If you ask just about anyone who makes a living predicting the future of societies and economies in the developed world, they will tell you we are a technology driven society. New ideas, products, and systems will change our lives and get us out of any jam.
Yet our economy is still hopelessly tied to the market for oil, despite its increasing dysfunction and, more importantly, the existence of proven technologies that can give us energy independence, sustainability, and conservation.
New ideas themselves are not the answer. Implementing them is the real skill of technology, and on that score the developed world is failing horribly. Why and how is worth discussing, especially in light of the faith we put in this thing called “technology”. It is, in the end, about our values.
It is entirely possible for us to find alternative sources that will even out the market for our transportation fuels. It’s even possible for us to make that fuel from sustainable sources. But we would still be left with an incredible 140 billion gallons per year of gasoline, about 1,200 per household, consumed simply getting around. Nevermind that at the end of the day most of us end up exactly where we started off.
Any drive to long-term sustainability has to include conservation. Even if we can make a tremendous amount of fuel from cropland we need energy for electricity and heat as well. Consuming less will always be important, and as the price of fuel rises we are in fact using less of it all the time. But to really drop our consumption we need new technology. Fortunately, at least one is nearly ready for prime-time – the turbine electric hybrid.
Anyone who has spent time in a swamp, like the incredible Florida Everglades, knows what “biogas” is. It’s the end result of natural processes that break down plant matter and return the nutrients back to the soil – and produce a lot of methane gas. Capturing that process, improving it, and making use of the methane is a very old technology that has been in use in some form for centuries.
It also might very well be the future of energy around the world, especially with a few advancements and refinements.
Natural gas has always been the bane of oil production. The processes deep in the earth that create oil over millions of years tend to produce even more volatile gases than liquid oil. These have typically been “flared”, or burned off to get rid of them, since they are difficult to transport or do anything with.
The value of this great resource is finally being tapped around the world, and with some new technologies there are processes in place which can make suitable fuels directly from natural gas. These systems need development and refinement, which can only come from implementation. That, and a bit more research in the lab can revolutionize gasoline – and open the market to a vital new source of supply.
This is the first in a small series on energy in the US, focusing on energy independence and renewables.
There is nothing more fundamental to the health of economy than energy costs, particularly the price of gasoline. There are more important things in life, especially food, but that cost does not rise and fall as rapidly and unpredictably as the cost of the gasoline that keeps our whole system running.
The cost of gasoline is determined by a very open market that is functioning about as well as it can. A critical analysis of this market shows that there are key trends that will constantly drive up the price in narrow bands. The largest problems with this market are barriers to entry, in particular the available refineries, and the single source of raw material in the form of crude. Opening up this system to new technologies and sources of energy is the only way it can be improved to produce more stable, reliable costs.