Saturday, March 25, 2006

Peak oil, fearism, and our future

Consider this article: Energy refugee fleeing $100-a-barrel oil .. "Around the time of the first oil shock in 1973, columnist Art Buchwald penned a satirical column about what life without cheap oil would be like in the 1990s. One day, a father and son go out for their first drive in weeks because fuel costs $8.50 a gallon. 'I feel like a steak,' says the father to his son. And the boy asks, 'Dad, what's a steak?' ... To many Americans, the approaching petroleum calamity remains invisible, but not to my pal John P. Like so many others, he rolled into Arizona from the Midwest a few decades ago bent on fleeing an assortment of ecological and environmental abuses in favor of adventure, clean air, cheap energy and abundant water.... 'You might say that I was an environmental refugee,' the steely-eyed, onetime congressional candidate and former big-time river guide said as he sipped some simple black coffee on the outskirts of Sedona not far from his hideaway in Rim Rock.... 'I always figured that I'd stay here until the managed-care guys came to take me away.'... But my pal has changed his mind. 'See that price?' he said, pointing to a gas station sign advertising fuel for $2.50 a gallon. 'There have been warnings galore, but we've to fix the energy levees, so to speak. That's the last time you'll see it that low; denial about our oil addiction trumps any 12-step program. We are out of here because here in the red rocks and in so many other places, inconvenient facts about energy and water are taboo; oil is headed for $100-a-barrel oil, just the least shock will do it: a tanker blown in the Persian Gulf, a refinery sabotaged.'..." And with that he's planning to move to Idaho to escape the coming fuel catastrophe.

This kind of story just reminds me of one thing. Survivalists. In the 1990's they were escaping the y2k problem. Earlier they were escaping nuclear war. Today there's scares about bird flu, terrorists, peak oil, etc.

Now, I'm very interested in this peak oil scenario. This scenario certainly looks very realistic and I am very concerned about when will it happen.

But ... let's consider the psychological/emotional/spiritual component to this.

What we have is a scary story. People like John P quoted above are taking the fear in that story, and living that fear as if its true, taking drastic actions out of fear.

Ask yourself, if you are having fear, if you are in so much fear you're terrified of the future, how does that affect the range of actions you can take? Doesn't this trigger the fight or flight reflex, causing it to become a survival issue? And, sure enough, there is a lot of evidence with the peak oil scenario that make it look like the survival of our society is at stake.

One of the things that is true about fear is it limits your vision. Your limited vision can see fewer possible solutions.

For example John P is missing out on all sorts of solutions being developed in the world. Instead he's escaping to Idaho expecting the world he knows to collapse into bloodshed. No doubt he's going to stockpile food and guns and be prepared to be killing anybody who wants to take his survival, represented by the food and guns, away from him.

But what about the development of biofuels, of better solar energy systems, better wind energy systems, more reliable nuclear systems, vehicles available from the car companies that can burn non-fossil fuels, and more. He's not seeing them, because the fear doesn't allow it.

If you find yourself in fear, what can you do? There's a range of possibilities.

For example if you're unaware of your fear, you have little ability to navigate out of the fear. Instead it's more likely you'll take rash actions based on the limited vision your fear allows you to have.

The key is to learn to be aware when you are in fear, and to recognize the effects to yourself that come from being in fear.

Next, having the awareness of the fear and the effects is when you can choose differently. What I recommend is a prayer I've learned from Ron Roth: Peace to my thoughts, peace to my emotions, peace to my body, peace to the world. You can also meditate upon the divine presence such as repeating to yourself, and embodying, "come holy spirit, divine holy spirit".

Those practices are not the only ones which will help you come out of fear. They are what I do for myself.

Another thing I've learned is there are many problems, such as the peak oil issue, where my conscious mind, my ego, has no clue how to solve the problem. However, the divine mind does know the answer. The divine, or if you prefer the name 'God', created this universe and surely must have an idea or two of how we in this culture at this time on this planet can resolve the problems facing us.

I don't know what that answer is, but I do know that whatever it is has to happen through us. For 'God' to act in the world 'we' must take actions, because we are God's agents in the world.

What this leads to is an idea. Taking the prayer concept I described above, here's how you might apply it to a world situation like the peak oil scenario, the Iraq war, the impending war in Iran, etc.

First spend some time meditating upon the divine as I described above. Then shift to a prayer like "come holy spirit, peace to the people of Iraq, peace to the soldiers in Iraq, peace to the countries surrounding Iraq, peace to the leaders in Iraq, ...". It helps to visualize inside yourself peace flooding through Iraq.

Now, I should point out that true peace is not the cessation of war. I think of true peace as it is exemplified by forests. A forest has a life of its own which manifests and protects the systemic organization that is the forest. Stuff happens in forests, there are animals hunting for meals, they sometimes kill one another, there are ant colonies having wars with each other, etc. All that stuff is going on, but whatever it is the life of the forest is completely intertwined with all that stuff that's going on. Anything that happens is swallowed by the life force of the forest.

Which was a long way of saying, you can pray for something but let go of attachment to a specific result. Your ego mind may have brilliantly come up with the supposedly perfect solution, but God may have a completely different idea. As the old saying goes, if you want to hear God laugh tell her your plans.


Carbon impurity with biofuels

There's a growing movement towards biofuels which may turn into a real strong adoption of them by our society. Theoretically that's a good thing, as the fuel is derived from renewable plant sources. But there's room for many unexpected problems buried in the details. Often it seems we solve one problem and create 10 others.

Carbon cloud over a green fuel An Iowa corn refinery, open since December, uses 300 tons of coal a day to make ethanol.

The story is that some of the ethanol refineries in Iowa are using Coal for part of the refining process. Ah, it's a refinery, and that generally means heating and distilling liquids. The article discusses how it's usual for the refinery to use natural gas, but some of them are using coal. Either way they're relying on some fossil fuel for production of the biofuel.

In effect the biofuel carries along with it some carbon burden from the fossil fuel.

Another issue is how this shows we haven't completely weaned ourselves from fossil fuel, even with biofuels.


Growing biofuels, moving to widespread use

Growing Biofuels offers an interesting perspective on what it will take to move biofuels (of which biodiesel is one) from a niche to widespread use.  For most purposes, todays biofuels start from the same feedstocks that produce foods like corn syrup or vegetable oil.  This makes for an economic entanglement where high food prices causes high biofuel prices.

Another factoid comes from a study in Canada.  "Diverting half of Canada's canola oil exports into biofuel production would yield only enough biodiesel to meeet 2.7 percent of current diesel demand in Canada".  Indicating that meeting biodiesel needs by diverting food production is a little counterproductive.

The article goes on to discuss an alternative approach.  Using biomass the source is not from material normally meant for food, but is instead leftover biological material like wood chips.

Choren Industries (partnered with Royal Dutch Shell) has developed a method derived from the Fischer-Tropsch method.  That method was used by the Nazi Germany war machine to power their war machines even when they didn't have a source of regular oil.  The Fischer-Tropsch method allowed them to convert coal to gasoline.  Choren has refined the method and is using it to turn any biomass into a liquid fuel.


Sunday, March 12, 2006

Ethanol is used widely in Brazil

In the State of the Union speech, GW Bush mentioned Ethanol as a resource "we" should develop. There's been a big scramble towards Ethanol since. Ethanol has some interesting characteristics, in that it's a liquid fuel that's very compatible with gasoline. Unlike biodiesel, ethanol can be readily burned in a gasoline engine and, in fact, ethanol is widely used today in the U.S. Just watch for a sticker on the pump saying "This gasoline may contain ethanol".

Brazil leading effort to boost ethanol use discusses ethanol production and use in Brazil. During the 1970's the "military dictators" then ruling the country pushed for ethanol production and mandated its use in vehicles. That has turned into a golden spot in the Brazillian economy, and they use ethanol rather than gasoline in nearly half of domestic passenger fuel demand.

Brazil has an interesting advantage with all those sugar canes, in that it's sugar which produces alcohol.

This means the U.S. can't directly replicate what they're doing, we don't have domestic sugar cane production to any great degree. Further, when you mention Ethanol, the corn farmers in Iowa get dollar signs in their eyes, and the corn producer lobbiests have been controlling debate around ethanol.

But I want to gather up some details from the article, so here goes.

The article focuses on one plant that works "around the clock" that is distilling 92,500 gallons of ethanol daily that is trucked away for immediate sale at the pumps. But it can only do this during the sugar cane season, apparently (March to November). This means to cover the period outside that season they'll need fuel storage facilities.

This at the end seems to be a critical point:

In Sao Tome, the cooperative that owns the ethanol distillery is betting on its best profits since it bought the operation in 1993. Cocamar's production cost is $1.10 per gallon, and wholesalers are buying the fuel for $2.68 - up from $1.44 last year.

About the only thing that could hurt Brazil's ethanol industry now would be an almost unimaginable plunge in international crude oil prices, currently trading above $60 per barrel, said Almir Hawthorne, the distillery's industrial manager.

"Oil could drop to $35 or $40 per barrel, and ethanol producers would still make money."

They're making $1.24 per gallon more profit than last year, due entirely it would seem to the high price for oil. If oil prices did drop again it's clear their threshold for gaining a profit is around $40 per barrel. But I wonder if, at that price, they'll make enough profit to get the excitement that's circling around them.

That's been the sticker for most of the alternative fuels, whether their price per unit is less than the price for fossil fuel.

It seems every time the price for oil goes high, the makers of alternatives are in the limelight. Today that's ethanol (of several kinds), fuel cells, biodiesel, wind turbines, etc. Unfortunately when the price of oil drops again, the alternatives become less attractive.

This is simple economics, with the market (in its short sighted decision making) going to the source with the least cost. Another factoid in the article is that Brazil invested years of subsidies in its ethanol production industry. It's paying off now, and in the future Brazil will remain fueled even when the peak oil phenomena hits and oil is no longer available.

The point to that is in the energy industry it takes a very long time to develop alternatives. Brazil is an example, where it took years before their ethanol industry was self sustaining.

If the U.S. decisioning is based largely on the short sighted approach of "oh, the market will take care of it", well, I think the market moves too quickly for the development of new energy resources.

When they say "the market will take care of it" the scenario is that oil supply becomes tight, and the oil price rises, and then people start scrambling for alternatives that are cheaper. And, we're seeing this effect going on today. But when the real oil peak hits the supply is supposed to drop off very rapidly from the peak. That should cause a rapid rise in prices which would trigger the market to search for alternatives. But if it's going to take years to develop the alternatives, and in the meantime oil supply drops precipitously, "we" won't have those years.

I believe the current high oil prices are not the true oil peak, but instead based on the war(s) brewing in the Persian Gulf. Especially with the war we are threatening against Iran.

The current high oil price is making for an interesting training ground, inspiring the people go through the steps of finding an alternative to burning fossil fuels. Last year people were dumping their SUV's and motorcycles were becoming popular. This year they may be looking for ethanol.

I suppose if the oil prices stay high long enough, like they are now, the makers of the alternatives will have a long enough window to establish themselves. Here's hoping.


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Large size hybrid electric trucks from Volvo

The Volvo Group unveils viable new hybrid technology

Today, the Volvo Group presents an efficient hybrid solution for heavy vehicles, which offers fuel savings of up to 35 percent. “We envisage opportunities to accelerate developments in commercially viable hybrids for heavy vehicles. This can be significant for both our customers and for the environment,” says President and CEO of Volvo, Leif Johansson.

The Volvo Group’s hybrid concept provides maximum fuel-saving effects on routes with frequent braking and accelerations, for example in refuse collection, city bus traffic and city distribution. Calculations indicate that fuel savings can amount to 35 percent. Maintenance costs for vehicles can also be reduced through reduced wear on the braking system.

The hybrid concept is designated I-SAM and it consists of a combined starter motor, drive motor and alternator, along with an electronic control unit. I-SAM interacts with Volvo’s I-Shift automatic gearshifting system. The batteries are recharged by the diesel engine and whenever the brakes are applied.


This is interesting, and there are several advantages. This is meant for heavy trucks, and one complaint of the typical heavy truck is the noise it makes.

The Volvo hybrid drive train, I-SAM (Integrated Starter, Alternator, Motor), is said to have several useful features:

  • Allows the truck to accelerate under electric power alone allowing such a truck to drive quietly.
  • the diesel engine can be automatically switched off when the truck stops to make deliveries, pick up loads or pauses at traffic lights
  • Auxilliary functions like the air conditioning can be run independantly of the main engine.
  • The combined electric and diesel drive system allows for a smaller main engine.
  • They made sure the main engine can run from biofuels.

What's even more interesting is the battery system, by EFFPOWER. It's a lead-acid battery made in a way that's highly suitable for hybrid vehicles. It offers a high power density (for lead-acid batteries) at low cost, and a tremendous number of charge/discharge cycles under shallow discharge.

However the battery technology might not be good in a pure battery EV. Battery EV's see deep discharges, under which the large number of shallow discharge cycles is not an advantage. Shallow discharges are different in nature from deep discharges.

More information on hybrid electric vehicles

Find more at Green Car Congress