Thursday, October 27, 2011

Turn off the petroleum faucet

            There’s still a lot of wealth in this nation. A part of me wants to focus on the real wealth in the US: freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, right to trial by peers. You know the list. This is the true wealth of this republic.
            But my focus here is on financial wealth, of which there is still a huge amount. I want my children, step-children and grandchildren to have access to the benefits I’ve enjoyed all my life. I have no problem with sharing wealth with nations and peoples in need. It would be unchristian not to do so. What concerns me is that the wealth of the nation is being squandered. We’re flushing the financial hopes of the next several generations.
            Every day we send billions of dollars out of our economy to purchase foreign crude oil. Yes, it’s essential to the modern world, every nation needs it, but it is a finite resource. There’s no question but that if alternative fuels aren’t developed, we will find ourselves at war with China and/or India for access to crude oil.
            Will my grandchildren pay with their lives because I refused to remove my blindfold or was just was too damned lazy either to curtail my use of petroleum or to help find alternatives?
            Petroleum is a necessity, but are there viable alternatives? Gasoline may be the most obvious petroleum product, so let’s focus on that. Can we either control our insatiable appetite for gasoline or find a viable alternative? The answer to the first is, probably not. We’re addicted to the freedom gasoline gives us, so controlling our appetite will be difficult, but the good news is, there are workable substitutes.
            One has to applaud the advances made in developing alternative fuels. You’ve heard that some are converting used frying oil from the local fast-food joints to diesel fuel. Some are trying to produce gasoline from algae – pond scum. Electric and hybrid vehicles are more common. Very cool, but is that where we want to be down the road?
            I remember the gas crisis of the early 70s when OPEC turned off the faucets. There was near panic worldwide. The US felt the crunch immediately and we only imported about 25% of our petroleum needs at the time. Today we import 75-80%. Ordinary people complained and moaned but, when OPEC turned the taps on again, we went back to our previous uncaring attitudes. But one nation felt the pain and decided to do something about it. Brazil turned to ethanol. Today, ethanol powers the majority of Brazilian automobiles and they don’t have to import it. They grow it and refine it, keeping their money at home. I don’t know if Brazil is energy independent, but it’s a lot closer to it than we are. And as a little side note, your gasoline engine could be converted to use ethanol with a few minor modifications.
            There is a movement in the US to use more ethanol, but the effort seems half-hearted and, I believe, misguided. It’s half-hearted because ordinary people aren’t behind it. It seems that the prevalent attitude is, so long as there is gas at the pumps and enough money to buy it, most people don’t give a hoot. It’s misguided because when we think of ethanol, we think of corn, and corn is a poor choice for ethanol. First, it creates competition for a staple food item which drives up the price of the thousands of food products made from corn. Second, it’s inefficient. For every unit of energy used to convert corn to ethanol, only one and one-half units of energy are produced. The net gain is only one-half unit. In Brazil they use sugar cane. The benefits are: first, it doesn’t create competition for a staple food item and, second, for every unit of energy used to convert sugar cane to ethanol, seven units of energy are produced. The net gain is six units. That’s incredible.
            So, why don’t we grow sugar cane and refine it? Yes, it grows here. My dad grew it and had it made into molasses. We don’t grow and refine it because there’s no one behind the effort. We can’t import ethanol from Brazil because the US government import tax is so high that it removes the economic viability. I guess that’s done to protect the interests of big oil, who only care about their bottom line and don’t give a sick rat’s behind about you and me, or about our country, so we are forced to continue depending on foreign oil.
            But is ethanol is the answer? It might be used as a short term measure, but the long term answer, in my opinion, is hydrogen.
            This isn’t science fiction. Hydrogen powered vehicles are being driven already. They don’t pollute. The exhaust emission is – water. You could order one tomorrow. The problem is, you can’t refuel it. Critics say it would be too costly to set up the necessary network of hydrogen refueling stations. It’s a Catch 22. So long as there are no hydrogen powered vehicles, no refueling stations will be built and so long as there are no refueling stations, no one will buy a hydrogen powered vehicle. I say it’s too costly not to set up those refueling stations.
            How can it be done? Here’s a thought. Every state in the nation has a fleet of vehicles. What if a state could be persuaded to convert, as much as possible, to hydrogen powered vehicles and to set up the necessary refueling stations state-wide, stations which would also be available for public use? And what if the US postal service changed over to hydrogen powered vehicles and set up refueling stations, also available for public use?
            What are the benefits? 1) We decrease the demand and competition for crude oil, which means it’s less likely that your grandchildren and mine will be sent to die for it. 2) We keep our mobile lifestyle. 3) We cut way back on the amount of pollution entering the atmosphere. 4) We keep our money at home to benefit us, our children and our grandchildren and, if we build the vehicles here, we create jobs. 5) We can look back on our lives and say we stopped being part of the problem and became part of the solution.

            Light a candle.

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