You might think that when we (start to, continue to ) invest in new energy-producing alternatives, we will solve our “big oil” problem. NOT! We need gasoline and/or diesel fuels for the foreseeable future. Our transportation system relies on liquid-based fuels. Yes, we can convert these vehicles to electricity (with major improvements to the existing technologies), but the transition will be much slower than you would think. If we had sufficient supplies of electric vehicles (and they were reliable) and outlawed (not likely at all) the sale of all gasoline powered vehicles tomorrow , it would be at least 10 years before there would be a noticeable drop in gasoline consumption. (Consumers don’t trade in all their cars every year, consumers buy used cars, etc.)
And, it’s not just cars that we need to worry about. Freight is carried by diesel trains and diesel trucks. The likelihood of that changing this fuel basis in the next twenty years is extremely low. Our barge system (for example, along the Mississippi River waterways) and our container ships all use petroleum fuels.
Does that mean we should not develop solar, wind, and other fuels? No, because our power plants consume coal and natural gas; these could be replaced (again over time, since we don’t build new power plants overnight; but we could augment our supplies and handle peak demands via the alternative energy). But, I am somewhat jaundiced at the prospects of our doing so in a reasonable time frame.
Some 40 years ago, I was involved in a series of research projects to develop coal gasification processes, hydrogen fuel systems, and the conversion of Athabascan Tar Sands. Of the three, only the Athabascan tar sands conversion is in use; and it only began in earnest some 7 years ago (being oil price dependent). At the present price of oil, we could gasify coal in situ (in place) for a profit, alleviating the need to mine coal, and satisfy our energy needs for some 200 years or so. But, no one is investing the capital required to develop in situ coal gasification.
Moreover, The US seems to have decided that we need to promote ethanol fuel additives to our gasoline stocks.. Yes, we have large corn farming here in America. Yes, this is American-based fuel production. But, there are common-sense problems that our farm (and ethanol) lobbies are deliberately skirting.
First of all, most of these ethanol plants are being built where there is a shortage of water. It takes some 4 to 5 gallons of water to produce a gallon of oil from corn feedstock. (I am NOT including the water needed to grow the corn itself). Our research has shown that employing water reuse/recycle systems can cut that usage down significantly (but no one is knocking on our doors right now). So, now we are producing ethanol at the expense of another vital resource (water) that is in short supply.
Secondly, we are subsidizing the ethanol industry. Part of the reason we need to do so is because we are producing most of our ethanol from corn. On an energy balance, this means we produce 30% more fuel value than was present in the corn in the first place. By comparison, Brazil uses sugar cane as its feedstock, and generates 8 times the energy value.
While we are waiting for our alternative fuels to be developed and implemented for the power industry (which will probably take subsidies of a different sort), and electric/hybrid automobiles to reach a significant percentage of our vehicle (non-freight) usage, perhaps we should take more time to design and develop safeguards for our petrochemical operations and insure their environmental integrity.