February 11, 2012

Are fossil fuels better than wind, solar and nuclear?


Fossil fuels in general, and oil in particular, appeared to be great in their day, but they are much more expensive than they appear (IOW, they have large externalities) and they can and should be replaced ASAP.

So, what's wrong with the common view that they are?

First, green house gas emissions are important. The scientific consensus is that GHGs are a big problem, and there is a large risk that they are a very big problem. That alone would push fossil fuels down below solar, wind and nuclear.

Second, fossil fuels are not reliable. The US is still fighting a $2 trillion war to make access to oil slightly more reliable. An oil shock was a significant contributor to the 2008 recession, and has contributed to many recessions before that.

The US is effectively at war with the Middle East, albeit at a very low level of intensity. That means a war mentality, with circumscribed civil liberties, a vastly expanded military-industrial complex, an enormous diversion of engineering talent away from productive uses towards war technology (UAVs, etc).

Roosevelt struck a Faustian bargain with KSA, and the US has been embroiled in the ME ever since. Look at the US intervention in Iran in 1954, which caused so much grief starting with the anti-US/Shah uprising in 1979. The US has been the Great Satan in Iran ever since, with pretty good justification.

Have you ever wondered why US television is dominated by gory police procedurals (CSI, CSI-Miami, Naval-CIS, Law and Order in many flavors, etc,etc)? Americans live with a strong background anxiety, due to fear of terrorism (aka guerrilla warfare, aka asymmetric warfare), and that kind of programming conveys reassurance that the "authorities" have everything under control.

Third, oil is very, very costly right now. The US, and other oil importers, is transferring vast income and wealth to exporters, every day. The war discussed above costs somewhere above $500B every year: that's around $150 per barrel of imported oil! Just as importantly, the kind of background anxiety discussed above exacts a very, very high cost.

Fourth, the problem of renewable intermittency is not so important. In the medium term Demand Side Management and fossil fuel backup will work just fine. In the long term , overbuilding, and geographic diversity will provide most of what's needed, and synthetic fuels are perfectly viable for the small remaining percentage (they can be produced with current tech, at a price premium).

Fifth, oil isn't hard to replace. Land travel is very straightforward: freight can go to rail and short-haul electric trucks; passenger travel can go to EREVs (with ethanol for the remaining 10% of fuel needed for longer trips) and/or rail with car-shared EVs.

Water shipping and air travel is a small percentage of fuel consumption. They can be made much more efficient; wind and solar can provide a large percentage of water shipping energy; and synthetic fuels and biomass can provide the relatively small amount of fuel still needed.

Sixth, life without fossil fuels will be rather better: cleaner, just as affordable, nicer in many ways. For example, EVs have better handling and performance, are quieter, easier to own and maintain, longer lived and overall rather cheaper. I use relatively little FF, and feel my life is rather better for it. My well insulated house needs less noisy HVAC; my electric train is safer, and has a "chauffeur" who allows me to relax and meditate, work or read for enjoyment.

Perhaps as important, EVs won't require any oil wars, or anti-"terror" campaigns to keep viable. No more screening before flying, or worrying before using the subway. Yay.

Fossil fuels/oil are definitely not superior to the alternatives.

Legacy FF industries are using scare tactics to keep us addicted to FF. The truth is that existing technologies (efficiency; wind, solar and nuclear; rail, EVs, biomass and synthetic fuel) can provide energy that is cleaner, more scalable, more affordable and at least as reliable.

Oil is very costly, right now. We need to replace it ASAP!

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