December 14, 2010
The Energy Equation: Practical Fact vs. Political FictionBy Frank Burke
Politically motivated energy solutions continue to exacerbate the problems they were supposed to counteract. The automotive industry and the CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) regulations, which originated in 1975 as a result of the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, make up only one example of many.
In the early 1980s, American car-makers were refining the design strategies necessary to meet the mileage requirements imposed by the government. One of the Big Three automakers' programs called for the use of a small four-cylinder engine equipped with a supercharger -- a mechanism that intermittently forces air into the combustion chamber to provide more complete combustion and greater power when needed.
Following a planning meeting with one of the key suppliers, a design engineer was asked the inevitable question: Is this going to work? He smiled and replied that although the mileage standards would be met, it might be more practical to consider all of the energy inputs that go into the manufacture of an automobile engine. He noted that the metal has to be mined or reclaimed from scrap, then smelted. Depending on the engine component, it then requires forming, casting, machining, and other operations prior to final assembly. There is also energy usage for transportation at virtually every step of the process, as well as indirect costs related to plant operation. He noted that with proper care, the typical six- or eight-cylinder engine could have a useful life that frequently exceeded 200,000 miles. Unfortunately, the supercharged smaller engines would run so hot that many would not see 100,000 miles. The end result: the improved mileage standards resulted in a net expenditure of far more energy.
The paper industry, like the steel industry, has always utilized recycled materials in the production process. Paper is composed of compressed fibers, and the average fiber can be recycled a maximum of three times. When Congress decreed that recycled content had to be increased, paper-makers were forced to utilize an expanded refining process that, of course, used more energy.
At the onset of the recent BP oil well disaster, the Obama administration refused offers of aid and equipment from experts worldwide. The result was a more protracted and serious crisis.
Despite the lessons inherent in these, and many other earlier failures, the administration has stubbornly failed to realize that, when politicians attempt to involve themselves in technical and business matters in which they have no experience, the results are predictably disastrous.
Nowhere has the administration's current inability to see the big picture been more obvious than in the so-called green energy programs. Under normal market-driven conditions, emergent technologies typically experience a start-up period or pioneer phase. At this time, some fall short on their own or are unable to meet competitive challenges. Examples of this include early steam and electric vehicles, which gave way to the internal combustion engine, and, more recently, the Betamax vs. VHS format war for the home video recorder market.
Once a product or process has made it past the initial stage, it typically evolves and inspires the development of new and better features as it matures.
In terms of generating electricity, both wind and solar power systems are in the early phases, and it remains to be seen how much they can contribute to solving our energy problems. Wind farms require huge amounts of real estate; they are expensive to construct; maintenance is expensive and downtime common; and they pose a danger to birds, especially migratory waterfowl. They are also are extremely difficult and costly to maintain. At the present time, the hardware frequently derives in whole or in part from foreign sources, adding to the cost of transportation. They are hardly the perfect solution.
Solar power has improved, but like with wind power, it has not reached the point where it can be embraced as the key to self-sufficiency.
Despite this, the Obama administration has poured billions of dollars into the coffers of preferred companies such as General Electric and foreign manufacturers in establishing installations that will shortly become obsolete -- if they aren't already. At the same time, the administration has stalled the development of nuclear plants and oil reserves that could accomplish the goal of energy independence while creating tens of thousands of new and permanent jobs.
A further example of the lack of cohesion and leadership in energy policies is reflected in the manner in which program elements frequently contradict each other. For instance, under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-sponsored green building certification program, a major criterion involves sourcing building materials locally so as to minimize energy expenditure in the transportation process. How does the square with importing and trucking giant wind power components thousands of miles or bringing tankers loaded with oil from halfway around the world?
If one had to pick the single best (or worst) example of the Obama administration's inability to view the big picture when it comes to energy-related matters, one could hardly find a better example than the much-vaunted and publicized Chevrolet Volt. A totally electric automobile with a 60-mile range that can be recharged in the owner's garage or at remote recharging stations, the Volt is so expensive that the government has had to create a subsidy program to incentivize buyers. Because of its zero emissions, it has been touted as the car of the future and a major step on the road to solving our environmental problems.
Once again, the reality is quite different. Most of our domestic electrical energy supply derives from coal-burning power plants, and in view of the administration's refusal to aggressively pursue nuclear power, that is likely to be the case into the short- and mid-term future. Seen in this light, the Chevrolet Volt is, in reality, a coal-powered automobile. If one were to produce a graphic illustrating how much coal would be required to generate the electricity that would power the Volt every day over the course of -- say -- a ten-year life, it would become apparent that the actual carbon footprint is huge.
Once again, the equation does not add up, and the administration that purports to be on the side of the angels when it comes to the environment has produced, through its General Motors subsidiary, the first coal-powered transport vehicle since the decline of the steam locomotive.
Until and unless the administration is willing to solicit and heed the advice and guidance of the private-sector professionals with the technical and business experience to help set practical policies, the equation is not going to balance. Instead, we will continue to overpay for impractical non-solutions.