Wally Wonders Why No editor, no publisher, you get what you get

July 3, 2010


To the extent that we burn “fossil” fuels, the people of our nation and our world are existing on banked capacity. The energy stored in tar and crude oils was banked away long long ago. In those days, just as today, solar energy drives a mechanism whereby energy and carbon (mostly from CO2) is stored in plant and animal matter. In those days the plants were not burned for fuel thus releasing carbon and energy back into the atmosphere. So year after year, layer after layer of this material fell to the ground essentially making energy deposits into the Earth.

Now millions of years later we are digging and pumping what has become tar and oil so that we can now burn it releasing the energy we need to drive our world as well as CO2, the much maligned combustion byproduct. This mechanism is not the only source of CO2 in our atmosphere, nor is CO2 the only greenhouse gas so I won’t be going into the whole global warming issue again. Suffice to say that we are not taking CO2 out of the atmosphere at the same rate that we are putting it in through burning “fossil” fuels and other means. We are not operating on a balanced energy budget.

I hate that the word sustainable, like the word progressive has been hijacked by the left, so I try to keep using them as a little push back. In order to sustain our environment we need to be operating on a balanced budget. If we are going to keep pulling up crude and burning it then we need to be pulling the CO2 and other combustion byproducts back out of the air and put them back into the ground at the same rate. Alternatively, we can reduce or eliminate the burning and correspondingly reduce or eliminate sequestering the compounds. Nurturing new rain forests and making more efficient choices are both very doable moves in the right direction. Eliminating all burning of fossil fuels is not going to happen without accompanying war, famine and generally immense human suffering. We need energy to power society and right now our system is built primarily around fossil fuels.  Saying we need to change is a lot easier to say than to do.

Enter our hope and change President Obama who says he’s  up to the challenge of leading us out of our fossil fuel age.

In the near term, as we transition to cleaner energy sources, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions about opening up new offshore areas for oil and gas development.  We’ll need to make continued investments in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies, even as we build greater capacity in renewables like wind and solar.  And we’re going to have to build a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in America.  Remarks by the President on Energy

Though his positive message is a bit mired by the aim he took on large oil companies during his campaign and by the psuedo anger he seems to be showing post-spill.

Since the gas lines of the ’70’s, Democrats and Republicans have talked about energy independence, but nothing’s changed — except now Exxon’s making $40 billion a year, and we’re paying $3.50 for gas.

I’m Barack Obama. I don’t take money from oil companies or Washington lobbyists, and I won’t let them block change anymore. They’ll pay a penalty on windfall profits. We’ll invest in alternative energy, create jobs and free ourselves from foreign oil.  Obama Campaign ad

“And I don’t sit around just talking to experts because this is a college seminar. We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers so I know whose ass to kick, right? “ Obama looking for some “ass to kick” in BP oil spill catastrophe

The prime target of the newfound ire was, of course, BP and the mess they created in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. “You know,” he [President Obama] told King, “I am furious at this entire situation because this is an example where somebody didn’t think through the consequences of their actions.”


Really?  A multi-national company the size of BP didn’t think through the consequence of their actions in the risky and dangerous arena of deep water oil drilling?  Yeah, I’ll just throw the promise of sustainable energy on the stack of things that I won’t look to our President for leadership.   Truly sad that our nation, the light of the world, is lit by a such a dim bulb.

But back to hope.  We’ve made a lot of progress in the last hundred years or so in world societies fueled by primarily crude oil. If not for the oil industry, we could still all be living back in the 1800’s, so I really don’t get all this hatred  for oil companies that is coming from the left.  Frankly I find it all a bit too hypocritical coming from people who use plastics, waxes, rubber and other petroleum based products. And let’s not forget that all the renewable hydro power comes from dams that were built using gas and diesel powered construction equipment. Sometimes I think they need to be 3 Stooges slapped into reality because reality is where we all need to be, if we are to move away from our dependence on crude oil without plunging our world into a second dark age.

Reality is that windmills and solar power are both great ways to supplement, our electrical needs but neither will supplant our use of fossil oils in the immediate future.  First, we don’t currently have the infrastructure to transport enough electricity to replace the fuels we burn and second we don’t have the electrical storage technology to rival tanks filled with petroleum fuels. I’m not saying that this can’t be done, but I am saying that it is a long road with a lot of technological hurdles and the end result is not one I think I’ll be happy with if we push faster than sound technology becomes available. Imagine how many batteries we would need to store energy just to get us through the night or during a calm afternoon? And imagine the enormous mines that would grow with demand for mineral elements needed for these batteries and other electronics? And what about the mountains of spent batteries? And without crude oil, where do we get the plastic for battery casings?

Also consider how long it will take to fill up your electric car compared to a fill up at any station other than Costco.  Even if new technology were to cut the charge times down to an hour, what’s that do for the line of people waiting behind you?   After just hearing that our government is building a charging station in Custer along I-5, I’m wondering if people will be keen on spending a couple of hours in Custer while their car charges?  Is there something to do in Custer?  Pure electric is far from a drop in solution for people who drive fossil fuel cars and I wish our government would think things through before spending our taxes.

So, at best I see wind and solar as supplements to our existing electrical infrastructure and not a solution to our fossil fuel needs.  At worst I see wind and solar as a visual blight on our landscape to make a few people feel good.

Nuclear power does have one great benefit over wind and solar towards meeting our nation’s energy needs in that it is a continuous and consistent supply. It does still have most of the infrastructure and mineral issues as well as some of the storage problems, specifically vehicle batteries, as wind and solar. It does also have the nagging and yet unsolved problem of radioactive waste. I’ve yet to see a way to deal with it that isn’t either a tremendous liability or a tremendous safety hazard, or both.

I hate to think that we are stuck with no alternatives but to keep drilling oil until we run out and then let our children’s children deal with a new dark age or to let our government and environmental lobbyists plunge us into one right away. As both an optimist and a Christian I firmly believe that we have been given, in our world, everything we need to crack this sustainable energy nut.  And not surprisingly, that everything, involves carbon.  After all life on our planet is all carbon based and revolves around a natural carbon cycle.


Just like I feel that the best way to solve the Lake Whatcom water quality issue is to return normal flow to the lake, my feeling is that the closer we can live to this normal natural carbon cycle, the more sustainable and happier the world will be for all of us. Really, there are just a few technical problems with the sustainability of our current energy model. First we don’t pull enough CO2 out of the atmosphere to remain in balance with what we are burning, although we could conceivably grow more plants.  And the second problem is that even if we grew more plants,  we’d have to wait 50 million years or so to harvest the energy that we store.  However tough they may seem, if we solve those problems then we reach a true sustainable state.

And I’ll get on a soapbox here for a moment and tell you that the fastest most efficient way to solve these problems is not through taxes, lobbyist, caps, trades, more taxes, commissions, czars, pacts, nor treaties. The fastest most efficient way is for our government to set a goal in the form of a specific law or regulation and then get out of the way of those people and companies that will solve the problem because they believe they will profit from the solution. Yes, capitalism can and will solve this problem just as it has so many others.

The sustainable solutions will come from utilizing the suns natural solar energy to grow plants, of one form or another, that pull co2 from the atmosphere and then, without waiting 50 million years, we create fuel from those plants to burn in our cars, trucks, trains, planes etc. Plants both convert and store the sun’s energy. Solar, the way God intended.

There are several ways to accomplish this plant growing solution and they all seem to have some merit in one way or another. The main camps are divided between producing ethanol or oils. We see these as the products like E85 ethanol/gas or biodiesels. Even within the two camps there are division regarding what type of plants to use. And there are even the unintended consequences to consider such as the destruction of the palm forests that Doug Ericksen brought to our attention. There are lots of options out there that need to be carefully weighed so that we don’t invest resources, either public or private, into technology that won’t solve our problem. And this is where government really loses out over business. If they follow their normal process, and all indications are that they will, we will see significant investment of our tax dollars into numerous schemes with little or no judgment regarding the potential for a technology to efficiently deliver energy.   Bill Gates addressed the potential for government waste in A Business Plan for America’s Energy Future that he is involved with.

2. Research can be managed and tracked through pre-defined performance gates, to ensure that projects on course keep receiving support and those failing get terminated.
3. Support must be given to technologies that have real potential to scale. The federal government should focus on supporting technologies with potential for national impact—the sectors where there is a major gap between the best technologies available and the technical and economic potential.

Privately held businesses have to be profitable or they fail, it’s a natural consequence of poor performance.  Government on the other hand, just holds special sessions to figure how best to tax us without pissing us off so much that we rebel.    Bill Gates whom many know as a capitalist, a visionary and a leader in new technology also happens to be invested in alternative energy.

Bill Gates’ investment firm is funding Sapphire Energy, a company that intends to make auto fuel from algae.  Sapphire Energy said Wednesday that a series B round will bring the total amount it has raised to more than $100 million.

Perhaps it is investments like this that allow very profitable big companies like Microsoft to not be maligned the way that very profitable big companies like Exxon and BP are?  And if that is so, then it is a matter of public perception, rather than substance, because two of the biggest companies leading us to a sustainable non-fossil fuel future are the now much hated Exxon and BP.

Oil giant BP has so far invested $3 billion in alternative energy globally and is set to reach its target, set in 2005, of spending $8 billion.

At a Beijing conference, BP China President Chen Liming said that BP will focus mainly on wind power projects in the US, solar in India and China and biomass in Brazil. The alternative energy unit of Europe’s largest oil firm set aside $8 billion of investment in the decade through 2015.  Oil & Gas

To complement its new ethanol and biobutanol plants, BP is spending billions on biofuel research. The company has been eyeballing algae as a possible feedstock, largely because algae do not affect fresh water resources, can be produced using ocean and waste-water, and are biodegradable and relatively harmless to the environment if spilled. While algae are expensive to produce, they can yield over 30 times more energy per unit area than other, second-generation biofuel crops. The company is also spending some $1 billion on research on sugar-cane based biofuel in Brazil, which in 2008 produced 37.3% of the world’s ethanol-based biofuel.  heatingoil.com

On Tuesday, Exxon plans to announce an investment of $600 million in producing liquid transportation fuels from algae — organisms in water that range from pond scum to seaweed.  NY times

Remember from above that campaigning Barack Obama said with regards to big oil corporations, “They’ll pay a penalty on windfall profits. We’ll invest in alternative energy, create jobs and free ourselves from foreign oil.” I hope when the well is plugged and the oil spill quickly becomes a thing of the past, that we will remember who has actually been investing in alternative fuels and who has been blowing a lot of hot rhetoric.  I have no doubt that BP will pay damages.  However, if we allow a vindictive President to break BP with penalty after large penalty, then we’ll just be pushing our independence from fossil fuels further into our future.

According to Environmental News Network Algae could yield more than 2000 gallons of fuel per acre per year as opposed to corn which they estimate at only 250 gallons per acre per year.  Algae also can be grown using land and water that isn’t suitable for other uses, so good land is still available for food crops.   Petrosun with an ex-big oil CEO, is a leader in algae based biodiesel and they describe the benefits in a little more detail.

Extensive research was conducted to determine the utilization of microalgae as an energy source, with applications being developed for biodiesel, ethanol, and bioplastics. Independent studies have demonstrated that algae is capable of producing in excess of 30 times more oil per acre than corn and soybean crops. Biodiesel produced from algae contains no sulfur, is non-toxic and highly biodegradable.
One of the biggest advantages of biodiesel compared to many other alternative transportation fuels is that it can be used in existing diesel engines, which relieves manufacturers of having to make costly engine modifications. Biodiesel can also be mixed, at any ratio, with conventional petroleum diesel. As a result, the alternative fuel can be used in the current distribution infrastructure, replacing petroleum diesel either wholly, or as a diesel fuel blend with minimal integration costs.

And the big oil state of Texas is a leader in biodiesel production with

Biodiesel sales are booming in Texas, the country’s largest producer of biodiesel transportation fuel. Texas has a current production capacity of over 100 million gallons per year. As of 2008, Texas has more than 20 commercial biodiesel plants with additional plants under construction or being expanded, as well as over 50 retail biodiesel fueling sites…

Go Texas!

I don’t like paying high prices at the pump, I don’t like smog and I don’t like seeing the damage that the oil spill is doing.  I am thankful though for the positive impact that oil and gas has had for good in this world.  I don’t bear any ill will towards the people who make a living in that industry and as I’ve said,  I have a tough time understanding why they are demonized.

My feeling is that biofuels of all types, and most specifically algae produced biodiesel are a good direction we can take at this time towards a cleaner and more sustainable energy system.  From trucks, cars and planes to fossil fuel generated electricity, our nation has the infrastructure in place to make a smooth efficient transition to non-fossil biofuels.   And driving where I want and when I want in a biodiesel fueled car or truck sounds a lot more appealing than a dooming future generations to a new mass transit dark age.

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