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Monday, November 5, 2012

Not all energy is equal



Most people have no idea how much actual energy is locked up in liquid fuels like gasoline and diesel. It’s also fairly convenient to handle. That’s what makes it so good as a transportation fuel.

During WWII, the Germans were converting coal into liquid fuel. It was a fairly inefficient process. A lot more energy was used to do the conversion than ended up as a liquid fuel. Why do it? If you were going to use the liquid fuel to run a power plant, that would be foolish. It’s better to burn the coal directly. However, fighter planes don’t run very well on coal.

The Alberta tar sands project is almost as bad. Here it’s not coal that being consumed but natural gas. Massive amounts of fresh water is used plus there’s a serious environmental cost too. It might make more sense to just use the natural gas, but few vehicles run on it. It’s all about liquids. Gas requires a whole different infrastructure.

Liquid fuels are so important that food crops like corn and sugar cane have been diverted into ethanol to run vehicles. Some people have to starve so others can drive.

That’s the world I find myself in. It doesn’t seem to be a very ethical world.

I’ve been contemplating liquid fuels as I pile my firewood. Not all that long ago most of my heating needs were provided by heating oil. A truck would pull up, fill the tank, and that was that. Well, except the bill. Oil prices have risen and my income has gone down. Heating oil is out of the question. It certainly takes a big pile of firewood to replace a couple tanks of heating oil.

Liquid fuels are too valuable to waste heating a house. A couple gallons of gasoline powered the chainsaw that cut my wood and the woodsplitter that split it. That’s a pretty efficient use of a liquid fuel. The dump truck that delivered my wood runs on a blend of diesel and waste vegetable oil. I gave the driver a fair of waste veggie after he dropped off my wood.

Maybe I’m living in the future -a future where liquid fuels are less abundant and cost more. Gasoline at $20/gallon would still be worth buying for things like chainsaws, woodsplitters, rototillers -anything that saves a lot of hand labor.

Countries could decide to ration fuel to run fire trucks and ambulances, but I’m guessing the first priority will be tanks and planes. History has ugly lessons. Nazi slave labor ran those coal to liquid fuel plants in WWII.

Anyone who’s had their gasoline supply interrupted suddenly realizes how much of their day to day life relies on liquid fuels. It’s a frail system. Now we are seeing shortages in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy. It doesn’t take a hurricane to disrupt the system.

Several years ago the gasoline delivery trucks of just one company were a day late. A snowstorm shut down the delivery. 20 hours later, my town was out of gas, even though gas stations that carried other brands had no interruptions. They were not prepared for the increase in business. Half the gas stations in the next town over had also run dry. Deliveries resumed the next day and the problem went away.

Here’s a thought experiment. You’ve got a 5 gallon can of gas. A disaster hits and cuts off electricity and gasoline supplies. Do you run your generator? Do you put the 5 gallons of gas in your car and see if you can leave the area? It depends.

Maybe you feel safe in your home. You wisely use that generator occasionally, just often enough to keep your refrigerator and/or freezer cold. Either the power comes back before the gas is gone, or you’ve at least had a chance to eat your refrigerated food before it spoils.

On the other hand, that 5 gallons of gas might be enough fuel to drive you and your family out of harms way. Maybe. What if it was only enough gas to get you stranded out on the highway with thousands of other people? Decisions, decisions.

Liquid fuel is marvelous stuff. Don’t take it for granted. Consider how to get by with a whole lot less of it. That might be something you’ll have to deal with, whether or not you want to think about it.


-Sixbears

22 comments:

  1. Getting by with less is ideal. Keeping a little bit ahead is a good idea, too.

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  2. That 5 gal. will get me to the retreat and run a gen for 24 hours (Little honda) I can cut up a lot of firewood with an electric chain saw in those 24 hrs....
    Course we have a couple hundred gals. already stashed up there !

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    1. Good plan. Also good to know you can do it with 5 gallons.

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  3. Phyllis (N/W Jersey)November 5, 2012 at 7:08 AM

    Our oil company will only deliver 200 gallons or more. Because of that, we only use the hot water for showers. Laundry is done in cold water. We are so lucky that our wood burning fireplace keeps the house warm. Gorges is right. Planning ahead is always a good idea. It's never going to get any better. Thankfully we were prepared when Sandy hit.

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    1. Glad you were prepared. 200 gallons costs a bit of change. You know that you can buy diesel at the pump and pour it into your fuel tank? I've a couple of 5 gallon containers for just that. Right now off road diesel is about the same price as heating oil.

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  4. Heating with wood is great if you are home most of the time. You can't do it easily or safely if you have to go to work all day an nobody's there to end the fire. If you are heating with oil or gas or electric, you just set the thermostat and it takes care of itself.

    So the other question is whether it's better use of your time to cut, haul, split, and stack wood, then stay home to feed the stove, or go to work and buy a tank of oil. It's about a weeks pay for me to fill my tank. Which is lousy, but still makes more sense than staying home those other ten or so weeks not earning money before I need another fill up.

    Going to woodstoves isn't a simple economic decision like switching from oil to gas. It's a decision to change your lifestyle. It only fits when you have an income that doesn't require you to be gone for forty hours a week (or sixty, like many of us).

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    1. I've heated with wood when both my wife and I worked full time. It required a good stove that could hold a fire for 10 - 12 hours.

      Heating with wood was like a second job for me, but at least I was working for myself and didn't have to pay taxes on my efforts.

      Yes, it's easier now that I'm home more.

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    2. I won't argue how well a good stove would work, but my current set up is fine as an emergency backup, but no way will it last unattended for more than a few hours. It allowed us to stay in the house when the power was out for two days a few years back.

      If somebody invented a wood tank that would pipe logs to it all day while I work, I'd be onboard.

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    3. It's called a pellet stove.

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  5. Fire wood is not available a lot of places. Would you like all those city folk to come out and cut down all the trees on your mountain? I am lucky enough to have a supply of fire wood on my place that will last long after I am gone. I lived for a short while north east of Dallas. As far as I could see, I could only see four trees. And no buffalo chips to burn. . . One extra cold winter the power went out and I had to drive miles to find some wood to burn.

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    1. Of course firewood doen't work everywhere. I told my daughter who lives outside of Boston to not even bother. She does have options that I don't. One has to do what's right for their area.

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  6. I agree everyone needs to learn how to get the most from a gallon of fuel.In good times we just buy it and take it for granted.This statistic has always stuck in my mind 1 gallon of gas has the same energy as 500 man hours of labor.Most engines are only using 15% of its potential energy the rest is wasted.Even at that 75 man hours saved for 3.50 to 4 bucks cost is a bargin.I owned a gas station when someone would start ranting about a few penny increase my response was push your truck for 15 miles and then tell me if gas is worth the cost. P.S. i use coleman fuel now in my chainsaw blended gas ate my carberator up 7.50 a gallon is cheap compared to 67$ it cost for the repair.

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    1. Good points.

      Coleman fuel stays stable for at least 7 years, so it's a good storage fuel.

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  7. If I lived in an area like you are in, Sixbears, I'd be happy with burning wood as well!

    I did that for a year where I used to live and it wasn't bad at all! Luckily, we had our own supply of trees and limbs around! 13 acres can produce a lot of wood if the harvest is done right!

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    1. A 13 acre woodlot can provide all the wood a good sized house needs, year after year. It works here for me.

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  8. i cant wait to movve into our new place. the outdoor wood boiler will be much better than nat. gas and with 120 acres of hardwoods much cheaper.

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  9. ever looked into wood gas powered engines?


    Wildflower

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    1. Yes. It's not the route I chose to go. If I was doing short local trips, it would be worth it. For me, running on waste veggie has worked better. Cheaper and easier conversion.

      Wood gas definitely works though.

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