Water And Oceanography

Curing our Hydrocarbon Addiction

Roy C Dudgeon's image for:
"Curing our Hydrocarbon Addiction"
Image by: 

Curing Our Hydrocarbon Addiction:

Though there is much misinformation concerning these matters, I am happy to inform you that all of the technologies necessary to cure our hydrocarbon addiction already exist. In fact, most have been around for decades. This is good news, since the implied shift from petrochemicals to an emission-free and sustainable energy economy is an ecological imperative. Ironically, water itself is at the center of this clean and sustainable energy system.

1. Why Alternative Energy Is Necessary:

Alternative energy is necessary because our society's dependence on fossil fuels is associated with a wide range of ecologically damaging consequences. Fossil fuels include coal, oil and natural gas.

The negative ecological impacts of fossil fuel dependence include: global warming from CO2 emissions, acid rain from sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions, particulate pollution, ground level ozone pollution (smog), massive oil spills, and the contamination of ground water from leaking underground storage tanks at service stations. Nitrogen oxide emissions also contribute to nutrient pollution similar to that from concentrated sewage and artificial fertilizers. Coal is by far the dirtiest of the three (though it is slightly cleaner than burning wood) while natural gas is the cleanest.

All of the fossil fuels exist in limited quantities, however, which are rapidly being used up as they are consumed. While coal remains fairly abundant it is again the dirtiest, and a poor choice on those grounds. Oil, which still powers the majority of our transportation system, is rapidly disappearing. In fact, world oil production has been projected to peak and begin to decline within less than a decade, so it is easy to understand why the discussion of alternate fuels has become so important. Natural gas is not only the cleanest of the three, but also exists in abundance. Even so, it also exists in limited quantities, making it only a short-term solution to the world's energy needs, and not a clean one.

The two greatest problem areas when it comes to our hydrocarbon addiction include: 1. our use of fossil fuels (especially coal and natural gas) to generate electricity, and, 2. our use of petroleum in transportation. In terms of transportation, both the global production and distribution system created by the centralized planning of transnational corporations and the proliferation of the private automobile are the most problematic areas which need to be addressed.

2. Assessing the Ecological Appropriateness of Technologies:

These are some of the reasons why many different types of renewable energy are now being discussed, or beginning to be implemented. These include biofuels such as biodiesel and ethanol. All are cleaner burning fuels when compared to petroleum, but none are emission free, since combustion of these fuels still releases carbon dioxide, thus contributing to global warming. All combustion also produces nitrogen oxides, thus contributing to nutrient pollution. Biofuels like ethanol also involve diverting agricultural land from food production to energy production, when we have only a limited and shrinking amount of arable land to feed the world population. In fact, ethanol production at present is actually subsidized by petroleum inputs, both in terms of the diesel powered machinery used in the agricultural and transportation sectors, and in terms of the massive amounts of artificial fertilizers and pesticides used, which are also petroleum based.

This is why a /real/ alternative is needed. Robert Kates (2000) has recently pointed out that there are no absolute criteria available by which we can immediately differentiate eco-friendly from ecologically damaging technologies. None the less, technologies may be ranked relative to one another in order to determine which is the /better/ technology according to the following criteria, which are generally accepted throughout the ecological literature.

A. Sustainability: in other words, can the technology continue to provide for human needs not only over the long-term, but in perpetuity.

B. Ecological impacts: in other words, is the technology damaging or polluting in any way, and what is its ecological footprint (its impact on the earth).

As I shall illustrate, none of the biofuels can compete with the hydrogen economy on either the sustainability or ecological impacts front.

3. The Hydrogen Economy

Ideally, what we are looking for is a perfectly sustainable, completely emission-free energy system. The most promising technologies involve the combination of photovoltaics (active solar power) and wind turbines to produce electricity (both of which are emission-free), along with hydrogen fuel produced by splitting water with electricity.

When it comes to sustainability, hydrogen is the perfect choice. It is the most abundant element in the universe and one of the most abundant on earth.

Many of the necessary technologies were originally developed by NASA for use in the space program. NASA's rockets have run on hydrogen fuel from the beginning, because they are concerned with minimizing payload, and hydrogen contains the most energy/pound of any available fuel.

There are two methods of producing hydrogen fuel: steam reformation of natural gas (NASA's method) and using electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The former involves splitting natural gas (CH4) into hydrogen and carbon. This would continue to contribute to global warming, just as combustion of natural gas does. Electrolysis is completely emission-free if the electricity used is generated by solar or wind power, and is therefore the better choice in terms of ecological impacts.

The perfect technology for implementing hydrogen fuel has also been developed by NASA. This technology is known as a "hydrogen fuel cell." They've been used to provide electricity on the space shuttle for decades now.

A fuel cell is an electrochemical device, similar to a battery to which you add fuel (hydrogen). The fuel cell recombines the hydrogen fuel with oxygen from the atmosphere to produce three things: waste heat, electricity, and water vapor. Otherwise fuel cell powered vehicles (which have already being developed and tested) operate much like an electric car. Ballard Power here in Canada is one of the leaders in developing commercial applications for fuel cell technology (there is a link on my About Me page). Hydrogen can also be used to run back-up generators (after all, the sun doesn't always shine, and the wind doesn't always blow).

Combined with electrolysis using energy from clean and sustainable energy sources-such as solar and wind power-hydrogen and fuel cells can create a completely emission-free and completely sustainable energy cycle. First you split water. You store the hydrogen, while oxygen (which we all need to survive anyway) is released into the environment. When the hydrogen is utilized through a fuel cell it recombines with the same amount of oxygen to create the same amount of water. Nothing is ever used up in the process because the "fuel" is not combusted. It creates a continuous cycle like other cycles in nature. A continuous cycle of reuse.

Sounds great, eh? But if that is the case, you might ask, why isn't the hydrogen economy being implemented more rapidly?

4. The Difference Between What Is "Economical" and What Is "Feasible:"

The first reason is that these technologies are currently more expensive in comparison to fossil fuels. In other words, while the technologies are feasible they are not "economical." This could easily be changed by diverting the billions of dollars governments in Canada, the United States and elsewhere already put into subsidizing oil exploration and the coal industry, and diverting those subsidies into hydrogen and associated technologies. Increasing taxes on coal and petroleum would be another way of raising funds to subsidize this necessary transition.

After all, any new technology is expensive to develop. There are research and development costs, and marketing expenses. The development of manufacturing facilities and other infrastructure is necessary. But once technologies and markets are established the price of new technologies tends to come down. (Think of personal computers, compact disk players, high definition televisions. It's a common pattern).

The second reason is that there are very powerful vested interests in the petroleum industry which oppose the transition, and oppose the elimination of subsidies to their own industry. They don't want to have to shoulder the full costs of oil exploration and coal production. That way they can keep prices low and keep us dependent on fossil fuels. After all, transnational fossil fuel companies want all of their assets used up before we move to clean, sustainable alternatives. Otherwise they stand to lose billions.

But the bottom line is this-/existing/ subsidies to oil and coal, and the lack of subsidies to the hydrogen economy are the key reason why fossil fuels are more "economical" than the hydrogen economy. A reversal of those subsidies would quickly make the hydrogen economy, and its associated technologies, a more economically competitive choice. And the scarcer oil in particular gets in the coming decades, the more favorable this comparison is likely to become.

The main reason for the slowness of the move towards a hydrogen economy, then, is not feasibility but a lack of political will. After all, the necessary technologies already exist. We have the "know how." Therefore a hydrogen economy is already feasible. If we are willing to pay the price.

5. Conclusion:

While the solutions to our hydrocarbon addiction already exist, however, there is more to the transition than just overcoming the short-sightedness and greed of the transnational corporations which oppose the transition. We must also cure ourselves of the delusion that a society based on the wasteful overconsumption of energy, such as our own, is sustainable over the long term.

Private automobiles are pretty much the most wasteful and inefficient transportation system imaginable from an ecological perspective (which judges "efficiency" in terms of the energy and materials expended to accomplish a particular task). The same can be said of the global production and distribution system which has come to dominate the planet through the efforts of the centralized planners who control transnational corporations. The fact is, both have been made possible-temporarily at least-only by the presence of cheap and abundant fossil fuels. Neither are sustainable without them.

Thus, while the hydrogen economy described above is clean and sustainable, and can meet our energy needs, it will require the transformation of our society's material culture in two crucial ways, both of which will drastically reduce our energy consumption.

First, private automobiles must be replaced by public transportation to the greatest degree possible, and as quickly as possible. Second, the global production and distribution network designed by the centralized planners must be replaced by a decentralized system. This system must make use of local materials to meet local needs to the greatest degree possible.

Both public transportation and decentralization of the economy make far more efficient use of both energy and materials. Both would also go a long way to curing our hydrocarbon addiction, and both would allow us to begin to move beyond our current society's patterns of wasteful, unsustainable overconsumption.

The key to promoting this transition is simple. It involves a shifting of subsidies from coal and oil-which we know to be both unsustainable and ecologically destructive-to clean and sustainable energy technologies, including both the hydrogen economy, and public transportation. After all, only a fool would assume that curing an addiction would be either easy or simple. And hydrocarbons are the heroin flowing through our society's veins.

References, additional reading:

Colin J. Campbell & Jean Laherrere (1998) "The End of Cheap Oil," Scientific American, March.

Seth Dunn, (1999) "King Coal's Weakening Grip On Power," World Watch, September/October.

Seth Dunn, (2000) "The Hydrogen Experiment," World Watch November-December.

Christopher Flavin (1999) "Bull Market In Wind Energy," World Watch, March/April.

Robert W. Kates (2000) "Population & Consumption: What We Know, What We Need to Know," Environment, April.

Michael Renner (2001) "Going To Work For Wind Power," World Watch, January/February.

Richard Rosentreter (2000) "Oil, Profit$, and the Question of Alternative Energy," /The Humanist/, September-October.

E. F. Schumacher (1973) Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, Harper & Row.

Eric Weltman, (2000) "Here Comes the Sun: What Ever Happened to Solar Energy?"
In These Times, February 7.

William Underhill (2002) "Beyond Oil: The Future of Energy," Newsweek, April 15.

More about this author: Roy C Dudgeon

From Around the Web