The Speculist: All I Want for Christmas is a Sane Energy Policy


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All I Want for Christmas is a Sane Energy Policy

To use a cliche from a few decades back, I think my "consciousness has been raised" by reading Robert Zubrin's new book, Energy Victory. It seems that everywhere I turn, I encounter someone who says something that reminds me of the book, and that makes me want to give them a copy. So I'm starting a last-minute Christmas list of people I want to share the book with.

For example, yesterday I followed a link over at Jerry Pournelle's site to the text of a speech by Newt Gingrich entitled Sleepwalking into a Nightmare. In the speech, Gingrich lays out one of the major propositions of Zubrin's book -- a sound and sane energy policy, one that gets us off Saudi oil once and for all. But he blows it almost immediately, to wit:

And let's be honest: What's the primary source of money for al Qaeda? It's you, re-circulated through Saudi Arabia. Because we have no national energy strategy, when clearly if you really cared about liberating the United States from the Middle East and if you really cared about the survival of Israel, one of your highest goals would be to move to a hydrogen economy and to eliminate petroleum as a primary source of energy.

Emphasis added. One thing Zubrin makes very clear is that the "hydrogen economy" is simply not a workable idea. Hydrogen burns clean and would be a terrific alternative to gasoline if it were available on its own. Unfortunately, on this planet it comes packed with oxygen in the form of water. In order to free up hydrogen atoms to burn as fuel, we have to expend energy to release them from their bond with the oxygen atoms. In fact, the amount of energy we have to expend is, at best, only equal to the amount of energy we'll get burning the hydrogen. There's no net gain.

So somehow we have to generate the energy required to free up all that hydrogen. And that needs to be a clean and non-foreign source of energy. So naturally the question becomes --once we've figured out what that is, why not just use it instead of hydrogen? Cut out the middle man, as it were.

The hydrogen economy is, if anything -- according to Zubrin -- a diversion backed by the oil companies. It allows President Bush and other politicians to take the position that they are in favor of getting us off oil while backing a proposal that is very unlikely to do so. Meanwhile, we just keep chugging the oil.

So for Christmas, I want to give Newt Gingrich a copy of Energy Victory. In fact, I'd send him two copies if I thought he could get his friend President Bush to read one of them.

But I don't just want to give the book to my friends on the right. Oh, no. Others need to read it, too.

Last night I'm sort of half-watching Boston Legal. I don't really follow that show much any more (believing that it jumped the shark somewhere around the halfway point of the first season), but the lawyer who lives here at Casa Speculist is still a pretty big fan, so it was on. Anyhow, John Larroquette is making this closing argument about how hard it is to know what to do about saving the environment. As a throwaway, he mentions that ethanol is an attractive approach, except for the fact that filling the tank of a Hummer one time requires using the same amount of grain that would feed a human being for a year.

I'm not sure that I'm quoting that correctly, and -- even if I am -- considering the source, let's just say that there is some chance that it might be a bit exaggerated. Be that as it may, the problem with that argument is not the merits of the case, it's the assumption that energy is a zero-sum agricultural game. Zubrin points out that much of the developing world is starving not because we're burning all our grain in the form of ethanol, but because we refuse to import their agricultural products. If we want to help raise the developing world out of poverty, a huge step forward is to create a worldwide market for their agricultural produce -- for example, the ethanol market that Zubrin argues can free us from dependence on foreign oil.

So let me offer the book Energy Victory to Boston Legal executive producer David E. Kelley. Merry Christmas! (Or happy what-have-you.) Dave, this business about helping out third-world farmers is right up your alley. And I have a sneaking suspicion that making our energy economy dependent on their efforts would do more to help them than we have been able to do so far through clever manipulation of, say, the coffee or brazil nut markets. Plus, you could write one of those heavy-handed closing arguments for Alan Shore (James Spader) to deliver, and for once Denny Crane (William Shatner) would be standing by cheering!


I also want to give a copy to whoever it was in the Blog Talk Radio chat room while we were interviewing Robert Zubrin who claimed that ethanol requires more energy to manufacture than it produces. This is another oil-company talking point. Zubrin clearly demonstrates in his book that while this is a valid argument against the 'hydrogen economy," it is utter nonsense when applied to ethanol. Brazil has demonstrated that you can get a net energy gain from ethanol for decades, now. (And I'll throw in another gift copy of the book for the first oil-company stooge who leaves a comment arguing that Brazil is different because they use sugar cane rather than corn.)

Finally, I want to give a copy to Dr. John Marburger, a science adviser to President Bush who is quoted in the book as well as to a member of Marburger's senior staff whose meeting with Zubrin is described in some detail. Zubrin meets with Marburger and outlines how one simple federal requirement -- that all cars manufactured in the US and imported into the US be flex-fuel-capable -- could help us to:

  • Achieve energy independence

  • Break the grip of OPEC on global energy markets

  • Help to de-fund terrorism

  • Drastically decrease carbon emissions

  • Improve economic conditions for some of the poorest of the poor worldwide

Zubrin argues that putting enough flex-fuel cars on the road can create a market for ethanol (not to mention methanol) both of which can free us from dependence on foreign oil. He explains elsewhere in the book that making a car that can run on either gasoline, ethanol, or methanol is not the huge retooling task that most people would expect it to be. You need a recalibrated fuel injection system -- one that responds to whatever mix of gas and alcohol you happen to put into your tank -- and fuel lines that won't break down when exposed to alcohol. That's it. This is well-established technology. Compared to building a hybrid or making a car that you can safely run on hydrogen, this is child's play.

Put enough of these flex fuel cars on the road, Zubrin argues, and gas station owners will have an economic incentive to put in ethanol or methanol pumps. More people buying flex-fuel cars and greater demand for alcohol fuels eventually puts price pressure on OPEC. This economic solution would put the consumers in the driver's seat and would create a competitive environment that would drive down the price of gasoline, ethanol, and methanol. It's a win-win-win.

Marburger's response?

"We don't believe in mandates."

His staffer, when meeting with Zubrin some time later, explained that the costs involved in making the switch to flex-fuel cars would simply be too great for us to bear. Not the cost of actually changing the vehicles -- which apparently he concedes would be minimal -- but the cost of certifying all these new flex-fuel cars. That would cost us a whopping $150 million dollars or, as Zubrin points out, about what the US spends on foreign oil every five hours.

You know, I'm a pretty free-market guy, and Zubrin's solution passes my 80-20 test: 20% of the initiative (or less) needs to come from the government, while 80% (or more) should be market-driven. I haven't seen anything else proposed that comes close to meeting that ratio. The "hydrogen economy" certainly won't.

You would think that a government that "doesn't believe in mandates" would leap at the chance to do something effective that requires so little government involvement. Unless, of course, "we don't believe in mandates" really means "we don't believe in doing anything that will annoy the oil companies," which of course, is another way of saying, "we don't intend to do anything about this at all."

So come to think of it, I don't think I'll waste two copies of the book on Marburger or his staff member. I think there must be some other folks out there who would benefit more from reading it. Please feel free to leave suggestions in the comments area as to who I should give the book to.

And don't forget to buy your own copy:


Mr. Zubrin's arguments seem basically sound to me, but they would be much more effective if he refrained from mis-stating the relative costs of hydrogen vs oil or ignoring the most cost effective mechanism for deploying the "hydrogen economy", ie: fuel cells and not IC engines. As I am sure neither he nor yourself is advocating pumping unrefined crude oil into our gas tanks, I notice a glaring lack of any comparrison of the actual cost of delivering gasoline to the pump (that includes exploration, pumping, refinement and transportation costs; ie, the entire oil infrastructure) and compares that to the projected costs of a hydrogen fuel cell serviceing economy's infrastructure. Frantically waving about the refinement costs of hydrogen from water doesn't reduce those same costs for extracting gasoline from crude oil, something you couldn't know existed from the way he presents his argument.

Other then that, I think he unnecessarily damages his argument by pushing a technology already corrupted by governmental price manipulations (from both subsidies and embargoes) and that has strong ethical objections arising from it's practice (the food or fuel question). These aren't show stoppers necessarily (well, the government intrusion may be from a practical perspective), but his ignoring their influence on the issue limits the effectiveness of his argument.

Mis-stating an opponents position is a well-recognised rhetorical device and a useful tool for selling a book. I submit that it has a detrimental effect when trying to advance the state of the art of science or technology. I don't have any illusions regarding Mr. Zubrin's position, but I profess a certain amount of dis-appointment from The Speculists' noticable lack of critical skepticism regarding any claims concerning technology or science.

Or am I completely failing to grasp the demands imposed by competition for guests to add show content? Such would be a legitimate position I think and a potential topic for a future program whatever it's merit in the present case.

No offense intended by any of the foregoing; honest critique imposes a certain measure of harshness I'm afraid.

Are we all still friends? :)

Thanks Phil.

I just clicked through and ordered a copy for myself.

Bob Zubrin for Prez! America needs to get B.Z!


Since Phil and I earn nothing for our work on this blog or FFR, I think its far more likely that Zubrin convinced Phil than Phil sold out for content. I mean, Phil's integrity might have a price, but let's give Phil the benefit of the doubt that his price is north of $0.


I too agree that hydrogen is probably a distraction. A Stephen Gordon administration would incorporate Zubrin's flex fuel ideas into energy policy. But I would also want to encourage the domestic bio-diesel industry.

My enthusiasm for bio-diesel has increased recently by word of continuing improvements to diesel engines - they're much cleaner and more efficient.


I'm sorry that impression came across; it was never my intention to impune Phil's (or Mr. Zubrin's for that matter) personal integrity. It was always my understanding that there was no personal remuneration involved in the program. That being so, beyond the potential for added exposure, I was simply expressing my ignorance of the process by which programs on BlogTalkRadio compete for "on-air" talent. Frankly, I wouldn't regard myself as a friend of this site if I didn't have some degree of admiration for your and Phil's on-line personea's and your handling of topics generally. That said, I really don't think that my implying that Phil might have been less than demanding an interrogator then he might otherwise have been doesn't equate to the level of personal smear or insult as might a comparrison to the patented 60 Minutes set-up or NBC fantasy research be fairly regarded to be.

Expressing a certain amount of "critical skepticism regarding any claims concerning technology or science" allows the guest to more fully explain his position and to counter just such questions as my initial post raised. Consider my comment to be a critical analyses of FFR programing format if you wish; in no case was a personal insult offered or intended.

I made no attempt to compare different IC applications; I concur that modern engines are more efficient then are their predessors. As a tax paying citizen, I would be profoundly critical of the particular mechanism any Gordon administration might employ to "encourage" any particular industry, but that's a separate issue from the desirability of one particular application over another, I think.

None of which addresses my previous question regarding hydrogen fuel cells vs hydrogen IC engines vs more traditionally petroleum powered vehicles and their attendant costs.

I respect your position regarding bio-diesel as well as Phil's support for Mr. Zubrin's promotion of ethanol/methanol flex-fuel formulations. Since my attempt to contribute to the discussion has so evidently caused offense I'll leave it as articulated, hope that no permanent damage has resulted and look forward to the next topic raised at The Speculist.

Will --

We're still friends. I have to say that I was extremely skeptical about Zubrin's ideas before reading the book, and was primarily interested in having him on the show so we could talk about Mars. But the bottom line is that I find his arguments very persuasive.

As for our general "lack of critical skepticism regarding any claims concerning technology or science," we at The Speculist are usually motivated to write about ideas that we find interesting. When these are technological innovations (or proposed technological developments) we are biased towards writing about things that we think will work. But we do ladle out healthy doses of skepticism from time to time.

We're certainly under no obligation to provide "equal time" to opposing views. The Speculist is not subject to campaign finance reform or other laws governing public service messages. Nor are we a refereed scholarly journal.

My principle criterion for choosing topics (within the broader heading of science/technology/future) is that we will entertain any idea that entertains us. Most of these we merely offer up for consideration -- sometimes with an endorsement, sometimes not.

Frantically waving about the refinement costs of hydrogen from water doesn't reduce those same costs for extracting gasoline from crude oil, something you couldn't know existed from the way he presents his argument.

First off, they aren't the same costs. As heavy a toll as refinement may take out of the net energy gain from petroleum, there still is a gain. Not so with "refining" hydrogen from water. By definition, you have to expend more energy than you get. If there is a way around this, I'm all ears.

Now that would be an interesting topic for a blog post or podcast

Anyway, Zubrin does write both about the net costs of refining petroleum -- I think he deals with this more in the earlier chapters of the book, not the one about hydrogen per se. And he does spend some time on fuel cells, but clearly he doesn't think they're the answer, either.


My rebuke was tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes tone doesn't come across with text, so I added a smiley to my above comment.


The other major energy option that I think is viable in the short term involves plug-in hybrids. This will require us to improve lithium ion batteries and/or supercapacitors. But this is happening.

Take a new super clean diesel car that already gets about 50 mpg (this is doable now) and make it a plug-in lithium ion hybrid car.

This car would be very efficient and clean. It would improve our Geopolitical standing. It wouldn't burn a lot of liquid fuel, but it the liquid fuel it does burn could be produced domestically.

AND, the technology to make such a car is right around the corner. I guess I'm a bit more of an optimist than Zubrin, because I believe that when an idea is good enough, it tends to happen even if the powers-that-be don't encourage it.

Market forces fill the leadership vacuum.

I've been following energy and environmental issues pretty closely for the last few years. I was pretty critical of hydrogen (and hated the "hydrogen highway"), but I think it is pretty much defeated these days. Maybe a few Pols are still using the old soundbites.

I am not opposed to ethanol in the same way, but after a few years of watching cost/benefit studies, I remain a skeptic ... no, maybe actually a critic.

First thing, there are a range of plants in operation. Some do better than others on ROI an EROEI. There might be a few who are actually negative on the later, but we hope they'll fail on the first as well and be washed out of the market (the subsidies slow this winnowing).

But that's not really the main thing. The main issue, the main red flag, in my opinion is that when pressed knowledgeable ethanol proponents will fold, and admit that they really need future tech to make this work. The need an efficient (in the economic and energy sense) cellulosic ethanol solution.

In that way, we cycle back to the hydrogen story. Hydrogen was ready ... except it was short a few inventions.

That is where we stand with ethanol too.

BTW, you can dredge ethanol and hydrogen at my old blog ...

as well as efficiency which I think is the real answer, and one we are slow to embrace.

OK, I was all prepared to stand in my corner wrapped in the glory of self-rightous indignation ... and then I read both of your replies and just decline to do anything that silly. :)

And odograph brings up a pertinent point; all of these tech innovations we've mentioned require some degree of additional invention to make them into practical applications for large scale consumer markets.

That out of the way, my lack of criticality point was directed at the FFR interview format (where such a device would be practicle as a means for the interviewee to defend his/her position without the interviewer having to spend a lot of time re-stating various objections), that wouldn't ordinarily work on the blog page, there are better words to describe negative speculation. :)

Personally, I think a shift in market structure offers the best advancement available from the current state of technologic art, something I plan to post on later today.

My url on my name links to my longer views on flex fuels and overall energy usage.

The USA only produces about 30% of the oil that it uses. Strong development of oil shale and new gulf of Mexico oil could increase domestic production to 50% of the current level of oil demand. [Most project that the level of oil will not rise that much, oil shale and biofuels would have to come out at the optimistic end of projections]. This could be a difficult level to reach so any biofuel production and substitution would help reduce US oil dependence.

Even complete elimination of oil for cars and trucks (via electric or flex fuel) means that the USA would still be importing oil because of heating and other uses.

The US would need to eliminate oil usage for heating (14.8%), find some substitutes in some chemical and plastics, make cars 5 times more efficient (32%)and trucks and planes twice as efficient 9.7% and increase overall efficiency by 20% to offset economic growth and increased demand and eliminate oil imports.

energy plan and the importance of DOE Freedomcar thermoelectrics

Home energy efficiency, simple steps for 44-50% less energy usage at equal cost or lower

the existing petrol delivery chain/infrastructure makes the development of a massive parallel hydrogen delivery infrastructure with large scale hydrogen "refining" utterly uneconomic. the petrol system is already paid for - end of story.

What to do? find a new market where there is not yet an incumbent that will seed the emergence of a massively distributed energy generation/delivery system.

What is this new market? clean, quiet, affordable, virtually unending Backup power (2 - 50kw)

It just so happens that there already is a massively distributed hydrogen distribution system that goes to every human being. Water pipes.

Since we have hydrogen bearing water delivered to every house in the developed world, we don't NEED a new hydrogen delivery infrastructure (stick with me on this for a bit).

Now that Nanosolar has delivered their first production runs of thin film solar panels that get very close to $4 a watt all costs in, we have the source of power to crack the water. Other solar cell producers are hot on their heels. So, what uses the hydrogen that is produced by cracking the water? Cars? NOOOO!!!

A fuel cell. A stationary fuel cell. A fuel cell that serves to back up power for your house. Where will such a device come from? Do a Google search for:

"Plug Power" Ballard COOP

and you will see that DHS and DoD are funding a fuel cell designed for Continuity of Operations. Or, in other words, a very advanced form of Whole House Backup Power System.

1.) Water is delivered via current water pipes (no charge)

2.) Solar power cracks the water to yield hydrogen (appx $15k investment)

3.) the hydrogen is stored to be used by fuel cell that the govt funded to ensure that critical infrastructure can be "battery powered" for months at a time AND this same tech can backup whole houses...and now for the final piece.

4.) The electricity generated by the hydrogen runs your Tesla of Chevy Volt (saves you about $3,000 in gasoline costs per year)

no hydrocarbons anywhere in the system. No need for ANY new infrastructure. All components of the system EXIST or will w/in 2 years at the outside.

stir briskly via tax credits and incentives and you get:

drastically reduced co2

growth in power generation IN my back yard literally

reduced dependence on non-national energy sources

vastly reduced vulnerability to attacks on power plants since it won't stop things

a hydroelectric renewable distributed energy economy

Now, it will take a transition period of about 10 years to make the significant marginal difference that makes all the difference...

da55id - Orrr, we could just get our fusion reactor smaller and more ...practical. It wouldn't have to called Mr Fusion- though that would be a good name. So cute and safe sounding.

Phil -
"I also want to give a copy to whoever it was in the Blog Talk Radio chat room while we were interviewing Robert Zubrin who claimed that ethanol requires more energy to manufacture than it produces."

I don't know how to review the chat- but I think it was I, and I didn't state that net energy thing- I asked it as a question. And I wasn't trying to be cute and ask a question about what I believe is obviously true. I have no idea whom to believe. And while I hate science by a show of hands and majority wins, the present consensus seems to be that even corn ethanol will produce a net positive energy gain. But not as good as cellulosic ethanol- which was why I also asked in the chat about whether RZ had hinted at time to market for CE- I missed the beginning and joined midstream (also why I didn't make time to register and get a user name and just started chatting as the number I was assigned).

Will - wicked cool though fuel cells are and can be, they are not the problem. the problem is getting the H all by itself. The energy it takes to do that may as well be used to make the motion instead of making the to speak. Though fuel cells may be a good way to continue subsidizing commercial aviation.

I'm inclined to go electric.
We've got plenty of it.
We already have a way to distribute it.
We can make more.

I hate the feel of static electricity.
The grid isn't clean enough yet- and probably won't be for awhile.
We could run out of electrons.

Phil- a book for the oil company shill who now pipes in with "the battery technology isn't ready yet."

And on the really up, upside- if we wait long enough, we can meet N. Tesla in the future, before he goes back, and ask him what we should do. (Yes- it's become clear to me that Tesla was a time traveler from the future- just not sure if it was our future, yet)

Also- forget about the mandate for what we all buy at the pump. Let's focus on national security- and explain how we're going to effectively run the Dept of Defense without cheap oil.

MDarling...the only practical fusion foreseeable in the next 10 years is still the solar power from solar fusion.

Everything I list in my post is already or will be commercially available and MARKET VIABLE w/in two years at worst. Total system price all in is less than $40,000 and will be financed as part of a mortgage refi (excluding the car). Amortizing $40k over 30 years costs $240 per month...paid for directly by avoided costs of grid supplied power and gasoline costing around $600 per month...a cash flow payback period of ZERO MONTHS.

HEY Da55id you didn't factor in the cost of the electric car! OK let's add in a $10,000 premium for an electric car minus $3000 tax credit=$7000...financed over 5 years at $140 per month. We STILL get immediate and significant cash flow positive results well over $200 per month in the very first month! Or, $72,000 after tax cost avoidance or $167,000 if you put the monthly positive cash flow in a 5% interest bearing account. CFO's call that a no brainer. Now, make that calculation for energy using major companies and grins and champagne corks pop out all over the place

plus near total grid independence.

at least one saved loss of frozen etc food due to black out risk

real saving of lives and property during massive grid failures in hurricanes or freezes (will happen at least once during system life)

And there's the community benefits of not having to build the marginal peak power hugely expensive centralized capacity (non-coal /nat gas)

vastly reduced CO2, micro/nano particulates reduces morbidity system wide

growing energy independence

improved balance of payments

improved gdp

productivity growth virtually unbounded by lack of energy sources

totally renewable forever

significantly reduced international tensions over oil as it gradually becomes as valuable as whale oil (ie not very) - and a crime to burn it

less "venture funding" available for international bad actors with hostile intent

Just so we remember the basic limit:

"So, converting the entire corn crop to ethanol would replace just about 13% of the total gasoline consumption. Even if you assume a 50% increase in conversion efficiency, that’s still only 20% replacement afforded by the entire corn crop."

That from SciAm.

That's what makes the "flex-fuel fleet" a red herring, barring the "future invention" of an efficient cellulosic ethanol economy. And you know, there are real limits there too. Cellulosic feedstocks have low energy density. If you have to transport them very far at all you destroy your energy return. So we need to envision a future with widely dispersed, small, efficient, cellulosic ethanol plants.

Of course if you actually know how to build one ...

Oh by the way, note the relation between 13% of the consumption, and the nature of the fuels (E85, E10, etc.)

E10 means 10% ethanol. Most (all?) new cars can handle 10% ethanol as an oxygenate.

It's the nature of numbers, right? 13% of the total consumption basically equals E10 everywhere. We can handle that now.

Baring new inventions, what's the point of expanding E85 in limited locations? We don't have enough E85 for everybody.

And we already need all that ethanol to do E10, everywhere.

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