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The Energy Bogeyman
Or Why There Is No Easy Solution

Keith Oxenrider
April 2008


The purpose of this document is to explain why it is so difficult to find alternative energy sources. I hope to show through easy to understand arguments that most forms of alternative energy that are so heavily promoted are total wastes of resources and have no possible chance of success under ANY realistic scenario. I will also discuss certain alternatives and how, with certain possible technological breakthroughs, we might be able to utilize them to replace fossil fuels. Lastly, I will discuss my favorite as an alternative, even though it is extremely unpopular.

My focus is on energy in the US because that is where I live. However, the physics is the same everywhere and much of the economics will also hold true, so while there will be some regional elements that make certain statements moot (for instance, Iceland has extensive geo-thermal energy reserves), for the most part this should apply well everywhere.

A Few Words About Myself

I have studied alternative energy for well over a decade as an inventor and entrepreneur. I have always been excited about wind energy (it seems so free!) and the last several years I have intensively explored the use of biofuels. I have a very strong technical background having obtained a BS in Biochemistry and have over 7 years of full-time, part-time and graduate (I was a Masters student for a year) research experience that lead to 4 publications. I also have a very strong business background having obtained an MBA and been a manager at several levels. I understand physics, chemistry and biology and also understand economics, economies of scale and costs of manufacturing and maintenance. By studying energy, how it is produced and distributed, all with the eye toward building an infrastructure based on some alternative to compete in the business world, I have developed a wide ranging understanding of the business from obtaining/refining the raw material (oil, gas, silicon, nuclear, bio-based, wind, etc.) through distribution to get it into the hands of the end user, the person who pays for the whole shebang: you. Ideally I will be able to translate my knowledge into a slightly humorous description of the current state-of-the-art along with the projected changes, the current state-of-the-art in alternative and their projections and a discussion of some of the extrapolated possibilities that seem like science fiction.

Why Is Energy So Cheap

Some of you will find this statement to be offensive, particularly if you were at the wrong end of some Enron-esq machinations a few years ago. However, one of the primary reasons why it is so difficult for alternative energy sources to compete effectively in the market place is because energy is so inexpensive (most times, most places). What few people know is that the transmission costs actually represent, in most cases, the bulk of the energy cost. For instance, if your electricity is from the Hoover Dam (which is a paid-for resource, costing only maintenance), then probably 90% of what you pay is to cover the installation and maintenance of the transmission lines. Also something that few people realize: transmission losses (the amount of power at the source vs. the amount of power actually available to customers) can range up to and over 30%. With all this in mind, you can imagine that even if actually generating the electricity in our current system was totally free of any costs you might only see your bill decrease by 10-20%. And, because of NIMBY, transmission costs are increasing substantially faster than the cost to generate electricity because no one wants to allow new transmission lines to be installed. This, by the way, is a serious issue that will at some point trigger a massive blackout much like we saw in the North East a few years ago. The system is already running at 80-90% capacity routinely, which means when the system has a fault and part of the distribution lines are interrupted, there is not enough capacity to accommodate the increase in load, which triggers self-protecting blackouts which domino into wide spread outages. The chance of it happening is nearly a certainty unless the infrastructure is beefed up, and, unlike the targeting of terrorists, this is likely to happen to everyone everywhere. Be sure to have your canned food stocked up, your bottled water ready and keep your batteries fresh in your flashlights. It may not be tomorrow, but it will almost certainly be in the next 10-20 years. Sort of like an earthquake (did you know that the largest earthquake in the US was near New Madrid, MO, NOT California?), it is guaranteed to happen if you wait long enough, but predicting the exact time is pure guesswork.

Enough of that, you have been warned. Now to drive my original point home a bit more… In an electricity generating plant, the most expensive part (be it nuclear, natural gas, coal, oil or even solar, except if it is solar cells) of the plant is actually the turbines that convert the heat to electricity. This process, by the way, is terribly inefficient, typically losing 60-65% of the energy during the process. Hard to believe that is the case, but it has been that way for over a century despite the best efforts of generations of engineers. The heat source (goal, solar, etc.) boils a liquid (in almost all cases plain old water) to make steam, which then expands against the turbine blades converting the kinetic energy of the steam into rotational energy of the turbine. The turbine, in turn, rotates some big magnets in a spool of wire (a generator or dynamo) that causes electrons to flow. Various transformations of the electricity are made to enable for long-distance (relatively) low loss transmission, across the above mentioned overburdened transmission lines, and eventually to your house where you can thoughtlessly flip a switch or press a button and get your lights and TV. All for pennies!

What about oil and gasoline, you ask. Well, 'transmission' costs are the fuel it takes to transport the fuel. The average loaded tanker trailer gets 8-10 miles per gallon, so driving a tanker load of gasoline from the Gulf Coast to your local gas station has a substantial cost associated with it. Those crude oil tankers don't run on nuclear either! While many oil pipelines go underground, thus are easier on the eyes, there is still substantial NIMBY resistance to adding any additional pipelines. They are far from maintenance free either and have to have pumping substations along the length, and that takes energy as well.

Is There Really an Energy Crisis?

No doubt many readers are already upset just reading the topic heading. Of course there is an energy crisis! This mantra is shouted loud, far and wide and even our Great President has joined in the cries. However, I would like to point out just a few things about this 'crisis'. First and foremost, how critical is this crisis if you don't see abandoned SUVs parked on the side of the road as they run out of gas? Heck, the things are still being manufactured and sold brand new! Doesn't sound like a crisis to me! Crude oil, so very much in the news lately, is probably a bargain at $500 a barrel and only probably starts to cost what it is worth when it gets to $1,000 a barrel. Why? The uses beyond moving people around on roads or lighting houses are extensive and much more valuable. Oil to power cars and trucks and run microwaves is a really dumb use for the material and the sooner we stop wasting it this way the better. Something like 200 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel are used for transportation in the US alone. Even as fuel for transportation in the US, at $4 a gallon, is cheap compared to Europe, yet they seem to get along fine. I suspect that fuel will have to hit $10 a gallon before people start to consider parking their SUVs, but part of me doubts even that price will have an impact. Rail can be used much more effectively, at the cost of slight delays in delivery, and trains are at least 4 times more fuel efficient than tractor trailers. Another thing: how many people crowd the lanes of these High Occupancy Lanes? It always amazes me how empty these lanes are and the other lanes are so crowded. Here in the Washington, DC area we have many that only require two people to use, yet the lane is underutilized. Clearly people are not in a crisis mode if they are not making the sacrifices to car pool! If your house is poorly insulated and you could save 50% or more on your energy bill by spending a few thousand to insulate, are you in a crisis mode when you simply groan when you write the check each month? What sort of crisis is only born by one segment of society? The airlines haven't raised their rates (though I predict they will shortly), trucking firms still charge the same for transport even though fuel prices have doubled, so what is going on? A crisis is when you are facing a meltdown of some part of the infrastructure and we haven't seen that (outside of this mortgage loan fiasco, of course). Perhaps this is a 'yet' situation and the meltdown will happen in the next year or so, but somehow I expect that what will happen is that the poorly managed organizations will be driven out of business (as must happen from time to time, though it sucks to be the one driven out of business!) and prices may go up a few percent, but unless fuel jumps to 10x its current prices I don't see any change in behavior on the horizon. Even at 10x the current price, transportation is still a relatively minor cost in most products and in our economy overall, so I think we are in much more danger from the rising price of corn triggered by the ethanol craze than we are from ballooning costs of gasoline via sky-high crude oil prices.

Just to make my point a little more pointy: the cost of crude oil has been jumping up for many reasons, not the least of which is unease in the Middle East and China and India becoming 'first-world' economies. There is a several year lag between the actual output and the decision to increase output by opening up new oil fields or revisiting old fields and it wasn't that long ago in the memory of the oil company executives when crude oil was $10 a barrel and many wells lost money with every gallon pumped. If oil company executives (and there are thousands besides Exxon-Mobile and its ilk) really think that $100 a barrel oil is here to stay, then there are plenty of resources that were not profitable at $10 a barrel, but suddenly become valuable at $100. Also, to all of you so intent on alternatives, the conversion cost associated with alternatives is substantial and unless conventional sources of energy remain expensive, there will be no economic incentive to switch, thus no trigger for economies of scale to drop the price of the alternatives.

All hail the high price of oil!

The Current State-Of-The-Art

I believe more than half the electricity in the US is generated by coal, not derived from the petroleum business (natural gas or oil), so really only our transportation is 'being held hostage by OPEC' (though that is a bunch of malarkey anyway, but I won't detail that here). While coal is a fossil fuel that creates the dreaded CO2, it does not have any impact on the rising prices of crude oil (actually the reverse). There was a surge of natural gas (methane) based plants in the 90's and early 00's due to, at the time, the much lower price of natural gas. This surge was so successful that the price of gas shot upward and, since the power companies lock in long-term rates with contracts, that triggered an extra bump in the price for the poor everyday user like you and me. Gas power plants are (relatively) cheap to build and operate and have shorter lead times to get into production, so were the choice when gas was cheap. Coal has always been cheap and in certain parts of the country (notably Appalachia), there are no economical alternatives. Having said that, the cost of operating a coal-fired power plant has been increasing with the tightening of emissions standards, for which coal is a particularly major offender. Gas, by the way, has few emissions problems, beyond, of course, CO2, which also contributed to the afore mentioned surge. Oil based power plants are common and in certain parts of the country, primarily where distribution costs from the refinery are manageable, there are many such plants. Their use of petroleum products, however, has little impact on 'ordinary' people, as they use a particularly heavy cut of the distillate process and are generally in competition with diesel powered ships, not passenger cars and tractor trailers. Nuclear, as most are aware, has been the red-headed step child of power generation for decades. There has been a resurgence of interest recently, but I am not sure if it will last, particularly since there appears to be a sea change in the political climate. If I remember correctly, nuclear accounts for around 15% of US electricity generation. In France, on the other hand, I think it is around 70-75%. Nuclear can be safe and effective, but perception in the US has made implementation unlikely.

The Current Alternatives

There is a relatively small list of main-stream alternatives to generating electricity, heating buildings or fueling vehicles: solar cells, solar hot water, wind and biofuels. They all have the same thing in common, they are too expensive (with the possible exception of solar hot water), despite decades of effort to achieve economies of scale. The only way they can compete is through the use of tax incentives and in certain cases (primarily biodiesel and ethanol) can never work without a massive paradigm change. I will discuss each separately.

Solar Cells
The primary problem with solar cells is they are either very expensive and efficient or very cheap and inefficient. Currently there are no commercial products that are inexpensive and efficient, though that could change any minute. There is a great debate over whether the cost of manufacture is ever repaid with the amount of energy generated over the product's lifetime. The fact that there is debate indicates clearly to me that there is little economic justification in the product unless you are in a situation where you need to pay substantial sums to be connected to the grid (e.g. mountain-top getaways). This is an area of extensive and long-term research and has been funded extensively by the government. Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any breakthroughs (if there are, they are being held very closely), so based on past behavior, I do not see solar cells as a viable product to replace our current energy sources.

Solar Hot Water
This is an interesting product as it appears to me to be the only one that can economically compete. The materials are inexpensive and the manufacturing simple and straightforward. The sun provides a huge, mostly un-tapped, steady stream of energy, but most conversion systems are very inefficient (solar cells, for example, generally convert less than 30% to electricity, the rest turns to heat). However, with an appropriately designed solar hot water collection system, it is possible to very efficiently collect the sun's energy and use it as a source of low-temperature (less than the boiling point of water) hot water. This temperature is perfect for heating buildings or providing hot water for bathing, washing, etc. I believe that the current systems being marketed could repay themselves within a decade (less with tax incentives factored in), but still, how many people want to make a 10 year investment to save a couple of hundred a year? That money is often better spent insulating your house, which can often be paid for in 1-2 years (even less with tax incentives).

On the surface wind sounds like a no-brainer. I have invested many years into studying ways to make wind energy economical, but have pretty much come up short. Where wind energy is most plentiful there are few demands and transport costs are high enough that there is no profit potential in taking it to where the demand is. The energy in wind is non-linear, meaning that doubling the speed of the wind more than doubles the energy in the wind. As such, there is a critical lower bound below which there are (currently) no economical ways to extract energy. Capturing wind energy is also expensive, both in capital costs and in maintenance. And let us not forget that most people can't stand the look of them and they are known to kill birds and bats. NIMBY is becoming a huge factor in wind energy and 'tree-huggers' are pitted against one another. I predict that except in a few situations (offshore placement being such a one) wind energy will remain a niche player.

The ironic thing about hydroelectric dams is that people view them as permanent fixtures that generate electricity forever. Instead, most dams have a very specific life span that is engineered from the beginning. It is all about silt. Normally rivers wash silt out of their channel with each storm (occasionally digging deeper, sometimes leading to interesting canyons), but with a dam in place all that silt drops out where the river first hits the man-made lake. This leads to a shrinking of the actual lake as the 'upstream' boundaries gradually encroach on the dam. At some point the amount of water stored behind the dam, though the surface of the water looks the same, has dropped below a critical point where there are no reserves for the natural vagaries in weather. At that point, the dam has reached the end of its life and there really isn't anything left but to blow the dam up and let the river return to its natural course. Of course, all that silt that has been held back now heads for the sea, dramatically impacting the ecosystems along the way, but this is a story about energy. Most dams have an engineered life span of 50-100 years and in almost all cases the engineers turned out to have optimistic estimates on the silt rate and most dams are actually silting up faster than expected. Dams like the Hoover would never be built today, what with all the OSHA requirements and environmental impact statements, so basically we aren't building any more major dams and are actually starting to tear existing ones down. Thus there is no future to hydroelectric.

This product is nearly a perfect 1:1 replacement for petro-diesel (its poor cold-weather characteristic is about the only negative). On the surface it sounds like the perfect replacement for petro-diesel but for the tiny little problem of scale. The US uses some 90 billion (that is a 'b') gallons of diesel just for transportation each year. There are simply not enough sources of oil feedstock to make biodiesel to have an impact on the total amount of fuel. It is also a bit expensive to produce on an industrial scale and has trouble competing against petro-diesel when tax incentives are removed.

Much like biodiesel is a nearly 1:1 replacement for diesel, ethanol appears to be such a replacement for gasoline. However, the amount of energy in a gallon of ethanol is substantially less than that in a gallon of gasoline (some 30-40% less, meaning, naturally, fewer miles to the gallon and shorter range betwixt refueling). Worse, ethanol is hygroscopic, which means it sucks water out of the air (ethanol co-distills with water at a ratio of 95% ethanol, 5% water, which is why white lightning is no more than 190 proof) and the infrastructure for storing and transporting gasoline uses in many cases plain old iron and steel that would quickly rust if exposed to 95% ethanol. Most cars today are capable of handling the water in the ethanol (via the use of stainless steel or plastic lined fuel pipes and plastic coated gas tanks), but the infrastructure to deliver the fuel to the service stations has not been upgraded. Even if production of ethanol can be made economic (see below), actually converting our infrastructure for its use is very non-trivial indeed, not to mention expensive as hell.

Ethanol from Corn
This is something very popular in the news today. Ethanol from corn is an amazingly dumb way to create energy. In fact, growing corn for any other purpose than to feed humans and high value animals (beef, chicken, etc.) is rather dumb. Take heating your house with corn (really! people were making money selling stoves that burnt corn kernels!). The ONLY way there is a shred of economic sense is by taking into account the rather moronic policies our government has with respect to agriculture subsidies. First we pay farmers to grow a crop that is in surplus (well, corn used to be in surplus), then we pay farmers extra for the crop since, after all, the market won't pay for the surplus, then we need to further subsidize the crop by selling it at a discount to get rid of the stuff before it rots. All your tax dollars at work. Well, now a new group has got involved. Looking at the highly discounted price of corn due to all these silly subsidies coupled with the tax subsidies for alternative fuel, entrepreneurs found a way to profitably make ethanol from corn. Of course, since your tax dollars are paying for these subsidies, you can see how they only 'profit' that is made by these entrepreneurs is from your tax dollars, not due to any force of true market economy. (Don't blame the entrepreneurs; they are only doing what they do best, figure a way to turn a small pile of money into a larger pile of money. Blame the silly subsidies (and by extension the silly people who put the subsidies into place).) I am sure that there will be plenty of people who will want to argue that making ethanol from corn is a time honored practice and how can it possibly not be profitable. Well, first, the 'time honored practice' was to convert the huge pile of corn into a much smaller pile of whiskey casks and the final price of the whiskey was probably on par with the cost of the corn plus the cost of the transport. Of course, people weren't driving their vehicles on $5 a gallon (and that is cheap!) whiskey either! It takes a lot of energy to grow corn and while I can't recall any specific arguments that the sowing, growing and harvesting of corn is more expensive than the fuel it produces, I am certain that is the case.

Why not make fuel ethanol from grapes? It makes just as much sense!

Ethanol from Cellulose
This idea is a lot less dumb than making ethanol from corn, and even has the potential to achieve economic feasibility, but I strongly suspect that removing this material from fields where currently it is going toward amending the soil is likely to have substantial consequences for the health of the land. Speculation on my part, but I would love to see some studies. The idea of using the perennial species switch grass as the source of the cellulose actually starts to make a lot of sense as the crop grows on much more marginal soil and doesn't require anywhere near as much water and doesn't require any tilling at all. This is something that has a potential of success, but is far from being ready for prime time as there is a small wrinkle in the idea: currently it is not economical to prepare the cellulose for conversion to ethanol. While there are lots of research labs working on the project and a few that are entering into medium scale industrial plants, as yet there does not appear to be something that can compete without subsidy and having gas at $3 a gallon. There is a chance that economies of scale can turn this around, so I have some hope for this, though it would require putting thousands of square miles of prairie into cultivation, so there is an environmental downside that needs serious consideration.

This really belongs in the section of 'Alternatives Out Of The Mainstream' because this is so far from being practical at any level that it should not even be on the radar of entrepreneurs, let alone our Great Political Leaders. Right now (and for the foreseeable technical future) the cost in energy to make hydrogen from any source besides natural gas is so high that you might as well use that energy for the purpose you were going to use the hydrogen for. Of course, taking the gas methane (natural gas) which is relatively much easier to compress and liquefy and turning it into hydrogen (which, of course, uses methane in the process) which is much more expensive to compress and liquefy is a really dumb idea. Further, there is already some evidence via modeling that the inevitable release of hydrogen during fueling, transport, etc. would actually have a greater impact on our climate than the CO2 it is meant to replace. This is primarily because hydrogen is very light; floats high up in our stratosphere where it can interact with ozone (remember the last big brouhaha, the hole in the ozone? It is still there!) both destroying ozone and forming high altitude ice crystals. These ice crystals, in addition to being very long-lived, reflect light long before it has a chance to warm our planet, so we could dump ourselves into an ice age trying to save ourselves from global warming.

Hydrogen is really a huge boondoggle and your tax dollars are being spent on the useless efforts to make it economical and technologically feasible. You should be angry at the waste!

The great thing about tidal energy is it is often out of site (working against NIMBY), relatively inexpensive to put in place and very effective. The downside? There are actually very few places where it makes good sense to put it in place. Tidal energy may be a very effective niche product, but it will never solve our energy needs.

Much like tidal energy, geothermal is very practical where it is practical and very impractical everywhere else. For instance, Yellow Stone park is a really great place for geothermal energy generation, but do you want to replace the park with an industrial plant, whether you have visited it or not? I think not. In places like Iceland it may make good economic sense, but not too many other places.

High Capacity Batteries
This is not really an alternative fuel source, but I feel it is worth some discussion. When (and I believe many technological breakthroughs are very close to mass market) high capacity electric storage devices (batteries) are ready for prime time we could see a rapid adoption of electric vehicles which would allow us to use more efficient means of generating electricity in fewer locations (as opposed to using gasoline and diesel in each car we drive) which would position us for a much more rapid replacement of any power generation technology. Right now inexpensive batteries are heavy (lead-acid) and most lighter batteries have deficiencies in current storage, delivery, capacity or use. I believe we are very close to having light-weight and even moldable batteries that have as much as 10x the capacity, less charge time and equal or greater delivery as our current lead-acid mainstream. By being moldable, the batteries can be made into door panels and seat bottoms, so cargo space need not be sacrificed. This is a source of hope for me as widespread implementation would mean that the much fewer recharge stations (which, in many cases, would simply be pulling from the grid) would need upgrades to some sort of alternative method of generating electricity.

Alternatives Out Of The Mainstream

Oil From Algae
This is an area I have invested a great deal of time and energy in. On the surface (like wind) it sounds like a total no-brainer. Algae grow probably 100x faster than conventional crops and under the right circumstances (but unfortunately, resulting in very low yields) can have as much as half its biomass in oil readily converted to biodiesel. Theoretically, algae could produce 100,000 gallons of oil per acre per year (beating the next best, palm oil, by 200 times), though the more likely amount is 5-10,000 gallons per acre per year. The key problem: economically growing the suckers in enough volume and yield. This is what is termed in theoretical physics as a 'non-trivial problem'. 'Trivial' problems, while still being possibly very challenging engineering problems (say, like putting a man on the moon), do not have complex solutions or need the time and energy of a top theoretical physicist. Of course, top theoretical physicists aren't likely to be looking into oil from algae (you would need top biologists and biochemists, first of all), but I like to think it is an amusing analogy. Because energy is so cheap and even at $100 a barrel oil is so cheap, you need to get really really cheap in order to grow algae. What could be so hard? Algae grows in any old bucket if you leave it sitting outside! Heck, try to get rid of it off your siding! What's the big deal? It is all about yield. If you want to compete with biodiesel from soy beans, you need to make at least 50 gallons per acre per year. That sounds very simple, what's the catch? Well, because the soy oil is (or was) considered a waste, the actual cost to create the oil is not reflected in the cost of the oil (meaning that the soybean meal, etc. has already paid the farmer for his efforts), so the oil is really really cheap. So, you need to grow your algae really really cheap. So what? Just soak the ground with water and magically the algae appear. Along with algae grazers that will eat 99% of the algae! So really, what you have to do is grow the algae in a controlled environment where you don't have to deal with the predators (which come from the same place the algae does, spores in the air). It is expensive to grow algae in controlled environments and while the yield is much higher, it is not high enough to offset the massively increased costs. The same Catch-22 situation that solar cells are in is also in oil from algae: you can have very low yields (efficiencies) at a low cost or you can have very high yields for a very high cost. Your tax dollars, by the way, went toward more than a decade of research into oil from algae. Why did this research end? Ten dollar a barrel oil! There are some thoughts about restarting this area of research, but most involved are convinced making the economics work is an intractable 'non-trivial' problem. Unlike wind energy, where I basically decided there was no economical way to capture the energy (not 100% true, but I am not sure what I can do with compressed air in Kansas to make money), I do believe I have a way to get a 20-25% return on investment growing algae, but I have yet to do the actual manufacture and testing of the prototype to know if I am full of crap or not.

Until someone solves this non-trivial problem, oil from algae will be like a phantom, always just slightly out of reach. Once this problem is solved, then it is quite practical for a few thousand square miles of arid and desert land to provide as much fuel as we are currently using. Really amazing potential, too bad no one has worked out a solution. Also, it has the capacity to be 100% carbon neutral and if you wanted to sequester the carbon, you could simply pump the oil back into the ground where the crude oil came from and if we needed it later on (perhaps because we have taken too much CO2 out of the air and are concerned about the next ice age) it would be easy to recover.

The current fusion paradigm (massive magnetic confinement Tokamak and the laser imploding inertial confinement versions) are another massive boondoggle. There was once a time when I was a fervent supporter of conventional fusion, back in the days when it appeared that solutions for the confounding problems were close at hand, but many decades and many many billions of dollars later, these confounding problems still remain and I have done a closer economic analysis of the feasibility even if the problems are overcome. Let us wish for a moment that these vexing problems are magically waved away. We can build gigawatt fusion heat sources that return more energy than they produce. Unknown by many, conventional fusion (with tritium; don't worry if you don't know what tritium is) produces huge amounts of radioactive waste. In fact, the fusion reactor itself has a lifespan dictated by the radiation spewing from the core. The reactor itself needs to be buried as waste after 30-50 years as it has now had its physical integrity destroyed by the radiation and is, of course, itself now radioactive. The level of radiation is not so high as the nasty stuff they want to burry in Nevada, but it is very real. In addition, since the fuel, tritium, basically has no natural source, we still have to have conventional fission reactors to produce the tritium. Where is the payoff? Now let's look at the practicalities of turning this into actual electricity for your light switches at home. As mentioned above, the most expensive part of the generation plant is the turbine and generators, so the cost of the fusion reactor has to be very low to compete with coal, gas, etc. Second, as mentioned before, most generation plants are only working at around 35% efficiency, the rest is just heat vented to the atmosphere (I would love to see a study of how that impacts climate!). So even if we magically made fusion a reality technically, I still see it being very far from being a reality economically. I don't think that our tax dollars are being totally wasted funding these big science projects, but I would like to see a significant fraction of that budget going toward some of the alternatives, one of which I will discuss below.

There is a type of fusion called 'aneutronic' which basically means that the fusion reaction does not form any neutrons (it is the neutrons that make other things radioactive). Conventional fusion has the majority of the energy in the form of fast neutrons and efficiently converting those neutrons to heat to boil water is a non-trivial problem that hasn't been sorted out yet. The aneutronic fusion, on the other hand, has as the primary source of energy fast charged particles. In addition to not making things radioactive, the fact that these are charge particles allows you to capture the energy directly into electricity with a very high efficiency (over 90%; theoretically approaching 98%). The amount of energy available from the aneutronic reactions is substantially less than the tritium-based reactions and it takes often more than an order of magnitude higher energies to make the reactions happen, but since you can recover more than 90% of the energy directly into electricity it has the potential to work out to equal or better than the potential for conventional fusion. Why isn't anyone doing research on this? Well, if we can't make conventional fusion work, why should anyone think we can make something work that needs 10x more energy to be successful. Second, while on the outside it may appear that the granting agencies piss a lot of money away on nonsensical things, for the most part these agencies are extremely conservative and getting money for unproven, speculative research is actually very difficult even for extremely well qualified people with a proven track record. As a case in point, there is a very well known expert in the field of fusion research that is working on an alternative way to create the conditions for fusion, something that doesn't need huge expensive magnets or huge arrays of expensive lasers, but instead could conceivably be done in a garage. Further, he has the theoretical calculations to prove that this aneutronic fusion is possible and has experimental evidence to show he is on the right track. He has already been funded by NASA and the DOE and has had very promising results from the dribs and drabs of money he has had to work with. However, no one is funding him now and he needs a few million to build a larger prototype (his last prototype blew itself apart in the final experiment before he ran out of money), so there it sits, languishing, possibly the answer to the entire species energy needs for the next billion years. Government conspiracy? Collusion of the energy industry to smother a competitor? I prefer to think that ignorance and apathy coupled with a healthy dose of incompetence is all that is necessary to explain what has happened.

As mentioned above, hydrogen as a fuel alternative is really a bad idea. Except if the hydrogen is created just as it is needed. Fuel cells operate much like our cells in our bodies. They use much lower energy reactions to create a charge differential on a membrane and that differential can be used as electricity just like from a battery. Currently the things are very expensive, rely on rare metal catalysts (like platinum) and tend to wear our quickly. However, there is some hope that fuel cells based on methanol (which, unlike ethanol, does not absorb water, so could be used in our current transportation and storage infrastructure, though it shares with ethanol the much lower energy per gallon compared to gasoline) could be made economical in the next decade or so. I am not aware of any such technology that is close to commercialization, but some labs are very good at keeping their advancements under their hats.

Can We Get Our Tax Dollars Back?

I mention again and again that many alternative sources of energy cannot be economical unless tax incentives are factored in. How do we (after all, it is your money!) get a payback on our tax dollar investment? We can get repaid if the alternative that is funded through incentives reaches an economy of scale that allows it to become cheaper than the conventional alternative it replaces. Ask yourself how we can achieve this with crops as our source of energy? There is no way that growing corn to turn to fuel can ever be more economical than simply using the fuel used to grow the corn! The only reason biodiesel from soybeans makes any economic sense at any scale is because the oil is (or used to be) considered a waste product. There is no way we can grow enough soybeans to supply our diesel needs, the problem is exactly the same as for corn. If (and I mean IF) the research on cellulosic ethanol becomes an economic reality then there might be a source of energy that costs less to create than it is worth, but recall that currently this 'waste' product is left on the fields where it helps maintain soil chemistry and I somehow expect that removing it all will lead to rapid deterioration of our land. If there is no conceivable way for an alternative to become economic, then there is no conceivable way that we can ever get our tax investment paid back. Why are we pissing our money away? As your local politician!

So What Is The Solution?

After all this babble about how bad things are, is there any chance for salvation or do we just live a fantasy until one day everything goes sour? I would like to propose for your consideration an alternative method of nuclear fission energy. It can use cheaper fuel (thorium instead of enriched uranium), the plants are cheaper to build (no need for a 30 foot thick concrete containment vessel), is already melted, so there is no 'China Syndrome' to worry about, the 'waste' decays to be less radioactive than the source ore in 300 years and can be as much as 40% more efficient at converting heat to electricity. What is this miracle? Amazingly our (US) taxpayers have already funded all the initial research, the proof of concept reactors and reactors that have run for years at full energy. All back in the 50's and 60's. It is molten salt core reactor. Rather than using solid fuel pellets, the fuel is mixed in such a way that it is molten as it flows through the reactor. Because the fuel is a fluid at ambient pressure (it actually is slightly more efficient at less than ambient pressure) there is no need for the massive containment vessel so integral to the current paradigm. Since the reactor is designed to deal with the molten fuel, it naturally is capable of dealing with that level of heat. In the unlikely event that it did overheat (by its nature, the nuclear reactions actually decrease as the temperature increases), the reactor is designed so that the fuel melts out the bottom of the reactor into a containment vessel. Due to the fluid nature of the fuel it is straightforward to reprocess the fuel constantly and remove the portions that would negatively impact the reactor efficiency. Conventional solid core reactors have to make many tradeoffs in efficiency to maximize the intervals between taking the reactor down to rebuild the core. That is eliminated in the molten salt core reactor as the fuel is constantly cycling in and out of the core. As such, most of the stuff that the US taxpayer is being asked to spend billions sticking in a Nevada mountain can be used as the perfectly acceptable fuel that it is instead. Thus, most of the fuel is 'burnt' including the waste, leaving material that rapidly (300 vs. 50,000 years) decays to the point it is less radioactive than the ore it came from. The dramatic increase in efficiency when engineers are typically hard pressed to improve by 1%? Because the core is hotter a different thermal cycle can be used which is known to be able to convert as much as 50% of the heat energy into electricity (recall that current plants work at around 35% efficiency). All this cake and you get to eat it as well! What is not to like? Well, the US has a pathological fear of nuclear energy (it sometimes amazes me that fusion gets the funding it does).


A lot of negative talk and my 'solution' is to raise the nuclear fission bugaboo. What a depressing paper! I wrote this not to depress you but to make you aware of the billions of tax dollars being wasted on fruitless research. Naturally anyone in the biz is not going to discuss that they can't make money without tax incentives until gas reaches $5 a gallon, that would be suicide. So they talk about how they can compete at $3 a gallon and just keep mum about the tax incentives. You can read articles about how this or that company has made this or that amazing breakthrough leading to such and such economy of scale, but until you know the real economics you can't know how much of that is ignorance (or wishful thinking) on the part of the reporter or how much is real. Since primary scientific literature has to be peer reviewed (though clearly that is not without potential for abuse and outright lying) statements need to be quite factual and supported by experimental evidence. The popular press, on the other hand, knows that a) no one will fact check them; b) the public will quickly forget anyway; and c) even if anyone does call them on their 'facts' they can print a retraction buried deep where no one will see it. Beyond outright distortion of what was printed in the primary literature (which I see as often as weekly; I can't imagine it is all accidental), there is the fact that these articles are often picked up and printed verbatim in other news conduits and because people are hearing the same thing from so many different places they think there is some consensus amongst the cognoscenti. In reality it is the exact same foolishly constructed article and any attempt to respond to it fails to reach the same magnitude of distribution. I have done research into the primary literature, so I know what was actually claimed. I also know how primary literature is written, so I can read between the lines to get what the authors are implying. Because of my business background I can make calculations on manufacturing and maintenance costs to determine the capital investment needed to get something started and because I am an entrepreneur I am focused on only doing something that can return more than a well diversified stock portfolio. With all these things behind me, I feel quite confident in my statements that most of these alternatives are total bunk and rely on fundamentally flawed economic assumptions (like driving up the cost of corn won't also drive up the cost of everything that depends on it leading to general inflation such that the projected costs wind up being half or less than what will be in reality). Even if you are still convinced that I am a moron, hopefully you will consider my arguments at least long enough to refute them in your mind, and perhaps you will be a tiny bit more critical when someone tells you that such and such alternative energy source is the next great thing.

If you think I am not blowing smoke, you might want to ask your politicians for a refund on the tax dollars pissed away on these boondoggle alternatives, or at the very least, require them to stop funding the ones that can't possibly be economically practical (like ethanol from corn and hydrogen).

Copyright 2008 by Keith Oxenrider