The President’s pledge to fund alternative energy technology is getting praise from both side of the aisle, shockingly, but in listening to the proponents of these plans I am still left with one really big question, how are we going to fuel all of the vehicles that exist today? I am not talking just about cars either, think about how pervasive the lowly hydrocarbon is as a fuel source:
- home heating oil (8.1 million homes… 82% of them in the Northeast use oil as a primary space heating fuel)
- jet fuel (18.8 billion gallons consumed by U.S. carriers alone in the year 2000)
- diesel for trucks, locomotives, buses, cars… (452 mllion gallons of diesel were consumed in the Bay Area in the year 2000)
- jet fuel or diesel power generation equipment
- small engines… what, you gonna put a fuel cell on my power washer?
- construction equipment, predominately diesel
Back in 2004 I wrote a post titled Dependent on Gas where I argued that if you really want to become less dependent on foreign oil (which in the U.S. predominately comes from Mexico and Canada, btw) then let’s start talking about developing alternate hydrocarbons in addition to more exotic solutions like fuel cells, because even if you are successful in moving a great number of new cars to alternate fuels there is still an overwhelming number of existing vehicles and applications that depend on gasoline or diesel.
One of the interesting technologies that has been developed, or I should say rediscovered because the process itself has been around a long time, is refining coal into liquified fuel. I actually saw this on a History Channel program about the history of coal and thought it was pretty cool, and when you consider that the United States alone has enough coal reserves to last 200 years, it makes sense to develop out different energy products based on coal.
One of the open questions that I am not able to answer is how much energy does it take to refine coal into a “unit” of energy. This question is a big ding against ethanol based fuels, which is that the amount of energy required to convert corn into fuel is high relative to oil, not to mention the whole issue of how much energy is required to grow the corn in the first place (ironically agriculture fertilizers are a petroleum product).
Whatever the open questions are, devoting resources to developing coal as a liquid fuel source for existing applications is something that should be high on the energy agenda.
Technorati Tags: energy, coal