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.