Ever increasing cost of energy resources lead many to wonder if we are, at last, running out of fuel. If we are running out, how much is left? What can we replace it with, and at what price?
Fuel is expensive and getting more so because we appear to be running out of easily accessed, cheap fuel supplies that can be put to use with current technologies. That situation will get worse as increasing global industrialization causes increasing demand for fossil fuels that are ever more difficult to find and harvest.
But we are not running out of usable energy, nor will we, not for millions of years. The energy resources of this planet are vast, as you will see on these pages. The problem is not one of energy supplies; rather, it is one of economics.
The energy is there and we have the technology to tap the supplies. Even with prices as high as they are, gasoline refined from crude oil is still the cheapest form of energy for our automobiles. But that may be about to change.
Let’s look first at our current energy usage, which is mainly the Big 3 fossil fuels, oil, coal, and natural gas, all of which are finite and mostly nonrenewable resources.
Nuclear power also utilizes nonrenewable energy but, as you will see, it can also play a key role as an automobile fuel resource.
We’ll also examine the so-called alternative fuels and look at just what our energy future will be and how soon it is likely to happen.
As you examine these pages keep in mind that in the not too distant future every energy resource known to science will, at least in part, be utilized for auto fuel.
OIL ENERGY RESOURCES
Internal combustion engines power most automobiles. Even hybrid-electric drive systems use internal combustion engines. With very few exceptions, those engines burn gasoline, and the gasoline comes from crude oil, black gold.
With ever increasing pump prices we can't help but wonder how bad this situation is going to get. How much oil do we have left? Where is it? What will it cost to get it? These are important questions and every answer seems to spark endless debate.
Geology is not an exact science yet, but modern geologists equipped with state of the art computer technology are getting amazingly accurate at predicting what energy resources will be found beneath thousands of feet of rock.
Data is available that geologists, government, and business people view as reliable enough to use in making important decisions that affect all of us. Creating estimates of energy resources is subject to a numbing array of interpretations, politics, and outright guess work. Understanding that, here is the hard data for
Fossil Fuel Oil Energy Resources
No one is certain when we will run out of oil. Some, a very small few, even doubt that we will. The point that everyone agrees on, however, is that we are using more and more oil every day, and it is getting harder and harder to find new deposits. The end result is that demand is outstripping supply and prices are skyrocketing. We simply must find alternatives to conventional fossil fuel oil supplies.
When we speak of alternative fuels many of us develop a mental image of Willie Nelson and biodiesel, or a farmer shoveling his corn into a still to make ethanol. We’ll discuss these alternatives and more later. Right now, though, let’s stick to fossil fuels because some alternatives to conventional fossil fuel oil are other, unconventional, forms of fossil fuel oil.
Conventional oil is harvested by drilling a hole in the ground (at a good location, of course), and pumping out the oil. The oil energy resource projections discussed here are based on conventional oil supplies. But over three-fourths of the known oil supplies in the world are not located in conventional oil wells. These are the unconventional oil resources and they are largely untapped.
The main reason unconventional fossil fuel energy resources have remained unused is because the economics haven’t been right. Conventional oil has been cheap and unconventional oil has been expensive to harvest and refine into usable fuel. But that situation has recently turned upside down and looks to stay that way.
Technological advancements have reduced the cost to produce usable fuel from unconventional energy resources. A number of factors continue to point in the direction of ever increasing demand for already stressed conventional oil resources. And persistent demand pressures on ever harder to find conventional oil resources promise to maintain a constant upward pressure on price. All of which is causing renewed interest in developing unconventional oil energy resources.
In the oil market of today, prices of about $35 to $40 a barrel would be a bargain. Unconventional oil can deliver usable product to the refineries at that price and less. And, since the vast majority of these unconventional resources are right in our (North America’s) back yard, unconventional oil can help break our dependence on offshore, and often insecure, oil sources.
Unconventional oil is found in two main forms, oil sands (also called tar sands), and oil shale. Oil sands can be a true energy lifeline to North America for decades to come as shown here on the
Canadian Oil Sands
page. This energy resource is incredibly valuable and it’s not the only unconventional oil resource available to us.
Oil shale is similar to oil sand in many respects. Both oil shale and oil sand are composed of fossil fuel bearing earth. Both can be burned as is, like burning coal, but they would both leave huge residue piles of unburned earth. Both are found in abundance in North America. And both are more expensive to harvest and process into usable transportation fuel than conventional crude oil.
While oil sands are currently being exploited profitably, oil shale processing is still largely in the developmental stages. We do have the technology to process oil shale into transportation fuel, but oil shale development is different than oil sand development, and currently more costly.
Still, the potential for oil shale development in North America is vast. Even at this early stage of development shale can be converted to useful crude for less than $40 a barrel; a price that will drop dramatically with further development. And the largest, most readily usable deposits are right here in the U.S.A. As discussed here on the
Green River Oil Shale
page, United States oil shale deposits are rightly considered as the oil shale equivalent of the Middle East oil fields.
While unconventional oil costs are currently highly competitive with conventional oil prices, cost remains one of the biggest challenges with unconventional oil usage. During the Arab oil embargo of the 1970’s billions were spent on both shale and oil sand development. Billions were then lost when vast deposits of conventional oil were found in a number of areas in the ocean and oil prices plummeted; and stayed low for decades – until now.
Once again we find ourselves in an oil pinch. Many knowledgeable people insist that this time is different. This time, they say, the oil crunch is permanent because we simply aren’t finding any new and vast reserves even though billions have been spent on exploration. This time, they say, demand for oil globally is increasing at an unprecedented rate due to the rapid industrialization of a number of formerly third world countries and lead by the largest population center in the world, China.
This time, they say, oil shortages may wreak havoc with the global economy before alternatives are brought up to significant production levels.
Nobody can predict the future with one hundred per cent certainty. Experts have predicted a catastrophic end to the oil age a number of times in the past and been wrong. But, for the reasons discussed above, this time, they could be right. If they are correct then oil sand and oil shale production may not be brought on line rapidly enough to prevent global economic turmoil.
The good news is that oil is far from our only energy resource. There are eight other major energy resources, nine if you count hydrogen, which is not actually a resource (more on that later). Still, Oil has been and for years to come will continue to be the primary source of energy for our transportation needs. And there are other sources for oil besides oil.
COAL ENERGY RESOURCES
Coal is another readily available fuel source, but it has some problems. It has a reputation for being dirty. Coal doesn’t burn clean like natural gas. It emits a number of pollutants including sulfur dioxide, which is a major contributor to acid rain. And according to the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, coal emits carbon dioxide at twice the rate of petroleum fuels. A number of environmental scientists believe that increasing carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere are contributing to the greenhouse effect and global warming.
So, though coal has a big advantage because of its availability, it tends to be unpopular with environmentalists who believe that it may cause more problems than it cures. We’ll get into greater detail about those problems and the solutions on the ‘Energy Tech’ pages, which are currently under construction.
By now, though, you may be wondering what in the heck coal has to do with auto fuel. It turns out that we have several processes that can turn coal into usable auto fuel. The technologies involved use heat and pressure to synthesize diesel fuel and gasoline from coal energy resources. They will be detailed on the ‘Energy Tech’ pages (under construction).
Since we have the technology to refine coal into diesel fuel and gasoline, coal can be added to our existing auto fuel inventories. As the use of these synthetic fuels increases, the demand on crude oil and dependency on foreign oil will decrease. And that can help lower the price of gas at the pump.
Coal is a major player in the global fuel game as can be seen here on the
Coal Fossil Fuel Supply
page. The data shows that this energy resource can help meet our automotive energy needs for several decades.
Coal is mainly carbon, though it often contains other impurities including petroleum products and methane gas – which also contain carbon. All of our current transportation fuel inventories are carbon, hydrogen, or a combination of the two called hydrocarbons.
Currently, nearly 100% of our automotive fuel inventories are hydrocarbons. Most of those hydrocarbons come from crude oil. But that is changing.
One energy form can be converted to another through one type of refining process or another. Crude oil by itself doesn’t burn in our automobiles; it has to be refined. Coal has to be processed to produce a burnable auto fuel. And we can add more energy resources to the available list of auto fuel candidates.
NATURAL GAS ENERGY RESOURCES
We tend to think of natural gas energy as a resource used to heat our homes, generate electricity, and power our industries. But compressed natural gas can also be burned directly in internal combustion engines. A number of fleet vehicles already do just that.
Natural gas is a great energy resource. It’s the cleanest of all the fossil fuels. There is a lot of it; we have more energy available in natural gas reserves than in oil. Natural gas can also be refined into diesel fuel and gasoline. So, natural gas energy can be a major player in the auto fuel business and it is important to know how long those supplies will last.
There are tnree primary sources of natural gas.
Proven reserves are known, easily accessible gas deposits. If you burn natural gas in your furnace, it probably comes from proven reserves. Some of the larger reserves are in locations like the Middle East where the supply far outweighs the local demand. Currently those reserves are either left where they are or compressed and shipped to areas of higher demand.
As seen on the
Proved Natural Gas Reserves
page, this type of natural gas resource appears to be slowly dwindling. But that doesn’t mean that we are approaching the end of our natural gas resources.
A vast amount of natural gas occurs in areas known as 'stranded' natural gas deposits.
Stranded gas reserves fall into two categories. Some stranded reserves are natural gas deposits that are not economical to bring to market using conventional production and distribution methods. Other stranded reserves are reserves that have been located but are not accessible using current technologies. Ultra deep oceanic gas deposits are one example.
But new (and some not-so-new) technologies are beginning to change many ‘stranded’ natural gas energy resources into ‘proved’ reserves as can be seen here on the
Stranded Natural Gas Reserves
The third main source of natural gas energy is found in a form called gas hydrates. Gas hydrates are gas-water molecules that form when temperature and pressure conditions are just right. Gas hydrates are a recent discovery, and an incredibly important one.
There is a vast amount of natural gas energy in the form of gas hydrates. As you will see on the
Gas Hydrate Reserves
page, gas hydrates may prove to be one resource that actually needs to be used to protect the environment.
And we aren't done yet because there is yet another hydrocarbon fuel source that can compete with oil.
ENERGY RESOURCES FROM LIVING MATTER - BIOMASS
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Biomass covers a wide spectrum of energy resources. Just about everything of an organic nature is biomass. That includes trees, grass, crops, agricultural waste, trash, garbage, and sewage. If it can be grown, it almost certainly can be utilized as a biomass fuel source.
Biomass used as fuel is referred to as biofuel. Biofuel can be burned directly to generate power and heat. It can also be converted into ethanol, methanol, butanol, or biodiesel, and all of these can be put into use as auto and truck fuels.
The best thing about biofuels is that they are renewable and they just might be able to put a serious dent in our fossil fuel use. But along with the exciting possibilities there are a number of disadvantages that cause many to wonder if this resource will ever prove viable. They are discussed in
Disadvantages of Biomass - Part I
Disadvantages of Biomass - Part II
Some of those disadvantages have been addressed to one degree or another, and researchers will continue improving all aspects of biomass fuel technologies. But some of those disadvantages will, baring huge scientific advancements, forever relegate some biomass resources to minor league status.
Some biomass advancements give us hope that fossil fuel oil technologies could become obsolete in the very near future. But committing to biomass will involve massive investment and resources.
It is up to us to decide whether or not we have the will to utilize the vast resources needed to support a biofuel economy. And we need to make that decision soon.
So far we have looked at coal, which is almost pure carbon, as a fuel source. We have also examined oil, natural gas, and biomass, all of which are hydrocarbons. We have seen that we can burn either hydrocarbons or pure carbon. It follows, then, that we can also burn hydrogen.
HYDROGEN - NOT AN ENERGY RESOURCE
Hydrogen has been given a lot of press as a strong contender to replace gasoline. In some ways hydrogen is a great fuel. It has a high heat content, meaning that a little bit of hydrogen gives off a lot of energy. And it burns as clean as anyone could ever ask. If you burn hydrogen in your car, the only thing that comes out of the exhaust is water vapor.
But hydrogen has problems. For one thing it is not an energy resource. For all practical purposes, there are no hydrogen deposits on the planet. Neither can it be grown, although some plants do produce hydrogen as a byproduct of photosynthesis. Some bacteria also produce hydrogen. But hydrogen, rather than being an energy resource, is a means of storing and transporting energy.
Another reason hydrogen is not an energy resource is that it takes at least as much thermal energy to ‘harvest’ hydrogen from its bond in a molecule (typically water, H2O or methane, CH4) as the hydrogen gives back when it’s burned. An energy resource gives back more energy than is required to harvest it.
In the real world, it takes can take 3 Btus of fossil fuel energy resources for every Btu of hydrogen fuel produced. Even with efficient wind generators, the cost can be close to 1.5 Btus generated to liberate 1 Btu of hydrogen energy, not including the solar energy resources required to produce the wind that drives the generators. These inefficiencies make for high energy costs to produce hydrogen.
Hydrogen needs to be thought of like electricity. Electricity, or more correctly, electrical power, has to be manufactured with a generator. Usable hydrogen has to be manufactured by breaking its molecular bond.
Removing hydrogen from its bond with oxygen in a water molecule is simple. A classic high school chemistry experiment demonstrates the method. Fill a U-shaped tube with water, stick an electrode in the bottom of the tube, send a charge of electricity across the electrode, and watch oxygen bubble up one side of the tube and hydrogen up the other side.
It really is that simple, in the lab. In a large production facilities this simple operation becomes far more complex, and expensive. Hydrogen production is not only expensive because of high energy consumption, but also because of the large and complex array of equipment that is needed to produce it in large quantities.
Once hydrogen has been liberated from it’s molecular bond it has to be stored and transported to hydrogen using customers. Storage is also an expensive proposition because hydrogen, being such a small atom, takes up a huge amount of space per unit of energy.
Not only are hydrogen storage tanks huge for the amount of energy stored, they are also under thousands of pounds of pressure or maintained at extremely cold, cryogenic, temperatures to keep hydrogen in liquid form. And yet more energy resources are expended on the hydrogen to compress it to high pressures or chill it to low temperatures.
Hydrogen is also an extremely reactive element; that is, it readily bonds with other elements. Because of that high reactivity, hydrogen storage tanks and pipelines are made from special materials that won’t react with hydrogen and deteriorate. Let’s add that up.
Hydrogen storage tanks have to be made from expensive special materials to prevent deterioration of the container. They have to be either very thick to contain high pressures, or very well insulated to hold cryogenic temperatures. And they have to be large, very large per unit of energy contained. All of that makes them expensive.
When hydrogen does arrive at the fuel pump vehicles that burn it will have those same large, high tech, high pressure fuel tanks on board. While hydrogen can be burned in modified conventional internal combustion engines, most hydrogen fuel research has been geared toward its use in
Once again, a simple notion of using hydrogen in a fuel cell to generate electricity to drive an electric motor sounds good. The exhaust is pure water and the energy conversion rate is at least double that of internal combustion engines. But, once again, a simple notion in theory has proven to be highly complex and expensive in practice.
A hydrogen economy is probably decades away, if it ever happens. It is rift with problems. It is complex and expensive to manufacture. It is complex and expensive to store and transport. Though it can be used in an internal combustion engine, the promise of practical fuel cell technologies to utilize it efficiently are also complex, expensive and appear to be decades away.
So, hydrogen is not an energy resource, its horribly expensive, and it takes more energy resources to get the stuff in your fuel tank than it can give back. On top of all that, it probably won’t be competitive for decades. You may wonder why scientists and business people alike put so much effort into it.
The promise and hope of hydrogen is that if it can be produced and delivered in a cost effective way, using non-polluting, renewable energy resources, then it can deliver endless, non-polluting energy to an energy hungry world. There are a number of readily available energy resources that can help.
ENERGY RESOURCES FROM UNSEEN ATOMS - NUCLEAR POWER
Nuclear Power is a product of Twentieth Century technology. It uses highly refined uranium and plutonium to generate heat. The process that generates heat is nuclear fission, or the splitting of atoms. That heat is used to make steam that drives steam turbines, and the steam turbines drive generators that make electricity.
Electricity can be used to generate hydrogen supplies or recharge hybrid (or electric) car batteries during off-peak hours; those hours, usually at night, when power plants are producing much less electricity than their design capacity.
Several proposals already on the drawing boards suggest placing hydrogen production facilities close to nuclear power plants. The advantage of nuclear power plants over fossil fuel (coal, oil, and natural gas) plants is that they are pollution free (unless one develops a radiation leak).
But nuclear power has a horrible reputation. Do we dare expand this potentially disastrous energy resource and build even more nuclear power plants? Or should we dismantle the plants already in use? In addition to long-term supply data, the
Pros And Cons Of Nuclear Power
page contains information from both sides of the nuclear power debate.
There are also proposals to use fossil fuel power plants to provide the same kind of off-peak power supplies for hydrogen production. The production economics seem to work out and might offer a way to curb U.S. dependency on foreign oil.
Still, a lot of folks aren’t comfortable with the idea of burning coal to generate hydrogen, no matter how clean the hydrogen may burn. And they aren’t comfortable with nuclear power for any purpose. If you are one of those apprehensive people, be of good cheer because there are other options that are environmentally friendly and becoming more cost effective each day.
ENERGY RESOURCES FROM THE WIND
Wind has been used as a power source for over five thousand years. Boats with sails to capture wind for propulsion go back to ancient Egypt and beyond.
The first windmills known to history were in ancient Persia (now known as Iran) around the 7th Century BC. The Netherlands (Holland) first use didn’t appear until around 1600, 2,300 years after windmills were developed in Persia. Windmills have been in continuous use since they were first developed as a power source.
The current area of focus for wind power is the use of wind turbines to generate electricity. The basics are simple. Stick a propeller on the end of an electrical generator and hoist the whole thing on top of a tower to expose it to prevailing winds. When the wind blows, electricity is generated.
Among the many uses for that electrical power is generation of hydrogen fuel or recharging hybrid car batteries; and wind can accomplish this without pollution or waste products of any sort. While free energy with no pollution is a huge advantage of wind power, there are some disadvantages discussed here on the
Pros and Cons of Wind Power
In spite of some drawbacks, wind power is widely recognized as a viable solution to an array of problems with other energy resources. It is a rapid growth industry comparable to computer industry growth in the 1980s.
And there are other promising alternatives to conventional power generation.
ENERGY RESOURCES FROM THE SUN – SOLAR POWER
Solar energy is another resource that can be used to generate electricity.
Solar power is one of the earliest energy resources used by humanity. Some of the earliest structures known were made of thick earthen walls that would slowly warm during hot desert days, and slowly release stored heat during cool desert nights.
For thousands of years humanity used solar power to heat or dry things. Laundry, animal skins, and food grains are known to have been sun dried since the beginning of recorded history. Even the earthen bricks for the thick walls of solar warmed homes were dried with solar energy.
The discovery of the photoelectric effect by which electricity is generated directly from light, was at first only a scientific curiosity. Now, after decades of development, solar electrical power is starting to make a significant contribution to our growing energy needs.
The main obstacle to large-scale development of solar power has been cost. While solar power is a simple method of generating electricity, it has also proven to be an incredibly expensive method.
But as solar technology has evolved, the cost per kilowatt has steadily dropped. As shown on the
Pros and Cons of Solar Power
page, solar electricity has some hurdles to overcome, but it is poised to become a major energy resource in the near future - the very near future.
ENERGY RESOURCES UNDER OUR FEET - GEOTHERMAL
Geothermal energy comes from inside our planet. Active volcanoes merely hint at the massive thermal energy resource that lies beneath our feet.
Humanity has been utilizing geothermal energy since before recorded history. Hot springs have been used for bathing, cooking, and warmth, and archeologists have found Stone Age artifacts at many of these sites.
Over the years we have expanded the use of geothermal heat. Hot springs and near-surface hot wells provide heat for industrial thermal processes, residential use, greenhouses, and aquaculture. Geothermal Ground source heat pump systems use moderate ground temperatures as a source of heat in the winter, and to help remove heat in the summer. Dig deeper into the earth at the right locations and we find enough thermal energy to economically generate electricity.
Harvesting geothermal energy for automotive use is a fairly straightforward proposition. Find an accessible, high volume geothermal steam or hot (really hot) water source. Use the heat to power a steam turbine that turns an electrical generator. And use the electricity to produce hydrogen or recharge hybrid car batteries.
The main link in the geothermal technology chain, using existing technology, is finding economically accessible hot spots that readily produce steam. On the
Pros and Cons of Geothermal Energy
page we’ll discuss cost and other aspects of this promising energy resource.
There are other geothermal possibilities that are just now being explored. One little known resource is geothermal energy found in depleted oil wells. Many oil wells were deep enough so that, as the oil was pumped out, the wells filled with water, hot water – geothermal energy. There are thousands of these wells and they may prove to be yet another weapon in the fight against high fuel prices.
It seems like we find valuable energy resources everywhere if we just open our eyes to the endless possibilities. Just when we think we have found them all, we stumble on yet another energy resource.
As you will see in the next section, though we have barely begun using geothermal and other renewable energy resources, we are finding previously unimagined ways to use water as what may prove to be our most valuable energy resource.
ENERGY RESOURCES FROM WATER – HYDRO POWER
Hydro electricity is yet another resource for future energy production, and it may be the most important. It’s already a proven technology and there are a number of projects underway to harness more of the incredible power of water.
hydropower dates back over two thousand years to both ancient Rome and ancient China where waterwheels were first used in grain mills. Their first known use was documented in both countries around 200 BC.
Until recently, virtually all hydropower came from flowing streams and rivers. It often involved damming a stream to increase water flow across a waterwheel.
The main problem with most hydro electricity production to date is that damming rivers permanently floods so much land. A dam allows depth, and water pressure. Deeper dams create higher water pressure, and higher water pressure allows greater efficiencies from water turbines that drive generators.
Greater depth also floods exponentially more land for every foot of extra depth.
But there are other ways to harness water besides damming rivers. They are coming into use right now, and have the potential to harness hydro energy resources far greater than the massive power currently generated from the rivers of the world.
There are six hydropower energy resources besides power dams. We will discuss the pros and cons of each resource as follows:
Pros and Cons of Hydropower Dams
Pros and Cons of Run of the River Hydropower
Pros and Cons of Osmotic Energy
Pros and Cons of Open and Closed System OTEC
Pros and Cons of Ocean Wave Energy
Pros and Cons of Tidal Energy
Pros and Cons of Ocean Surface Current Energy
Each of these energy resources offers high levels of reliability. For the most part, the few intermittency concerns we discussed are predictable and manageable. Properly built sites can be counted on day after day, year after year, for as long as the sun shines, and the rivers flow.
Hydropower energy resources have the potential to totally eliminate our need for fossil fuels. Each of them harvests energy with a simple water turbine connected to a generator.
And, like other energy resources, electricity generated by a water turbine can be used to produce hydrogen or recharge hybrid car batteries.
It’s an ideal situation for hydrogen power advocates because it brings together a power source – flowing water – with an unrefined ‘fuel’ source – water.
A fair argument could be made that hydropower is actually another form of solar power. After all, if the sun stopped shining, the rivers would stop flowing and the oceans would freeze. But it takes both, because without water we would have no hydropower. Without water, we would not exist.
CONSERVATION AS AN ENERGY RESOURCE
We are awash with energy on this planet. Much of that energy can be harnessed in ways that are benign or even beneficial to the environment. The trick, if you want to call it a trick, is to harness these energy supplies in economical ways.
But having plentiful energy resources does not mean we can or should squander them. Conservation and good stewardship of our home planet will always be essential to our survival. And conservation keeps your money in your pocket as detailed on our conservation pages:
Gas Saving Driving
Gas Saving Car Care
For the present, conservation is the most important alternative energy resource we have.
Other alternatives to fossil fuels will develop, in time.
Virtually all of these alternative energy resources are tied to our distant past.
In a wonderfully poetic turn of human events, we will almost certainly provide the energy of the future with the oldest technologies.
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