The United States is struggling to find an alternative fuel. It is in the best interest of the country to do so and to lead the world with a new approach, much as we have with other technologies. So why hasn’t the USA found an alternative to oil? The answer lies in the fact that there currently aren’t any viable alternative fuels, although many potential new fuels are being explored. A breakthrough is needed to overcome a number of issues.
There are four fundamental requirements for a alternative fuel to replace our oil-driven economy. For any alternative fuel to be successful, all three requirements must be satisfied.
- The alternative fuel must produce less greenhouse gas emissions. Given the growing cult status of the global warming issue, any viable alternative must dramatically reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. You can debate the causes of global warming all day, but the fact is that the world is experiencing a climate change phenomenon. Because so many people believe that humans are causing the problem, reducing greenhouse gasses becomes a tremendous political driver.
- The alternative fuel must reduce or eliminate our dependency on Mideast oil as well as Venezuelan oil. The need to completely eliminate our dependency on Mideast oil is obvious. It is very likely that radical Muslims will eventually take over all of the oil producing countries in the Middle East. If the USA fails in Iraq, Iran will move in, not only to increase their control of the world’s supply of oil, but also to eliminate the former threat of Iraq as an unfriendly neighbor. Venezuela is currently run by a buffoon named Hugo Chavez whose issue is not so much with Bush as it is with the United States in general. He preaches a Castro-style form of communism where in his view the United States and capitalism must be defeated. The United States is not even close to resembling the image of imperialism that he projects, but like all forms of communism, they gather their strength by building myths with the ignorant masses. While the next Venezuelan leader may be more rational and pro-US, that is not something that can be predicted. The fact is that both the Mideast and Venezuela have the USA economy in their grasp. If another Mideast oil embargo occurs, Venezuela will undoubtedly join the embargo. We therefore need a plan to break our dependency on both Midlle East oil and Venezuelan oil.
- An alternative fuel must be cost effective. Any alternative fuel that satisfies the first two requirements will likely fail the third. In order to get the full cooperation of the people of the United States, there has to be an economic benefit to entice people to make the switch. Either that, or a massive shock to the economy, such as we would see with another oil embargo. My preference is for the former, rather than the latter. Large countries like ours are not always very good at dealing with crisis situation unless it involves the military. Most politicians are strictly politically driven and make some of the worst decisions when it comes to something that has a long term benefit to the country. Face it, politicians get their kudos for doing something that benefits their constituents now. They don’t particularly care about the effects 20 years down the road and there aren’t very many politicians that anyone would call truly visionary.
- An alternative fuel must be universally available throughout the country.
There are a number of alternatives that can fulfill the requirements for commercial and residential power consumption. People point to wind power and solar power as good, clean alternatives. While neither produce greenhouse gasses and will reduce our dependency on Mideast oil, neither produce power very efficiently and they both are hindered by regional requirements. First, solar power works best in sunny climates. It would therefore be a good alternative fuel for Arizona, Nevada and a few other southern states, but would not be a good alternative for Oregon or the state of Washington. Likewise, wind power requires continually windy locations and there aren’t very many good locations with a constant driving wind. I’m not saying that these are bad choices, but rather are incremental choices that should be part of an overall plan to reduce dependency on oil. It’s just that they cannot be applied in a manner that will eliminate our dependency on oil.
The most viable fuel for producing power is nuclear power. It doesn’t generate greenhouse gasses, nor does it pollute when managed properly. It does reduce our need for using coal and oil, which both produce greenhouse gasses. It is also one of the most cost effective methods for producing electricity. The problems with producing more nuclear power are mostly political in nature. Face it, nuclear power appears scary to many people and there are long-term issues with storing spend fuel rods and other contaminated materials. Beyond the political issues, it remains the best short term solution for reducing greenhouse gasses and our dependency on oil.
There are currently only two fuel alternatives that fulfill the first two requirements for automotive fuel: alcohol and hydrogen. Both currently suffer from limited availability as a primary automotive fuel (requirement #4), but this is something that can be overcome. They both currently fail requirement #3 because each consumes large amounts of energy to produce another form of energy.
It currently takes the energy equivalent of .7 gallons of gasoline to produce one gallon of alcohol fuel, and using the alcohol fuel results in poorer gas mileage than with a gallon of gasoline. Thus far, Brazil is the only country that has successfully migrated to an alcohol fuel economy, so it might be a good idea to study their methods to see how they managed to get it to work. There are other issues at work in Brazil. It is a bit of an isolationist country in that they like to export products, but active discourage most imports through very high tariffs. Nonetheless, they should be applauded for their efforts to transform the energy sector of their economy.
Hydrogen fuel is produced through electrolysis, which generates hydrogen by passing an electric current through water. Both cost and capacity limit the current ability for hydrogen to be mass produced, but the fact that the only emission from burning hydrogen is water does make this alternative fuel look very attractive.
At this point in time, there doesn’t appear to be a best alternative to gasoline that will satisfy the requirements for a successful alternative fuel.