling their product cellulosic ethanol. But there are very fundamental differences.
Renewable diesels – There are two major types, biodiesel and green diesel. There are two different ways to make green diesel; gasification and subsequent Fischer-Tropsch or hydrocracking vegetable oils or animal fats. Biodiesel relies heavily on methanol, almost exclusively fossil-fuel derived, and will never in my opinion be viable without subsidies. The green diesels are expensive to produce, but have more long-term promise in being able to make a real contribution to the energy mix.
Algal fuel – A subset of renewable diesel. As with cellulosic ethanol, more hype than substance here. There are a couple of possible routes that could work, but right now algal fuel is a very long ways from the market. Beware of those who promise $2 or $3 fuel from algae.
Petroleum – While I have a background in the oil industry, I don’t wish to see the world continue to rely on petroleum. There are many reasons that I will detail in a future post, but I think we have built a society that is far too dependent on oil. The consequences of oil shortages in a petroleum-dependent world are severe, and that is a risk that I don’t believe we can afford in the long run. On the other hand, I recognize the reality that the world has long run on cheap petroleum, and we will need petroleum for many years to come. Thus, I don’t favor punitive legislation that causes artificial shortages while demand is still high.
Natural gas – Much cleaner than coal for the production of electricity, and the U.S. is in a pretty good position with respect to supply. Can be used to produce electricity, heat homes, or even fuel cars. A key question for me in the corn ethanol debate is whether it makes more sense to directly fuel cars with natural gas instead of converting the natural gas into fertilizer for the corn and then steam for the distillation of the ethanol.
Wind power – Cost effective in some locations, but hindered by the intermittent nature of the source. Some issues with bird kills and noise, but my overall impression of wind has always been favorable.
Solar power – I love the idea of solar power, but costs and intermittency are a problem at present for solar PV. Solar thermal may be a more cost-effective option, and it also has the advantage of being able to produce power after the sun sets (up until the temperature of the thermal mass gets too low).
Geothermal – One of my favorite clean electricity technologies. In the right location, geothermal can be a very cost effective and clean producer of electricity. Deep geothermal is another matter, as it has been linked to triggering earthquakes.
Hydropower – Same class as geothermal for me. While there are some issues, this is the case with all energy sources, and hydropower’s issues are mild compared to some other energy sources. Comparatively, hydropower ranks very high on my list.
Coal – Very similar situation to oil. We have created a society that is very dependent on coal, and there are numerous environmental issues associated with coal. On the other hand, it is easy to see why we are so coal-dependent: It is very cheap relative to other fuel sources, and it provides reliable power. In the minds of consumers, cheap and reliable has historically won out over environmental concerns.
Nuclear – If you look at the projections for the growth of electricity demand – combined with the desires of many to see coal plants phased out – there is no other option than nuclear that can deliver the desired amounts of electricity. So I think we are going to need to expand nuclear power in the years ahead.
This is really too complex to summarize briefly, and in doing so I am afraid my position may be misunderstood. Whether you accept the idea that man is contributing to climate change, I don’t believe it is a good idea to conduct such a grand experiment on the atmosphere because the ultimate consequences can’t be predicted. However, I can’t see any trajectory that will result in a global decline in CO2 emissions. Despite all of the best efforts (e.g., Kyoto Protocol), global CO2 concentrations continue to increase. As China and India continue to industrialize and improve their standards of living, they will demand cheap power. Any way I look at it, global CO2 concentrations will continue to head up until we start to run short of fossil fuels.
None of that is to imply that I don’t think it is very serious issue. My position has long been that I am not an expert in the field, and so I defer to the experts. The consensus has always seemed to me that atmospheric scientists believe that the activities of mankind are contributing to climate change.
On the other hand, I also believe that the issue should continue to be debated. There is far too much rancor over climate change, with each side hurling accusations and insults. Let the debate take place in a respectful manner, and let’s not try to shout down the other side, or suppress information. But at the end of the day, it just seems to me that our efforts to stop rising carbon emissions are futile.
I have certainly left out a lot, and major details are missing. Most of the energy options I mentioned above will be expounded upon in future essays.