Author Robert Bryce
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“A Gusher of Lies” is a must-read for those wanting the cold, hard facts on the current state and future prospects of worldwide energy dynamics. Written by Robert Bryce, a fellow at the Institute for Energy Research and energy journalist and author for the past twenty years, “Gusher of Lies” is meticulously researched and footnoted (60+ pages of bibliography and references). It relies on numerical facts, realistic forecasts and opinions of key members of the scientific community to dispel any notion that the United States will ever achieve “energy independence” until another energy source/application, that does not currently exist, is invented. The alarming truth is the United States, along with every other developed country on the planet, are inexorably dependent on fossil fuels and will be for the foreseeable future.
While looking at the numbers, one should ask how “energy independence” has become such a dominant theme. Is it because the Middle East is evil and wants Westerners dead? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The oil behemoths of the Middle East need the West as much as, if not more than, we need them. Oil makes up ~7% of total U.S. imports but accounts for between 65 and 95 percent of Persian Gulf exports, depending on the nation. In the long term, economics tend to supplant all other factors. To claim energy independence will significantly reduce terrorism is a contrivance. While there is no denying that some Middle Eastern players have been linked to Islamic fundamentalists, most terrorist organizations are low-tech in nature and don’t need oil dollars. Their financing has been found to come from drugs, human trafficking, weapons trading and other criminal activities. The cost to finance terrorist operations is a rounding error compared to the $5 trillion in annual energy revenues. Not to mention other, rapidly expanding economies will happily buy up much of what the U.S. doesn’t in their laser-focused goal to enjoy what the U.S. has for many decades.
Why aren’t politicians and special interests clamoring for semi-conductor independence? Semiconductors are also a vital commodity, yet the U.S. imports ~80% of its total semiconductor needs compared to ~60% for oil. The U.S. is also dependent on others for many other crucial commodities – manganese for making steel (100% imported), bauxite for making aluminum (100%), graphite (100%), platinum (91%), tin (88%), titanium (85%)… The list of dependencies goes on and on. So why have so many people latched on to “energy independence” when a brief examination of worldwide energy sources and demand would reveal the absurdity of such a goal in a globally interdependent world? The answer might be found in the term, “energy independence” itself. In the year 2000, a news data base, Factivia, that tracks the use of terms and phrases in major periodicals counted 449 total stories using the phrase. Since 9/11, the use of the term has risen exponentially. In 2006 the term was used in 8,069 stories. Power misers (no pun intended) and others seeking to influence behavior of the masses are always looking for issues that will appeal to, and even manipulate, people’s emotions. It is worth mentioning that since “Gusher of Lies” was published in March 2008 the use of the phrase “Energy Independence” has dwindled and been altered. If one listens closely, phrases like “CLOSER to energy independence” and similar semantically adjusted phrases have become more common.
In an effort to supplement energy needs with renewable and alternative energy, ethanol has garnered much attention in recent years. The current U.S. ethanol strategy uses taxpayer dollars to subsidize (at $0.51/gallon) fuel manufactured from the most subsidized ($51.3 billion between 1995 and 2005) crop in America – corn. What follows are the independently, peer reviewed claims of the scientific community and independent sources, which of course vary significantly from those of the likes of Archer Daniels Midland (the world’s largest agribusiness), political recipients of its $7.9 million in campaign contributions and its Washington lobbyists:
1. To completely replace the U.S. consumption of gasoline, which accounts for less than half of our total current oil consumption, with corn ethanol would require 546 million acres dedicated specifically for its production. To put this in perspective, all farmland for every crop grown in America currently occupies 440 million acres.
2. The energy derived from gasoline, as measured in BTUs, is between 600 and 700% more than that required to extract, transport and refine the required crude oil to produce it. The energy available from corn ethanol is 71% of that required to grow, transport and process it from the required feedstock. This means the production of corn ethanol results in a net energy loss of 29%. Put another way, this is like investing a dollar and getting a 71 cent return. Cellulosic ethanol produced from switch grass and wood biomass is even worse with net energy losses of 50 and 57% respectively.
3. Ethanol is not the answer to global warming. It makes it worse. Taking the energy required to produce corn ethanol into account, the carbon dioxide emissions from corn ethanol fuel is on the order of 50% higher than those of traditional fossil fuels.
4. Ethanol-based fuel has less energy content and results in lower fuel economy. “Consumer Reports” magazine compared the fuel economy of a new Chevy Tahoe running on regular gasoline to E85 (85% ethanol blend). It’s fuel economy dropped by 27% with E85.
5. Ethanol emits more pollutants than gasoline. In April 2007, Stephen L. Johnson of the Environmental Protection Agency issued a statement that the use of ethanol will result in major increases in the release of two of the worst air pollutants: volatile organic compounds (VOC) and nitrogen oxides – 4 and 7% respectively. Using the ethanol mandates set by the government, this translates to up to 83,000 tons of additional annual air pollutants in the U.S.
6. It requires 880 gallons of water to produce one gallon of corn ethanol. Figuring 15% irrigation and 85% rain water, this translates to 132 gallons of water for one gallon of ethanol compared to 5 gallons for gasoline.
The U.S. reached “peak gas” production in 1973. Peak gas is the point at which maximum extraction of known reserves has been reached and begins to decline, sometimes exponentially. The U.S. has been a net importer of natural gas for decades and, over the coming decades, those imports are expected to increase dramatically.
While the U.S. produces ~4.7 million pounds of the uranium required for nuclear power generation each year, we are currently importing ~83% of the uranium required to power existing plants, a significant portion coming from Russia. Meanwhile ours and the world’s demand for uranium continue to grow.
The U.S. is the Saudi Arabia of coal. At our current rate of consumption, we have more than 200 years of reserves left. But because of emission standards, we still have to import “cleaner” coal from other countries. While we are currently a net exporter of coal, it is estimated we will become a net importer by 2015. In an effort to offset oil requirements, coal is being converted to motor fuel (coal-to-liquid) via the Fischer-Tropsch process. However a study conducted by Toyota of 23 different fuels found coal-to-liquid fuel to have the highest carbon dioxide footprint – ~50% higher compared to gasoline.
Residential solar power currently costs ~$0.37 per kilowatt hour. This takes into account the current cost of solar panels minus the offsets of government incentives and utility sell-backs (where utilities are required to buy back excess power generated by the homeowner) without which, the cost would be higher. The average cost of electricity from utilities is ~$0.10 per kW hour. If worldwide solar capacity increased at a rate of 25% a year, thereby reducing manufacturing and purchase costs, in the year 2020 solar power would account for 1% of global energy demand at a cost of ~ $0.22 per kW hour.
1. Wind generated power, like solar, is dependent on the weather. And the cruel irony is that on the hottest days, when electricity demand is the highest, the wind doesn’t blow.
2. Wind power must always have a backup energy source ready for when the air is stagnant. This means keeping a power plant running at a lower capacity called “spinning reserve” which burns fuel without creating electricity.
3. As a power plant’s output varies, in order to meet the volatile demand caused by fluctuating wind patterns, it becomes significantly less efficient, using more fuel and costing more to operate.
4. A study conducted by the British Royal Academy of Engineering determined that the combined cost of wind power is more than twice that of Coal, natural gas or nuclear. Even taking into account proposed emissions trading scenarios, conventional methods of producing energy are still cheaper than wind.
5. In 2004, total energy produced by existing U.S. wind turbines was 14 billion kW hours. An aggressive campaign to add wind energy capacity has resulted in over 20,000 wind turbines installed by 2007. The Energy Information Administration predicts a four-fold increase to 64.5 billion kW hours by 2030. This means wind energy will be providing little more than 1% of America’s anticipated electricity needs.
Calling for “Energy Independence” violates the second law of goal setting – the goal must be achievable. The phrase “Energy Independence” boils down to another gimmick employed to invoke mass emotion in pursuit of goals that frequently have little to do with energy. Only the ignorant or deceitful use the phrase with a straight face. The fact is the world is becoming increasingly interdependent and energy independence won’t be possible until some great discovery or invention, to which no one is currently known to be close, presents itself. China’s and India’s populations are over 1.3 and 1.1 billion, respectively. Both economies are growing at a voracious rate and will continue to do so. There are currently 6.7 billion people on this planet and there are expected to be over two billion MORE in the next 40 years. A significant percentage of this growth will be in the middle class – people who like to use energy. Do the math.
This is a grim message indeed. There is no pleasure in its dissemination. But ignorance and futility are even more painful. Stephen Hawking may have been right when he said the only way the human race will survive will be if we figure out how to colonize other planets. Growth cannot continue in a confined space. Something has to give. If we can’t figure out how to travel across space and terraform, we better figure out how to stabilize the population on this planet. Otherwise the ever increasing struggle for resources will trigger an “event” that will undoubtedly reduce our numbers to a level this planet can support… at least until an asteroid hits us or our sun burns out. I hope that invention comes in time or I’m wrong about the rest.