Energy Mania


John Wright


Like a lot of other people, I am very pleased to see technology advance to reduce our dependence on petroleum. Beyond that, the price of petroleum has risen farther than reasonable and will continue to rise due to fundamental changes in market demand (China, India) Vs supply. The political future of the Middle East is now anyoneís guess with the debacle in Iraq and showdowns with Iran over nuclear weapons, and we have been doing a fine job angering Mr. Chavez in Venezuela. All in all, there is no reason to believe that our petroleum consumption can continue at present levels or increase without great economic pain. We now must have a valid alternative without further war.

Enter all the would-be heroes with their alternative energy scenarios. One guy wants to develop Montanaís coalfields. Isnít that a hoot? Others are producing oil from the Canadian Tar Sands, at great waste and huge greenhouse gas emission. Similarly, the ethanol production efforts from corn folks are underway. They never even address the level of carbon dioxide generation essential to fermentation, or the energy consumed to get an ear of corn grown and processed to make ethanol. Are these people nuts? Yes!

Another great example is the hybrid car. It is a great concept with, at least currently, some serious built-in problems. Think about how small that Toyota Prius really is. Think about the cargo and people you cannot transport. And realize that the fuel savings, as advertised, does not match reality. Automobile economics aside, you get what you pay for, including all the functional limitations.

Now we get to the really wild side. There are folks adding lithium-ion batteries to hybrid cars to boost the gas mileage up to 100 mpg. At what cost? These yo-yos simply plug in their battery packs to charge using 110-volt power supplied to their homes. First, what does the electricity to charge the battery cost the consumer compared to the gasoline cost savings? Second, how many people could use this approach before we knock down our power grids due to excess power consumption? Remember brownouts and blackouts? We canít generate enough power now to accommodate population growth, even without a lithium ion battery hybrid car effect.

Most of all, there are lots of opportunists out there selling the Holy Grail, and the common person is simply too ignorant to even know what questions to ask about practicality on a personal and national scale. Our politicians are so dense and so bought out that they have no value at all to us in resolving our energy problem. They have been and are part of the problem. That will not change unless we change.

What about the uncommon, knowledgeable people with an education in Physics and various types of Engineering? Where do we stand in all of these energy matters? First, we have to debunk the opportunists and the politicians. Second, we have to outline a few practical solutions. Three, we have to hope we can get an audience. That last one seems to be wildly optimistic.

Let me start this part of the article by debunking the use of electricity for vehicles based on consumption of petroleum fuel or coal at the generating plants. The issue boils down to converting potential energy into kinetic energy and then back to potential energy in the form of electricity. There are natural physical laws and engineering efficiency considerations that show for every 1 BTU of energy consumed we might, if we are lucky, get half of it back as electricity in kWh. Then we prepare to send that electricity great distances via high voltage power lines. To do that we use transformers to step up the generated voltage. Electrical engineers know that no transformer has ever been designed that can operate at better than 85% efficiency. Thus, the voltage conversion wastes 15% of the power introduced to the transformer, as heat. Along the way, heat is lost according to wire resistance and amperage represented by the formula P(lost) = I x I x R. On the opposite end, multiple stages of step down transformers are used before the homeowner gets to use the electricity.

The step down phases, at least three, each take their turn at wasting 15% of whatever power they convert to lower voltage. Do note that as we proceed with this discussion that all of these losses are relative to the energy obtained in the initial use of what I will simply call fossil fuels (coal or petroleum). Now, letís suppose the homeowner buys one of the new 100-mpg cars. He recharges the battery with; you guessed it, a high power battery charger that has a transformer in it. Whee!

The short answer to what has been discussed so far is that there is no good way to use coal, petroleum or ethanol to meet our power needs at home or in transportation. Why? Because there are too many of us in the world using too much fossil fuel. We are killing our future as a peopled planet by our greenhouse gas emission effects. None of the would-be heroes or opportunists has any useful answer to that problem. Why? Because the energy conversion effects alone make continuing down the fossil fuel path silly. What stupid would-be solutions!

The internal combustion engine in your automobile has been cursed as a great waster of energy, as it is only 17% efficient in converting the potential energy of the gasoline into motion (kinetic energy). Now, go back and review what I wrote about conversion of fossil fuel into electricity. Do the math for the energy losses from numerous voltage conversions. What is the result?

I wonít give you the answer because you can figure it out explicitly. But at an implicit level it is obvious that the use of fossil fuels or ethanol will not work to meet the energy needs of an overpopulated world. Period. So, what are valid solutions to the problem?

If you have noticed windmills that generate electricity you have part of the answer. If you think about solar cells you have another part. What they have in common with each other is that there is no burning of any fossil fuel or creation of greenhouse gases to get the needed electricity. What is wrong is that our society gobbles up more power than we could reasonably produce via windmills or solar cells. Still, they help, and they point the way to other practical solutions.

What we have to do is address our entire physical infrastructure and products to reduce consumption, like less use of tungsten lightbulbs. Plugging your super hybrid car into the "grid" is not the answer to the fossil fuel issue. Nuclear power to produce electricity is also a better solution than burning fossil fuels, because there is no greenhouse gas produced. But that approach is loaded with danger in waste disposal, until the day we can transport the waste into space with a destination of an asteroid, in a highly controlled environment. Meanwhile, we would love to see nuclear fusion become practical, as that would provide nearly limitless energy.

Much of our energy mania has to do with unsustainable development of cultures and other populations that consume or will consume fossil fuels to excess, to the detriment of everyone in terms of global warming. As to how this happened, I wonít say anything in this article. I only know that in areas like our Northeast USA folks are utterly dependent today on fossil fuels just to stay alive in the winter. Massive amounts of fossil fuels are needed to heat the homes and businesses in what has historically been a rather cold climate. Well, perhaps global warming will fix that reality!

For now, do everything you can to stay grounded in the physical sciences so that you know the difference between apparent and real solutions to our energy problems. And do fight our politicians who have promoted the petroleum industry.

If you want to buy a hybrid car and it is practical for your needs, by all means do so, but do not even consider the added battery packs that require offline charging. You will lose money, but even more important is the knowledge that the whole idea is unsound in energy conversion efficiencies, which are simply not there.