I - 9 Energy Independence?
Let’s update the energy independence question: Is it possible for the US to develop and maintain stable supplies of energy, which are not subject to significant price volatility or the whims of foreign governments, and which are simultaneously low enough to maintain a modern, growing society?
Yes. It is a convenient truth that doing so would also substantially reduce America’s carbon footprint.
Eliminating the economic ups and downs caused by volatile oil prices; achieving security of energy supplies; and realizing well-publicized environmental goals can all be accomplished, as follows: Minimize the direct use of fuels extracted from the earth, especially oil, which is particularly subject to price volatility and vagaries of global politics. Replace them with renewable heat sources and electricity, including electricity produced with extracted fuels when such electricity is cost-effective. When gas or liquid fuels are required, work towards using biofuels, or fuels manufactured using low-cost electricity.
Electricity can be produced using several feedstocks: sunlight, wind, moving water, geological heat, garbage, biofuels, uranium or thorium, coal, gas or oil. If one feedstock, like oil, suddenly becomes expensive, the industry can move to the others, usually with small price changes, because the generation system is overbuilt for almost all hours in a year and usually has spare capacity.
Modern utility regulations allow competition between wholesale generators. American utilities can buy energy on a competitive market from the lowest cost producer. Computers capable of fast grid management, and less expensive energy storage systems, are enabling utilities to incorporate low-cost, but variable and intermittent, solar and wind power while maintaining reliability.
Solar and wind generation costs have fallen by 90 to 99% over the last 50 years. Solar generation panels now cost less than $1 per watt, down from over $100 per watt in 1973. Rechargeable battery costs have fallen more than 90%. In 1973, lithium-ion batteries didn’t exist. Today, they cost less than $200 per kilowatt-hour, which sounds expensive until you consider the fact that they can be charged and discharged thousands of times.
Batteries, or hydrogen produced by using low-cost electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, can provide electricity for cars, trucks and trains. Boats and ships also have the option of using sails and thus being powered, at least in part, by wind.
Lubricants, plastics and fuels like gasoline, diesel and kerosene can be manufactured without oil by using the Fischer-Tropsch process, which can combine water, coal or plant mass, and electricity to synthesize hydrocarbons. The US Air Force has shown that modern airplanes can fly using such synthesized fuels.
At 1973’s low oil prices and high electric costs, and in the absence of modern rechargeable batteries, fast computers, and hydrogen fuel cells, none of the above made economic sense. Today, though, some of these strategies do make economic sense, and cost trends favor the others. Wind, solar and battery combinations have recently won competitions with proposed fossil fuel plants to supply power 24 hours a day, because the renewable projects have offered lower costs.
Oil won’t disappear overnight; this transition will take decades to complete. Replacing existing buildings and vehicles, or synthesizing their fuels will take time. Fischer-Tropsch fuels usually don’t make economic sense yet. However, they are likely to become economic. Oil is becoming more expensive, and off-peak electricity is becoming less expensive.
Copyright 2022 [or 2023], La Conner Weekly News. Reprinted with permission