USS Clueless - More on energy dependence

Stardate 20020924.1756

(Captain's log): OK, I guess we got to talk about the practical reality of some energy alternatives. Ernest writes:

I have to disagree with your most recent post. The most promising form of alternative energy in the US is conservation. Truly large savings can occur from saving a percentage here and percentage there. Those percentages eventually add up. Conservation is much more complex than the one big answer, but we could really reduce our consumption of energy substantially by additional research in this area. This is not wacky environmentalism, but good engineering practice.

Second although reducing funding in the Middle East would not eliminate the ability of terrorist groups to harm us, it would certainly hinder them substantially. The madrassas where new terrorists are inculcated are cheap, but they aren't free. If the Saudis were broke, they wouldn't be exporting Wahhabism. Even if they aren't broke, they might cut back on funding for the madrassas.

Taking the second point first, the problem is that the indoctrination damage has already been done. Shutting the madrassas' down is certainly a good thing, but we'll be fighting the after effects of what they've already done for twenty years, unless something else happens to nullify it.

Conservation is much overblown as a solution to the problem. For one thing, percentages don't add up. That's not how percentages work. If we save 2% on each form of energy usage we have, then the overall savings is 2%, and that won't be enough.

It's possible to make savings that way, but not much and not soon. For instance, Porphyrogenitus writes:

Your recent post focuses on the energy producing aspect, but what about the energy efficiency aspect of "energy independence"? I've heard good things about "hybrid" cars (which store some of the energy that would otherwise be wasted while the car is idling in a battery), that can increase fuel efficiency considerably. Are these cars being over-hyped or would something like that be a reasonable way to help (we're not getting a "silver bullet" solution) reduce the amount of gas we use?

The vehicles you describe aren't as much more efficient as you think they are, and they have the problem of requiring that we replace our physical plant. That's a term that Jane Galt would be familiar with, but it's not in common use. I guess I should have explained it further. The "physical plant" means the existing installed base of equipment, whether mobile or stationary, which we've made in the past and currently use. Among other things, it is the result of a massive investment, and many aspects of the physical plant were only possible based on a long amortization.

Cars like that can be made, but they would have to become the majority of the fleet before they make any difference at all. The fleet turns over at a regular rate and even if we mandated that all new cars were designed this way, it would take years before it began to make any impact.

You also have to consider that the cars you describe are more complicated to build than existing ones, containing many components not present now, and that all those components have to be built somewhere and that doing so requires expenditure of energy. If a new car costs more energy to make, and uses less when it runs, then it takes a while before it begins to pay off. But the ironic effect of this would be a short term (a few years) increase in energy expenditure as we invest more energy in manufacturing in hopes of reduced operating energy consumption later.

It also has to be understood that gasoline is only one of the things we convert petroleum into. It's also used for home heating oil, and jet fuel, and some electrical generation plants are powered with it, and we use it for a lot of other things, too, like as a source for chemical synthesis. Reducing consumption of gasoline is arguably good, but it isn't enough. The number of ways that we use petroleum is staggering, and making the majority of them more efficient becomes a staggeringly complex problem because each is different.

The idea that we actually can conserve massively through new and better designs overlooks the whole issue of the physical plant. We might, for instance, figure out how to make a home furnace more efficient. (Though since what it's doing is to generate heat directly, it's hard to see just how that would be.) But such research is the easy part. Then you have to go out and convince a hundred million home owners to spend a lot of money to replace perfectly good furnaces which had been expected to continue to work for decades with newer models which won't actually save them all that much money.

If a new furnace costs them $2000 (and it's likely to be more when you factor in installation) and saves them $200 per year on heating, then it doesn't break even for ten years, ignoring Jane Galtish things like interest and opportunity cost. The actual reality is that such an investment on an individual basis might not ever pay off, when you really run all the numbers involved.

But I have to disagree with the basic assumption that we actually could significantly reduce our energy usage through increases of efficiency if we just did enough research into it. What you have to understand is that for the last forty years we've already been increasing the efficiency of our physical pl

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