Monday, December 10, 2007

American Dream

Reading the paper never fails to be instructive about the pickle we're in.

Case in point: yesterday's New York Times featured an article discussing the declining levels of oil exports from nations that currently supply importing nations such as the United States. A combination of rising domestic wealth (as a result of oil exports) and cheap domestic gas prices (a result of populist policies), along with declining oil production (a result of peak oil), is resulting in decreasing levels of oil exports from such nations as Mexico and Iran, and it's estimated that these nations will become net importers in only a few years' time. An excerpt:

"The report said “soaring internal rates of oil consumption” in Russia, in Mexico and in member states of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries would reduce crude exports as much as 2.5 million barrels a day by the end of the decade.

"That is about 3 percent of global oil demand. It may not sound high, but experts say demand for oil is so inflexible, and the world has so little spare production capacity, that even small shortfalls can raise prices. In 2002, when a labor strike in Venezuela took 3 percent of global production off line, oil prices spiked 26 percent within weeks."

Many anticipate that the prospect of higher prices will foster innovation and unleash creativity toward the end of finding a new energy source, especially for transportation. Appropriately enough, in a different section of yesterday's Times, there was a review of a new Honda automobile that will run on hydrogen. The article noted that the immediate problem with this alternative is that there is no hydrogen fueling station infrastucture. However, in a separate article the Times reported that Honda is considering selling an "at-home" power station that will also provide heat and electricity for the home.

Small problem: it turns out that this "alternative" fuel will need natural gas inputs to be viable:

Hydrogen doesn't float around free for plucking - it needs to be separated from some other source, either water (which would require electricity in order to crack the hydrogen from the oxygen molecules, and hence an external energy source which currently derives mainly from coal or natural gas) or natural gas itself (which is running low in North America). As I've noted previously, hydrogen does not look like a promising alternative as long as the second law of thermodynamics continues to apply. Long and short: I wouldn't recommend for anyone to run out and buy a new nifty hydrogen car, since within the decade we could discover not only that oil and natural gas are becoming too scarce for us to afford to burn them to make our trips to Wal-Mart, but so too any of the "alternatives" (tar sands, hydrogen, corn) that all rest on those external energy inputs. The "American dream" of fast cars, home ownership and mobility is turning out to have been... well... a dream. The question is, what will reality look like?


Sardonicus said...

Unless, of course, one could use "alternative" energy to generate the hydrogen. Localized combinations of wind, solar, etc., might work best. (Energy "subsidiarity"?)


Patrick Deneen said...

True... one could... But, try running the U.S. automobile and trucking fleet on electricity generated with wind and solar. Not to mention all the rest of the things we use electricity for.

Nuclear will and must fill in. However, uranium is another non-renewable energy source. So, we're not out of the pickle jar, no matter how you slice the pickle.

Sardonicus said...

True. But, were we able to at least develop efficient commuting cars that could be charged or run off hydrogen generated by local options, that would extend the life of our petroleum supply by reducing demand accordingly.

In the end, electricity generated by a multiplicity of sources might prove to be the best option.