As the price of oil and consequently gasoline has risen precipitously I have watched with glee from the sidelines. Not that I am pleasured by seeing the suffering of the majority of my countrymen as they must dig ever deeper into their pockets, but I must admit to a certain amount of schadenfreude every time I see a big SUV pull up to a gas pump.
I've been driving economical vehicles for years and every time I see one of those gas guzzling behemoths I can only think of how selfish the owner must be. How little they are concerned about the damage they do to the environment, how they are reinforcing our dependence on foreign oil, and how that dependence forces us into policies which engender hatred and disdain around the world.
So when I see them now whine as they shell out $125-150 every time they pull up to the gas pump, I can't help but let out a little chuckle, if only to myself as I pull up to the same pump and only pay a relative pittance of maybe $30 to fill my humble Geo's tiny fuel tank for a whole week's worth of commuting.
I can't help but get the feeling that something wonderful has been lost. An opportunity to make scenes like this one obsolete. We had a chance 30 years ago to avoid this, but it looks now like we may be getting a second bite at the apple.
Embargo and the End of Prospective Energy Independence
The lost opportunity of 30 years ago that I refer to is the Arab oil embargo of the 1970's. The long lines at the gas stations, the skyrocketing prices, seeing my father unable to work some days because he could not find enough gasoline to drive his territory. I also remember the beginnings of technological innovations that if continued could have reduced, if not eliminated our dependence on foreign oil altogether.
Unfortunately, OPEC also noticed those innovations and realizing their livelihood would be threatened should we ever achieve energy independence, they finally decided to open up the spigots. That single act spelled an immediate cessation of any serious research and development into alternative energy technologies.
Well, today, more than 30 years later, we are faced yet again with very similar circumstances. But while there are some similarities, there are also significant differences. This time there is no salvation waiting at the end of a pipeline. There is no spigot to be opened. All the spigots are open now and spewing like so many hoses on a 4 alarm fire.
China Steals Our Backup Plan
I lived for a year in Colombia, South America in 2004-2005. At that time, I guess gas was running well under $3 per gallon here in the US. And in Colombia, almost on a daily basis we could read stories in El Tiempo (Bogota's major newspaper) of how the Chinese were quietly making "back door" deals to line up Colombia and other South American second tier oil producers with deals to buy all the oil they can pump in the future.
This went largely unnoticed in the US as Americans have always focused primarily on the big OPEC producers. But what most people don't know is that OPEC only produces about half the worlds oil. The rest is produced in these second tier producers like Colombia. The United States for years has looked upon these second tier producers as a backup resource, which it goes to when supplies out of OPEC get tight.
But while the United States has been myopically focused on OPEC and other large producers, China has quietly been making the kinds of back door deals described above. The Chinese are shrewd, and they know that it takes oil, lots of it, to feed a growing economy.
The Cause of the Disease
So what is happening now, what is keeping pricing so high is not the speculators that Washington likes to blame, oh no. They are the symptom, they are not the cause of this disease. No, what's causing our problem now is that our top tier producers are maxed out with additional demand by China and India right on it's heels. And our traditional second tier suppliers are too small to just pump out more, instead all their extra production is now going to China.
This situation will never improve. Our refineries are running near capacity and we just are not discovering enough new large oil fields. Even the large oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Brazil will not be able to produce significant quantities of oil for years to come. In the interim, Goldman Sachs is already projecting oil prices of $150-200 per barrel soon, possibly within months, and certainly within two years.
And even if new fields could be brought on line, there is not much additional refining capacity to take advantage of it. The obvious conclusion is that we must seek out alternatives of our own.
The Tragedy of Missed Opportunity
The greatest tragedy of the Arab oil embargo of the 1970's was not the economic hardship it caused, nor the realization that we as a nation were almost totally dependent on Arab oil. No, the real tragedy is that the Arab oil producers had the wisdom to recognize both the inventive genius of the American spirit and the inherent sloth and cowardice of it's political class at the time. They could clearly see that we Americans are a resourceful lot and if left unchecked, we would eventually find our way out of the energy problem. At the same time, they also knew that the American political class would always opt for a quick fix whenever possible.
And so, sensing that we might someday invent our way out of our energy woes, they realized they could ultimately lose the cash cow that was America. Within just two months of the declaration of Project Independence which declared a United States initiative to achieve energy independence, OPEC ended the oil embargo. They knew which side their bread was buttered on, and how much they had to lose. They had no other practical choice. And as a result, research and development came to a standstill.
Response to a Renewed Threat, a New Hope
Today we face a similar situation to that which we endured during the 1970's. But this time, nobody is going to bail us out. There is no additional production of which to avail ourselves and little additional refining capacity to take advantage of it.
There is no other choice, we MUST innovate our way out of it. The good news is, we actually have the technology already to do just that. There are two technologies which hold the promise of permanently and completely ending our dependence on fossil fuels. These are not "pie in the sky" theoretical ideas, these are cold, hard, tested, and functioning technologies that exist right now.
The first of these is clean burning algal biodiesel and ethanol. The humble microorganism that grows in every pond is actually a significant oil producer. Algae is capable of producing up to 100 times as much oil per acre as corn or soybeans.
Here is just one example
Another company that has jumped on the algal oil bandwagon called PetroSun has already gone into production in Arizona.
The facility, located in Rio Hondo Texas, will produce an estimated 4.4 million gallons of algal oil and 110 million lbs. of biomass per year off a series of saltwater ponds spanning 1,100 acres.
The technical problems have apparently been solved
Microalgae have garnered considerable attention, since acre-by-acre microalgae can produce 30-100 times the oil yield of soybeans on marginal land and in brackish water. The biomass left-over from oil-pressing can either be fed to cattle as a protein supplement, or fermented into ethanol.
The big problem has been figuring out how to collect and press the algae, and in the case of open ponds, to prevent contamination by invasive species. PetroSun seems to have figured it out, and this may be the first algae biofuel plant to get off the ground.
There are a number of other firms working on algal oil technologies as well.
Take a look at the video at this link. It's amazing!
A new feature film is also extolling the virtues of algal oil
But That's Not All
While the problem is being attacked from the fuel side, there is also another technology which promises to solve the automotive transport facet of the problem as well. It's called the Ultra Capacitor, and a new breakthrough technology has now made the prospect of a practical highway speed electric vehicle with a significant range a reality.
The vehicle will be produced by Zenn, a Canadian electric automobile company.
Target Launch of the cityZENN, powered by EEStor: Fall 2009
The cityZENN is planned to be a fully certified, highway capable vehicle with a top speed of 125 KPH/ 80 MPH and a range or 400 kilometres/250 miles. Powered by EEStor, the cityZENN will be rechargeable in less than 5 minutes, feature operating costs 1/10th of a typical internal combustion engine vehicle and be 100% emission-free! The Zero-Emission, No-Noise cityZENN will be designed to meet the transportation requirements of a large percentage of drivers worldwide.
And lest one be tempted to dismiss this breakthrough as vaporware, consider that none other than defense contractor Lockheed Martin is so convinced of the viability of the technology that they have signed a production agreement with EEStor, the patent owner of the technology.
In their words
"We've visited their facility. We were very impressed. They are taking an approach that lends itself to a very quick ramp-up in production. We've seen a lot of their testing and efforts to measure the purity of the powders that they use, and the chemistry. Well be working with them very closely this year to develop prototypes in certain pursuits."
These are not just ideas on some amorphous drawing board, these are real, tested, prototyped, and independently verified technologies capable of producing actual results almost immediately. It's time for us to abandon our impractical pursuit of limited non-renewable and highly pollutant technologies for these relatively clean, feasible, and practical technologies.
At this point, there really is no excuse not to. And by investing in these green technologies we can revitalize our economy and produce thousands if not millions of new jobs that can not be outsourced. We stand poised on the brink of a true green revolution which promises to revitalize our economy for years to come and clean our environment in the bargain.
You have a role to play
Contact your Senators and Congresspeople and tell them to stop wasting taxpayer money on subsidies for impractical grain based biofuels that yield only 20% more energy than is required to produce them and that are already beginning to deplete the world's food stocks.
Tell them it's time to start investing in the practical green technologies outlined here. Email them with the links contained in this diary so they can educate themselves on these technologies. We don't need to wreck world food supplies nor waste taxpayer money on impractical technologies. Instead, we should target public spending on building the infrastructure to refine, manufacture, and distribute these technologies. The R & D is already done, they don't have to spend a dime of taxpayer money on it. All we have to do is ramp up production.